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The Policy Ask with Nick Bowes: “It is high time we reversed the over-centralisation of our country”

Sadiq Khan's former director of policy on devolution, productivity and LGBTQ+ rights.

By Spotlight

Nick Bowes, the chief executive of the Centre for London think tank, has worked in politics, policy and campaigns for over 20 years. From 2016 to 2021, he was London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s director of policy. He has also held positions with the Confederation of British Industry, the Education Endowment Foundation and the Royal Society.

How do you start your working day?

The very first thing before anything else is feeding my demanding cat Oscar. I’m an early riser and like a quiet hour in the office to clear my inbox and generally wake up. I’ve recently started cycling in, changing my routine a bit. Pret iced black coffee with an extra shot has been a lifesaver.

What has been your career high?

The small role I played in the massive air quality agenda in London, saving lives and raising awareness of how air we had made poisonous through our actions was a killer.

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I also smile when I see the Pride traffic lights through the West End, which send a strong message about celebrating the city’s diversity.

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What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Being part of a team that ran a major global city for five years meant waking up every morning not knowing what the day ahead had in store. What hit me the hardest was the terrorist attack on Borough Market – it could easily have been me or my friends caught up in the harrowing events.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Don’t get hung up on concrete, forward career trajectories – life’s rarely that simple. Grab opportunities as they arise. If you get the chance to work abroad, always say yes. Look after your health and have clear boundaries – you can’t fire on all cylinders without being in top shape, nor should work ruin your time away from the office.

Which political figure inspires you, and why?

While he’s nowadays rather unfashionable, I’ve long been a fan of Harold Wilson. He presided over a remarkable period of social change in the country; he towered over the politics of the 1960s and 1970s, and, refreshingly, he caused great surprise by knowing when to leave the stage, resigning on his terms. Plus, he’s a Yorkshireman who loved HP Sauce!

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right, and why?

The aspiration behind the levelling up agenda is admirable. I’m an economic geographer by background, and though now a Londoner, the first 18 years of my life were in Rotherham, one of the areas desperately in need of levelling up. It’s in no one’s interests that the full resources of the country aren’t put to productive use.

And what policy should the UK government ditch, and why?

Less a policy, but the negative rhetoric directed at London is pretty tiresome. London isn’t a key political battleground and there’s votes to be had in kicking the capital, but it’s stoking up division and resentment. I also hope the British Bill of Rights is scrapped – we’re forgetting the history behind human rights legislation that it’s not for the government of the day to decide who is and isn’t worthy of having them protected.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to, and why?

I hope the outlawing of conversion therapies that aim to “cure” LGBTQ+ people makes it to the statute – it is an abhorrent practice that wrongly treats homosexuality like it is a disease or a manifestation of evil. It is exploitation and abuse by any other name.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

I’m a fan of northern European countries and how their quality of life on many levels is better than ours. There’s a British problem that equates higher productivity with longer and longer hours – our European neighbours show the opposite is true, leaving people happier with their lives. They’ve achieved this through strong investment in skills, science and infrastructure.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

I’d legislate for a fundamental shift of power away from Whitehall to the devolved nations, regions, mayors and local authorities. It is high time we reversed the over-centralisation of our country and empower mayors and council leaders to focus on what works best for their areas. Importantly, this must include powers to levy and collect taxes – income streams independent of the Treasury are crucial, otherwise they’re left at the mercy of the taps being turned off at any moment.

[See also: Liz Truss has no moral right to be Prime Minister]