Good advices?

 [First published in Local Government Chronicle, 24 November 2020]

Choosing the right advisors is one of the most important decisions that political leaders make, as recent Downing Street dramas have illustrated. This is perhaps particularly true for the mayor of London, who unlike the prime minister or a council leader does not have the support of a party group, but only the watchful eye of a scrutinising London Assembly.

So, alongside City Hall’s expert staff, mayors need mates; their own people who can advise and represent them in such a huge city. The mayor of London can bring in 12 appointees, and the ways in which the three mayors to date have appointed and worked with their teams have been indicative both of their strengths and their weaknesses – as detailed in London’s Mayor at 20, a collection of essays, analyses and interviews looking back over the past two decades of the capital’s mayoralty.

When Ken Livingstone was elected in 2000, he came with a gang of advisors who had worked with him for many years – from the Greater London Council, from activism since then, from his parliamentary office. Most had worked with him when he had decided to run as an independent following Labour’s bungled attempt to fix candidate selection. Within weeks of his election, Ken had advertised posts as ‘policy advisors’, and many of these were filled by familiar faces.

The team were all broadly from the political left, albeit from different denominations; Simon Fletcher, Ken’s chief of staff and former parliamentary researcher, brokered agreement on priorities and positioning. The mayor used to describe advisors such as Neale Coleman, John Ross, Jude Woodward and Lee Jasper as being like ministers – with full authority to represent his views. The team was consistent through Ken’s two terms, with the mayor showing loyalty (and damaging his 2008 re-election campaign) when advisors became embroiled in newspaper allegations of cronyism.

Unlike his predecessor, Boris Johnson had no deep roots in London politics, and had only been an MP since 2001. There was no gang waiting in the wings when the ebullient loner was elected in 2008. Nick Boles, then Conservative MP for Grantham and founder of the Policy Exchange thinktank, worked with the new mayor to appoint deputy mayors.

The initial tranche proved shaky: one was prosecuted for fiddling expenses, another was found to have fabricated his CV, and a third senior advisor made comments on race issues that led to swift resignation. Tim Parker – a corporate restructuring guru appointed as chief of staff and first deputy mayor – left when it became clear that there wasn’t the scope or appetite for the application of his specialised skill set, and that Boris wanted to take decisions as mayor rather than acting as a media-friendly figurehead.

Other appointments were more stable, some becoming long-term Johnson allies. Munira Mirza, deputy mayor for culture and education, followed Johnson to Downing Street, as did chief of staff Eddie Lister, who is now temporarily filling the same role at 10 Downing Street. Lister, and Simon Milton the former Westminster City Council leader who preceded him at City Hall, took a relatively light-touch approach to policy co-ordination, leaving other deputy mayors, such as Stephen Greenhalgh, Kit Malthouse and Isabel Dedring, with space to develop policy positions, but also giving a looser sense of direction than under Livingstone.

If Sadiq Khan drew one lesson from Boris’s wobbly transition, it was not to make appointments too quickly. His deputy mayors were appointed painstakingly over his first six months in office. Senior local government figures such as James Murray and Jules Pipe, former mayor of Hackney, were appointed alongside former GLA officials Justine Simons and Shirley Rodrigues, and external figures such as human rights barrister Matthew Ryder, shadow transport minister Heidi Alexander and former Home Office special advisor Sophie Linden.

These appointments have been carefully judged, but the deputies are not close to Sadiq and his decision-making in the way that Ken’s were, or eventually Boris’s became. Less prominent are the inner circle of advisors who agree policy positioning: chief of staff David Bellamy, director of policy Nick Bowes, and communications and external affairs directors Leah Kreitzman, Paddy Hennessy and Jack Stenner.

The London mayoralty is an unusual role: it can be a springboard or a dead-end; it suits loners and mavericks, but requires constant coalition-building; it gives extensive powers of patronage and appointment, alongside singular accountability. It is a job to which the incumbent is elected alone, but not one which any mayor could hope to carry out alone. Appointing advisors and deputies is an early but critical decision, requiring trust and judgement. For a political loner like Boris Johnson it is a fraught business, and one that has given him a rocky start both as mayor of London and as prime minister.

