Sunday, June 13

London pain could turn north to benefit, but Johnson falls short | Simon Jenkins

SUBWAYModern British government teeters from slogan to cliché. Politics is rarely in sight. Following the remarkable success of the Conservatives in local elections, Boris Johnson will announce today a new campaign for “stop the brain drain“From the northern cities. Bitten by Covid’s big spending mistake, it will invest cash in infrastructure so that people “live locally and prosper.”

Two consequences follow, both significant. Few have realized it, but London, after decades of sucking up North for talent, is suddenly in big trouble. Its population is falling, a bad sign in any city. Its transport network, Transport for London, suffered a 90% collapse in passenger revenue last year, requiring a £ 1.6bn bailout in May 2020, with further funding suspended until the outcome of the London mayoral election. Now that there are votes, if Johnson rejects the additional funding needed, it would mean high fees and cut services, humiliating his Labor successor as mayor, Sadiq Khan.

At the same time, London’s flatulent property market is facing a collapse if Johnson’s extravagant buyer subsidies and stamp tax breaks end. His mayor’s obsession with foreign-owned office towers and luxury flats, spurred on by his real estate consultant, Eddie Lister, has left London littered with empty skyscrapers. Large numbers of office workers will simply disappear to work from home. Coupled with the impact of Brexit on tourism, this promises a capital of empty hotels, deserted main streets and a drop in tax revenue. It’s easy to say that London was expecting it. But the government may soon need a policy to “level” London too, which includes some of Britain’s poorest people.

The second question is how realistic is it to ensure that “the north” is the beneficiary of London’s pain? Johnson is right that the brain drain has been at the root of Britain’s regional divide, and “live local and prosper” is a resounding slogan. But what is the real policy?

It is a huge undertaking to make the cities of the north as enriching as London has seemed. It is not a finger snapping exercise. It’s also not about this week’s proposed pro-developer splurge. state-subsidized private housing in open field. The region is well endowed with property, and northern people may not share Johnson’s Philistine dislike of his field. The infallible consequence of his policy is simply endless expansion over the south-east of England.

Furthermore, what matters is the vitality of the inner cities. As Hebden Bridge or Birmingham’s Jewelery Quarter and Manchester’s Northern Quarter demonstrate, magnetism is about old buildings, culture and youth appeal. This is not an executive farm in each valley, but a Shoreditch in each channel. I doubt that a single conservative minister knows what that means.

The era of home work and home shopping now requires a profound reassessment of the city of the future. Dispersal from London may be in the national interest. The mere scattering of Johnson’s dwellings across the English landscape is not. It means more cars, more roads, more infrastructure, and more fragmented and less diverse communities. It will not offer the excitement and vigor that have made London so popular. At the very least, the essential redevelopment of the North takes thought, not political gimmicks.

Simon Jenkins is a columnist for The Guardian

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