Sunday, May 04, 2008

Congrats Boris

It was prolonged and painful, but the election of Boris Johnson as Mayor of London is a tremendous victory for him personally and the Conservative Party. As I live outside Greater London, I had no opportunity to vote for him, but I did cast a vote for the Conservative candidate in my constituency (only for him to come third out of four and the Green Party to win - again).
Boris managed to beat the accusations of racism - absurd for a man with a half-Sikh wife, homophobia (Johnson responded to the question "have you had sex with a man?" with the careful answer "not yet") and buffoonery by focusing hard upon what was wrong with Keningrad. The mispending, accusations of corruption, the bizarre relationship with Hugo Chavez, and the poor performance on crime. Ken's single greatest achievement was the original congestion charge, although that in itself has been extended by Ken partly as his expression of the class war.
Johnson's greatest asset is his wit and his able mind, he is articulate and with a classical education. Hopefully he can surround himself with able people, slash wasteful spending at City Hall (including curtailing "Ken's Bank" the London Development Agency) and focus on the issues Londoners care about - crime, transport and housing.
On crime, Johnson seeks to emulate the success of Rudi Giuliani in New York by having zero tolerance of "minor" crime, from knife crime to vandalism. He has not the powers of the New York Mayor on law and order, but he can have a significant influence over budgets and priorities. This perhaps would be his greatest achievement if he can make London safer.
On transport Johnson has called for reform of the congestion charge, which is frankly relatively easy. However, he also seeks to improve traffic management and clearly will be more interested in roads than Ken was. The odd pledge to introduce a new generation of Routemaster buses is likely to prove unworkable, but if he can make a difference to crime on buses this may be also his greatest transport achievement. Sadly as Westminster is responsible for most of the transport budget, it is unlikely much innovative can happen whilst central government purse strings are tight on roads. However Boris should quietly privatise the recent TfL attempts to take over two thirds of the tube network and operate "London Overground". He might consider differential pricing by time of day as well for roads and public transport, to reduce overcrowding.
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On housing, the current housing crisis will undoubtedly ease rental pressures, but the key is setting free vast tracts of public land for housing development. Unshackling the ability of property owners to build will help, but Boris will also be responsible for a large budget of state housing that central government has given him to manage. How he deals with this will be interesting.
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Most of all, I hope he holds council tax (for the London Assembly) at constant levels in nominal terms, so that Greater London Authority spending reduces in real terms. London survived and thrived for 14 years without the GLA - if Boris can show he can shrink the GLA while London grows then he will be showing the country that the Conservative Party can deliver something new for Britain.

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