We are well into a very political Spring, with the pre-election period of sensitivity for local authorities now underway in advance of the regional and local elections due on 6 May, a Queen’s Speech now set for 11 May and who knows, maybe a Cabinet reshuffle not long after that?
Politics are front and centre in our coverage of the campaign for London’s Mayor and Assembly, the latest ructions dividing the Labour party, and the Government’s progress against key pledges on sustainability and fire safety.
But politics are also very much central to stories on everything from London transport, to ‘levelling up’ and the so-called ‘culture wars.’
Beyond politics, we’re pleased to share some happy news in Our Week and are even more delighted to help spread the word about the newly-announced shortlist for the Davidson Prize – a timely initiative, in memory of a remarkable pioneer in architectural visualisation – showcasing innovative design solutions for living and working in the wake of the pandemic.
Transport for London has sort of secured a lifeline, but it’s a temporary one – and a longer term financial settlement is nowhere to be seen. At the 16 March meeting of the TfL Board, Commissioner Andy Byford expressed concerns that time was running out for a new funding deal, with the existing one set to expire at the end of the month. Then, on 18 March, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps tweeted that the Government was offering to extend the current deal until 18 May, ‘on the same terms as now’. It was confirmed on Monday that TfL had accepted the offer, with negotiations for a new funding deal to begin ‘as soon as the Mayoral Elections are concluded’. Evidently restrained by the pre-election period’s restrictions, which kicked in on the same day, City Hall’s response was unusually muted. But the same can’t be said for union and industry representatives. The RMT union accused the Government of using a ‘stop-start approach’ to ‘try and assist’ the Tory mayoral candidate ahead of the upcoming election. The London Chamber of Commerce and Industry welcomed the offer, but said that it was ‘disappointing’ that it does not offer further support for TfL, while London First said – more diplomatically, but no less forcefully – that the resumption of negotiations should provide 'an opportunity to come to a long-term funding agreement that backs a strong national recovery and boosts confidence at a critical moment for the capital.’
Yes, we know the latest Mayoral intention polling again shows Sadiq Khan ahead at 53%, but election campaigns are about more than just "the winner" – and Khan ain’t won quite yet.
- There’s the creative churn of policy proposals and we were interested to hear the Green Party candidate’s latest proposals, for a Creative Autonomy Allowance (CAA) to support ‘young entrepreneurs and artists’ and for more powers for the London Youth Assembly.
- Then there’s the delicate chess game of political messaging and we’ve noted the Conservatives’ campaign focusing on crime and Labour’s pushing hard on ‘job, jobs, jobs and young people’, in a week when the big story is arguably (as above) transport.
- There’s the real footwork and popular participation of democratic politics and we’re starting to see campaigners on the ground, leafletting and canvassing voters, with restrictions on in-person campaigning gradually easing.
- There’s the (high) drama of candidate debates and hustings, where candidates and their representatives spar on the issues that matter. BBC London are airing a debate between Shaun Bailey and Sadiq Khan even as we go to print – and we intend to attend upcoming events such as Age UK’s Older Londoners' Mayoral Hustings on 30 March and CPRE’s Mayoral Environment Debate on 12 April.
- There’s the… eccentrics, vying for attention and in some cases actually not giving a hoot in an increasingly crowded field of aspiring candidates – though Sadiq Khan is trying (perhaps slightly too hard?) to frame this as a 'two horse race.'
- And for the real anoraks, there’s the various ‘down-ballot’ (as the Americans would say) votes taking place, with governance referenda in Newham and Tower Hamlets and at least 36 by-elections for vacant council seats across no less than 20 London boroughs. We’ll be looking closely at these as bellwethers for the next London Borough elections, in May 2022.
'PRIME LONDON' LATEST
- Plans for the redevelopment of the Kensington Forum Hotel have been withdrawn. The application, by developer Rockwell, has been the subject of a long-running planning saga, having been rejected by the local council, approved twice by the Mayor and called-in by Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick earlier this year. No reasons for the withdrawal have been given.
- Also in Kensington & Chelsea, the Council has ruled that cycle lanes introduced last year in High Street Kensington will not be reinstalled. The lanes were removed in December, just seven weeks after they had been installed, following complaints from some local residents and businesses, despite support from others in the borough, the Labour Mayor of London and the active encouragement and funding from the Tory government. The Council has said that it will look into an ‘alternative scheme’.
- In neighbouring Westminster City Council, a new City for All strategy for 2021/22 has been unveiled, outlining how the borough will try to ‘build a dynamic post-pandemic economy’ through the delivery of workstreams under four pillars. WCC has also published al fresco dining guidance ahead of the reopening of restaurants, pubs and bars from 12 April at the earliest which has, as before, upset some residents who live about such establishments.
- Also in Westminster, the New West End Company’s mandate has been renewed for a further five years, with 98% of businesses voting in favour. The Marble Arch Businesses Improvement District (BID) has also been renewed for five more years, with 95% of businesses voting in favour. Congratulations to both, especially at this time when BIDs have such a vital role to play.
