Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Paddling while England sinks

The Government’s consultation on boosting housing supply could hardly have started at a worse time. With residents of west country towns looking down at filthy waters from their first floor windows, this was not the best moment to publish policy documents that emphasise the need to create more homes, even if these are to be on flood plains.

To be fair, the Green Paper on housing does acknowledge the likelihood of increased flooding in the future, and the need to ensure adequate flood defences and to avoid “inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding”. But these cautious statements sit uneasily with the desperate need for new housing reflected in the document. Can we have it both ways, or are we paddling while England sinks?

Seeing your home flood must be vile for the victims. Viler still must be the knowledge that, as the brown water inexorably rises, your next months will be spent squabbling with insurers, throwing out ruined carpets and furniture, chipping off sodden and contaminated plaster, just to make your home habitable again. Maybe the Environment Agency can be blamed for delayed warnings and late arrival of flood defence barriers, but these would only have bought time as rivers swelled to 36 feet above their normal level.

What is to be done? We could continue to build flood defences higher and higher, until the rivers that give many of our towns and cities their beauty are hidden from view by huge levees. Or we could turn the problem around, creating open space that can act as flood storage, and building homes that can quickly recover from flooding. The Dutch, whose country is one big flood plain, have already started to build amphibious houses on hollow concrete bases, which can rise four metres when rivers flood.

But we don’t need to go that far. Government and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) have both published guidance on flood resilience, for new build and existing houses respectively. Gypsum-based plaster can be replaced with more water-resistant materials, ground floor rooms can be used as service space, electrical sockets can be put halfway up walls and non-return valves can be fitted to drains.

Flood resilience measures might not be pretty – plastic kitchen units and concrete floors, anyone? – and leaving the ground floor to services and car parking conflicts with everything that urban designers learn about ‘animated street fronts’. But the ABI calculates that spending an extra £34,000 on making repairs to a three-bedroom house more resilient could save £37,000 on repair costs next time that the waters rise (let alone several times that in anguish).

One in ten UK homes is already at risk from flooding, and we can only expect that proportion – and the frequency and severity of floods – to increase. Instead of demanding ever higher, more intrusive and more expensive defences, like some latter-day Cnuts, we could accept flooding as a fact of life, which careful planning and design can turn from a cataclysm to an inconvenience.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Paper tigers

It must be depressing being Victoria Borwick, Warwick Lightfoot, Andrew Boff or Lurline Champagne. Magnificent names aside, these putative Conservative candidates for the London mayoral election in 2008 are already eclipsed by Planet Boris. Former DJ Mike Read has thrown his questionable weight behind the bumptious blonde on the Guardian's Comment is Free website, prompting ribald comment and cruel queries about when fellow DJ Nicey will make his intentions clear.

What promises to be a lively contest will be made livelier still by the fact that London now has two evening papers, which are already making their picks.

The current Mayor's loathing for the Evening Standard (and London Lite, its free sister paper), published by Associated Newspapers, is fully reciprocated, so it was no surprise that the paper gave Boris Johnson the platform to launch his candidacy yesterday, and followed it up today with tenuous tales of a 'Boris bounce', based on Facebook entries and a pretty ambiguous poll.

The London Paper, the freebie anti-Standard spoiler launched by News International last year, has been less explicit about its preferences (and lacks the formal editorial column to make these clear). But today it gave Ken Livingstone a column to attack his opponent, and further space to a less than glowing portrait by Johnson's biographer, Andrew Gimson.

The brutal war being waged between Associated Newspapers and News International (and their proxies in London politics) has opened up a new front. This is about more than politics; this is about circulation.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Undignified, yes, but efficient?

Walter Bagehot’s masterwork, The English Constitution, famously distinguished the ‘dignified’ from the ‘efficient’ parts of government. The monarchy was part of the former, parliamentary democracy (still in robust health in the 1860s) was the latter.

The office of Mayor of London can be viewed in a similar way. The Mayor is the elected representative of the metropolis, with one of the largest personal mandates in Europe. Nationally, and internationally, he is seen as the capital’s voice, whether talking about his statutory responsibilities or offering views on world affairs.

