Great Britain

London’s pain could become the north’s gain, but Johnson isn’t up to the job | Simon Jenkins

Modern British government is a lurch from catchphrase to cliche. Policy is rarely in sight. Following the Tories’ remarkable success in the local elections, Boris Johnson will today announce a new campaign to “stop the brain drain” from northern cities. Bitten by Covid’s big spending bug, he will tip cash into infrastructure to get people to “live local and prosper”.

Two consequences follow, both significant. Few have noticed, but London, after decades spent sucking the north dry of 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 put on hold until the result of the London mayoral elections. Now the votes are in, if Johnson refuses the necessary further funding, this would mean soaring fares and slashed services, humiliating his Labour successor as mayor, Sadiq Khan.

At the same time, London’s flatulent property market faces a crash if and when Johnson’s extravagant buyers’ subsidies and stamp duty breaks end. His mayoral obsession with office towers and foreign-owned luxury flats, prodded by his property consultant aide, Eddie Lister, has left London littered with empty skyscrapers. Huge numbers of office workers will simply vanish to home working. Coupled with Brexit’s hit to tourism, this promises a capital of vacant hotels, deserted high streets and plummeting tax revenues. It is easy to say that London had it coming. But the government may soon need a policy for “levelling up” London too, which contains some of the poorest people in Britain.

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

It is a massive undertaking to make northern cities as enriching as London has seemed. It is not a finger-snapping exercise. Nor is it about this week’s proposed pro-developer splurge of state-subsidised private homes in open fields. The region is well supplied with property, and people in the north may not share Johnson’s philistine distaste for their countryside. The surefire consequence of his policy is simply endless sprawl over the south-east of England.

Besides, it is the vitality of inner cities that matters. As Hebden Bridge or Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter and Manchester’s Northern Quarter demonstrate, magnetism is about old buildings, culture and youth appeal. It is not about an executive estate in every dale, but a Shoreditch on every canal. I doubt if a single Tory minister knows what that means.

The age of home working and home shopping now requires a deep reappraisal of the city of the future. Dispersal from London may be in the national interest. Johnson’s mere dispersal of housing across the English landscape is not. It means more cars, more roads, more infrastructure and more fragmented, less diverse communities. It will not deliver the excitement and vigour that has made London so popular. At the very least, the essential re-urbanisation of the north needs thought, not political gimmicks.

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