Response to ‘All that Glisters…’

London is the greatest city on earth, but it is in need of urgent work to make it fairer, argues Tessa Jowell in response to David Goodhart.

Rome is the eternal city; Paris, the city of lights; New York, is the city that never sleeps. But London is simply London.

The home of Brick Lane and Abbey Road; Borough Market and Camden Town; the Lord Mayor’s Show and the Notting Hill Carnival. Undeniable, indefinable, irrepressible. London is the world in one.

Blake, Bowie and Betjeman; Ronnie Scott’s and the Rolling Stones; London is a city of poets and poetry, from the Greenwich Meridian to a Waterloo Sunset. And that poetry matters – of course it matters. London is more than a place to live and work. It is a vibrant, vivid city, a place of perfect moments and brilliant lives; the Olympic Games and Geoffrey Chaucer.

For the ambitious, London is the home of opportunity. Where businesses and artists go to grow; and graduates and entrepreneurs gravitate to succeed.

And London drives the UK as it leads the world. Our city, under 13 per cent of the UK population, provides a fifth of the UK’s economic output. We generate a net contribution of £10bn to the exchequer. That’s not a black hole for the UK but an energy source.

With greater transport links led by the construction of HS2, London’s relationship with the rest of the country will become increasingly vital for our shared prosperity. Manchester and Birmingham do not need London to fail so that they succeed, they need London to thrive so they can share in that success.

But London is at risk. We are in danger of becoming a city of the rich and the rest; living together but growing apart.

So yes – London has its problems, on that David Goodhart and I agree. The shimmering London of our collective dreams means nothing if you are twenty-two and poor, unable to find a decent job or a decent home. A toxic combination of complacent governance, booming population and rising inequality, means London is indeed facing crisis – but only if we fail to act. Where David and I diverge is over what comes next.

I am an optimist, and I’m optimistic for London. The next ten years can shape this city for a generation, and whilst the challenges are severe, the solutions are at hand. By 2030 London is set to be a city of 10 million – that’s not a bad thing, but a mark of our city. The challenge isn’t to halt the growth of our city but to harness it.

London is the global melting pot where 300 languages accompany countless cultures and cuisines, each a unique way of thinking and living, and each a vital yet intangible part of the magic of our city. After all, London has welcomed immigrants as long as London has existed. And I don’t recognise this idea of ‘sundown segregation’. Instead I see a liberal, confident city where we are relaxed about our neighbours’ ways of life.

It is no coincidence that UKIP has failed to break through within London’s city limits. Preachers of intolerance and fear find little purchase in mixed communities that know their scaremongering to be false. We are a global city, open to the world, where a Londoner can come here from any part of the world but when they settle in this great city they become Londoners – and we are all the better for it.

I remember a lady from Trinidad I met when I started my first job as a childcare officer in Brixton. She was trying to reconcile a dark January day with what she had been told before she came to London – which was that the bridges over the Thames were made of pearl. She has given decades of service to our NHS in London like the tens of thousands of migrants who keep our public services going. She has given more to London than London has given to her.

Of course new arrivals mean extra pressure on infrastructure. Our transport network, and systems of social support are under pressure today and utterly unfit for an extra 2 million people over the next 15 years. So with new arrivals we need new answers.

We must reinvent childcare so that it works for young families and matches London’s 24-hour economy, and find ways to cut costs and improve services through innovative planning and pooling resources. We have to link social care and health care, and give older people the opportunity to be cared for at home in the way they want, and we need to make sure we find long-term solutions to our housing crisis by finally starting to build the homes we need.

None of this is easy, but the next decade needn’t be the one in which our city falls apart. I see the next decade for London as a decade where we stitch our city back together. Where we build one London not two.

London will succeed when we all succeed; a stronger, fairer, more affordable city for us all. At the heart of that idea is good growth. London must be an attractive place for business to invest and grow, but success should be shared. I want to see more businesses play a part in their communities to create a resilient and sustainable city. Businesses as good citizens, respectful of their neighbours and investing in our young people.

Today, one in four young Londoners are out of work, yet we offer fewer apprenticeships than anywhere else in the UK. So the next decade must see more young Londoners going on to apprenticeships, in the same numbers that they go to university, and we have to link up those placements with burgeoning sectors like construction and digital. Yes, London can do better – and over the next decade I’m confident London will do better.

But even a new job means nothing without a place to live. Even if the present mayor hit his own target for new homes it wouldn’t be enough – but he’s already missed it by 50 per cent. We’re building more luxury properties than ever but fewer than half the homes we need. The result is a housing crisis that will continue to get worse and worse for Londoners until we turbo-charge the number of new homes built, new communities created.

Countless Londoners are stuck in temporary accommodation or on social housing waiting lists, whilst the same time the global super rich buy London homes like they are gold bars, as assets to appreciate, rather than homes in which to live. An insult to the hundreds of thousands of Londoners who long for a home to call their own.

In a city enduring a housing crisis those empty homes could house 55,000. Those vacant properties are an emblem of how London needs to change to succeed. But there is a simple ‘one London’ solution. A solution that asks everyone who wants to own a home in London to play their part in the city. Absentee owners should live in the house they own or sell up – or face uncapped charges until they do. No dodges or clever schemes to get round that.

There are many more ways London needs to change. And the first step towards making that change runs through May’s general election. It’s more of the same failing policies with the Conservatives or a Labour government offering real change. With a Labour Government we will have a stronger city with more powers and a greater say for Londoners, a fairer city of opportunity for all and real support for our young people, and a more affordable city, building the homes and helping to provide the childcare young families need to work. So this is a year of real opportunity for London.

I’m not here to tell you London is perfect, or that our city doesn’t have its frustrations or its problems. My message is this; London is the greatest city on earth and it can go on being so, but it is in need of urgent attention to make it stronger, fairer, more affordable.

So let the next decade be the era we bring our city back from the brink. Where we build one London not two.