When Susan Hall was elected by her colleagues to lead the London Assembly Conservative group in December 2019, she promised it would continue to “provide robust opposition to Sadiq Khan”. It is also her personal mission – she has called the Labour Mayor “incompetent” and a “disgrace” and ordered him to “get his act together” over issues ranging from the Council Tax precept to City Hall staffing costs, to the Ultra Low Emission Zone. She has been nothing if not a fiery critic of the Mayor since joining the Assembly in 2017.
Hall has been provoked by, on the one hand, Khan pointing out shortfalls in government funding and, on the other, by him sponsoring initiatives like the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm – Hall brands it “the statue-toppling commission” – costs for which have grown from an initial £247,000 to £1.1 million. Regardless of how small a percentage of the overall Greater London Authority (GLA) budget that sum might represent, for Hall it’s a matter of principle. “To you and I and most Londoners, £1.1 million is a hell of a lot,” she says.
She claims Khan has been the “missing Mayor” for not facing Assembly scrutiny early in the first lockdown and for “hiding” on several occasions since. And in fractious City Hall exchange, she has accused him of deflection and lack of transparency over an aspect of the latest Greater London Authority budget. Hall says she will take the matter to external auditors.
The Tory, a former leader of Harrow Council and still a member of the now Labour-run administration, has also been strongly critical of Khan over crime. She was incensed by his reaction to the policing of last month’s vigil for Sarah Everard. After speaking to Met Commissioner Cressida Dick, Khan announced that he was “not satisfied” by what she had told him about arrangements for the event, which saw clashes between protesters and officers, and some arrests.
In Hall’s view, the Mayor “threw the Met under the bus before any investigations were done” – another example of him thinking “everything is someone else’s fault.” At least there was evidence from officers’ body-worn cameras, whose roll-out she had backed, she remarks. A subsequent investigation concluded that officers had acted appropriately.
A year on from the Black Lives Matter protests and in the current atmosphere of bitter controversy around the report of the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, Hall says she remains a “massive supporter” of boosting stop-and-search. On the basis of what young black Londoners have told her, she believes it to be an effective way to keep black communities safe. She’s acutely aware of the accusations of racism that can be made against those who aren’t themselves from minorities expressing such views: ““People who call other people ‘racist’ when you know you’re not don’t understand how hurtful it is”.”
But Hall describes disabled Londoners as her “top priority” and accuses Khan of having a poor record: initially, there was no representative of the disabled on the London Recovery Board which Khan co-chairs; his emergency Streetspace programme promoting “active travel” was found to be unlawful in part because it failed to have proper regard for disabled peoples’ needs; and she regards his approach to the black cab trade, which many disabled people depend on, as “harsh”.
She thinks Khan’s criticisms of the government over Covid emergency funding have been both tactically mistaken and unfair, when ministers “have bailed out TfL” and provided further affordable housing funds and while “nearly 700,000 Londoners have relied on the furlough scheme”.
And she’s vehemently opposed to TfL’s suggestion to the government that a daily Greater London Boundary Charge of £3.50 (or £5.50 for the most polluting vehicles) could be levied on non-Londoners driving into Greater London as one option for making the transport body financially self-sufficient in the long term. Hall fears such an addition to London’s road-pricing schemes would have an adverse impact on commuting key workers and on those small Outer London businesses which depend on customers from beyond the boundary driving in (a concern Khan has recognised). She’s also against TfL making money from building homes on station car parks.
Her preferred approach to solving TfL’s financial problems would be for its working arrangements to be overhauled, with reforms made to bonuses, pension arrangements and the provision of nominee passes, which enable Londoners who live with TfL staff to travel free. The Mayor has defended these, arguing that no net savings would be made by scrapping them. Hall firmly disagrees. “The whole thing needs to be looked as a business,” she says.
She thinks Khan’s decision to move out of the current, custom-built City Hall to The Crystal building in Newham “absolutely ludicrous”, making negligible savings and bringing no compensatory benefits to retailers and service businesses, which are in short supply around the Crystal site. She sees the move as diminishing the mayoralty as a whole.
Given the vehemence of her views about the Mayor, her attitude to political opponents as a whole might come as a surprise. “People on Left and Right have different views. It doesn’t make them right or wrong. We don’t hate Labour at all: good, old-fashioned Labour, they’re great.” She gets on “exceptionally well” with Labour group leader Len Duvall (“we’ve both been termed separately as street-fighters”).
Hall, who is seeking re-election as a Londonwide AM, is chair of the Assembly’s Budget and Performance Committee and deputy chair of two others. She’d like the powers of the Assembly beefed up. In its 21-year history, the scrutiny body has never once rejected a Mayor’s budget, which requires a two-thirds majority and agreement on an alternative. She says her “biggest fear” is Labour gaining an Assembly seat this time, giving the party a simple majority of 13 and allowing the Mayor “even more carte blanche”. But at the end of last month’s Mayor’s Question Time, she gave candid and warm tributes to colleagues across the political spectrum who were about to stand down.
It is Khan in particular who makes her cross: “He wouldn’t know what a business was if it smacked him around the face.” She is irked by what she feels is his “lack of passion” for the role – one that she would evidently relish for herself. “If you were Mayor of London, wouldn’t you wake up and think ‘I’m the luckiest person in the world’?” she says. “You can roll up your sleeves and make a difference – that’s what politicians should do”.
Photo from Harrow East Conservatives.
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