Evan Davis brought the economic geography textbook to life on the nation’s TV screens Monday night, with Mind the Gap (available on iPlayer until March 17th), in which he “asks what the rest of the country can learn from London’s success”. Alex Salmond has recently referenced London as the “dark star of the economy, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy”, echoing criticisms made by Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable, who described the city as “a great suction machine”. Mind the Gap featured sweeping shots of London’s skyline and plenty of insight into the property and infrastructure developments underway, alongside snazzy data visualisation of how London’s exceptional economic productivity and worker density, in a UK context. Oh, and some nice archive footage.
Here are five insights and five oversights from the narrative Evan presented.
At the City Growth Commission, hosted at the RSA, we’re funded by the Mayor of London, London Councils, and the Core Cities. Our role is to influence policies which will ensure that all cities (and the wider metro areas) are able to maximise their growth potential.
Cities depends on agglomeration economics: the productive benefits that come when people work closely alongside each other between organisations and between industries and sectors. Firms want to be close to other firms to collaborate and compete, stealing staff and ideas and customers and suppliers. It was great to hear about the importance of networks – social as well as digital. As Evan says, “We were told technology meant location doesn’t matter; but it matters more than ever”. The great irony, highlighted by Manuel Castells 20 years ago, is that the more ubiquitous electronic communication becomes, the greater value we recognise and ascribe to in face-to-face interaction.
Few people have been able to define if and when there are downsides of ever-greater concentration and densification start to outweigh the benefits. London is building up, more than out, due to the Green Belt, but is still only half the density of New York City. While I’m not as sure as Ed Cox that of IPPR North “all the evidence shows” that London will overheat and topple over, we didn’t hear enough about the co-dependent relationship between London and other towns and villages across the South. Another aspect of London’s economic geography was conspicuous in their absence: the relationship between migration, diversity and urban growth. As well as economic opportunities, do migrants feel especially inclined to settle in London, because of its size and capacity to host multiple communities? And what about evidence that there is an economic benefit from diversity?
Agglomeration plays a role in the economics of urban development, for example leading to infrastructure projects to expand transport capacity. Economic success feeds itself: it’s a self-fulfilling positive feedback loop. “You can’t design an ecosystem, it evolves”, said one tech investor in Shoreditch. The best government can do is shine a spotlight in order to “nudge on” these successes. This means, essentially, “there is no formula to copy” – except perhaps bigger is better?
It wasn’t clear whether these dynamics are particularly strong in London, now or historically, or common to all large cities. Urban development depends on other factors including political power (such as compulsory purchase – used very differently in China and India), and factors such as the international economic climate and currency exchange rates which make London property a particularly attractive place for those with financial wealth to invest. Furthermore, I wonder if Evan has ever been to Silicon Valley? It’s the most exciting tech community in the world, it got a turbo-charge from federal investment, and one of the least exciting suburban landscapes to explore. Economic dynamism and great urbanism don’t always go hand-in-hand.
London’s leaders want growth, and have won the national argument to invest in growth. “London is the flywheel that drives it” said Mayor Boris Johnson; “the gateway”, which “exports tax and jobs…the better London does the better the UK does”. As Transport for London added: “there are certain sectors which choose locations at an international level; if we don’t get it in London we don’t get it in the UK.”
Part of London’s success has been a projection, nationally and globally, as a place where exciting things happen;it’s a city which can represent itself well visually – with plenty of new skyscrapers crammed upona medieval street pattern. But the programme fell into the trap of assuming “London” speaks with one voice At one point Evan Davis claimed that “Londoners have an insatiable appetite to expand”. Do they? As we highlighted in our recent Metro Growth report, parts of Outer London have fallen behind the rate of recent national economic growth, and there is greater variation in economic activity within each UK region, than between them.
We’re in the middle of the greatest industrial restructuring since industrial revolution, fuelled in part by the ‘Big Bang’ of financial deregulation in 1986. London now has the greatest concentration of “producer services” in the world, and millions of workers are also millions of consumers. Their consumption in turn fuels millions of jobs, locally, in other service industries.
