Khan vs Goldsmith - Boris' last flop

Tomorrow, Sadiq Khan will comfortably beat Zac Goldsmith in the race to become Mayor of London. Lewisham voters will back the Labour candidate in their droves. So it is written.

In their lacklustre manifestos we can see Boris’ true legacy. During his eight years of grandstanding to no great effect, we forgot that the Mayor matters. Johnson’s pitiful two terms have delivered a nice-but-expensive new bus, a cable car that may one day be a useful connection, the bare bones of a segregated cycle network and little else. His only big idea, the night tube, became snarled up in union disputes and he abandoned his post months ago.

But the Mayor, whose powers are growing, does have the ability to transform the city. From Oyster to the TfL cycle stations, our daily lives were once reshaped. The clusters around Victoria, London Bridge and Kings Cross, the Olympic-scale redevelopment of Stratford and the new life along the route of the East London Line are testament to the Mayor’s power to redraw the map. Even a modest bit of pedestrianisation helped us reimagine the role that Trafalgar Square could play in civic life.

So what about this time? 

There are three big issues that dominate London’s future: The supply of housing, transport capacity and air quality. 

Rising housing costs are making us poorer, capacity constraints are packing us in ever tighter and the stuff we breathe is killing us. But on these questions, there’s little to divide them and still less to inspire.

On housing, both men are opposed to compromising the greenbelt and building out, while Zac’s opposed to building up. Khan plans a new organisation, Housing for London, which would co-ordinate strategy across the capital. This idea has potential, but his target of making 50% of new homes affordable is either fantasy stuff or would kill off a good chunk of the house building pipeline - as could both manifestos’ commitment to offer homes to established Londoners first.

The only real solution to London’s housing shortage is to build more homes but there is no comprehensive plan on offer. Instead, they focus on regulating rents, which is welcome but risks creating all kinds of other distortions in the market without addressing the imbalance of demand and supply.

As Zac’s manifesto makes clear, transport and housing strategies intersect. New links are key to encouraging brownfield development. And yet, he quickly forgets his own analysis. The Thames Gateway, he says, could play home to an additional population the size of Glasgow. But his manifesto omits any mention of the new transport infrastructure required to unlock that potential.

Neither candidate has any new ideas about transport and in terms of new capacity, their plans barely differ. Zac supports the Silvertown Tunnel. Sadiq mentions the Rotherhithe pedestrian bridge. They both back Crossrail 2 and the Bakerloo extension, promise modest expansion of electric vehicle infrastructure and oppose Heathrow. Both pander to the black taxi lobby with wholly unnecessary regulation of Uber and minicab rivals. Their manifestos amount to little more than a rubber stamp for TfL’s existing commitments. The only real difference is that Khan expects TfL to do it all without raising fares and has never been able to explain how he’ll plug the yawning financial gap, especially since he demands “efficiency savings” while simultaneously suggesting that mothballed ticket offices could be reopened to placate the unions.

You might expect air quality to be an overriding concern for environmentalist Zac, but his plans are pretty timid. Retro-fitting diesel buses would be welcome, but it's an idea reliant on central government support. The loan scheme to taxi drivers to convert to LPG is a neat idea, as is the promise to review the Lorry Control Scheme to limit peak time deliveries – but there’s little promised action on pollution from private vehicles. Sadiq, by contrast, promises a consultation on accelerating and expanding the Low Emissions Zone roll-out.

If neither candidate grapples properly with these fundamental issues, nor do they offer much of a sense of fun. Where are the ideas to make London a more thrilling or charming place to live? Zac talks airily of pocket parks and wetlands, Sadiq promises to deliver on the long-mooted pedestrianisation of Oxford Street and revive the plans to remodel Parliament Square. And that’s your lot.

With little to choose between them and few ideas to debate, it’s no surprise the campaign has descended into identity politics, with Zac blowing an Islamicist dog whistle and Sadiq chucking chum to social justice warriors.

How then to choose between them? I think it must come down to their leadership qualities. Sadiq seems like a pragmatist, who’ll backtrack on his dangerous commitment to freeze fares and get stuck into the detail of the job. Zac appears alarmingly aloof and erratic, with little love for our city.

The likely winner is the right choice in a poor contest. Thanks Boris.


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