London and the impact of Covid-19
Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, talked to us about the capital’s colossal challenges as well as his hopes for the future
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Tough at the top
At our latest Coutts in Conversation event, London mayor Sadiq Khan spoke to our Chairman Lord Waldegrave about the tough reality of life in the capital. However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom as he also reflected on the opportunities to come back stronger once the pandemic has passed.
Putting political differences aside, Mr Khan’s opening comments to our audience lifted the lid on the united effort to manage the virus: “By and large, we all realise we’re on the same side here, the opponent is the virus, not each other.” And while London may be the economic heartbeat of the UK, he commented on the reach of a disease which doesn’t discriminate: “This is a virus that impacts human beings, not just businesses.”
Health versus wealth
Crucial to maintaining the delicate balance between people and business was his decision to keep the city moving, especially when the virus was a relatively unknown quantity in its the early stages.
It’s something that Mr Khan told us he didn’t take lightly, “Keeping public transport open was a tough decision but the right one.” He later commented, “On the one hand (there’s) the need for increased economic activity, on the other hand there’s the need to protect and preserve public health...It’s not a choice of lives and livelihood, they’re inextricably linked.”
And with remarkable candour, he also spoke of the impact the crisis has had on his own mental health because in his view, ”by being honest, it allows others to talk about their vulnerabilities.”
A tough balancing act
Lord Waldegrave then asked about the tricky dynamic of needing to encourage people back into the city safely, whilst also having to balance the books by increasing the Congestion Charge and extending it to seven days a week. As Mr Khan clarified, “Actually, it wasn’t difficult because I was told to do it by the government.”
Despite having reduced Transport for London’s operating deficits and increased its cash balances before the virus struck, the lockdown was a financial body blow which forced the Mayor’s hand in asking for a government grant. It was given to him on the proviso that he promised to reintroduce the congestion charge and to widen its scope. Seen by Mr Khan as a “sledgehammer”, he said he hopes to be able to take a more nuanced approach to charging in the future.
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Build back better
Whatever life throws at London, again and again it has demonstrated an ability to recover from serious setbacks and Mr Khan’s no less optimistic about the future of the city, “Yes we are resilient, we always bounce back better…we are going to continue to be the world’s greatest city, but we’re going to be different.
He predicts a greener future for the capital, but not at the expense of what makes the city world-beating: “Our financial centre, our culture, (and) our universities.”
Taken to task on the state of London’s broadband, Mr Khan was characteristically frank about the difficulties the metropolis faces – namely the fact it’s an old city divided up into 33 autonomous boroughs, which makes city-wide planning a challenge. However, with the appointment of London’s first Chief Digital Officer to coordinate the boroughs and the introduction of a full fibre spine housed in the city’s underground system, he said he was optimistic: “We’ve made massive progress and people will see the fruits of that.”
The importance of diversity
As London’s first observant Muslin Mayor, Mr Khan said he is proud of the city he represents, “To me diversity is a sign of strength not of weakness…our values are more powerful than the values of those who seek to divide us. We don’t tolerate difference, we respect it, we embrace it and we celebrate it.”
On the subject of ‘culture wars’, and the call to remove the statues of controversial historical figures, the Mayor struck a pragmatic tone when telling our audience, “History is complicated, some of the people we revere have complicated histories.”
But he’s keen to ensure the city celebrates its diversity, “Going forward, we should hope that our public realm fully reflects the contribution made by a diverse group of people.” And regarding the removal of what he feels is just a ‘handful’ of statues, “those are discussions we can have in a courteous and polite manner.”
Reasons to be cheerful
Despite this year’s challenges, Mr Khan said that he remains persuasively positive, “We should all be optimistic about the future, it is tough in the short to medium term…but not withstanding those challenges, I’m so optimistic, we are the best reason why I’m optimistic about our future: our innovation, our capacity to adapt, our capacity to find solutions, the can-do attitude.”
As a born-and-bred Londoner, the mayor remains a strong advocate for the city he’s grown up in, “London is a great place to invest, it’s a great place to live, visit, none of that is going to change."
To find out more about our Coutts in Conversation events, please speak to your private banker.
You can also read our reports from previous Coutts in Conversation events:
- How long does it take to make a vaccine?
- How lockdown could lead to “a rich inner life”
- Can science beat the coronavirus?
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