Siobhan Benita is the independent candidate for London's mayoral elections, taking place tomorrow on May 3 2012. The daughter of an Anglo-Indian mother and a Cornish father, Siobhan is a born-and-bred Londoner living in New Malden, Kingston with her husband and two daughters. She joined the Civil Service in 1996, and, as a senior official at the Cabinet Office, she has worked with ministers and officials at the very highest levels and has devoted a lot of her time to improving gender equality in the workplace. She recently resigned from her senior Whitehall job to run in the mayoral election.
Recently, Siobhan joined Stylist for a live web chat, where she revealed her plans to tackle the big issues of the day if voted in as London's first female Mayor - from rising housing costs and education to her plans for post-Olympics London.
Housing and living costs
Hi Siobhan, what do you intend to do about the housing situation in London if you are elected? Rents are ridiculously high even for those on £60k+ and mortgages are out of the question for first time buyers unless you happen to be wealthy. How do you intend to get more first time buyers on the housing ladder? Also, would you advocate reinstating a stamp duty holiday? The previous holiday was of limited value in London given that most properties are priced in excess of £250,000.
I have a policy aimed specifically at the large group of people who are on moderate wages but still can't get on the housing ladder. Check it out on my manifesto. In short, I would use GLA (Greater London Authority) land to build low-cost homes that can never be sold into the commercial market. They would not provide a huge investment opportunity but they would provide people with a truly affordable home.
Thanks Siobhan. Would there be a cut-off in terms of salary which would mean that such houses are not available to those who earn over a certain amount? It’s a myth that people who earn circa £60-70k are able to get on the housing ladder. I know from experience that that is a real problem in London. How would you deal with people in this bracket?
I absolutely agree that there is a large group of Londoners who are currently overlooked by policy because they are neither wealthy enough to buy a property easily nor earning little enough to qualify for support. My scheme would be aimed at those people. I would set a maximum income but will work the level through with housing experts. It needs careful consideration and proper analysis to set it at a level where it can help the people it is aimed at.
Do you have any plans to tackle the spiralling rental costs in London? I'm on a graduate salary, of which rent eats up a huge chunk every month, making it impossible to save for a deposit - a vicious circle!
Yes, I do have a plan for rental costs. I would introduce a 'lettings MOT' to match responsible landlords with reliable tenants. As part of this scheme, rents would need to be affordable. I also have a policy for a low-cost, fixed-price housing market - see previous answer! In this market I would fix the price of rents, if people choose to sub-let.
What are your plans and policies for the mums of London? What do you feel about benefits being cut etc.?
Women are being hit very hard by benefits cuts. Government should have done a better analysis of this. For mums I will focus on the local issues in every borough that will make a difference to families' lives (I have asked each borough to give me their top five isssues - could be litter, dog mess, urban foxes or dangerous dogs) and ensure these are dealt with. My education strategy will make life better for families and their children. I also have a focus on making London's transport more accessible, important for mums, not just the disabled. I would also lobby government for subsidised childcare and in the meantime would recognise businesses who do have good provision in this area.
Young people and education
How would you have dealt with the London riots? A harder question to answer with hindsight I know.
Obvious point with the riots, but the key is prevention in the first place. I have lots of ideas in my manifesto for engaging youth in a more positive way. In response to the riots, I do think the Mayor and police leaders should have been on the ground and more high-profile much quicker and since then not enough has been done to really understand the issues that led to the violence. Engagement, engagement, engagement!
How would you propose to cut down on the shocking level of violent crime on the streets of London and youth disengagement in general?
What are your policies for tackling youth crime and gang violence in London?
This is complex and needs to be addressed at lots of levels. I'm saying we need to start with education (I have an education and youth manifesto) and make sure that all our children get the best possible opportunities from an early age as well as the skills they need to get the types of jobs that are available in London - we should be teaching them the next generation skills like computing or entrepreneurship. We also need to provide more alternative and positive activities - youth groups, sports and culture etc - as well as better mentoring schemes. Lots more to do!
What's to be done about education in London, to stop so many people going private or else just having a crap experience?
I'm the only candidate that has an education manifesto. I completely agree that our system needs to be improved. I would ensure we have the funding for more primary schools and I would work with boroughs to improve the transition to secondary school. It's crazy that so many families are now tutoring their children from a really early age. Since when did this become the norm? Every local school should be excellent.
Surely you must agree that Tube and bus pricing right now is ridiculously high compared to other European cities? What are your plans?
I agree! Transport here is too expensive. I would freeze fares until April 2014 and with the small pot of money that is available, I would provide reductions for people on a low wage. It's not just price though, it's also about quality. So I support the upgrade programme - we need to maintain investment.
What are your plans for cycling in London?
What will you do to help cyclists across London?
What specifically will you do over the next 4 years to make London as safe and inviting for cycling as Amsterdam?
