Who do we want to run us?

Localism is the new buzzword. Ministers claim they want to hand more powers to local mayors, part of a new political vogue for decentralisation

Published in the Evening Standard 27 October 2005

Ken is about to get his reward. A man who, by his own admission, loves power is poised to get a whole lot more. The government is embarking on a full-scale review of the way London is run and few doubt what it will decide when it concludes early next year: more muscle for the mayor.

That's big news for him ? but also for the rest of the country. For this could be the most concrete evidence yet of a new push towards decentralisation, shifting power away from Whitehall to the towns and cities of Britain. If it happens, it will mark a genuine change in our national culture, which for so long has seen the country run from the top down by a central government issuing one-size-fits-all edicts for every corner of the land. In its place could come a platoon of Ken Livingstones, mayors allowed to run Britain's towns and cities their own way.

Committed decentralisers have been urging just such a change for years. Now, though, they find a receptive audience in the nation's leading politicians. If politics were fashion, ?localism? would be the new black: the vogue idea championed by all three main parties. David Cameron's Notting Hill set drool at the mere mention of the word; Labour's policy gurus invoke it constantly; Lib Dems have talked local forever.

So at a conference on the future of the capital organised by the London School of Economics yesterday, academics, council leaders, business types and politicians from rival parties forged a rare consensus: London's experiment in self-government, begun in 2000, has worked. When Ken himself arrived, it was to hear that those who follow these matters closest want his reach to be even greater.

Even those who were once sceptical ? including Blair himself ? have been won over. The first phase of devolution from central government to City Hall having proved such a triumph, Downing Street is ready for phase two.

Livingstone himself does not pretend that a huge philosophical shift is under way, at least as far as the government is concerned. As he explained yesterday, ?Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have tried running the country from the centre for eight years, and they've realised you can't do it.? Finally, glumly, aware of the limits of the centre, they have no choice but to delegate. Combined with John Prescott, a card-carrying regionalist, and you have the three most powerful men in politics ready to usher in what Ken called ?the next wave of devolution.?

I buy most of that explanation. Ken is right that Blair and Brown would only give up powers if they saw no other option. The default mode of all governments is to hoard authority to themselves and never let go. The first wave of devolution in 1997 ? creating the parliament in Scotland and assembly in Wales ? only happened because Blair was saddled with a commitment made by John Smith too solemn to break. Unless pushed, those with power keep it.

But even if the motives are less than pure, should we welcome this fresh surge of decentralisation? Or course we should. For democracy means rule by the people and such rule is meaningless unless it is exercised close at hand, where people live. True democracy would see each decision taken at the lowest level possible, with power ?lent? to those above only when necessary.

The reality, as we know, is very different. The British habit has been to decide everything centrally - ?The gentleman in Whitehall knows best? - unless forced to do otherwise. Any move to reverse that pattern has to be good.

So of course Blair and Brown should let Ken have a greater say in housing or commuter rail services, to name just two areas under review. While they're at it they should grab powers currently held by the Government Office for London and give those to him, too. If that name doesn't ring a bell, don't worry. Few bodies could be more obscure. Even though Londoners voted seven years ago to create a mayoralty, this heaving bureaucracy, a creature of Whitehall, has continued operating ? and even got bigger. It should be radically shrunk, cut down to size as brutally as the old Scottish or Welsh Offices after devolution.

That's the whole point of localism: power to those we can see and elect ? in this case the mayor ? and away from those who remain unseen and out of reach. There are caveats. First, if the mayor is to become stronger, he has to be scrutinised more closely: the current powers of the Assembly over the mayor are feeble.

Second, any restructuring would betray the spirit of localism if it beefed up the mayor solely at the expense of London's 32 boroughs. There are some duties that make more sense in his hands ? disposing of the city's rubbish is one ? but if the new review merely sucks power up from the boroughs, rather than pulling it down from Whitehall, it will not be devolution at all. It will be a new form of centralisation.

Livingstone reckons the Government is plumping up the London mayoralty to make it a more attractive model for other cities in Britain to follow. I hope that's true. But if it is, our national politicians should prepare themselves for a major culture shock.

For localism means letting go. Ministers will have to allow some cities to make mistakes, while others flourish. No longer will it make sense to aim for a single, uniform standard of services across the country: some will be better than others. Critics will call it a ?postcode lottery?, but devolution means difference - or it means nothing.

It's not just politicians who will have to change. If we see a problem in our area, there'll be no more running to central government to complain ? as we do now. We will have to lobby local decision-makers, the ones we elect. I want this ?new wave of devolution? to be real. If it is, be warned: it won't be Tony, Gordon or Ken who will have to make it work ? it will be us.

