London will be 'last part of UK' to recover from COVID

A discarded Christmas tree lies outside closed pubs and theatres in a deserted Old Compton Street in Soho, London, which has moved into the highest tier of coronavirus restrictions as a result of soaring case rates.
A deserted street in the West End during lockdown in December 2020 (PA Images)

London could take longer than any other part of the country to recover fully from the devastating pandemic, a senior Conservative MP has warned.

Paul Scully, the minister for London, said that while the capital would normally be the first area in the UK to bounce back after a recession, this time it was likely to be the last.

"London tends to bounce back quickest after recessions," he said. "This time, it’s going to be the last to bounce back; it’s three times the size of the next European city."

According to researchers at Warwick Business School, parts of the capital were among the UK areas hardest hit by COVID-19 with Barking and Dagenham, Newham and Haringey identified as among 10 of the areas worst affected.

The centre of London has been significantly been impacted by the shutting down of the West End and the mass exodus of workers, many of whom have yet to return to the office.

While London is home to the wealthiest parts of the country, it is also home to some of the poorest; Barking and Dagenham, Tower Hamlets, and Newham have among the highest levels of poverty in the UK.

Block of flats in Whitechapel on 6th March 2020 in London, United Kingdom. This area in Tower Hamlets is a poor and over populated borough with many people living in small homes of social housing in high rise apartment blocks. (photo by Mike Kemp/In PIctures via Getty Images)
Tower Hamlets is one of the poorest areas in the UK (PA Images)

“If you go from Westminster, where all my colleagues clearly are, and you go on the Jubilee line: for every station towards the East End, you lose a year on your life expectancy - it’s that stark,” added Scully.

Scully, the MP for Sutton and Cheam, said it highlighted that Boris Johnson's levelling-up agenda shouldn't be seen as "pitting" London and the South East against the rest of the UK.

“It’s not ‘them or us', it’s not pitting one region off against another - it’s working in partnership,” he said.

"London is a region as much as it’s a city, as well - you’re talking South East - and it shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. We shouldn’t be pitting people against each other, we should just understand structural issues which may end up with more investment,” he said.

“Understanding it’s not just about geography.”

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Despite this, there has been significant frustration both inside the Conservative Party's 2019 intake of MPs from former Labour heartlands, and within the Labour Party, about the disparities between areas of London and the South East versus areas of the North.

Infrastructure in London is far superior to the rest of the UK, receiving more investment - and many graduates and highly skilled workers move from other areas of the country to the capital after leaving training or university.

The Conservatives have pledged to level up the rest of the country, and open new government departments in the North - including the National Infrastructure Bank in Leeds.

Albion street in Leeds city centre, the day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the UK in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The government have launched the National Infrastructure Bank in Leeds (PA Images)

However, there has been a lot of frustration among these new Tory MPs that the government is still too focused on London.

In 2020, the Northern Research Group - compromising Tory MPs in Labour heartlands - wrote to the government outlining their dissatisfaction.

“[We are concerned] that the cost of COVID could be paid for by the downgrading of the levelling up agenda, and northern constituencies like ours will be left behind,” they wrote.

“We believe this would threaten to undermine the government’s hard-won mandate in December [2019].”

In autumn last year, Andy Burnham refused to lockdown his city because he claimed the government were providing the South with more financial support than the North - earning him the title "King in the North."

In his keynote speech at the Conservative party conference this year, Boris Johnson addressed some of the North-South disparities.

"It is a disgrace that you still can’t swiftly cross the pennines by rail, a disgrace that Leeds is the largest city in Europe with no proper metro system, a waste of human potential that so many places are not served by decent bus routes," he said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers his keynote speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Picture date: Wednesday October 6, 2021.
Boris Johnson has promised to "level-up" the North (PA Images)

"Transport is one of the supreme leveller-uppers - and we are making the big generational changes shirked by previous governments.

"We will do Northern Powerhouse rail, we will link up the cities of the midlands and the North."

However, this focus on the Midlands and Northern seats has brewed discontent among Tory heartlands in the South. These fears were strengthened by a shock result in the Chesham and Amersham by-election in June, which saw the Liberal Democrats win a safe Tory seat.

London mayor, Sadiq Khan, has criticised his own party for "slagging off" London.

“My message to those in our party who think it plays well slagging off London is: you will not get a national recovery without a London recovery," he said.

Watch: Boris Johnson speaks on levelling up