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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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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