Who would have thought it? The famous blonde mop will soon be seen frantically pedalling its way past City Hall on the way to Westminster. As predictable as it was, Boris’s announcement today breaks a long-standing promise to Londoners that he would not become an MP while he was Mayor. The news clarifies where Boris’s priorities really lie and confirms what many of us have been saying for some time: the story of Boris’s London has been far more about Boris than about London.
To give the man his due, it hasn’t all been bad. For all the bombast and bravado, Boris has represented London well on the global stage. He is a jovial and likeable figurehead for the capital, fronting the 2012 Olympics and promoting the city well. I worked with him closely in the aftermath of the 2011 riots and always found him to be warm and amiable. I wish him well in whatever he does next.
But what has become increasingly clear is that while his own ambition knows no limit, Boris is seriously lacking in real ideas or ambition for London. The headline-grabbing gimmicks such as “Boris Island” disguise the fact that this emperor does not have any clothes. It took five years as Mayor for Boris to finally publish his vision for the city, and subsequent steps towards implementing that vision have been minimal and half-hearted.
Boris sets his targets low, but still fails to meet them. At a time when London needs 100,000 new homes a year, he gave himself a hopelessly inadequate annual target of 15,000 affordable homes and still spectacularly fell short. He talks up Silicon Roundabout yet fails to recognise that a 21st century world city needs technological innovation and investment that extends far beyond a few streets in Farringdon. He lets unemployment soar and then says it’s not his job to create jobs.
When it comes to tackling the real issues facing London, Boris has failed spectacularly. From infrastructure to transport to policing, his legacy is one of delays, disinterest and distraction. Those who have to work with him talk of a man biding his time, doing the minimum he can get away with and pushing the big issues into the long grass to avoid having to make tough decisions.
As a result, the next mayor will inherit a city in which problems that were mounting in 2008 are now spiralling out of control. On housing Boris’s record is particularly poor. His pledges and targets on house-building lie in tatters, constantly rewritten and redefined to cover up his failures. He has passively allowed London rents to hit an all-time high. And his decision to allow affordable housing rents to be significantly increased has hit low-income Londoners hard. Eighty two per cent of Londoners now believe the capital is in the grip of a full-scale housing crisis – and they are right.
Going forward, big problems will require big solutions. Tackling London’s housing crisis will mean making brownfield land available for housing, introducing a sensible system of rent controls and lifting the borrowing cap on local councils so they can build new council homes. Six wasted years mean London’s housing problem has reached crisis point – it needs committed leadership to solve it.
Boris doesn’t score highly on transport either. On his watch, bus fares have soared by 61% while the cost of a Tube travelcard is up by nearly a half. Meanwhile, Boris proudly poses for photos in front of his pointless £60m cable car and his defective £11.4m Routemaster buses. Instead of spending taxpayers money on vanity projects and a few accompanying headlines, he could have committed to keeping fares down. The Mayor of London should be overseeing and implementing a reliable, affordable and integrated transport system, not chasing photo ops and dangling on zip wires.
After promising to make London’s streets safer, meanwhile, Boris cut the number police officers by over 2,600 and forced through the closure of 12 fire stations.
The result of all this is that London is decreasingly affordable and increasingly divided. From his luxury office at the top of City Hall, Boris looks out over a city in which one in four people now live in poverty while the gap between rich and poor has turned into a chasm under the leadership of a Mayor who claims inequality is “essential”.
Whoever takes over in City Hall will have to make up for eight years of lost time. They will need to act boldly and decisively to ensure that London maintains its global edge. London therefore needs a mayor whose sole focus is working for Londoners, not one who is doing the job as a fall-back option or a stepping stone to Downing Street. With steely focus and real commitment, none of the issues the capital faces are insurmountable. It remains a vibrant, diverse and successful world city that 8.6 million people are proud to call home. But we need the mayor to prepare the city for the challenges of tomorrow. Behind the frivolity and the frollicks of Boris’s mayoralty lies the reality of a city craving serious leadership.