We can?t agree; they must be biased

Published in the Jewish Chronicle 21 October 2005

I?m due to give a talk at Maidenhead synagogue in November, as a guest of Rabbi Jonathan Romain. He emailed me last week, asking for a title. ?Or perhaps,? he suggested, ?we should go for something timeless, like ?The Jewish problem.?? He was only half-joking. Like the Israeli diplomat who agrees to give a lecture in five years? time. Asked for a title, he nominates: ?The current crisis in the Middle East.? No matter what events may throw at us, we know that certain truths will remain true.

One of them is that the British Jewish community will always get hot under its collective collar about media coverage of Israel. Which made the story that led the JC at the end of last month interesting, but no surprise. The paper reported ?Huge support for Israel PR drive,? citing an opinion poll which found that 92 per cent of British Jews believe the media is biased against Israel ? and 87 per cent reckon the community ?should run an advertising and publicity campaign? to tackle the problem. By any reckoning, those were landslide margins.

The survey was commissioned by StandUp4Israel, a group of advertising bigwigs eager to mount just such a high-calibre PR campaign for Israel. Being smart marketing folk, they wanted a survey which would show there was overwhelming demand for their proposed product.

So what they commissioned was not exactly a traditional opinion poll, in which random members of the Anglo-Jewish public were asked their views, but something closer to a petition drive. Publicity, which only appeared in the JC, urged people to ?vote now.? It was rather like those ?You the Jury? phone-polls The Sun occasionally runs, which tend to find that 95 per cent of Britons want to leave the European Union or bring back hanging.

The clue was in the JC story which featured a disclaimer put out by YouGov, the organisation which ran the survey. Since the sample was ?self-selecting,? You-Gov stressed their findings could not be seen as ?representative of any particular group.? In other words, they had established not the views of British Jews but of those JC readers motivated enough to vote in an online ballot.

StandUp4Israel (SU4I) is, understandably, pretty ann-oyed at YouGov pouring cold water on their result like this ? not least because the organisation, on its own initiative, also put the same set of questions in its regular poll of the British population, discovering that just 14 per cent of the British public reckoned the media was anti-Israel. (YouGov?s pollster told me they did this because they found SU4I?s questions ?biased? and wanted to ?cover our back? with some genuine, scientific polling.)

If you ask me, YouGov should not have taken on the work in the first place if they didn?t think it was sound, and they certainly should not have tried to make up for that initial decision by taking action that was bound to undermine their own client. Still, you can?t get away from the key point here, which is that SU4I were less interested in discovering the true temper of British Jewry on this topic than in getting a shot of PR rocket-fuel for their campaign. That?s no crime: these guys are admen not social scientists. But it does reveal why a campaign of the kind advocated by SU4I could well come unstuck.

Put simply, if they were to try a similar tactic in a future PR offensive for Israel, they would get found out. This is not soap-powder, but international politics. Any move to promote Israel will be subject to hard media scrutiny. If SU4I put out a series of posters with information as partial as last month?s poll numbers, they?d be torn to shreds.

Marc Cave, an acclaimed figure in the ad industry and the prime mover behind the group, told me he was frustrated with Israel?s case always being filtered by the national media, whether it be letters to the editor or piec-es on the comment pages. The beauty of paid-for adverts is ?no bugger can interfere with it.? It would give Israel?s defenders, says Cave, ?true freedom of expression.?

I can sympathise with that desire, but I fear it would not solve the problem. The painful reality is that Israel?s advocates cannot flee to the cosy shelter of newspaper ads they wholly control, the equivalent of a debating chamber where the other side sits in silence. This is an argument and it has to be fought as such. That means taking on the opposition and defeating them in the public square ? on television, on radio and in the papers. You can?t buy your way out of this debate: you have to win it.

What?s more, as the admen might say, we have to look at the product. When Israel gets a bad press, some of it may be down to PR failings and heavily accented spokesmen. But mainly it?s down to the reality of the situation they have to sell. The opposite is true, too. Right now, in the afterglow of Gaza disengagement, Israel is getting a rather good press. Of course there are some exceptions, but when Israel appears to be striving for peace, the coverage always improves. It was that way in the Barak years, and under Peres and Rabin, too. But not in the first phase of Sharon or Netanyahu. If Sharon stages further withdrawals from occupied territory, the media gaze will be kindly again.

So my message to the admen is: why not devote your energy and talent to altering the Israeli reality for the better? Get the product right and the image will take care of itself.

Are we really so liberal?

