The Blog

An Entrepreneurial Approach to Being London's Mayor

It's time to realize that our best hope of getting devolution and the powers we need to make things better is to stop asking for more money and more land, and simply make a case for better control over what we have. London is a Powerhouse with even more potential to maximise.

This week we saw Andrew Boff, Conservative leader of the London Assembly and possible competitor to me for the job of London Mayor - step into the Devolution debate with his new paper entitled the 'Southern Powerhouse' (PDF). He outlines a series of measures - and in doing so joins me in voicing the opinion that this is not a zero-sum game. London and the south need more power over their own finances and affairs at the same time as the rest of the country.

Some believe that you should make the North richer at the expense of the south - for them it's not about the money it's about inequality. You see this with the left's 'rich-v-poor debate'. Despite us living in a country with far better living conditions than the hard-labour days of my youth - of power cuts and actual food shortages, terrible housing and by today's standards a dismal NHS, the people like Diane Abbott want to clip the wings of the rich rather than making more people richer.

I would describe my childhood as properly poor - happy in our way - but an underfed street urchin. For me however, making a bit of cash was not just a way of feeling safe - but a way of contributing to the wider good. I was no longer a burden and suddenly contributing both in terms of tax payments and employment/consumption. But being successful is sneered upon by many on Miliband's benches.

Let London do better

I want London to do better - I want it to employ more people and pay more to the tax coffers to be spread around the UK. In this respect Andrew is correct. Andrew is also correct that we need more power over planning, transport and the taxes raised in our city to do this.

Don't get me wrong - I don't want more money. I just want control. If I could swap out part of our grant for stamp duty for example (with a safety net in case property took a dive), I could encourage councils to build more and use the income to secure borrowing for building. If I could control the £50bn spent on housing benefits in London every decade, I could maybe start to swing that towards affordable housing spend which over the same period, only got £17bn. At £150,000 build cost per home (so excluding price of land), £17billion could be more than 100,000 houses.

Let's not forget that this is money which is invested bricks and mortar and which over the last 10 years would have already seen £17billion become worth more than the £50billion currently being wasted on propping up higher rents. The current system makes no sense.

In his report, Andrew does make major one point I cannot agree with, he wants the London Assembly (which he leads) to have a veto over the Mayor on pretty much everything.

No veto

I'm not sure it's worth saying too much about this other than a lame-duck mayor will never get anything done. We're a global city requiring exciting solutions in a fast changing world. The whole thing about a mayor is that the buck stops with him/her. They are like tightly controlled mini dictatorships! Say what you like about the power of someone on a mission - they can do wonderful things providing the electorate can boot them out swiftly.

A veto would probably stop the Garden Bridge - it would almost certainly have stopped the Eiffel Tower had their powers extended to Paris! Save it for our hackney collectives, I live in London because I want excitement.

London's potential - the sky's the limit - and we have masses of land.

At the same time as taking power from the mayor, Andrew also wants to extend the GLA over swathes of Southern England by building lots of garden suburbs outside of our amazing city. He argues "there is a fast approaching limit to the space on which to build housing in greater London".

The sky is quite literally the limit and we have so much unused land. Devolution isn't about taking more for more's sake. The report does feel a little like a power-grab. In fact, devolution should be about giving powers back. There are many who believe for example that the Mayor should give some of the policing powers back and just keep those relevant to London. On property a bit of planning leeway and some control over our property taxes would go a long way. Likewise, London doesn't need to own more of England.

There is a lot of land in London left to develop - and London being the least dense major city in the world could also go up a floor or three in most places. Public land is badly used and there's lots of it - the last good government estimates (2009) put the total around 3,500 hectares of previously developed land alone suitable for housing in London, that's approximately 450,000 units.

The NHS alone have estates equivalent to three Hyde Parks. I have seen great examples where architects have taken, say, a scruffy 70s pre-fab school and delivered back state-of-the-art Nordic style academies and managed to find 400 homes as well. More than that, this can be paid for by selling just a few units - the rest create income for the future.

Stop sprawl - great cities and great country

I am fundamentally apposed to building on more greenbelt. England needs great cities and great countryside. I love London so much more because when I need to, I can travel half an hour and I'm free of it breathing in clean air (Don't worry, clean air in London is on my radar too). Urban sprawl - paving over England, seem to me a very depressing prospect and if these new suburbs are meant to house people working in London, it simply increases the strain on the transport system and impacts the wider environmental cause. Sprawling into new suburbs will also divert investment from Central London and undermine the vitality and viability of local services (from schools to pubs).

I want self-build quotas to re-invigorate the smaller builder and developer market, I want it to be easier to get planning permission - and I want London to move towards a 'zoning' planning system like in the States (this works perfectly in New York - although we'd need to tweak it for London) and all over Europe. We, the people, should have more development rights, not have to apply for rights, cap in hand, apologetically, case by case.

Let's use the Office of Mayor to maximise London's potential

If Andrew has his way and we all start living further and further out, we risk the center of London becoming a little like Geneva. Full of rich people, barren of art and culture - no longer the city that currently attracts more visitor than anywhere else in Europe.

Nonetheless, I hope his paper helps kick start the debate London needs so badly. Andrew's right that TfL or the mayor should have more control the railways though not 'all commuter lines. Boris faced revolt among members of his own party over plans to bring parts of the London rail network under the control of City Hall which seems perfectly reasonable to me. After all, people travelling into London for work full time are in many respects as deserving of the mayors help as people who live here. Some think they should also get a vote.

Whatever happens, it's time to realize that our best hope of getting devolution and the powers we need to make things better is to stop asking for more money and more land, and simply make a case for better control over what we have. London is a Powerhouse with even more potential to maximise.