Things never quite pan out the way one wants them to, do they? But plan we must and then muddle on regardless.
Such is the lesson from this week’s grand reopening of London. ‘The great return’ is indeed exciting stuff and our team is as elated as everyone else to be joining in the fun. But the reality is that shaking a city of 10 million people out of hibernation entails a lot of planning – and a lot of things are not going according to plan. Ask TfL, or Southern Rail for that matter.
Frustrated plans are also a common theme for local party branches across London, as the progress of candidate selections in advance of the May 2022 elections is, to put it politely, rather patchy. And for Michael Gove, as he struggles to get his ambitious cladding plans off the ground with one hand while putting flesh on the frail skeleton of the levelling up agenda with the other. And then there’s City Hall, which has moved into a still-unfinished new home at the Royal Docks.
But that’s life for you – and that’s London, whose greatest strengths, after all, are its resilience and its flexibility. We hope Transport for London’s (TfL) revamped leadership team will find a way forward. The elections will be held, with the main parties probably deploying a full slate of candidates in most boroughs. Whitehall and City Hall will, eventually, more-or-less sort themselves out (they have to). And we will all move on.
In that spirit, LDN and the LCA team as a whole would like to send our warmest of wishes to one of London’s leading public servants, Barry Quirk, who has announced his intention step down from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in the summer. It will be five years since he first joined RBKC to lead the Council’s response and recovery to the 2017 Grenfell Tower tragedy and subsequently in a full-time capacity as Chief Executive, following more than two decades as Lewisham’s Chief Executive. If Barry’s decision – and his extraordinary 45-year career to date, in local and national government as well as academia – teaches us one thing, it is that change is something to embrace.
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The excitement is palpable as Central London comes back to life, following the end of ‘Plan B’ measures. City Hall as well as the boroughs have welcomed the raising of restrictions. London’s regional and local authorities clearly concur with Central Government that the time is right from a public health perspective – with the Mayor also standing down the ‘major incident’ status in the capital, which was activated on 18 December to support hospitals and other frontline services. A series of major employers in the City and elsewhere are bringing office workers back in droves, with this so-called ‘Great Return’ seeing public transport passenger levels rising significantly even in the first week since working from home guidance was raised. London’s newspapers, from the Evening Standard to City AM, are publishing a seemingly endless stream of eulogies to the city's ‘joy and bustle’ returning and its economy ‘bouncing back’. Indeed, there are signs that old habits are fast returning across sectors and that actually, many parts of the service economy didn’t do all that badly over December.
Of course, we’re still not 100% out of the woods and there’s much work to be done. London Councils have issued a stark reminder that the boroughs' finances are still reeling from the pandemic’s impact. The Mayor has meanwhile insisted that masks remain a term of carriage on TfL services as a precaution. Sadiq Khan has, separately, also highlighted a GLA Economics forecast, which suggests that ‘tourism in London may not return to pre-pandemic levels until the middle of the decade’. He and others, particularly in the retail and hospitality sectors, also continue to call for targeted support so that businesses that did suffer over the past month can catch their breath before re-joining the race to recovery. And speaking of the rat race, a huge question mark still hangs above the ability of TfL and commuter rail operators to cope with rapidly increasing demand…
TfL TROUBLES (CONT'D)
TfL is certainly busy on multiple fronts, with the current deadline for securing a new funding agreement with Government (4 February) looming yet again. Aside from funding concerns, the organisation is also dealing with ongoing strike action on some Tube lines, a bus accident that injured 19 people, the complex challenges of maintaining ailing infrastructure and an unwelcome security breach at the Crossrail project, which saw a member of the public getting an exclusive trip last week, after somehow evading security at Abbey Wood station and travelling through to Paddington. But it’s not all bad news. TfL has said that the central section of the Elizabeth Line is well on track for opening in the first half of this year, with Canary Wharf station having been transferred to TfL just yesterday and only Bond Street now remaining. Yesterday also saw a group of London journalists and the Mayor of London himself travel through the central section. The transport authority has also managed to suspend a series of planned Metropolitan Line strikes this month following negotiations with RMT. And separately, TfL has launched a merchandising product line with Adidas and Arsenal FC, inspired by the Piccadilly line.
