Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The Mayor needs to stop bumbling. Whether that's at Blackfriars or on the streets this week. Is he simply letting London get on without any real leadership?

Last week, the government and the Mayor decided to hand the London Olympic village site to a Qatari sovereign wealth fund to sell off or rent the housing built there. The Qatari bid won against a rival pitch by the Wellcome Trust to develop a large science research centre and social housing base here. As Ian Birrell reports at the Guardian, the Mayor turned down "something with potential to transform east London and provide long-term benefits for Britain" in favour of a quick buck. The Wellcome Trust decried the Mayor's decision to reject a "compelling vision for the future of the Olympic Park, going beyond bricks and mortar to focus on driving up economic growth and prosperity for the people of East London".

The Olympic village decision feels terribly familiar. I feel it links to the events of this week in London and to other policy decisions by the Mayor, such as Blackfriars Bridge.

Handing the Olympic site to what is essentially an estate agent suggests that quick money is more important to the Mayor and our politicians than a sustainable, long-term vision for the people of London. Frankly, it feels like short-term cash beat a plan that would reap its rewards slowly and carefully. Specifically it feels a decision to have 'more of the same'. More housing owned by private landlords rented out at high rates to people, no sense of pulling people together and creating opportunities for them.

It may seem a bit tangential but decisions about how the Mayor plans London's streets in places like Blackfriars feel very similar to this- all the justifications used by Transport for London and the Mayor are based on 'more of the same'. They consistently fail to talk in a language of what things could look like and promise more public spaces designed as motorways to allow more people to travel around by motor vehicles, to rush through as fast as possible.

I was thinking about Blackfriars while I was away last week on several work trips. At Blackfriars, the Mayor knows conditions aren't safe for cycling. So it's shocking to see works now going ahead that make it even less safe and much less convenient for people on foot and on cycles. On my trips last week, I remembered how I'd seen a bridge in Stockholm that links the two main islands in the centre of town.

Stockholm's main bridge. Motor lanes removed for people
On the left is a picture of that bridge with its bike lane. Last time I was here, the city was putting finishing touches to this new bike lane, completely separated from the motor vehicle lanes. What's happened is that the city decided to remove two lanes from motor vehicles, to create space for people walking and on cycles, kept safely away from motor vehicles.

I was also in Tel Aviv last week. Not a place that might strike you as a haven of cycling. And yet look at this poster. A lane for motor vehicles is  being removed and given to create space for people on cycles.

 Here's a picture of the bike lane being built, stretching from the very north to the very south of the city. And completely separated from motor vehicles.

How very different from London.

My point is this. We have a Mayor who knows there's a problem at Blackfriars. He's an intelligent man. He even understands exactly what the problem is. And he's perfectly aware that other cities are solving problems like Blackfriars using radical means to change their cities. And yet he does nothing. He isn't setting a vision for what Blackfriars should look like. He's simply letting his transport authorities pursue a policy that will mean nothing really changes. More cars, basically.

And this is where I think there's a link to the Olympic village and to this week's events in London. There's no leadership from the Mayor. He's failing on both issues to set a vision of what things will look like under his leadership. Instead, I feel all we're hearing are bumbling media statements and a lack of a vision that people can follow.

Anyone who uses cycles and walks the streets in London and isn't stuck in a motor vehicle understands there are plenty of disillusioned people who hang out on London's streets. The Mayor knows there's a problem. At the Olympic site, he had one chance to make a difference to people who need alternative opportunities and to chose something radical like the Wellcome Trust bid. But he ignored that opportunity and let the culture secretary decide to opt for a quick buck. What we have is the Mayor simply opting yet again for 'more-of-the-same' without raising a finger to lead Londoners to something radical that might make a real difference to people's lives.

It's the same at Blackfriars. He knows the problem, he understands the problem. And yet I feel he choses to ignore it and let his advisors just carry on doing whatever they're already doing.

The Economist hints at the same problem. Last month it published a piece saying that "Until London decides what it wants its roads to do, Mr Johnson’s measures will only offer limited lubrication." I don't think the Mayor knows what he wants London's roads to do. That's why he's letting his transport authority carry on offering people more of the same instead of stepping in and really making things change.

I think Boris Johnson has shown a complete failure of leadership over Blackfriars. And I think he's shown a lack of leadership over events in London this week. Just as he did with phone hacking, he showed up too late and he chose to simply let the machine get on with it.

Sadly, I think the same is true for the Olympic village. And I worry the same will be true in how he handles the events of this week. I feel that the Mayor doesn't know what he wants London to be. Whether that's on matters of road and transport policy, at the Olympic village or on the streets. He's consistently failing to set a vision and to take people with him.

That's not good enough and I think either the Mayor needs to wise up fast. Or London needs to realise it deserves better.


  1. The issue is there is noone on the TfL board with clout whose primary objective is to prioritise and design cycling schemes into the future of London transport. Check out the members here -

    Secondly, the advisors and managing directors have experience in managing bus companies and other motorised traffic.

    Thirdly there needs to be a mandate that legally requires all further developments in London's transport system to prioritise cycling.

    Until this happens deference to motorised transport will be status quo.

  2. Thanks for highlighting the Olympic village issue, this had totally passed me by in all the news of the riots. Passing off the site to the Qatari developers is a terrible idea! The Wellcome plans involved creating new centres of employment as oppose to just 'rack em and stack em' developer sgreed.

  3. Thanks - I'd missed the Olympic Park sell-off too, and I thought I was following that fairly closely!

    I think the same 'lack of leadership' description applies to Cameron too - he's talking about the rioters' "lack of ethics" FFS?

    But look back - I'm 48yo and I don't remember a PM with vision. Dogma, yes, but the balls to challenge venal short-term capitalism, trickling down to the me-me-me individualism we've seen since Thatcher?

    These riots are chickens coming home to roost, a cost/benefit analysis of risk/reward in a culture which defines itself by what it owns. The rioters are the ultimate consumer. And our 'leaders'? - a plague on all their houses.

    The only comfort is the incredible inspiring work of you guys drawing together alternatives (I was at Blackfriars), or eg. those behind the #riotcleanup - this is leadership without leaders, vision without dogma. If anything is going to change, it will not come from politicians, but from real people getting together, talking (eg. Street Talks, Critical Mass), or supporting small local bike shops, caf├ęs and other businesses... this cycling movement in London really is nationally relevant, because it challenges how our cities and communities have been sold out for many years. Now the streets don't work for anyone - drivers, cyclists or pedestrians.
    The world is looking at East London because of 2012, but it's in the shadow of all that corporate hubris where ALL the most interesting societal drivers are coming together - all the ideas and tools for better ways to live in a truly civilised way.
    I f--ing love East London, and yes we deserve better than these asses led by donkeys driving motorways through us, for what? To move the bottleneck 200m up the road?
    How about the cycling movement puts up a Mayoral candidate. Mark, your media profile is high at the moment - I'd vote for you.
    Mark (BargeeMark, formerly Yellow Brompton...)

  4. Reports today that Boris didn't even turn up to COBRA on time. Hmmm.