We definitely need to improve cycle safety across London. We must look at the most dangerous spots across London and make them safer as a first step but there is also a lot we can do to educate road users about this - perhaps as part of the driving test. We can do more on cycling with kids from a young age and we should also be as creative as possible with cycle lanes/shared spaces across all boroughs - not just inner city ones.
Why are you supporting the third runway at Heathrow when none of the other candidates are?
I know the third runway is a sensitive issue and I have considered this extremely carefully. If we are going to increase airport capacity, and I firmly believe we need to, then doing it at the existing international hub is the best option for the environment and the economy. We can do this and not exceed current noise levels. The government has a very strong negotiating hand with the airlines. West London relies on Heathrow for jobs - it really needs this investment, and building a new hub airport elsewhere would be devestating.
What/where do you love most about London and why?
I love London's diversity, the great food, the really friendly people, the parks, the shops, the buzz and sense of community between people of so many different backgrounds.
What are you prioritising in terms of issues for London - what's most important to you?
Key priorities for me are low cost homes, youth engagement and better education, affordable travel and dealing with people's local day-to-day concerns.
I live in Birmingham where they're asking if we want a mayor, personally I don't want any of the potential candidates to get the job (if it turns out the residents of the city want a mayor). Although, if any of the candidates were like Siobhan they'd get my vote - no questions asked. Siobhan is such a breath of fresh air compared to the old boys club that normally run for mayor.
Thanks Amy - I really appreciate that! Let's hope more independent women come forward for these roles.
If you could have any one wish come true for London, what would it be?
It would have to be a truly equal society where we celebrate London's fantastic diversity much more than we do at the moment.
What would your policy be for post-Olympics to ensure our money has been well spent?!
The key with Olympic legacy is to capture all of the best practice from everything that is being piloted during the games including things like more flexible working arrangements, different travel patterns, jobs created and ensuring that investment in the area leads to real regeneration and opportunties. As Mayor I would have an annual sporting event to maintain the momentum behind sports participation which will come this summer! And of course attracting as many tourists as possible to our great city. Would be nice to get some tickets though!
I feel like the arts are being totally bypassed in the run-up to the Olympics with more and more small theatres being shut down and underfunded. Do you agree and what would you do as Mayor to combat this?
I agree. Other forms of art and culture do get overlooked, especially when finances are tight. I would support cultural events and work with organisations from all sectors to find alternative sources of funding to support these important contributions to life in the capital.
The other candidates
Ken and BoJo: what do you make of their ongoing tussling? Do you think it's productive or a media ploy - or is it for real and they actually hate each other?
The macho BorKen show gets on my nerves to be honest. That's why we need different types of public leaders coming forward. And yes, I do think they genuinely dislike each other!
You haven't been in any of the mayoral debates. How can I know if you can stand up to the likes of Boris and Ken in pushing forward your agenda?
If only I had been given the chance. To be honest, I don't think the calibre of the debates has been that high, but it would have been nice to have been offered a platform alongside BorKen. A strong, female voice would undoubtedly have changed the dynamics.
How can you ensure you policies are affordable and can be implemented when you have never been in office and don't have the support of a party machine?
My fifteen years as a senior civil servant give me the perfect experience to do this. I have been through four spending reviews, spent six years in the Cabinet Office and the Treasury, and know how public finances work... not sure Boris could say the same thing four years ago!
Who would you like to win, if not you?
I'm asking everyone to give me their first vote - they can always cast their second vote for one of the party politicans... but I'm not suggesting who!
What do you say to people who tell you that they really want to vote for you but that they fear that to do that would be to let their least favourite candidate in?
That's exactly why we have the two-vote preference system. It was designed to help new candidates like me. People can give me their first vote (please do!) then they can vote tactically with their second if they want to ensure someone they don't like has less chance of getting in. Please spread the word!
The woman behind the policies
How does it feel being the most stylish candidate for Mayor of London? I hear that you are also good with money though, in terms of where you buy clothes and your second-hand diamond ring. Affordable style, is that your approach?
Thanks so much Brian :)
Yes I agree, being resourceful and achieving more with less are valuable skills for any Mayor.
Did you have to buy a lot of new clothes for your campaign? Do you have any favourite shops/labels? You always look very well-turned-out, by the way.
Thanks Ally! You may have noticed I have a very small capsule wardrobe. I have gone big on colour - enough of the men in grey suits!
Pet hates: what are they - big or small? And what do you treasure above all in life?
Things I treasure most are my family - my beautiful daughters - and very supportive husband and parents. Pet hates include cold coffee, rudeness and tights that ladder all the time!
You have been described a the "Mum for London". What do your daughters think about you standing for Mayor? Have you promised them anything if you win?
My daughters are loving the campaign - it's exciting for them to see me doing so many new things! Whatever happens on the third of May, I have promised them that we will have a nice relaxing family holiday very soon.