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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.