But the Mayor also has specific duties, powers and functions. He is responsible for developing a curious ragbag of strategies, for allocating budgets, for overseeing the London’s transport, economic development, police and fire services, and for certain key planning decisions. The ‘dignified’ Mayor deals publicly in visions for London. The ‘efficient’ Mayor functions invisibly, working his limited powers and resources to deliver this vision, forever locked in titanic struggles with the apparatus of the state.

Which brings us to Boris Johnson. There is little doubt that he would be able to dominate the headlines like Ken Livingstone, and perhaps to cause offence to as many people. So that’s the ‘dignified’ (or perhaps ‘undignified’) role in the bag. But does he have the stomach for the detail, the serpentine cunning and tactical skill to wring money and powers from the state (the second most centralised after North Korea’s, according to current Mayor)?

Recent US history shows us that there is no barrier to buffoons forming governments, if they have the shadowy figures around them to undertake the nitty gritty of administration. And Boris Johnson is, of course, far less of a buffoon than he likes to appear.

Interestingly, he has also, in launching his campaign, gone straight for the policy jugular. A bit of robust abuse (“King Newt”), which will no doubt be repaid in kind, is combined with an attack on those fronts where Ken Livingstone is weakest: muggings, buses and the Underground. These may not be things that any Mayor can easily solve, but they are the irritants that scratch away at London’s world-beating veneer and at the daily lives of its citizens. Johnson has even managed to draw out the contrast between himself – the Old Etonian everyman on his bike – and Livingstone, who is as reluctant to ride a bicycle himself as he is keen to promote their use by others.

This promises to be a bloody, and entertaining, fight. Boris Johnson is right to describe the incumbent as "'one of the wiliest and most enduring politicians of the modern age." But If he can match his celebrity status with convincing Londoners that he means business, he could go the distance with the man who has come to personify London for the past seven years. London’s irreverent electoral mob might just swap one renegade for another.

High stakes

Today's news that Metronet, the consortium contracted to maintain and operate the London Underground's Bakerloo, Central and Victoria lines, is likely to enter administration can actually be seen as a curious type of success for the PPP. These contracts are not a one-way bet.

Public private partnerships for major public infrastructure projects have tended to look like one-way bets for the private sector. They charge the public sector for taking on 'risk', but everybody knows that the state will have to step in if problems threaten to destroy public goods: hospitals, schools, railway and road networks cannot be allowed to go to the wall as private businesses would if they became insolvent.

The fact that the PPP arbitrator has called their bluff, and refused to grant Metronet the mind-boggling £551 million that they were seeking to cover their overspend, shows that this bet is not the sure thing it must have once looked like. But whatever the short-term pain to Metronet's shareholders, it will ultimately be taxpayers who meet the cost of keeping these Underground lines afloat, and of the bizarrely money-gobbling, lawyer-ridden farce that the PPP has turned out to be.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Green grow the balance sheets oh!

The morning after the world of pop and rock jetted to Wembley to tell us about climate change, a browse through the Sunday paper...

Nearly 12 pages of the 40-page main section of The Observer are given over to advertising. Top categories are:
  • electricity, IT services and electrical goods (30 per cent of the advertising space)
  • cars (25 per cent)
  • financial services (14 per cent)
  • holidays and flights (8 per cent)
Perhaps more revealing than these figures is the fact that 40 per cent of space is given over to advertisements that make environmental claims. A few are summarised below, without any lawyer-baiting discussion about the claims made:
  • A satellite TV system switches itself off at night, transforming its dozing customers into 'eco-warriors';
  • A credit card gives 50 per cent of its profits to climate change projects (thereby helping a cute wide-eyed baby);
  • A bank is carbon-neutral, as illustrated by equally cute polar bears;
  • A small car-manufacturer questions 'why spend 2 litres of petrol to get one litre of milk?';
  • An IT firm points out that its inkjet cartridges are recycled through their 'Planet Partners' programme.
Keep shopping. Save the world.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Life after Livingstone?

