Critics of Boris Johnson have a standard charge sheet against him, one that has been endlessly recycled during the final weeks of the Conservative Party’s fantasy land leadership contest, Left churnalism to the fore. Numerous items on that list stem from his time as London Mayor, but many of those are fairly trivial. Other things Johnson did during his eight years at City Hall were more significant and had a larger impact on the capital. And, shocking though it may seem, not all of them were bad.
Consider, for instance, the New Routemaster or “Boris Bus”, a bespoke vehicle advertised as reviving features of the retired, original Routemaster bus. Of course, the promised “hop on, hop off” permanently open rear platform and “21st century conductors” soon disappeared, upbeat predictions that other cities would pay TfL for the right to copy it came to precisely nothing and “mobile sauna” was one of the more restrained descriptions for the bus in hot weather. There are also suspicions that it’s as susceptible to fare dodging as bendy buses were.
But although TfL had to pay for its development (despite Johnson’s saying the manufacturer would take that weight) and the cost per bus was higher – though not massively so – than for off-the-peg vehicles, it was and remains one of London’s cleaner buses. Stories that, despite its series hybrid engine, it actually really runs on diesel have always been wrong and the hot weather problem has been primarily about poor ventilation – other sorts of bus get nearly as hot on sunny days.
Was it worth the fuss and expense? Probably not. But as a transport and environmental policy to disapprove of, how does it compare with Johnson’s halving of London’s congestion charge area by abolishing its western extension from early in 2011, less than four years after the “WEZ” had been introduced by Ken Livingstone?
TfL had estimated that the removal of the WEZ would cost it at least £50 million per annum in lost revenue. That’s more than twice as much a year as the transport body spent altogether on the ill-fated Garden Bridge (£24 million) at which so much indignation is directed. That fiasco reflects poorly on Johnson’s mayoralty, but it is hardly the huge scandal often claimed. Livingstone too investment multi-millions in transport projects that never happened. That’s sometimes how it goes.
The lost annual WEZ income is also more than three times as much as TfL put towards building the Emirates Air-Line cable car between North Greenwich and the Royal Docks (£15 million), a Johnson Thames crossing that actually materialised and serves its primary purpose of promoting interest in the Royal Docks regeneration area. Yet the WEZ has received barely a mention from Johnson’s chorus of tormentors. And on the other side of the balance sheet, the Tory Mayor twice increased the charge for entering the original, surviving, central congestion charge zone, in 2011 and in 2014. His Labour successor, Sadiq Khan, has promised not to raise it all during his current four year term. Johnson also planned the ultra low emission zone (ULEZ) for Central London, covering the same area as the surviving congestion charge zone. Here, Khan has been bolder, bringing the ULEZ – also a raiser of some additional revenue – forward by a year, with plans to expand its reach.
What about cycling? Boris bashers insist that the so-called “Boris bike” cycle hire scheme was an appropriation of a Livingstone policy, but the reality is less clear cut. Both erstwhile Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member Lynne Featherstone and the Conservative Assembly Group have claimed to have championed the idea first, and while Livingstone did intend to introduce a hire scheme, TfL insiders say little work had been done on it at the time of his first defeat by Johnson in 2008. The real question about “Boris bikes” is whether the initial sponsorship deal with Barclays was too generous to the bank. Note also that, as with the “Boris bus”, Johnson had proclaimed that the cost of the scheme would be met entirely through sponsorship. An example of that famous optimism or that infamous bullshit?
His bicycle policies add force to the well-founded criticisms that Johnson is inconsistent and the creature of an indulgent media. At first, he eschewed Livingstone’s “modal hierarchy” for London’s roads, whereby buses, pedestrians and cycling were given precedence over private motor vehicles. The WEZ abolition was one example of this – as well as a gift to West London Tory voters – the resetting off traffic lights on TfL roads to “smooth traffic flow” was another. A tightening of restrictions on polluting vehicles was held back in deference to small businesses with dirty vans. But then, in 2013, came his Vision for Cycling and the extraordinary appointment of a journalist supporter, Andrew Gilligan, as “cycling commissioner”.
Gilligan, a fervent convert to pedal power, had no prior experience as a transport planner, but had devoted himself to attacking Livingstone throughout the two mayoral election campaigns that Johnson won. Described by an experienced AM as “one of those people who can’t be wrong”, he oversaw a programme of infrastructure change, including the construction of segregated lanes, which TfL bosses, who’d been aghast at Gilligan’s appointment, regarded as being “railroaded” through in order to furnish Johnson with some sort of legacy. From no modal hierarchy to spending £913 million on privileging cyclists is quite a turnaround, although the cycling demographic – still disproportionately white, male and middle-class despite claims that special infrastructure would diversify it – is not wholly out of line with Johnson’s electoral base. The silence of the former Mayor’s left wing critics on this aspect of his City Hall record has been predictably deafening.
In general, the best things about Johnson’s eight years as Mayor were those he left to competent, experienced people to get on with. TfL commissioner Peter Hendy, a target of Johnson’s Lynton Crosby-run campaign in 2008, was kept in place despite pressure for his removal – a decision put down to good advice from seasoned London Tories who’d worked with him. Kensington & Chelsea councillor Daniel Moylan was Johnson’s deputy chairman of the TfL board. Former Westminster Labour councillor Neale Coleman, who had been Livingstone’s housing adviser before taking on the huge task of preparing the ground for the 2012 Olympics, was kept on to direct its legacy, successfully ensuring that the park has not become a neglected wasteland.
