Wednesday, 27 December 2017


I’m starting to wonder whether there is a remainer case to be made for a ‘hard Brexit’, for severing trade ties completely with the EU, rather than seeking to maintain regulatory alignment, or some type of associate membership of the single market and customs union.

Many remain voters – me included – still hope that the referendum result can be undone, by parliamentary process or referendum, so that the UK can stay in the European Union. As a fall back position, we tend to advocate a ‘soft Brexit’. But, without quacking about “vassal” status, it is worth questioning the value of this option. It would be like a slightly inferior version of what we have today, with no say in the rules governing trade and the development of the single market.

This means that those rules would over time work more and more against UK interests and in favour of those of the EU27 (for example, stipulating that financial institutions must be located within the Eurozone, or slapping ever higher tariffs on the medicines and engine parts that we export). This will not happen in every case, and when it does it will not be the result of malice but of simple self-interest – and the absence of a UK voice at the negotiating table. And every time it happens, the Brexit geek chorus will start up, rattling its chains, bemoaning that we are being penalised by evil and unaccountable bureaucrats, and making Faragist demands for “true Brexit”.

So, why not let the Johnsons, Foxes and Hannans have their hard Brexit, setting sail on the high seas of global commerce to seek our fortune? I personally think that this will be disastrous for the UK – culturally, economically and environmentally. But what do I know? It may be that hard Brexit will lead to a great renaissance of the UK as a prosperous, open and respected nation, and I hope I would have the good grace to be delighted as well as surprised if that was the result.

Alternatively, hard Brexit might lead to a short, sharp and shocking decline, rather than the gradual ebb of a soft Brexit. This might be succeeded by a Phoenix-like recovery, or the shock might precipitate a collective volte-face and desire to rejoin the EU.  The terms might not be perfect, but I think the continent would welcome its prodigal home.

And that’s where the irony lies. Given the simmering resentment on both sides likely to result from soft Brexit, its main appeal lies in the ease with which we would be able to rejoin the EU, but perhaps makes that outcome less likely.  A cleaner break would give us a clearer view of what we had left behind, but make it that much harder to rejoin. I don’t want to underplay the damage that might be done by a hard Brexit, but worry that the rule-taking halfway house of soft Brexit may just lead to a slower and more rancorous slide to a similar end-state.

All that said, however, "nobody knows anything" as screenwriter William Goldman wrote about the inability of studios to predict confidently which films will succeed and which will bomb at the box office. As we begin another year of bad-tempered Brexit wrangling, it’s a maxim worth bearing in mind.

Found in the suburbs

[Originally published online by the Guardian, 6 December 2017]

The London plan, the latest draft of which was published at the end of November, is the great ocean-going liner of London mayoral politics. It carries as its cargo all the mayor’s most important policies, as it sails from draft to adoption, navigating the choppy waters of public consultation and examination-in-public on its way.

As soon as the plan’s two to three-year journey is completed, it turns round to begin afresh the process of review and redrafting. It is the keystone of mayoral strategies, and one of the most powerful tools the mayor of London has to define the shape of London. It regulates the use of land – a scarce asset in a growing but constrained city – and over time all 33 London boroughs should ensure that their plans and planning decisions fall in line with its policies on what should be built where.

This concentration of mayoral powers in planning means many policies take on a spatial complexion: while the mayor cannot tax or ban unhealthy fast food shops, he can propose that they are located away from schools. He cannot license nightclubs, but he can require developers to meet the cost of soundproofing if they build alongside nightclubs. He does not manage financial services, but he can preserve land for offices in the Square Mile and Canary Wharf.

If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail; and if you are a planning document, everything looks like a land use issue.

At the heart of the latest London plan is its focus on annual new housing supply, raised from its previous target of 42,000 to 66,000, with half being affordable. It’s an ambitious target, considering that the present supply of new homes, 29,000, is less than half the new target – but the mayor argues that the capital’s crisis over a lack of affordable homes requires a big step up. Few would disagree with that.

Some of the proposed homes may be built outside London – the plan commits to working more closely with neighbouring councils, a scheme that will be considered in a forthcoming report by Centre for London and the Southern Policy Centre – but the priority will be building homes within the capital.

