Charles Wright: How would PM ‘Boris’ respond to Mayor Khan’s ten point challenge?

Charles Wright: How would PM ‘Boris’ respond to Mayor Khan’s ten point challenge?

Whether it’s Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt moving into 10 Downing Street next month, they won’t be short of advice from interested parties, including Johnson’s successor as London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who last week issued a 10-point challenge to the next Prime Minister.

It’s a blueprint to “reduce the impact of Brexit, tackle economic inequality and counter the growing anti-London sentiment across the country,” according to City Hall.

Khan has his own election to win next year and the first of his 10 points plays firmly to his voter constituency – protect jobs, growth and prosperity by “revoking Article 50 and giving the British public the final say on Brexit” –  while point 10 urges the new PM to “stand up for the open, inclusive, forward-looking nation Britain has always been – and not pander to the insurgent Right”.

But any Mayor of London also needs to work with national government and at present that still looks likely to be Mayor Khan’s Conservative predecessor. Johnson’s leadership campaign to date has focused on his mayoral record – “I want now to do for the whole country what we did in London” – so what clues are there to how Khan’s blueprint would be received?

It’s a comprehensive list – reversing police and council funding cuts, cash for affordable housing, more revenue for Transport for London, funding for major infrastructure including Crossrail 2, and the transfer of suburban rail services to London Overground control.

There are calls for action on climate change and air pollution in there too, plus – perhaps the key demand – for significant powers, including tax-raising powers, to be devolved to City Hall, and an immigration policy reflecting London’s needs, or allowing “London to decide for itself what best works for its businesses and growth”.

Johnson’s claims about his record as Mayor is predictably contested, including by factcheckers. The murder rate fell during his time at City Hall, but it was falling anyway; knife crime went up and then went down; police numbers broadly stayed the same.

And while Johnson’s eight year tenure did deliver 101,525 extra “affordable” homes, targets were reduced and definitions changed during that time, including with the introduction of the government’s Affordable Rent tenure. By the end of Johnson’s second term, no social rent homes, which are generally let at lower levels than AR, were being funded (see On London‘s guide to affordable homes in the capital here).

Traffic and air pollution are other disputed areas. Johnson won the 2008 mayoral election partly on a promise to scrap proposed vehicle charges based on CO2 emissions, and went on to scrap the western extension of the congestion charge zone. On the other hand, he later produced ultra low emission zone plans, albeit to a timetable which Khan accelerated. Johnson said he would “bear down” on public transport fares, but they went up year on year.

So would Johnson as PM prove more amenable to City Hall funding demands than the then tenants of Downing Street were when he was Mayor?

After the 2011 London riots, Mayor Johnson urged government not to “risk London’s safety with police cuts”, describing the case for reducing police budgets as “always pretty frail”. Like Khan to date, his pleas were not successful. More recently, alongside controversial comments on investigating historic child abuse, he has emphasised tactics, including stop and search – “it depends where you spend the money and where you deploy the officers”.

Nor is it clear that he would continue the current government’s support for social housing – a notable win for Khan, with funding earmarked for new council housebuilding. Speaking at last year’s Tory conference, in a paean to the virtues of home ownership, Johnson described “building and control of state-owned housing” as in “Labour’s political interests” but “diametrically opposed to the interests of most families”.

Would Johnson pursue a less dogmatic approach to immigration, as urged by the capital’s business grouping London First? “I have always been a believer in immigration and in allowing talented people to come to this country,” he told the Evening Standard last week, while reiterating at his leadership launch that “people were entirely reasonable in wanting national controls”, and previously arguing that “uncontrolled” migration had “held wages down”. Constructive ambiguity then.

It is perhaps in the areas of investment in infrastructure and devolution that London might expect the most sympathetic hearing. Johnson’s approach as Mayor was to argue hard for funding for capital projects, ranging from the Crossrail and the Northern Line extension, where he had some success, to the abortive “Boris Island” airport in the Thames estuary, rejected by Whitehall in 2014, and, of course, the failed Garden Bridge.

In 2008, newly elected as Mayor, he mused in his Telegraph column on the importance of capital investment, particularly in times of economic hardship. Recalling visiting Hoover Dam, which was built during the Great Depression, he called it “a colossal concrete cathedral to Keynesian economics”, prompting long-time London watcher Professor Tony Travers to comment somewhat bemusedly on the sight of “the most senior Conservative in office in Britain explicitly proposing a Keynesian solution to our economic problems”.

It’s a commitment he has maintained: “We need now to level up – not to neglect our capital – of course not, but to put in the infrastructure that will lift every region,” he said at his leadership launch, listing Northern powerhouse rail, transport connectivity in the west Midlands and metro rail for Leeds.

It was Johnson too who set up the London Finance Commission in 2013, chair by Travers, to marshal the arguments for comprehensive fiscal devolution. In 2015, he pushed for a City Hall takeover of suburban rail services and power over skills, criminal justice, transport and housing, plus control of business rates and housing related taxes – a call repeated in his current campaign.

Devolution was both “Tory in principle” and “a way to help councils…feeling the squeeze with the rising cost of services for the elderly,” he said in 2018.

Will Johnson’s words be matched by deeds, should he assume the UK premiership? Brexit will, of course, be the first concern of the new PM, but Johnson has made much of the need to settle the matter and then “concentrate on the Britain we can create for everyone”.

As for Johnson’s leadership rival Jeremy Hunt, though he remains the underdog, we shouldn’t forget that as health secretary he has agreed significant devolution of health services to London, in 2015 and 2017, as well overseeing the 2012 Olympics as culture secretary.

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Categories: Analysis

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