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Ten Steps to a Greater London
[Analysis] How the new mayor of London can make historic improvements to the UK's capital
Asad Yawar (AlexYawar)     Print Article 
Published 2008-05-09 09:30 (KST)   
An Evening Standard poster announcing election news outside a convenience store in Shepherd's Bush, west London.
©2008 Asad Yawar
Following an almost interminable and often invective-strewn build-up to the mayoral elections for the United Kingdom's largest city, Londoners have chosen their mayor for the next four years. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson - more usually known as Boris Johnson - commenced his first week on the job from midnight on May 5, 2008, having beaten the incumbent, Ken Livingstone, by garnering more second-preference allocations after neither of the leading candidates managed to win 50 percent of first-choice votes.

In general, the election was disappointing for the quality of the ideas that were proposed by the front-runners. Livingstone proffered experience and continuity as his main attributes, although in the past he had proven himself as an outstanding, if controversial, policy innovator, with initiatives such as the Congestion Charge, a tariff for many vehicles entering central London, of potentially huge long-term significance. However, these messages did not resonate with voters to anything like the degree that the outgoing mayor would have hoped for.

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Conversely, Johnson offered novelty and celebrity - until recently, he was most famous for his appearances on television shows such as BBC TV's satirical current affairs programme, Have I Got News For You - as well as a broadly vague manifesto which emphasised populist measures such as curbing crime and disorder, and the introduction of a new Routemaster, replete with conductors, onto London's fast-but-anarchic bus network.

However, the paucity of vision displayed not just by the two leading candidates, but by many of the rest of their political competitors, as well as London's influential print media, cannot disguise the fact that the largest - and arguably most influential - city in Western Europe possesses some serious predicaments which desperately need addressing if it is to retain its current position of pre-eminence. Below are ten of the city's most pressing problems, and some ideas as to potential solutions for them.

1. Rail links between London and the rest of the United Kingdom

If you wish to get from London to Paris or Brussels, then rapid and efficient Eurostar trains can whisk you from a glittering new terminal at St. Pancras to the respective capitals of France and Belgium in around two hours. If, however, your desire is to travel from London to, say, Birmingham, then you will have to allow at least three hours in which to complete the journey. Going by train from London to the North-West of England is something that should be contemplated only by the most patient of Buddhist monks.

This is because High Speed 1 - the UK's rail link to continental Europe - is the country's only high-speed rail connection to anywhere. Most major capitals in Western Europe - Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Rome - are connected to at least some cities in their respective nations via high-speed trains. Not so London.

The consequences are clear: massive losses in terms of time and money, uneven economic development and many regions, especially in the North of England, which are dying a slow death, while London's effective economic space is shrinking. The mayor of London must make it a priority to lobby for the construction of high-speed rail links to locations such as Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh if London is to come anywhere near maximising its economic and social potential.

2. The Tube

As most denizens of the city know all too well, there are countless problems with London's aging underground network, known with ironic affection as the Tube. But two in particular stand out. The first is that, in parts, it is now so decrepit that users would be well advised to pack rations before embarking on a journey: in 2006, the average commuter on the Metropolitan Line wasted three days, 10 hours and 25 minutes - not including missed connections - purely in delays. Additionally, at weekends, much of the network is shut down to carry out engineering work, the logic of which is only occasionally apparent.

The second is that the Tube is not nearly as comprehensive as even many people within London would suspect. In fact, six out of London's 32 boroughs are not even graced with its presence (though this will change to some degree with the eventual elongation of the East London Line).

Therefore, it is clear that the mayor must secure two things: firstly, the capital needed to rehabilitate the world's oldest underground railway network; and secondly, that required to extend the Tube to areas of London which are not currently served by it.

3. The suburban rail network

While problems with the Tube tend to dominate transportation-related headlines within London, the delays experienced by most users of London's suburban railway network are the stuff of fable, with signal failure, broken rails, fallen leaves, rain, missing drivers and even bright sunlight all contriving to trap London's long-suffering long-distance commuters into ever-tighter carriages for ever-longer periods of time.

The mayor can follow a two-pronged strategy: he can attempt to get as much of the suburban railway network under his control as possible (in similar fashion to how his predecessor successfully took the North London Line under his wing), and he can pressurize central government on behalf of his constituents to initiate a long-term program of building a brand-new suburban railway infrastructure. Both elements are as politically tricky to accomplish as they are essential.

4. Air pollution

London has the worst air pollution in the UK, and amongst the worst air pollution anywhere in Europe. Approximately 1,000 people die prematurely each year in London owing to poor air quality, and many more suffer from asthma and other respiratory conditions which are exacerbated by having to breathe contaminated air.