That restructuring was in part a political project. Heseltine’s leadership on redeveloping Docklands created space for a second office district and financial services hub in London.
Before the 1980s, things weren’t looking so bright. Evan said “London lucked out by having the right industries at the right time”. But, as the Telegraph noted, financial deregulation was a conscious effort to drive employment growth and economic activity. There was no mention of how the financial value that is captured by different types of activities is negotiated between managers, staff, shareholders and those who regulate the economy. In short, London has always been a financial hub; but finance has not always been the economic nexus of the economy, nor such an extremely lucrative profession.
There are winners and losers in the process of economic growth. Evan suggested “It’s a much more brutal process than most of us would like”, focusing on the displacement of homeowners on the Heygate Estate. If we want to save national icons like Battersea Power Station from the wrecking ball, we need global investment. But affordability is a concern: “[London] has to watch it, and make sure it is a place open to the nation. It will be tragic if someone from Staffordshire thinks they can’t get a job there because they can’t afford to live there.”
Did Evan find the right gap? According to Evan, “everywhere I go in London, I see signs that the city’s success is becoming entrenched”. But Mind the Gap did not consider the gaps between people in London: walk a mile in any direction from the Shard and you’ll see success is not distributed. Like other places, average wages have not kept up with rising prices.
Having coffee with Boris at the top of the Shard makes for great TV, but we’d learn something different if Evan had coffee with staff at one of London’s 1500 coffee shops. We saw the gold plated plates of a £39.5m Mayfair house, and Evan remarked at how rising prices for such “prime housing” had endured the recession. It would be equally eye-opening to consider the sacrifices many people are making. Those on low wages in London jobs have economised by converting living rooms in shared housing to bedrooms. The number of overcrowded homes in outer East London grew 41% in the last decade.
From pubs to think tanks – people struggling with London’s housing affordability wonder whether these two trends are related, and London’s leading academics have denounced London’s latest housing strategy as woefully inadequate. Meanwhile the deputy director of research at the IMF, writing in the pages of the FT, concludes that “measures that governments have typically taken to reduce inequality do not seem to have stunted growth.”
I am sure we could make compelling TV which considered the relative merits of important policy options for mending the gap: how to use taxes, public spending, regulations like the minimum wage, and public services like education to improve the fortunes of a broader constituency: those in London and across the country. We heard from a recent Core Cities meeting that central government policy has a long way to go be more sensitive to the differences between different places. By contrast, Evan’s cinematic homage to a booming place was perhaps insensitive to the policies which have enabled that growth. Filming the differences between places is a visually seductive way of talking about differences between people.
Before the programme heads North, next week, spend two minutes and give the last word to a Londoner: George the Poet
Sixty RSA Fellows enjoyed an evening of lightning talks and speed networking at 3Space in Oxford Street – and heard about a range of innovative and exciting Fellow-led projects. London Fellow – and Regional Digital Champion – Jemima Gibbons guest blogs about the event, and how to organise one yourself.
I live in London and have been a Fellow since 2006 – but I only know a handful of Fellows here. In fact, I know more than most – around 80 – but that’s still just ONE per cent of the 8,000 Fellows who live and work in London.
So that’s a huge living resource that I could be connecting to in order to make a difference, develop projects and more. But I’m currently mostly missing out.
It was a great event and we had amazing feedback. People seemed to feel really energised and inspired – just as we intended!
One reason for this, as with so many RSA regions, is that there’s no structured face to face networking. Our regional drinks dwindled out. The London committee has events, but they are usually paid (due to venue costs), and are topic rather than network-led. And there’s the public lecture programme at John Adam Street (which we’re lucky to have), but again, these talks are very specific and – unless drinks are scheduled – there’s no real space to gather afterwards.
Back in March, I went to an RSA Mental Health workshop at 3Space on Oxford Street. It was a great venue and, it turned out, free for charities (such as the RSA) to use.
Bingo! How about hosting something there?
