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Propertyshe podcast: Tony Travers Professor, Director of LSE London

Posted on 17 August 2022

I think this Autumn, new Prime Minister, Mayor and boroughs with reasonable time in front of them before their next elections.  It’s a real opportunity to think what kind of city, particularly what kind of Central London do we want looking ahead, and then to come up with policy that brings about that future, rather than just letting it happen by accident.

Susan Freeman

Hi, I’m Susan Freeman.  Welcome back to our PropertyShe podcast series brought to you by Mishcon de Reya, in association with the London Real Estate Forum, where I get to interview some of the key influencers in the world of real estate and the built environment. Today, I am delighted to welcome Professor Tony Travers.  Tony is director of LSE London, he’s also a professor in the LSE’s Government Department and Associate Dean at the LSE’s School of Public Policy.  His key research interests include public finance, local and regional government and London’s politics and government.  In 2012-13 (for Boris Johnson) and again in 2016-17 (for Sadiq Khan), he chaired the London Finance Commission and was a member of the City’s Growth Commission.  He co-chaired the King’s Commission on London in 2017-18.  He is an advisor to the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee and has previously advised committees in the Commons and the House of Lords.  He is a research board member of the Centre for Cities and a board member of New Local, an independent think-tank.  Tony has published numerous books on cities and government, including most recently, London’s Boroughs at 50 and London’s Mayor at 20.  So now we’re going to hear from Professor Tony Travers on what’s going on with London. 

So, Tony, good morning. 

Tony Travers

Good morning.

Susan Freeman

We have known each for quite a few years.  We first met, was over twenty years ago on the famous Pat Brown study trip to New York to see whether business improvement districts would work in the UK.  So, you’re an expert on all things relating to government and London so, let’s go straight in and talk about the impact of the pandemic on London and obviously, we now have the energy crisis, cost of living crisis.  What’s going to be the impact on London of people not bouncing back to a five day working week?

Tony Travers

Well, I think it’s, first we must remain broadly optimistic, I mean we’ve had in the UK four once in a lifetime events in fourteen years, to wit the 2008/9 banking crisis and all that came with that, then Brexit, then the Covid pandemic and now the Russian war in Ukraine with the consequence that energy and inflation, energy prices and inflation.  Any one of them, you know you might expect to see in a lifetime, you know and by the way, climate change appears to be certainly in the headlines because of the weather in Britain, so let’s park that as another thing.  Yet, Britain, London remains amazing, you know they remain you broadly resilient, the western liberal democracies do but there’s no doubt that the pandemic had an effect on London, particularly central London and other big cities of that kind around the world, New York for sure, which is going to take some time to work through the system.  Now, here we have to reach a long way back into history, I mean London has been affected by you know plagues and fires and cholera outbreaks and the Blitz and many other bad things, all of which have significantly affected it particularly the centre of the city and the inner suburbs, and it's bounced back from all of those so I’d be surprised if it didn’t bounce back and by ‘it’ I mean central London, I think the outer parts of London and the towns and counties around London have, if anything, benefitted slightly from lots of people working at home, spending a bit more money in their local high streets, going out to dinner in restaurants in the outer part of the city and in the surrounding regions, so we must put it in the context of history, be aware of how resilient in some ways the city and the country are but you know always be on our guard and thinking ahead as to what policy needs to be delivered at any of the… in any of the spheres of government that matter to London, you know to ensure the city gets back to an efficient, highly productive version of itself as soon as possible. 

Susan Freeman

Is enough being done to make travelling into the central zone attractive?

Tony Travers

This is a big question but I think it’s just before answering it in the way you put it, we’re saying it’s clear that the pandemic has had an array of affects on people, many of us, which go well beyond those of central London and London so, there’s a significant number of stories available to be read in the media all the time about how many people over the age of fifty have retired early or stopped working so that the overall labour force has shrunk, that’s one thing.  Some evidence is a bit anecdotal that people are changing their approach to work and the labour market is tight, that means that there is more choice and frankly more choice how people work available to employees and so the balance between employers and employees has changed, and these are nothing to do with London as such, they are true of the whole of the UK and probably other countries in the world besides for sure.  Now, to answer your question about central London specifically, I mean, to get back to the levels of… or at least towards the levels of office occupation, retail use, commuting question, then I think different parts of government will have to do different things.  First is, we’re going to have to look at fares policy, I mean the fares policy that public transport, not just TFL but the commuter railway which effectively belongs to the government these days, that fares policy was based on the idea of rush hour commuting twice a day, well that’s stopped and the boot’s on the other foot now that people can choose when they travel so, a rather different fares policy I suspect will have to emerge, possibly with significant incentives for people to get back to used to travelling.  In this sense, the arrival of the, or the opening of the Elizabeth Line, particularly when it’s fully open, with all the extra capacity that that allows and a much nicer way of travelling, at least east to west, Thames Link offers something similar north to south, so I think that fares policy we’ll have to look at.  Second, I think over time, the question of how, whether people working from home, this is controversial, whether people who are working from home much or all of the time would face some sort of business rates for working there, and it’s a question that might be discussed at some point but will generally, I think that policy makers at the city and local levels, so city wide and local level, are going to have to think very, very hard indeed about how to make the city, particularly the city centre, as attractive, interesting and fun as they can, so people feel they are missing out by not going into work and the City of London, interestingly, the Corporation of London, has started to look at using its streets very much more to make them more lively, more attractive, to get more people feel they need to be there and certainly the City needs to do that because the proportion of office workers going to back to the City is probably lower than in the West End.  So, I think that there’s going to have to be a mixture of responses, of which those I’ve just mentioned are but some and you know as we learn more, especially in September, October this year when in the sense, in so far as it’s ever going to be normal, reasserting itself, that’s when it’s going to happen.  We’re going to see in September and October what the established new pattern is, I think, and then policy makers will probably need to think what world do they wish to deliver.  One final thought on this, if significant numbers of people work from home more of the time, which they may want to, then there are implications of that for the long-term survival of public transport and also to the need for more road space, that’s a long way from where public policy was three years ago. 

