Exclusive: Lib Dem mayoral candidate Caroline Pidgeon tells us how she’d solve the housing crisis and why Boris was a “fool”

Can Pidgeon storm City Hall?

It’s a grim afternoon in February, and Storm Gertrude is dousing the UK with cold rain. The ten minute walk from the London Loves Business offices to the Lib Dem HQ at St James’s Park is a wet and blustery one, and I arrive rather bedraggled for my appointment with Caroline Pidgeon.

“What do you think of the naming of the storms?” I ask her after we have sat down in a warm and brightly lit meeting room.

Pidgeon seems alarmed at the unexpected weather question. The dictaphone is on. “Oh wow,” she says, and begins laughing uneasily.

“I’m not sure I’ve really thought about it,” she intones slowly. “You can never remember the names of storms. It’s a bit like police operations, they all get given names and nobody can ever remember what they’re referring to.”

Supposedly it’s about making people more aware of global climate change, I say.

Suddenly, she snaps into mayor mode. 

“Yes, well as we know, climate change is a huge issue and London has got to respond to that to meet the challenges of increasing temperatures and so on and the impact that’s having, with weather being one.”

It’s been a strangely warm winter, I suggest, continuing my awkward weather-based line of questioning.

Pidgeon frowns. “It has been quite a bizarre winter, and you’ve only got to look at the plants around London – the bulbs coming out and the blossom coming out. The poor nature is very confused by it all.”

After establishing her dissatisfaction with the modern British winter, I ask how her campaign for the mayoralty is going. This is clearly the sort of thing she is more comfortable discussing and she quickly warms to her theme. And she is well practiced.

Pidgeon has spent eight years on the London Assembly at City Hall working for the Lib Dems while Conservative mayor Boris Johnson has been at the helm.

This is a record she is proud of and provides her with considerable knowledge and appreciation of the powers and limitations of the mayoralty and also of Boris’s failings during his tenure.

“In terms of me running for mayor and leading our election campaign, I bring eight years’ experience at City Hall. None of the other candidates have got that,” she says.

“I spent eight years holding Boris Johnson to account and looking at London-wide issues in detail, and looking and developing some of the ideas I think will resolve some of the problems that we face in London.”

She certainly has a clear understanding of the machinations of what has happened under Boris, and how to use this to her advantage.

Storm Gertrude

Storm Gertrude, 2016

Housing crisis

On housing – one of the headline issues for the mayoral race, Pidgeon claims to have developed a “fully costed plan” that could provide up to 200,000 new homes.

“We can all talk the talk that housing is in crisis in London,” she says. “But the Liberal Democrats have got a comprehensive costed plan where we will build 50,000 council homes in London in the four year term, paid for by using the Olympic precept – the part of council tax we’re all still paying £20 a year for the Olympics – we would turn that into a housing levy against which we could borrow £2bn.”

This, she says, in collaboration with GLA and other public sector land, could provide a further 150,000 homes.

Does she believe boosting the supply of homes is the key to solving the crisis?

“Yes absolutely,” Pidgeon says. “We’ve got to boost supply and if we leave it to the private sector then it’s not going to happen. We have kind of left it to them, and nothing’s happened. Their profits are still going up and actually they haven’t built the volume of homes we need.”

But how can you stop people from buying these houses as investment vehicles and keeping them empty?

“Investment is difficult,” she concedes. “I don’t want foreign owned companies just using it as gold effectively. I am happy for individuals to be able to buy properties, but we need to look at a range of schemes to help Londoners onto the housing ladder.

She says that she “would build homes for private rent as well, and give them long-term tenancies because there are so many families who choose or want to live in the private rented sector.”

Away from housing, Pidgeon will be campaigning on other issues that will see her fighting for a voice in the run up to the election.

Heathrow no-no

All of the main candidates oppose Heathrow, and Pidgeon is going one step further – with a policy to implement a congestion charge zone similar to the one in place in central London built around Heathrow to discourage traffic.

She is particularly unimpressed by the call for greater air capacity.

“The Liberal Democrats are firmly opposed to any airport expansion in London and the south east. If you used the remaining slots we have at Stanstead Gatwick and Luton better, particularly by improving the transport links to them, you can actually meet any of the potential growth that people see,” she says.

“I don’t believe the aviation industry and their demands,” she says emphatically. “I think there’s a lot of rumour and counter rumour in this industry and a lot of borderline threatening behaviour. We do not need to expand Heathrow.”

Cycling confidence

Cycle Superhighway junction Cambridge Heath

New Cycle Superhighway junction at Cambridge Heath in east London

When it comes to cycling however, Pidgeon is extremely positive and has one of the most detailed plans of any of the mayoral candidates.

No other party has officially outlined what percentage of TfL budget they would like to see go to cycling in London. At the moment the budget for cycling is 1% of TfL’s spending. But Pidgeon wants that to go up significantly.

“I would spend 2% and move up to 3% of TfL’s budget on cycling in London to make sure that we get the infrastructure right,” she says. “And as cycling moves up we would increase the budget.”

Pidgeon, who lives in East Dulwich, admits that she doesn’t cycle the five miles to work, partly because she often has to drop her young son off at nursery, and says she doesn’t yet have the confidence to cycle with a child on board.

Nonetheless, she clearly understands the vast improvement in all transport Londoners would see if more people cycled.

“We’ve really got to have world class cycling facilities,” she says. “I do think London is at the point the Netherlands and Denmark were at in the 1970s. We need to continue the big investment that has gone on in recent years and we’ll start to see change.”

The competition

Pidgeon isn’t interested in condemning her running mates, though it is clear she is unimpressed by them. Zac Goldsmith’s name is greeted with a long silence before she says: “He’s pleasant… [long pause] there’s not a lot of depth in his policy yet.”

And on Sadiq Khan she says: “It’s fine Sadiq talking to the business community, but what’s he actually really going to deliver for business and for Londoners? That’s the case he’s got to make and I’m not sure he’s done that yet.”

The incumbent

However, after eight years working at City Hall, she has plenty to say about Boris.

“He’s been too obsessed by vanity projects,” she says. “His so-called ‘new bus for London’, which has cost a huge amount of money and isn’t remotely green. They’re just ordering a further 30 to keep the line going at the bus company in Northern Ireland, and there’s another order for 130 or something gone in, just before a mayoral election. That can’t be right.”

“And things like the Garden Bridge. All of these things are just poor decisions and are just vanity projects rather than for London.”

What about the Tube strikes, I ask. What was that like on the inside?

“Quite frankly the mayor was a fool,” Pidgeon says. “Saying we’re going to bring in the Night Tube by this date with lots of razzmatazz, and lots of videos and so on. That was a massive mistake which meant the unions could hold them to ransom. And no matter what, they were going to make sure they didn’t meet that deadline to get egg on the face of the mayor if you like. So that was foolish in my opinion.”

In it to win it?

At the last election, Jenny Jones led the Green Party past the Liberal Democrats who were left languishing in fourth place. The Greens’ Sian Berry is now having another crack, after a first attempt in 2008.

With a considerably weaker Liberal Democrat presence than before, Pidgeon has got to make a big impact even to regain third place for her party.

Her cool calm persona is backed up with serious and well-wrought proposals for London that make a great deal of sense. Support will be hard to find in this race, but she deserves all she gets and more.

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