Big Interview with Ken Livingstone

Ken Livingstone  
Mayor Ken Livingstone

Many of Community Care’s readers work with some of the capital’s most vulnerable citizens. What part is the GLA playing in working to reduce the problems caused by drugs; mental health and homelessness and to help those affected by it?

London is a unique and vibrant city, but it is also a city which suffers from some of worst poverty and deprivation in the country.  Therefore even though the Greater London Authority is not a direct provider of social services, health, social inclusion and equalities issues have been an important part of my work since becoming Mayor.  The lives of too many individuals, families and communities are affected not simply by drug misuse and alcohol abuse, but by lack of good housing and inequitable access to social and health services.

As your readers will know alcohol and drug problems contribute to violence, crime, family breakdown, homelessness, premature death and ill health.  It was my commitment to tackle these issues that lead me to establish the strategic partnership the Greater London Alcohol and Drug Alliance, GLADA, in 2002. This network of organisations co-ordinates policy and acts as an overarching voice for London’s needs and can ensure London derives maximum benefit from national and international initiatives. A key part of GLADA’s contribution to this area of work has been developing and disseminating evidence about alcohol and drug issues in London, providing vital information for agencies at the front line.

I believe it is not only mental health issues but also problems of health inequality in London that impact on the most vulnerable in our city. In my first year in office I established the London Health Commission, an independent strategic partnership to promote health in London and tackle problems of access to health care.  Considerable work has been undertaken through the Commission into mental health service availability and also the development of resource pack for employers to raise awareness of mental health issues.  I have also supported the development of the African and Caribbean Mental Health Commission which aims to ensure sustainable improvement in the provision of care and services for these communities, an area I believe had been neglected for too long. 

My office works closely with London Boroughs, the government and the voluntary sector to tackle the problems of homelessness. In particular working to address standards of temporary housing being offered in the city, working in partnership to tackle the problems associated with the lack of move-on accommodation for vulnerable people in supported housing and hostels, piloting new approaches to increase employment rates among homeless households and improving access to services such as health, education and social services through the Notify system.

Social care employers in London face real problems in recruiting and retaining staff largely due to the high cost of housing here. What is being done to increase the availability of key worker housing to workers in this sector – particularly as social care professionals have not previously been a priority group in the past? Do you have any plans to make social workers exempt from the congestion charge?

The real need in London is for an increase in the overall supply of housing.  The London Plan currently sets a target of at least 23,000 new homes each year, of which 50% should be affordable housing, while aspiring to a target of 30,000.  Within this overall figure there is a clear need for housing that will be accessible to those who can’t afford the private market and don’t qualify for social rented housing and I will be working with government to increase the supply of intermediate housing.  It is important that this new supply meets the needs of key workers and helps employers recruit and retain staff in essential services, but it has always been my view that access should be based on income rather than employment.  In the short term, I have argued that the definition of key worker is too narrow and I welcome the government’s intention to extend access to additional groups, such as workers in the emergency services, from April next year.  In the longer term, we need to ensure that all workers within defined income limits have the opportunity to obtain intermediate housing, especially new-build options that contribute to an increase in the overall supply.

I appreciate that some of your readers work shifts and most spend a lot of time travelling to meet clients.  However, many other groups of people also provide an important service to London and are in the same situation as social workers.  To distinguish between these groups would be virtually impossible.   The objective of the congestion charge is to reduce congestion, improve the flow of buses and reduce pollution and to allow many other people to drive into central London would negate the effectiveness of the scheme.  Therefore, there are no proposals to offer exemptions on the Congestion Charge to specific working groups in this way.

You have set up an older people’s unit and have an older people’s strategy. Why did you feel this was necessary and what do you hope it will achieve?

Well naturally I believe the older generation in London deserves to be treated with respect and have their particular interests and concerns addressed. There also needs to be a strategic approach in response to the way that national policy is influenced by the ageing population. The aim is to ensure that services are developed to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population of older people in London. This means bringing older Londoners’ concerns to bear on services provided by London government and also on central government policy. To take just one example, income inequality and pensioner poverty have emerged as major issues of concern in consultation with older people in London. This is more of an issue in London than in other parts of the country because the distribution of income is more polarised and living costs are very high.

What in your view are the most pressing social problems the capital faces and what strategies and policies are in place to address them. Where this falls outside of your control, what should the government be doing?

One of my major concerns is the quite exceptional concentration of worklessness and poverty among families with children in London. No other area in the UK shows this pattern to a remotely comparable extent. To take just one statistic out of the many available, over a quarter of all children in Greater London are living in households with no adult in employment. That is over 370,000 children and is completely unacceptable in this age of relative prosperity. As well as the threat this represents to the life chances of the next generation of Londoners, disadvantage on this scale poses enormous challenges for the delivery of health, education and social services.  