Susan Freeman

Yes, that’s quite controversial isn’t it.  So, you are saying that people are more likely to take to their cars, not going to be so keen to come on public transport?

Tony Travers

Well I think if you’re based, the further you get from central London as a general rule, the more likely you are to be able to or have to use a car and so, if more people spend more of their time working in outer London or even beyond the city boundary in the towns and the counties that surround London, then inevitably they will drive more and use public transport less and indeed if you look at the figures up to now, car use has recovered more or less to pre-pandemic levels, public transport use is nowhere near it, so there’s been a relative shift to car use. 

Susan Freeman

And of course we’re moving more and more towards electric cars and my concern now is that we’ll all move over to electric cars and there won’t be the, you know enough electricity supply.

Tony Travers

Well, this winter is you know going to give us as we move into September and October, a rather unhelpful glimpse of the future because, at the risk of straying away from the subject here, you know the UK, successive governments in the UK have been incredibly underpowered in terms of investing in long-term energy supply so, you know we’re underinvested in terms of the future nuclear capacity, Britain has done quite well actually in terms of renewables but it’s nowhere enough, near enough, the two of these things together to generate all our electricity so, we use huge amounts of gas as we’ve discovered, we’re now all experts in energy supply and you know we move over from cars driven by petrol and diesel, vehicles driven by petrol and diesel, to electricity, that’s going to require a big jump in electricity supply and indeed the places where these vehicles could be charged away from home and I think we’re a long way short of either of those eventualities having been effectively planned for. 

Susan Freeman

And just going back to what’s being done to rebuild London after the pandemic, I believe that the London Mayor has a London Recovery Board which the Mayor chairs jointly with the chair of London Councils, Georgia Gould.  I mean, is that effective in sort of bringing the local authorities together, you know looking at what needs to be done to rebuild London?

Tony Travers

Well, I should declare an interest here because, a non opportune interest I might add, but I sit on the London Recovery Board so, just sort of clarity and understanding.  I mean I think what the Recovery Board has been very good at, is allowing a very wide range of voices from different organisations, public sector, private sector, the third sector, voluntary sector, to have their say on the way the city emerges from the pandemic but what the Recovery Board can’t be, and it isn’t, it’s not a policy making, it’s an advisory sounding board type activity and what it can’t be is a maker of hard policy and that is only done in borough town halls, City Hall and in Whitehall and you know I think, all sorts of reasons, you know central government is very, very distracted at least at the moment, this will improve in September we hope but central government is distracted, we had borough elections earlier this year and you know elections are a good thing for the avoidance of doubt they do create a sort of hiatus in the day to day capacity to deliver on new policy and we had a mayoral election last year so again, I think elections are a wonderful thing, for the avoidance of doubt, but I think there has been quite a lot of distraction for politicians and as we move into this winter and autumn/winter, it really is a crunch point for politicians at these three levels, and of course the private sector, you know working in various private sector organisations and large companies, the City and non-governmental organisations, I mean there is an opportunity for the Recovery Board to articulate the kinds of, I’d say it’s the kind of futures people are hoping for but I think in the end only policy, policy can only really be made in government and things we were talking about earlier like fares policy, you know TFL limps on week to week with temporary or has so far, temporary funding settlements and so on.  So, I think this autumn, new Prime Minister, Mayor and boroughs with reasonable time in front of them before their next elections, it’s a real opportunity to think what kind of city, particularly what kind of central London do we want looking ahead, and then to come up with policy that brings about that future, rather than just letting it happen by accident. 

Susan Freeman

You mentioned the local elections and I think it’s interesting but there was a lot of change in the last elections, I obviously, Wandsworth and Westminster going over to Labour after a long period of being Conservative and if you look at you know the London boroughs there are a lot of new leaders, I mean perhaps that means that we’re going to have some new thinking?