The reputation of the capital as a gay-friendly city seemed assured - until the brutal murder of a gay man on Clapham Common

Published in the Evening Standard 20 October 2005

We like to think we've left all that behind. We're living in enlightened times now, we tell ourselves, in a city where difference is celebrated, diversity is a strength and where tolerance is the norm. And then one event comes along to spoil it all ? to remind us that London is not yet Utopia.

So it was with the murder at the weekend of Jody Dobrowski ? battered to death on Clapham Common, each blow apparently accompanied by the most vicious anti-gay abuse. His death will grieve, but probably not shock, London's gay community which has known first-hand about the rise in homophobic violence. But it should be a shock to the rest of us.

We've got used to thinking of ourselves and our city as the capital of right-on. Other parts of the country might still be saddled with 1950s prejudices, but London is freedom city ? whether it be rainbow flags flying in Old Compton Street or, drawings of muscled, shirtless boys on summertime posters for Gay Pride.

We won the Olympic Games, we say, because we showed we are a place of welcome for all people, no matter who they are or where they come from. As Ken Livingstone announced to the Trafalgar Square vigil that followed the July 7 bombings, London is ?The world in one city.?

Recognition and acceptance of lesbian and gay Londoners has been central to that new ethos. Ken Livingstone made headlines a quarter century ago when he decried anti-gay prejudice - ?We're all bisexual,? he declared ? but former Conservative mayoral candidate Steve Norris confirmed the shift in 2000. He broke with his party over the abolition of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, the notorious ban on local councils doing anything to ?intentionally promote homosexuality.? He wanted to see the section dumped. His stance was genuine, but it also recognised that if he was to be politically viable in London he could do no other.

Thus a self-image is built, of London as, if not quite the San Francisco of Britain, then at least the New York: a grown-up metropolis sophisticated enough to take sexual difference in its stride. Not for us the neanderthal prejudices of the provinces. Instead we could laugh at the August tale of the drunken Dorset builder who punched a DJ, breaking his nose, for putting on Wham!'s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, accusing him of playing ?gay? music.

We can chuckle too at Little Britain's ?Only gay in the village? sketch, enjoying the contrast between rural naivete and urban knowingness. For many, homophobia seemed a distant reality, one that could be treated ironically. Suddenly it seemed OK for people to use the word ?gay? disparagingly - ?I know it's a bit gay but...? - as if real homophobia had vanished. (A similar thing has happened with sexism, making ?girlie? and the like newly-acceptable vocabulary.)

You can see how this has happened. In the last few years, the change in attitudes has been dramatic. Now the Metropolitan police promotes a high-profile gay officer, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Brian Paddick, and gives respect to the Gay Police Association. The Met accords anti-gay attacks the same serious status as racist ones and promises that gay victims will be interviewed by gay officers.

The government's record is even more remarkable. While Labour has disappointed the left in almost every area, it has delivered consistently on gay rights, from abolishing Section 28 to equalising the age of consent and allowing civil partnerships for same-sex couples. (If there were awards for lobbying organisations, then surely Stonewall should be the all-time winner.) Even the courts have new instructions. No longer should they use the word ?homosexual?, which can sound harsh, but the preferred LGBT ? lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual.

It all adds up to a new climate, one where the greatest danger seems to be, to use that most tired of cliches, political correctness gone mad. And then came Saturday.

The murder of Jody Dobrowski is a reminder that anti-gay violence is more than a memory ? and that London is far from immune. It would be tempting to think his death was a one-off, as exceptional as the 1999 bombing of the mainly-gay Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, which left three people dead and more than 80 injured.

In fact, figures released last year showed a 10 per cent rise in homophobic attacks in the capital ? including both verbal and physical abuse - from 1,365 in 2002 to 1,536 in 2003. Since then, according to Ben Summerskill of Stonewall, homophobic crime has risen by another 8.5 per cent ? most of it physical violence rather than mere name-calling. That trend is all the more striking when one sees that racist attacks in London are actually on the decrease.

Nor is this behaviour confined to the hard-core of gay-bashing thugs. Parents report that ?gay? has become a term of aggressive abuse in the playground ? with no irony about it. Gay couples say there are places where they fear giving each other even the slightest touch, lest they arouse unwanted and hostile attention. In some areas, Summerskill told the Guardian this week, gays are becoming ?socially withdrawn, a social category rather like old people, who prefer not to go out at night out of fear of violence.? Others are wondering whether the whole notion of cruising areas, like Clapham Common, is becoming just too dangerous.

This is an important corrective to some of the complacency that can settle on a city like London. There is no doubt we have taken huge strides, with tolerance and openness replacing what was once official fear and suspicion. But that job is only ever a work in progress; it is never completely done. If we want a memorial to Jody Dobrowksi, remembering that fact may be a fitting one.