The great thing about 3Space is that it’s UK-wide. As well as London, the organisation currently has venues in Aylesbury, Blackpool, Bury St Edmunds, Cardiff, Falkirk and Wigan. So if any FRSA would like to hold events in those areas, you’ve a free venue readily available.
Designing the London #FRSA event
I got together with Roxanne Persaud (London Region Fellowship Councillor) and Matthew Mezey (RSA Online Community Manager) to hatch a plan. We wanted an event that met Fellows’ needs while also encouraging engagement, collaboration and community (things we’re all passionate about through our work with RSAde).
Feedback from the recent Fellowship Survey, and from previous London Region events, showed that the two main things Fellows want is to:
1. Connect with other Fellows who share their interests in their region
2. Hear about current projects and initiatives they can get involved with
So, we agreed what we hoped would be a “magic” formula…
1. Lightning talks
2. Speed networking
3. General chat and “collaboration huddles”
The evening would run over three hours with each activity repeated in short, sharp, bursts. The idea was to keep things moving and create a dynamic atmosphere to get everyone buzzing, spark conversation and maximise idea-sharing. This is the schedule breakdown.
The name #FRSA London Reboot! was inspired by the Reboot Britain event three years ago. A “reboot” is, of course, what you do to a computer to get it up and running again after a software update. We felt it was a great way to re-ignite the London network and kickstart collaborative activity.
For added inspiration, we gave the event a broad theme, “Positive deviants”. This was the “peg” for speakers’ presentations. We offered ten slots of 4 minutes each, broken into three “rounds” (at 6.30, 7.15 and 8pm). The speakers were allowed to talk about any type of project or initiative they wanted – the only requirement was that they needed some kind of input – whether it be skills, support or funding – from other FRSA.
3Space provided a projector so were able to show one slide containing basic information (name, website etc) behind each speaker. There was no time for multiple slides although in retrospect some of the speakers could have done with more illustration (Mark Power, for example). But equally, it would have been quite possible to run the talks with no slides.
In feedback, people said that there was a lot of information to take in and at times they felt quite overwhelmed. One attendee suggested we hand out speaker details so they could keep track of all the projects, and make notes. (Next time we can send these out with the reminder email so that people can print out and bring with them).
After each round of lightning talks, we split the room in half: people had the choice of either chatting with one of the speakers in a “huddle” (on the Oxford Street side of the room), or taking part in speed networking (on the Soho Square side).
Complex subjects make for uneasy debate, and mental health is a good example. The Time to change campaign led by Mind and Rethink has done an excellent job of highlighting that although practically everyone will either experience mental health problems or be close to someone who does, the stigma attached to them makes us reluctant to talk about it.
Last night I helped run an RSA Fellows’ workshop at 3space focusing on the role that enterprise can play in addressing mental health challenges. A handful of inspiring projects described their work, and then the group of thirty or so people (mostly RSA Fellows) shared and developed their ideas over the course of the evening. One project, a social enterprise that will provide employers with advice on how to avoid discrimination and ensure the mental health needs of their employees are accommodated, was awarded a provisional Catalyst award of £2,000 at the end of the evening.
For me, though, the most encouraging thing was the care and thought that went into contributions to the many discussions throughout the evening. At one point, an interesting debate emerged on the possibilities of providing support for those diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Mic Starbuck and Andy Gibson (who led the project that was funded) had proposed that generic advice could be produced that would helpful to anyone at the point of diagnosis.
Artist Bobby Baker (whose amazing work my colleague Emma Lindley has blogged about before) responded by making a passionate case for why the variety of experiences of bipolar disorder means that one-size-fits-all advice would be unhelpful. Andy’s response accepted this point, suggesting that the aim should be to reinforce this message through the advice given, and help people connect with others who could share their own stories.
Mindful of time, I moved the discussion on, but in fact my heart had leapt a little. This kind of mutually respectful, passionate debate between people with different but complementary experience is a rare enough thing to make it worth celebrating when it happens. It’s tempting to think of talk as a barrier to action. In fact, good talk is what makes action possible.
