Red Ken’s plan for London, Sydney

Ken Livingstone was elected Mayor of London in 2000 and was responsible for a number of sustainable urban planning initiatives, including the controversial congestion charge. He was also a key founder of the C40 Large Cities Climate Change Leadership Group, of which Melbourne and Sydney are members.  Angela Dorizas spoke with him during his visit to Sydney last week.

What do you hold up as your greatest achievements as Mayor of London?

It’s difficult to pick out any one thing, but I suppose it was  winning the Olympics and [introducing] the congestion charge.

A decade ago London was seen as a city with problems and in decline and now it’s seen as a success.

There is seldom one great thing that makes or breaks a city – it’s just about getting a lot of things right. A mayor needs to get about 90 per cent of the decisions right.

I suppose the thing that I’m proudest of is that we set up this organisation of forty large cities in the world to combine on tackling climate change.

Why was the C40 Large Cities Climate Change Leadership Group founded?

The reason we set up this C40 almost five years ago was because we were all tired of waiting for government [to act]. Governments always talk about treaties post Kyoto. Governments tend to talk about passing treaties, where mayors actually have to deal with the day-to-day running of the city.

What is your advice would you give to Sydney, and Australian cities in general, on the issue of sustainable urban planning?

Sydney is doing very well. Clover is part of the C40, so she’s pressing ahead with things like retrofitting buildings.

My real bit of advice is that you need to be bring all the district transport agencies together in one body and make them accountable to the mayor.

For the moment it’s split between too many layers of government and too many separate agencies, so you can’t turn around things as rapid as you should be able to.

Unlike London, Sydney does not have an integrated ticketing system. Do you find that surprising?

It’s bizarre. But mind you, there are a lot of other cities with the same problem where transport operators have grown up in different silos.

You could go to Moscow, Hong Kong or London and copy the smart ticketing systems they’ve got there and it will make life so much easier for everybody.

Our system in London will always charge you the cheapest fare. Once you’ve bought one [Oyster card] you never have to queue again. You can transfer value on to it via the internet or via the phone.

One of your flagship policies was the congestion charge. Was that an unpopular initiative?

Nobody wanted to do it, but everybody knew we had to. We were the most congested city in Europe.

It was a huge economic cost. We did it because the business community came to me and said…we would start seeing firms leave for Paris or Frankfurt.

No one came up with any alternative. If we hadn’t had done it by now London would be gridlocked. It wasn’t popular but people just accepted that something had to be done.

How challenging is it to change the behaviour of citizens and discourage motorists from driving?

As  long as politicians are prepared to make a decision and stick to it and not worrying too much about political flack from opponents, it works.

If you spend your entire day terrified you’re offending a floating voter somewhere you’ll never get anything done. You’ve got to do what you think is right and if it works people will respect you for it.

You’re planning to run for re-election in 2012. What’s on your campaign agenda?

The most important difference between me and Borris is that he’s a climate change denier. My successor doesn’t actually believe climate change is man made.

I think he believes it is all to do with sun-spots. He’s reducing the size of the congestion charge by half. We also had massive new proposals for trams, lightrail – all of which was scrapped [under Johnson].

London, until he was elected, had become a leader in tackling climate change. All that’s come to a stop. It will be very important to keep running with that work.

To build a new Thames barrier, which will have to do to prevent building a bigger one farther out to sea…is most probably 20 years of work and it needs to be ready and functioning by 2050.

London has gone from being a world leader on this to just marking time. It’s the biggest single problem humanity faces, so that will be a central part of the election.

Full coverage of Ken Livingstone's visit to Sydney will be included in the October issue of Government News magazine.

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