Wednesday morning saw the first London Assembly Question Time for new Mayor Sadiq Khan. The session lasts for up to two and half hours and has always been an ordeal for Mayors.
Ken showed his exasperation frequently, referring to members as the second eleven and most famously “Sanctimonious hypocrites, the lot of you!”. Boris soon came to refer to it as “The Paris to Dakar of Question Times.” and hated the time it took out of his diary. How would Sadiq fare?
And indeed how would the Assembly itself perform? With ten new members out of 25, it looks very different from the old body. In the Chair is Conservative Tony “Get these People Out of Here” Arbour, whose only previous occasion chairing a full meeting culminated in a rowdy public gallery being thrown out en mass.
I arrived late and they were already well into the questions on the agenda. Labour had tried that theming thing they often did during Boris’s first term, and this time the theme was EU membership.
How would Brexit affect London’s economy, workplace rights, security, air quality, even the NHS? But we’ve been listening to this stuff for months now and it didn’t take long for the questions to revert to topics closer to home.
The new Mayor has a less loquacious style than his predecessors. A pattern quickly emerged of reading a written response to the opening question, then answering the supplementaries in a more conversational manner.
Some answers were brief, one word even, and on one occasion he just nodded at a question from one of the Conservatives. Together with Tony’s economic chairing, it began to look as if they would finish in less than two hours. (of course they didn’t).
Sadiq took time to congratulate members on their election and he was particularly warm towards new members Unmesh Desai and Leonie Cooper, who he has known for many years.
There seemed to be less of a gulf between him and the Assembly than was the case with either of his predecessors. Keith Prince invited Sadiq to visit the nightmare junction at Gallows Corner – no problem. The Mayor said he looked forward to working with all the members – this was a return of the Big Tent, Blair style.
But there’s a lot of long grass in the Big Tent, and many questions were hit into it. we would have to wait, the Mayor said, for his new appointees to come up with proposals and for new strategies to be written. I guess that’s reasonable at this stage in the proceedings.
On one commitment he was unswerving. “No one will pay more for their transport fares in 2020 than they do now.” He announced. It’s a big ask but I can’t think of anyone better to squeeze savings from TfL than Val Shawcross, who is the new Deputy Mayor for Transport. Val probably gives him the best chance of delivering on a very challenging promise.
On policing, Sadiq promised to review the neighbourhood policing model. He clearly favours the Sir Ian Blair approach which makes officers more visible but sacrifices some flexibility when it comes to actively pursuing criminals. The new Deputy Mayor in charge of MOPAC is Hackney Councillor Sophie Linden. I don’t know much about her but someone who has been deputy to Jules Pipe and special advisor to David Blunkett will be no pushover.
Green member Caroline Russell, sought a commitment to withdraw the application for powers to build the Silvertown Tunnel. The day after the Blackwall Tunnel chaos may not have been the best time to oppose new river crossings and Sadiq refused her request – pointing out that moving traffic produces less pollution that traffic in a jam – even though she repeated it several times with the exasperated air of a teacher struggling with a slow learner.
On housing numbers things were a bit more confused. Andrew Boff slid effortlessly into his new role of opposition, challenging Sadiq over his ‘target’ of 80,000 new homes. It wasn’t a target, the Mayor explained, but he would be delighted to achieve it, and it was what the housing associations claimed was needed.
Boff brandished Sadiq’s manifesto and there was a lengthy exchange of fire. Expect this issue to feature regularly over the next four years.
Nicky Gavron asked about protecting green space, particularly green belt, in the new dash to build. This is another difficult circle to square. Keith Prince and Steve O’Connell both raised questions over green belt under threat in Croydon and Redbridge. Sadiq advised them that legal requirements meant he couldn’t pronounce on schemes before he reached an official decision – correct but frustrating for all concerned.
It was all businesslike, with very few laughs. They won’t be queueing around City Hall to watch this – unlike the last few years – but more work might get done. Sadiq concluded by saying he hoped this Mayor and Assembly would be the best yet for London – a fine ambition for our World City.
This article first appeared at londoncityhallsite.wordpress.com
Roger Evans is the former Deputy Mayor of London and represented the Havering and Redbridge London Assembly constituency from May 2000 until standing down at the 2016 election.