Banging the drum for London?

Cameron in China sought to bang the drum for UK trade and called for “hard headed internationalism” in his Mansion House speech, but post-Spending Review and ahead of the Trade White Paper how will the capital fare, asks Andrew Stevens

The recent visit  to China by David Cameron ahead of the G20 underlines the continuation of UK government’s approach towards vital economic engagement in Asia, predicated not only on ensuring Britain’s access to growing markets but also giving the UK greater leverage in public diplomacy on the continent.  For all the headlines about selling new British luxury goods to China’s growing commercial elite, there’s also the more routine but no less value added task of cementing links between the UK and the wider region in promoting higher education institutions and tourist destinations.  In particular, it is in the knowledge and cultural sectors where Britain’s future economic base will require strategic direction between cities, institutions and smaller firms.In terms of banging the drum for the capital’s business and knowledge sectors in China among other global players, London already staked its claim over the summer with its presence at the 2010 Shanghai Expo.  However, amid the post-Spending Review shake up of the capital’s economic development agencies, we might be left wondering how this drive for future growth in the London economy can be met under the realities of austerity and the ‘Big Society’.The gravity of the London economy can be felt beyond the tarmac of the M25, which is why any abandonment of Crossrail was never likely to fly, even among Treasury ministers representing distinctly non-metropolitan seats.  But there’s a world of difference between appreciating something and promoting it.

London First does as well as can be expected as both a business lobby group and advocate for London’s economic needs, but it can’t be expected to perform the role on the global stage in dealing with other governments and agencies.  Its independence and mandate means that it can speak up for its members’ needs, even when that is likely to go against policies at London or national level.  There is however, a belief in some circles that as businesses are the most immediate beneficiaries of trade promotion then it is they who should foot the bill for it.  To some extent, there’s a certain financial logic to this argument, but that is stripped away by the question of democratic legitimacy, for which the Mayor is held accountable for his role in giving strategic direction to the economic expectations and requirements of all Londoners, as opposed to just wealth creators.

The kaleidoscope of the Spending Review has been shaken but where the capital’s pieces have settled is not yet apparent.  That the London Development Agency will be no more is certain, but the future of its sponsored bodies — active in the knowledge and cultural sectors abroad — remains subject to speculation.  The LDA’s more tangible achievements over the past decade are readily acknowledged, yet it is the largely unsung work of promoting London as a place to do business, tourist destination, film location and learning environment that gives the capital an edge globally.  Again, the municipal libertarians would prefer all of this to take place subject to market forces.

The coalition’s growth plans do acknowledge the role of both culture and tourism in driving the recovery, but the somewhat “chaotic” (by Vince Cable’s own admission) process of replacing the “statist” and “prescriptive” regional development agencies outside of London looks likely to be repeated on the Thames.  Bizarrely it was the supposidly “popular” regional development agencies in London and the North East which were supposed to be spared the “Maoist” (ibid.) axe of “your chum and mine” Eric Pickles.  Yet the stage is now set for a piece of dust-up theatrics between Boris and the Boroughs, with a quandrant-like Venn diagram of Borough-based Local Economic Partnerships bidding for the same slice of national and global pie hoped for by the same municipalists who think the private sector should pick up the tab for investment promotion.  If they go ahead, I look forward to the deputy leader of, say, Haringey doing his bit to persuade Indian companies to relocate to some industrial estate in Edmonton.

The bonfire of the quangos became some kind of wonkish spectator sport, with enjoyment derived as ’unloved’ worthy beneficiaries were casually tossed into the oil drum as the flames leapt.  And yet the absurd notion that some asbestos-gloved hidden hand is just itching to promote London as a destination globally should at least underline the cause for sparing Visit London, Think London, Film London (which arguably outstrips its national sponsor) and Study London from the same charred fate of the more obscure bodies.

While the Mayor may be on the more astute side regarding the size and scope of any LEP for the capital, when it comes to promoting London otherwise, his record is somewhat more underwhelming.  If you’ve ever heard of the Promote London Council then you probably sit on it.  Equally, the drawn out and opaque tendering process for the fairly timely challenge of unifying the various brands of the city authorities and promotion agencies hardly saw him emerge covered in glory either.

In short, Londoners would do well to resist municipalist libertarian demands to carve up the capital into bite-sized chunks for the purpose of economic development and leave global promotion to firms themselves (who are hardly likely to work on behalf of the micro-enterprises often associated with the knowledge economy).  While we can possibly take something from the next mayor of Chicago’s refrain about not letting a good crisis go to waste in recalibrating and restructuring London’s global offer, let’s not get stranded on Silicon Roundabout looking for the way off in the process.