oronavirus has hit London harder than anything since the Blitz. A little over a year ago, when I ran as a freelance mayor, our growth seemed unstoppable. Many of the issues were wealth issues: unaffordable property rather than unemployment, and especially inequality. Much of Britain believed the problem was that London had too much of it. Suddenly the problem is the opposite. London is in crisis, and the next mayor must first and foremost be a crisis manager.
It was the worst recession in 300 years and London was hit harder than almost any other part of Britain. Unemployment has risen faster in London and more people have been put on Covid leave than in most other parts of the UK. The number of people claiming benefits in the capital has tripled. House prices are now rising more slowly than any other region (half the rate in the Northwest).
Metro passengers on weekdays are only a third of what they were a year ago, and bus passengers, 15%. Transport for London is bankrupt. Many employers, after a year of working remotely, have concluded that they don’t need – and can’t afford – that much staff in London offices. This is not a temporary trend, it will be permanent. As the one million people flocking to London drop dramatically, rents plummet and every business serving them, from cafes to West End theaters, is facing a crisis. And because a large part of the mayor’s income in London came from fares and tariffs, the town hall is also bankrupt.
This combination of problems is dangerous. Financial pressures will prompt the next mayor to sell all of their remaining public land – from police stations to the thousands of acres owned by Transport for London – to lower affordable housing targets and allow high-rise commercial skyscrapers to fill the gap. black hole in the budget. But it will be catastrophic. First, because they would sell public assets to cover short-term operating costs. But more importantly, because the only way to maintain a diverse, mixed-income community in London is for the mayor to protect the existing public land and use it to build high quality, mid-size, city-owned housing. and rented. at really affordable rates.
London can no longer take success for granted. In the future, it will compete not only with New York and Paris, but also with the attraction of teleworking outside the cities. It means maintaining excellent schools, hospitals and businesses. But it also means making sure that we are creating the best public transport system, the cleanest air and the best environment of any major city in the world. Now is the time to expand loans to electrify the entire fleet of taxis and rental cars, and plant millions more trees in the city center. We need to preserve the best of our streets and architecture (and that means learning from the development of neighborhoods like Islington, rather than following the mania for stale glass office buildings that has made “the city” so soulless). We need to use the Thames much more for entertainment and transport, and to make the Green Belt the largest forest in England.
None of this will be easy. Affordable housing on public land in London can be financed – as there is a real asset and a real income stream – but the central government will need to allow the mayor to borrow the necessary money. It will take emergency grants to bail out Transport for London and activate Crossrail 2. Boris Johnson will have to remember what he knew when he was mayor – that London has both extreme poverty and is the central engine of our national economy. .
There is no need to compromise between North and London: we can and must build an excellent train line between Leeds and Manchester, as well as Crossrail 2. A government that is committed to the environment should want to do both . But it requires a central government willing to partner with its largest city and a mayor willing to do the same. And it’s difficult when party politics have never been so hysterical and polarized.
Above all, this crisis requires taking the role of Mayor seriously. Even today, the mayor’s budget is greater than the GDP of a hundred countries, and the mayor has more power than his New York counterpart over his key areas. But we need a crisis manager, not someone who thinks he is powerless and uses this role only to protest and chair.