Another piece of big news from TfL – which we touched on briefly last week – is a significant reshuffle of its senior leadership cadre. Transport Commissioner Andy Byford set out several changes to what is now the Executive Team, reducing the size of the organisation’s top-tier from 11 to seven, as well as reshuffling some portfolios. Changes notably include Rachel McLean, currently CFO for Crossrail and Finance Director for London Underground and Engineering, becoming TfL’s interim CFO, succeeding Simon Kilonback from April (his departure had already been announced). Also Vernon Everitt, TfL’s Managing Director for Customers, Communication and Technology, will be leaving the organisation after 14 years but will not be replaced – though current Director of Communications Matt Brown will now attend Executive Team meetings as Byford’s ‘advisor’ and Director of Communications & Corporate Affairs. Gareth Powell (currently Managing Director of Surface Transport) will become the Chief Customer and Strategy Officer and Deputy Commissioner. Stuart Harvey (currently Director of Major Projects) will become Chief Capital Officer. And Andy Lord (currently Managing Director of London Underground) will become TfL's new Chief Operating Officer. Those remaining in their current posts are Mark Wild (Crossrail Chief Executive), Howard Carter (General Counsel), Tricia Wright (Chief People Officer) and Lilli Matson (Chief Safety, Health and Environment Officer).
ELECTIONS, SELECTIONS, PROJECTIONS
As ever, LDN brings you the latest on candidate selections and other elections-related news across London.
- Leader of Haringey Council Cllr Peray Ahmet has written to local party members to say that candidate selections there should start in mid-February, to be completed by mid-March. The letter also states that there will be a ‘manifesto conference’ taking place on 6 February.
- While Camden has previously featured in LDN as another borough whose local Labour party's selections have proceeded in starts and stops, it seems that the the local Conservatives are also still in the process of announcing their candidates.
- In battleground borough Wandsworth, the Council recently announced that rent and certain utility bills for its housing tenants will be frozen for a year. As OnLondon aptly points out, the freeze kicks in just a month before the election and is notably described by the Conservative-led council as "made possible by prudent management of council rents".
- Meanwhile in Tower Hamlets, The Liberal Democrats have announced that their councillor for Shadwell, Rabina Khan, will be their Mayoral candidate in May.
- Elections analyst Lewis Baston has meanwhile offered his own reading of YouGov’s recent London voting intention poll (covered in last week’s LDN) which indicated Labour is approaching the election with a huge lead over the Tories. In a nutshell, he recommends taking its findings with a pinch of salt, for now at least.
- Barry Quirk has announced that he is set to step down as Chief Executive of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
- Sharon Sawers has been appointed as communications director at the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, with Ray Tang as press secretary to Michael Gove. Both previously worked for Gove when he was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
- Richard Meddings CBE has been confirmed as the new Chair of NHS England.
- Cyclist and Olympian Chris Boardman has been appointed head of Active Travel England.
GOVE'S GAMBLE (CONT'D)
Michael Gove’s big play on cladding is almost two weeks old, but seems to have made little progress towards its £4bn prize. The week before last, the Levelling Up Secretary issued an ultimatum to housing developers to come up with that sum, by March, to help pay for the remediation of dangerous cladding on mid-rise buildings. Last Thursday, Gove held his first meeting with a number of major developers and sector representatives, to drum up support for his grand plan. The Secretary of State insisted, when questioned about the meeting in parliament on Monday, that the meeting was ‘cordial and constructive’ and that he is ‘confident’ developers will meet their ‘obligation’. But extensive media coverage indicates that, actually, the industry dug in its heels, with attendees arguing that they cannot be held solely responsible for failures by multiple sectors, including the Government itself. They were, reportedly, especially unimpressed when Gove ‘threatened to block major housing developers from securing planning permission’ if they do not comply with his demands. Their intransigence may explain Gove’s subsequent decision to ‘open a new front’, now threatening manufacturers of combustible cladding and insulation with a ban on trading in the UK, unless they pay by March.
The above is not to say that Gove’s interventions have not had any impact at all. On Monday, both cladding manufacturers’ and (again) major housebuilders’ share prices fell, while analysts at Jefferies have downgraded ratings for some of the largest listed companies. Campaigners, evidently emboldened by Gove’s tough stance, are now lobbying investors such as Norway's state investment fund to divest their holdings in companies implicated in the cladding scandal. The Commons’ Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee has meanwhile launched an inquiry into Gove’s cladding remediation plans. We will be watching, with particular interest, the submissions they receive.
