Caroline Pidgeon, the Liberal Democrat candidate to be mayor of London, is trailing her main rivals Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith by a large margin: a recent ComRes poll has Pidgeon on 7% while Labour’s Sadiq Khan is on 44% and the Conservative Zac Goldsmith is on 37%. But Pidgeon is still confident that she is the person to lead London for the next four years.
Business Insider sat down with Pidgeon at Lib Dem HQ (it’s very yellow) and had a chat about her plans for the capital. We started off by talking about why she wants to become mayor and the importance of the London Assembly elections that will be taking place on May 5, the same day as the mayoral election.
Below is a transcript of the interview, which has only been edited for clarity.
Business Insider: Why do you want to be mayor?
Caroline Pidgeon: Well, I’m running for the post of mayor, not because I want to be something, but because I want to do something. I’ve been on the London assembly for eight years — making me the most experienced candidate working day in day out at city hall for Londoners and looking at some of the big issues and feeling that actually we need somebody who understands the issues and wants to get things done. That’s why I’m running. To be able to sort out some of the big issues — whether it’s housing to transport, to cleaning up the environment, to dealing with the issues of childcare in London.
BI: Is part of your campaign to win back seats in city hall for the Lib Dems?
CP: Well, I’m on the London Assembly and of course, we’re joining up our campaign. I’m also heading up our assembly list and we want to be putting forward a clear vision for London, a clear platform of ideas. We’re hoping people will support us for mayor, but also will support us on the Assembly, so we try to get some of our ideas implemented and make sure that we hold whoever is mayor to account. I’ve got a strong track record over the last eight years of making sure Boris is held to account, so that’s what we will be putting forward.
Pidgeon has some big ideas for fixing London’s housing crisis. She talked Business Insider through her plans for a housing levy to fund a building of 200,000 new homes and her plans to set up a London City Hall run lettings agency.
BI: Is the biggest issue facing London the cost of housing?
CP: Housing and the supply of housing is the big issue. Whether you rent privately or are in social housing, or you want to get your foot onto the ladder. And no matter who you are, people I talk to, even if you are in your own house you own or whatever, you worry about the next generation. You worry about your children, your grandchildren. And that’s why we’ve put together a plan. We’re calling it an Olympic effort to tackle the housing crisis and what we will do is — at the moment we’re all still paying for the Olympic games, we pay £20 a year council tax — we would turn that into a housing levy, against which we could borrow about £2 billion which we would invest in the homes Londoners need.
BI: How many homes would that build?
CP: Well that, alongside the GLA land and other stuff, we believe that over the four years, working with the private sector, we can build the 200,000 homes that are needed. What we are looking at is 50,000 council homes, affordable homes, and then 150,000 homes for private rent and sale. We also want to look at long-term private rented quality. Not everyone wants to buy, but people want security and stability, we are being able to offer that through city hall as well.
BI: So what policies do have specifically on the issue of rent?
CP: Well in terms of private rented, what we would be looking at doing is one, for the private rented homes we’d build ourselves, we’d look to have our own lettings agency to manage those, and pilot that and see how that works. We also would be looking at trying to introduce selective licensing, licensing across the whole of London for private rented. So we could work across the boroughs, have a top legal team and others at city hall to help the boroughs, because there is legislation out there, but boroughs don’t always have the resources or the know how to enforce it. So actually helping to boost the boroughs with that essential resources and through that almost as it were, having a kite mark, so people know that if they’re going to rent privately in London, OK, this Landlord does do all the things they’re supposed to do, and is a proper Landlord rather than of some of these rogue ones out there.
BI: Is there going to be a cost reduction as well for people using this agency?
CP: Well, the lettings agency, we would pilot it for the properties that we build as part of my program and we would look not to charge, but ultimately the lettings agencies — I used to privately rent in London, you weren’t charged for someone going along, yes the landlord was charged a fee for the agency to find them a tenant, but now they’re charging both sides — and every six months or a year. I mean it’s astonishing. It’s this whole industry that’s developed and it’s just wrong and it’s ripping off people. So yes, I’d be looking through our pilot in city hall to see if we can, we’d look not to charge the tenants but ultimately we need to raise the game of the whole sector in London and crack down on those rogue landlords through better enforcement with this sort of legal team that I would set up.
BI: Is there any sort of control you would like to see on the cost of rent?
CP: No, I wouldn’t want to see rent controls brought in, but I think by just boosting supply, inevitably, the price will stabilise or even potentially come down a little bit. I’m not in favour of rent control per se.
Pidgeon has campaigned for years for a one-hour bus ticket in London, that would save bus passengers from paying for each individual leg of bus trips. She still wants to see the policy come to fruition but she also has some new ambitious plans for transport in London. She wants to make it cheaper for people to go to work on the tube before 7:30 a.m. and confesses that she has never used an Uber before.
BI: Would you like to see fair prices in London change, both the tube and bus?
