Levelling up London

city makers forum levelling up london collageLondon has now lived with Covid for a year and it’s impossible to ignore its effect on how Londoners live, work, shop and socialise. These shifts are now challenging our assumptions of the economic and social role of inner and outer London.

Many of these trends existed pre-pandemic, and Covid has not only accelerated change but also highlighted the disparity of experiences between the haves and have nots.

London’s city makers must respond and help the transition to the ‘new normal’ and in so doing, address these deep-seated inequalities. The latest City Makers’ Forum explored this wide-ranging topic with a cross-sector panel debating what it will take to level up London.

  • Dan Lindsay, Director – Urban Solutions, Hatch (chair)
  • Kyle Monk, Director of Insight, British Retail Consortium
  • Roni Savage, Trustee, YMCA St. Paul’s Group & Managing Director, Jomas Associates
  • Councillor Tim Barnes, Lead Member for Soho & Cabinet Member for Young People & Learning, City of Westminster
  • Nazeya Hussain, Executive Director of Place, RB Kingston

Watch the event below

Levelling up the UK at the expense of London?

London is a resilient city, even during a crisis. This is the government’s perspective and part of their argument for diverting more investment into other UK regions.

Chairing the discussion, Dan pointed to several national investment programmes that show how London isn’t getting its fair share. The Government’s £900m getting building fund for ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure projects awarded London £22m or 2.5% of the total fund. But a per capita calculation would have awarded the capital five times this amount. Pre-pandemic, the 2019 £3.6bn town fund awarded 100 UK towns financial support – none of which were in London.

If this is a sign of things to come from the Government, it’s important city makers understand London’s specific challenges and how they can work together and with communities to come up with creative, value for money solutions.

London’s challenges

Demographic challenges: For the first time since 1989, London’s population declined in 2020. Some estimates put this at 700,000 with a disproportionately high number of non-UK born people leaving the country entirely, with Brexit a likely contributing factor. The London Assembly also reports that one in seven Londoners now want to leave the capital as a direct result of the pandemic. “We’ve massively increased the elasticity between where you live and where you work,” says Tim. People can live further away in the knowledge that their commute is only one or two days a week.

Economic challenges: “2020 was the retail sector’s worst year on record,” says Kyle, with an 80% drop in spending compared to 2019. In London, the retail sector is also the biggest employer of non-graduates and for many young people. Its fortunes are tied up in many other sectors and a collapse in sales closely correlates with drops in tourism, hospitality and office and commercial property lets. This will have long-term implications which may only be fully felt once the Government’s furlough scheme ends.

Social challenges: In a crisis, the divide widens, says Roni. Poorer people simply don’t have the resources to keep up and this has been particularly evident since schools all but closed. Home-schooling is only effective with access to laptops, high-speed internet and a parent or guardian with the time and educational background to support their children’s learning.

“We’ve seen many [young people] suffer restlessness, doubling up to anxiety and mental health degradation through the pandemic.” Roni Savage.

This is not the case for many poorer families and their children can get left further behind as a result. Physical and mental health are also factors and Nazeya pointed out that Covid infection rates closely align with known geographic areas of deprivation where people live in cramped privately rented accommodation and have limited access to good quality green space.

How do city makers respond?

“We must not see this through rose tinted glasses. Going back is just not palatable.” Nazeya Hussain

  • Embrace the ‘new normal’. Workers may not return to their central London offices to the same extent every day. But when they do it may be to attend large meetings or events or meet people for lunch. The takeaway sandwich might be replaced by a sit-down meal, and this will impact the types of retail and hospitality people want.
  • Prioritise local transport options that help people move around their neighbourhood – it may be time to question the logic of large radial infrastructure projects like Crossrail 2. But to avoid cars filling the gap we need investment in buses, and active travel infrastructure like cycle lanes and e-scooter/e-bikes that help people travel further than walking.
  • Consider the 15-minute neighbourhood beyond a vibrant high street and attractive public realm. How does it benefit poorer people if it doesn’t also create training opportunities and new jobs? Link with local colleges/universities and create space and funding for start-ups and small businesses to thrive – bringing life back to our town centres.
  • Invest in pan-London digital infrastructure to reduce the digital divide and make the internet more accessible to more people. City of Westminster distributed thousands of laptops and made free broadband accessible to home schooling families in the borough during the pandemic. A shared, London-scale version of this support could help many more people.
  • Support bottom-up, place-based community networks set up during Covid. These help create more inclusive, integrated communities that have stronger bonds and are more resilient. Space and funding from the local authority, a housing association or a developer can help these networks persist beyond the pandemic.
  • Invest in people with a focus on their aspirations and potential. The retail workforce, for example, will need training and employment opportunities in new sectors. However, “you can’t be what you can’t see” says Roni and a greater diversity of leaders is needed to inspire a more representative mix of talent into other sectors.
  • Prioritise a mental health recovery. Alongside the economy, we need to support frontline workers and vulnerable people who’ve borne the brunt of the pandemic. This includes young people who are also our future workforce.

There is growing consensus that the pandemic may have changed London for good. The scale of this change and its implications for inner and outer London are unknown. Whatever the result, a people-centred response that addresses inequalities through community engagement in our built environment and services is undoubtedly the best approach to levelling up London for all.


This session was part of the Future of London’s City Makers’ Forum, kindly supported by Hatch. Find out more here.