Lib Dem Siobhan Benita: I’ll be more business-friendly than Mayor Khan

Lib Dem Siobhan Benita: I’ll be more business-friendly than Mayor Khan

The Liberal Democrat candidate for London Mayor has told representatives of some of the capital’s leading private sector employers that she would work “very closely” with them if she wins the election next May, claiming that Sadiq Khan “hasn’t been very open, very accessible, to the business community” during his time at City Hall.

Siobhan Benita also told members of the London Chamber of Commerce & Industry that she wanted to work with businesses to develop “a definition of a what a good London business looks like” and produce a “Mayor’s charter mark” to award those adopting “sustainable” practices and hiring apprentices and young offenders needing rehabilitation.

Khan pledged in his 2016 London Mayor manifesto to be “the most pro-business mayor yet” and has introduced a Good Work Standard accreditation scheme, but Benita argued her approach would be more collaborative and collegiate.

During the breakfast gathering at the Goring Hotel in Victoria, Benita also revealed that a national Lib Dem business manifesto, to be released in the next couple of weeks, will address the issue of business rates and include “some proposals for a land value tax”, a system that would involve replacing business rates and council tax as a mechanism for raising public revenue.

Benita said she is in favour of a “tourist tax or bedroom levy” on visitors using hotels, pointing out that many of London’s visitor attractions have no entrance fee and that the detail of the policy is being worked on.

The London Finance Commission, a body set up by Boris Johnson when he was London Mayor and re-convened by Mayor Khan, has recommended that London Mayors are given the power to decide whether such a tax should be set and options have been examined by City Hall.

A previous Lib Dem London Mayor candidate, Brian Paddick, proposed in 2012 – when Benita ran as an Independent candidate – a system whereby users of three-to-five star hotels could make a voluntary £1 donation to fund London youth clubs.

Benita, who has been campaigning alongside her party’s general election candidates in London, said the Lib Dems’ unambiguous “stop Brexit” message is “really galvanising people on the doorstep” following their successes in May’s European elections and urged the business community to support that position more strongly, claiming that neither Labour nor the Conservatives can now lay claim to being “the party of business”.

She added that in the event of Brexit happening she would argue for a “devolved immigration system” for the capital with a view to maintaining as much freedom of movement as possible and enabling London and Europe to keep their ties “as close as possible”.

Benita also described her priorities on the principal areas of mayoral power and responsibility;

On crime, she highlighted her “a five point plan looking at early intervention” with young people and would look at  “how we get police officers back on the streets where people want to see them” and “making sure that if you phone 999 in London you’re actually going to get somebody coming and investigating your problem. I think that’s not happening at the moment.” She stressed “getting back to some of the basics” including “re-opening police stations” and repeated her desire to pilot legalising cannabis in order to take the market for the drugs out of criminal hands.

On housing, Benita said there is a need for “a lot more social housing in London, a lot more housing aimed at people at the low end of the income scale.” Arguing that there has been too much unfruitful reliance on the private sector to deliver truly affordable homes, she said, “I will be looking at how we can get much more public sector involvement in building social housing.”

She was reluctant to support any review of the Green Belt to free up more land for housebuilding, despite government inspectors recommending this in their response to Mayor Khan’s draft new London Plan. Arguing that the potential of brownfield sites and of bringing empty homes and dwellings above shops into use should be explored first, she added that it would be difficult to be a champion of environmental issues and advocate Green Belt reform at the same time. “That’s a hard message to sell to the public,” she said, but “I’m not saying never”.

On transport and air quality Benita said she would be “looking at the governance issues that went wrong” with Crossrail and be determined to get other large projects moving. She also said she wanted to examine “what flexibility there is in the TfL budget,” to enable for public transport affordability. She would also want to look at the effects of recent changes bus services introduced under the current Mayor.

Benita said she is “in favour of the extension of the [ultra] low emission zone,” as Mayor Khan intends to do. More road pricing would “certainly something I would be looking at during my mayoralty – looking at moving to a fairer system,” she said. She also said she recognised there is “more we need to do to encourage broader take-up of cycling”

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