Is London really able to govern itself or is it simply too chaotic?

What are the implications for the new Mayor?

Author: Thom Dyke, Timesonline   |  

Boris Johnson and the Conservatives favour more local political control over chief constables and police forces – not to mention Sir Ian Blair, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

But what of governing the capital itself? Attempts to regulate London are almost as old as the city. The post of mayor was created in the 12th century in exchange for Richard I levying taxes on London’s merchants to pay for the Crusades. Since then, the many attempts to reorganise London government have been so chaotic that Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, has wondered whether it is “an ungovernable city”. What are the implications for the new Mayor?

With an annual budget of £12 billion and the largest directly elected mandate in Britain, the Mayor of London has one of the most powerful political offices outside central government. The Greater London Authority Act 1999 established the elected office, which was to be kept in check by an elected London Assembly. With 425 sections and 34 schedules, the Act was the longest piece of legislation passed by Parliament since the Government of India Act in 1935. It granted a wide range of powers from transport and policing to housing and culture.

In the recent election nearly 1.2 million Londoners voted to replace Ken Livingstone with Johnson. The new mayor promised to bring a fresh approach to the governing of the capital. “I would not have stood for election unless I believed passionately that London can be governed on a practical political level,” he said.

This sentiment is shared by Steve Norris, the Conservative former mayoral candidate, who was asked to sit on the board of both Transport for London (TfL) and the London Development Agency to co-ordinate work carried out between the bodies. “It is, of course, true that any massive city – unlike companies like GE or Toyota – is inherently unmanageable. But I do not accept the inference that any attempt at management of essential services is doomed to failure.”

In the hierarchy of government, the mayor sits between Whitehall and London’s 32 local boroughs. This position has been a source of tension, with Livingstone having an openly fractious relationship with both sides – he both brought and defended actions for judicial review, with his attempt to prevent the Government’s decision to close post offices, and Porsche’s challenge to the raising of the congestion charge.

Recent powers granted to the mayor by the Greater London Authority Act 2007 over housing, planning and education may prove to be the source of even greater friction. Johnson has pledged to work effectively alongside a Labour government and is optimistic about co-operation with local government. “London is ungovernable only if you take an antagonistic approach to the boroughs. I will look to work with them to find common ground.”

While the 45 per cent turnout in the election suggests that the system is popular with Londoners, there is a real need to address the tension that arises from the three-tiered system of government. James Morris, director of the London Policy Institute and chief executive of Localis, argues that “the governing arrangements of the city need to evolve to cope with the dynamic, changing nature of the governing challenge in London”. Johnson says that he will reduce conflict by “synchronising strategic priorities with local priorities”. Morris advocates a more radical approach. “Borough leaders should be brought into decision-making at the mayoral level, so that London is governed as a single entity.”

Much of the structure of the Greater London Authority is left up to the mayor – although his or her powers are frequently checked by references in the legislation to the supervisory role of the Secretary of State. It has been argued that the primary role is to provide a “bully pulpit” for the holder to assert his influence over the capital. This is exacerbated by the relatively weak powers of the London Assembly. In principle, it would be relatively easy for Johnson to restructure the functionary bodies; TfL, the Metropolitan Police Authority, the London Development Agency, and the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, in whatever fashion he felt best.

However, reorganising the office of the mayor would need primary legislation. Johnson made the argument for a two-term limit to the office. “I have pledged to only serve two terms myself, and will lobby government for a change to the legislation to that effect. Winning the election was the easy part. Persuading central government of the need to devolve power downwards will be the difficult job.”

London government can be seen as a reflection of its wider history. It is best illustrated by the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666. As grand reconstruction plans were being drawn up by Wren and Evelyn, great swaths of London had already been rebuilt. As Peter Ackroyd puts it in his biography of London: “The city, as always, reasserted itself along its ancient topographical lines.”

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