Alongside investment in affordable homes, which Khan says needs to be increased to £2.7bn, and land at the Olympic Park and Old Oak Common, the mayor must rely on his planning powers to achieve his target. In some cases, he will be able to intervene himself in planning decisions, but can only do so where certain conditions are met, such as schemes with more than 150 housing units or buildings over 30 metres tall.

In most cases, he will have to rely on the policies and planning decisions made by individual London boroughs and some outer London boroughs, who are being asked to double or even treble their speed of housebuilding – and who may be reluctant to do so, given the concerns of local voters.

So the plan seeks to make it easier for boroughs to grant planning permission and harder to refuse it. High density in itself, for example, can no longer be a reason to turn a scheme down – although there is sensible provision for careful scrutiny of the design of the highest density schemes.

There is also a sharper focus on smaller sites, which are expected to account for 25,000 of the 66,000 new homes a year. The plan says smaller sites should be prioritised by boroughs, with design codes drawn up to identify opportunities for new development, particularly around transport hubs, and a presumption in favour of giving planning permission.

But all this relies on developers wanting to build. For 20 years, London’s housing market has boomed, so the challenge has been how much the mayor and boroughs can secure from developers in terms of social housing and other community benefits; where permission has been refused, developers have often come back with a better offer.
At the launch of the draft plan, London’s deputy mayor, Jules Pipe, was adamant that it would not stifle development or undermine viability of schemes. But planning as a tool works better at directing development than initiating it. There is already a growing backlog of planning consents that have been given, but where houses have not been built, and without a dramatic increase in funding, the mayor has only limited powers to get homes built.

The draft plan does want to find incentives for homes to be built faster, and a switch to more rental developments and smaller sites should help, but at a time when London’s housing market is cooling, planning permission will only be half the battle.
  • This article was corrected on 12 December to clarify the mayor’s target of £2.7bn to invest in affordable homes.

London Sounds

[Originally published in OnLondon, 13 November 2017]

Richard Brown is research director at think tank Centre for London and before that he worked for Mayor Ken Livingstone and on the transformation of the Olympic Park. So he knows this city. He also knows a few of its tunes.

Why don’t we sing about our city? Writing here recently, Westminster North MP Karen Buck observed how few songs celebrate London, when so many reference postcodes, districts or neighbourhoods, from Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street to Wiley’s Bow E3.

Given London’s uneasy relationship with the rest of the UK, the capital may simply be reticent, loath to sing its own praises. Like a tall person at a party, London stoops to blend in. Also, as discussed at a recent Centre for London seminar, London identity is a slippery concept; many Londoners identify far more closely with their neighbourhood than with the unexplored miles and unknowable millions of the metropolis.

Newcomers are less coy about celebrating the city, still conceiving it as a singularity, rather than as the patchwork of places that residents navigate, and it is striking how many “London” songs are written by new arrivals or even in anticipation of arrival. One of the earliest, Lord Kitchener’s London is the Place for Me, was written before he arrived in Tilbury on the SS Empire Windrush as it brought the first wave of West Indian migrants to London in 1948.

The Smiths’ London is about the journey south from Manchester, and the Pet Shop Boys’ song of the same name depicts the Eastern European migrant experience. The Pogues’ early hymns to London, including the bleary Dark Streets of London and the boisterously offensive Transmetropolitan, were written from an adopted stance of London Irish rootlessness. Even two of the best-known London songs – The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset and Ralph McTell’s Streets of London – were originally composed for other cities, Liverpool and Paris respectively.

But many more songs are unambiguously about London, while never naming the city. Karen Buck picks out her erstwhile constituents The Clash, whose songs are an A-Z of punk reference points, but Woking imports The Jam were also prolific in the key of London: In The City and Strange Town celebrate the giddy excitement and the nervous alienation of coming up from the suburbs, while Down in The Tube Station at Midnight and That’s Entertainment take a more jaundiced view of late 1970s London, and its “smell of pubs, and Wormwood Scrubs, and too many right wing meetings”.

When I arrived in London in the 1990s, punk was long gone, except for postcards of theme-park mohicans on King’s Road. Alongside St Etienne’s electric ballads and Pulp’s class satires, Underworld’s early albums are powerfully evocative of London at that time. In Dirty Epic, sounding like a blissed-out Iain Sinclair, Karl Hyde invokes “the sainted rhythms of the midnight train to Romford”, capturing the queasy hedonism of London clubbing as acutely as Soft Cell’s Bedsitter or the Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls did in the 1980s.

