Thu 24 September 2020

The Labour Mayor of London’s plan for the capital makes clear that the spirit of neoliberalism still haunts City Hall, argues Tom Cordell.

Around a century ago, a group of right-wing Austrian political theorists grappled with what they saw as the central problem of their age: how to prevent mass democracy from interfering with wealthy capitalists’ freedom to keep hold of their wealth.

One of their number, Ludwig von Mises, argued that our consumer choices should supplant democratic votes in providing a way for ordinary citizens to shape their societies. Clearly, those with more money got more say, but then that of course was the point.

Another, Freidrich Hayek, advocated a form of national government as a display where, behind the flags and parades, real power resided with unelected technocrats working to serve the interests of an international business elite.

After decades nurtured in think tanks and at the fringes of academia, these ideas – today known as “neoliberalism” – rose to dominate politics globally. In Britain, they seized control of central government during Thatcherism, before being cemented in place across Britain’s institutions under Tony Blair. 

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It’s unsurprising then that the first democratic institution designed during the Blair era – the London mayoralty – embodies the neoliberal instinct to contain the threat of democracy.

In the modern London of consumer choices – where the price of housing determines your right to stay – Londoners are able to elect an individual as Mayor every four years. So far, this system has given us a series of charismatic front men behind whom labour a team of unelected technicians working closely with business and developers to plan the city’s future. The mere theatrics of the London Assembly can be seen in its limited role in making suggestions and asking questions of the Mayor and his staff. 

Certainly, the structure has proved resilient, containing the threat of one-time radical leftist Ken Livingstone, before eight years as a neoliberal safe space during Boris Johnson’s City Hall tenure. But then the mayoral election campaigns have largely centred on cultural and national issues, rather than detailed policy around planning and housing. These vital but under-reported issues are instead explored in detail outside the electoral cycle, when the incumbent mayor publishes his detailed long-term plan for the next 35 years of the city’s future.

With the election of the Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan in 2016, there was hope that his new London Plan might challenge the capital’s development model – in which the Mayor effectively hands planning decisions and public land to developers, in exchange for them funding minimal pieces of social infrastructure and housing. Yet, when Khan’s plan emerged it was clear that the spirit of neoliberalism still haunted City Hall.

When the Mayor’s team submitted the plan to the statutory public examination process earlier this year, the panel of inspectors agreed with key issues raised by Just Space – an assortment of community groups, activists, and academics – and others. Above all, they were concerned that the plan failed to examine alternative ideas of how London could develop. Instead, it based all planning around the Mayor’s forecasts for an ever-increasing London population, while refusing to consider a future where public funding from central government might allow new building in London to be directed for public rather than developer benefit. This matters because the plan’s three-decade time-frame outlives the national electoral cycle and a change in government could leave London unprepared. 

The second key blow made by the inspectors was that they questioned whether the Mayor’s planners had adequately assessed the plan’s impact on groups protected under the Equalities Act – a failure that could make the plan unlawful. There is now a body of past evidence showing that developer-led regeneration displaces and breaks up black and minority ethnic communities and the disabled – but this is exactly what the plan was proposing to extend into more areas of London. Essentially, the planners at City Hall, working within its system of minimal democratic oversight, have designed a future city for people like themselves: young, affluent, well educated and healthy.

The full inspectors’ report will be published in the coming weeks, with a revised version of the New London Plan expected sometime next year. In the long run, the failings of the plan make a strong case for a more robust system of democratic governance in the city, placing local voices at the heart of plan-making. 

Until then, and with a mayoral election due next year, Londoners might be better off paying less attention to the Mayor’s views on Donald Trump and more on what his team of planners are up to. After all, it could well determine if they and their loved ones will be able to stay living in the city they call home.

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