The Future of London Government: The Mayor and the London Boroughs

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Professor Vernon Bogdanor considers the role of the Mayor of London, examining its responsibilities and obligations to the capital.

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24 May 2010   The Mayor and the London Boroughs   Professor Vernon Bogdanor     We are talking about how London is governed, but perhaps, behind it all, is the question of whether London is in fact governable at all. At the end of the Eighteenth Century, the poet Shelley described London as "that great sea whose ebb and flow at once is deaf and loud, and onshore vomits its wrecks and still howls for more," and perhaps that is not a bad description of London now.   More people live in London than in either Scotland or Wales, but there has not been as much political controversy over London as there is over Scotland and Wales. We heard a lot in the General Election about the problems of a government in London which might lack a majority in Scotland or Wales, but not about its relationship to the representation of London. Of course, one of the reasons for this is that London, unlike Scotland, does not have a Nationalist Party which can threaten to secede if its demands are not met. But I think there is another reason as well, and that is the much greater degree of social and political conflict in London than in Scotland and Wales, and it is therefore much more difficult to create a sense of "London-ness", a sense of civic consciousness, if you like, that is London-wide, than it is to create a sense of Scottishness or Welshness. London is a divided city, politically, divided socially, economically and ideologically. You may say that Scotland and Wales are also divided, but those divisions I think do not inhibit the formation of a genuine consciousness which, in recent years at least, has been united around the demand for devolution. Now, perhaps one thing that unites Londoners is they do not like paying and subsidising the rest of the country, but nevertheless their complaints do not carry quite the punch of the SNP's "It's Scotland's oil," which was used so much in the 1970s.   This is why the problem of London government has, on the whole, been a party political problem - that generally people on the Left favour the strong London authority, and from the Fabians at the end of the Nineteenth Century to Herbert Morris and to Ken Livingstone and to today, whereas people on the Right, from Lord Salisbury's Government to Margaret Thatcher's Government, have always been against it and they have championed the rights of the boroughs and particularly perhaps the outer-suburban boroughs.   Of course, London is a very dominant capital city and so a powerful government in London would compete with the national government. Perhaps we ought to do the same, but some countries have established capitals away from their dominant cities: in Canberra in Australia; or Ottawa in Canada; or Washington in New York; and Germany's capital city was Bonn before Reunification. But you can see the problems which will arise with a powerful authority if one looks at Paris, which is perhaps the nearest analogy, from this point of view, to London, because the position of Mayor of Paris was not created until the late 1970s and it was then established to mollify Jacques Chirac, who President Giscard had sacked as Prime Minister. Jacques Chirac became Mayor of Paris, but he proceeded to use that position to form a new party called the Rassemblement pour la République, which directly competed with Giscard and was largely responsible for him losing the Presidential Election in 1981. So, Chirac used Paris to create an alternative power base to that of the President, and any British politician looking across the Channel would be very chary of doing the same here. This is the reason why governments have been so careful about reform in London.   The reform that we did eventually get with the Labour Government of 1997 had, from our point of view, a very novel and fundamental feature, and it was this: by contrast with the LCC and the GLC, the new authority represented a new model of government. It was not simply a recreation of the GLC because it lacked, on the whole, executive powers, and as set up, it had no statutory powers over health, education or housing, and it was specifically prohibited from providing those services or spending money on them and it was forbidden to spend money on any service that was being provided by a borough council or any other public body. Its main statutory powers when it was set up - they have been modified since - were in the area of economic development and transport, and so it has used its powers to impose the Congestion Charge, which is the thing that is mostly widely-known.   Also, in addition to having few executive powers, the Mayor lacks independent sources of revenue. Most of his revenue comes from central government and a small amount from a precept on the boroughs. You may say it is odd that a Mayor representing a capital city, and one of the largest cities in the world, has no independent sources of taxation. My small rural district council, the Vale of the White Horse, can raise a council tax, but a body representing the people of London cannot do so. But the point of it was that the Greater London Authority was established not as a metropolitan authority for London, with executive powers, but what the Government called a 'strategic authority', and that was responsible not primarily for the delivery of services, which would remain in the hands of central government and the boroughs, but its aim was to set a strategy for London. This idea of a strategic authority is a new one in British experience, and I think it is still, after ten years, by no means clear how it will operate. It is really a hybrid form of government.   