1. Economics
January 9, 2015

If London is to cope with its growing population, the city needs greater devolution

By Jo Valentine

Now Christmas is over, the portentous arrival of another baby has been hogging the headlines.

Sometime during January, statisticians say it’s pretty much a nailed on certainty that this baby will push London’s population past its 1939 population peak of 8.6m. We will be right to celebrate this milestone because the extraordinary growth London has seen is symptomatic of the city’s success on the global stage.

London is the world’s business and talent hub, while also being a centre for creativity and innovation. More than $1 bn-worth of international subsidiaries are based in the capital, and it attracts more foreign investment than any other city. It has more venture capital seed funding than any other city in Europe, more graduates than any other city, the London area’s tech sector employs more people than Silicon Valley’s… the list of achievements goes on and on.

But what we must not lose sight of is what happens next. It’s all very well that an unequalled number of people are set to call themselves Londoners – but the recent boom pales in comparison to the 10m that are estimated will make the city home by 2036. We need to be asking urgent questions about how we plan for this growth.

This week, London First launched a major new report to offer some answers. “London 2036: An Agenda for Jobs and Growth” is the most significant business-led consultation project yet undertaken to help secure sustainable long-term growth in a UK city. We carried out this project on behalf of the London Enterprise Panel, the Mayor’s business advisory panel; the final report is the result of a year’s work involving over 400 stakeholders.

It sets out a formula for the capital to achieve world-beating income growth, greater job opportunities than rival cities, a diverse and shock-proof economy, more homes and better transportation, as well as more balanced economic growth across the UK. You can read the whole thing here, but in a nutshell there are three core themes that emerge if we want to successfully develop and safeguard London’s economy.

First is the need to cement the city’s existing strengths as the world’s leading economic and business hub. This will require an increased focus on emerging markets, making sure we stay open for business – particularly in the face of growing anti-EU and anti-immigration rhetoric – and improvements to our global access through investment in air capacity.

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 We also need to fuel more diverse growth by capitalising on the city’s strengths in the technological and creative spheres. This means improved digital connectivity, a big drive to develop more home-grown technical talent, and new ways to improve funding for growing SMEs so they can realise their potential.

 Thirdly, we need to address the challenges to London’s basic foundations. We need to see a dramatic increase in long-term infrastructure investment and house-building.

How dramatic, you ask? Well, the draft London Infrastructure Plan identifies over £1 trillion of spending that is likely to be required between now and 2050 to support the city’s population and economic growth. In terms of housing, around half as many new homes are being built as are needed: just 25,000 are completed each year, against a projected need for over 50,000.

 All this would be much easier to achieve if more powers were devolved from central government to the capital.

 We also need to look beyond technical skills and prepare for a wide-ranging skills drive, to ensure that parts of London’s working population are not left behind in the high-tech, high-skilled future that beckons. The city already has a higher proportion of households in poverty and a higher unemployment rate than the UK overall, with lower-income Londoners facing a triple challenge: high and rising costs of living; a shrinking pool of lower- and mid-skill jobs; and a highly competitive labour market where they compete with top talent from across the world.

 So what next? The London Enterprise Panel, which brings together London business, government and wider stakeholders, is best placed to lead this delivery. In doing so it will be reliant on a host of organisations, private and public, whom it can convene but cannot command.

So London 2036 is a call to action for all of London. The move from analysis to action is a complex but vital task – because, when our record-breaking baby grows up, we want him or her to have the same thriving, vibrant city we enjoy now.

Baroness Jo Valentine is CEO of the London First campaign group.

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