As Time to Change shows, one of the biggest barriers to better mental health is resistance to talking about it. As Emma has argued persuasively, we can’t counter discrimination and stigma around mental health in the workplace until we understand what creates and perpetuates them. And as the discussion I described earlier illustrates, the first step in agreeing how to support people with mental health challenges is to recognise and reflect the wide range of personal experiences that accompany them.
This was just one highpoint in a long, energetic evening that saw a huge number of ideas form and develop. As well as the project awarded funding, another group hope to take forward their idea for a social enterprise that would support employers in making better provision for people with mental health difficulties – for instance, resolving insurance issues, or arranging temporary cover for time off.
If you’re interested in the issues I’ve touched on here, the debate will continue online on the Mental health and wellbeing group on the Fellowship social network. I’m also keen to hear people’s views on how we can encourage more discussion and exchange of the kind I’ve described – not only because it’s vitally important to understand people’s experiences of mental health, but also because of how it can help to improve them.
Last night I went along to a great event at the RSA House organised by London Youth. They’re launching a report next week called Hunch, which makes a fiercely-argued case for the importance of youth work in the face of spending cuts. They’re better placed than most to argue the point – as a network of 400 youth organisations (from youth clubs to community centres) across the capital, they know what good youth work looks like, and the impact it has. They came to the RSA partly to share the findings with Fellows and leading voices in the sector, but also to issue a friendly challenge to this group for practical responses to the report.
The room was a lively mix of youth workers and people involved in charities and social enterprises, all of whom warmed to the theme that youth work should be seen as a way of supporting and empowering young people, not simply a tool for tackling social problems. Rosie Ferguson from London Youth (an RSA Fellow and member of our Fellowship council) gave an efficient demonstration of the logic behind this, asking: “How many of you here today are carrying a weapon? Is it because you went on a knife crime awareness course when you were 14?”
Rosie then invited Francisco Augusto, who has been involved with the DareLondon youth advisory board, to make the case for a more positive approach to supporting young people from his own experience. Having been in serious trouble with the police at the age of 13, he explained how a chance encounter with a committed local youth worker, Roger Jilal, set him on the right track. What made the difference? Talking to him later, he explained Roger’s knack for relating to the young people he worked with as equals, seeing their potential and sticking with them to provide support and reassurance. In Francis’ case, that meant persuading him to stay in school and get some qualifications – he’s now studying for a degree at Roehampton and setting up a social enterprise.
What became clear in the discussion that followed was the degree of consensus about what really helps young people develop and thrive, but also the challenges of gathering an evidence base to support that consensus. Individual success stories such as Francis’ are powerful, but there’s clearly a need (recognised in the report) for youth work organisations to build a better pool of evidence about what works and what doesn’t: a challenge for small, local, highly effective projects that they often lack the time or resources to carry out detailed research. What’s more, several people remarked that much of the value of good youth work is in its effect on young people’s self-confidence and social skills — not an easy thing to quantify.
Individual success stories such as Francis’ are powerful, but there’s clearly a need to build a better pool of evidence about what works and what doesn’t
If this is the friendly challenge, what was the response? Many in the room argued for better collaboration between practitioners, and hoped that this could happen within the RSA – both through making connections between Fellows involved in youth work, and initiatives such as our Social Entrepreneurs’ Network (which already features many businesses that support young people). Another proposal was to identify youth work ‘champions’, people who can persuade politicians and the media of the merits of their craft.
This echoed a point that our own Matthew Taylor made about the challenge of maintaining pride in good professional practice in a targets-led culture: he was clear about the importance of this for youth work, which he said should recognised as not just a means to positive social outcomes but “a public good in itself”. Hunch has its official launch next week at the House of Lords (I’ll add a link when it’s published) and will be a great rallying point for those who agree. The question, though, is what can the RSA do to support Fellows who want to work together to raise the profile of effective youth work initiatives – and make sure that the best and the bravest ideas and approaches are able to spread.
Sam is @iamsamthomas on Twitter