In the second of our Mayor’s budget articles Liberal Democrat Assembly Leader Mike Tuffrey questions whether Boris Johnson is meeting the real needs of Londoners.
Before launching into any specifics lets get one issue out of the way – the level of the council tax set at City Hall.
Having challenged and opposed Ken Livingstone over his excessive rises in the council tax – where over eight years he more than doubled his bill for Londoners – we have no hesitation in supporting a freeze for this year. In fact on this issue it seems everyone is in agreement, except for the Greens who this year argued for a higher council tax bill.
Yet agreement with the Mayor over a council tax freeze does not mean Liberal Democrats agree with many of the Mayor’s priorities as set out in his budget.
Looked as a whole I think the Mayor’s budget should be tested against two basic criteria. Firstly, as the recession really starts to bite, is the Mayor doing enough to help people facing real financial problems? Secondly, does the Mayor’s budget address the serious environmental issues facing the capital, most notably that 1,000 Londoners die prematurely each year from the city’s appalling air quality?
Set against both these tests the Mayor’s budget clearly falls short.
In terms of economic difficulties there is simply so much more that could be done to help Londoners who are facing redundancy and unemployment in 2009.
We recognise that the Mayor has just taken up the policy we have long advocated of extending half price bus and tram to people on Job Seeker’s Allowance. This will provide some help for the growing number of people who are facing unemployment in the capital. Certainly no one should be put off attending interviews and finding work due to the cost of travel. Moreover, this measure will ensure that at least London’s unemployed won’t face the brunt of the 11% rise in bus fares – sadly everyone else will be hit by such rises!
Meeting the real needs of Londoners
However this measure, welcome as it is, hardly adds up to a comprehensive package to help people who are facing such difficult economic times.
The Liberal Democrats have strongly advocated that there needs to be far greater employment advice and counselling advice for people who are in debt. If the Mayor can’t stop people becoming unemployed, he should at least ensure there is more help available for people looking for new jobs and seeking to control their debts.
We have been calling on the Mayor to support voluntary organisations, particularly those such as Citizens Advice Bureuax who with some extra support could make a real difference to thousands of Londoners. We have specifically urged the Mayor to channel savings from the marketing costs of yet more People’s Questions Times into supporting voluntary organisations helping Londoners affected by the current financial crisis. In addition we have advocated that the whole GLA family, including the London Development Agency should seek to ensure that they offer greater assistance.
Our alternative proposals
In terms of helping Londoners on low incomes there are two other Liberal Democrat proposals, which sadly the Mayor has failed to take on board.
Firstly, we believe the Mayor needs to be more ambitious in setting higher energy efficiency standards for new houses. We believe developers of new, publicly funded homes should be meeting level 4 of the Code for Sustainable Homes – rather than waiting for new legal requirements to come into force in 2012. Such a policy would not merely reduce pollution, but also start to bring fuel bills down. Secondly, the Mayor could take some small steps to help people with fares. For example a fare calculator would make it easier for people to work out just what is the cheapest ticket available to them – something which is desperately needed under an increasingly complicated fare structure. We also advocate the introduction of one-hour bus fares, so allowing people to change buses when making a journey. Afterall, why shouldn’t bus users have the same freedom to change as tube users already have? Time limited tickets apply in Paris and other cities and they work. It is time they were introduced in London.
Tackling London’s poor air quality
Turning to London’s environment it seems increasingly clear that the Mayor just doesn’t understand the seriousness of the issue. We might not be able to see the pollution, but that is no excuse for the Mayor pretending the problem doesn’t exist.
This year we advocated reversing the Mayor’s cut in funding to the London Cycle Network. We would also like to see a feasibility study carried out into pedestrianising Oxford Street. We further advocate steps to encourage increased walking as well as cycling in the capital. Most significantly we have urged the Mayor to start looking into a tough Low Emission Zone specifically for Inner London. Put together these policies could contribute to a real improvement in London’s air quality.
Of course there are other proposals we made, especially on community safety and support for new orbital bus routes. Do take a look at our website for more information: www.glalibdems.org.uk
As a whole the Liberal Democrat budget policies are realistic and ambitious for London. Most significantly, unlike the Mayor’s proposed budget they start to address the real issues facing London.