Following early months of chaos, which included the sacking of former Bexley Council leader Ian Clement for misusing his corporate credit card – he eventually received a criminal conviction – the late Sir Simon Milton, former leader of Westminster Council, eventually secured the key position of deputy for planning and chief of staff. His successor, Sir Edward Lister, was equally assured at taking care of the difficult parts of the job Johnson had little interest in mastering. The Tory Mayor was the complete opposite of his predecessor in this respect: Livingstone, steeped in London local and regional government, was hands on, arguably to a fault. Johnson, according to one of his deputies, had to have policy initiatives explained to him in the form of a simple story, otherwise he quickly became bored.
Lister, for years a grandee of the Thatcherite approach to local government at Wandsworth, was the main driver of Johnson’s City Hall from 2011. He and his celebrity boss were on the same page philosophically. In the key area of housing, Johnson had, from the start, shifted the balance of mayoral preference away from social rented homes towards low cost home ownership products. He and Lister put their faith in market forces to increase housing supply. With big developers and investors, the stress was on maximising numbers rather than using mayoral powers to impose “affordable” requirements through the planning system. “Eddie Lister just isn’t very interested in affordable housing,” one City Hall officer of the era shrugged.
There is always a case to be made that too much regulation – which is what planning rules are a form of – produces perverse ill-effects, and the Tory mantra about affordable homes delivered via planning deals – that 50% of nothing is nothing – cannot be rejected out of hand. But damning evidence that putting private sector big money firmly in the driving seat can have disastrous results can be found in the form of a large, tumbleweed-strewn building site in Earls Court. What Johnson hailed as a “landmark” regeneration scheme, one eagerly pursued by like-minded Tory borough leader Stephen Greenhalgh, is now miserably stalled.
It is still sometimes reported that Johnson opposed the coalition government’s housing benefit caps. In fact, he backed them. Responding to a radio phone-in caller, he denied there would be any “Kosovo-style social cleansing” in the capital as a result of this austerity measure. The comment was misinterpreted in some news rooms, obsessed with Johnson’s rivalry with David Cameron, as a repudiation of the caps, rather than a rejection of predictions of their likely impacts. Johnson even put out a press release to make that clear.
By contrast, Johnson was an upfront advocate of public spending on major transport infrastructure projects, recognising them as key drivers of growth. Given the circumstances of the time, TfL were pretty pleased with the funding deal they got from the Treasury in 2010 – “the best we could have hoped for”, Hendy said of a package that met the ask for Crossrail at that time – though the beginning of the end of grant funding for the day-to-day running of services was nigh, with a share of business rates provided as a partial quid pro quo.
Johnson also obliged TfL with a succession of inflation-plus fares increases to keep its budgets topped up as the spending axe fell. And then there was his “nationalisation” of the public-private partnership deals for upgrading the Underground that Gordon Brown had imposed on a reluctant Livingstone. This early and large example of London government in-sourcing has been almost wholly absent from Big Media accounts of Johnson’s time at City Hall.
The other large area of mayoral power and influence is policing. Johnson made great claims during the Tory leadership contest for his successes in this field, all of them crowd-pleasing but thin. While his “extraordinary and unwise” behaviour over a police raid on Tory MP Damian Green’s office and other questionable conduct has barely been mentioned, “Boris” has bragged to the Tory selectorate about the efficacy of increased stop-and-search, regardless of evidence that questions this.
His first crime and police plan, drawn up by Greenhalgh who he brought in as head of MOPAC, was full of arbitrary targets, notably about increasing levels of confidence in the Met, which an eminent criminologist described as “designed to grab headlines“. London crime levels rise and fall for a variety of often unpredictable reasons, and the stats themselves can be deceptive. A range of promised preventative interventions, such a mentoring scheme for young men, amounted to next to nothing. The post-2011 riots purchase of two unusable water cannons is but a comedy feature of a picture otherwise characterised by soundbites and averageness.
It was, all in all, a mixed bag of an eight years. Johnson was a good communicator of the London cause, calling for fiscal and rail devolution and prepared to take wise advice, perhaps especially if it spared him the tedium of mastering detail. On the other side of the balance sheet, his administrations were notable for their cronyism. Veronica Wadley, erstwhile editor of an absurd, “Boris”-worshipping Evening Standard, was given jobs with the Arts Council and at City Hall which she was plainly ill-equipped for, and a woman of Johnson’s close acquaintance, Helen MacIntyre, was appointed unpaid arts adviser. There was much blather and evasion and changing of direction, with mayoral deputies and others pursuing their own agendas – not so much a team as a bunch of individuals who did whatever they liked, as one senior figure put it.
This was all very different from Livingstone’s years, despite significant policy continuity. The latter’s recent eagerness to destroy his own reputation should not cause us to forget that he was a more successful London Mayor than Johnson. True, he was lucky in some ways: while Johnson was hit by the financial crisis almost before he’d got his feet under the desk, Livingstone was helped throughout his mayoral terms by a Labour national government ready to invest in the Olympics and much more. Even so, “Ken” was recognised, even by enemies and big players on the London stage with politics far different from his own, as a Mayor intent on getting things done. “Boris”, by contrast, was widely perceived as always having at least one eye on a bigger job a few bridges upstream.
Now he’s got that job in the bag, the scrutiny he will face will be on a vastly bigger scale than I and a handful of fellow London specialists were able to subject him to between 2008 and 2016. Maybe now others will at last start seeing what we saw.
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