London devolution & James Bond spy tunnels plan: The Standard podcast

 (Chris Jones/Pixabay)
(Chris Jones/Pixabay)

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A business group representing 170 top London firms has issued its own manifesto of “quick win” measures and long-term reforms it claims could turbo-charge the capital’s economic potential.

The document by BusinessLDN, titled “London as an engine of growth: a manifesto for the next Government”, lists changes the incoming administration could make at apparently little cost after the July 4 general election.

They include increasing devolution for London, scrapping stamp duty on share trades to improve the capital’s investment attractiveness and a highly controversial review of green belt development rules.

So, how would any further devolved powers work, and what moves are City bigwigs making ahead of a potential change in government?

To analyse BusinessLDN's policy proposals, we’re joined by Evening Standard business editor Jonathan Prynn.

It comes as plans are teased for an underground museum that could see a James Bond exhibition hosted as one of its first attractions.

The once secret Kingsway Exchange Tunnels, which run 40 metres under High Holborn, could be transformed into a new cultural space after private equity-backed developers London Tunnels Ltd applied to the City of London Corporation and Camden council for planning permission.

It was formerly a Second World War telecommunications centre for the Special Operations Executive, which parachuted agents behind enemy lines - and employed 007 author Ian Fleming.

The 7,000 square-metre facility was also deployed as a Blitz air raid shelter before being run by British Telecom as a Cold War government communications exchange.

In part two of this podcast, Evening Standard arts correspondent Robert Dex examines plans for this site and other major City heritage projects.

Listen above, or search The Standard on your podcast provider.

Here’s an automated transcript:

From The Evening Standard in London, I'm Mark Blunden, and this is The Standard Podcast.

Coming up on today's show...

This place, these tunnels, is where they were actually doing that work in the real world that filtered through into these novels 10, 15 years later.

Licensed to build as Developers T's Future Bond Show in planning request for Second World War spy tunnels.

But first, a business group representing 170 of London's top firms has issued its own manifesto of so-called quick-win measures and longer-term reforms that it says could turbocharge the capital's economic potential.

The group is styled London LDN and the document titled London as an Engine of Growth, a manifesto for the next government lists changes the incoming administration could make at apparently little cost after the election result is known on July 5.

They include the scrapping of stamp duty on share trades to improve the attractiveness of London to investors and a highly controversial review of Greenbelt development rules as well as increasing devolution for London.

So how would any future devolved powers work and how are city bigwigs lining up for a potential change of government?

To discover more, we're joined in the city by The Evening Standard's business editor, Jonathan Prynn.

Jonathan, what is BusinessLDN and what are they saying on Monday?

BusinessLDN is one of the leading business groups that particularly focuses on London.

Represents about 170 major London employers.

Now they've put out their manifesto today for what they want to see from the new government walking into Downing Street on the 5th of July.

And they've issued a long list, a wish list if you like, of what they see as relatively quick fixes to help improve the London economy.

And this phrase that they've used, engine of growth, is London not currently an engine of growth?

And why has it hit the buffers?

It is and it isn't.

I mean, London is generally grows faster than the rest of the economy, generally has higher productivity, more skilled jobs, more skilled workers, more innovation, more technology.

But I think there's a feeling that its potential is being constrained because the government has had a quite a strong anti-London feel to it since, really since Brexit and particularly since the 2019 general election.

And there's a real frustration in the business community that this anti-London agenda is shackling the capital's economy, which could be doing so much better to help drive the whole country's growth.

They mentioned more about devolution. Was there any further detail on these plans?

Yeah, there's quite a long list of what they call quick wins.

As you say, devolution is very high up the list.

They make the point that the London authorities, City Hall and the mayor and so on, only keep 7% of the tax revenues that are generated in London.

That's way lower than most other major world cities.

But there's also things that they flagged up today, including scrapping stamp duty on share sales, which they say would boost the UK stock market and the city, which has been under a lot of pressure over the last few years.

They want to shake up green belt laws.

They say that very tight green belt planning restrictions are restraining London's growth and particularly the supply of affordable housing.

And also, very high up, I should mention, get rid of the dreaded tourist tax of the VAT or the lack of VAT refund on purchases by foreign tourists.

They're extremely keen to see that go.

In your expert's opinion, are these actually workable quick wins?

Yeah, that's a really good question.

I mean, the new government could restore the VAT duty perk for foreign tourists at a stroke on day one.

Now, that would be a fairly easy win.

I think would symbolise the government's intent and say, yeah, we are not bashing London anymore.

We're getting rid of this measure that London has suffered from.

But I think some of the other ones are tricky.

I mean, the green belt in particular is such a vexed issue.

There's lots of people that passionately support the green belt and would be very opposed to seeing it watered down.

However, you know, London is running out of space for new affordable housing.

So something may have to go there.

And finally, looking ahead, we spoke before the mayoral election and there was some unhappiness.

Remember with that cancelled hustings, you said in terms of the city mood music, they were none too pleased about that.

Now heading towards the general election, how are the city bigwigs positioning themselves for a future change of government?

Well, I think like most of the country, they're working on the assumption that it'll be Rachel Reeves running the treasury in Keir Starmer at number 10 after the election.

And that relationship has been increasingly warm over the past year or so.

Rachel Reeves very cleverly positioning herself or Labour as the party of business.

The Tories have done themselves immense harm over the last few years with what are seen as anti-business measures, particularly in London.

So I think Labour will have a lot of goodwill behind them if they do get the keys to Downing Street, but it's not an easy economic inheritance, so we'll have to see how long the honeymoon lasts.

Let's go to the ads. Coming up.

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Plans have been revealed for a new underground museum that could see a future James Bond exhibition hosted as one of its first attractions.

The once secret Kingsway Exchange Tunnels, which run under High Holborn, are set to be transformed into a cultural space after developers applied to the City of London and Camden Council for planning permission.

Evening Standard Arts correspondent Robert Dex has the details.

These are plans that are going into planning now.

So they've gone into the City of London and actually Camden Council, because the tunnels are so huge, they stretch from the city across into Camden.

So things could change, you know, they have to get through two sets of planning officers, two sets of planning councillors, and then they have to build the damn thing.

But I mean, I think the interesting thing and why Bond is picked out, I mean, one thing is Bond is huge and the massive worldwide interest is just enormous.

And the interesting thing about the Kingsway Tunnels and Bond is actually a link to the real life historical world that produced and influenced James Bond.

His creator, Ian Fleming, during the Second World War was one of these people who was instructed to, I think the phrase was think around corners, so they had to think about strange and genius ways to sort of upset the German war effort and distract them and put them off and confuse them.

And some of that work was done in these tunnels.

These tunnels were used by something called SOE, Special Operations Executive, who were generally parachuted in behind enemy lines to join forces with local resistance and essentially cause trouble.

Blow up trains, blow up train tracks, set fire to things.

Instead of putting petrol in tanks, they filled them with stuff that clogged up the engines, all that sort of stuff.

And that happened there, under the road in the Kingsway Tunnels is where they planned all this stuff.

Maps disguised in pencils and guns that looked like torches and all this sort of stuff.

All this stuff that was going on, which Fleming was a big part of, sort of fermented in his brain and years out came later as he came out as the shape of James Bond and Hugh and you know, I mean, every Bond film, the classic scene is always where he gets the latest technology, the latest gadget that he gets given.

This place, these tunnels is where they were actually doing that work in the real world that filtered through into these novels 10, 15 years later.

And so what was its last used function and what will be the next steps in the planning process?

More prosaically, it was used by British Telecom.

It was used for a while to handle the transatlantic calls they did.

And then it was just sort of, I think it was in the eighties, it stopped being used.

I think they found stuff in the building that meant it wasn't sort of fit for the staff to be there with it much longer.

So actually now in this tunnel, there's things like a games room and an office that preserved an aspect from the eighties from when the BT staff left.

It's had a mixed history.

I mean, it was originally built as a bomb shelter, but my understanding is I think it took so long to build it that actually by the time it was able to be opened as a huge bomb shelter, the worst of the blitz was over and it wasn't needed.

Tuesday, I believe it is tomorrow, it goes to the planning committee at the City of London, who I think are pretty much broadly expected to approve it as long as there's various caveats.

I mean, this is a building that's been empty for 40 years, so it has to be fit to have hundreds of doers walk through and all that sort of thing.

And then it would be the slow, long process of getting in there and essentially turn it into a museum.

And in terms of those subterranean museums in London, you must be able to give us a tip of some hidden treasures.

Maybe there's something about stepping underground that you go into a slightly different world.

But I would always, always, always recommend the London Mithraeum.

If people don't know this, this is Bloomberg, the huge media conglomerate, has a big office in the city.

Glass, steel, very modern, all as you would expect.

Underneath it is the remains of a Roman temple of Mithras.

So this is a Roman god that was worshiped by Roman legionaries and merchants, whatever, when they came to London.

Again, I mean, this sort of ties in with that whole wartime history.

My understanding is that during the blitz, a great big hole was blown in the road.

And obviously, after the war, it came to be built on again.

And before that happened, an archaeologist went to have a look around and found this remains of this temple.

And when you go in, it's really quite something, because as I say, you step down, you step in under the ground, and it's all sort of hazy lighting and music.

And you hear sort of the sound of footsteps.

And it's tiny, it's not very big at all.

And obviously not all of it is survived, but you stand there and it is like taking a step back into Roman London.

And in terms of the city planning schedule, what else does the City of London have on its books currently in terms of major heritage transformational projects?

The city was heading in a more, if you like, cultural direction.

A long time ago, talk about the culture mile.

You're gonna be able to walk through like, you know, a mile of the city with these major cultural landmarks.

COVID has obviously sped it up hugely.

They've now got all these office blocks, financial services, both of those things are not quite what they once were.

What do you do to try to replace them, to bolster them?

So you've got a more mixed economy in the city.

And they have gone for art and culture in a big way.

I mean, they've always funded it massively.

You know, the city has always been behind it.

But I mean, the big, big one in the city is the London Museum.

What was once the Museum of London at London Wall is now being emptied and they are building a new museum at West Smithfield.

I don't know if you ever went to the Museum of London.

I mean, I thought it was brilliant, but it was of its time, if you like, in the construction.

If you're able to build a whole new museum from scratch, the things you can do are just almost limitless, you know?

There's gonna be the train tracks to Barringdon are gonna hopefully run through one of the exhibition sites.

It's gonna be absolutely immense.

So that's the real jewel in the crown.

There seems to be very few very large planning bids going into the city that don't have some sort of culture reflected in it.

So there's talk about some huge, huge towers of student accommodation.

And the bottom two floors, hopefully, will be a home for the Migration Museum, which is already up and running.

It’s been sort of have temporary homes.

It's been in the shopping center in Lewish and all this sort of stuff.

But the talk about giving that permanent home by Tower Hill.

There was another one.

And again, this all connects back to the myth of Ray.

Well, the tower that's being built, it's been built on the remains of the Roman Forum.

So that the original sort of center of Roman London.

And again, as part of the building, these things are also going through planning.

The idea is that they can bring the forum out of it, open it up so that people can access it for the first time in a generation.

There's much more on these stories in the Evening Standard newspaper and online at

We're back on Tuesday at 4pm.