A suburban nightmare

The death of Ahil Islam in a Watford hospital highlights failings in the NHS. But it also suggests a deeper problem - the decline of London's outer neighbourhoods.

Published in the Evening Standard, 13 October 2005

Even in a week full of needless death, the story of one human tragedy can still shock. Tens of thousands of people were killed in Saturday?s earthquake in Pakistan, and yet somehow the event that led yesterday?s Standard ? a catastrophe with a death toll of one ? will have affected many who read it just as intensely.

It told of 13-month old Ahil Islam, who suffered minor burns from a spilt cup of tea ? but was then sent from one hospital to another, including a four hour wait in the A & E department of Watford General, before dying in his father?s arms.

There will, as there should, be a series of inquiries into what systemic, serial failure could have led to such an unnecessary death. But I can?t help but have two reactions to such dread news. One is personal, the other is to wonder about the state of our city.

The personal reaction came first. As it happens, my own 18-month old son also suffered a minor burn at the weekend. Boiling water scalded his foot; we took him to the Whittington Hospital in Archway and he was bandaged up within a couple of hours.

As so often with the NHS, I left struck by the effort of staff working in the toughest conditions: they are always over-stretched. I was struck too by the fact that no matter how much money we spend on healthcare, it seems there can never be enough: there will always be demand that cannot be met. And I saw that the way this imbalance between demand and supply often gets resolved is that those who are most assertive get dealt with first.

I confess that on Sunday that was me. We were one of three families left waiting for half an hour. I found a doctor, asked what was going on ? and we got treated. We weren?t rude; we didn?t shout. But by speaking up, our baby got the attention he needed. My fear is that Zia and Nazmin Islam either did not know that that?s the rule with public services ? that the squeaky wheel gets oiled ? or, worse, that they did know but that rule did not apply to them. Put simply, the question Watford General has to answer is: if the Islams had been a white, middle-class family, would their baby have suffered the same fate?

Still, it would be too easy to cast the hospital as the sole villain in this desperate episode. For there may be a larger trend at work here.

Watford is one of a string of places that ring London in a kind of doughnut now facing a double squeeze. On the one hand, they increasingly face all the traditional problems previously associated with the inner city: rapid turnover of population, a diverse community, a shortage of housing. And, on the other, they come equipped with little of the armoury that inner London now takes for granted.

So while people in my own borough of Hackney may live in poor, crammed conditions, they are also never far from a world class teaching hospital in UCH. Inner London has many of these ?super-facilities?; the suburbs do not. The likes of Enfield, Redbridge or Hounslow, as well as Crawley, Luton or even Brighton, are experiencing what used to be inner city problems - thanks to the outward pressure of migration ? but have no inner-city equipment to deal with them.

Of course some suburbs still retain an advantage. Parents clamouring for a place in Enfield or Barnet state schools know that some outer boroughs have maintained a standard which inner London can only envy. A place like Redbridge has held its own too, favoured by waves of immigration ? first Jews, then Indians ? that pushed the quality of education upward.

But none of this should obscure the emergence of what the experts are calling ?rough suburbs?, places that have spent decades slipping into genteel decline. You know them when you see them: the parades of 1930s shops now reduced to a couple of kebab outlets and a massage parlour. The wide roads of pre-war housing beaten down by thundering traffic. The arteries in and out of London ? think of Eastern and Western Avenues ? which hardly give a good first impression to visitors but, more importantly, have become bleak places to live. Northern parts of Croydon, chunks of Hounslow, the hinterland between Barking and Dagenham. All these are areas which badly need attention.

Yet politicians have barely noticed them. Margaret Thatcher famously vowed to ?do something for the inner cities? after her 1987 election victory ? but few on either the Labour or Tory side ever talk about the suburbs. The result is that many of our urban landscapes have undergone improvement: not just in London, with Docklands as an example, but in downtown Manchester or Glasgow. The countryside has never suffered for lack of defenders either. So left in between are the places in between ? the suburbs, with few champions.

That should change. Not that there need be a scorched earth revolution. If metropolitan planners come in determined to chop down the labernum and acacia trees and demolish the Terry and June houses, they will soon be sent packing. Tony Travers of the LSE suggests instead that the suburbs recover some of their history, that they look again at ?Metroland,? the name John Betjeman, the laureate of the ordinary place, gave to the Rickmansworths and Northwoods along the Metropolitan Line, leafy refuges from the smoke.

Who might speak for them now? Labour should: after all, it saw losses in the doughnut around London at the last election, losing seats to the Tories in Ilford, Gravesham, Braintree and the like. For that reason, the Conservatives might make a further push, hoping to win back places like Watford ? arguing that they are over-stretched because they have lost out for too long. Whoever gets their first, it will be a new noise in British politics: the sound of the suburbs.