Tony Travers

Yes, I mean the turnover of leaders and indeed chief executives, both are changing quite significantly in number, ought to bring new thinking, fresh ideas and so on but of course you are always having to trade that off against the confidence that comes with leaders who’ve been in power for some time and know how to drive through let us say development, so we’ve seen a number of leaders who had driven through substantial amounts of development or things sort of somebody such as Peter John in Southwark and of course nobody will be in power forever, new ideas are welcome but the you know, I think I’m right in saying that the median term of office for a borough leader is now a year and a half, actually it’s probably longer than Prime Minister actually in recent times so we mustn’t underplay London’s successes here but I do think that London Councils, City Hall, which do work well as, I mean London Councils is a joint organisation working City Hall, there’s enough agreement I think on across politics, across political parties actually, I mean there are many, many issues that are not, I know party politics is always political, nothing wrong with that, actually when it comes to much London policy it’s not terribly party political, as a sort of observ… you know there’s no Labour or Conservative or Liberal Democrat way of sweeping the street or emptying bins is there and in terms of the pressures to reduce the amount of new development or to encourage it, those are pretty well, they’re not you know oppositions may use it but they’re not left/right political.  So, yeah I think that the one thing London has been good at and remains good at in many ways, is having the capacity to think about itself, it has a capacity to debate things, it’s got business organisations you know newly named Business London, formerly London First, the CBI’s London Region, the London Chamber of Commerce, Federation of Small Business, I mean all of these have policy people who are involved with, the TUC I might add, all involved in the kind of debates about the future of London which suggests that you know what’s often described as civil society in London is actually quite strong, quite powerful.  There are people thinking about and discussing the city, the future of the city, which wouldn’t have been true forty, fifty, sixty years ago, really only the public sector was doing that then and of course you mentioned earlier on business improvement districts, you know that study tour we went to New York on, bids are now an added, what’s the word, sort of adornment for this world, particularly in central but not only in central London, now they spread across the city, bringing resources and thinking about neighbourhoods so, you know I remain optimistic about London’s capacity to discuss its own future but it definitely, definitely needs to have that discussion now and then policy makers in government then need to act to deliver, as I said earlier, to deliver a future they want to appear, rather than one which randomly happens.

Susan Freeman

We’ll come back to business improvement districts because I’d like to talk a little bit about how they’re going to be able to supplement the services the local authorities can provide.  So, investment into London is important and as you know there is a new initiative, Opportunity London, which is bringing together the London Mayor, London Councils, a number of stakeholders and importantly, the developers to promote investment into London so, hopefully that will be a useful voice to sort of bring everybody together. 

Tony Travers

Can I just, I mean just to say, I think business, I mean you know it would be naïve to pretend that the relationship between the Mayor, the current Mayor and the current government has not been a bit, to put it generously, difficult.  And I do think business has a most important role and the City of London which I’ve rather undermentioned so far, the City of London Corporation, have a terribly important role as sort of broadly non-aligned intermediaries so I think if you look back to you know why London First, as it was then called, was created, it was because a number of senior business leaders in London felt, certainly after the Greater London Council had been abolished in 1986, that there was no sort of voice, no capacity to think about and have a debate about what London should be like and London First I think did it extremely well at evolving that but of course there are other players who quite rightly have that voice and I do think that I mean how many Prime Ministers is it now, so it’s David Cameron up to middle of 2016, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and then the next Prime Minister within this six year period, I think that has made rational policy making, particularly after Brexit and after the pandemic, very, very difficult, very limited policy thinking.  So, whatever we think about Brexit, everybody will have their own view, something will have to be done to give London, to give Britain, a reasonable, competitive position in the world, or even better one, in the future and that requires thinking how to take advantage of the many advantages Britain has in the particular environment we now find ourselves and so, London remains massively attractive, all the data show this for certain kinds of investment, tech, also in medical technology, you know there’s been stories in the media recently about grandees from Silicon Valley upping sticks and coming to London and we need to make sure that when things like that happen, which they sort of do partly accidently, partly because of Britain with its legal system and its language and its place on the planet and all the good things that Britain is good for, work for it, you know that we massively take advantage of them and I think the City of London in particular, and mean the City financially rather than the City of London Corporation, you know post-Brexit, it’s been a sort of six and a half years now since that, or six and a quarter years since the Brexit vote and one would have thought some action might have been taken to ensure that such an important centre of financial and business services retained its global edge and all I’d say is there’s a very sort of, the pace of government policy making delivery can appear balefully slow. 

Susan Freeman

I mean, I don’t know what needs to happen for the government to take any longer term view because a lot of you know a lot of policy seems to be a sort kneejerk reaction and obviously you know politicians are sort of mindful of the next election and a lot of the big infrastructure projects that we need to be focussing on, you know can take thirty years so, how do you get, how do you get the government to focus on those?

Tony Travers

Well, you know, in fairness the National Infrastructure Commission was created and I’m a big fan of the NIC and John Armitt is Chair and you know various members, one of whom is a colleague of mine, they are excellent and they are there to think in a rational way, to undertake research, to publish their findings about what the country needs in terms of infrastructure but in the end they can’t, they, and this is not a criticism of, they can’t force government to act and government has itself to be interested in policy and forward thinking and as you rightly imply your question, it’s been so much you know hour to hour to hour to hour to hour in the last four, five, six years for a succession of reasons, some of which are linked and some of which aren’t, making it very, very difficult to make these long-term decisions, I mean you know what again I’m trying to steer away from party politics completely but if we look at the leading contenders for those who are standing to be the prime leader of the Conservative party and therefore Prime Minister, and indeed Labour and the Liberal Democrats, let’s bring them all together in this, their proposals as to how precisely to deal with the impact of very high energy prices on large numbers of very poor households in about six weeks’ time has been, how can I put it, not very well thought through and that’s just about to happen, so when it comes to building, let’s be topical, reservoirs, and I also already mentioned nuclear power stations, which personally I think what we need, and you know what form of rail and road system do we need for the future, what ports and so on, you know in a sense I think we you know anybody listening to the podcast could you know write their own list and send it the Cabinet Secretary and say I think this is what we should do, I mean we’d all have slightly different lists but, and I think what’s been rather sad about the last few years is, there’s been so much else going on, there just hasn’t been that sense of direction within government about these medium to long term policy issues which a complex, developed country like Britain, without doubt needs to think about and act upon.

