‘You don’t make our country more level by making London poorer’: Sadiq Khan on why keeping the city competitive with its European rivals and cleaning up the capital’s toxic air remain key principles for City Hall
Less than 12 months until the London elections, and Mayor Sadiq Khan is in a bullish mood as he attempts to become the capital’s first three-term Mayor.
He won’t rule out standing for office another three times, either, as he joked his way through an in-depth, campaign agenda-setting interview with the Financial Times.
Mayor Khan’s political Achilles heel, it is clear, is the financial collapse of Transport for London during the pandemic, which has left him beholden to the anti-London Tory Government.
And hand-in-hand with the Government’s ratchet-tightening grip on TfL’s finances is the extension, planned for August, of the ULEZ, London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, expanding all the way from the South and North Circulars as far as the furthest edges of Greater London, including Croydon.
Mayor Khan has become a figure of hate for a hardcore band of Londoners. There is more than a suggestion of Islamophobic racism about some of the opposition.
“Some of the criticism that I’ve received is clearly linked with my race and my faith. It’s an unfortunate problem with social media,” Khan said in the FT interview.
Elsewhere, Khan has said that he has developed a form of PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – as a consequence of the frequent deaths threats made against him. He now needs round-the-clock security. He said the threats had affected his mental health, along with dealing with the aftermath of the deadly Grenfell Tower fire and terror attacks in London.
And then there are the scare stories put about by ULEZ opponents, many of whom not so long ago were holding up similar yellow boards proclaiming their opposition to the covid vaccine, or their refusal to wear masks (“face nappies”), or claiming there is an imminent plan to do away with banknotes and cash, or some other conspiracy theory-based gibberish.
There was a time when Sadiq Khan was reckoned to be among the country’s most popular political figures, when he was often clashing with Boris Johnson at Westminster and Donald Trump, and his “Londonistan” slurs, before the US President got himself banned from Twitter.
But those approval ratings for Khan have fallen, steeply. His City Hall team traces much online abuse to Trump fans in the United States and Narendra Modi supporters in India.
ULEZ is the one anti-Khan issue that the pro-pollution Tories and the far-right have managed to coalesce around.
Khan is clear: London’s air quality has improved. Emissions of nitrogen oxides are a quarter lower than they would be without ULEZ.
London has the highest percentage of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution of all English regions with an estimated 4,000 deaths caused by air pollution each year, according to university studies.
Yet some outer London boroughs – though not cash-strapped Croydon – and Surrey County council have been using public money to progress a costly Judicial Review against ULEZ, while Labour MPs have issued calls for the scrappage scheme to be extended.
But Mayor Khan told the FT that he is not backing down on his plan to extend ULEZ: polluting vehicles will have to pay £12.50 a day. It is projected to cut nitrogen oxide emissions from cars in outer London by nearly 10per cent.
“ULEZ isn’t a big thing on most people’s minds,” the Mayor told the newspaper.
“It’s a big thing on a small number of people’s minds… In outer London, 85per cent of vehicles are compliant and half of Londoners don’t even have a car.”
Getting the capital back on its feet
In late 2020, Khan was forced to go to Government for a bail-out. After Boris Johnson, in his time as Mayor, had given away the central government’s subsidy for TfL, London had become entirely dependent on passenger fares to pay for its transport system. The covid lockdown had choked off that money almost completely.
Today, Khan is upbeat that the capital is recovering from covid. Office workers are commuting at 80per cent of pre-pandemic levels from Tuesdays to Thursdays (covid not only underlined the possibilities of “WfH”, it also seems to have institutionalised the three-day weekend…). The Elizabeth Line, finally opened last year, now accounts for 1-in-6 of all train journeys undertaken in this country.
And despite the setbacks to the capital inflicted by Brexit, London remains an engine for the whole of the British economy, whatever the Red Wall Tories might claim.
“You don’t make our country more level by making London poorer,” Mayor Khan observed.
“Our competitors, I say this not in any way to cause offence, aren’t Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow. Our competitors are Hong Kong, Singapore, New York…
“All politicians need to reflect on the consequences if they just keep bashing London.
“This anti-London animus isn’t going to go away overnight with a change of government. The potential of working with a Labour Government that’s pro-London is so incredibly exciting. The key thing about a Labour Government is they’d give us the money we need.”
The FT described Khan as “among Britain’s most scripted politicians, falling back on prepared lines”. He says he is “green with envy” at the way his fellow big-city mayors are treated by their national counterparts.
“The mayor in New York gets to spend 50per cent of monies raised in New York. We get to spend 7per cent,” Khan said, echoing calls for the reform of the current system of Council Tax and business rates. Khan says London is missing out on a funding stream that most other tourist spots exploit, with a hotel levy.
Mayor Khan sees his record stained by an unhelpful and interfering Tory Government in other ways. The series of Tube strikes have occurred because Conservative transport ministers demanded a review of TfL pensions as part of their covid bailout.
“It’s deliberately been done by a government which wants a fight with the trade unions,” Khan says.
And Khan believes that the Tories’ post-Brexit aversion to immigration is hurting business in London. “Businesses in London complain of two big things: a skills shortage and a labour shortage. Some restaurants are doing no lunch sittings because they’ve not got the staff.”
The former south London MP, Khan was MP for Tooting from 2005 until 2016, is 52. If he wins next May’s London mayoral election, a third term would take him to 57… Asked by the FT, Khan wouldn’t rule out carrying on. “At least six terms, come on!
“As long as you’ve got ideas, and you love your job, and people want to lend me their trust, then yeah. I genuinely think I’ve got the best job in politics.”
Read more: Toxic air in Croydon is in breach of World Health standards
Read more: Air pollution is a real killer, but council has caved in to cars
Read more: London’s toxic air is ‘a public health emergency’ says charity
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