Blog Post

“If ever London has needed a think tank, then it is now”

Our new Chief Executive Nick Bowes looks ahead to the next chapter for Centre for London.

Cities are my thing. As a kid, I was fascinated by maps. They’d be guaranteed to keep me occupied for hours. But it wasn’t coastlines and countryside for me – instead, cities and big towns, dense with a tangle of roads, motorways and railways. Why places are where they are on a map fuelled my love of geography.

Growing up, my nearest city was Sheffield. Trips felt special – there was a real buzz from crowded pavements, it had a university, a mainline railway station, top football teams (in comparison to my beloved Rotherham United!) and dazzling department stores.

But even as a kid the lure of London was stronger – you’re exposed to it on TV daily – be it the news, national occasions like royal weddings and dramas, sitcoms and soaps. I was 10 when Eastenders first hit the screens. I’d never seen something like Albert Square, which was grimy and depressed, but it was London! I’ll admit my efforts to recreate the BT Tower – or Telecom Tower as it was in those days – out of Lego failed, and a poster of the tube map was pinned to my bedroom wall.

I finally moved to London just weeks after the city elected its first Mayor. My first flat, shared with friends, was above a greasy spoon café in (then) unfashionable Balham. I thought I’d just stay for a few years while I was in my twenties. Fast forward 21 years, and I’m still here. Now firmly my home, I’ve no intentions of leaving London; I get itchy to return if I’m beyond the M25 for too long.

Cities are restless beasts and the two decades I’ve been in London has seen pretty momentous change. The city’s population has surged – adding another 1.8 million Londoners since the mid-1980s and the city is bigger than it has ever been. The city’s skyline has soared too and is now peppered with landmark tall buildings proving rather Marmite – the Gherkin (yes!), Shard (love it) and Walkie Talkie (no thanks).

From today’s perspective of new buses, increased capacity and improved reliability, it’s easy to forget that public transport was scruffy and decaying. Back then, the Northern Line earned its nickname “the misery line”. There was no Congestion Charge or Ultra Low Emission Zone. There were long queues to buy paper travelcards. Devolution created space for world-class innovation – active road use charging and a revolution in ticketing – first Oyster, then contactless.

New York, Paris and Tokyo have grown green with envy as London has powered ahead of them in the world global city stakes. Heady times during that glorious Olympic fortnight in 2012 when London felt like the centre of the world.

But this hasn’t been a golden period for everyone. Many Londoners struggle daily to make ends meet and searing poverty sits cheek by jowl with gleaming skyscrapers. The gap between rich and poor within the city has widened. So has the gap between London the rest of the country has yawned wider – in economic terms, but arguably politically and socially too. London has also faced terrorism, tragedy and heartbreak.

Even before COVID-19, there was a sense that perhaps London’s glorious streak might just be faltering. There’s been Brexit, growing resentment towards the capital from other parts of the country, and a government whose attention is elsewhere. Bashing London is now a vote winner.

COVID-19 has seen thousands of Londoners lose their lives and a huge shock to the central London economy. People are reassessing what’s important in their lives, including how we live and work, with possible huge ramifications for the city.

At the most critical moment for London since the 1940s, there are big meaty debates about where the city goes next. The next chapter in London’s 2,000 year story is uncertain, but Centre for London can certainly help with the drafting.

And it’s Centre for London that forms the next chapter in my own London adventure. This week I start as the Centre’s new Chief Executive. For the last decade, the Centre has built a reputation as the source of new thinking on the challenges faced by the city. I join an amazing team and an organisation highly regarded for its expertise and research, much of which is due to the amazing stewardship of my predecessors Ben Rogers and Richard Brown.

I’m relishing the opportunity to put Centre for London at the heart of current debates. Think tanks perform a crucial role – we give politicians and public sector officials space to think, and can do and say things that they just can’t. And if ever London has needed a think tank, then it is now.

Centre for London will support council leaders, councillors and chief executives, MPs and ministers, the Mayor and Assembly Members as they grapple with the huge challenges the city faces. London and Londoners need them to succeed, and I want us to be relevant, authoritative and helpful through the work we do, coming up with possible solutions and new ideas.

Working with partners, Centre for London can shape the city for generations to come, and play a role in supporting the capital to be the magnet for people, talent and ideas that first drew me here. And, selfishly, Centre for London allows me to combine a fascination with cities, my love of London and my background in public policy. I’d venture there’s no better job within the M25.

Nick Bowes is Chief Executive of Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter.