London after Boris – does a world class city need world class politicians?

 

By Deborah Saw, Senior Partner, Newgate Communications

As we squeeze ourselves onto London’s packed tube trains in the morning, attempt to walk on its crowded pavements and breathe in its polluted air Londoners might raise an ironic smile when they read of yet another survey that awards London world first rankings.

Currently London is the top tourism destination for world travellers.[1]  The number one location for business, finance and culture and the world centre for innovation in fashion, software and multimedia development.[2]

It’s no wonder that becoming Mayor of London is a position that is fiercely fought-over.  For almost eight years London has been led by a man described as, ‘Britain’s only box office politician.’  Given the impact Boris Johnson has made, not just on London, but national politics we at Newgate Communications felt that with less than three months to go till the Mayoral elections now was the time to ponder ‘life after Boris.’

A podcast of a very stimulating and provocative discussion as part of our View from the Bridge series is on our website, www.newgatecommunications.com,  with contributions from Anne McElvoy, senior editor at The Economist and columnist for The Standard, Lord Newby, Liberal Democrat Chief Whip  in the House of Lords and Bridget Rosewell, OBE, newly appointed to the National Infrastructure Commission and former Consultant Chief Economic Adviser to the Greater London Authority and questions from our audience.

It would be very easy to characterise the mayoral contest as one between the son of a bus driver brought up in a council house in Tooting, (Labour’s Sadiq Khan) and the son of a billionaire living in a palatial home in leafy Richmond , (Zac Goldsmith for the Tories ) but that would be rather too simplistic.

The polls have Sadiq Khan well ahead but as Anne McElvoy commented that the contest so far had been ‘somnolent.’ Somnolent it may be but none of our speakers wanted to predict the final result.

The candidates are all in agreement, as were all our speakers, on the issues that are central to the future of London.

Housing appears to be the number one issue as the fabric of London appears to be changing as house prices and rents rocket. The average price of a new home today in London is £400,000 and that means it is very difficult and almost impossible for the first time buyer and the low paid to either secure or afford suitable property.  Both of the leading candidates see intervention in the housing market as a solution with Goldsmith wanting to give Londoners the first chance to buy new homes and Khan introducing a form of rent control with a London Living Rent at a third of average incomes.

London’s infrastructure is also important with decisions awaited on CrossRail2 and a third airport. Two of our panellists, Bridget Rosewell and Lord Newby had been in favour of an airport on the Thames Estuary but now wanted any decision at all. Neither candidate is in favour of a Heathrow expansion but both want to take suburban railways into TFL and secure funding for Crossrail 2.

London is a very successful city but it has, compared to other parts of the country, high unemployment. It is a magnet for the super-rich but its success is built on its diversity. It is a very rich city.   It contributes £34bn net a year to the UK public purse but only seven per cent of tax raised in London stays in London.  Further devolution for London must be an issue for the new mayor but that tax take does give him influence over Westminster. The Treasury needs a successful London.

These are huge issues but what power does the London Mayor have to remedy them? Precious few, according to our speakers.  However it should not be forgotten that the Mayor has a £16.2 billion budget.  When it comes to addressing the lack of affordable housing, most of the Mayor’s powers derive from the ability to develop on Greater London Authority land (some 600 hectares), to invest in transport that will unlock land for development, and to deploy funds through the Mayor’s Affordable Homes Programme (£627m over a four year period). He also writes the London Plan, which sets the template for London’s future development.

TfL has become one Boris Johnson’s main tools for encouraging jobs and economic growth in London.  However, TfL’s finances are feeling the strain. For the last two years there have only been inflation-level increases to fares with the government making up the difference – a victory for Boris’s lobbying power.   TfL’s financial plan had assumed higher fare hikes and it now calculates it will need to find an additional £351m over the next ten years to make up for the freeze. So one can imagine what TfL bosses think of Sadiq Khan’s plans to freeze fares for four years.

Interestingly our speakers didn’t spend too much time on the implications of staying or leaving the European Union.  The feeling was that in or out London would respond.  However Lord Newby commented that, ’Europe would lick its lips’ at the prospect of, ‘putting a stranglehold’ on the City.

London’s Mayor needs to champion London as a global city.  Bridget Rosewell believes that London needs a salesman so a colourful personality is essential. He also needs the political skill to prise concessions out of the Government.  As Anne McElvoy commented George Osborne and Boris Johnson were ‘the best of frenemies’ but Zac Goldsmith is regarded as an outsider in Government circles.   In a London where at the last General Election Labour polled 400,000 more votes than Tories that may not be a bad thing.  According to Anne, Khan is a “left leaning machine politician.” He says he is going to be the most ‘pro-business Mayor ever.’  His rival, Goldsmith, is something of a maverick. He has frequently voted against the Government and has already promised to resign as an MP if the third runway at Heathrow gets the green light.  However he does have the populist touch having increased his majority to over 23,000 last year, the largest increase of any MP.

The campaign needs to ignite if the parties are going to get the vote out.  Only 38.5% of those people who were registered to vote actually did in the 2012 mayoral election and that was with the two ‘big beasts’ of Johnson and Livingston.  A low turnout makes the second preferences in London’s Supplementary Voting System more important if neither Goldsmith nor Khan get 50% of the vote. The race to be London Mayor has been described as, ‘the biggest personality contest in UK politics.’ It remains to be seen if policy has any part to play in it and whether a campaign that already has descended to claims that Goldsmith is “playing the race card” after describing Khan as “radical and divisive,”  is going to excite voters.  Perhaps the voters of London deserve better?

[1] MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index, March 2015

[2] Pwc Sixth Cities of Opportunity Index

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