London at a crossroads


“The future, we treat it like a noun. It’s not. It’s a verb. It requires action. It requires us to push into it. It’s not this thing that washes over us. It’s something that we actually have total control over. But in a short-term society, we end up feeling like we don’t. We feel like we’re trapped. We can push through that.” – Ari Wallach, Futurist 1

This report is about the long-term future of London. Founded on the banks of the estuarial Thames, London has always faced inland, and out to sea. Like the tides of the great river, London’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed. Mostly, however, London’s story is a positive one. It may no longer be the capital of the world’s only superpower – as it once was – but today it still ranks as one of the few premier “world” cities. It remains an economic powerhouse, a magnet for the educated and the ingenious, for the wealthy as well as for those in need. Migration to the city over millennia means that London’s communities harbour elements of most cultures of the world. By any international or historical measure, Londoners live together in remarkable harmony. This effervescent diversity powers London’s creativity and dynamism, its economic and cultural reach, and therefore also its wealth.

Nonetheless, away from this central story of success lie many darker aspects. Too many Londoners suffer poverty, homelessness, job insecurity and a low quality of life. Inequality is rife, and has been worsened by the recent coronavirus pandemic. Invisible pollutants fill the city’s air, harming the health of thousands, and compounding catastrophic damage to the planet’s climate and biosphere.

In September 2020 London finds itself at a crossroads. The coronavirus pandemic has prematurely ended the lives of thousands of Londoners, but the shock has been felt by everyone. The capital’s faltering economy is still emerging from a government-ordered deep freeze. Many long-held assumptions about the city’s future look fragile. The flood of international visitors surging through the city’s airports is reduced to a trickle. The future of office life is uncertain, and theatres remain closed. Central London in particular has been dealt a devastating blow. Looking beyond the pandemic, we are in an official “climate emergency”, yet are still unable to ascertain clearly whether this crisis hinders or aids our decarbonisation plans. It’s time to take stock, to link up across our great city, to listen and to share ideas, and to build a new vision of the city we want.

Back to the future

London’s development, largely unplanned and sporadic, has often been unexcitingly gradual. Occasionally drama does intercede – the Plague, the Great Fire and the Blitz all changed the fabric of the city in their day. But this is the exception rather than the rule. Yet even in a culture where incremental change trumps revolutionary zeal and grand schemes are scorned in favour of smaller-scale projects, plans are sometimes drawn up that change the city profoundly. The engineer Joseph Bazalgette’s reworking of London’s sewers reflected the imperious Victorian grandeur of his times; and the “Abercrombie Plan” (actually two plans) drawn up during World War Two also helped shape the reconstruction and development of London. To these familiar examples, however, we may add a third – a less well-known but highly influential report, London: World City published in 1991.

Three decades ago, London was in the doldrums. There was a national recession, a spike in unemployment and a high interest rate. Rough sleeping was commonplace. There was no citywide government at the time, the Greater London Council having been abolished by the UK government five years before. London was a city perceived by many to have lost its way. Yet in the 30 years since then, London has both transformed and expanded: the city has become brighter, richer and more dynamic than ever before.

This transformation was shaped to a significant extent by London: World City. This report, commissioned by London Planning Advisory Committee on behalf of a coalition of local authorities, arts, regeneration and transport bodies, argued that London could be a pre-eminent global city, a central node of the world economy. It advocated action to enhance London’s infrastructure, more active marketing of the city, and a return to citywide government alongside other citywide bodies. As its recommendations took hold, much that it had pushed for came to pass. By the year 2000 London had a new Mayor and London Assembly, the two parts of the Greater London Authority (GLA). A new economic development agency and a spate of promotional agencies for tourism and inward investment were created, while a business grouping, London First, also emerged. These each, in turn, helped to remake the city.

The London: World City report, and those works and ideas that preceded it, are some of the inspirations for our new stock-take and exploration of London’s possible futures. That report also frames our immediate reflections on our past. We will look back three decades and examine what has succeeded; we will also cast a critical eye on the less positive aspects and the persisting challenges of London’s recent past, such as poverty, inequality and the deepening climate emergency.