CP: What I’d like to see is targeted fare reductions to really help those on low incomes. So I’ll bring in half price fares by half seven in the morning if you use pay-as-you-go or contactless payment. Really helping those low-income workers who go in and do the cleaning and security and all those other jobs that keep our city moving. But also encouraging some people to think, actually I’ll travel in that bit earlier, because I’m going to get half price fare. So really try to help with that overcrowding at peak times as well. It’s an affordable policy. Transport for London have costed it for me, we are able to fund that. In addition, I’d also like to bring in a one-hour bus ticket, which I’ve campaigned on. It’s my third or fourth election I’ve run in London that we’ve campaigned on it… It’s really important we keep the investment going in transport in London, we can all remember the 80s and 90s, when,you know, it wasn’t a good network. It was falling apart. We need to keep up the investment, growing population, we have got to be able to upgrade the signalling and the trains on all of the tube lines so you can just get more trains through the tunnels.
In addition, I’d also like to bring in a one-hour bus ticket, which I’ve campaigned on. It’s my third or fourth election I’ve run in London that we’ve campaigned on it… It’s really important we keep the investment going in transport in London, we can all remember the 80s and 90s, when, you know, it wasn’t a good network. It was falling apart. We need to keep up the investment, growing population, we have got to be able to upgrade the signalling and the trains on all of the tube lines so you can just get more trains through the tunnels.
And that’s why I wouldn’t propose any other sort of fare things which I think are quite dangerous because it’s London’s future and our economy that will suffer if the transport network can’t cope. We need to keep the funding.
BI: How would you prevent tube strikes?
CP: By having a good relationship with the unions. Boris Johnson has failed to sit down formally and meet with the unions since he’s been Mayor. My views is I would meet the unions, talk to them, start to improve industrial relations — which are quite frankly pretty much at an all-time low. And I would be working with whoever I have negotiating from Transport for London to make sure that they have a more constructive approach. But it’s really important to have a good relationship with the Unions, with your workforce.
BI: Are you an Uber user yourself?
BI: What is the future of the minicab industry in London?
CP: The Taxi and private hire industries in London are an important part of the transport network. The growth in private hire is not sustainable, we are seeing gridlock on the roads, we’re seeing 700 licenses granted a week, and this isn’t taking people out of private cars, it is often taking people off public transport. It isn’t sustainable, the big player you are talking about is clearly popular with some groups because it is undercutting every other private hire company, which is going to put them out of business — which is part of their model I believe.
I’m all for passenger choice, but I have huge concerns about safety of passengers and I think there have been lots of cases, I get them tweeted at me all the time, where passengers aren’t always safe with some private hire companies and we need to make sure that every measure is put in place to make sure that whatever choice passengers make, it is a safe choice.
BI: Talking about congestion, how would you reduce pollution levels?
CP: There’s a number of things I’d do. One is the congestion charge. I would modernise it. I would charge more for people to drive in at peak hours then I would other times and I would review everything three months like they do in Singapore, so whatever that peak time is, and adjust it accordingly. To really make sure that we are tackling congestion in central London, I would look at bring in another congestion zone around Heathrow, it’s a pollution hotspot and congestion hotspot in the capital, but then also, I’d look at in terms o f cleaning up our air as well, I’d link the two together.
So, the congestion charge zone, I would also put on top a £2.50 diesel levy in the short term, to make sure we’re trying to persuade people out of diesel vehicles, to give up diesel vehicles, so we can clean the air in central London as well a tackle congestion.
But we’ve only got so much road space, I want to see more people cycling and expanding the cycle superhighways, actually, we need a cap on private hire vehicles.
BI: An absolute cap on total numbers?
CP: I think we’re gong to have to look at that. The mayor has said that and it’s one of the things I agree with him on, I think there are serious issues. It’s not sustainable. We’re trying to get people out of private cars, we’re going to have a 24-hour tube soon hopefully, actually, there isn’t a need to have all these vehicles in central London particularly and it’s causing absolute gridlock.
BI: If you keep on raising the congestion charging and putting levies on driving in Central London, will you end up with a zone where only rich people can drive?
CP: You could argue that, but I think we really have got to do something to stop people driving into central London, unless they really have to. Another thing I’d be doing is bringing in a workplace parking levy. It’s extraordinary that employers are able to offer free parking to employees to encourage them to drive in. I’d be looking at not only bringing that in the central part of the congestion zone, but also in Canary Wharf, where still too many people choose to drive to work.
When it comes to big infrastructure projects, Pidgeon is generally keen for London to push forward with getting things like Crossrail 2 going. However, she’s not a fan of airport expansion. She would like to see some areas of central London pedestrianised and also took a sly dig at Tory rival Goldsmith, saying that the government’s policy of allowing commercial property to be converted in residential property is driving up the commercial rents in Richmond — the location of Goldsmith’s constituency.
BI: How would you tackle the three big problems faced by the tech sector. Broadband speeds, cost of rent, and lack of talent?
