Unlike the other candidates, Siobhan Benita needs some introducing (OK, you may not have heard of, say, Lawrence Webb, but you probably have an idea in your mind of what UKIP stands for). Siobhan quit her senior civil service post in protest over NHS reforms, because she couldn’t see any democratic mandate for them; it’s no surprise then that she’s running on an anti-political party ticket. She grew up in Merton and currently lives with her husband and two daughters in New Malden.
Her campaign has been overshadowed by her battle to get airtime on TV – the broadsheets love her, but the BBC wouldn’t grant her a party election broadcast slot because she’s not a party. So what little we know of her has come in 20 second bursts tacked on to the ends of the Mayoral debates: a rather earnest woman talking very sensibly and calmly about policy. What we weren’t expecting to find, when we caught up with her for a one-on-one interview, was someone funny and sparky and clearly good fun to be with, even though she must be knackered. So with that in mind, we asked:
Why are you running?
I firmly believe the Mayor of London should be independent of party politics. These roles weren’t created to be the reserve of party politicians, they were created to get a greater diversity of public leaders. Like loads and loads of Londoners I’m totally disillusioned with party politics at the moment, it’s time we had something else. I’m here saying, there are different types of people out there and we should be listening to them for these types of roles. It’s been such a negative campaign and the national politics comes into play. It’s the old battles between Labour and Tory coming out and that’s not what the Mayor is about. The Mayor is about leading London and doing the right thing for Londoners. I want to spend my time fighting that battle, not party political battles.
What do you think is the most urgent problem that needs tackling in London?
Housing. Without a shadow of a doubt. It hasn’t been given the attention it deserves in this election. I think candidates are paying it lip service at the moment. I’ve got quite a radical proposal for housing, which Shelter has welcomed, which is to have a secondary housing market. The Mayor would fix the price of the homes, so you could keep those fixed and low cost. Because I’d gift that land to property developers you can build these homes and sell them at around 50% of the commercial price. But the condition is – it’s your house, on leasehold – but you can only ever sell back into my market. The right to buy where a home goes off into the commercial market and becomes unaffordable won’t happen any more, you are creating permanently low cost homes.
I’m deliberately targeting that group in the middle who are moderate earners, people who are earning £30k, £40k, even. And there might be two of you earning that but you still can’t get on the property ladder. There are young professionals and families who are stuck because they cannot get the deposit together, they cannot get the mortgage. There is nobody putting forward anything for that group in the middle so I’m saying yes, I would do all the things the other candidates are talking about, more council homes, more social housing, but there is this group that won’t be helped by that. People might criticise my plan by saying it’ll skew the market, but there is so much demand for housing in London that even if I built 50,000 of these a year, I’m not going to skew the price of the commercial market.
You obviously agree with most of the other candidates who say transport fares can be brought down without affecting investment.
I do, but not to the extent that Ken’s saying they can. I think 7% across the board isn’t doable, every time he’s pushed on this he says the money’s there and TfL says no it isn’t. There’s this constant backwards and forwards. The proposals I’m putting forward to freeze fares until April 2014 for everybody and to reduce them for people on a low wage, we’ve costed at £54m a year. From the information I’ve had, I think that’s doable and would not have a knock-on effect on the potential to invest. I’ve got a very sensible compromise position in the middle of Ken and Boris. Boris can’t get away with saying people can afford fares going up either, because they can’t. People can hardly afford to travel on transport at the moment, you can’t keep ratcheting fares up.
You’ve promised to keep the tube open later on Fridays and Saturdays…
You can do this! We’ve looked into this hard, I came at it thinking oh for god’s sake, we’re a 24 hour city, can we not do better than this? There are four hours every evening where the tube workers do maintenance and that’s not a big window and I completely sympathise. All I’m saying is, that of all the 28 hours over the week, I just want two to extend the tube times. You can do it now when you couldn’t do it in the past because the upgrades that have already been done. We have more effective ways of maintaining the system throughout the day, you can remove trains now in a way you couldn’t before, get some of that maintenance done during the day, we have different ways of cleaning the track, and some of those four hours every evening are spent clearing newspapers that blow down the track. Put some bins back in the tubes! I know why we didn’t have bins in the past, but we do now have clear bins that we can put in. There’s a big TfL poster campaign at the moment about putting your paper in the bin but there are no bins in tube stations! Let’s just put a couple of bins back. So all of those things, when you add them up, would allow you to run two hours, that’s all, one on a Friday and one on a Saturday. It can be done.
Another of your big pledges is education, but the Mayor doesn’t have any powers in that area. What would you put in place to achieve your goals?
