The State of Britain

A sharp drop in the capital’s property prices, no more meat at Smithfield after 800 years and ‘the Tulip’ at the last hurdle

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Unemployment in London dropped slightly by 6,000 to 218,000 between December and February; a decrease of 0.1% to 4.5%. The SW of England had the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 2.6% and the NE of England had the highest at 5.6%. The national unemployment rate stands at 3.9% and UK average earnings grew by 3.5% or by 1.6% after inflation.

London average property prices fell sharply by 2.0% to £459,800 during the month, which meant the capital has seen a price drop of 3.8% over the year – the biggest fall in the UK. In comparison, UK prices dropped by 0.8% to £226,234 during April which cut the annual growth rate to 0.6%.

Climate change protesters’ attempt to disrupt travel around London as part of a series of events across the world met with some success although gauging the impact on London’s economy will be more difficult to assess. Extinction Rebellion blocked traffic at Marble Arch, Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge, Parliament Square and Piccadilly Circus. There were delays on the Docklands Light Railway and up to 50 bus routes in Central London were diverted.

Some key developments in the capital moved forward this month. City planners have approved the second tallest skyscraper in Western Europe, featuring a viewing platform with transparent rotating pods and internal slides. London already boasts the Gherkin, the Cheese Grater and the Walkie Talkie; the new tower will be called the Tulip but at 305m it is about a metre shorter than the Shard, the UK’s highest building. The tower will be a visitor attraction without any office space and will compete against similar paying attractions in the area like The Shard and the London Eye. Foster + Partners have designed the flower-like building to complement the Gherkin next door which they also designed. Construction would begin in 2020 with the project completed by 2025 if the Mayor of London approves the plan.

Westminster council has approved a £232m strategy to upgrade Oxford Street and the wider area. The council will invest £150m and hopes partners will fund the shortfall of £82m. In 2018, the council declined to pedestrianise Oxford Street which attracts 200m visits a year. The council will initially spend £21m on design, surveys and other feasibility studies.

The City’s historic Smithfield Market will be moved to a former power station at Barking Reach in Dagenham under plans to free up land for housing. It will be the first time in 800 years the market has not been in the City. The development will require a Parliamentary private bill to proceed which is likely to be in November 2020. Barking Reach will consolidate all of the City Corporation’s wholesale markets including Billingsgate and New Spitalfields.

A number of notable transport developments in London this month, especially for motorists from Barnes who drive older diesel vehicles. If Barnes drivers manage to get across the river – Hammersmith Bridge has been closed indefinitely after failing safety checks and will remain closed until refurbishment costs can be met – and then head towards Central London, they will have to pay two daily charges, the Congestion Charge and the new Ultra Low Emission Zone charge which now operates 24/7. The Ultra Low Emission Zone has come into effect in central London – the same area as the congestion charge – and is designed to dissuade people from driving older, more polluting vehicles into the capital.

On the buses, Transport for London has announced a restructuring of London’s bus network aiming to grow routes in outer London while cutting underused services in the capital; 29 of 33 proposed bus route changes will start operating from June. Many central London buses are less than 70% full at peak times reflecting a 12% drop in demand in the last three years. TfL forecasts many bus users will also switch to the Elizabeth Line when it opens in the autumn.

On the trains, Crossrail will now be completed two years behind schedule and will not initially include the opening of Bond Street, one of 10 new stations along the Elizabeth Line; the £17.6bn east-west route which will run between Reading and Shenfield in Essex had been due to open in December 2018. Major tasks to complete before opening the line include; creating and testing software that would integrate the train operating system with three different signalling systems plus trial running the trains over thousands of miles of the completed railway. The cost of the project has risen from £14.8bn to £17.6bn.

Plans to close ticket offices at 51 London Overground stations have been abandoned, although many will have opening hours reduced to two-and-a-half hours per day. An additional £5m funding from London’s business rates has been made available to keep offices open: £1m will be invested in new technology to improve stations, including remote-controlled ticket barriers and trials of video-link ticket machines this summer.

One of the more successful rail franchises is Virgin Train’s 400-mile West Coast Mainline route which connects London to major cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow. In the last financial year, the operator carried 688,026 passengers between Glasgow and London, a 29% increase from 2012-13.
In total, nearly 40m journeys were made with the firm up by almost 10m compared with six years earlier. Virgin Trains hopes for 50m annual passenger by 2026, which is when HS2 is due to open between London and Birmingham.