Monday 29 April 2019 10:09 am

A pro-business mayor? Khan is less so than Livingstone

Harry Phibbs is a journalist at Conservative Home.

Before he was elected, Sadiq Khan promised – in this newspaper and elsewhere – to be the “most pro-business mayor yet”.

In a literal sense, that pledge was already a bit limited, because Khan has only had two predecessors: Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson.

The first one was an apologist for assorted Communist regimes. In fact, Livingstone’s most notable business deal was to buy oil from Venezuela’s for London buses.

But it’s fair to say that being more business-friendly than Boris set the bar a bit higher. Johnson would champion the City of London, protecting businesses from the threat of EU regulation, such as the protectionist directive on hedge funds. He also scrapped the West London extension of the congestion charge in order to help small firms.

The council tax precept was cut, leaving us with a bit more to spend. There were also some improvements in the transport network, although the Cycle Superhighway proved ill-judged, further gumming up the traffic.

Yet three years on, there is precious little of substance from Khan’s tenure at City Hall that delivers on his promise to be the capitalists’ friend.

There has been plenty of gimmickry, virtue signalling, and photo opportunities. There is no shortage of press releases announcing new units, commissions, taskforces, panels, working parties, and czars. But when it comes to tangible accomplishments, it’s pretty thin.

He has proved timid – notably in failing to improve the transport system and ease traffic congestion.

Recently we have learned that Crossrail, also known as the Elizabeth Line, will be delayed until 2021; the project should have finished by December 2018. It is owned by Transport for London (TfL), of which Khan is the chairman. So the buck stops with him.

We have also seen the mayor actively encourage the Extinction Rebellion climate change protests. Self-indulgent and self-defeating, these antics have wasted police time and disrupted the public transport network. It should not have been hard to clearly condemn any action that broke the law.

The tube unions have been appeased – but even so, the pledge for “zero strikes” has not been the reality. Bureaucracy at City Hall has increased, and the Mayor’s share of our council tax bills has increased to pay for it.

The newly launched ultra-low emission zone will harm the self-employed white van man. Improving air quality is important, but there are more business-friendly ways of achieving this which have been ignored.

Then there was his threat to ban Uber in the capital. It was overturned in the courts, but Khan’s intention showed a hostility to choice, innovation and competition. Smaller minicab firms have been hit by a staggering 5,000 per cent increase in the operating fees charged by TfL, and many firms have driven out of a business as a result.

Housing is a huge challenge. For London to thrive economically, those who work here need somewhere to live, so increasing the housing supply matters.

Releasing more of the surplus public sector land in the capital – much of it under the mayor’s empire – would help. But that opportunity has been missed.

Khan promised to increase the number of new homes, but instead private housing starts have fallen by a third since 2015. And by breaking his housing promise, he contributes to breaking his business promise.

In one sense, Khan is even less business-friendly than Livingstone.

Though Livingstone regarded property developers and other company bosses as the class enemy, he was still willing to talk to them, to see whether there were deals to be done.

Despite his rhetoric, there was some realisation from Livingstone that if he required such a high percentage of “affordable housing” on a new development to make it unprofitable, it would not be built.

During the Boris Johnson era, business leaders were welcome, while partnership and sponsorship with the private sector was very much on the agenda.

Yet Khan has been the “do nothing” mayor seeking to dodge the tough decisions and blame others, rather than face up to the challenges that the City faces.

These failures of policy could be forgiven if Khan had taken on the key political challenge that business faces, which is not Brexit.

Even the pessimists would surely have to concede that any disruption to a trading arrangements would be footling compared to the destruction to our economy should we face a Corbyn Government. Indeed, the presence of an avowed Marxist in Downing Street with a programme of tax rises, nationalisation, and state control could scarcely provide a clearer message that the UK is closed for business.

Yet where has Khan’s voice been? Where has been the defence of the City of London and it’ s remarkable financial contribution to the rest of the country? Why hasn’t Khan spoken out in defence of wealth creators, entrepreneurs, and the free enterprise system?

Khan could have used his position to repudiate Corbynomics. Instead, the mayor has dived for cover. That silence makes the greatest mockery of his “pro-business” claims.

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