Items for a mayoral election manifesto: vision of an alternate London

This was originally a guest blog post by David Fell (of Brook Lyndhurst and London Remade) for the London Civic Forum, which has been hosting a series of meetings on particular areas of Mayoral policy. The original post can be found here: http://www.londoncivicforum.org.uk/guest-blogger-david-fell-gives-an-alternate-london/

It is always daunting to write about a city that has defied and inspired us for centuries and which – as the Dickens anniversary is reminding us – has already fomented so many words. Yet, ever evolving habitat that it is, London ceaselessly provides us with novelty and challenge, and Londoners – extraordinary assembly that they are – are more contrary and creative than ever they were.

The people of London deserve something better than the categories we generally use to describe them.  London is unprecedented.  Never before have so many people from such diverse backgrounds been free to mix, and not to mix, in close proximity to each other. At first this was described in terms of Londoners and others; the multiculturalism of the Greater London Council; the recognition of specific populations from the Caribbean or South Asia.  But London today has moved well beyond ethnic minorities. Indeed, it was even then the case that the Londoner next door might have been from Greece or the United States. Yes, there is a huge increase in people from Eastern Europe, but the neighbour today might also be from South Korea, Brazil or South Africa as well as Irish, Pakistani or Jewish.  Maybe it is better to see the typical London household as a Norwegian married to an Algerian?  What, then, is typical?”

“London seems to be a place where people can confound and confuse expectations, and for me, observing London, perhaps the healthiest option is to acknowledge generalisation and categories when they emerge, but to at least try and not to start from these.  Because it may just be that the generalisations emerge best, not from place of origin or gender, but around an orientation to science or celebrity, gardening or church.”

The Comfort of Things, Daniel Miller, Polity Books 2008

As we head towards the Mayoral elections, at a time of deep economic uncertainty and not inconsiderable anxiety about the future, it seems to me that a caring respect for Londoners – or, perhaps, a respectful caring – might be the most appropriate over-arching policy stance for a politician to take.  I would prefer it if, rather than enduring the promotion of ‘grand projets’, we heard of steady repair and maintenance; if, rather than hearing about ‘competition’ we heard a little more about ‘collaboration’; if, rather than giant ego-edifices and absurdist sculpture, we had a little more decent housing.

Perhaps I’m being a little too idealist in these straitened times, but I’m sure there’s a way of developing and conducting Mayoral policy which not only assists the millions of Londoners who need help today, but which also sets us in the direction of a more just and sustainable London tomorrow.

Here’s my suggestion for five policy initiatives that, were I to see them in a manifesto, would swing my vote:

  • Walking & cycling – moving around under your own steam is a win-win-win-win-win solution: it’s good for your body, it’s good for your mind and it’s good for the planet.  It contributes to “social capital” and it’s either free or cheap.  Let’s make sure it’s safe, by making it a priority for the police, and then ensure that housing design, traffic management, road safety, public health policy and town centre management are all focused on enabling and encouraging Londoners to move about without using fossil fuels.
  • SMEs – most businesses in London are small, yet most of the talk is about the big boys and girls.  Rather than worrying about whether yet another bank is going to come to London, let’s worry instead about supporting yesterday’s start-ups, the entrepreneurs of tomorrow and all the other little businesses that can create the jobs we’ll need.  Let’s make sure we steer Business Link to help social enterprises.  Let’s use planning powers to encourage sectors that create the kind of jobs that Londoners need rather than the ones that internationalised finance wants.  Let’s focus as much on the quality of employment as the quantity. Let’s stop spending money on ‘inward investment’ – they’ll come if they want to; and they know where we are – and spend the money instead on fostering micro-businesses among traditionally disadvantaged Londoners.
  • Alcohol – the biggest single health challenge facing Londoners is alcohol.  The cost in broken bodies, broken lives and hospital bills is truly shocking.  Through licensing and planning, in partnership with public health and the police, using awareness campaigns and social marketing and citizen-led interventions and gallons of tap water at football matches, it’s the kind of issue where a Mayor could make a genuine difference within a four year period.  Londoners by 2016 could be happier and healthier: who wouldn’t vote for that?
  • Food – Londoners, collectively, have unprecedented access to food, and access to a cuisine that in its breadth and affordability is astounding.  Yet too many do not eat well – many eat too much, and many eat too little – while the environmental cost of the eight billion meals we eat each year is staggering.  A twenty first century city needs much smarter food solutions, and while we already have a Mayoral strategy and dozens of exciting and innovative food projects underway around the capital, it is time to crank things up: let’s really sort out public procurement, support street markets, demand local sourcing and tackle food ignorance.  We can create jobs, improve health and help to save the planet, all at the same time!
  • Community assets – the ‘green tech’ revolution is underway, and London over the next few years is going to have to accommodate a great deal of small and medium-sized infrastructure to deal with its waste and to generate energy.  Putting this infrastructure into the hands of communities, rather than profit-oriented corporations or electorally-oriented Ministers, could reap huge dividends in terms of community resilience, social cohesion and a sense of civic responsibility.  Meet the environmental challenge; create jobs and investment; and promote the well-being of Londoners simultaneously.  What’s so scary about that?

If Daniel Miller is right, there is currently only one city quite like London.  There are others that are bigger, but none, it would appear, quite so diverse.  If there’s one thing about the future about which we might be more rather than less confident, it is that the world’s cities will become progressively more diverse over the coming decades.  Population trends, the effects of climate change and the blurring of boundaries brought on by the internet will all conspire to make more and more cities more and more like London.

London is thus trailblazing for the world, not in the sense of being a priapic centre of macho finance, but in having the potential to be a just and sustainable city appropriate to the twenty first century.  It would be wonderful to see some of that potential reflected in the electoral debates over the next few months.

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