Boris Johnson? Greg Dyke? John Major? With less than a year to go till the next London mayoral election, a growing sense of desperation is settling over opposition parties. Is there anyone out there who the Conservatives haven't approached? Anyone who has a chance of beating Ken Livingstone?

Standing against the Mayor, who has twice seen off all comers (including his own party in 2000), must be one of the least enviable jobs in politics. Steven Norris has twice proved an effective and jocular opponent, largely through distancing himself as far from Conservative Party policy as Livingstone has from Labour Party policy, but will surely not have the appetite to be ‘three times a loser’.

The Conservatives’ much-trumpeted plans for a talent-show approach have gone rather quiet, though several candidates – primarily from local government backgrounds – have expressed interest, and a London-wide primary will take place in September. But rumours of bids from heavy-hitters like John Major, Olympic chief Sebastian Coe and former Met Police commissioner John Stevens seem to have evaporated.

The Liberal Democrats have mounted serious candidates – Susan Kramer (now MP for Richmond Park) in 2000, and Bermondsey MP Simon Hughes in 2004 – but the prospect of their party holding the balance of power at Westminster after the next general election must look more attractive in career development terms than another round in the ring with the former member for Brent East.

In 2000, it was said that Tony Blair hoped that an independent businessperson rather than a professional politician would win the mayoralty. This time around, plenty of colourful characters are emerging: DJs Mike Read and James Whale, Big Issue founder John Bird, actor Tom Conti and Right Said Fred singer Richard Fairbrass. Leaving aside the fact that many of these candidates seem propelled primarily by their resentment of London’s congestion charge, they are not quite of Michael Bloomberg’s – or even Richard Branson’s – calibre.

The irony is that, in setting up a system to attract political outsiders, New Labour created a job that was tailor-made for one of their own renegades. In seven years, Ken Livingstone has entrenched himself, re-engineering the City Hall machine to operate as he wants it to; he has become part of its wiring.

Like him or loathe him (and there are plenty in both camps), Ken Livingstone is a consummate politician, on top of his brief, sharp and able to speak off-the-cuff (and sometimes off-the-wall) on pretty well any subject. As a former GLA employee, I can testify to the frustration of listening to a pitch-perfect mayoral performance, with the only duff notes being those taken from his carefully-crafted official briefing.

Though the media relish the intemperate outbursts – against Evening Standard journalists, against the Saudi royal family, against George Bush – Ken Livingstone is now more likely to be heard extolling his carefully nuanced vision for London: the city succeeds because ‘The City’ succeeds, supported by London’s diversity and openness (in contrast to New York, marooned in Fortress America). London’s turbo-capitalist growth and growing diversity are to be embraced and celebrated, but also to be used as an engine for greater social justice and for tackling climate change.

Over seven years, almost unnoticed, he has transformed himself from the khaki-clad newt-fancier of yore, into the very model of a modern city boss, known across the world, and clad in imperial purple (or at least the odd Ozwald Boateng bespoke suit). La cité, c’est lui.

There are two sides to Ken Livingstone. One is the glamourpuss, clearly relishing the limelight and the occasional slanging match. The other is the slightly nerdy technocrat, who enjoys the day-to-day business of running London. He has stretched the Greater London Authority’s curious rag-bag of powers taut in trying to create change in a chaotic city. The Mayor enjoys getting stuck in: from negotiating with developers, to introducing and extending a congestion charge, to battling with local boroughs, pigeons and PPP consortiums, to bringing more buses onto the street, to making deals for cheap oil with Hugo Chavez, to attracting the 2012 Olympics (and billions of pounds of public money) to East London.

Ken Livingstone has said that a good candidate could easily unseat him next year, but this sounds more like a playground taunt – ‘come and have a go, if you think you’re hard enough' – than a sincere sentiment. He would like to stay in post till 2016. Running London is not a springboard for him, but the only job that he seems to want. GLA polls show a gentle decline in his personal approval ratings, but the field of opponents does not give confidence that he will be easily toppled.