Susan Freeman

And of course the one policy that the government really has focussed on has been the levelling up agenda, which seems to have meant you know less support for London at a time when you know London also needs support.  I mean is that, is that likely to change?

Tony Travers

Well a levelling up agenda was in the Conservative’s manifesto last time, in 2019, a lot has been said about it, a huge White Paper was published in the beginning of this year.  I’d say it’s a policy with no enemies, I don’t think there’s a single Labour or Liberal Democrat politician in the front line who would not support it, London politicians support it actually, I mean it has no enemies which actually of course in some ways could be a weakness, a policy with no enemies risks just being left on a shelf with everybody saying we’re committed to it, not actually doing very much.  I think the difficult to be honest with levelling up is that a), it’s become terribly tangled with geography, the north versus the south rather than households and individuals, there are large numbers of households and individuals in London and counties around London who need levelling up help and there are lots of fairly affluent people in the Midlands and the North and Wales who frankly don’t so you know and so the fact it became tangled with funding for regions or small towns rather than people, I think was a, that was a mistake.  And asking the question, “What would need to be done in order to deliver levelling up?” I think would, it’s worth pursuing and I think because it would boil down to things like investment in particularly post-school, non-university education skills and further education often hopelessly under, under rewarded and not given enough attention of public policy, which is something that would radically alter the life chances of people and the places they live in, if that, one final thought, at least for the moment on this, is that you know the kind of problems that levelling up is about addressing, which I’ve sort of tried to outline, have happened over thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy years, you know the Jarrow March came south, it did not march from London north.  And against that backdrop I think only policy delivered over a generation would actually solve the problem, it can’t be solved within the lifetime of one parliament, which of course is the way politics so often has to try to work.

Susan Freeman

And it seems that with the infrastructure improvements are sort of pretty key as well and HS2, on which I saw a very interesting documentary yesterday, people still seem to be talking about it and yet a lot of the enabling works have already been carried out and a lot has changed since we decided that HS2 should go ahead although it’s not happening in the way that was originally planned, it’s not going as far north as originally planned, I mean does it still make sense to spend all this money on it?

Tony Travers

Well I need to declare something else here, I sat on something called the Oakervee Review, which looked at effectively the condition of High Speed Two, this was at the end of 2019, 2020 I think it’s so long ago, Covid in between, concertinaed time and all of that, though that’s long finished so, I’m not doing anything directly on that now.  I think the challenge for High Speed Two was always that its purpose was never completely fully thought through, it you know it’s both about speed, capacity, levelling up the north and the Midlands levels of the south, a whole range of things, that’s not to say it couldn’t do several things at once but it was never entirely clear what its purpose was and separately of course, going back to the discussion we were having earlier on, Covid has reduced the demand for railway use, now you know I’d like to think myself that that recovery, there will be recovery over time and certainly by the time High Speed Two opens in the next decade or possibly the beginning of the one after that, let’s hope that rail passenger numbers have recovered.  So, it’s now being built in an environment where the demand for railway is self-evidently lower than it was but you know as I say let’s assume it recovers.  What it’s then trying to do and whether it will indeed improve the economies of Birmingham and the West Midlands, Manchester and the Northwest and then via a slightly different link now, Leeds, not going up the east or the country as it was expected, I mean only time would tell.  It’s got so many different purposes attached to it but I can see that if you are in Birmingham or Manchester then essentially you are left with no choice, you either get this or you won’t get anything and yet we’ve already seen with bits of HS2 being chopped off or not being delivered in that way anymore that the risk that politicians will say oh well we’re no longer committed to it but we’ll do the same thing in a different way (i.e. spending a lot less money) is always there as a threat but I mean I don’t know I just think given how much work, as you say how much preparation work has now been done, hard to see the government backing out of it at this stage and particularly given, as with defence procurement, so many jobs depend upon it, you know, it’s a got a very high, HS2 itself makes this point a lot.  Just to bring it back to a big London and indeed Birmingham question, exactly what happens at Euston and around the whole of the area around Euston, one of the poorest places in inner London, you know going back to levelling up, and at Curzon Street in Birmingham, that seems to me you know really fertile territory for public policy to think about because whatever people think of HS2, some are in favour, some are against, it looks as if it’s going to happen and that does mean that Euston and Curzon Street, the areas to the south of the city centre in Birmingham, have enormous opportunity generated by and indeed Old Oak, I might add, you know that’s, that I think we should definitely think a bit more about. 

Susan Freeman

One would hope that some thinking had gone into it.

