The London Assembly’s strength lies in its diversity. Changing its voting system will kill that

Sadiq Khan's first mayoral question time before the London Assembly last year. Image: Getty.

So the Conservatives are planning changes to the way the London Assembly is elected, which would fundamentally affect its make-up. “So what?” you might shrug. “The Assembly is a toothless organisation. What does it matter?” [You think I can’t tell you’re subtweeting me? Ed.]

This would be shortsighted. It’s true that the Assembly’s powers are sorely lacking in its primary mission of scrutinising the mayor – something that even Parliament noticed a few years ago. But the body has evolved around that shortcoming. Assembly Members (AMs) have grown into using soft power to influence policy.

Let’s not scoff at soft power. The mayor himself doesn’t have a lot of hard power: just compare the responsibilities and financial heft of the mayor of London to that of New York. But he uses the position as a bully pulpit to lobby for a better deal. The AMs have evidently taken that on board.

The regular mayor’s Question Time isn’t just an opportunity for AMs to scrutinise the mayor: they use it to put forward their own proposals. MQT is usually dull as ditchwater (as former politics editor for Londonist, I’ve sat through so many I’ve lost count; or possibly my mind has simply blocked them out). But that drip drip drip of policy suggestion has an effect.

I’ll acknowledge that it’s impossible to always track the real impact of soft power. Some examples are obvious: Sadiq Khan’s adoption of the Liberal Democrats’ hopper bus ticket idea is one example of a smaller party’s thinking being adopted by those in power. Others are harder to trace – but if you look, you can spot the signs.

Cycling is one. The Lib Dems and Greens have lobbied hard for cycling ever since the Assembly’s inception in 2000. Lynne Featherstone presented a cycle hire concept to Ken Livingstone back in 2001, and Greens worked to stop Transport for London cutting its £5m cycling budget back in 2002. That’s right: it was just £5m. These days the annual cycling budget is around £150m.

Would that have happened without constant pressure from within the Assembly? Would we be getting investment in mini Holland schemes, the segregated cycle superhighways? It’s impossible to know, but also impossible to think it didn’t help.

These AMs aren’t just turning up once a month to air a few policy concepts, either: they have a staff, able to produce good research. The Greens at City Hall are an industrious bunch, turning out solid reports and crunching data. Being on the assembly releases funding for those reports, which provide a base for the ideas floated by the parties. Take away the AMs, you take away the funding and research.

And you also take away some of the creativity of London policy. Many years of observing City Hall has shown me that the most inventive, progressive ideas come from the smaller parties. Perhaps because those AMs are less likely to be spirited away to a higher calling in Westminster, they really know their beat. You want to know something about transport in London? My recommendation for your first port of call would be Lib Dem Caroline Pidgeon.

Turning the Assembly into a First Past The Post, constituency-based body will turn it into a two-party, adversarial system. It’ll kill the wider spirit of inquiry as Labour and the Conservatives hunker down in opposition. And yes, I’m willing to put up with the occasional far-right waste of space (*cough* Richard Barnbrook *cough*) if it means having hardworking, knowledgeable people like Sian Berry, Caroline Russell and Caroline Pidgeon in there.

There’s also another role that these AMs play, one that would affect the other devolved Assemblies if Westminster is stupid enough to try and tangle with Scotland and Wales. AMs elected under the proportional party-vote system represent the whole of London, not a particular constituency. This gives Londoners more choice in gaining access to a representative and more chance to get their voices heard.

For example, let’s take the planned Silvertown tunnel. It’s been backed by a Labour and Conservative mayor and their parties. But there’s a group of residents deeply concerned about the impact of congestion and air pollution on the area. Who do you contact if your local AM is also in favour? Well, in this case you can contact any of the Lib Dem or Green Londonwide AMs, as they all oppose it. And then they’ll raise it in public, to the mayor, and maybe help you with supporting research.

Just because the London Assembly is a bit of a mouse, it doesn’t mean it should be dismissed. And any attempt to tamper with its wider representational structure would mean losing fresh ideas at a time when London needs to be on its game in the battle to retain its position post-Brexit. We all now accept that diversity of thought is a good thing in the boardroom. So why go backwards when it comes to local government?

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Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.

At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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