London's Vaudeville act must cease

Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have been a great double-act. London now needs the act to take its

Neither Boris Johnson nor Ken Livingstone are fit to lead London.

It's a shame, because their double act has been engaging. They developed a nice chemistry; each taking it in turns to be the straight man to the others clown.

But now we have no room for clowns. The world's greatest city needs serious leadership, not a vaudeville routine.

Ken Livingstone has lived his dream. He will always be London's first mayor. He may also prove to be its most iconic. "Red Ken" will forever be as a much a part of the capital as red telephone boxes and red double deckers.

But his time has gone. To look at him is to stare into the past. He is physically old, and slightly frail. But not as old and frail as his statements. A measured response to the riots could have been the making of his mayoral candidacy. Instead, he sullied it.

It wasn't just the cheapness and transparency of his politicking; the Conservatives, the cuts, Cameron. Nor the tasteless way he used the London bombings to frame his suitability for tackling the London riots. It wasn't even the crass stupidity and simplicity of his analysis; blame the bankers, EMA, the fact that 14 and 15 year old rioters are enraged at their inability to provide for their wives and children.

London needs unity. And Ken Livingstone is divisive. He cannot help himself; divide and conquer, opponents and supporters. It is his way. Try as he might he cannot embrace, only attack. He cannot bind, only drive apart. Ken looks for factions to nurture and manipulate, when what we need is someone who can bring London together.

But crass though Ken Livingstone's comments were, at least he was in a position to make them. Cometh the hour, cometh the man? That man was not Boris Johnson.

Hindsight is a great gift. But it does not require hindsight to understand that the mayor of a major western capital city needs to be at his post, and seen to be at his post, when major public disorder strikes.

Those asking what operational impact could Boris have had miss the point. While Londoners sat imprisoned in our homes, with that strange awareness that a call to 999 would go unanswered, what we were looking for was leadership -- a sense that someone was in control.

There was none. We had a void. It wasn't that the Mayor was asleep at his post. It's that he wasn't at his post at all.

Kit Malthouse is an eloquent mayoral spokesman. But no one voted for him -- they voted for Boris Johnson. And where was our mayor when his city needed him most? Absent without leave. He picked up his broom too late.

A crisis reveals the true metal of our leaders, and when the moment came, both prospective leaders of London were found wanting.

But in truth, that shouldn't really surprise us. Neither Ken Livingstone, nor Boris Johnson are leaders. Nor are they really politicians. They are characters, political entertainers, colorful personalities who leap out from the parade of the bland.

But leading London is not a game. Nor is it the prize awarded to the winner of a game of Celebrity Political Big Brother.

There are serious people in our country, and outside it, who have run things -- big things, like corporations, institutions and even cities. They know how to manage. To procure. To plan. To lead.

London needs that now. We need serious leadership, not symbolic or colorful leadership. The world's greatest city now needs great statesmanship.

I've loved the unkempt blond locks. And the newts. I laughed at the Beijing "ping-pong" speech, and at the audacity of calling for the Saudi Royal family to be hung from lamp posts. But quirky humour is no longer enough. Nor are free bus travel for under sixteens and community bicycles.

I want vision, I want drive, I want imagination. Above all, I want professionalism. Someone who will grab my city out of the hands of the rioters and the speculators and the city spivs and the gangsters, and give it back to the people who deserve it.

I don't care about the politics. I don't care if Labour wins in London, or if the Tories get a good hiding. All I care about now is that Londoners win in London.

I'll vote Tory. I'll vote Green. I'll vote independent. I still hope and pray I'll be able to vote Labour.

But I'm not helping place my city back into the hands of a clapped out revolutionary or an Etonian comic. Not after this week. Not ever again.

Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have been a great double-act. London now needs the act to take its final bow.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.