The capital looms, even when unmentioned, over all the later phases of Britpop, when Oasis, Pulp and Blur abandoned their regional roots to celebrate the capital’s offer of sex, drugs and existential angst, and – as 2000s war clouds gather – is a powerful presence in Damon Albarn’s subsequent work with The Good The Bad and The Queen. Songs like The Libertines’ Time for Heroes, and Plan B’s Ill Manors chart London’s history as a centre for protest and of rage. They don’t mention the city by name, but they don’t need to. Where London is mentioned, in Lily Allen’s LDN or Elvis Costello’s London’s Brilliant Parade, it is sardonically or even bitterly.

Even among these anonymous appearances, as the backdrop for stories of love and hate, success and failure, positive portrayals of London seem sparse, as Karen Buck argues. We don’t rhapsodise the city; even Noel Coward’s elegant wartime London Pride is a casual and minor key ode to a “grey city, stubbornly implanted, taken so for granted for a thousand years”. But perhaps that’s right: London’s glitter, so keenly serenaded by new arrivals, soon loses its lustre. It is replaced by a deeper, more clear-eyed but less articulate attachment, even a quiet sense of tainted civic pride, which infects and informs whole genres of music.

You can follow Richard Brown on Twitter and read more of his work on London via here.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The hills are alive

I went to see God’s Own Country last weekend, and found it a rare treat.  It wasn’t just the same-sex love story at the film’s heart – though god knows it’s a relief to see a film where gay characters get to do more than nobly triumph over homophobia – but also the bleak but ultimately uplifting portrayal of family and subsistence farming in the hills of West Yorkshire.

Alongside the slow-burn relationship between taciturn farmer Johnny and Romanian hired hand Gheorghe, the film charts the physical decline of Johnny’s father’s, debilitated by two strokes, and shows the unsentimental despatching of sick animals. But the stolid landscape of mud, rock and moorland, the backdrop to these scenes of decay and death, endures in the watery spring daylight.  It’s beautiful, Georghe says to Johnny as they tackle the sisyphean task of repairing a dry stone wall, but lonely too.

A few years ago, recovering from illness but still fearful, I went walking in the Chilterns, the hills of my childhood.  Up above Princes Risborough, I felt a curious elation. These hills, these chalk markings, these beech trees that were here when I visited as a child, they would still be here after my death.  They were completely indifferent to my existence. But their indifference was not daunting, like the vastness of the universe, but comforting, of human scale, an assurance of a future beyond my life.

I felt something like that watching the film. The West Yorkshire hills would still be there when all the characters had gone, as would the dry stone walls and farm buildings. The landscape is indifferent, but not unaffected; the human touch is everywhere – either visibly in built structures or implicitly in patterns of cultivation. And perhaps it is in these landscapes, in the dry stone walls and the cairns assembled by walkers on hill paths, that we non-architects gain some measure of longevity, of immortality even, some sense of Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph ‘si monumentum requiris, circumpsice’ – if you are seeking a memorial, look around you.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Transport of no delight

When does 'disruption' tip over into irresponsibility? That was one of the fundamental tensions underpinning the tech manifesto published by Centre for London, with Tech London Advocates and London First, in February 2016. The row over Uber's licence suspension in London shows that we are still some way from an answer.

The Tech Manifesto argued for an approach that balanced "open innovation, with consideration of citizens' needs", and identified "the disruption to the private hire markets caused by the introduction of Uber in London [as] a prime example of regulators failing to keep pace with the scale and speed of a particular innovation".

On Friday, it felt like regulators finally caught up, when Transport for London announced that Uber's licence to operate in London would be revoked from the end of September. But the racing metaphor quickly implodes: the events of the last few days look like an object lesson in how not to do digital regulation. Transport for London's decision to pull Uber's licence appears to have come out of the blue, with little opportunity for Uber to address the concerns about driver and passenger safety that have been raised.  At the same time, Uber, so rich in political networks, has responded with petitions and media campaigns about its 40,000 workers and millions of customers, blowing squid ink rather than trying to engage with the concerns about its systems and policies.

It may be that TfL has announced the 'surprise' revocation to force the pace with a company that would otherwise happily deploy lobbyists and lawyers to haggle for months over sanctions and compliance, and it may also be that Uber is sincere in the sentiment expressed by its CEO in a tweet on Saturday, asking London to "work with us to make things right".