5 ways mayors have changed London (Nov 2018)

[Originally published on Centre for London blog, 7 November 2018]

This year, the London Mayoralty turns 18 years old and ‘comes of age’. During this time, London’s three Mayors – Ken, Boris, Sadiq – have used the limited levers that they had – sometimes to breaking point –  to improve the city.

But what impact have they actually had? Here’s five ways that the Mayors have transformed our city since the Mayoralty was established.

1. Leading London’s urban renaissance

The London Plan, as adapted and evolved by the three Mayors, set a world standard in promoting smart growth, sustainable development, urban renaissance.  The plans committed to accommodating growth within the city, focusing on public transport walking and cycling, developing ever more ambitious housing targets, renewing the public realm, and harnessing the dynamics of development to create a fairer and greener city.

2. Driving transport innovation

The Mayor’s ability to integrate transport and development – the envy of other cities like New York – has been central to the London Plan.  But Transport for London – chaired by all three Mayors in a signal of its significance – has also led policy innovation in transport – from the original congestion charging zone, to bike rentals, to the Oyster card and contactless payment, to the ultra-low emissions zone.

3. Providing civic leadership

The Mayors have also provided a focal point for civic leadership. This has not just been a matter of fronting bids for major events, and representing the city in trade fairs and Whitehall spending rounds. It has also sadly meant leading the city at times of tragedy – after the London bombings in 2005, and the terrorist attacks and Grenfell Tower fire that the city faced last summer. The Mayors have, with differing emphases and tone, presented London and the world with an image of capital that is inclusive, tolerant, diverse, open, united.  It’s an aspect of the Mayor’s role that is not mentioned in any statute, but eighteen years on you wonder how we lived without it.

4. Doing deals with central Government

Having a Mayor has enabled London to do deals with central Government on how to finance and deliver major infrastructure projects.  These deals – on the London 2012 Olympics and legacy, on Crossrail and on the Northern Line Extension – have helped London to accommodate its growth, to weather the storms of the financial crisis, and to transform areas benighted by decades of underinvestment – while also building world-leading capacity in major projects.

5. Making the case for more power

And the Mayors have secured new powers through statute.

  • In 2006, the Mayor was given powers to stage the London 2012 Olympics – which was fortunate given that he and the government had committed to do so the previous year.
  • In 2007, planning powers and housing powers were strengthened, as was the London Assembly’s role in approving mayoral appointments.
  • In 2011, policing oversight – always a bone of contention between the Mayor and Home Secretary was reformed, as the Metropolitan Police Authority was replaced by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime
  • Also in 2011 the Localism Act empowered the London Assembly to reject mayoral strategies, and passed control of HCA and LDA land to the Mayor, delegated the affordable housing budget, enabled the Mayor to establish Mayor Development Corporations – shifting the focus of the GLA from strategy to delivery.But progress since 2011 has been faltering.  There have been devolution deals on the Adult Education Budget, agreements on health and social care, and discussions on justice devolution.  But despite two London finance commissions, and strong representations from the Mayor and London Councils, further devolution feels like unfinished business.

And at no time since the Mayoralty was set up 18 years ago have the challenges facing the capital looked more daunting. Local government services are under increasing pressure. A cooling housing market is leading to a slowdown in the construction and availability of affordable homes. Migration from the EU and across the country is falling. And all of this before Brexit.

Against that background, we need to rethink the way London operates for new times. We need to continue to make the case for new powers for the Mayor – across housing, taxes, and skills, to help London meet the challenges ahead.

From adhocracy to algorithm – notes on mayoral style (July 2018)

 [Originally published in OnLondon, 7 July 2018]

Halfway through his first term, there are some curious paradoxes about Sadiq Khan’s tenure as Mayor of London. He has a solid record of announcements under his belt, from a remixed London Plan to cash for affordable housing and eye-catching initiatives such as the borough of culture or ballots on estate regeneration.