Tony Travers

Well it’s very, it’s some thinking but I mean let’s take HS2 I mean, you know if you read their Board minutes, there’s quite a lot of redacting going on in them and quite hard to work out exactly what’s going to be done and where and so against that backdrop you know HS2 can’t quite be the leader, it has to be Camden Council or Birmingham City Council or the local authorities of the development corporation at Old Oak so you know Ealing and Brent and so on.  And the local authorities you know they can only go so far, the Mayor can only go so far before we know exactly what’s going to be built at Euston for example and I’m not sure we do know exactly how it’s all going to be, what the station is going to look like at Euston and I think it’s still work in progress.  Some of this listening will correct me but I detect its still work in progress.

Susan Freeman

So we’re talking about what the councils can do, what the Mayor can do, I read with great interest your most recent book, London’s Mayor at 20 and I couldn’t believe actually that it was twenty years since, you know since Ken Livingstone was our first Mayor, but does the London Mayor need additional powers, you know particularly you know at this time, we’re talking about you know how London remains competitive, we’re going to be talking about you know how people can afford to live in London with the energy crisis, cost of living crisis, should the Mayor be able to do more?

Tony Travers

Well, personally I have long been in favour of more devolution so I think you know the London Mayor, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Birmingham and West Midlands, Leeds, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, all of them should have more power.  Britain remains or England in particular, very centralised compared with analogue countries like Germany or Australia or America or even France you know we are a very centralised country and then so this means that when it comes to something like recovery, there are very few levers really in the hands of the Mayor of London.  So we talked about you know fares policy because TFL, long-term British public policy reasons depended more on fares than the Metro in Paris or the subway in New York, to name but two, surprise, surprise when large numbers of people stopped travelling and returned to travel, its finances are weaker than those in other cities where grants made up a bigger proportion of the income in the first place but the Mayor effectively depends on handouts from the government and the government has gone through remarkably unusual (he said, kindly) way of delivering these handouts with negotiations to the last minute, lots of drama and politics, at a time when you know the national rail, the commuter rail system in London has been effectively just given the money without any such negotiation, it’s extraordinary.  So I do think the Mayor needs greater access to I mean to more powers but also more access to resources so that when it comes to something like recovery from Covid, the Mayor can make decisions about fares or about other aspects of the city’s life and the boroughs have to be part of this as well, planning, you know will planning have to change?  You bet it will.  Now the boroughs have the powers to do that, the question is, what should they do?  So, I definitely think the Mayor and the boroughs would make better decisions about many aspects of the city’s government than central government will and that’s not because central government is bad or malicious, it’s just that even though they’re based in London, it’s too, they’ve got to think of the whole of England or the whole of the United Kingdom so we do need more devolution in London and also in other cities. 

Susan Freeman

But is that likely to happen?  I mean I know you chaired the London Finance Commission for the Mayor back in I think it was 2013 calling for fiscal devolution for London, I mean what sort of response did it get?

Tony Travers

Well, everybody said yes, yet it sort of you know especially in government, particularly in the Treasury, the Treasury is about to get a change of owner by all accounts or change of approach by the new Prime Minister potentially, you know the Treasury said well of course we see power in many of your arguments, it’s just that governments won’t do anything, or words to that effect.  Now, oddly, the coming of TFL’s need for subsidy because of the loss of fare and the government’s approach which says London should pay for its own public transport, they’re going to have to find a way of raising some money that helps the Tube and the buses and the overground continue to function.  So, I don’t see how the government can’t, either the government’s going to have to go on funding for the national level the fares loss or they’re going to have allow London to raise the money through some form of new taxation to give the Mayor more income and that also is going to come home to roost during this autumn and winter.

Susan Freeman

It’s going to be a busy autumn.  And have any ideas been suggested?  I know that you talked about a possible tourist tax?

Tony Travers

Well I mean a tourist tax would raise hundreds rather than, you know hundreds and millions potentially rather than billions.  Other cities have them, we all know we pay them in other cities, I mean the tourism and hospitality industry has got enough problems of its own, it’s never been very enthusiastic and I do understand that after Covid, they might well think now is not the time and I get that.  Congestion charging, extending to the whole of London, I think the Mayor, I think I’m right in saying the Mayor is, or TFL and the Mayor are considering or looking at that as an option and that could raise substantial amounts of money and the Mayor has the power to deliver that policy and that would actually potentially, again whatever one thinks about congestion charges, the amount of money it would produce would not only make good the lost fare income and keep the system going for a while but once fares, sorry fare sort of ridership and fare yields recovered then that money would be available for investment and improvement every year, which I think is a long-term potential advantage, there aren’t many, from the situation that we’re discussing.  So, I remain optimistic, although otherwise you know we wouldn’t be making this podcast would we, I remain optimistic that there’s a lot of people making the case for devolution now, it’s not just the Mayor of London, London Finance Commission, and other mayors of other big cities around the country, there’ll be county deals for other parts of the country as part of the devolution process and you know we must hope that the chronic centralisation of England, separately in Wales and Scotland, you know eventually the penny drops in government but it would be easier to do the things it needs to do and there are plenty of things national government needs to do if it was, it could do those things better if it were not distracted you know in sort of effectively regulating on tiny things in local areas and calling lots of things in to make decisions in Whitehall which should be made in town halls. 

