England & Wales Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

Viewpoint: Engaging Londoners, changing London

Three years ago Changing London was set up with the aim of capturing and debating ideas from London’s citizens about what they wanted for their city in the future – David Robinson, one of the founding members explains why and what happened.

London’s new Deputy Mayor for Social Integration began his first day at City Hall last week and a new chapter opens. Rather less obviously an old one closes.

Immediately after the mayoral election in 2012 the main parties and the media began to discuss candidates for 2016. As a Labour party member I thought we were asking the wrong question. Surely, with almost four years to go before the next election, we should be talking about our vision for London, our big ideas, not hurtling headlong into the next beauty parade? We set up Changing London with a simple website and two ambitions; we wanted to gather suggestions for the next London mayor and we wanted to do it with a bottom up approach to politics.

For six months we ran a daily blog sharing and debating ideas from a huge range of contributors and also drawing in work from other cities. We were interested in what could be learnt from the people of London and in what could be borrowed from the great change making mayors across the world. We posted hundreds of suggestions, then marshalled that material into themed papers and organised meetings to discuss them. Sometimes candidates, or potential candidates attended. Eventually a book emerged – we called it our Rough Guide for the next London Mayor. It was published at the start of the primaries and formed the basis of campaigning throughout the hustings. At this stage we also engaged in one to one meetings with all the Labour candidates.

Sadiq Khan was not the only candidate to pick up on our ideas and Changing London picked no favourites during the primaries but when the real campaign began, as a Labour rooted initiative, we worked particularly closely with Sadiq and his team. He enthusiastically endorsed many of our proposals – an ambitious campaign to beat loneliness in London, a Children’s Guarantee promising that all London children would have the opportunity to experience the best that the city has to offer, a pledge to help expand the provision of play streets, a practical plan for reducing suicide by 50 per cent over the next four years, a commitment to use the Mayor’s planning powers to build social connection into neighbourhoods, not design it out AND a new deputy mayor to lead on this work. The appointment of Matthew Ryder as the new deputy mayor for social integration represents the completion of that process and Changing London has shut up shop, at least for now.

What have we learnt?

  • All kinds of people have ideas and will share them with enthusiasm if they believe that those ideas will be seriously considered.
  • The focus on the positive is really important – it motivates and galvanises. If people sent us whinges we asked them to convert the grumbles into an idea. Only one contribution was ultimately rejected because it was insufficiently constructive and it was submitted by one of the candidates!
  • The process can not only bring new ideas into the policy making process, it is also good for democracy. We will vote for policies for which we feel some real sense of ownership.
  • Nothing fancy or expensive is required. Changing London was entirely the work of volunteers.
  • Equally it wasn’t trivial or simplistic or just a dressed up marketing campaign. The process was authentic, open and thoroughly grounded.
  • Politicians don’t have to be persuaded, the value is obvious. We didn’t approach any of the six Labour candidates and ask them to get involved. Everyone of them approached us within three months of the launch.
  • Engagement is a slow process. Starting it in the election campaign is way too late. Changing London built steadily over four years.
  • Could the process be replicated for other elections, local and national? We think it could and we hope it is.

Changing London: A Rough guide for the next London Mayor is available from London Publishing Partnership

David Robinson co-founded Changing London.