London’s population and employment gradually declined and the government and the GLC reversed their policy of discouraging office development. From the 1970s new projects were once again being planned. Between 1986 and the end of the boom in 1992 the amount of office space in the City vastly increased. In the process more than twenty-five percent of post-war office buildings were replaced. At the end of the 1990s further large office developments were being built or planned that would materialize in the first decade of the next century.
In 1981 the government set up the London Docklands Development Corporation to regenerate the former docks along the riverside from Tower Bridge to Beckton. It was based on the earlier model used to create new towns around the South East, giving control of the scheme to a board of experienced businessmen rather than the local authorities. In 1981 most of the Isle of Dogs became an Enterprise Zone, with tax and other incentives to attract investment, seventy percent of which came from abroad. In 1985 the Bank of England’s rule that banking headquarters were obliged to be located in the City was relaxed. The result was several large-scale new developments around Canary Wharf on the Isle of Dogs.
From the 1980s all the national newspapers departed their traditional homes in Fleet Street to new offices and printing plants that operated using modern methods. Printing technology had long moved on but restrictive trade practices and uncompromising trade unions had attempted to preserve the old and by then over-manned methods of newspaper printing. In January 1986 the Rupert Murdoch-owned News International newspapers The Sun and The Times departed to new offices at Wapping. There, journalists were able to use computerized photocomposition, which allowed them to typeset copy directly instead of relying on a large force of print workers.
The wholesale markets had all been established when London comprised of a relatively small area, which was no longer the case. Between 1974 and 1991 the Covent Garden fruit, vegetable and flower market, Billingsgate fish market and Spitalfields fruit and vegetable market all relocated to modern premises in more accessible parts of London.
The Thames broke its banks several times during the 20th century and there was a constant danger London could have been catastrophically flooded. To prevent such a disaster the Thames Barrier was opened in 1982 at Woolwich Reach, downriver of Central London. An adjustable dam, it is normally left open for ships to pass but its gates can be raised from the riverbed when necessary.
As air travel became more affordable an increasing number of tourists came to London. From the beginning of the 1960s the government gave grants to develop new hotels and in a ten-year period between the mid-60s and mid-70s the number of rooms available increased from forty-four thousand to a hundred and fifty thousand. By the end of the century over thirteen million overseas tourists were visiting London every year.
After the GLC was abolished in 1986 London was managed by its individual boroughs, with various coordinating committees. In 1996 Labour’s Association of London Government published proposals for a new London-wide authority. Several weeks later the idea was endorsed by Labour leader Tony Blair with the commitment to create the position of Mayor of London in the event of a Labour government. There was wide support for the idea, including from some prominent Conservatives. Labour duly won the next General Election and a consultation paper was published proposing an elected Greater London Authority headed by a mayor and ‘Assembly’. An election was held in February 2000 and former GLC leader Ken Livingstone was elected as the first Mayor.
The new GLA consisted of an Assembly of twenty-five directly-elected constituency members. Its remit covered the entire Greater London outside of the City and that of the Metropolitan Police was amended to cover the same. Responsibilities were much greater than that of the GLC, with the Mayor given extensive powers and a budget exceeding some national government departments. A new City Hall was constructed on the south bank of the Thames at Bermondsey, close to Tower Bridge and opposite the Tower of London.
The population of London reached its greatest number in the early and middle part of the 20th century. In 1951 it stood at eight million but by the 1980s had fallen to just six and a half million. Thereafter it began to rise again, boosted by immigrants from overseas. Technically the capital’s borders were those of Greater London but in reality its people were increasingly spread throughout the south-east of England. Many had been born in London but migrated to the new towns, or even as far as Milton Keynes, Guildford and Brighton. At the same time smaller, older towns expanded and became London’s ‘commuter belt’, with hundreds of thousands travelling to London every working day by train or car. It became common for Londoners to retire to the countryside after a life in the city. The transport network was sufficient that people could travel into London from those more distant places simply to watch a concert or do some shopping.
The 1970s and 80s were in many ways a low-point in London’s development but thereafter its economy began to improve. Manufacturing never recovered but London was able to create a range of diversified new businesses for itself in the service sectors of industry, such as culture, tourism and media. The City (by then including the new Docklands district), long overtaken by New York and Tokyo as the largest financial centre, has been able to adapt from being an internal British and Empire market to an international one and thereby maintain a strong position in the world. London at the beginning of the 21st century was a more prosperous and confident city than it had been since the 1930s. It remained the largest city in Europe and in many ways its most dynamic, continuing the process of reinventing itself.
With thanks to Ursula Jeffries for help with fact-checking and proof-reading and to Nick Higham for his comments.
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