A decade on from the zenith moment of the capital hosting the Olympic Games, this year looks set to remain part of a more difficult time for the city. Our Chief Executive Nick Bowes breaks down 2022’s challenges and opportunities.
Ten years ago, as the city rode the crest of the wave of the 2012 Olympics, Time Out’s front cover proudly claimed ‘London – the best city in the world’. With the world’s eyes on London, the UK felt proud of the games and the way London put on an amazing show on behalf of the whole country.
A decade later, and after all that’s happened in recent years, the Olympics feel a world away. As 2022 begins, even the most optimistic person will struggle to argue it’s not going to be a challenging year ahead for London. Even if we finally put Covid-19 behind us, the recovery from the pandemic and the rebuilding of our exhausted public services is going to require enormous effort. Whether there is the public and political appetite to address the societal factors at the heart of why Covid spread so readily through the city is as yet unclear.
Depressingly, January 2022 feels awfully similar to January this time last year – Covid infection levels are high, and many people are working from home. Central London’s economy is being hit hard, with retail and hospitality suffering. But the difference this year is that there’s no furlough or support for businesses. How long restrictions remain in place will be critical – a repeat of last year’s restrictions lingering on well into the spring could be disastrous for many businesses. Early signs that the city is past the peak of Omicron are encouraging, and the government will be keen to relax restrictions as soon as possible. With London ahead of the rest of the country, the government may well come under pressure to allow the city to relax restrictions before other regions, and otherwise, London will have to wait for the rest of the country to catch up.
Either way, the enormous effort it took to return the West End and the City to some degree of vibrancy last December before the arrival of Omicron will need to be repeated all over again. The Mayor, government and local authorities will once again have to put any political rivalries to one side and work hand in glove to revive the central London economy for the sake of not just the city but the whole country.
Omicron has also hit Transport for London’s (TfL) already weakened finances, and we are only a few weeks away from the next crunch when the current bailout period comes to an end. The new Deputy Mayor for Transport, Seb Dance, has no time to ease himself into the role. I expect the same frantic last-minute negotiations and sounding of alarm bells about the dangers an underfunded TfL poses to the city’s economy. Given the heated party politics around TfL funding, and the looming local elections, I doubt the government will be in the mood for a long-term settlement. Instead, I expect there to be a series of short-term support packages, loaded with extra conditions for the Mayor, for the rest of the year and, in fact, right up to the next mayoral elections in 2024. This might be the year when the impact of this political war of attrition starts to have an impact, with an erosion of TfL’s ability to run a world-class public transport network and Londoners starting to notice the declining quality of services.
Cost of living pressures are shaping up to be a major issue for 2022. Rocketing energy bills and rising prices are affecting the whole country, and in London inflation-busting council tax rises and possibly even transport fares could worsen the impact for many Londoners and businesses. It will be the most vulnerable and least well of Londoners who will be hit hardest by rising cost of living, and for many this will be compounded by the changes to Universal Credit that saw reductions in the amount of financial support received.
Given the hole in TfL’s finances, I expect there to be increasing focus on pay per mile road user charging as part of the solution, but enthusiasm for this might be tempered given the fear of rising costs across the board for Londoners, particularly the most vulnerable. How the government responds to this issue, which has the potential to hit their poll ratings hard will be one to watch closely.
Challenging relations between London and the rest of the country will continue throughout 2022. Expect more cheap shots at London from politicians of all parties in their attempt to curry favour and gain votes. Whether London’s political leaders continue to be as restrained as they have been will be fascinating to see. Much unhappiness expressed by London politicians behind the scenes to both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition could spill out into the open, particularly during the heat of the local elections in May. The Mayor has been on a number of high profile visits beyond the M25 with Metro Mayors, often to visit some of TfL’s investment in the transport supply chain. It will be important for the city that this relationship-building continues.
Key to this debate will be where the issue of levelling up goes next. Much depends on the imminent (and much delayed) Levelling Up White Paper. Given the Conservative government’s current challenges, a lot rides politically on the White Paper – so not much pressure on Michael Gove to deliver! But Michael is a savvy political operator and understands the importance of London more than perhaps his predecessor did, in part due to his own constituency being in the orbit of London’s gravitational pull. I expect he is trying hard to ensure the White Paper contains enough to placate the harshest critics in London but, with little or no extra resource accompanying it, there are wider questions about just how much of a difference it will make to a complex and long-standing problem.
There are positives to look out for in the year ahead. Finally, we ought to see the Elizabeth Line start to open, which should also coincide with the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations later in the summer. The Queen cutting the ribbon on the new line named in her honour alongside a summer of pageantry will bring considerable global attention on the city – crucial at a time when so much needs to be done to persuade foreign tourists to return.
The engineering marvel of the Elizabeth Line will then also be clear for all to see, and the mental geography of the city will be transformed – places out east and west of the centre suddenly feeling a lot easier to reach. In particular, the enormous scale of development taking place in the Royal Docks, and beyond in Barking Riverside, will become much more accessible, and on more Londoners’ radars. This is no doubt part of the Mayor’s thinking with the move of City Hall from London Bridge to Silvertown. It will be fascinating to see whether the move helps to drive regeneration just as the previous City Hall did to the area between Tower Bridge and London Bridge.
I am not a soothsayer and I don’t have a crystal ball, so my thoughts on the year ahead are purely speculation. But one thing I don’t doubt is the city’s remarkable resilience, even in the face of all that has been thrown at it these past years. I am confident London will rise to the challenges ahead, but that doesn’t mean it won’t still be a year full of obstacles and the unknown.