Ken’s planning for London?

Austin Williams | 27 February 2006

The Greater London Authority Act of 1999 that paved the way for Ken Livingstone’s reincarnation as the mayor of London was the longest piece of legislation passed by parliament since the Government of India Act in 1935. At that time, in the guise of enhancing local democratic autonomy, the imperial Governor General retained total authority over administration, legislation and finances of his fiefdom. And what happened in India before independence wasn’t much better.

Gandhi he ain’t; but a journey on one of Ken’s maliciously unventilated bendy buses is a passable reconstruction of the black hole of Calcutta. He is also very keen that Londoners live more frugally, advocating that we use less water, less energy, fewer resources, materials and private vehicles. And the latest increase in his powers announced in July has effectively turned him into one of the untouchables.

His interventionist streak – for the imagined good of future generations – is written into his job description. The mayor has, it says, ‘a general power to do anything that will promote economic and social development, and environmental improvement.’ Unfortunately, he decides what fits these criteria. What may have been good for London in a more innocent age, regularly goes against his twisted environmental logic.

His recent refusal to allow the construction of the Beckton desalination plant (a facility that would have provided an additional 150 million litres of water per day to London – at a time of impending drought) was justified on the basis that it might cause CO2 emissions during its construction. So instead of building essential infrastructure, Livingstone suggested that water shortages would be solved by ‘educating customers about water conservation.’ Perhaps when the Victorian sewers start creaking, we will be told to go to the toilet less to put less pressure on the pipework and to reduce greenhouse gases into the bargain.

Ever since his landslide victory in 2000, there seems always to have been a love-hate relationship with the mayor. Disliked for his authoritarianism on one hand, he is admired for his ability to cut through bureaucracy and get things done on the other. He may not have made the trains run on time, but he has pledged more rails on which they can continue to under-perform. He has pushed through Crossrail and the East London Line; he introduced the congestion charge, orchestrated a successful Olympic bid and has arranged to bring the Tour de France to the capital. He is justifiably pleased with himself, even though his nasal smugness is frequently hard to take.

But his Napoleonic edicts are actually symptomatic of indecision at the heart of politics. While Ken is allowed to make sweeping policy on the hoof, central government looks enviously on from the sidelines, desperately wishing that they could do it as well. Lacking a coherent national political programme, New Labour is forced to look for reflected glory in the clear mandate of a local hard man. It is hardly surprising then, that such national desperation has found pragmatic expression in a local opportunist.

It is also clear that, since Ken Livingstone seems to be the only politician in the country with a democratic mandate and clear policy initiatives, government and mayor need each other in an unhealthy, parasitic fashion. Neither, it seems, are in complete control and both find it necessary to turn a blind eye to the increasingly cavalier constraints on democratic institutions.

Ken is currently planning a 1000-dwelling eco-village for the Thames Gateway drawn up, in part, by Greenpeace! The ‘eco’ hook will get it through on the nod and has encouraged him to renew his demand that all new developments have 10percent of their power provided from renewable sources, (rising, it is rumoured, to 25percent by 2015). His increased planning powers will get the solar panel and wind turbine blight through without much hassle especially given that much of the mayor’s energy strategy is being drafted by …er… Greenpeace. Ken’s preference for decentralisation of energy resources is symptomatic of a different kind of decentralisation of power.

Such is the exhaustion of national politics that erstwhile principles are up for grabs provided that it can be justified on the grounds of ‘connecting’ with ‘the people’. Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government has said that the extension of Ken’s mandate is a reward for his ‘strong leadership’. Indeed, he is now a one-man quango rather than a representative of the popular mandate. He now has full control over housing (look out for more student accommodation-sized micro flats); skills (the dumbed-down word for ‘education’) and culture (or ‘street parties’ as Ken thinks of it).

His increased authority over the capital’s waste strategy means that he can extend the penalties on those people that don’t believe that rummaging through their own bins will save the planet. He can now appoint the chair and directors of Arts Council London, the London Regional Sports Board and the Museums, Libraries and Archives London. He will appoint the chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority – or decide to take the job himself – and can appoint ‘political representatives’ to a variety of key city-wide bodies.

While most of this extraordinary concentration of power has gone largely uncommented upon, his control over planning has legitimately caught the media’s attention. He can now approve any strategic scheme over and above the wishes of all of the 32 local London boroughs and says that he is looking forward to ‘spectacular rows’ with those who don’t fall into line straight away.

The right of democratic accountability at local authority planning level has effectively ceased with Ken now deciding which planning decisions are ‘strategic’. Planning inquiries can be set aside if the mayor says so and if he is not happy with the local development plans, councillors can be asked to go away and try harder. This fundamental alteration of democratic planning processes is excused on the basis that the mayor will have to seek public approval for his actions. But, in reality, while the process of involvement in decision-making will create the gloss of citizen participation, the core decisions are not up for debate.

Kensington and Chelsea’s rejection of the 37- and 25-storey Lots Road scheme can now be over-ridden. The proposed 32 storey Tate Tower, that Southwark planners determined should be only a maximum of 20 storeys tall, might now go ahead. The unrefined Herzog and de Meuron Tate extension could get an easier ride. The corporate Plaza Park Hotel at Westminster Bridge might double in size from the 14 storeys demanded by the planners. And all because the mayor is a tall-building fan.

There’s nothing wrong with challenging decisions, of course, but surely there’s more to planning than a mayor’s fancy. Most of the abovementioned tall buildings are not just tall, they are remarkably unattractive, and there needs to be more professional input than just the nod from Ken’s Kronies. One of the interesting things about democratic decisions at a local or national level, if you have the confidence to defend it, is that often decisions are made with which you disagree. But surely that should strengthen the resolve of those in power – and the rest of us – to encourage more accountable democracy, so that we can all argue more vehemently for what we believe in.

To his credit, Ken has always argued for skyscrapers as a necessary addition to the London skyline. However, while you may agree with the end result or not, the process by which it is currently being promoted is truly cynical. Undoubtedly Ken will be applauded for taking on the bureaucrats, and he will surely believe that his actions have politically enervated the electorate, but actually, he misses the point: this executive authority is actually the opposite of local accountability, public debate and political scrutiny.

Whether the results of his new powers to overrule local elected officials are galling or beneficial, Livingstone is not completely to blame for his opportunistic manipulation of the democratic process. He is simply a reflection on a local scale of the exhaustion of political engagement and contempt for democratic politics on a national level.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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