Blog Post

The many faces of London’s city centre

London is a premier ‘world city’. It consistently finds itself at or around the top of the charts in city rankings. It is both a national capital and a global city; it is English, British, but also of the world.

The city’s population is at its largest ever, and it continues to grow. But as well as its residents, London also draws businesses, investors, visitors, students and migrants from across the country and beyond. In this city, people live, work, trade, learn, grow, socialise, and love.

London’s somewhat ill-defined centre is the melting pot into which all of these disparate elements are mixed. Ask Londoners to draw a line around ‘central London’ and you are likely to get just short of nine million odd and slightly varying shapes, varying in size from a small stretch of the West End to the entirety of the 12 London boroughs (plus the City of London) that make up ‘inner London’.

Officially, there is the Central Activities Zone, or ‘CAZ’, which is used by the Mayor of London to define London’s core for planning purposes. But its shape is not tidy and it contains parts of ten different London boroughs; the boundaries of which provide another possible definition of central London.

It may be difficult to definite but it’s clear that central London matters. A vital, national organ; it’s responsible for one third of London’s jobs, and almost one tenth of the economic output of the entire UK.

Its world-class central business districts, from the ancient cities of London and Westminster to relative newcomer Canary Wharf, are found within or in close proximity to its core.  And it accommodates more headquarters of multinational corporations than any other European city, alongside millions of square feet of office and retail space.

It also plays an increasingly crucial but outsized role in both the city-wide and national economy. Public spending and investment across the country are overwhelmingly paid for by London and the Wider South East ‘megaregion’.

But central London is home to much more than just business. Its greatness comes from its diversity of people, activity and function. Central London is also home to iconic green and public spaces, world famous retail districts, national museums and cultural attractions, several top universities (and their students), the machinery of both national and city-wide government, and the monarchy.

To many, it is also a home – nearly a quarter of a million people live in the CAZ alone. The ten ‘central London’ boroughs are home to at least ten times that number and an extra half a million residents are expected to arrive in the next 20 years. The city centre also draws in over a million commuters each working day, and its daytime population swells from nine to ten million daily throughout the working week, once tourists and other visitors are accounted for.

This means that the interests and desires of those who use the space can often overlap and compete.

An example of such a clash of interests can be seen in the recent dispute over the proposed pedestrianisation of Oxford Street, a Mayoral objective that sought to clean up the air, reduce accidents, and make the area more attractive to visitors. Here, the street’s wider national and international role and the interests of residents, concerned about the rerouting of traffic from the street (and particularly buses) clashed visibly, with the outcome currently remaining uncertain.

Central London’s governance is complex, fragmented, and arguably outdated. Three layers of government – the boroughs, the Mayor, and central government – are just the beginning of the list of overlapping organisations responsible for the district.

Issues such as these are far from insurmountable, but are at least in part the result of one area having such national and local importance. Who is the city centre really for? And who should decide its fate, when the interests of different users collide? And is it possible to design our city centres in a way that better accommodates everyone’s needs equally?

It does not help that central London is situated in one of the most centralised states in the OECD. London’s institutions of governance have little control over the revenue generated in the areas that they are responsible for, and are limited in their ability to mitigate for the challenges that all this activity can bring. The tension between the district’s national and local role can sometimes lead to conflict, but with the Mayor and the boroughs so disempowered by international standards, do those closest to the action really have the tools they need to ensure that these problems are solved?

City centres the world over are facing common challenges. Some are fairly universal, from the impact of automation on their economies to the existential threat of climate change. Across much of the world, a rising populist tide threatens the open, internationalist ideology that global cities have thrived on in recent years. Many cities find that their economies are pulling away from their nation states, leading to political and cultural consequences. How will central London not just survive but thrive in an uncertain and ever changing future?

There are London-specific issues from the city’s housing crisis and the delayed delivery of Crossrail. Wider challenges also loom; the uncertainty and division resulting from the 2016 EU Referendum endures, the threat of the economic shock from a hard Brexit as well as years of austerity that have disproportionality hit London’s local authorities.

London has faced greater threats and survived. But it has experienced periods of decline as well as growth and prosperity, and its future is far from certain. It’s city centre never stops evolving and in such uncertain times, those like London’s need all the new ideas they can get. Through our research project on central London, we hope to gain a new understanding of the district and offer suggestions of how to ensure that its future is both fair and prosperous. It is also why the latest edition of London ideas, bringing together innovative new ideas on the ‘social city centre’, is so welcome.

This blog is an edited version of Jack’s essay for the latest issue of London ideas. Read the full piece here.

Jack Brown is Research Manager at Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter. Read his previous blogs here.