There are lots of things the Mayor doesn’t have legislative powers over, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get stuck in. As the facilitator of change for London, you can do lots in this area without a legislative remit. So I’ve identified three areas. One is that we have to build more primary schools. There is such a shortage of primary school places in London already and we know that in the next 15 years there are 70,000 children going to come into primary education who do not currently have a place. That’s just the demographic trend, we know this is happening and we need a plan! In the same way that people are saying to the Mayor, will you be bidding for Crossrail 2, Crossrail 3 funding – well, hold on a minute, there’s this massive issue and let’s lobby government on this for a while and invest in our children. The boroughs want this desperately, they’ve been calling for this for years. The Mayor can lend their voice and their weight to this debate.
Another area is the transition to secondary school, which is very chaotic across London. Different boroughs run their own selection criteria, siblings get split up in some boroughs, some boroughs have grammar schools and faith schools, all of these things make it quite confusing and the satisfaction levels of parents vary hugely. And the Mayor, through the Education Commissioner that I would appoint, has a very useful strategic sight over all of this and can help spread good practice and make that transition simpler and fairer.
The third area – and again, you don’t need any powers to do this – is that the skills that our children come out of schools with do not match the jobs that are available. There are businesses that have come to me during this campaign saying they would love to work with schools, getting children interested in the next generation skills of computing, technology, media, the things that London is good at. Why are we not linking up businesses with secondary schools more and helping our kids come out of school with the skills that will get them a job? The Mayor can do that, that’s a facilitating role. I challenge back quite hard on education. When I came out at the beginning of the campaign with an education manifesto all the other candidates, and Brian Paddick in particular, said you shouldn’t be doing that, it’s nothing to do with the Mayor. And now, in every hustings, they’re saying the Mayor should do more in education so I’ve influenced that debate, which is great.
A lot of your policies are based on evidence, not politics, like you’d do a review of the police. Obviously you have your own political views, so if a review made recommendations that you didn’t agree with, would you still implement them?
Yes. One of the beautiful things about being an independent is that you don’t come with preconceived ideas about things. My overall package is very social, I have voted Labour in the past and that’s where my heart lies. If you look through my manifestos you can see that in the policies I’m putting forward. There are some things, like the review of the Met police, where I think you have to set aside preconceived ideas of what’s right and what’s wrong. We’ve been doing that for so long and we’ve just tinkered with it, we haven’t actually got stuck in to the underlying issues. Until we allow an external review I don’t think the public will ever believe the Met police have been properly reformed and modernised.
I do have lots of clear policies in other areas but on this one I’m saying it’s time we had that external review. We need to look at efficiency, and yes they are going to have to do more with less, like every other sector, and I think it’s a ridiculous argument to just be talking about police numbers, you have to be looking at how you use your police as well. And we cannot ignore the allegations of racism, we cannot ignore the Leveson inquiry and the links between the police and the press, we cannot ignore the questions about how people are treated in police custody. All of those things now need a proper, independent review. I am saying don’t do it until after the Olympics, I think the police have enough on their plate with that!
About the coverage, what level do you think you should be getting?
In an ideal world, I think that once you’ve met the selection criteria, which is very rigorous, you should be given equal coverage. That’s even one step further than the appeals I’m having at the moment. The rules are out of date and need to be reformed, they’re based on previous election results. What they do allow though, and I’m not even getting that, is proportional coverage. Even if you think the old rules are still OK, there is editorial judgement in this process and it’s not being used. I end up in the situation where I’m sat at home, waiting for the findings of my second appeal against the BBC for not giving me a party election broadcast, watching the BNP’s broadcast go out which was openly racist. There is something fundamentally wrong with our system when that can happen.
I’m shocked by how badly the BBC and other broadcasters have handled this. They could have used me as a precedent; they could have said, ‘you’re right, these guidelines weren’t worked up for these types of elections, let’s see how we can do it differently’. And, ridiculously, they’ve decided not to do that. They’ve said that on 4 May they want to sit down with me and find out how to change these rules for the Police Commissioner roles and so on, but that doesn’t help me – I’m here now.
If Londonist gave you £60m, how would you make London better?
There are so many things that need doing… on cycle safety, one of the issues is the cost to do proper separation so there could be some creative things to do with that money, maybe build some cycle-and-pedestrian bridges. The other biggie, though £60m would be a drop in the ocean, is to make the transport network more accessible. That would go some way, but not very far, towards some of the retrofitting. We’re good at new upgrades but how do you make the existing network more accessible?
Of course, you could have the fun answer and say it should all go towards lots more festivals and concerts. I think we need more fun! All the candidates say they want to celebrate London’s diversity, I say we should have a lot more community based festivals. I’d love to run a Mayor’s annual diversity and equality awards, recognise companies and organisations across London who do work to improve diversity and equality.
Read the rest of Londonist’s election coverage.