The Central Government was faced with a problem that is more or less unique amongst the government of capital cities, because London is not just a capital but has 32 powerful boroughs, together with the City Corporation, each of which is an authority, and three of the boroughs - Hackney, Lewisham, and Newham - have their own directly elected majors. This existence of the powerful boroughs, makes the problem of government in London different in kind from that of other capital cities. There are, of course, the municipalities of Paris, but I do not think they are as powerful and as long-established as the boroughs of London. You could mention the boroughs of New York, of which there are five, but they do not attract the sort of loyalties that boroughs here in London attract; people in New York see themselves a New Yorkers first, and inhabitants of the Bronx second, and the boroughs of New York are fairly weak units of government, and they do not deliver services, and nor do they have taxing powers, but of course the London boroughs do. In London, particularly in the outer suburbs, people think of themselves as residents of Barnet or Croydon, and only secondarily as Londoners.   I remember, in an interesting by-election shortly after the General Election of 1997, in the constituency of Uxbridge, the Labour Party appointed someone from Hammersmith, Andrew Slaughter, and he said he would feel at home in Uxbridge because he too was a West Londoner. People in Uxbridge rebelled against that. They do not see themselves as West Londoners at all: they said "We belong to Uxbridge."   Susan Kramer told me that when campaigning in Croydon for the post of Mayor of London as a Liberal Democrat candidate, people said to her, "I thought you were campaigning for Mayor of London - what's this got to do with Croydon?" This should stand as evidence that there may not be that sense of "London-ness" in the outer boroughs.   Some would say that, politically, there is no such entity as London at all, that it is just a collection of boroughs or villages linked together. One authority said it was "a series of linked villages, with its centre as more a sort of national territory, lacking a true local identity." On this view, London could manage perfectly well without a London-wide authority, as indeed it did from 1986 to 2000, and that was the very period, it is fair to say, of London's dynamic economic growth, without a Mayor or Authority.   Everybody said that London was foaming at the mouth for a Mayor, but the referendum attracted a turnout of 36% and the first mayoral elections attracted a turnout of 34%, so it did not seem that the feeling was as strong as many people said. Of course, if we are interested in politics at all, we are not only unrepresentative but abnormal, because most people are not interested in politics. Probably, if we were interested in the government of London and the relationship between London and the boroughs, we are even more abnormal. But there was a very low turnout for the election of the first Mayor of London, and it may be that the average Londoner feels sufficiently well-represented by their boroughs and does not need London-wide representation at all - there is no inherent necessity for it perhaps.   But, it seems to me that the creation of the Mayor of London has in fact increased the sense of "London-ness", it has strengthened that sense, just as the creation of the National Assembly of Wales helped the sense of "Welshness", even though it was created by a very small majority, about 51% to 49%. So the institution of the Mayor of London itself has done something to make people feel Londoners. From that point of view, it might politically weaken the salience and importance of the famous West Lothian question, that Londoners may feel less under-represented than people in the rest of England vis-à-vis Scotland.   But of course, this does raise problems, if you have a London Authority, for the relationship with the boroughs, because the point of a strategic authority is that it is not a superior authority to the boroughs. It has no powers over the boroughs, very few powers to compel or override or overrule the boroughs. It is not an upper tier authority to the boroughs, and the difference between them lies partly in their sphere of operation, that the London Authority is meant to take a London-wide view and the boroughs a borough-wide view, but also in the fact of a strategic authority. It seems to me that lacking executive powers and lacking a tax base, how can you actually implement a London-wide strategy? The powers of the Mayor seem to me limited primarily to those of persuasion and publicity. You are, in effect, a cheerleader. The two Mayors of London that we have seen so far, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, have been very effective cheerleaders - they were elected for that - but are they more than that?   You may recall the telling question of the relationship of the Mayor of London with the police, which raises very important and rather dangerous constitutional questions: should the Mayor of London, an elected politician, require the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to resign? This seems to me to raise very deep and important questions which have not been thought through: an elected politician, in my opinion, should not have that sort of power over the police.   But the difficulty is that many people assume that because the Mayor of London has that role, he is "Mr London" and he is responsible for everything that happens in London, rather than a miniscule part of it. Apparently, Londoners frequently ask their Mayor, "What are you doing about crime" What are you doing about homelessness?? In fact, there is not much he can do about these things. You might ask those questions of the Mayor of New York, but you cannot really ask them of the Mayor of London, who is primarily a cheerleader. So there is some disparity between perceptions of his role and the reality of his power.   