While there’s a mounting funding crisis in Transport for London, initiatives such as the Hopper fare for buses have been successful, even if pedestrianising Oxford Street has fallen foul of Westminster Council politics. And Sadiq has campaigned for a capital-friendly Brexit, been vigorous in promoting London’s openness, and appointed well-respected and diverse deputy mayors and committees of advisors.

And yet. And yet. Despite assiduous media management, there are some voices – from Greater London Authority officers to housebuilders to senior borough executives – who talk of the Mayor as remote, inaccessible, disengaged. You can’t meet with him or speak with him, they say. You think you’ve agreed something with a deputy mayor, they complain, but then Sadiq does his own thing. It’s all smoke and mirrors, run by a tight gang around the Mayor who already have their eye on his next big job.

It’s worth pausing to ask whether these murmurs of discontent are simply the protests of the former in-crowd feeling the chill of a change in administration and a significant change in political direction. There’s certainly some of this, and you could argue that previous mayors were perhaps too eager to court housebuilders to little effect in terms of housing delivery.

But I think there’s something more – a change in style, or even mode of governance. Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone both governed in a highly personal manner; they wielded their authority in a way that the sociologist Max Weber might have described as “charismatic”. For Ken, leadership was a matter of drawing together the factions and alliances that had enabled him to rise to the top of the Greater London Council, doing deals with developers even when he felt like bringing a long spoon, schmoozing the blazered sportsocrats of the International Olympic Committee, and alternately raging at government and wheedling powers and resources from it.

Boris’s regime was even more personalised. From successes such as the promotion of the “Olympicopolis” legacy plan for the Olympic Park – now renamed Eastbank – to more questionable follies such as the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the Garden Bridge and Emirates cable car, his most prominent initiatives were high risk, opportunistic deals, bearing only a glancing relationship to mayoral powers or remit, but using sheer force of personality to lever resources from high net worth individuals and corporations.

All of which seems very far away from Sadiq’s approach. He’s not interested in doing deals, you sense, but in tightening and adjusting the policy levers at his disposal to secure the results he wants. His governance rests on the “legal-rational” (Weber’s term again) basis of the mayoral powers and remit, with decisions taken calmly and rationally – albeit with a keen eye for politics – rather than on the basis of deals done personally or with subordinates.

It’s a fundamentally different model, and one that other people in City Hall (perhaps lower down the pecking order and therefore less likely to miss direct access to the Mayor) relish. One said to me, “With Boris, you got the feeling that he had a highly-tuned machine that he couldn’t be bothered to steer. With this lot, you get clear direction, and authority to go out and do things.” It is also probably more like the technocratic mayoralty that I and fellow members of the transition team expected before the first mayoral election in 2000, when we played “war games” about how the newly established Mayor and London Assembly would operate in practice.

Whether Sadiq’s approach will be more or less successful than his predecessors’ remains to be seen. A city cannot just be governed by deals with developers and ad hoc initiatives devised in Davos cloakrooms, but it probably can’t run like an algorithm either. The Mayor’s resources are limited, so he needs to work with investors and developers to build the city he wants. With a few exceptions, I applaud Sadiq’s policies. But I wonder how some of them will be implemented.

He\’s Only Making Plans for London

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[Written a few weeks ago, and published on MJ website 10.11.16]

Almost drowned out by the noise over airport expansion, Sadiq Khan issued A City for All Londoners this week, the vision document that will underpin the Mayors strategies, and in particular the London Plan, the citys spatial blueprint.


What then does this tell us about what we can expect from Sadiqs mayorality? The changes are subtle many paragraphs would not look out of place in Boris Johnson’s 2008 Planning for a Better London but they do signal shifts in emphasis and focus.

There is no change in the Mayors commitment to protecting the Green Belt, but theres a strong focus on the intensification of existing development, for example, in town centre locations and around transport hubs, with a particular focus on TfL and other public sector landholdings. Big sites and opportunity areas like Barking Riverside, which has been promising to deliver 10,000 homes for the past 15 years, are still part of the story, but as Centre for Londons report Going Large emphasises, these can be challenging to deliver. Looking at existing town centres and transport hubs for new growth opportunities acknowledges the limits of a big siteapproach in a city that is growing as fast as London.

