Conservative Home: The next Mayor of London needs a credible offer to boost economic growth and improve the environment (Pt 2)

Published 07 Feb 2023

Michael Liebreich is an entrepreneur, expert on clean energy and transport, member of the Board of Trade, former member of the board of Transport for London, and an Olympic skier. In this series, he explains what it would take for a Conservative candidate to win an unexpected victory in the 2024 London Mayoral race.

In the first part of this series, we saw how the 2024 London Mayoral race is likely to be much closer than many people think – in part because of Khan’s failure as Mayor, and in part because of trends in demographics and voter preferences identified through analysis of previous election results by Alex Crowley, advisor to Boris Johnson during his two Mayoral victories.

Alex’s analysis also shows that to be successful, the Conservative candidate has to create a platform that appeals both to core Conservatives and to media elites and younger, more diverse, progressive voters – I dubbed it “A well-run city with a glorious future”.

Alex and I have not yet started to test specific policy proposals. However, in order to spur debate and discussion early in the process, over the coming days I will lay out some ideas in a number of policy areas, starting here with the economy, environment, and climate.

It’s London’s economy, stupid

If London’s economy thrives, all other problems can be addressed; if it stagnates, no amount of good policy in other areas will help. London’s economy must be the top priority for the next Mayor.

London is a world leader in some of the most dynamic sectors of the global economy like media, design, technology, telecoms, education, non-profits, retail, hospitality and tourism. However, this can never be taken for granted – each sector needs up-to-date regulation, new talent, inward investment and help in selling to overseas markets.

As Mayor, Boris Johnson was great at promoting London, most notably during the 2012 Olympics. He also, however, invested time and energy on the Thames Estuary Airport. Times have moved on. We need to be flying less, not more, and the economic engines of the future London economy now look different. They will include broadband fibre to all homes and offices, a solution to the electricity capacity bottleneck that is holding back business and housing development, better transport and freight connections to the rest of the UK, and trains to more Continental cities.

London’s economy also needs a top-notch exhibition centre. We have lost Earls Court; Kensington Olympia is being redeveloped but is tiny in international terms; the Excel Centre is poorly-connected and unloved. If it’s too late to add a conference centre to developments at Olympic Park, let’s do it at Old Oak and Park Royal, the UK’s largest regeneration project, superbly located for both HS2 and the Elizabeth Line. There is nothing like a top-notch exhibition, conference and cultural centre to create excitement in a city – and jobs, jobs, jobs.

Not all jobs are full-time. Many of the services valued by Londoners are delivered by agency workers, gig workers, part-time workers, even unregistered workers. Khan, in hock to the unions, has done nothing for them. Technology will continue to drive growth in flexible work, which it is often the preferred choice of the worker. Rather than resist the trend, the next Mayor should be promoting safe workplaces for flexible workers, decent hours and pay, access to pensions and financial services, holidays and family time off. This is an area in which London, with its strength in technology, fintech and services should be a pioneer.

London is, however, also home to some of the poorest people in the country, with hundreds of thousands in poverty. Not the relative poverty beloved of the left, but the real poverty of insufficient nutrition and heating, poor-quality housing, limited life choices. Millions more Londoners are suffering financial stress as a result of the cost of living crisis. There is much the next Mayor can and must do to help them access cheaper goods and services and to spread economic opportunities more equitably.

A Conservative offer for London must be centred on economic dynamism – for small and large businesses – backed up by credible proposals to deliver efficient services, improve productivity and attract investment. And at the same time, helping London’s less well-off to “Level Up”.

It’s not easy being green

In 1815, Jane Austen wrote that “nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be.” It used to be that the social and financial benefits of living in London came at a cost in terms of health. Today’s Londoners are not prepared to make that deal.

Improving London’s environment is an economic necessity, not a nice-to-have. We are in competition for talented, mobile staff with cities across Europe and beyond.

Sadiq Khan trumpets improvements to London’s air quality during his term. But these were delivered mainly by the Emission Zone innovations introduced by his predecessor, along with sharp reductions in diesel emissions in the wake of Dieselgate. Now he has been caught running a fake consultation on extending the Ultra Low Emission Zone – which will hit outer-London car-owners with punitive costs – simply to bolster his environmental credentials ahead of the publication of his book on the environment. Improving London’s air quality is vital, but it must be done in a fair, transparent and cost-effective way.

The environment is about more than air quality – it’s about the myriad aggressions that life in a city like London can inflict. Londoners want our kids to be able to walk to school on safe streets, cross the road without being bullied, hear our neighbours when they greet us, see some greenery and birds (sparrows would be nice instead of parrots), and breathe clean air. We want millions more trees, we want London’s historic rivers restored, we want a new walkable park along both banks of the Thames, we want linear parks and corridors linking our neighbourhoods to the green belt, we want London’s water to be sustainably managed so we can deal with new extremes of precipitation without floods and without our sewers flushing into the Thames.

And yes, Londoners want real action on climate change. In 2020, Khan claimed that if he were re-elected, London would reach net zero by 2030 – a claim of extraordinary cynicism even for him, given that at the time TfL wasn’t planning to phase out its own diesel buses until 2038. As soon as he was back in office, sure enough, he pivoted to complaining about the Government’s refusal to underwrite his green ambitions. The keyword on climate for a Conservative Mayor must be delivery.

Any serious climate plan for London will revolve around energy efficiency and electrification of heating and transport. London’s total energy bill – electricity, gas, petrol and diesel – is of the order of £25 billion a year. Imagine reducing that figure by 40 per cent over the next two Mayoral terms, keeping an extra £10 billion in London’s economy while at the same time taking a chainsaw to London’s emissions. The technology is available.

The next Mayor needs to lay out a vision to attract private investment of billions of pounds per year, funded through the resulting reduction in fossil fuel use. He or she needs to marshal the stakeholders – equipment suppliers, the building trades, the colleges, councils, businesses, associations, civic society, property developers and owners – and “Get Climate Action Done”.

The City of London is the world’s leading hub for green finance – a Conservative offer for London must harness its resources to drive an affordable green transformation of this great city.