Susan Freeman

Yes, you’ve just talked about calling in those decisions.  I was just wondering what’s going to happen, this is slightly digressing, what’s going to happen to the Michael Gove call-in of the M&S redevelopment in Oxford Street?

Tony Travers

Well, it’s, it’s most interesting, there’s been a number of call-ins, I mean I’m not an expert on the use of the call-in power and I’ve seen evidence from others who are, there’s been a number and Michael Gove seemed reasonably willing to call things in, it was even more extraordinary, wasn’t quite a call-in but effectively a turndown by Grant Shapps as Transport Secretary on the housing development of Cockfosters Tube station.  And I just think that you know we have subnational government, City Hall and boroughs for a reason and things like you know the redevelopment of one building on, it’s true it’s on Oxford Street and Oxford Street has a national as well as a regional and local meaning, I think it’s you know not quite, it’s not great government, I think you know we either allow subnational politicians to make these decisions unless they’re absolutely in the national interest.  Clearly, airports are you know a national piece of infrastructure (somebody will listening think broadcast will know what’s happened to Heathrow, I’ve rather lost track of that one myself) but the Marble Arch Marks and Spencers, I mean the government has to be very careful here.  Stores like M&S, Selfridges, John Lewis, massively important to the western end of Oxford Street, which itself is massively important to London and its offer, its retain offer, and I don’t, I can’t speak for M&S, I don’t know, I mean I’ve read in the newspapers that I think they sounded quite cross when this decision was made and there is a debate about imbedded carbon, which I understand and that’s going to face developers you know and they’re going to have to think more and more about it, but I do think when a shop as important as M&S, as successful as M&S, as totemic as M&S, feels it’s being unfairly treated, which I slightly and I mean correct me if I’ve got this wrong, I slightly got the impression they did from the reaction I read in the media, then you know I do think government needs to be wary about meddling in local affairs when we have local politicians for that purpose and you know national politicians end up, if you talk to anybody who has ever worked in Downing Street, they all tell you the same story, there’s so much stuff coming in, huge amounts of it, every day, that there’s just no capacity to really to deal with it, they need to do less and they’d do it better, in Downing Street.

Susan Freeman

It makes you wonder actually how we generally get on sort of pretty well in London with these three layers of government.  So, just turning to housing, I seem to remember that Sadiq Khan’s platform when he was first elected Mayor was all about first dibs for Londoners and you know providing homes that Londoners could actually live in.  Has he actually spearheaded a renaissance in council house building, which I know was something that he talked about or do we still have the housing crisis that you know we discussed over many years?

Tony Travers

Well at risk of being flip, I mean London always has a housing crisis, always, always, always.  I’m struck by the fact that I had a book upstairs written in the mid-1970’s at a time when London’s population had fallen to under seven million, or was about to fall to under seven million and there were more housing units than there were households in London at the time, which you know more, and still there was a chronic housing shortage, rental market was defective, lots of people were badly housed, much worse housed than many of them are today I might add, and so there’s, you can, now very high demand area you know it’s very, very difficult for I mean there could never be, so long as lots and lots of people, millions of people, nearly nine million people want to live in London, twenty-two million in the wider region, and you’ve got massive constraints on land use, you’re always going to have a housing problem and a price problem.  Now, to answer your question, I think I’m right in saying that the number of social and affordable, more affordable, more genuinely affordable units delivered, has somewhat increased but and I think you know they’d be the first to admit this at City Hall, nowhere near what was or what would ever be required and I think looking ahead, again others on listening to the podcast will know much more about this than me but the coming together of inflation affecting the construction industry, labour shortages affecting the construction industry and the financial position of housing associations, there is a risk I think looking ahead that fewer social and affordable homes will be built in the coming years and you know that is bad for the individuals who won’t get a home or otherwise might be bad for the city because you know if social or genuinely affordable housing is not provided then in effect the existing housing stock, which may not go up as much as it has been, has to accommodate all the growth and if you look back over the years since the mid-eighties and London’s population has grown from six and a half million to more or less nine million, you know you rule broadly half of all that increase has had to be accommodated inside existing homes.  That’s a more efficient use of housing of course but we do need to find a way of building more and by the way I mean, one of the things that’s happening, if you look at population growth beyond the London boundary, just outside or even further beyond but within the wider south-east, that’s growing even faster than in London, so there’s a sort of sprawl going on, not withstanding the greenbelt. 

Susan Freeman

Yes I know one of the things that you say is if we are going to increase the number of homes in London, we are either going to have to build outwards or we’re going to have to build upwards and in London we don’t, and certainly in central London, we don’t seem to have the density that other cities such as Paris has so, you know you look round Paris and you generally see six of seven floors of residential above you know shops and cafes and things but if we increase density, we seem to go for you know big, high tower blocks which don’t necessarily sort of help things at street level. 