Theres also a welcome emphasis not just on housing numbers, but on the creation of neighbourhoods. This includes reference to mixed-use development, and a good growthstrategy that encompasses affordability, quality of place, social infrastructure and zero-carbon initiatives. The document largely steers clear of the more controversial aspects of housing policy, with no mention of estate redevelopment (as discussed in Centre for Londons recent Another Storey), 50 per cent affordable housing presented as a long-term target rather than a day one stipulation, and only a cursory reference to lack of transparencyin foreign ownership (although an investigation into the latter is planned). 

A further subtle shift can be seen in Sadiqs proposals for economic development, as the self-styled most pro-business Mayor yet”.  While maintaining the strength of the central Londons business districts, including through opposing office to residential conversions, A City for All Londoners emphasises the potential for more development, including offices and hotels, in well-connected outer London centres.

Transport and environmental issues are discussed together, confirming pledges on air quality, and setting out a vision for healthy streets(using a pedestrianized Oxford Street as an example), which enable walking and cycling. Major infrastructure schemes like Crossrail 2, East London river crossings and the Bakerloo Line extension are plugged, with an emphasis on their integration with new development, as is the takeover of suburban rail that Centre for London proposed earlier this year in Turning South London Orange. But there is also a strong focus on behaviour change to reduce car use, and deliver a feet firstplan for central London.

The document also touches on some of the less tangible aspects of urban infrastructure, social cohesion, mental health, community safety, active citizenship, and volunteering. Theres a reference to economic inequality also, including the establishment of an Economic Fairness Team to push for better workplace standards. Cultural infrastructure from theatres and galleries to skate parks and gay pubs is presented as central to Londons success, and the Mayor argues for agent of changemeasures to ensure that long-standing clubs and music venues are protected from noise complaints from new residents.

Though it has dominated public life for five months, references to Brexit are few and far between. The EU referendum result is delicately described as not what I and many London businesses had hoped for, but the Mayor is cautious in pushing for special provisions for London. Fiscal devolution the focus of the reconvened London Finance Commissionis only mentioned in passing, and immigration is set aside as a matter for government despite recent publicity for the idea of regional visas. Understandably perhaps, the Mayor is avoiding self-fulfilling prophecies of doom, or grand claims for what he can deliver – particularly where this will need government agreement, or depend on the murky ebb and flow of Brexit policy and negotiation.

Lamé, Duckie

I don’t get to Duckie as often as I used to, partly the result of moving to Brighton, and partly just getting older.  But, for several years in the late 1990s, Duckie was the hub round which my week revolved.  Friends’ parties, gigs and meals out could come and go, but from 10pm on a Saturday night, I would be at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.
Duckie was founded in 1995 by Amy Lamé (appointed this week as Sadiq Khan’s new ‘Night Czar’), together with producer Simon Strange, DJs the (London) Readers Wifes, and door whores Jay and Father Cloth.  London’s gay scene at the time was pretty conformist, dominated by identikit shirts-off techno sweatboxes, with only a few alternatives (like Popstarz, which was always a bit too fixated on Britpop for my taste).  Duckie brought something new, mixing performance art, political activism, northern soul, electro, grunge and glam, all delivered with wit and intelligence. 
Compered by Amy, a modern dance troupe would be followed on stage by an alternative drag act, or by striking Liverpool dock workers urging solidarity and collecting for a hardship fund.  In between acts, you could spend half an hour swaying and struggling through the friendly crowd to bar or loo, as Kate Bush, The Damned, Suede, Pet Shop Boys, X-Ray Spex, The Smiths, and Althea and Donna  boomed from the turntables (the Wifes were loath to indulge in DJ-ish gimmicks like ‘mixing’). 
After the ever-changing roster of “the Readers’ Wifes’ favourite record OF ALL TIME!”, the never-changing refrain of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Xanadu’ would close the show, as the lights came up, and the crowd spilled out onto Vauxhall pavements.  For five years, Duckie rocked my world. 
Duckie was/is open and welcoming, challenging but safe, intelligent but amiable, arty but not po-faced, boozy but not lairy, crowded but not claustrophobic, raucous but not rough, sexy but not self-obsessed. As Amy Lamé settles into her new role, that sounds like a pretty good vision for what London’s nightlife could and should be.

