Staff writer Louis Jacques in conversation with Luisa Porritt, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London in this year’s upcoming election, on transport, housing, communities, and making London “cooler”.
Not unlike uni students, Luisa Porritt is pretty international. Also not unlike uni students, she’s young. The 33-year old was born and raised in Camden, did a history degree at Royal Holloway, then a Master’s at Science Po in Paris. This is before becoming a councillor in Camden, then a Member of European Parliament (MEP) for about half a year, and finally the Lib Dems’ candidate for Mayor of London. I sat down with her over Zoom to find out why she wants to be your next Mayor, and how she sees the city’s future.
“There is only so much spare land“
After both of us start our chat complaining about the pandemic for a while we segway into housing, where the five-year Lib Dem member points out what she sees as one silver lining to a very cloudy period – “an opportunity to fix the housing crisis” – namely, the birth of a mass working-from-home exodus. She clarifies quickly that this doesn’t mean making people want to move jobs out of the city, but rather the opposite. Because jobs exist not just in offices, she wants “homes in the heart of the city” to be the Mayor’s office’s immediate priority.
For Luisa, while the headline-grabbing policy is converting unused office space into housing, the plan is wider than that. She wants to use unused TfL land (something notably proposed by ex-candidate Rory Stewart) as well to fill empty homes, of which she says there are 25,000 in the capital. “There’s only so much spare land” to build new developments in, so tackling the housing crisis must also mean “filling property we already know is there”.
“I want us to recreate the high street”
A walkable part of your neighbourhood, with local shops run by local people, the “high street” now seems to be a relic of the past. “We need to recreate it” she tells me, emphasising that more people working from home means more time spent shopping locally and more time spent in the community. More local childcare services, more cinemas and entertainment, better parks, and other local facilities should “encourage people to start thinking of their neighbourhood as a neighbourhood again”, once they don’t have to shop locally out of pure necessity.
I point out that much of the difficulty with local developments across London has come from the Mayor’s office butting heads with councils, something she agrees with, drawing from her experience as a councillor. “Plans haven’t really brought local communities into schemes” she notes, “partly because of the Mayor’s office but partly because of the government too”. The candidate explains that government guidance gives TfL a small window to apply for schemes, meaning they don’t have to and don’t have time to consult with local communities. “I think involving communities will show that people want developments in local areas”.
“It’s appalling that health problems for londoners are a direct consequence of pollution”
Now to tackle a big one: pollution and roads. “Pedestrianisation is a priority” she makes very clear, and very positively. Luisa believes in promoting cycling, walking and buses, and minimising the need for cars throughout the city. This means “more, better, and clearer” cycling paths, more pedestrianised streets, the extension of the Bakerloo line, de-mothballing Crossrail 2, reviving the Rotherhithe-Isle of Dogs cycling and walking bridge, and other plans. “We should take inspiration from other cities to improve cycling – to make it safer and to make people know that it’s safe”.
When cars do need to enter the city, the Lib Dem candidate differs vastly from the two other front runners on a big policy question: the congestion charge. “Scrap it” she tells me. “It’s outdated”. She proposes road pricing, a scheme to scrap diesel cars, and a review to the van and minibus conversion scheme instead of Sadiq Khan and Shaun Bailey’s plans (two names she interestingly never mentioned at all).
Again drawing her inspiration from other cities, she emphasises that a congestion charge hits poorest households hardest, and that the approach should combine making clean transport affordable with taxing those who do need cars and road vehicles more proportionately to their use. Luisa and I are both asthmatic because of growing up in London and the culprit is very clear – she’s adamant that “pollution is a public health emergency in its own right”, and that change has to be immediate.
“Please send more ideas”
Moving on from some of the more technical questions, I want to know what Luisa wants to see the city become. Something she’s very keen to talk about. “I want London to be a city that’s easier to be young in”. We compare notes on what being a student in London is like now vs in the 90s and it’s clear she got the better end of the bargain. “Rent and transport are things we obviously need to improve, but what about more things people get to enjoy?” She again draws from her experience and knowledge of other cities, and lists “free metro for a day, more street festivals, multiple car-free days, green roofs, more fun things” as important to people’s well-being. She even agrees with my long-held proposition to turn Shadwell basin into a public pool – “why shouldn’t the Mayor be able to do things like that?”.
She’s adamant that while she would actively draw inspiration from other cities around the world if elected mayor, she wants ideas from the public (“especially young people”) to shape her campaign. “Please, please send ideas”, she asks me to tell you all. I said I’d be sure to pass on the message.
“People have other priorities than the mayoral election”
Now, the hardest part – her chances. She reckons she has a good shot, but she says that’s not as important to her as getting people to vote. She expresses that she’s concerned that few people know there’s a Mayoral election coming up, and that they’re all too right to be focusing on other things instead. “There’s been very little communication from the government about how the election is going to look”. Candidates have been unable to canvas or campaign the traditional way, which means information about the election is at an all time low and is “nowhere near uniform or clear enough”.
Ultimately, she’s optimistic about the future as a whole though. I was surprised by her smile, her optimism, and the fact that she never mentioned the big things that have been plaguing the Liberal Democrats in recent years: Brexit, Labour, and the Conservatives. Something that didn’t surprise me though, was that she really liked the one module she did at King’s in her third year at university. Suck it, Royal Holloway.