After weeks of speculation, John Bird, the reformed criminal and drug taker who founded the successful Big Issue magazine, has announced he is to stand as an independent candidate for the Mayor of London.
Mr Bird, who had been strongly rumoured to be considering standing for the Conservatives, said he would challenge Ken Livingstone for the post in the election in spring 2008.
In an interview with the Evening Standard, Mr Bird said he would run on a platform of "social inclusion", representing housing estates and communities and highlighting issues such as ghettoisation. "I will be a mayor of the streets," he said.
Mr Bird said that he had been sounded out by people "in and around" the Conservative Party about standing as well as people from other parties, but had never discussed the issue with David Cameron. Acknowledging that some of his views could be interpreted as right wing, he nevertheless said he wanted to be seen as an independent: "I don't come from an arrogant political elite like Ken, I don't come from a social elite. I've got involved with various London problems and run a number of businesses. Actually, I think it will take a coalition of forces to sort out London's problems today."
Describing himself as a "no-nonsense kind of bloke who owns up to his mistakes", Mr Bird, 59, said he wanted to tackle youth crime, particularly among London's black community, as well as making "social housing" the main priority of all regeneration. He also attacked the benefits system for "sponsoring failure".
Although having Mr Bird as the Tories' candidate might have been seen as a coup for the modernising wing under Cameron, who became the first Conservative leader to appear on the cover of The Big Issue, his background might have raised some eyebrows among more traditional party supporters. He admits to being a habitual petty criminal in his youth, who ran away to Paris to avoid the law and says that he took "every drug you can think of, and yes, I inhaled".
In 1991, he created The Big Issue with Gordon Roddick, husband of the Body Shop founder Dame Anita Roddick, and is still its editor-in-chief. Designed as a method of helping the homeless earn money by selling it on the streets, the magazine now sells between 150,000 and 200,000 around Britain and has spawned several versions around the world.
Pressed on policy issues, Mr Bird said a main concern was to "dismantle horrible housing estates". Referring to the recent murders of young black people in London, he was quoted as saying: "There has been a real corruption of our children. We've done great things in cleaning up the prestigious parts of the city, like Trafalgar Square, but the same kind of energy and skill isn't applied to breaking up the ghettoes."
Londoners, he said, were brushing shoulders with crime, social dislocation and antisocial behaviour all the time. "The first thing I would do as mayor would be to look at the great oxygenators of social conflict in London. " But Mr Bird was equivocal on the principal issue which divides the opinion of Londoners in the Livingstone era - the congestion zone, recently extended westwards, where motorists pay to enter central London. Mr Bird said that while it was a "brave" and possibly necessary thing to do, it was badly run and had harmed Mr Livingstone's reputation.
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