LEVELLING DOWN LATEST
The BBC is the latest publicly-funded organisation to announce it is moving jobs out of London in the name of ‘levelling up’ the rest of Britain. The plans unveiled by Director-General Tim Davie will see the BBC ‘move some of its key departments and staff outside London to make the corporation more reflective of the UK as a whole’ and also herald an array of programming changes, with the intention of better catering for the needs and tastes of England’s regions and the devolved nations. The move follows several Whitehall Departments announcing plans to spread their operations across the country, the latest being the Department for Transport and the Cabinet Office, which last week announced they will be moving or ‘creating’ hundreds of posts outside the capital. But these and other ‘levelling up’ initiatives continue to generate scepticism – and not just by us! Last Sunday, Observer columnist Will Hutton eloquently made the case for London as ‘an advert for the best of what we can be.’ Earlier this month, veteran broadcaster Iain Dale also argued that ‘a levelling up strategy that doesn’t have the capital as a part of it is doomed to fail.’ Beyond the pundits, the Industrial Strategy Council has also warned that the Government’s levelling up plan is in need of a ‘comprehensive reorientation.’
With Jasmine Whitbread set to leave London First at the end of the month, John Dickie will take on the role of acting CEO from 31 March, while recruitment for a permanent replacement is underway.
This last week saw the final meetings of the London Assembly before they pack up for the election. Three of the Assembly Members who are retiring have served since the inception of the GLA, marking the end of a combined nearly 63 years or service on the Assembly – Tony Arbour (Conservative), Jennette Arnold (Labour) and Nicky Gavron (Labour). We wish them well and thank them for their sterling service to London since 2000.
FIRE SAFETY UPDATE
Like us, you may have noticed headline after headline about the tortuous progress of the Government’s Fire Safety Bill through the Houses of Parliament. So what’s actually happening? Earlier this week, MPs voted to reject an amendment to the Fire Safety Bill which would have prevented leaseholders from footing the bill for the cost of cladding remediation. MPs voted by a majority of 69 to remove the Lords amendment (also known as the McPartland/Smith amendment), which Housing Minister Christopher Pincher called ‘unworkable’. The End Our Cladding Scandal campaign group is among those expressing disappointment and anger at the result, but thanked some MPs for working cross-party on the issue, after 33 Conservative MPs voted against the Government. The amendment will now return to the House of Lords, as debates and voting on amendments continue – but it’s getting there. The Fire Safety Bill was first introduced by the Government last March as part of its response to the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire. It aims to minimise fire risks in multi-occupied, residential buildings by ensuring that they are properly managed. Measures include the carrying out of regular inspections of buildings, ensuring that fire safety instructions are clear and keeping evacuation plans up to date.
The past few days have underlined the difficulties of realising the Government-led drive to achieve zero carbon by 2050. A new report from the Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee, released on Monday, has argued that the Government's plans for encouraging the retrofitting of existing homes – responsible for 20% of the UK’s carbon emissions – are not fit for purpose. It identifies a range of impediments to progress, from insufficient funding, to a lack of engagement with the energy efficiency sector and – crucially – the underperformance of the flagship Green Homes Grant programme. No surprise, perhaps, that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy enthusiastically ‘announced’, on Tuesday progress in rolling out £562m-worth of grants to enable the retrofitting of low-income households and social housing properties, drawn from the snappily titled Local Authority Delivery (LAD) Fund and the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund Demonstrator. We like to think that these are nothing but teething problems: balancing ambitious targets for housebuilding, improving building safety and reducing emissions from existing housing stock is no mean feat. But the clock is ticking… 29 years to go.
We’re doing a lot of thinking about diversity and inclusion in our workplace and yes, it can be challenging - but it could be much worse. Spare a thought for the staff and friends of Pride in London, the organisation behind one of the world’s biggest annual LGBTQ+ marches. Five of its directors resigned with immediate effect on Friday, following what is reported to have been a ‘turbulent week amid allegations of a hostile environment for people of colour and bullying within the organisation.’ That such issues can boil over so dramatically, in an organisation specifically dedicated to fostering a more open society, may come as a surprise to many – but we do live in turbulent times. Meanwhile, that turbulence continues to feed a toxic ‘culture war’ over London’s monuments and street names. Conservative Ministers and London MPs are still taking the Mayor to task for his Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, saying that he ‘must not demolish and deny our history’ – in a line of attack that worryingly echoes simplistic, populist approaches to this devilishly complex issue. Indeed, the often politically charged press coverage of initiatives taken by other local authorities, whether these be the (small-c) ‘conservative’ City of London or ‘progressive’ boroughs like Islington, should be proof enough that politicising this debate is only poisoning difficult but unavoidable discussions.
MORE LABOUR TROUBLES?
The Labour Party itself is evidently not immune to the social and cultural divides troubling the nation. Following the news last week that the Labour Party has suspended the East Ham and West Ham constituency Labour parties, this week there have been calls for the suspension of an East Ham Central councillor after he reportedly shared offensive posts on social media. Meanwhile in Haringey, two councillors have been controversially readmitted to the Party following their six-month ‘administrative suspension’ after they allegedly shared antisemitic posts. Disagreements about the degree to which party is in sync with the zeitgeist go all the way to its upper echelons, with Unite union general secretary Len McCluskey forcefully stating that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is at risk of being ‘dumped into the dustbin of history’ and that voters ‘don’t understand what Keir Starmer stands for or what Labour stands for’. We will be watching the wider election results in May closely for signs of whether that is true – or whether Starmer’s leadership does actually help to spark a Labour ‘fightback.’
This week the City of London Corporation took a major step forward with its plans to co-locate its three historic food markets of Smithfield, Billingsgate and New Spitalfields to a purpose-built site at Dagenham Dock, by securing a resolution to grant outline planning consent from the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. An LCA project since 2019, we are delighted to have helped support the City Corporation consult on these landmark plans over the past twelve months and to secure a range of press coverage that rightly acknowledges the importance of the move to the food industry.
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