London 2022: Railways, Kings, Rejection – and driving the nation’s recovery
The capital has seen periods of pride and glory this year while continuing to be treated as a national nuisance, though its economy continues to prop the country
On the first day of this year, I published a five-point wish list for London in 2022. Surprisingly, quite a few of my hopes have come true. Boris Johnson resigned as Prime Minister, a departure that put an end to his courtiers’ ominous remote control of Transport for London. Work to restore public confidence in the Metropolitan Police has begun – more on this below – and some steps have been taken to introduce a London-wide road user charging system. Georgia Gould, Chair of the London Council, recently assured me that progress has been made in working with Core Cities UK on green investment opportunities. The only disappointment was the failure of London’s Conservatives, certainly in City Hall, to adjust to the attitudes and aspirations of Londoners, which differed from those of Talk TV.
Where have the last 12 months taken London and Londoners? So much has been happening on the national and international stages that it’s easy to forget that 2022 began with a largely deserted celebration in the capital due to Sadiq Khan’s concerns over the rapidly spreading omicron variant of Covid-19. The pandemic was still very strong with us January, with public health chief Kevin Fenton warning that infection numbers remained “very high” and that a “critical period” was not yet over. The aftermath of ‘Partygate’ also continued, leading Tory Assembly Member Shaun Bailey to go even further underground, although ultimately no police action was taken against him for his high profile attendance at a social event in December 2020 were taken.
Police action of a different kind occurred in February when Cressida Dick announced she was stepping down as Metropolitan Police Commissioner, claiming she had been given “no choice” by the mayor, who was unhappy with her proposals to oust lowlife values from the ranks. Allegations raged for months after Dick’s final departure in the spring, including in a critical report by Tom Winsor about Khan, but nationally there seemed little interest in keeping her. In the same month, almost two years after they began, all Covid restrictions in England were lifted.
Johnson’s struggling, scandal-ridden government continued to punish London and obstruct City Hall. In march It emerged the capital would face arts funding cuts in the name of “leveling up” and with county elections looming, then-Transport Secretary Grant Shapps invoked an obscure clause in the GLA Act to prevent TfL from building homes to build in the Cockfosters Station car park. The ongoing dispute over government financial support for TfL provided the context for the first in a series of strikes by London Underground workers from the RMT union. The Mayor and London Assembly moved into the new City Hall at the Royal Docks.
local election campaign April took place against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (which had begun on February 24), a related rise in the cost of living, and much debate as to whether the Labor Party, miles leading in opinion polls, would become even more politically dominant in the capital after the community votes.
That happened early on Can, with the party conquering longtime Conservative flagships Barnet, Wandsworth and sensationally Westminster, which has been Tory-led since its inception. Labor also won council seats overall but lost Tower Hamlets to Lutfur Rahman and Harrow and Croydon to the Tories. These setbacks hurt Labor gains somewhat, but did not hide the Tories’ ongoing underlying decline. Towards the end of the month, the Elizabeth Line’s mid-section opened – a glorious day for the capital after years of troubles and delays. The Northern Line bank branch has also reopened. And the City of London Corporation launched its Destination City strategy aimed at attracting more visitors to the Square Mile.
The new “Liz Line” preceded the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations June, marking her 70th year as monarch. They did not break the political trench warfare between City Hall and the Johnson government over TfL funding, which angrily focused on the impact on London’s bus service. Funding for stop-go transport and the gradual restoration of bus and tube use have also been embedded in debates about the post-Covid recovery of London’s economy, particularly in the West End and the broader Central Activities Zone. With the impact of the cost of living and the damage wrought by Brexit becoming harder to deny, the road to recovery looked difficult and slow. The first figures from the 2021 census have been released, showing London’s usual resident population has grown to almost nine million.
Prime Minister Johnson’s resignation came in July, a month in which London – and the rest of the country – was also hit by a frightening heatwave, with temperatures soaring to record highs of 40.2 degrees at Heathrow and St James’s Park on the 19th. Grass fires broke out in several locations, notably Upminster, Wennington, Pinner and Southgate. The 27th marked the tenth anniversary of the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, a young age when the UK felt like a very different place and valued London more than despised it.
The Conservative Party membership set about choosing Johnson’s successor, a process that took everything August and saw eventual winner, Liz Truss, step out of line with her party to tout London as a paragon of productivity, which it still is compared to the rest of the country, despite the already sky-high rubbish heap hanging over the Crime in the capital is voiced, even magnified. At the end of the month, with Johnson and his hostile cronies on their way out, a TfL funding deal of halfway reasonable length – expiring at the end of March 2024 – was finally agreed. Mayor Khan called it “less than ideal”. In a fairly open On London In an interview, TfL Commissioner Andy Byford called it “acceptable”.
Truss became Prime Minister September and plunged the economy into a crisis as the nation mourned the death of Queen Elizabeth just weeks after celebrating her centenary. London played to perfection its historic role as a venue for national events, including commemorations. The River Thames was lined by an instantly iconic mourning snake to witness the funeral at Westminster Hall. London also maintained its position as the bedrock of the UK economy as it recovered from the Covid period twice as fast as elsewhere, according to official figures. The Met’s new chief, Mark Rowley, took office. Andy Byford announced he will be leaving TfL.
Until the end October, Truss had been replaced as Prime Minister by Rishi Sunak, the owner of a £6.6million villa in Kensington, whose early lines of attack against his Labor opponent Keir Starmer included holiday-friendly taunts about him, who lived in north London. Anti-London “levelling” rhetoric had returned as a government tactic. Meanwhile, London’s economy continued to grow as new Chancellor Jeremy Hunt faced the task of filling a huge financial black hole.
In November Hunt presented his first budget and the London Assembly heard that rising fuel prices and other costs meant that Londoners in dire straits were facing a “humanitarian crisis” and that more than half of Londoners said they were struggling financially compared to something more than a third at the beginning of the year. The annual conference of the Think Tank Center for London heard that proven national policies could reduce poverty in the capital if only there was the political will to implement them. As announced, the ax fell on London’s arts fund. English National Opera has been told to leave the capital, or else.
December? Besides snow? Sadiq Khan was easily re-elected as Labor mayoral candidate for 2024. He is expected to carry on properly and seek a historic third term at City Hall. Labor produced a document on restoring democracy, including recommendations for shifting power from Whitehall, empowering mayors and increasing the autonomy of local and regional government. But despite nearly 100 mentions of London, it dodged politically uncomfortable realities about Britain’s dependence on the capital and recycled troublesome grievances of the “North-South divide”.
As 2022 draws to a close, the goose that lays the nation’s golden eggs continues to be despised by major political parties even as it lifts the nation back on its feet and its many poor people struggle to keep warm to hold on and make ends meet. This is politics. This is Great Britain. So it looks like London will have to endure more of that in 2023.
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