Tony Travers

Well I think the benefit that Baron Haussmann had is that he could effectively reduce to rubble sections of the former city of Paris, which would have looked more I think like London had looked and replace it with these remarkable, as you say, five, six, seven, eight storey buildings and incredible densities, which allow as you say shops at the ground or shops or services at the ground floor level and then very densely packed residential above but the truth is with that, is you can’t do it from a standing start, it’s very hard to do it when you’ve got the existing layout of the city, as we do in London, with sort of Georgian, rather earlier levels of density, beautiful housing, much treasured, almost impossible these days to knock down, but they clearly, also they can be very adaptable Georgian properties but they are certainly at a lower density than Haussmannian Paris or the massive blocks of New York, so I think the problem in London is, you can’t just clear sites in inner and central London or indeed in most of outer, the outer boroughs, you can’t clear sites so unless they come available as most obviously in deindustrialised former sites used for business, so Battersea, Nine Elms, King’s Cross, to name but two, Docklands, they can build but to maximise the amount you can get on these sites, you don’t do Haussmann’s Paris, you go for a kind of slightly often, slightly not brilliantly managed or planned sort of forest of towers, now some are done better than others, Canary Wharf I think has been very elegantly done, King’s Cross has been rather well done, the Olympic Park probably work in progress, quite well done, but you know the, the jumble of towers that sprouts here and there or randomly in outer boroughs, is of course because sites become available one by one by one by one and the planning system trying to maximise not just the amount of housing and development but also the amount of Section 106 and CIL because that’s a way of getting money to spend on good things, you know it’s in a sense the skyline which has so changed in the last thirty, forty years, is a product of the constrained nature of available ex-industrial sites and when they run out, who knows but I do think that the you know the question of how many towers do we want, how do we achieve these Haussmannian densities in London, is you know it’s the challenge for the planning system looking ahead that we were by implication talking about a few minutes ago. 

Susan Freeman

So you think perhaps we have too many local authorities, I mean we’ve got thirty three, including the City Corporation and so one’s actually looking at sort quite small areas where the sort of planning is determined in isolation, would it be better to have sort of four or five larger areas and have a more sort of holistic plan?

Tony Travers

I mean London’s layout is very unusual, I mean determined in this way of course because the city of London kept its boundaries and sort of parishes which were then amalgamated into groups and then created into local authorities and then combined in today’s local authorities.  I mean that’s how it all happened.  The truth is though, many of the London boroughs are quite large by the standards of other cities elsewhere in the world and even in Britain so if you look at Barnet, nearly four hundred thousand, Croydon nearly four hundred thousand, these are bigger than many cities outside London and I think the problem with creating you know boroughs, grouping them into even bigger groups, you know soon they become the size of Birmingham and there’ve been discussions in Birmingham about whether Birmingham is too big so, and the other thing is, as I’ve said this many times before, I’m always slightly wary about reorganisations which look like displacement activity as there may be a problem, the idea that reorganisations are the answer to it is often not the case, the NHS is endlessly reorganised, bless, and you know I’m not sure the reorganisation is the solution to the problem.  So, I’m wary of reorganisations but that’s not to say we shouldn’t have a debate about it but actually particularly in inner and central London and also at the edges where London is growing into the outer areas, that is you know these are things to be reasonably be debated. 

Susan Freeman

And how are the local authorities going to manage against the backdrop of inflation and the energy crisis because they were struggling with under funding before?  They’ve also got you know to focus on decarbonisation and climate change, I mean how are they going to be able to provide the services that we all expect from them?

Tony Travers

They are finding it incredibly difficult.  Most London boroughs are spending 20%, perhaps more, less in real terms, today on their services on their own budgets than they were in 2010 and if you look at the services they’ve had to prioritise, social care for children and for older people, the amount of money then left for everything else, which includes street cleaning, street lighting, all the things we see just outside the homes and offices that we live and work in, that spending on those, neighbourhood services dropped by a 40, 50%, I mean that’s unsustainable, which is why streets often look so stressed, it’s a big issue I personally think here facing central London, London more generally into the future, if you have millions of people living together then the stress that’s put on the streets is greater than if you’re living in a village, obviously and I think that trying to keep the streets clean and decent looking and safe indeed, safety is important, after twelve years of so-called austerity, it’s very difficult and I think that this is a case that needs to be made far more convincingly by policy makers and the private sector because actually I think many parts of London, the streetscape is pretty stressed and it’s easy to take it for granted, the stress I mean. 

Susan Freeman

So, I said we’d come back to business improvement districts and I know originally when we set up the bid pilot schemes the services provided by the bids were meant additional to the services that the local authorities provided but if the local authorities are underfunded, are the business improvement districts going to have to really step in with things we mentioned for the state of some of the London streets but are we going to be relying more heavily on bids to provide additional refuse collection and you know so that we don’t have piles of rubbish in the streets?

Tony Travers

I think we already are, there’s no question.  I mean it’s interesting, when I was involved doing work in New York on bids in the late, mid to late 1990’s, it was absolutely axiomatic that anything the bids did would be in addition to what the public authorities did, so if it was street cleaning or new paving stones or better lighting, it would be in addition to what the municipality the city council, the city would do anyway.  Well, that you know that’s for the birds now, I mean and particularly in town centres and central London, not only in London, but unless the bids do some of these things, the level of service the boroughs can reasonably afford is now because of these reductions in their funding which national government has determined I might add, councils can’t just put up the council tax without holding a referendum anymore.  You know without bids, the quality of our streets and the streetscape that we all share would be even, would be worse so, bids have become an essential element, they raise more money from the bid levy, spend it locally, target resources on particular examples of failure and there are quite a lot of them, not the local authorities’ fault in many cases, and I think what the bids can do is give eyes and ears and tend to the place, which is particularly important in a time where people work from home more because the bid tends to have people on the ground 24/7 and that’s very, very important. 

