Londoners have long been accustomed to the maverick ways of Ken Livingstone, their mayor from 2000 until May this year. So, too, have his colleagues in the British Labour Party, from which he resigned to snatch the mayoralty as an independent after it nominated someone else. He has since returned to the fold, but he is still his own man, as shown by his outspoken criticism of the Central-Wan Chai bypass project.
His dismissal of it as a 'complete waste of time' may seem undiplomatic, coming from an invited foreign guest of the Hong Kong government. But the man dubbed 'Red Ken' and reviled by sections of Britain's Tory press earlier in his political career was never one to be bothered by convention. In any case, it is refreshing that an expert invited here to exchange views on urban environmental policy should be prepared to share them so frankly with the public.
What made Mr Livingstone's visit interesting is that he has done what this city has long talked about doing - introducing electronic road pricing or a congestion charge for cars entering the centre of town, in his case central London. He credits its success in reducing traffic by 20 per cent for his re-election as mayor in 2004.
As for the Central-Wan Chai bypass, Mr Livingstone expressed the familiar concern that it would simply generate more traffic. Regrettably, the geography of Hong Kong Island muddies the debate. The government argues that the bypass is necessary before road pricing of the city centre can be considered, and that it needs community support. It is too late to go back on the bypass now. But the government should press ahead with electronic road pricing. Mr Livingstone has a point when he says that no matter how convincing the environmental and health arguments, there will always be those who oppose it. It is to be hoped that in this case our government can emulate his resolve in getting this much-needed system in place.