Monday 7 September 2020 7:20 pm

'No time for a show of virility’: Sadiq Khan on getting London moving again

One of the largest criticisms of Sadiq Khan over his first mayoral term has been that he is more concerned about his personal PR and with making political gestures than with his job of running the nation’s capital.

The mayor of London has been beset by attacks that he has increased spending on City Hall spin doctors, that he focuses too much on issues he cannot control, i.e. Brexit, and that he is a little too eager to take up photo opportunities. It would perhaps come as a surprise to his critics that Khan has not capitalised on his carefully managed brand to be more pro-active on social media and on TV to encourage people back into a near-deserted central London.

Figures showing the latest levels of inner-city footfall must be grim reading for bricks and mortar businesses. It is still only at half of pre-Covid levels and Tube numbers are down 70 per cent year-on-year. With the government’s furlough scheme about to end next month, there are fears that thousands of London’s High Street businesses will go bust by Christmas if people do not go back to their workplaces. 

Despite this, Khan has not become the champion of various “back to office” campaigns that many would like him to be. When posed with this fact, Khan told City A.M. that it just was not his style to “bully” people to go back to the office in a bid to repopulate central London. 

“The way to increase public confidence is not for politicians to show their virility by using the Tube and being photographed doing so – the way to give them confidence is by having a [coronavirus] test that’s effective and a contact tracing system that works,” he says.

“I think berating workers and shouting at employers is not the way to do it.”

More crucially, he said it would not make much of a difference with the government’s social distancing guidelines. The current restrictions mandate that everyone must stay between one and two metres apart on public transport and in offices, making it impossible to get central London properly humming again in the foreseeable future.

“In the short to medium term – with the current guidance we have whether you agree or disagree with it – with a virus without a vaccine, I can’t see the same levels of people returning to central London as we had before March,” he says.

“We think on the Tubes a safe number at any one time is about 25 per cent [capacity] and a safe number on the buses is 40 per cent.”

“If we can have employers staggering start times and finishing times, we can have more people using public transport safely, which would increase the number of people using public transport in the course of the day.”

This approach comes alongside a new City Hall survey of London’s businesses to see how much of their workforce they can have at their workplaces at any one time. This data can then be used to make estimates on the future prospects of businesses that rely on hordes of Tube passengers spilling out onto the High Street. 

In the meantime, the mayor has called for targeted support for sectors that have suffered most from the coronavirus lockdown and its after effects – the hospitality, retail, leisure and culture industries. It is the type of position that is beginning to gain traction among some Tories as well, with backbench MP Neil O’Brien today calling for targeted support for Northern businesses affected by second lockdowns.

Khan appears to have shunned the very brand of gesture politics for which he is so often maligned in his response to London’s new economic realities. Instead of taking the easy path of relying on a few selfies on the London Underground, there actually does appear to be a semblance of a plan to get the cogs of London’s economy moving again.  

It is unlikely he will get much credit for this though as Khan is a favourite target for many on the right, including the occupants of Downing Street. Speculation has been rife that Boris Johnson and his team have their eye on stripping away powers from the mayor of London’s office as a part of their push to transform Whitehall. Some of the government’s conditions on the Transport for London’s (TfL) £1.6bn bail out – such as installing government officials to TfL’s board – were thought to be an example of this in action.

When asked if he felt threatened by a putative Downing Street power grab, Khan revealed little and instead opted for a cautious tone replete with unfortunate platitudes.

“The key thing for the government is not to cut their nose to spite their face, not to allow their dislike of a Labour mayor in City Hall to take away from the bigger picture of London,” he says. 

“London is hugely important to the country’s wealth and prosperity, we contribute far more than we take back, and actually when you speak to the Prime Minister privately he’s a firm believer in devolution and he understands the power of mayors across the country.”

The mayor will find out just how committed his predecessor is to devolution when TfL’s £1.6bn bail out runs out in October. Khan says that City Hall is already negotiating the new terms of a funding deal as passenger revenue is still far below regular operating levels.

Khan acknowledges that a fresh bail out could act as a prime opportunity for Downing Street to hand even more control of TfL to Whitehall’s Department for Transport.

“I’ve been unhappy with some of the conditions [from the first bail out], some of them are fine,” Khan says.

“What we don’t want is strings attached, all we want is for the government to realise that London is the engine of the country. If they put conditions on our ability to run our city that will inhibit our ability to contribute to the wealth and prosperity of our country.”

Downing Street’s rumoured assault on the mayor comes after Khan recently laid out plans to move City Hall from its iconic Southwark location to the far less fashionable Crystal building in East London’s Royal Docks.

The move will save City Hall’s budget £55m at a time where Khan’s £18bn budget now faces a £450m shortfall thanks to Covid-19.

The mayor said he would rather recoup the losses by leaving Southwark than by cutting spending on police, the fire service or TfL.

“I love my office, I love working in City Hall, but actually given the choice of saving that sum of money or having a nice luxurious office with a great view, I know what I’d choose,” Khan says.

While the move may make commercial and budgetary sense for the Greater London Authority, it could also put the mayor’s office further out of sight and out of mind.

It could also provide the perfect backdrop for Johnson and his team to ratchet up its attempts to politically neuter the office of the mayor of London.