When Sadiq Khan was declared the winner of May’s election shortly before midnight on 9 May, the pattern of all London Mayors to date securing a second term was continued. But what makes this latest re-election different from that of his predecessors is the unprecedented backdrop. Mayor Khan’s return to City Hall has come with the country still facing a national crisis and London in the most challenging period of its history since World War II.
For five years, I was his Director of Policy, so I know a fair bit about City Hall, the difficulties facing London and the priorities for the years ahead. I saw the strengths of the role of Mayor: you can be nimble and responsive with unparalleled convening power; the bully pulpit of City Hall gives you a voice for the city and a say in national and even international debates; and your statutory powers and budget of over £16 billion means you have real sway over what happens in the city.
But, at the same time, I recall the immense frustrations. London is a hard city to run, with a complicated patchwork of local authorities and public agencies and no shortage of chronic challenges, even before the pandemic struck. As a high-profile capital, it is a target of protest, organised crime and terrorism. Its population of nine million people range from the super-rich to those living in searing poverty.
The Mayor’s job is hampered by having insufficient powers and freedoms, with London comparing miserably to other world cities in terms of the responsibility it has for its own affairs. Whitehall has never really let go: ministers still decide what money London gets for things like policing and affordable homes, attaching onerous conditions that can seem arbitrary and unnecessary, and deploying vetoes in areas like planning. Even over uncontroversial issues, it is hard to make progress. Take the problem of pedicabs in the West End, which Transport for London can’t regulate. Yet the government refuses the small amount of parliamentary time needed to give London the authority to do so, despite unanimous cross-party backing.
Against this background, the biggest challenge continues to be the recovery from the pandemic. I don’t doubt that cranking to life the city’s economy will be top of the mayoral in-tray. Reviving Central London will need the Mayor to use his office to inject energy and drive, as this is as much about confidence as anything. He’ll need to be visible in the West End and the City, on public transport, in shops, visiting museums and galleries and forming a solid bond with trade bodies, business improvement districts and local authorities.
Second on the priority list is transport. Getting the Crossrail Elizabeth Line open is crucial, but a long-term solution to TfL’s finances is the real prize. Ordinarily, City Hall and the national government ought to be able to agree that TfL needs to be funded broadly to its pre-pandemic levels and work out how this will be achieved, but given how poor relations are even this seems a tall order.
Reaching a deal will require political courage and both sides meeting the other halfway. The Mayor needs to be statesmanlike and take politically unpalatable decisions that raise more money from Londoners. In return, it will be hard for the government to avoid some form of long-term revenue support from the national coffers. Each side needs to understand the political quandary the other is in and find it in themselves to help each other – the stakes are too high for failure to be an option.
Third is air quality. Cleaner air can be a legacy issue for the Mayor and progress to date has been encouraging. Autumn’s expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone will be a huge step, but City Hall could be bolder and adopt a pay-per-mile road user charging scheme such as Centre for London has repeatedly backed. This would deliver cleaner air, more active travel and reduce congestion, as well as providing a substantial income stream to help plug TfL’s finances. But would City Hall be brave, own this agenda and face down the roads lobby or instead present road charging as forced on London by the government because of the state of TfL’s finances?
Fourth, policing. I saw how keeping a city like London safe is tough, especially as the Met and City Hall have so little control over the causes of crime. But with officer numbers rising, results will be expected of the police, especially with regard to knife crime and murders – something we at Centre for London know from our own polling is leading to increasing concern amongst Londoners. A string of controversies, including the Met’s response to Sarah Everard’s tragic murder, Black Lives Matter and the Daniel Morgan inquiry, are causing some to ask if deeper structural reforms to the Met are needed.
To date, the Mayor has been steadfastly supportive of the service, though pressure from Londoners could see his patience wear thin, with ramifications for the Met’s senior leadership team. Metropolitan Police commissioners are formally appointed by the Home Secretary with Mayors only consulted, but their responsibilities as London’s police and crime commissioner mean their views are important. The political chasm between City Hall and the current Home Secretary might persuade the Mayor to think twice about any change at the top.
Fifth, London and the UK. The growing resentment towards the capital and a hostile “levelling up” agenda will worry City Hall. The Mayor must lead the charge in explaining that London’s own huge challenges mean it is itself in need of levelling up. He also needs to reach out to other parts of the country and explain why London’s success matters for everyone, and how the interdependencies which hold our country together make us all better off.
My list of priorities isn’t exhaustive – I recognise that climate change, skills, planning, affordable housing and walking and cycling are also crucial – but it sets out the five key areas I would advise the Mayor to focus on. To deliver on these will be doubly tough, because his second term is shortened and he’ll almost certainly continue to have a Conservative government to deal with throughout.
That’s why the emphasis on building better relations with ministers is the right one. Whether it will bear fruit remains to be seen. It will be hard for the Mayor to resist taking the fight to the government on all fronts, and a test might come with government plans to change the way Mayors are elected without consulting City Hall and Londoners.
The old Sadiq might be provoked into battle, but could the new Sadiq let it pass? We shall see. Regardless, the success with which he addresses London’s priorities at this pivotal moment will shape the future of Greater London for a lifetime.
Nick Bowes is Chief Executive of Centre for London and for five years until May 2021 was Mayoral Director, Policy for Sadiq Khan. Follow Nick on Twitter. Photograph: Sadiq Khan signing in for his second term.
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