LEVELLING UP LATEST
Cladding is not Gove’s only headache these days, with his Levelling Up brief facing yet more setbacks. In the first instance, it seems that the publication of a long-awaited, keystone White Paper spelling out the detail of Government policy to realise this agenda has again been postponed, to ‘mid-February’, with the press suggesting that ructions with No 10 and the Conservative party are to blame. We speculated last week that repeated delays could also be linked to last-minute efforts by Gove’s department to secure additional funding from Treasury. If that is the case, their pleas are clearly falling on deaf ears: a letter from the Department for Transport to local transport authority directors reportedly indicates that funding for plans to improve bus services nationwide has been slashed from £3bn to just £1.4bn over the next three years. This follows decisions to scale back both the HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail projects. Perhaps just as embarrassingly, the Government has effectively admitted that ‘two-thirds’ of officials working on levelling up policies are still based in London, despite Whitehall repeatedly boasting initiatives to move Civil Service jobs out of the capital. Then again, it is clear that the levelling up agenda (however nebulous and ill-understood it might be) has captured the public imagination. A UK-wide survey by think tank More in Common suggests that no less than three in five Britons agree that it would be ‘fair’ for London and the South East to ‘become less wealthy and prosperous’ in order to ‘reduce inequality between different regions of the UK’.
THE CRYSTAL OPENS... SORT OF
London’s new City Hall formally opened last week, but the move to The Crystal in the Royal Docks is still not going quite according to plan. As reported by the Evening Standard, the building (formerly a conference centre) is actually only ‘half-finished’, with completion only set for the end of February. At Mayor’s Question Time last week, London Assembly Members complained about the temperature in the new Chamber, with some AMs and the Mayor donning scarves and one AM used a blanket to keep warm. After the meeting, as reported by MyLondon, attendees were asked to leave the building so that construction work could continue. The relocation of City Hall away from its central London home is intended to be a cost-saving measure, with the GLA saying that the move would save tens of millions of pounds. At MQT, the Mayor expressed his hope that City Hall’s move to the East will help drive the regeneration of the area. Until The Crystal is complete and fully operational, much of the Assembly’s work will continue to take place at the London Fire Brigade’s Headquarters in Southwark.
High-rise development is clearly seeing renewed interest – from both sceptics and proponents. Fire safety is an enduring concern for many of the former, with reactions to plans by Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield for a 35-storey tower in Hammersmith Fulham with one staircase for evacuation making headlines - barely a week after Ballymore withdrew plans for a 52-storey tower in Canary Wharf for similar reasons. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has subsequently called for new regulations on staircases in high-rise residential blocks, as has think tank Policy Exchange, which recently published ‘A Call for a Tall Buildings Policy’, making the case for a ‘a comprehensive and coherent city-wide’ tall buildings policy for the capital. Several London boroughs are meanwhile developing new local policies in this area, with Ealing Council issuing new guidance in a bid to ‘clamp down’ on tall buildings in the borough and Tower Hamlets also currently consulting residents on a Draft Tall Buildings Supplementary Planning Document (SPD). Not everyone is quite as fearful of high-rise development: the City of London Corporation is reportedly considering relaxing planning rules to encourage the construction of towers made from wood, which are becoming increasingly popular in places such as Norway and Singapore – with proponents arguing that they have a smaller carbon footprint than conventional concrete, steel and glass structures.
LCA SELLS IN, AGAIN
Week in and week out, our corporate communications team delivers top coverage for our clients. This week, we were pleased to see our client Central District Alliance’s Chair Alexander Jan quoted in the Evening Standard, telling it like it is about London’s recovery. We were also chuffed to see a piece on the opportunities and challenges facing the UK’s life sciences, by our client Stanhope’s Senior Development Director and Head of Life Sciences Charles Walford, placed in Bioscience Today.
LCA prides itself on its intelligence-led approach to PR and communications and our dedicated research team monitors London politics, news and issues as it happens. If you would like to know more about LCA or anything in this edition of LDN – London in short please get in touch.
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