What went well

Over the last 30 years London has evolved and, in many ways, improved. The end of the Cold War led to a phase of global opening, increased trade and growth. In England, First Division football was recast as the Premier League, refocused and ultra-commercial, with an eye to global markets. The European Community shed its skin and emerged as the European Union. London too started to reinvent itself. Stoked by deregulation in the UK and the “big bang” of 1986 in particular, as well as newly opening global markets and an increasingly free Europe, London grew – in commercial importance, in the diversity of its people, and in its cultural punch. Against expectations, London’s declining population – which had dropped to 6.5 million people – also started to grow again, eventually reaching nearly nine million. Economic output more than tripled, and jobs grew from 3.8 million to 5.3 million.

The birth of the Euro in 1999 – and deepening economic integration of the Eurozone countries –seemed to threaten London’s position as a financial hub. The UK government havered on the Euro, and eventually ruled out membership. But the new openness of London fed its prosperity. It became a hotspot for a new wave of global businesses, and many chose London for their headquarters. Services replaced manufacturing as the mainstay of economic activity. The City became synonymous with a turbocharged, deregulated global capitalism, and cemented its position as a pre-eminent financial centre. Alongside finance, London now also became a hub for media, creative industries and higher education – a poster child for the post-industrial economy.

Culturally London boomed too, driven by increasingly diverse newcomers. Its attractions, revitalised by national lottery funding, and nourished by inventiveness and a new appreciation of creativity’s economic importance, were unlocked to a new European audience by cheaper flights, and flourished. London’s shops, theatres, galleries and restaurants had a renaissance. And the London pub, previously a corner-hugging city stalwart, reoriented itself around good food and was reborn as the gastropub.

Many areas, especially central ones, grew busier and denser through redevelopment. Architecturally, London shed its fusty image and embraced the new and the bold, pushed along by a civic desire to mark the turning of the millennium – even if the result was to make it look a bit more like other global cities, with a skyline full of glass and steel towers London’s new cultural swagger was bolstered by a successful bid for the Olympics. By the opening ceremony, in 2012, London’s cultural energy and confidence seemed boundless. The city’s international brand, reputation and image reached a new high.

Shorn of citywide government by a hostile national politics in 1985, London regained its own democratic bodies only in 2000. The London Mayor, London Assembly and GLA sprang to life – taking the reins of transport, and to varying degrees, planning, city promotion and policing. On London’s streets the car had been dominant since before World War Two. But with population growth, car-based congestion became intolerable. New thinking at City Hall and the rebranded Transport for London (TfL), in close partnership with London’s businesses, nudged Londoners away from their cars. Investment and a clear strategy led to a transformation of the bus network, and bus lanes sprang up. The Tube improved too, though more slowly, and Crossrail (promoted since Abercrombie but shelved in 1994) was finally given the go-ahead. A bold, totemic scheme to charge drivers entering central London came into force. Public transport ridership grew as a result. The Oyster smart travel card was also born – a big city first. London became a rare modern success story in pushing back the tide of car use.

The inner cities, long a byword for decline, benefited from these and other targeted policies for “urban renewal”. Some public services also underwent their own revolutions. London’s schools and universities, often derided as second-rate, had their fates transformed through a cocktail of good fortune, good policy and good leadership. London by 2020 had become something of a modern education Mecca. And through the concerted efforts of authorities and charities, London’s rough population of rough sleepers also shrank.

How things could have been even better

That many Londoners benefited from these changes over three decades is beyond doubt. London’s increasingly magnetic appeal drew in talent and produced innovation, creativity and enterprise. Yet the carapace of success hid many dark truths, which rarely pierced the new “global city” narrative.

Although generally prosperous, London’s income and wealth inequalities remained stubbornly high. Worklessness was, at times, amongst the worst of all UK regions. Street homelessness was tackled, but then allowed to re-emerge; and hidden homelessness, the iceberg below the water, mushroomed. Housing became a new battleground. London homes surged in value, becoming regarded by some as a new investment asset class. Policymakers did little to resist. The result is a market for privately owned homes increasingly dominated by the wealthy and excluding far too many. Coupled with a near-terminal decline in council and “social” housing, alongside slow overall housebuilding, this led to a vast new population of private renters, often on precarious tenancies, and often living in overcrowded, unsuitable homes. Socially, a veneer of cohesion and tolerance masked persistent prejudice and racism, and so nourished inequalities.

