"This isn't just a sidestep in my career because perhaps I haven’t got a ministerial post," says Caroline Pidgeon. She's been a London Assembly Member since 2008 and is now standing as the Liberal Democrat candidate for mayor. "Obviously Sadiq and Zac have to speak for themselves, but they’ve never appeared to me to show any interest in London government until now."
"Zac doesn't look like he's particularly enjoying it, either."
Ouch. Londonist has long held the view that City Hall would be a better place if the mayor was someone with at least a term as an Assembly Member under their belt. Someone who has spent time grappling with the issues, complexities and limitations of the post. After all, we wouldn't get a prime minister who'd never been an MP. It's a point that Pidgeon — understandably — agrees with.
"I do feel, no matter what in terms of policy, I’m setting the agenda in this election because I’ve got eight years of experience at City Hall," she says. "I’ve got the detailed knowledge. I’ve been looking at the issues for a long time."
When it comes to issues, there's none bigger than housing. Pidgeon wants to build 200,000 homes during the four year mayoral term, 50,000 of which would be at social (i.e. council) rent levels. But how to pay for it?
"I would keep the council tax precept that we’ve been paying for the Olympic Games, which is £20 a year, and turn that into a housing levy," she explains. Part of the precept has already gone — it was time limited and has already been taken out of our council tax bills for 2016-17 — but Pidgeon says "my view is that if I'm elected as mayor I would have a mandate, because this is one of my key policies, and I would set a new budget. So that £20 a year would be a fund which I could borrow about £2bn against.
"You’ve then got the GLA land. I don’t just mean City Hall I mean the whole group. TfL has got tons of land. I’d set up a building company at City Hall, so we would be putting our money and land in. The other big shortage is construction skills. We've only got about half the number of people who are qualified to be able to build the homes that we actually need. So I'd be setting up a state of the art construction academy, a bit like the tunnelling academy we set up for Crossrail. It’s exactly the same idea, training up the plumbers, bricklayers, electricians, surveyors for the site, the crane operators.
"One in four [homes] would be what I call council housing, genuinely affordable housing. The rest would be a mix of some for private rent and sale. I'd like to see City Hall managing some blocks for private rent and letting those out for longer term tenancies to give people and families security."
This an admirable plan, but we're not sure about the funding aspect. Council tax bills for the next year have already gone out — you may have yours. We've been trying to find out whether the power exists to set a new budget, and require councils to issue new bills and adjust what they're charging. The civil servants at City Hall, however, are refusing to answer basic process questions on the grounds that they don't comment on mayoral candidates' policies, so Londonist is unable to offer you a definitive assessment of this central Lib Dem policy. What we can tell you, is that we're meeting with a lot of scepticism.
There's also a question of whether a £2bn fund — assuming it could be raised — plus existing grant money would even be enough to build 50,000 council homes. The average subsidy paid by the GLA to build one council home in London in £110k. The Lib Dems say they would be able to fund an average grant of £62,500 per home, and that extra funding would come from other sources, including "in kind use" of GLA land. To us — and everyone in the know we've talked to — this still leaves a financing hole to be filled and we're concerned about the vagueness of that "other sources".
You might wonder why this is a big deal. With the best will in the world, Caroline Pidgeon won't be elected Mayor of London. We'd respond that this is about credibility. Pidgeon is running on the basis that she's an Assembly Member and therefore has the most experience of London government. If her plans aren't plausible, that undermines her electability.
We've written before about Pidgeon's policies for Londoners who rent privately — a group that tends to be forgotten when talking about housing. She wants to get rid of letting agents fees, but as the mayor has no power over individual estate agents she says she'd start with the homes that City Hall built and managed itself, and then would make the case to government for legislation.
She'd also have to go to government to implement her policy of allowing tenants 'first dibs' on buying if the landlord decides to sell up. Frankly, it all sounds like an excellent argument for devolution of more power to London.
