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Home > People

TFT meets: Simon Hughes

When we asked subscribers to our weekly London By London email whom we should support in the forthcoming mayoral elections, the answer was clear: not Ken. But if not Ken, then whom? How about bookies' second favourite, Simon Hughes?

We headed down the Northern Line to Borough High Street, turned right into Bermondsey Street, and marched straight up to the door of Simon's constituency office in search of some answers. Being a Liberal Democrat, he was only too happy to oblige...

19 March 2004

Howís the campaign going? Itís becoming quite exciting. Londoners Ė and the media Ė are finally starting to turn their attentions to the election. Last year there was the debate about Iraq, then there was a question about whether Iain Duncan Smith would remain the leader of the Tory partyÖ

Was that a question? Well, it was a question last year. And thirdly there was the question of whether Mr Livingstone would remain an independent. Now that is resolved, the formal campaign begins on 5 May.

And Ken is staying out of the ring until then? Yes, he confirmed that to me yesterday. To be fair, if I was in incumbent mayor, Iíd probably do the same. There are lots of advantages of being the incumbent, particularly in terms of being able to use the press machine that you and I pay for. But until then, itís about building up the campaign. We think weíre on target; we think itís possible to win.

Are you going to win? I donít know yet. All I know is that in any race Iíve run, Iíve only ever come first or second. So if Iím true to form, Iíll at least overtake Steve Norris Ė which should be possible anyway because it doesnít look like his heart is in it. And Iím already the bookiesí second-favourite.

Okay, so letís talk about your policies. Are you a fan of the congestion charge? Iíve always supported it, but we need to learn the lessons of the first phase to make it better in the second. Firstly it shouldnít harass users, and that means you should have a prepayment system like you have for tubes and buses. And secondly, you should have until the end of the following day to pay. Those are the two things the punter wants the most.

But isnít the point to make it harder for people to use, so itís more of a disincentive to use your car? By making it easier to use, youíre reducing its effectiveness. I accept that. But a £40 fine for forgetting to pay is an unfair penalty for law abiding people. The whole purpose of the charge is to discourage the regular user Ė not to put off the person who has a family emergency and strays into the zone. Thatís why I also believe there should be five occasions when people can enter the zone without paying.

Ken wants to expand the zone. Presumably you agree with him? He is keen to extend it west. In my view, if youíre going have expansion, it should be within the boroughs that already have the charge. And only with the agreement of the people who live there. We want a referendum in those areas.

If weíre going to reduce car journeys, we need the Tube to cope with the increase in demand. Whatís the Hughes plan? We might have to take some bold decisions. For example, at the moment, they can only do the maintenance between 1am and 5am. Iím willing to find periods of a week or ten days Ė or if necessary longer Ė at the time of least inconvenience and use, where we may have to shut whole sections of the line to get some mammoth amount of maintenance done.

Our sister publication, London By London, recently compiled a petition asking for the Tube to run until 3am on Friday and Saturday nights. Ken hasnít felt able to give us a firm assurance that this will happen. Can you? All mayors have the same problem Ė which is that we inherit a contract, not of our making. But Iíve said that if elected, I would expect the tubes and the trains to run until 2am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Even if that reduces the amount of overnight maintenance time on those days? I have had discussions with London Underground, Metronet and Tubelines about this. The quid pro quo would be that we would delay opening until 8am on Sunday and extended periods for maintenance. They say that would work better for them. Of course, there would still have to be immediate checks overnight, but if we had the kit to do it we could run checks on every line and make sure the rail was safe. Iíve encouraged Tubelines and Metronet to get hold of the best kit in the world.

But Ken proposed something similar before the last election and still hasnít been able to implement it. Are you going to have the same problem? No. The two consortia have told me expressly there is no technical reason it couldnít happen straight away.

But the decision is ultimately theirs? Well if they say they canít technically do it, the mayor canít force them.

But assuming itís technically possible, which theyíve told you it is, will they do it? Yes. I regard it as a done deal. The new mayor takes office in July, and I would hope that it could be in place by the beginning of January.

Another of your campaign pledges is to protect Ė and increase Ė Londonís green spaces. But youíve also promised to increase affordable housing. More green spaces and more housing? How does that work? Thereís a huge green spaces opportunity for London in the shape of the Thames Gateway. I take the view, espoused by the architect Terry Farrell, that if we see the Thames estuary as an environmental resource, it effectively puts a park on Londonís doorstep. I see the Thames estuary and the Thames Gateway as a major new green resource, not just for the people who live there but for all

Iím equally clear that we need to build houses, which the current mayor has failed to do. He now agrees that 30,000 new houses are what London needs, of which half should be affordable. At the moment, weíre building less than half of that, and fewer than 5,000 affordable houses. I had a meeting this week with Tesco about building affordable properties above store sites. I could take you to the nearest Tesco and show you a one-storey building with a big car park. The space above the car park is clearly not being used by anyone for anything; same with the space above the shop. Itís just air. Again, not everyone will want to live there but itís good for people who want to live near the shopsÖ

Ö or on the shops. Or on the shops. But more important than anything is that the mayor has to do a deal with the builders where they know theyíre going to get 5,000 homes to build over five years, guaranteed, half of which will have to be affordable. Itís like Macmillanís ďhomes for heroesĒ where they made building homes for all a priority.

The London Olympic bid. Youíre for it. Isnít it going to a tremendous, international embarrassment when we mess it up? Iím enthusiastically for it, because I think sport is really important and I regret the fact that we have become a less a participatory sporting county. And, if it works, it will add greatly to national prestige.

The key there is ďif it worksĒ. The Dome? Wembley? All the evidence is that the countries who have hosted the Olympics have done much better in those years than in preceding years. Itís a great opportunity to get lots of infrastructure Ė not just big infrastructure but little infrastructure. In addition, itís an incentive to get some other projects that are needed up and running Ė the East London line extension, Crossrail and other things. And the Dome didnít have the support of the nation behind it.

But the Olympic bid does? Across the country, 80 per cent of the electorate who have expressed a view are behind it. Their only worry is that it might impact on lottery money Ė that having another lottery to fund the bid might take money away from other areas. Thatís something we have to look at.

You seem to be doing a lot of negative, anti-Ken campaigning. Last month you ran an online advertisement describing his as ďBlairís MayorĒ. Is that really the best way to run a campaign? Iím aware that most elections are won by negative campaigning rather than positive, and I resist that. But this is a personality contest and I have to explain why I am better than the current mayor and how Iím the nearest theyíll get to an independent candidate. Ken is back in the Labour Party and has his trade union links. Steve Norris is linked to Jarvis in the private sector. If they want someone who is speaking for London and isnít afraid of offending people, thatís me.

So if youíre striving for independence, you must be pleased at how quiet the Liberal Democrats are being at a national level. I donít know if Iím pleased about it. I think the louder we can be nationally the better, but I hope people will see me as being both the most independent of the three main candidates and one who understands entirely that you canít just spend money assuming that people have got the capacity to pay it. We all know that under the current mayor, council tax has doubled in four years and I want London to feel that under me they will get better value for money. I have to compare myself to a mayor who has spent a lot of money on things he hasnít delivered. But it will still come down to personalities more than policies. Itís certainly more of a personality election than any other one in Britain.

And if you win, will people have voted for Simon Hughes or against Ken Livingstone? Both Ė there will be people who will vote for anyone who has a chance of getting rid of Ken and there are other people who will say that this sounds like an interesting, dynamic leader who could do well for London, and that heís better than what we currently have. Itís about establishing in peopleís minds that London can do better. And thatís the biggest challenge.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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