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March’s policy round-up: Spring is here, with not so fresh air

Londoners may have enjoyed the beginning of Spring, but the Chancellor’s Spring statement had less for them to look forward to. Our Chief Executive Nick Bowes has his latest monthly roundup on key events in March, featuring updates on the Metropolitan police, levelling up and more.

With improved weather and longer days, the seasons are changing (although, as I write this, winter feels like it has returned), but the Chancellor’s Spring statement delivered little sunshine for Londoners. Rishi Sunak announced a package of measures designed to help people deal with the growing cost-of-living crisis. These included cutting fuel duty to the tune of 5p per litre until next March, 0% VAT for homeowners installing solar panels, heat pumps and insulation, and targeted household support fund for the poorest doubled to £1bn. London’s uniqueness compared to the rest of the country means that some of these measures don’t benefit the city as much as elsewhere. Take cuts to fuel duty – London has (by far) the lowest car ownership (half of households). And the 0% VAT for homeowners – London has the highest proportion of households that rent. In addition, exacerbating this further, at same time fuel duty is being cut, public transport fares are rocketing (added to this the risk that the quality of service might also deteriorate), which has a disproportionate impact on the poorest Londoners. With prices rising the fastest for thirty years, wages and benefits failing to keep up leads to a squeeze on people’s household finances.

Sunny skies and not so fresh air

Better weather has coincided with the highest air quality warnings in London for two years. While some of this is due to London’s emissions from vehicles, homes and industry, the wind patterns also brought across the channel pollution from northern France and the Benelux countries – a reminder that we can’t tackle this problem in isolation from elsewhere.

Air quality is high up on Londoners’ list of priorities and concerns. A Savanta poll done with Centre for London found that over two fifths (43%) of Londoners regularly worry about air quality where they live, with 44% worrying about the impact of climate change on London.

While the public warning system has improved over recent years, the actual substantive response is rather lacking. Other global cities offer free public transport and ban cars on days with high levels of pollution. Yet in London the only real tool at the Mayor’s disposal is asking people to reduce car usage and for, those with the most sever underlying health problems, to stay at home.

A future smart road user charging scheme might provide the opportunity to deter travel on the days of most severe pollution through temporary hikes in the charge. While I welcome the ULEZ expansion in 2023 which will continue the improvement in the city’s air quality, only a smart pay per mile road user charging scheme will deliver the transformational change needed to tackle congestion, promote active travel and clean up the city’s air.

Crime 

With confirmation that current Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick will depart in April, the conversation has now moved on to who is likely to take over. However, the political ramifications of Cressida’s departure rumble on – the Home Secretary has confirmed that the Deputy Commissioner, Sir Steve House, will take over temporarily, and a new Commissioner will be in place from August.

The Home Secretary has also asked Sir Tom Winsor, Chief Inspector of Police and Probation, to lead an inquiry into the nature of the Commissioner’s departure, a development the Mayor has strongly criticised as being a political move.

Whoever is the new Commissioner has a very full in-tray. Change at the top is unlikely on its own to be enough to solve the many problems facing the Met Police. Some of these were highlighted in the Mayor’s new Police and Crime Plan published in the past few weeks. Reversing Londoners’ decline in confidence in the Met is central to the new plan. But to really ensure London has the police force it needs requires a fundamental and radical change in culture, recruitment practices and structure.

Levelling up

The publishing of the long-awaited White Paper on Levelling Up last month saw the government lay out its plans. While welcome that the White Paper acknowledges London’s success matters and that the city has its own extensive levelling up challenges, it is less clear how the government plans to do this in practice. But what the past few weeks have shown is that in order to deliver real transformation, a political consensus is needed. Embedding the levelling up mission requires real long-term commitment across the political divide, and it needs to be treated as a long-term objective for the whole country, with our political leaders being honest with the public this won’t be solved by the next General Election.

Nick Bowes is Chief Executive of Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter. Read more from him here.