Look at it this way: UK economic growth is slowing, public borrowing will be higher than expected and the government no longer thinks it can balance the budget by 2020. Much of this is down to Brexit. Good old Boris. We’ve got our country back. Now we are free to scavenge for consolations from an autumn statement that seeks to limit the damage done by the referendum outcome, including in resilient London, the Remain City on which Leave Nation may depend more heavily than ever in the worrying years to come.
Chancellor Philip Hammond remarked that “for too long, economic growth in our country has been too concentrated in London and the south-east”. True, but that is also what you would say to a British euroscepticism that often goes hand-in-hand with hostility towards the capital. And though Hammond gave London’s mayor, its boroughs and its politicians of almost every type nothing like the transformative devolution package they desire, he did do some things to suggest that the government grasps that it cannot afford to ignore the capital’s pleas for more autonomy. He also observed that it is “one of the highest productivity cities in the world”, with Britain’s other big urban centres lagging far behind.
Sadiq Khan has been fairly positive about what Hammond announced, no doubt partly sincerely but also very mindful that his City Hall looks like having to keep on doing business with Conservative governments for at least as long as Jeremy Corbyn leads the Labour Party. He offered the glass-half-full view that the chancellor’s measures are “the first steps towards a major devolution deal for the capital”. In her own words, so did London Councils chair Claire Kober. We’ll see.
Top of the mayor’s thank you list for now is the £3.15bn the Greater London Authority will receive to help start the building of over 90,000 “affordable” homes by financial year 2020-21. As a single sum, this is the largest yet devolved to a London mayor, though the headline figure is slightly misleading in that it partly confirms funds already agreed as well as including an additional settlement for the future, covering the rest of Khan’s mayoral term.
Essentially, City Hall’s share of national spending on housing has been renegotiated and, in all, the capital has now got over £2bn more heading its way than it had before. It’s what the mayor was hoping for, and gives Khan and his team not only more cash but also – thanks to their new best friend, housing and London minister Gavin Barwell – greater flexibility to fund a range of what the mayor describes as “new homes for low cost rent, London Living Rent and shared ownership”. But hear the silence where even Boris Johnson once called for councils to be given more leeway to borrow to build for social rent. A lost cause, for now, it seems.
Hammond has also said he will devolve the adult education budget to London government from 2019-20, something else London politicians of more than one party have been in favour of for some time. The same goes for the transfer of the budget for the work and health programme – forthcoming successor to the plain old work programme – to London subject to “meeting certain conditions” (the same arrangement has been made for Greater Manchester, by the way). This should enable London’s boroughs to better help the 19,000 hard-up households to be pinched by the benefit cap. Whitehall, though, is holding on to the money for 16-18 year old skills training. London would like that too.
Khan has also welcomed further investment – to the tune of £492m to London and the south-east combined – in the London local enterprise panel, through which the mayor, businesses, the boroughs and Transport for London (TfL) collaborate on facilitating employment and growth and he expressed approval for a £1bn nationwide fund for digital infrastructure. Like Shelter’s Kate Webb, he was pleased by the abolition of letting agency fees (and I gather that City Hall is considering what that means for the mayor’s own, planned not-for-profit lettings agency). But he’s expressed disappointment that nothing was done to make childcare in London more affordable and that control over south London suburban rail is not to be handed down to TfL, though in the latter case he might not be much surprised.
Crossrail 2? Nothing doing. Hammond put Birmingham and the “Northern Powerhouse” first, but at least invited capital to produce its business case, which the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry says it is pleased about. Nothing much for London’s GPs and patients either, according to Michelle Drage of their representative body, which says that 35 practices have closed in the capital in the past 12 months and 45 since the last general election. Add to that the complete absence of help across the UK for NHS and social care services as a whole and the outlook for London as it wrestles with the latest reform programme has not been brightened. Meanwhile, local government in general continues to be savaged by cuts. Devolution is good. Pity it sometimes looks like the only way London can make the best of a bad national job.