What needs to be in Boris's London 2020 "vision"

The mayor finally needs to offer a compelling account of the city he wants London to be.

Tomorrow, Boris Johnson, publishes his long-awaited "vision", setting out what he wants to achieve for London by 2020. (That 2020 would be the year a third Johnson term would end is no doubt a complete coincidence.) 

This is an important moment in Boris’s mayoralty. He came to the job having run nothing larger than a small weekly magazine – the Spectator – and with a good Tory wariness of anything that smelled of bureaucracy, including the long tiresome strategic documents which bureaucracies are wont to produce.

As a result, Boris left the GLA’s strategic framework more or less as he found it. He revised those strategies he had to revise and overhauled London government architecture by, for instance, abolishing the London Development Agency. But his first term was unmarked by any fundamental recasting of the GLA’s aims and objectives or a sharpening of its strategic capability.

What Boris brings to the mayoralty is personal charm bordering on charisma - no small quality in a political leader, especially one in a position where most of the power is of the 'soft' kind.  Boris is good at persuading government leaders and businesses of the merits of investing in the London, and tells the city’s story well to the rest of the world. Clement Attlee is meant to have said that Churchill won the Second World War "by talking about it". Boris has led London in much the same way - lots of talking but not much strategising.

After his second election, however, Boris made an apparently off-the-cuff commitment to his GLA staff to produce a vision for London - something that would provide a point of unity around which everyone working for him could unite. Six months after it was due to be published, the big day is fast approaching. Rumour has it that it’s a 'personal document', written in Boris’s voice. 

We can predict with confidence some of the things that will be in it. Almost certainly, it will call for devolution of finances to London, as set out in the final report of the London Finance Commission. It will reiterate Boris’s opposition to any expansion of Heathrow and call for a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary. It will argue for more funding for homes and transport, in light of London’s higher than predicted population growth – it’s no chance that it is being published in the run-up to the announcement of George Osborne’s Spending Review on 26 June.

But what about the things that it should include but might not? I set out three below.

First, we at Centre for London will be looking for a stronger narrative than Boris has yet produced about London. For all of his eloquence, the Mayor has oddly failed to offer a compelling account about the city he wants to London to be. For a while he talked about "creating a village in the city". He talks about maintaining London’s competitiveness and its position as a leading world city and, more wittily, of London as the centre of a new "BRIC-ish Empire." But he has never come up with a story that has really stuck.

Boris has to develop that story for himself – it needs to be personal. But its starting point has got to be that London’s future lies in it retaining and building on its status as a global city.  London is never going to compete on being cheapest city in the world but it can compete, and win, as the most innovative and creative one, a competitive place for high value businesses, and a city that offers offers a great quality of life and opportunity for all its inhabitants.  Charlie Leadbeater put this well at last year’s London Conference when he developed the argument that London’s future lay in it being at one and the same time a "high-system" city, with an efficient transport system, decent homes, safe streets and highly professional public services, and a "high-empathy" city – one where people from different backgrounds connect, where friends are easily found and kept and with a rich and engaging public realm.

Second, the 2020 vision has to mount a convincing argument in favour of London winning more power to govern itself. The coalition government sees itself as a decentralising one and has gone some way to devolving control to London (notably over housing and, to a lesser degree, policing) and other cities. But as the London Finance Commission noted, England remains an extraordinarily centralised country by international standards and while decentralising control over taxation from central government to the capital, as the Finance Commission recommended, would be a huge step forward, there is further to go. London government is better positioned than central government to tailor policies to local circumstances and join up services. There is a good argument for devolving housing benefit budgets to the GLA, and devolving spending on skills and training from Whitehall to London boroughs,who understand local economic needs and opportunities and are well positioned to connect employers and businesses. Ideally, Boris’s document should include a commitment to work with England’s other cities to help win the argument for devolution and make a success of it.

Finally, the 2020 vision should include prominent affirmation that London is not just a world city but a capital city too. London is already viewed as greedy and arrogant by much of the country and its continued economic growth, relative to the rest of the UK, is bound to put a further strain on relations. It’s not enough to argue, as London’s leaders tend to do, that the capital’s prosperity trickles down to the rest country, or that 'what’s good for London is good for the UK'. Of course the Mayor needs to continue to make the case for London but he also needs to acknowledge national reservations about London’s dominance, and the widely-held view that it is favoured by Whitehall and Westminster. The 2020 vision should launch a conversation about how London can do more to help the rest of the UK. For a politician of national ambition, Boris shows surprisingly little interest in building relations with the other regions and cities of the UK.

We shall discover on Tuesday whether the nine months' work that Boris has put into his 'vision' marks a big step forward in his thinking or whether it will be business as usual at the GLA. 

Ben Rogers is the director of Centre for London

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Boris Johnson speaks to Crossrail construction workers in London's docklands area on 31 May, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ben Rogers is the director of the Centre for London think tank, and the author of 10 Ideas for the New Mayor.

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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity