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

@Ben_Rog

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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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear