Nick Bowes may have lived in London for more than 20 years and even played an important part in shaping the capital’s political landscape, but his Yorkshire roots are still very much close to the surface.
“It’s funny how many people think I automatically know how to make Yorkshire puddings,” laughs Mr Bowes, who is originally from Rotherham, when asked what his Southern colleagues and associates think of his background. “In actual fact, I do.”
He adds: “Everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve got everybody drinking Yorkshire Tea because we do know how to drink proper tea in Yorkshire. I was on leave last week, but my colleagues have bought the biggest sack of Yorkshire Tea.”
Earlier this year, Mr Bowes was appointed as the new chief executive of the Centre for London think-tank after spending 11 years working with Sadiq Khan – firstly as a special adviser when the Labour politician was Shadow Secretary of State for Justice and Constitutional Reform then as Mayoral Director of Policy when Mr Khan became Mayor of London.
Mr Bowes studied Geography and Mathematics at Newcastle University, then did a PhD in Economic Geography in Sheffield, before moving to London to work as a policy adviser for organisations such as the CBI and the Engineering Employers’ Federation.
He is surprised by where his career has taken him. He says: “It is an example of how quite small, incremental changes between jobs when you look back over a grand sweep of time results in a big move from where you started to where you ended up.
“If anybody had said to me when I was leaving university that you’ll be working for the Mayor of London as director of policy, I wouldn’t have believed them.”
While his work for Mr Khan only began in 2010, he had known him for almost a decade before that – dating back to when the mayor was a local councillor.
“I was active in my local Labour party politics in my younger days in London which happened to be in Tooting,” Mr Bowes explains.
“I got to know and worked with Sadiq from before he was an MP and was friends with him during all of those years when he was in Parliament.
“When he became a member of the Shadow Cabinet he asked me to go and work for him as his special adviser, which I did in 2010.
“And then I stayed with him through his journey from being a MP to being a candidate for mayor to being mayor, and worked with him for five years at City Hall until May.
“It’s been nearly 20 years I have known him. Sadiq and I hit it off and just got to know each other and agreed on many things.
“I think he saw I’d had another career outside of Parliament in public affairs and policy and I knew that kind of landscape well, so when he wanted someone to come and support him, he thought I would bring something to the table.”
Excitement and challenges at City Hall
After being director of policy for Khan’s mayoral campaign, Mr Bowes says winning the 2016 election was a very proud moment.
“When you’re in politics you want to be in power so that you could do the things that you told the electorate that you would do. So then when you actually finally get there it is a fantastic feeling.
“I’m not going to deny that in May 2016 that was a great feeling when we took over the City Hall.
“All of a sudden you’ve got the levers of power and you can actually make things happen. That in itself felt like a real achievement.”
But after Khan’s election in May 2016, British politics was soon plunged into a tumultuous period after the Brexit referendum the following month - while London suffered a series of terrorist attacks as well as the Grenfell Tower fire.
“I think it was a very difficult five years,” Bowes reflects. “It was a period of a lot of political instability during the five years - there were three different Prime Ministers, two general elections and the Brexit referendum. We had a number of horrific terrorist attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire. We had Donald Trump’s ascendancy in America and then to cap it all at the end we had the pandemic which delayed the election. Dealing with all of those things, while still trying to do the things that you said you would do was a real challenge.
“I‘m proud of the fact that I could play a role in delivering on some of the big ticket issues like the work around air quality. I was also really proud to work for an organisation with exceptional officials and really talented people who stepped up at times of crisis and delivered.
“I’m not going to deny that it doesn’t take an emotional toll and it does, and I saw that in myself and amongst officials. Trying to remain professional and focus on what the immediate crisis is and somehow compartmentalise the kind of emotional aspects of it is tough but it is really important.
“In early 2017 when we had a number of terrorist attacks and the Grenfell tower fire it was a really difficult period for the city. It felt it felt like it was never ending. He was dealing with some terrible crises and when you’re supporting a major who is a kind of figurehead for the city, that role is even more important.
“We tried very hard to provide some reassurance and stability at those difficult times.
“It’s a natural kind of human instincts to think, ‘I wish we’ve done this, I wish we’d done that’, and in the heat of the moment it is never quite as obvious. Given the scale of lack of challenges that we face that were outside of my control on the kind of political instability in which the whole five years at Westminster was dominated by Brexit, it was very difficult to further some of the agendas like devolution. All mayors have wanted more devolution in London and beyond. In hindsight, it would have been great to make more progress in those areas, but actually give them the kind of difficulties from the preoccupations that they were in Westminster, you can also understand how that was always going to be tricky.”
New role at thinktank
Mr Bowes says his new role is ideal for a “policy geek” such as himself.
“I love that interface between policy and politics - it is great coming up with policies but if they are not actually implemented, it feels a bit wasted. When you work in politics, there is never a good time to leave, but actually elections are a natural time to leave. I’d worked directly with Sadiq for 11 years, that is a quarter of my whole life and that’s a long time with any employer.
“It was a natural time to leave but I didn’t want to leave the same arena and this opportunity arose and for me, it was the most perfect next step possible.
“What the Centre for London allows me to do is to draw on that knowledge and that experience of my time at City Hall and wider than that. We get our teeth into some of our big policy challenges that the city is facing.
“Our job is to really think hard about what challenges the city is facing across a whole range of things - environmental, housing, transport, developing the economy, and come up with ideas and solutions that will help all of the city’s decision-makers, whatever their politics, whether they are majors, local authority leaders, MPs, councillors to make informed and evidence-based decisions that will help make the city a better place.
“The aim is very much is to make sure we’re doing work on the issues that really matter and when we produce a report or we have an event where there’s a roundtable discussion or conference, the things that come out of that are adopted and taken forward.
“You’ve got to be focusing on the really big issues that matter. And you’ve also got to have built a reputation that allowed opens doors and means that people listen when we say things when we produce work.”
Why London needs levelling up
With the Government’s levelling up agenda dominating politics, he says his central challenge is two-fold – both making people understand the many challenges London faces and also highlighting the many benefits it brings to the nation.
“Levelling up has somewhat kind of got whittled down to a lowest common denominator conversation is about North versus South. I think it just oversimplifies what actually is a very complicated problem.
“To say that the North is in need and the South isn’t ignores the fact that there are places in the North that are very affluent and doing very well, just as it ignores there are places in London and the South-East that are really struggling.
“One of our jobs at Centre for London is to find a better way of doing two things – firstly, talking about what London’s own levelling up challenges are because it is a city of huge contrasts.
“Yes, there are gleaming skyscrapers on the skyline, there is a lot of money sloshing around the City, but there’s also very many hundreds of thousands of people living in real poverty.
“I think that’s not properly understood not even within London, actually, but certainly not a national level. But there is a second bit which is really important. London is one of the few truly global cities and it does operate in a global market."
He cites Google's new £1bn headquarters in London as an example of something that came to the UK because of London's global status.
“We’ve got a challenge to find a way of talking about why this has been a positive for the country. We’ve got a job as a city to play in the levelling up agenda too. There’s a lot of activities in the city that depend on the rest of the country and vice versa. It isn’t a zero sum game. London success doesn’t have to come at the detriment of other bits of the country. We can all succeed if we get it right.
"One of the Centre for London’s positions for all its ten years of existence is there needs to be a proper wholesale approach to devolution in this country so local areas, cities and regions have got much more control over their own affairs and that includes more fiscal powers. That argument is made by people across the political spectrum.
“If you get to a stage where the mayors and the regions have more fiscal powers, they will be able to start taking some of these decisions about what they spend money on. They won’t constantly have to bid into the centre, wait ages for a decision, and then lose out to someone else. That kind of bidding against each other is very inefficient.
“I think the real prize is all working together on a much more devolution - even in London where people aspire to London-level devolution - actually London’s got a long way to go to get anywhere close to most other big cities of its size.”
Bowes says when he comes back to Yorkshire, he often picks up some resentment towards London
“When you start to scratch away at it, it’s not actually always resentment at the people that live there. It’s things that are based there - Parliament, the City, financial institutions or sometimes the BBC.
“You know the gripes are not with people that live here and people I hope still really value and enjoy being able to hop on a train and come down with a couple of hours and just experience London. We are so lucky as a country of a city like London and most countries would give anything to have a city like London.”
He says while he has a “very strong emotional attachment” to Yorkshire, London now feels like home.
“In my heart I’m still kind of proud of those Yorkshire links but it’s not where my life is.”
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