Dare to dream, minister

The scale of the work to be done before the Olympics is huge. But if Tessa Jowell put the area’s waterways at the heart of the plans, it could transform the face of East London

Published in the Evening Standard, 6 October 2005

Tessa Jowell ought to get on a plane. Or a boat. And she should do it soon.

It?s not that the Culture Secretary needs to get out of town. Rather she needs to get a new look at the city which she ? perhaps more than any other cabinet minister ? will shape over the next seven years. As the Olympics secretary, her decisions will affect the way London looks not just in 2012 but for decades afterwards.

Hence the plane ride, ideally coming into City Airport. What she would see from the air is something that?s all too easy to miss from the ground. She would see that East London, and especially the zone set aside for the Olympic Games, is covered by patch after patch of water.

It?s not just the Thames, but the wide lakes that are the Royal Docks. Then, the River Lea and a long, winding ribbon of canals and reservoirs, snaking its way from Greenwich in the south to rural Hertfordshire in the north ? including a stretch which girdles the very chunk of Stratford which will house the Olympics.

Which is why she should next get on a boat. That?s what I did a few days ago, guided by a group of dreamers, local leaders and property developers who have come together to form the Water City Partnership. They have a plan to clean up this forgotten network of waterways, to link them to each other and the neighbourhoods they pass through until they have made East London nothing less than a ?water city.? Areas whose names have for more than a century been bywords for decay and deprivation ? Mile End, Poplar, Bow ? could instead become associated with waterside cafes, cycle-paths and afternoon boat-trips: a British Amsterdam.

That sounds fanciful, if not deluded, until you get on the water. You can do it by hopping on a barge just around the corner from Bromley-by-Bow tube station. And within minutes you are on a quiet, picturesque stretch of canal. Trees hang low on both sides; a heron perches watchfully. There are bull-rushes and natural bamboo.

What renders the whole scene bizarre is that you are still walking distance from the noise and grime of one of London?s ugliest areas. The Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road is thundering away and yet here, just by it, is a waterway that could be in the heart of the English countryside.

?There?s a Venice here and no-one sees it,? says Andrew Mawson, the Christian minister and ?social entrepreneur? who has dedicated 20 years to the regeneration of East London.

Except this is not a treasure which lies complete, waiting only to be discovered. There is work to do. As the canal passes by Pudding Mill Lane and heads towards Stratford ? on the loop around the future Olympic site ? the happy delusion that you could be in sleepy Devon or bucolic Somerset is soon shattered. Here the banks of the canal are marked by scrap metal yards and old, belching factories. There?s a pile of car doors; a rusting cement mixer. Wild Alsatian dogs clamber over the dumps, scavenging for food. You pass bricked-up warehouses and rundown council housing, their backs to the water.

The task, then, is crystal clear. First, the area needs to be tidied up. Next, the latticework of water needs to be exposed, so that the people of East London can actually see ? and get close to ? the water that runs right through their communities but which remains invisible and inaccessible. That may take big work ? like digging out a new canal from Canning Town to West Ham ? but also small steps, like constructing a few yards of towpath or lighting a jetty here and there, to turn what are now no-go areas into thoroughfares.

But there also needs to be first-class building work all along the waterfront, replacing the old unloved boxes with blocks of flats or streets of houses that would face the water and open onto it ? whether through balconies or even boardwalks and promenades. The trick is to do as Amsterdam has done ? and make the water part of the city.

And lest you think that?s impossible, you end your barge trip in the Limehouse Basin ? an area once so written off, the authorities wanted to drain the water and concrete it over. Now it is stunning, with a marina, waterside cafes and top-end housing. Some day, say the Water City faithful, all of Leaside could be like this.

It?s a problem typical of London. Other cities with water, whether Paris or Chicago, organise themselves around it. They want to look at it all the time, placing the best buildings by it; people want to eat, drink, stroll or cycle alongside it. Yet when it comes to the Thames, let alone the Lea, we almost always turn our back on it. (The South Bank is an honourable exception.) By St Pauls, the best views of the river belong to two car parks and a refuse centre. We build our roadside barriers in such a way that we cannot see the river when driving; whole stretches of it remain unseen and out of bounds.

But the solution could be just as typically London. The men who built this city ? whether it was Joseph Bazalgette and his sewers or Charles Yerkes and the Tube ? were dreamers who dared to think big. Their schemes probably sounded as unrealistic in their day as a Venice of the East End sounds now.

So what does Tessa Jowell have to do? Remarkably little. She needs to lobby for