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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Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.

Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.