But this clash - more interesting because it is more textured than other cities' decision to ban Uber outright - does not inspire much faith in the future for intelligent discussions about regulating the digital economy. We cannot preserve business as usual for every element of city services, but we shouldn't give 'disruption' a free pass an unalloyed benefit to urban life - individually or in aggregate - either.

Thursday, 1 June 2017


[Originally published in Telegraph, 31 May 2017]

Almost a year after the EU Referendum, two sets of figures released by the Office for National Statistics seem to reinforce the idea of London as a place apart from the rest of the UK. Dig a little deeper, however, and it is convergence and mutual dependence that come to the fore.

The data on regional fiscal balances drew a sharp contrasts between London and the South East, and the rest of the UK, with the former paying nearly £250 billion on taxes, and receiving services costing almost £50 billion less in 2015/16, while the balance was reversed elsewhere.  This translates to a per capita ‘subsidy’ of £3,000 in the year from London to the rest of the UK.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. The capital’s economy and its population have been growing as fast as ever since the financial crisis, fuelled by cheap money, openness to talent and growing trade in services. This economic growth means that London accounts for disproportionate levels of corporation tax, higher wages are reflected in higher income tax and national insurance payments, and soaring property prices are reflected in stamp duty receipts – half of which are derived in London.

In terms of expenditure, London costs more per head in terms of economic development, transport and technology costs, but significantly less in terms of social protection (ie, benefits). The balance between welfare costs and economic infrastructure costs is interesting, though there’s a limit to what you can conclude from a one-year snapshot of figures.

But, however successful London looks in terms of tax revenues, for many Londoners, the city’s gravity-defying boom feels like something that is happening to someone else.  The second set of figures, on gross disposable household income, seems at first to confirm the sense of London excpetionalism.  The figures, for 2015, show the average gross income of Londoners to be more than £30,000, almost twice as much as in the North East.  Taxes and benefits bring the numbers closer together: the London average is £25,000 and the North East average is £16,000. 

The gap is still significant.  But, as any Londoner or tourist will tell you, it’s amazing how fast the money goes. Throw housing costs into the mix – neither mortgage capital repayments nor rent are included in the figures – and the gap closes further.  Deducting the average 2015 rent for a one-bed flat in each region, you are left with residual income of £12,000 in London, and £11,000 in the North East. And that £1,000 ‘London premium’ will quickly be eaten by the higher costs of transport, childcare and beer in the capital. 

Life is tough for many people in London – and it’s been getting tougher as income grew more slowly between 2014 and 2015 than in other regions, even before spiralling rental costs were taken into account. Also, of course, there is no such person as an average Londoner, and the differences within the city are as stark as those between London and other regions.  Income per head (after taxes and benefits but before housing costs) in Kensington and Chelsea has nearly £60,000 per head, while the average resident of Barking and Dagenham has £16,500.

So these figures don’t show that Londoners are a bunch of effete metropolitans rolling in lucre, or that other UK regions are free-riding on the capital’s coat tails. But they do show, in line with Centre for London reports, the leading role played by housing costs in the persistent poverty that many Londoners face, and the importance to the whole UK of sustaining the openness to talent and trade that supports London’s growth. 

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Rule of 7

Does the sheer number of anniversaries being reported this year signify anything aside from the ever-declining staffing levels of newspapers? Looking back at 2007, 1997 and the before, there does seem to be a clustering of pivotal political and cultural events at the 7-years, though perhaps you could play the same parlour game with any other series.  So, here is my brief, partial and unashamedly teleological history of modern Britain in seven sevens. I haven’t bothered with links but Wikipedia is a major source.

In January 1957,  Harold Macmillan took over from Anthony Eden as Prime Minister. This was an aftershock of the disastrous atavistic adventurism of Suez in late 1956 – the moment when Britain could truly be said to have lost an empire but not yet found a role in the post-war world.  Macmillan, odd as it may seem 70 years later, was then a new breed of politician, avowedly modernist, relatively youthful, TV-friendly, telling the nation, "You've never had it so good!" As decolonisation accelerated, you could see the first cracks in the post-war edifice: the Wolfenden Report recommended partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, and in Liverpool a jazz club called The Cavern opened.

