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Government / Local politics

London needs a bolder relationship with its immediate neighbours

It’s a classic tale of urban growth: people and businesses move out to find cheaper space, cities absorb other towns in their commuter belt, and politics have to catch up.

For London, this creates challenges at very large scale. The city is core to a much greater economic region, the Wider South East, which is home to over a third of the country’s population and jobs. This Southern Superhub has done well economically: in the last five years, it made up for 53 per cent of service sector jobs creations in the UK. A record number of people commute across the London boundary, and many London firms have offices, suppliers and clients in other Wider South East cities.

The challenges of high living costs, low pay and crowded transport are also straddling boundaries. The government has calculated that the Wider South East will need 1.5m homes by 2026 – but most local authorities inside and outside London have struggled to meet previous, lower housing targets. As cash-strapped local authorities feel unable to accommodate rapid change, the relationship between London and its neighbours has in some places turned sour.

Housing is by far the most contentious topic. Both sides have blamed each other over “whose growth” it is, and whether they are doing enough to accommodate it. Several neighbours are annoyed that London has ruled out changes to its greenbelt land, when they are reviewing their own to find space for housing. Some at the Greater London Authority are frustrated that several other councils have blocked attempts to collaborate over housing and transport investment.

Until recently, London mayors have not really focused on engaging surrounding jurisdictions in their decisions. They have no legal requirement to agree any strategy with neighbours, and to avoid being seen as reliant on them, all three London mayors decided that the city should accommodate all of its growth. This aligned nicely with the interests of most towns outside, who saw “London overspill” as a threat to their identity.

The economic geography of London and its wider region. Image: Centre for London.

The government did not seek to spark conversations about the region’s future either. Its funding is very centralised and formulaic. Large projects are, more often than not, delivered without a regional outlook: London’s neighbours did not contribute to Crossrail, and the new Lower Thames crossing was not seen as a project of regional importance.

But politics is starting to catch up. Among local political leaders, there is more awareness that London and its neighbours are too connected and dependent for councils to tackle challenges on their own. They also feel remarkably underpowered to address them – they have little control over how they raise and spend public money – and hope that speaking with a common voice will grab government attention.

Several local authorities have been partnering to draft economic and transport strategies, and to make a joint case for greater investment. A group of political leaders representing London and the rest of the Wider South East also meet regularly to strengthen dialogue on shared issues, and this year the Mayor is taking part in their annual summit.

But there are difficult decisions ahead, and we think it’s time for this initiative to step up its ambitions. The Wider South East political group needs to evolve into a forum where decisions can be made, and common asks are taken to government. It needs to become more strategic, and draft a vision for the whole region – an industrial strategy for the Southern Superhub.

Government could do much to support, by rewarding collaboration with additional financial and political freedoms, and long-term infrastructure investment. Reshaping the Minister for London into a senior minister for the Wider South East would be a good start.

Sceptics note that having 156 local authorities speak with a single voice is close to impossible. But the urgency of challenges facing the region, and the progress made in the last few years, suggests that much could be achieved with the right government incentives.

Nicolas Bosetti is a senior researcher at the Centre for London. He tweets as @nicolasbosetti.

Next-door Neighbours has been jointly published by Centre for London, the capital’s dedicated think tank, and the Southern Policy Centre, the think tank for central southern England.
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