A few points for your attention, Mr Mayor

November 26, 1999

Away from the farce of London's mayoral race, academics have been looking at the policies. Anne Sebba reports.

You might be forgiven for thinking the election of London's new mayor in May 2000 revolves entirely around personality and looks or questions of whether central government will ever allow true independence to whoever lands the job. But with the Greater London Authority Bill having completed its passage through Parliament, most of the city's seven million inhabitants would broadly welcome the notion of a city-wide elected strategic authority headed by a mayor with real power to improve quality of life in the capital. It is just that they do not know how he or she will do it.

Missing, according to Lord Harris, chair of the Association of London Governments, is any proper debate and discussion about policies. He has just set up New Voice for London (NV4L), a think-tank of experts from London's business, academic and political communities, to commission policy research, conduct seminars and start a proper debate on issues ranging from the contribution of the arts to the capital's economy, to the problem of runaway children in the city and the role of London's public squares.

In fact, academics have been researching the capital's needs for years, but the press has not always reported their findings. Only now, with the imminent arrival of a new mayor in charge of a Pounds 3 billion budget, do they appear to have a real opportunity to effect change.

Several organisations are already putting forward proposals: London First, a business-oriented grouping with 300-plus members, in operation since 1992, has most of London's universities and several further education colleges in its membership. With the Confederation of British Industry London and the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, London First has produced a business manifesto for the mayor and the GLA that stresses that global competitiveness must be the prerequisite for achieving all other GLA policy aims. The manifesto states: "All the GLA's policies must be tested against the aim of promoting a strong, stable, diverse, competitive, sustainable and flexible economy. London's population is varied and cosmopolitan, originating from all over the world and ranging from the internationally wealthy to the most economically deprived. London's diversity creates a buzz of activity and demands for a high quality of life in increasingly a 24-hour city. It is vital to retain highly trained individuals and to include the long-term unemployed within economic activity. An inclusive city for people is a better city for business too."

A spokesperson for London First says a key issue is making the community happy and promoting cultural diversity, as this encourages tourism. Thirty-three different languages are spoken in London, a fact that helps lure foreign businesses. Air France, for example, has recently opened a London call centre.

The Local Futures Group, a more recently established commercial think-tank, last year published The London Study, a massive document funded partly by the European Union. Ian Christie, the group's associate director, says The London Development Partnership - precursor to the London Development Agency - has been using the London Study to provide an economic development strategy for the whole of London and a vision of how it can develop a sustainable economy for the next 20 years. Its six major recommendations are broadly similar to those of London First and include calls for London to become a "civil world city developing an inclusive, tolerant yet diverse community; a global commercial city; an exemplary green city, and a city that is the hub of information services across Europe".

But Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Research Centre at the London School of Economics, advises caution. He believes London is groaning with policy. "What the mayor needs is nothing more than one A4 sheet of tightly argued proposals for action that is implementable, thought through and focused," he says. "The mayor will have his own ideas and much of what she or he does will be largely because of the day-to-day grind of keeping the roads and tubes open. This will take a massive amount of effort, and in the end the mayor will do what the mayor wants to do and that is, win votes."

He says the paradox is that in the 15 years that London lacked a city-wide government it has got by, its economy has grown and it has become a relatively tolerant and relaxed city, neither over-governed nor hugely interventional. "It is the things that grow between the cracks that make it interesting and creative, and there are good things that have sometimes happened because it is a fragmented city."

One of the first to address New Voice for London was Perri 6, senior research fellow in the department of government at Strathclyde University. He gave a seminar on e-democracy - the idea that London's often apathetic electorate could register complaints, receive benefits, pay for parking licences and cast votes online or by telephone. "The mayor must make the decision-making process more fun so that people want to participate," he says. "E-democracy can make this easier."

But he warns that the mayor faces both huge expectations and huge constraints. "What, concretely, the mayor can do and how he will go about making priorities is largely being left until he or she takes up position," he says. "I think we ought to do better. Yes, there is no shortage of policy documents around. But policy is not just about writing of documents for experts by experts. It is also about reaching the wider public and involving the mass media, mobilising interest groups and making ideas relevant. I do not think we have achieved that yet."

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