All change in Boris' London

Recent political events have transformed the capital - now is the time to influence policy

London is a very different city from the one it was this time last year. We have a new mayor, new relationships between local and regional government, an economy in recession, a fragile national political environment and, most recently, a new owner for the Evening Standard.

It is therefore a good time to influence the policy debate and strengthen relations at all political levels.
Although Ken performed far better than Labour nationally last May, he failed to counter a stream of damaging stories, particularly from the Standard, and looked tired and unwilling to scrap it out in a tight election campaign. The Boris persona, the unpopularity of Labour nationally and a well-organised Conservative campaign in outer London were enough to secure victory for a character best known to many for his appearances on Have I Got News For You.

The new mayor has brought with him sweeping changes of personnel across the GLA family. All the policy advisers have changed, as have the boards of Transport for London, the London Dev­elopment Agency and the Metropolitan Police Authority, and there is a new Metropolitan Police commissioner.

The new mayor has already delivered on some key campaign pledges. He has scrapped the proposed £25 congestion charge for the large family vehicles, announced his intention to scrap the congestion charge western extension, started the process to find a new Routemaster to replace the bendy bus and committed himself to a Parisian-style cycle hire scheme. He has also maintained Ken’s target of making 50,000 new affordable homes available over the next three years, removing the 50 per cent target in favour of a more flexible approach; and campaigned against a third runway at Heathrow. He is also cutting GLA expenditure.

Probably the most significant change so far has been a new relationship with London’s local authorities. He has replaced Ken’s adversarial relationship with a new ‘memorandum of understanding’. Boris has also said he will intervene in fewer planning applications, although he has moved to charge developers  a Crossrail levy before this is formal policy, showing he is prepared to act when necessary.

But many think that Mayor Johnson has yet to set out a vision for his administration, and this will become more significant as a range of policy documents are reviewed. The loss of several advisers is testament to the challenging nature of his first months in office.

It will only get tougher in 2009. The economic downturn will continue to hit hard and there are crucial London local elections in May 2010 and, possibly, a general election at the same time.

Against this backdrop, the mayor will soon start to be judged on key priorities – cutting youth crime, delivering more affordable housing, improving transport, supporting the economy and the stewardship of major projects including the Olympics and Crossrail.

Until now Boris has been given an easy time by the media – his use of hum­our to mask a lack of detailed knowledge is the fodder of sketch writers rather than serious political comment. This will soon change and the new owner of the Standard is hugely significant. To really succeed, Boris will need to do more than implement some populist campaign pledges. He must articulate a vision for London and set a clear sense of direction for the way in which the city’s problems will be addressed.

It is still early days but the post of mayor of London is one of the great roles in British politics. It will be fascinating to see how Johnson handles these challenges.

Views in brief
What effect would a compulsory register of lobbyists and clients have?
It would be a positive move and help generate greater transparency at a time when the industry is, once again, seen as secretive because of the Lords inquiry. All agencies should publish their full client lists openly on their websites.

Your yacht is moored off Corfu but Mandelson, Osborne, Rothschild and Deripaska aren’t available. Who is on your fantasy guest list?
I am a Formula One nut, so I’m afraid it would be Bernie Ecclestone, Frank Williams, Nigel Mansell and Michael Schumacher. Not a Ken or Boris in sight!

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