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ANALYSIS - HITTING LIVINGSTONE WHERE IT HURTS

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By political correspondent Varya Shaw ...
By political correspondent Varya Shaw

It is exactly two years since the mayor of London was elected and doubts about his performance are starting to crystallise into judgments.

A rash of stories appearing in the press to mark his second anniversary of power have concluded that he is not going to deliver on his manifesto commitments.

At the same time, the London Assembly has scored a blow against the mayor with its headline-making attack on his consultation record (LGC, 26 April).

An assembly report, published last week, contrasts his lackadaisical attitude to consultation with his manifesto pledge to create 'the most open, accessible and inclusive style of government ever seen in the UK'.

Election day is 'the big consultation' and additional methods teach him little, he opined in his evidence to the assembly. The assembly, put in place like a permanent scrutiny committee to hold the mayor to account, has so far enjoyed near-total anonymity. It publicised the findings on consultation in an unusually brutal manner, misquoting the mayor as having 'total contempt' for the idea - in fact, he was talking about focus-group politics. But the assembly, at least, has shown it is doing its job.

Its chair, Sally Hamwee (Lib Dem) says the mayor's demeanour more than anything else convinced the assembly there was a serious problem: 'The work did not set out to be adversarial. What led to the report becoming more hard-hitting than it would otherwise have been was the mayor's own evidence.'

Written evidence by his officers was reassuring. 'But when he answered questions he expressed such a degree of cynicism that we were quite shocked,' says Ms Hamwee. 'The tone and content of what he said was very dismissive. I did virtually say in my foreword did we catch him on a bad day? [But] sometimes if you get someone on a bad day they're more honest.

'I think he would stand by what he said. It wasn't out of line with answers he had given at mayor's question time, but it was very stark. It was quite, quite shocking to someone who comes from a council background where dialogue with your residents is so much at the heart of the decisions you take.'

In Ms Hamwee's mind consultation is an 'iterative' process with an authority asking what people think and then feeding back its response. A mere tick-box approach does not cut it.

Mr Livingstone stresses he is consultating in his own way. For example, he may have left the Association of London Government but he is meeting with the boroughs independently, which he claims is far more efficient. Barnet LBC chief executive Leo Boland will see the mayor in the next few weeks along with Haringey LBC, Enfield LBC and Waltham Forest LBC. Mr Boland expects 'all the issues that we have for him' to get an airing, but cannot say for sure, as this will be the first time he has met the mayor since his election.

Mr Livingstone has his champions. Some contributors to the assembly's investigation have been horrified by the aggressive spin put on the report. The Black Londoners' Forum says its criticisms were taken out of context.

According to forum chair Simon Woolley, Mr Livingstone has in fact brought about a 'sea change' for black London, 'knocking himself out to bring black people into the decision-making process'.

Business is happy too. London First chair Lord Shepperd told Mr Livingstone the first year and a half of the Greater London Authority's tenure 'on the whole proved a positive experience for the business community'. The organisation was pleased with the GLA's 'openness in listening to, and discussing, the business point of view and [its] recognition of the fundamental importance of business to the capital'. The Confederation of British Industry London has expressed its satisfaction.

So the mayor is able to build constructive, co-operative working relationships, but he is selective. An outstanding feature of his mayoralty has been his hostility toward his partners in London government.

A spokeswoman for the mayor insists he has a 'very good working relationship' with the boroughs, pointing to joint working on issues like litter control and sub-regional meetings on the spatial development strategy. She adds: 'We're working with the ALG on the joint housing forum, and recently£20m was secured for recycling through a joint bid from the ALG and GLA.'

But Mr Livingstone has also described the boroughs as 'basically failing, or unable to go forward or develop a new agenda' (LGC, 28 September 2001). He told the assembly London leaders and chief executives have 'overwhelming contempt' for the Association of London Government.

Mr Boland disagrees: 'Overwhelming contempt, no. We work with [the ALG] and it is very useful.'

If the 'big consultation' in two years time tells Mr Livingstone he has got it wrong, the virtues of dialogue, as opposed to polemic, may become more apparent.

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