I am sorry but this is no time for a load of sentimental guff. People keep asking me whether I am sad to be stepping down, after eight years, as Mayor of the greatest city on earth. Will I shed a tear? they ask. Will I blub into my last fair trade goat curry in the City Hall canteen? And the answer is, of course, I am sad – and immensely proud of all that has been achieved in London. But I have been around long enough to know that the punters, frankly, could not give a monkey’s.
They are interested – rightly – in what comes next. Their eyes are on the future. They want to know whether the next mayor will do a good job for them; and so in the last four days, before I am finally prised from my swivel chair on the eighth floor, I want to give some advice to the people. It concerns their choice on Thursday.
The other day, LBC radio took me up in a helicopter, and I was stunned at the changes that have taken place. Eight years ago the cover of Time had a picture of London sinking beneath the waves – and the thrust of the piece was that London was finished. We had been banjaxed by the financial crisis, the US news magazine argued. Money and power were haemorrhaging to the east. It was all Shanghai, Mumbai, Dubai and bye-bye London.
Well, whoever wrote that piece – and he was not alone in his analysis – should have been in the chopper last week. The growth is stunning, and it is in every quadrant of the city. From Battersea to Greenwich to the Olympic Park to Old Oak common, London is now seething with the biggest programme of regeneration the city has ever seen. Brownfield sites – derelict wastelands that have been untouched for decades – are turning into fantastic places to live. London is now by far the most dynamic urban economy in Europe, leading the world in tech, media, arts, culture, finance, bio-science, universities – and we still manufacture everything from bikes to chocolate cake.
Four years after the Olympics, we are the number one tourist destination in the world. Unemployment has fallen; incomes have risen; the London Living Wage has massively expanded. Everyone wants to come here – and, if possible, to live here. And that is the problem. Since I have been Mayor, the population has boomed – by well over 600,000. We have to build new housing; faster, better, cheaper. Yes, my team in City Hall can be very proud of building well over 100,000 affordable homes (far more than were ever achieved in Labour’s eight years). But we need more – and in a city that is 607 square miles, that means joining up the brownfield housing sites with the zones of economic activity; and that means investing in public transport.
That is why I am so alarmed by the policies of the Labour candidate, Sadiq Khan. Never mind the nauseating drivel about Hitler from the former mayor, Ken Livingstone. Set on one side, for a moment, the Labour Party’s current problem with anti-Semitism. What worries me is the return of another aspect of Livingstone-ism; and that is an irresponsible and unaffordable approach to the funding of the city.
At the heart of Sadiq Khan’s pitch is a piece of classic Ken-ery. He wants to hold transport fares down so low that he would take £2 billion out of the budgets for London transport. This is a huge mistake. It will mean delaying or cancelling infrastructure projects that are desperately needed; and that means your bus not turning up; your Tube delayed; your nose thrust into someone else’s armpit. But it is also a tragic failure to understand the reality of London’s position, in an age of budgetary restraint.
It is true that we have seen record investment in the city – but that is because London government has persuaded the Treasury of our seriousness in cutting waste. We have folded organisations together; we have massively reduced headcount; we have radically reformed the estate to take account of technological change – closing 12 fire stations, 70 police stations and 263 Tube ticket offices. We have transformed TfL’s finances, so that by 2020 it will not need any revenue funding at all. It is because we have taken these tough decisions that the Treasury has been willing to support the city, and to defy all those who say London is unfairly favoured.
Crossrail 2 will now go ahead, as well as new river crossings; and City Hall has been given big new powers over suburban rail, over health, over planning and over skills. But that is because at every stage we have been ruthlessly cost-cutting – slicing our share of the council tax by 27 per cent, for instance. With the deficit the size it is, there is just no way the Treasury will write cheques to London if the city is run by a mayor so profligate and reckless that he decides to burn £2 billion.
It will turn into a war between City Hall and Whitehall – of the kind that Ken Livingstone used to love in the 1980s – and it will be a fiasco. When I came to City Hall eight years ago, I turfed out a load of semi-Marxists who luxuriated in taxpayer-funded Châteauneuf-du-Pape while specialising in the kind of Lefty grievance politics that divide the city. Whatever Khan may now say, that gang will come back with a Labour victory.
If Labour wins on Thursday, I confidently prophesy that Livingstone will be back in City Hall within a week. Zac Goldsmith is the only man who can stop it happening. He is a sensible, moderate one-nation Tory who will keep council tax low, protect the look and feel of outer London, keep crime coming down and keep the capital moving in the right direction. He has superb and innovative policies on housing and the environment; and in addition to pursuing all the good policies of the outgoing mayor he is younger, taller and let’s face it, much better-looking. He will make a great mayor. Let’s back Zac and crack on with the renaissance of the greatest city on earth.