Luisa Porritt, the Liberal Democrat candidate for London Mayor, maintains that there’s a space in the capital’s policy landscape which, at least for now, she occupies alone: “My platform and my vision is distinctive because I’m looking at the future of London and how our economy is going to work, how society is going to work, beyond this pandemic. I don’t see any other candidates talking about that right now.”
Describing Sadiq Khan as distracted, “fire-fighting the crisis”, and Conservative Shaun Bailey as making no credible contribution to the debate, she says her starting point is “to be more imaginative” than the rest about the forms the capital’s recovery should take.
I meet the former financial journalist, 33, on her Camden home borough territory in a coffee shop on Pancras Square. She is still new to politics, but has travelled far and wide in a short time. Porritt joined the Lib Dems straight after the EU referendum in 2016 and became a councillor for the first time two years later, narrowly gaining a Belsize ward seat on Camden Council from the Tories before soaring on to Strasbourg in May 2019 as a short-tenured London Member of the European Parliament.
In September, she became leader of the three-strong Camden Council Lib Dem group, succeeding the experienced Flick Rea, and formally entered the contest to become her party’s mayoral candidate later in the same week. This followed the withdrawal of the original Lib Dem candidate Siobhan Benita in July. Porritt secured her nomination after her sole rival was suspended in, for the Lib Dems, embarrassing circumstances. Now, Porritt must address not only the familiar Lib Dem problem of being overshadowed by the candidates of the two largest parties but also, in the capital, of being consigned to fourth place in the City Hall race by the Greens, whose candidates finished just ahead of Porritt’s party’s in both 2016 and 2012.
It’s a big job for a relative beginner. Her approach is to focus straight ahead. An emerging policy offer proceeds from her certainty that Covid-19 has already re-made the city and that the challenge is to re-shape it in the light of its new reality. Her headline take on housing is that the centre of London is already transformed forever because vastly more home-working is here to stay, creating new opportunities for providing homes at the capital’s heart. She says contacts in the City have confirmed to her that “a number of companies are planning a permanent work-from-home basis for their employees,” meaning that space will open up to covert offices “into quality, affordable, zero-carbon housing.”
Her campaign website foresees “homes in the heart of the city” supplied by converting vacated office space, citing Rotterdam as a model. “Central London is a special place so I will demand special powers from the government to lead this transformation,” her website says. It is a pledge that generates its own demands in the form of large questions: Why would a Tory government, constantly harping about supposed special treatment for the capital, bestow special powers? And how might the planning authority for most of the West End, Tory-run Westminster, feel about any dispensation that by-passed them?
Porritt is hopeful. “I think there is an appeal in the idea, whether you are coming from the Right or the Left,” she says. She believes it would attract developers too, enabling them to offer more people a chance to live in the centre of the city. Westminster, she reasons, is so constrained by lack of space the council might welcome a new housing supply mechanism that would also revive the West End and its environs, breathing a new, more residential, kind of life into it. All that said, she is mindful of the government’s planning White Paper, seeing it, like others, as a recipe for a developer free-for-all.
A related element of her thinking concerns high streets across the city, which she proposes to help “re-invent“. Here, Porritt is aligned with the “15-minute city” idea, widely taken up by pandemic-age planning thinkers and environmentalists, and popularised by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, whose (pre-pandemic) election victory in February is often attributed to it.
“There’s an opportunity to make other parts of London areas to work in,” she says. “There will be more home-working in general, but also we could create more co-working spaces on high streets and diversify the economy.” She wants to see changes in the way land is used in the service of communities. “I’m a Liberal Democrat,” she says, “so I believe in local communities having a say over their area and making sure the needs of the local population are met.”
Porritt adds that the High Streets theme “speaks to my broader vision for London, which is to make every neighbourhood in London, the 600 neighbourhoods that make up our capital, attractive places to live and to work.” Echoes there, of ex-Tory MP and now former Independent mayoral candidate Rory Stewart’s “700 villages” theme, I suggest. London-born Porritt will have none of it. “He comes from a townie background,” she remarks, tartly.
Localist “pavement politics” are, of course, a staple of Lib Dem philosophy and campaigning strategy. These have worked most consistently for them in the suburban south west of the capital, though Haringey and Southwark are among other boroughs where they’ve been strong in quite recent times. Involving local communities in how their areas change always feels like a good principle. But when does healthy, participative localism tip over into stubborn Nimbyism?
I put it to Porritt that grassroots planning activism too often amounts to small groups of people wielding disproportionate influence to try to stop change that others might find beneficial (a force Lib Dems in Haringey have aligned themselves with). Her answer is that it depends on the circumstances: that as a councillor, she has seen “damaging” examples of well-resourced opposition to block development but also “examples that have been legitimate”. She praises the Lib Dem borough stronghold of Sutton as an example of a council consulting well and “bringing communities along with them”.
The outbreaks of opposition to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods – “a really good idea” – in various parts of town are, she thinks, largely down to the lack of advance consultation that came with the government money. She praises Labour-run Camden – where Green AM and mayoral candidate Sian Berry is a fellow opposition councillor – for its Renewal Commission, designed to address inequalities exposed by Covid, calling it “forward-looking, exactly the sort of thing I want to do for London.” However, she thinks the commissioners themselves could have been better chosen: “Not all of them are tied to Camden. Do they reflect local residents in Camden and what they want? We often agree on a broad set of progressive principles with Labour, but our approach is different. Sometimes, I think they overlook what the voluntary sector is doing and is capable of doing if it was given more funding and the ability to do things itself.”
Much about Porritt’s policy offer so far is familiar Lib Dem stuff, but adapted with an eye to London’s evolving new normal. In transport, for example, there’s a big, green emphasis on encouraging more cycling and an environment-minded pledge to abandon building the Silvertown Tunnel – Porritt would like to see the canned Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf bicycle bridge project revived instead.
She argues that Londoners’ response to the pandemic has underlined core strengths of her party’s approach. “We’ve seen this amazing response from communities all over the country, particularly here in London,” she says. “When you empower local communities, it’s amazing what they can do when they work together.” There are six months to go until 6 May. She starts a long way behind, but there’s a long way to go.
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