The city-wide Low Emissions Zone, which was launched on Feb. 4, 2008, should substantially alleviate this problem by setting new pollution standards for the most polluting lorries, buses and coaches. However, cars and motorcycles are not within the scope of the zone.

At a time when oil prices have never been higher, and the bankruptcy of a petroleum-based transportation model has never been more apparent, it is unacceptable for there not to be lucrative and specific financial incentives to switch to cars and other vehicles powered by electricity, especially as the markets for these are flourishing and their battery ranges are becoming comparable to that of conventional engines, particularly for urban driving patterns. The mayor should apply the full panoply of measures to ensure that car and motorcycle pollution begins to seem anachronistic.

5. Afforestation

One of the most easily identifiable pledges in mayor Johnson's manifesto is to plant 10,000 new trees in London. Given that parts of the capital, especially certain neighbourhoods in the east and south-east of the city, are largely bereft of greenery, this would appear to be a positive development.

However, there is one rather obvious problem with the idea: the scale of proposed afforestation is far, far too small.

To give an idea of what can be accomplished, the municipality in Istanbul - one of the very few cities in Europe which can be compared to London in terms of size and complexity - decided in 1996 that they would begin a tree-planting program under the banner, '100,000 Trees for Istanbul'. The target was exceeded, and 120,000 were planted. In 1997, 270,000 more new trees followed. Around two million saplings went down the same path in the next couple of years. In other words, over a four year period, an estimated total of approximately 2,500,000 trees were placed in the soil of Turkey's largest city. And the Istanbul municipality has not stopped planting trees.

Trees are perhaps the biggest no-brainers of urban planning. They soak up air and noise pollution, they beautify streets, store carbon emissions, and are proven to reduce the stresses of living in cities. They even increase property values. For the mayor not to launch a tree-planting program on a grand scale would be one of the biggest, and most needless, mistakes of his administration.

6. Energy diversification

As the most populous city in the region, London uses huge amounts of energy. However, in keeping with the rest of the UK, London's renewable power infrastructure is woefully inadequate. Germany has installed 200 times more solar power and 10 times more wind power than the UK; Denmark, a country with a population size similar to London's, vaunts such a comprehensive collection of state-of-the-art wind turbines that there are already days when 100 percent of its electricity needs are met through wind power alone.

Through implementing a serious program of grants, and publicising the financial and environmental benefits of renewable energy at a micro-level, the mayor would not only be diversifying London's power sources at a time of serious uncertainty regarding global energy security, but he would also be helping ensure that the UK has a chance of meeting its target of sourcing 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

7. Economic diversification

Prima facie, the economy of Greater London is a phenomenal engine of economic growth. It sucks in labour from the rest of the country, attracts the cream of global talent in almost every sector imaginable, and provides opportunities to poorer immigrant workers from all corners of the earth, in particular from many of those countries that joined the European Union on May 1, 2004.

However, a closer look reveals certain structural problems. Two issues are of particular concern. Firstly, London, like the UK as a whole, is far too reliant on financial and business services. Around 30 percent of Britain's national income is derived from this sector, much of it coming through London. Secondly, commercial rents in the city are far too high, meaning that independently-owned stores are being squeezed out to the point of extinction, as generally it is only chain stores that can afford to risk losing money in the short- to medium-term in order to gain long-term market share.

The mayor can tackle these respective concerns in the following ways. In partnership with both government at local and national level and London's universities, he can ensure that financial incentives, supported by appropriate educational initiatives and organisational assistance, are given to low or zero pollution manufacturing industries. Over time, this should broaden London's economic base.

Pertaining to the dominance of chain stores - almost always to the ultimate detriment of the consumer and the local economy more generally - the mayor should stipulate that every new commercial development, and all commercial developments by 2020, should set aside a certain percentage of their space to stores with a total of less than five outlets, and another proportion to those with a total of one outlet. Not only will this encourage a new culture of entrepreneurship, but it will bring much-needed diversity and vibrancy to London's retail environment, and should eventually lower consumer prices.

8. Cohesion

Much of London's success, both historical and present, can be put down to its ability to attract people from every corner of the world and make them into Londoners in a very short space of time. These people, most of whom - at least initially - have no natural affiliation to England or the United Kingdom, nevertheless tend to develop a very strong attachment to what they come to regard as 'their' city. Consequently, they are willing to set up businesses, invest capital, and contribute to the city's social and cultural life in ways that would otherwise be unimaginable.

Presently, London is a remarkably cohesive city. On Brick Lane, a street in east London which until relatively recently was synonymous with inner-city poverty, a Moroccan-themed Internet cafe sits next to a Turkish take-away; opposite, a new Swedish restaurant, decorated in wood, lies a few doors down from a Jewish bagel shop. The vibe produced by this admixture is making the area around Brick Lane a new centre of London's creative industries, which tend to be dominated by the English middle-classes. It is a genuinely enriching, and enviable, dynamic.