The main policy levers to address this are in central government’s hands, and the fact that government has adopted the aim of halving child poverty by 2010 and eliminating it by 2020 is obviously good for London. At the same time we have to recognise that government policies to reduce poverty have not yet shown the kind of results in London that would be needed even to keep on track to meet national targets- let alone to meet those targets in London. I have no doubt that without policies such as Sure Start and tax credits, child poverty in London would by now be even higher than it is. But if national aims are to be met, we will need to see a massive turnaround in the situation in London over the next few years.

This means government will need to look closely at how well national policies can be expected to work in London, taking account of the many ways in which London is distinctive – its scale, its mobility, its diversity, the pressure on infrastructure and housing. At the same time London government – both regional and local-  has an important contribution to make. For example, tackling barriers to employment for parents is a key theme of my London Economic Development Strategy. Among the policies reflecting this priority, over the next three years the London Development Agency, in partnership with the Sure Start Unit, will be spending £33m on addressing childcare affordability for lower income families in London. Local government is also developing its role in this area: the GLA and the Association of London Government have worked successfully together on poverty issues in London, and two London boroughs have adopted poverty reduction targets in their local area agreements.  

London’s population is the most ethnically diverse in the UK. What still needs to be done to ensure that all its citizens enjoy equal access to services and opportunities?

London’s diversity is one of the city’s greatest strengths and it is important that the particular needs of our different communities are not overlooked. Black, Asian and minority ethnic Londoners will account for 80 per cent of the growth in London’s working age population between now and 2016, and already account for nearly half the capital’s children. At the same time, worklessness and child poverty are continuing to have utterly disproportionate impacts on most minority groups.   As I have pointed out to central government, reducing child poverty in London will demand major improvements in the economic position of most of London’s minority communities.

Much of this improvement will come through mainstream initiatives such as education policy, tax credits, Sure Start and the New Deals. But we will also need initiatives specifically targeting ethnic minority outcomes, in two broad areas. Firstly, we need to address a number of issues which are more specific to minority communities, for example in the areas of ESOL provision and services for refugees. On the one hand, we need to continue to tackle the culture of discrimination which is excluding many ethnic minority Londoners from the main areas of employment in London. The LDA’s Diversity Works workstream is developing a range of different approaches to addressing this.

Forty three per cent of London’s children live below the poverty line. Last year you published a report entitled Making London Better for All Children and Young People. What strategies are in place to make life in the capital better for the poorest children who live there?

I am conscious that along with seeking to reduce child poverty in London, we also need to focus on improving the life-quality of children in low-income families.  A key policy is to improve and promote the access of all young Londoners, regardless of their families’ incomes, to leisure, culture, play, sports and the arts, which has led to my introduction of free bus fares for all children under 16 years old from the new school year (under-18s in full-time education from 2006/07) and the production of ‘Guide to Preparing Play Strategies’ to assist local boroughs to meet the play and leisure needs of the 1.62 million children and young people living in London.

What benefits will the Olympics bring for London’s deprived communities?

The Olympics will bring huge benefits for the city’s deprived communities. For a start the location of the Olympic development in the Lower Lea Valley will bring much needed regeneration to some of the poorest parts of the city.  The Olympic Park will be a massive resource for the whole of London offering a new green space on a scale not seen in the city for generations.  Facilities created within the park will provide a lasting sporting legacy, not just for communities in Newham and neighbouring boroughs, but for the whole city.  There will not only be the Olylmpic stadium but state of the art swimming facilities, an indoor sports arena, a hockey centre and a velodrome.  For all of London’s communities the opportunity to access local top class sporting and recreational facilities will provide inspiration to get involved in sport.

Also the Olympic Village, which will be built to accommodate the athletes, will be convereted into much needed housing in the area – including significant levels of affordable housing. On top of that the actual construction of the Olympic site will provide jobs and generate benefits for the London economy, I am committed to ensuring that local people will benefit from the opportunities provided. 
Across the city the Olympics will provide inspiration for communities, encouraging people to get involved in sport and have pride in the city.  There will be great opportunities for Londoners to volunteer to help in the Olympics and I truly believe it will give our young people the opportunity to change their lives.  In Newham the number of young people in the borough making a first court appearance to face criminal charges has dropped by 25%, a fact attributed by the leader of the council to the impact of the Olympics, as opportunities for young people to get involved in sport have boomed.

Finally it is worth remembering the improvements in public transport that will come about as a result of the Olympics.  Good public transport benefits the whole city but it is those from our more deprived communities who rely most on the service and will see the impact of the improvements.

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