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12 May 2016

Sadiq Khan has the power to confront London’s social deficit

Londoners are more likely than the national average to be mentally ill, sleeping rough, out of work, living in poverty despite being in work, living in poor housing or facing lower life expectancy. 

By Anthony Painter

London is a city that generates an economic surplus but operates with an enormous social deficit. The office of London mayor has been a disappointment in addressing the second part of this equation. Established at a time of ambivalence over devolution in the last Labour Government, the formal powers of the office are underwhelming. Neither of the first two mayors have stretched even these powers to their limit.

Sadiq Khan’s campaign was addressed to ‘all Londoners’. It was inclusive, embracing and vibrant. The outcome of the election demonstrates conclusively that Londoners want an inclusive city rather than one that sets people in conflict with each other. For sure, this vision is about tone, cultural acceptance and community. But it also has to be about changing the lives of London’s excluded many too – which is where the office of mayor can be a galvanising force.

For all the economic and cultural icons that have popped up since London’s mayor was established – from glittering towers to an Olympic Park – London is still not yet convincingly on the road to being a city for all Londoners. Its education achievement gaps have narrowed but in too many other ways the city’s social deficit remains stubborn.

Londoners are more likely than the national average to be mentally ill, sleeping rough, out of work, living in poverty despite being in work, living in poor housing or facing lower life expectancy. Hard-baked exclusion has an ethnic skew. This part of London’s story – social deficit and inequality – is too often masked amidst the evident success of a global city. For the communities that sit in the shadow of the City, Tech City, the Olympic Park, and Canary Wharf, London’s success is too often seen but not felt.

None of this is to deny the amazing work that is done every day in boroughs, the NHS, throughout the voluntary sector and in education institutions. It is rather to point out something that is not quite functioning in the right way: London has lacked strong city-wide leadership. London is a highly complex city to coordinate. Leadership exists but it is dispersed, fragmented, too local, and unable to scale. There isn’t a borough where impactful social initiatives and success are not to be found. But too often these initiatives remain land-locked.

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This fragmentation is evident in community safety. Recently, the RSA outlined a vision for the future of policing for London, Safer Together. When looking at current work, we discovered a whole range of great coordinated services where the police, local authorities, the voluntary sector and London’s communities were working very effectively together on challenges such as mental health in Newham and Camden, anti-social behaviour in Sutton, domestic violence in West London, gangs in Hackney, and community engagement in Haringey. What was too often absent, though, was any joining up of disparate leadership to accelerate and scale impacts across the city.

It is the mayor who has the ability to unlock these city-wide impacts. Our report supported the establishment of a local and London-wide community safety index to broaden the focus of a range of agencies and communities to work together on improving community safety. The work that has been done within the mayor’s office to build evidence of ‘what works’ should be widened – and resources should follow the evidence of need and impact – even if that means resources flowing out of some boroughs.

Most importantly, the new mayor will need to convene, persuade, and publicly challenge all of London’s leaders in the boroughs, the health service, police, the voluntary and private sectors – and London’s communities too – to work together to address deep seated social issues that eventually demand higher resources if not addressed early on.

What goes for community safety applies equally to skills, healthcare, housing, and work. Sadiq Khan could be the first mayor to really stretch the powers of the office to their limit and address the social deficit as a consequence. There’s plenty of dialogue currently; there needs to be more concerted action.

Yes, the office of mayor has given London a stronger voice within national government and that is welcome. But within London, the office has failed to fill convincingly a leadership vacuum that is too apparent. Mayor Khan can only fill this vacuum if he is an activist mayor. Ken Livingstone acted more as a power-broker and Boris Johnson was essentially a night-watchman mayor. Activist mayors cajole, coordinate and scale up great local innovations. They present a new style of system-wide leadership.

Mayor Khan can use his bully pulpit to push the office’s soft power to its limits – and then use that as a platform to ask for greater formal powers – such as end-to-end oversight of criminal justice, or significantly more powers over taxation and healthcare. Dynamic and resilient cities ultimately rely on strong social supports as the recently launched RSA Inclusive Growth Commission has argued. There are both human and economic costs for a city that fails to appreciate this connection. The future of London as an inclusive city relies on Mayor Khan using his soft and formal powers to their limit – and beyond.

Anthony Painter is Director of Policy and Strategy at the RSA