Where to start? Billed as the Davos of London, the pre-mayoral election and pre-Olympics London Policy Conference really was much more than a stand-off between Boris and Ken. Both put in appearances, disappointing in different ways, but the intellectual stimuli and new ideas came from elsewhere.
One criticism I would have was that the focus was very much on London’s position in the global economy, with almost no discussion on its role as a capital city serving the rest of the UK. There was much lauding of the Olympics and the opportunities it brings, and talk of devolution – giving London an even larger advantage over other English cities – but almost no discussion over how London serves the rest of the country. Only at the very end did Greg Dyke, who when head of the BBC engineered the relocation of much commissioning power to Manchester, question whether it’s in Britain’s interest to, for example, continue to host the parliament in London.
Some of the most interesting contributions came courtesy of inspiration from abroad. NYC Transport Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, was almost inspirational, talking of how New York opened up public spaces and cycle routes in crowded Manhattan. At the end of Day 2, former LAPD Chief of Police and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton held an interesting exchange with the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, with both men arguing passionately for an enforcement culture than encourages civility, rather than a leftist ‘focus on the source of the problems’ poverty-based approach. Inspired by the U.S. – and trials by Strathclyde police – Hogan-Howe said he is in favour of introducing sobriety bracelets for offenders to reduce the alcohol-related offences that plague Britain. Dr Joan Clos, an Olympic-era former mayor of Barcelona, now head of UN Human Settlement, delivered an interesting message – that zoning is an unhelpful policy in a mixed-use environment – but in a dull multi-national-institution way that this crowd were not used to.
Boris, late as usual, entertained the audience with jokes we had all heard before – including a borrowed euro-sceptic FU (Fiscal Union) and FU2 barb – and inventive prose (the Anish Kapoor Olympic Park sculpture is going to “beckon people to East London like a gigantic mutant orchid”). He said nothing of substance, but if this audience were indicative of London public opinion (which it was not), Boris would be in for a landslide, judged on how full the room was and how loud the applause. Ken, on the other hand, was full of ideas, delivered deadpan, face down to his speech paper, after what seemed like hours of gloomy statistics read to us like a half-dead ghoul. He had a big announcement (or two): a London Living Rent and a not-for-profit public sector lettings agency. But it seemed like the fighting spirit was long gone.
In a later panel on the summer riots, the young Symeon Brown of the Citizens Inquiry into the Tottenham riots, showed how public speaking should be done. He said the issue underlying the riots was power. “Burning down buildings and looting gave people a sense of power, for one night,” he said. Speaking on behalf of the haves, Angela Knight, head of the British Bankers’ Association, gave a rousing defence of bankers, dismissing criticism that the finance industry wasn’t accepting its role in the economic crisis that is hurting so much.
Also worthy of note were business leaders Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP Group, and Willie Walsh, head of the International Airlines Group and the London Chamber of Commerce, taking a pop at Cameron’s disastrous European manoeuvres, which they fear will disadvantage and isolate London. As a former aerospace journalist I also found Walsh’s remarks about how the connectivity between East and West is shifting to the Middle East interesting. The shift doesn’t bode well for London, which is badly connected to emerging markets, he said. Estuary airport or more planes over London’s skies?