However, this kind of cohesion, which is unique to London and a handful of other metropolises, cannot be taken for granted. It can easily be disturbed. Already, many black Londoners are wary of mayor Johnson because of his repeated usage of racist appellations in the past; similarly, Muslim Londoners, who number around 14 percent of the city's population, are unlikely to be enamoured by the mayor's characterisation of Islam as intrinsically backward, anti-British, and problematic.

Moreover, Johnson's background as a former editor of The Spectator, a weekly magazine that has often been viewed as somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan in its political leanings, does not engender confidence in his abilities to deal equitably with all Londoners, regardless of race, culture, class, religious affiliation or any other such denominator.

Yet this is precisely what he must do if social peace and economic prosperity are to be maintained. And it is ultimately is the most pragmatic course of action for Johnson himself: the great-grandson of the last interior minister of the Ottoman Empire, he is one-eighth Turkish; his wife, the barrister Marina Wheeler, is half Indian. Using identity as a political pawn is a stratagem that could easily backfire.

9. Poverty

As befitting one of the global economy's major economic actors - the city is now generally regarded as having no equal in the realm of international finance, and it provides the UK with approximately 30 percent of its total income - London oozes wealth. Its streets may not be paved with gold, but its roads are clogged with more silver German cars than anyone sane can really stand. City slickers regularly splurge more on one meal than many people in middle-income countries earn in a year. Open the pages of any of the mass-circulation London newspapers, and you are greeted with endless photos of the rich and famous at various points in the rehab cycle. London, it would appear, is made of money.

However, the reality is that London is a place of stark divisions, and despite all the lacquered Mercedes that seemingly appear at every traffic junction in the city, these give a deceptive impression of a city in which around 50 percent of people do not even own a car.

Moreover, a walk around all but the most exclusive neighbourhoods tells a story of a London that feels so distant from the glamour of the West End - the area where many of London's biggest attractions are located - that it may as well be in a different country. In February 2008, the London Child Poverty Commission (LCPC) found that half of all children living in inner London live below the poverty line: in other words, 50 percent of children in inner London live in a household with an income of less than 60 percent of the national average. And this statistic cannot begin to capture what that actually means in terms of many people's daily reality: desolate housing, low access to high-quality education, and diets devoid of nutritional value.

Potentially, there are numerous steps that the mayor can take to combat poverty. Regularising the position of the most vulnerable and exploited in society - the ghostworld of illegal immigrants that keep the city functioning by working in entry level service industry and manufacturing jobs - is one. Giving children in inner-city London access to state of the art libraries and other educational and recreational facilities is another. Introducing a London weighting to salaries in the capital is yet another.

But the mayor must prioritise the alleviation of poverty if London is not to come to resemble the decaying American cities of the 1980s, with millions of citizens living cheek by jowl, yet entirely unconnected to each other: the antithesis of what urban life should be about.

10. Quality of Life

Even those who would die for the city would generally concede that the quality of life in London can be shockingly low. Londoners are increasingly known for being stressed out, miserable and joyless: squeezed ever-tighter between all-pervasive jobs and fractured domestic lives, many Londoners find solace only in booze and chemicals, which quickly become additional problems in their own right.

Of course, city mayors are not omnipotent, and faced with long-term social trends such as familial breakdown, spiralling substance abuse, mass depression and an ever-harsher global economy, perhaps they can do little.

However, with some imagination, mayors can initiate programs to introduce some more happiness into the lives of their citizens, and London does not have to look very far for a salient example. The Paris Plage is a stretch of beach adjacent to the Seine that is thrown up for four to five weeks every summer. It is free to enter, and all kinds of activities, such as massages, trampolining and every kind of sport are available for Parisians to enjoy, with the municipality and its public and private sector partners picking up the tab. And it is adored by the public: in 2006, the Paris Plage had 4 million visitors, and it has spawned similar events across Europe.

Initiatives such as the Paris Plage are exactly the kind of inclusive and relaxing events that London is in need of. The new mayor would do well to come up with and successfully organise an equivalent.

To conclude, then, the 2008 London mayoral elections were characterised by a pronounced poverty of ideas on the part of the leading candidates. Paradoxically, the problems that London faces are of the type that require imagination and flair to solve. The issues raised in the ten areas discussed above - in particular, the city's crumbling rail transportation infrastructure, pronounced economic susceptibility and gargantuan social inequality - may determine not just the fate of the mayor come the next such elections in 2012, but the very future of London as a viable global city.

©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Asad Yawar

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