By 1967, Cavern veterans The Beatles were bigger than Jesus (as John Lennon had put it the previous year). Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was a high watermark of the blend of experimentalism and faux-nostalgic whimsy that characterised English hippiedom (semi-ironic mourning for the lost certainties of the Edwardian era), while the arrest of the Rolling Stones after drugs raids became the subject of editorials in The Times. As Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins legalised homosexuality and abortion – two landmark acts of liberalism.  General de Gaulle blocked Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s bid to join the European Economic Community (though the unveiling of Concorde offered happier images of Anglo-French fraternity).

1977, the first of these years I can remember, looks unremittingly grim by contrast with the swinging sunshine of ten years earlier: industrial disputes, inflation, IRA bombs in London, pitched battles with the National Front in the streets. The corporatist consensus of the post-war years was fracturing. The Yorkshire Ripper was at large and the Jeremy Thorpe (elected as leader of the Liberal Party ten years earlier) was accused of conspiracy to murder his lover. Depending on your tastes, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, debut albums by the Sex Pistols and the Clash, and the UK release of Star Wars were the only glimmers of light.

Harold Macmillan, the telegenic moderniser of 1957, was buried in January 1987, the year that Margaret Thatcher enjoyed her third election victory. With leftist bastions like the GLC and metropolitan councils abolished, the election heralded her imperial phase - ever more ambitious privatisation, and the dogmatic overreach of the poll tax. Stock markets, liberated by the previous year’s ‘big bang’ deregulation began to boom (with the temporary set-back of a ‘Black Monday’ crash in October), and the Lawson boom of the late eighties was underway.

Ten years later, in May 1997, Tony Blair arrived triumphant in Downing Street, his election putting a full stop to the limp coda of John Major’s government, and completing the transformation of the Labour Party that Neil Kinnock had struggled to achieve in the previous two elections. With Oasis’ leery revivalism still seeming fresh in the charts, Britain seems to be shrugging off the last bonds of imperial history: the UK relinquished Hong Kong, its last significant colony, and the IRA declared a ceasefire.

By 2007, the Iraq War had taken the shine of Tony Blair’s government, despite two further election victories.  The PM stood down in May, with Gordon Brown taking over for the remainder of the Parliament.  The financial exuberance of the previous two decades stuttered in September when Northern Rock sought emergency liquidity support from the Bank of England – the first shoe-drop of the financial crisis….

Sunday, 21 May 2017

You don't need a weatherman

At the end of 'manifesto week', it does seem as if a lacklustre election campaign has been overlaid on a significant shift in the centre of gravity of British political discourse. As John Prescott put it, what seems like an age ago, "the plates are shifting".

There's been a lot of debate, mainly from the originator of the term, about whether Theresa May is a 'Red Tory'. In an interview in today's Observer, Damian Green suggests something rather different. His old friend is not a great political theorist, he says, but a meteorologist, who can sense changes in the climate of public opinion and react to the modern world.

Many would argue that a leftward shift in public opinion is long overdue; the wonder is that it didn't happen earlier, given the crisis of financialised capitalism ten years ago, and the growing perception of inequality since then. We're through with shock, denial and anger, and are now ready for a new deal, which promises to tame and temper capitalism for the public good. Ten years may seem like a long time, but almost as many years passed between the crises of the late 1970s, and the emergence of purple period Thatcherism after the 1987 election.

And, of course, the shift in rhetoric and discourse may not signal an actual change in behaviour. Just as New Labour shrouded redistributive policies in veils of prudence, the Conservative government that most people expect to see elected in June may enact traditional Tory policies while paying lip service to kinder capitalism.

But the opinion polls published today give pause for thought. Labour still has a mountain to climb, but has narrowed the Conservatives lead from around 20 points to 13 or less. Labour has made much of the Conservative reforms of social care (a small shimmy in the right direction, imo), and perhaps this 'nasty party' framing is hitting home.

But I can't help wondering whether, in trying to colonise Labour territory, the Conservative manifesto hasn't scored a more significant own goal. In signalling a leftward shift, has the manifesto given voters permission to think what was once unthinkable, that free markets are not always the best guarantor of prosperity? And if you start thinking that way, you might even think a bit further: if you're going to clamp down on executive pay, why not think about setting ratios? If caps on fuel bills, then why not renationalisation? Just as Labour suffered, until John Major's goverment ran out of steam, from looking like a pale shadow of conservatism, why would people vote for a half-arsed version of the interventionist social democracy offered by Labour?