Susan Freeman

Okay, you and I of course are both involved in the Property Group for the Central District Alliance and you know one can see that in addition supplementing services that we used to expect to be provided by the local authority, they are now looking at the sort of community events if you like to liven up the streets you know organising sort of exhibitions and music to actually bring people back into the centre of London so, you know perhaps you know that’s another important role for the bids. 

Tony Travers

Yeah, I mean if you look at, you’re right I mean the New West End Company has for years provided brilliant street, I mean there were lights in Oxford Street and Regent Street before but I think you know in recent years they have been very good, very inventive and bids like North Bank have put Christmas lights in along The Strand, made that jollier and Central District Alliance as you say is now putting them in in Holborn and Farringdon, you know because there’s more to lights than Christmas lights but I think most people would think that for the modest cost of the Christmas lights, the way in which they give happiness to people who like looking at them at Christmas and all the other services that they can provide, you know events like closing streets to put in farmers markets at other times of the year or events in the West End and we’ll have to see more of this, I think the bids will be very, very important in helping central London and other town centres in London where they exist, to not only survive but actually to build back. 

Susan Freeman

I hope so and it also validates that wonderful trip to New York twenty-three years ago.  So, Tony, we’re running out of time.  Just a final question, I mean what are your, I suppose hopes for London and what are your sort of greatest fears for London over the next, the next few years?

Tony Travers

I suppose my, let’s do the fears first, let’s end on a high note.  My fears are that the UK, that the government of the UK and again I’m not making a party political remark here, this applies to the government and opposition in equal measure, remains distracted from the capacity to get a grip of the economy, public services and actually to restore I mean I think one of the things that I have, this is going to sound a bit political, been slightly saddened by in the last few years, is the slight sense that the UK has been willing to do things like challenge international law, which I think absolutely goes against Britain’s long-term reputation as a place safe for your money, safe to do business, safe to invest, and you know a good place to live and I think we need to, you know whoever, whichever party is in government needs to bear all of that in mind, the UK has natural advantages, other countries in Europe, other countries in the world do but we do have natural advantages and so my slight fear is that those benefits are neglected to the long-term, with a long-term threat there to the success of the British economy and public services.  More optimistically, and I’ve sort of hinted at this before, for the UK and for London is that you know both the country and the city, the city and the country, are pretty resilient, you know they have their ups and their downs, there are bad times and there are good ones but here we are hundreds of years after some of the bleak things I listed earlier, the plagues and the fires and the Blitz and you know London is still in a reasonably good condition, it is recovering after Covid and with better public policy, you know we could be on a sunlit uplands road rather than the opposite in years ahead but it does require government, the private sector and the third sector to share common goals and have policies that deliver that. 

Susan Freeman

Well let’s hope for the sunlit uplands Tony, so thank you.

Tony Travers

Not too sunlit given… because sunlit is perhaps the wrong word to use at the moment, by the time some people listen to this perhaps it will be raining again. 

Susan Freeman

Yes, it’s just hitting 30 degrees.  So Tony thank you, thank you so much for your time.

Tony Travers

Thank you, Susan.

Susan Freeman

That’s been brilliant.  Thank you.

Tony Travers

Okay.  Lovely to see you.  See you soon.  Autumn is nearly upon us.  By all. 

Susan Freeman

Thank you so much Tony Travers for some really fascinating insights into the government of London and what the future may offer for the city we are lucky to call home.  So, that’s it for now.  I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation.  Please join us for the next PropertyShe podcast interview coming very soon. 

The Propertyshe podcast is brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum and can be found at Mishcon.com/PropertyShe along with all our interviews and programme notes.  The podcasts are also available to subscribe to on your Apple podcast app and on Spotify and whatever podcast app you use.  Do continue to subscribe and let us have your feedback and comments and, most importantly, suggestions for future guests and of course you can continue to follow me on Twitter @Propertyshe and on LinkedIn for a very regular commentary on all things real estate, Prop Tech and the built environment.

Tony Travers is a director of LSE London, a research centre at the London School of Economics.  He is also a professor in the LSE’s Government Department and Associate Dean at the LSE’s School of Public Policy. His key research interests include public finance, local/regional government and London’s politics/government. 

In 2012-13 (for Boris Johnson) and again in 2016-17 (for Sadiq Khan), he chaired the London Finance Commission and was a member of the City Growth Commission. He co-chaired the King’s Commission on London in 2017-18.  He is an advisor to the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee and has previously advised committees in the Commons and the House of Lords. 

He is a research board member of the Centre for Cities and a board member of New Local, an independent think-tank.

He is an Honorary Member of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy and of the Institute of Revenues, Rating and Valuation.

Tony has published a number of books on cities and government, including Failure in British Government The Politics of the Poll Tax (with David Butler and Andrew Adonis); Paying for Health, Education and Housing   How does the Centre Pull the Purse Strings (with Howard Glennerster and John Hills); The Politics of London: Governing the Ungovernable City; London’s Boroughs at 50 and London’s Mayor at 20 (with Jack Brown and Richard Brown).

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