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31 March 2021

Anchors aweigh for London's post-Covid recovery?

Jack Brown

"Anchor institutions" could help reshape the city and spread opportunity among those hardest hit

London skyline

London’s future has never been more uncertain. On the eve of the pandemic, the capital’s dynamic, diverse economy powered the nation. But the crisis has hit London’s economy hard – harder, in some respects, than the UK average. And this is, of course, to say nothing of the tremendous human cost of the virus.

The scale of the reconstructive task that the next Mayor of London will face is monumental. Whoever is elected on 6 May, they will not be able to do it by themselves. The Mayor’s formal powers are limited, with relatively little ability to raise, retain and spend money. But, like other elected mayors, they can play an important “convening” role, using informal as well as formal powers to achieve their goals.

It is in this capacity that a “task and finish” group of the London Recovery Board, established by the Mayor of London in partnership with London Councils and featuring representatives of institutions from across the capital’s diverse public and private sectors, has recently orchestrated the signing of an “anchor institutions” charter. Signed 16 March 2021, the charter sets out a shared aspiration on the part of its signatories to collectively consider the direction of their resources, particularly in the areas of employment, training and procurement, towards addressing some of the capital’s key post-Covid challenges.

The “anchor institutions” already signed up have large economic footprints across the capital, employing nearly half a million people and spending over £73 billion a year. Many of the organisations involved will have their own existing programmes. King’s is no exception. But rethinking how the capital’s anchor institutions might collectively use their economic might to benefit those Londoners most impacted by the pandemic could prove transformative. It could, of course, also amount to little more than a piece of paper. Much will depend on the extent of the institutional commitment behind the signatures. But the aims are undoubtedly important, timely, and surely of shared interest to any London-based organisation.

Alongside committing the signatories to the five key aims of the London Recovery Board, the charter also highlights a set of principles which focus on assisting those Londoners whom research has shown have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic: those living with high levels of deprivation; BAME Londoners; those with disabilities; young Londoners; and newly-unemployed Londoners over 50 years old. The charter itself commits more explicitly to two areas of activity on the part of the institutions who have signed it: “maximising employment opportunities” and “helping young people to flourish”.

The concept of anchor institutions is nothing new, and like other aspects of London’s modern governance, has roots in the United States. Business improvement districts, innovation districts, and even the directly elected mayoral model itself are all imports from across the Atlantic that have become established, in adapted form, in the UK capital. In the case of London’s new charter, the concept has broadened from an initial focus on hospitals and higher education in the States, sometimes referred to as “eds and meds”.

NHS London, the University of London and the Association of Colleges are signatories. Other large public sector employers have also come on board, including the Metropolitan Police and TfL – what could be referred to as the “low-hanging fruit”. But, perhaps more unusually, London’s “screen industries” and small businesses are also represented, through the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Film London. The presence of multiple religious organisations adds further diversity to the interpretation of the “anchor” role, and the charter also issues a “call to action” to other organisations to get involved.

In one sense, bringing together disparate institutions around a collective agenda such as this is exactly the sort of thing that the Greater London Authority was established to facilitate. The GLA and London Councils are also on board to “support” the project in terms of administration, guidance and research. Collecting and analysing data to determine where need and opportunity exist across the city is a something the GLA is particularly well placed to do.

But if this initiative is to succeed, it will need to outlive the political cycle. Significantly, it was NHS London, under the leadership of Sir David Sloman, that stepped up to chair the task and finish group that developed the charter. Whilst the charter’s multiple signatories do of course demonstrate buy-in from organisations across the capital, it is important to ensure that the project is not (and is not perceived to be) a child of the current City Hall regime alone.

There is another interesting element. The kind of “community wealth-building” initiative alluded to in the charter, but more explicitly mentioned with reference to the “Preston model” in the GLA’s press release, focuses on developing local economies and addressing inequalities at a local level. But for years, London’s mayors (and London’s institutions) have made a great deal of the economic contribution that London’s development makes to the rest of the UK, through inter-regional trade as well as taxes raised in the capital and redistributed elsewhere.

Whilst this charter does not propose bringing this to an end, it does perhaps signal a change in tone. London is hugely unequal, with severe pockets of deprivation. Housing costs render the average Londoner no better off than their counterparts elsewhere in the country. With central government committed to “levelling up” the nation away from London, and several recent funding pots explicitly provided for places outside of the capital, perhaps this marks a shift towards London’s “anchor institutions” focusing on looking after the communities around them, and the need to “level up” within the capital.

Even if the virus is brought to heel by the continued successful rollout of a vaccine, we are likely to be living with the economic and social consequences of Covid-19 for some years. This sense of shared crisis has clearly focused minds during the height of the pandemic. Keeping this sense of shared purpose across organisations, when some degree of normality returns and institutions are thrown back into the particularities of their own, individual, day-to-day pressures, will be a challenge. But such a charter is a start, and one full of potential. As London emerges into a new world, its anchor institutions could play a crucial role in reshaping the city and spreading opportunity amongst those hardest hit by the virus.

Dr Jack Brown is Lecturer in London Studies in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London.