CP: Yeah, in terms of broadband I think it’s quite a scandal actually, the core infrastructure we have and the idea that broadband and superfast broadband, that a lot of these businesses need is not seen as basic utility. So what I would look to do is, all new buildings would have it in my London plan to make sure that have that built in right from the start, but also in terms of retrofitting, looking at what we can do to help the sector. Work with BT, the internet services providers to get that delivered, because it’s holding London back. We can only grow so much if we don’t have the infrastructure in place. I know you get fast downloads, but because of the materials used, we don’t get the fast uploads, so that’s something I would be looking at doing.
In terms of office space, I think it’s a scandal that this government, and they have rolled it out now , allowing business premises to be converted into residential, and this is damaging places like Richmond, lots of the outer London barriers particularly having a devastating impact on removing suitable affordable workplaces, even this, where we are sitting now is going to be converted into residential.
It’s pushing out businesses and I think that that is a really issue, so I’ll be looking how we can protect the work space for businesses and also looking things like the incubator units and all that’s of other stuff. And that again is using the Mayor’s economic arm to really help support businesses and startups in London… But I’m a great internationalist, I’m a really pro-European, I think actually staying in the EU is essential to us. It also gives it access to a wilder workforce pool and with the shared movement of people which is helpful. But we need to make sure, you know if visas are appropriate, and there if we will need certain skilled people to come from overseas they should be welcome here, they add so much to our economy. London is so much a better city for the diversity that it has and the diverse people, is really important that people have got the skills that we need to bring in that we should be able to bring them
BI: You would lobby the Home Office then?
CP: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely, I think we need to because there are specialists coming in as we are developing our medical research sector if we are developing out tech sector we need to have the best people here, and also to help with the training of our own workforce our homegrown workforce, we need to have both.
BI: What is your take on the big infrastructure project decisions London is facing?
CP: I’m against any expansion of runways in London or the South East. We can use existing capacity.
BI: What about with Cross Rail 2?
CP: Yes, very much in favour, we have some fine-tuning on the exact route is going on at the moment, and I did a very detailed consultation response. We absolutely need it with London’s growing population, we can’t let Crossrail 2 take it as long as Crossrail did. I found out Crossrail first was suggested in 1974 so we can’t wait that long.
BI: And what about the local level. In certain areas are concerns of local people who don’t want particularly Crossrail two and that sort of infrastructure in that area. To what extent would you listen to these people?
CP: Consultations are on at the moment in particularly in Chelsea where there are very mixed views coming forward. I said to my response we need to listen to local people and if the majority in that area don’t want it, we need to look in either paths we can action instead… We need to look at it in detail, the majority may come out in favour, we need to see, but that’s what we have to look at. Is very clear Crossrail 2 one way or another needs to happen, and it needs to happen quickly.
BI: What about topic of green spaces in London? The garden bridge project and other pedestrianisation projects in places like Oxford Street and Parliament square?
CP: Yeah, I’m very much in favour of rolling a pedestrianisation, so Oxford Street has long being our policy and also lots of Soho. We like to see it expanded out, so I think that’s really important. I’m against the Garden Bridge, I think is a very expensive vanity project and I’d rather see the money spent on a pedestrians and cycling bridge between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf where there is a transport need. We have to protect London’s green spaces and we do need to add to those with things such as green routes and so on and investing in out parks and open spaces is really important. I’m very much in favour of the national parks city project which the team have launched they’re trying to get everyone to sign up to — London being the first National Park city, which I think would be great and giving children and everyone the access to green places is really important.
BI: Is there a danger that you turn London into a museum somehow?
CP: I mean Parliament Square is harder. But I think some of the streets of Soho or whatever, It would be wonderful the idea of the being pedestrianised. I think if Oxford Street is to survive as our premier retail area, and when I say Oxford Street, I mean the streets around it as well, you know, we’ve got to do something. Because when you’re in competition in places like Westfield, where people find it a bit more convenient, and they can sit outside cafes and so on when it’s nice — when you’re somewhere where they are kicking out exhaust fumes from busses and taxis, and its not a nice environment, people are going to steer away from it.
Business Insider finished off by asking Pigeon to grade outgoing Mayor Boris Johnson’s performance of the past eight years. Pidgeon was pretty critical of Boris, saying he didn’t have much of a clue when he started. But did concede that he has improved as Mayor over his time in office.
BI: Finally, could you give me end-of-term scorecard for Boris?
CP: The problem with Boris Johnson is he took too long to get going, he had no idea about London government, he was an MP outside the capital, and actually, some of his appointments early on were poor decisions, and many of those people left quickly, and actually, he was not able to get on and get a grip on things from day one.
So actually in the first term there were a lot of wasted opportunities.
He’s been too obsessed by vanity projects. Boris this, Boris that — which haven’t been good investments for London. In terms of what he has done well, he’s actually in the second term, he woke up and listened to all of us talking about cycling and stopped burying his head in the sand and saying “well I’m happy to cycle around the Elephant and Castle, you just hold your breath and off you go.” Well, that’s not good enough. He now gets that.