Pidgeon's big transport policy is half price fares before 7.30am, "aimed at low income earners who often travel in and do those cleaning jobs, security, serving us tea and coffee as we're on our way into the office. Also to hopefully encourage people to travel that bit earlier. I’ve had a few people say that's just going to help the bankers who go in early. Well, most of them have travelcards. People who don’t have much income use pay as you go now, because they can't put the upfront cost."
Another policy is the ability to change buses without getting charged again. If that sounds a bit familiar, it's because virtually all candidates have 'borrowed' this long-time Lib Dem idea. Pidgeon accepts the compliment but wishes "people would acknowledge where they got it from. Ken Livingstone used to always nick everyone’s policies but he would at least acknowledge it." Here she breaks into an impression of the nasal former mayor. "'Oh, I like that idea, I’ll take that.'"
It's not just the buses that have made her opponents see light bulbs. "It's quite interesting," she continues. "I've been calling for a ban on HGVs in rush hour. At the green hustings last week, before I'd even got to answer, two of the others had already backed it!"
The idea you can freeze fares and carry on investing in transport doesn't add up
Since we're talking about her opponents' transport policies, we ask whether she thinks Khan's promise to freeze fares for four years is possible. "We can argue about the figures, [but] serious money will be taken out of TfL," she says. That's a "no" then?
"The idea you can [freeze fares] and carry on investing in transport, it doesn't add up. You don't get anything for nothing. What you'll end up seeing is overcrowding on the transport network, fewer buses because buses are 'easy' to cut.
"There won't even be the capacity to get people working up [new projects] because to get to a transport and works act you need huge numbers of people working on the micro detail of any scheme. They're going to struggle to do that if they've got to strip money out of TfL."
She is also vehemently against the Garden Bridge — she'd remove the mayoral direction saying Transport for London will underwrite maintenance costs, which would invalidate planning permission granted by Westminster — and sees no justification for the Silvertown Tunnel. "I'm very happy for the London Overground to be expanded and go under the river. But I do not see the need to build more road tunnels and bridges, because all it does is encourage and generate more traffic and more pollution."
Police, air quality and childcare
3,000 extra police at transport hubs would be funded by an increased congestion charge and levy on workplace parking. That levy would be on offices in central London and Canary Wharf — the aim is not just to raise money, but to discourage people from driving. Pidgeon takes air quality seriously, and says people need to be discouraged from driving.
"People are dying prematurely because of the poor air we breathe," she says. "We all know when we're out there sometimes, it's terrible. It’s important that we start to signal to people who insist on driving that a) you’re going to have to pay more and b) you gradually won't be able to have your diesel car in parts of London."
Childcare is also another hot topic — and a personal one, as she's the mother to a two year old. "I know first hand the eye watering amounts people have to pay for childcare," she says. "If you want to go back full time or even three or four days a week, even if you work 9am-5pm that means you need at least 8am-6pm as your childcare. Not all operators do that. And with the reliability of trains at times, it’s tough to get back for 6 o'clock." (Pidgeon lives in south east London; if you follow her on Twitter you'll see her regular battle with Southern trains.)
People are dying prematurely because of the poor air we breathe. People who insist on driving are going to have to pay more.
"What we'd look to do is bring in a tourist tax, of £2 a night on hotels of three stars or above, to create a children's fund. That would help us find some extended hours at nurseries but also it would help train up the childminders which would then create jobs and help parents." Again, however, the mayor doesn't have the power to tax hoteliers, so this would need to go to the government.
Our verdict? Caroline Pidgeon is a highly respected Assembly Member and probably should have run as the Lib Dem candidate in 2012, instead of the disaster that was Brian Paddick's second attempt. She knows her stuff, which is why we're surprised and disappointed to find ourselves picking holes in her housing funding plans.
Housing is a tricky issue — if the housing crisis was easy to solve, it would have been done by now — and working out how much what costs and where the money comes from is one of our regular sources of headache. But it's worth trying to unpick the funding behind housing promises, because there's no point being sold a dream if the cash isn't there to back it up.
The rest of her plan? We're impressed. She's generally avoided big, splashy pronouncements and opted for sensible, largely achievable changes. Which you'd expect from an experienced Assembly Member.