Elsewhere, the London education system failed too many at primary school and was ill-equipped to deliver skills to those not going on to a university education. Linked to this, London witnessed an epoch-defining arrival of new migrants, especially following the eastward expansion of the EU, ready and able to work.

Some London suburbs, especially in the outer ring, declined. The perception was that they were unloved by the newly dominant “centre”. In part, this was due to a reckoning with the motor car. Pollution and its ill effects on our health were now better understood, and policy shifted accordingly.

Global warming slowly caught the world’s attention throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Politics and policy started to reflect this. But the banking crisis of 2007/08 and the subsequent recession acted to dampen this shift and even actively reverse some aspects of it. As the eventual recovery advanced, so did the perceived urgency of action on climate change. International accords on sustainable development and climate goals in 2015 gave the agenda fresh impetus. Then in 2019 – triggered by a school protest led by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and the emergence of the direct action group Extinction Rebellion – the pace quickened. In the UK a “climate emergency” was declared, echoed in London and in most London boroughs. A commitment to getting to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 was also enshrined in British law. But, just as the momentum for urgent action to decarbonise seemed unstoppable, COVID-19 arrived. Despite its immediate climate-positive impact (through grounded aeroplanes, unused cars and lower energy consumption) the virus has put at risk the progress made in 2019 and before, despite much talk of a “green recovery”.

In the last three decades London has suffered and recovered from many shocks. Terrorism – including the tail end of the IRA campaign and Al Qaeda-inspired violence – sporadically rocked the capital. Londoners adapted. The banking crisis of 2007/08 looked, at times, like a mortal blow for the type of world London had come to typify: finance-driven, overindebted, consumer-led. Yet London survived. In 2016 the UK voted to the leave the EU, while London voted to remain. For many, this was another threat to the London “model” and a seismic shock. Then, with the longterm impact of Brexit still unclear, COVID-19 arrived in March 2020 and achieved something no other shock had: it shut down the city.

This report and its key questions

This report is the culmination of a phase of reflection on London’s recent history, guided by an unprecedented coalition of London organisations. It draws together complementary and sometimes intersecting perspectives on what has happened to London’s population, its economy, its institutions, its places and neighbourhoods, its position in the UK, and its reputation and position compared to cities across the world. It will outline the major forces that will likely shape the remainder of the 21st century throughout the globe, and what they might imply for London’s possible futures. It will also explore the values that produced modern London, while teasing out new ones by delving into age-old and emergent dilemmas. Economic growth at what cost? Is equality more important than climate change?

Specifically, it will tackle crucial questions of the present, and, gazing to the future, pose others:

  • What makes a good city?
  • What went right in London’s recent past?
  • What wrong turns were taken? What can we learn?
  • What are the major challenges facing London today?
  • What values should drive London’s development?
  • What futures might be possible?
  • What kind of London should we steer towards over the next five, 10, or 30 years?

What makes a good city?

Cities may be, according to Harvard’s Professor Ed Glaeser, “mankind’s greatest invention”, yet cities vary greatly in what they offer. 2 Some look worth imitating and desirable to live in, others less so, and each individual will have a different blend of values that drive those views. There is a whole industry that attempts to compare cities, identify drivers of economic growth, and gauge quality of life, from the all-encompassing United Nations Sustainable Development Goals through to niche indices, like the Green Space Index, that focus on a narrow set of measures.

The broader the framework, the more tensions and trade-offs they highlight. Is more prosperity and growth a good goal in itself, or should we be more concerned about where that wealth goes, how it is spread, or how it is generated? What level of power, and in what form, should citizens hold to shape the destinies of their places? Is a dense city better than a sprawling one? What priority should tackling climate change, or responding to changing migration patterns have?

Even our own views can be contradictory. All frameworks have their logical flaws. But they can help us understand and explore what really matters to us. To help us gauge the state of London today, and explore how the city can be improved, we have identified 10 key attributes of a good city as a starting point. These attributes provide a lens on city life and we think they will help guide the debate we want to elicit about London’s future, even though some are in conflict or tension with others.

Which future we choose should be driven by the value we place on different aspects of city life. How we resolve, or accept, the tensions and competitions across them, should shape the London we want to see, to live in, and the city we leave behind for future generations.

  • 1 Wallach, A. (2016). 3 ways to plan for the (very) long term. TED Talk. Retrieved from:
  • 2 Glaeser, E. (2011). Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier. London: Penguin Press.