Sadiq\’s first 100 days

[Published in The Guardian, 15 August 2016]

Sadiq Khan’s first 100 days in office – officially marked today – have given an indication of the character of his mayoralty. There has been none of the drama of Ken Livingstone’s 2000 triumph against the Labour party machine, and his subsequent battle against partial privatisation of the tube. Nor has there been the chaos of Boris Johnson’s 2008 election, with deputy mayors arriving and departing with a regularity that would be the envy of many London commuters.
 
Instead, Khan’s arrival in office has been marked by a careful approach to appointments (taking care over these was Johnson’s parting advice to his successor) and astute leverage of the mayor’s public profile while the City Hall policy machine begins to grind through its rusty gears.

Launching a mayoral programme takes time, especially if you haven’t inherited much from your predecessor. Ken Livingstone, for whom I worked as private secretary for his first year in office, didn’t implement congestion charging until 2003 – three years after he was elected – with the Olympic Bid and London Plan following the next year.

In 2008, Livingstone wanted to return to office to implement free bike hire and collect the Olympic Flag from Beijing, but Boris’ election victory meant that these became his projects. By contrast, Boris knew he wasn’t coming back in 2016 – some would say he mentally checked out some time earlier – and left the cupboard pretty bare.

Khan has more than 200 manifesto commitments, and it has taken him time to appoint a team to focus on implementation, wrestling with the complex and only marginally coherent selection of agencies, strategies and duties that the mayor has accreted since 2000.

His appointments include a core group drawn from the campaign, including his chief of staff, David Bellamy, and policy directors Nick Bowes, Jack Stenner, Leah Kreitzmann and Patrick Hennessey. Observers describe them as a tight team who have worked together for a long time. There’s virtue in the familiarity and trust this engenders, but the experience of previous mayors suggests that not every campaigner can easily make the transition to administration.

Alongside them, Khan has appointed deputy mayors like Justine Simmons, James Murray, Val Shawcross, Sophie Linden and Jules Pipe. These are hardly household names, but are well known and generally well respected in London government circles. The mayor has also brought in outside experts, such as Rajesh Agrawal, tech entrepreneur and deputy mayor for business. The last few appointments are due to follow imminently, and the Centre for London has argued that they should include a chief digital officer to lead digital transformation across London government.

The mayor has made early announcements on air quality, which will be a priority area for action alongside housing, economic development, culture and social cohesion. The next big policy milestone will probably be in the autumn, when Khan sets out his vision for the new London Plan (which is unlikely to make it through its tortuous formal process, including public consultation and an ‘examination in public’, until 2019), and the other strategies that sit underneath it.

New rules on housing will be a big focus, and there are already background murmurings that Sadiq risks being boxed in by commitments on affordability. Some of these murmurings come from housebuilders and developers – and they would say that wouldn’t they? – but there clearly is some nervousness as the market feels the chilling effects of the post-referendum slowdown.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s team are focusing strongly on land held by Transport for London, which has the double challenge of needing to generate income to compensate for reduced government grant during a fares freeze, as well as meeting the mayor’s affordability policies.

But it is Brexit that has dominated the mayor’s first months. Khan moved straight from the mayoral campaign to the remain campaign, and since the referendum result has become the voice for London’s pro-EU majority, arguing for London to have a seat at the negotiating table, reforming the London Finance Commission to seek more local control of taxes, and broadcasting the message that #LondonIsOpen to the world.

It is easy to dismiss campaigning and public appearances as froth on the serious business of governance, but in the fraught days of summer 2016, the mayor of London’s role in leading his nine million citizens is perhaps as important as providing them with services, initiatives and strategies. These will need to follow in time, and there are huge challenges ahead for London, but the mayor has made a sure-footed start.