A further weakness of the system established by the Government after 1997 is that few voters are aware of how the powers over government in London are distributed. Who can pinpoint with any accuracy the powers held in London by Central Government, the Government Offices for London, the Mayor, the boroughs, and the various London-wide quangos, such as the London Housing Board and the various health and cultural bodies? That lack of clarity does not make for effective government, in my opinion.   In 2006, there was a Commission on London Governance, set up by the Greater London Assembly and the Association of London Governments' Leaders Committees, and it concluded this:   "An overarching theme running through this report is that Londoners should have more say in the way their city is run. One of the current barriers to this is extreme complexity of London's governance arrangements, which involve not only the GLA and the boroughs but many other agencies and organisations. This complexity, we conclude, undermines attempts by citizens to engage with service providers and shape services. The price of this lack of local engagement can be failure of efforts at reform, poor performance and low public satisfaction. Inadequate accountability, therefore, has practical and economic, as well as democratic, implications, leaving Londoners deprived as both citizens and users of public services."   I agree with Tony Travers that the Mayor of course has tremendous democratic legitimacy, but it seems to me he does not have the levers to make this legitimacy very effective, and it seems to me wrong to establish a new and complex system of government, with a directly elected Mayor, but then provide him with insufficient powers to make his role effective. Of course the problem is, going right through this, Central Government was in two minds as to whether it actually wanted an effective Mayor or not, because an effective Mayor would be a challenge, and it is possible that Boris Johnson will be as much of a challenge or thorn in the side of David Cameron as Ken Livingstone was to successive Governments, whether they were Conservative or Labour.   It seems to me the whole concept of a strategic authority in London is very vague. This was looked at before, in the late-1970s, when the Conservative Leader of Leeds City Council, Sir Frank Marshall, was asked to do a study by the GLC of the future of government in Greater London. He said the concept of a strategic role was a new one in 1965 when the GLC was created: "It could thus be adopted as a convenient but undefined description by an authority seeking a role life but dispossessed of the powerful operational functions which had vitalised its ancestors."   So, if you really believe in a London-wide system, it seems to me you need to rebalance powers so that the powers of the Mayor can be more commensurate with perceptions of his role in the government of London.   A survey by Bob Worcester's organisation, Ipsos MORI, in 2006 said that despite the high public profile of the Mayor and despite the Mayor's vocal call for increase in the GLS precept to fund new initiatives, there was minimal association between the Mayor and tax increases by a public short on understanding of public sector finance. "When asked who is most responsible for tax rises in the capital, Londoners say, first, that Central Government is culpable. However, second in line for blame, local councils are twice as likely to get the blame for these rises than the Mayor." But the arrangements are so complex and opaque that really only someone who has studied them for a long time could be expected to understand them, and such arrangements do not make for good government.   When devolution was established in Wales, in 1998, the then Welsh Secretary, Ron Davies, said that devolution was a process and not an event. It seems to me the same is, or ought to be, true of London government, and that further reform is necessary.   When the 1999 London Government Bill was being discussed in Parliament, the Conservatives proposed that, in place of the Assembly, there should be a forum or senate, composed of representatives of the boroughs. Livingstone, who opposed it then, came to support it towards the end of his tenure as London Mayor. The objection to the idea was that the boroughs represent a borough-wide view, and only the Mayor represents a London-wide view, but really, it is not very easy for the Assembly, or any other body, to scrutinise the Mayor, and perhaps the boroughs would do it in a better way, and that might help to get some sort of devolution of powers from Central Government.   There is, I think, a case for a London Senate, comprising representatives of the London boroughs, and perhaps if that was established, the Mayor might then be given the power to override recalcitrant boroughs. Perhaps he might need the agreement of two-thirds of the boroughs represented in the Senate to be able to override a recalcitrant minority and secure genuine London-wide policies.   But at present, it seems to me that we are in the middle of two worlds. We have not yet made up our mind whether we do actually want a London-wide authority and whether we are prepared to accept the implications of it, so I think that the London Government Act of 1999 marked not a final solution to what you may think is an insoluble problem of how London should be governed, but a further stage in the search for that solution. It seems to me that we need some sort of inquiry again. The days of Royal Commissions have gone, but it seems to me that London Government is in a highly unsatisfactory state and that we need to draw out the implications of what we did when we created a Mayor.   But I want to conclude with a very pertinent sentence from Tony Travers' book on The Politics of London: Governing an Ungovernable City, when he said that "Londoners continue to survive despite their government rather than because of it."       © Professor Vernon Bogdanor, 2010

This event was on Mon, 24 May 2010

Vernon Bogdanor

Professor Sir Vernon Bogdanor FBA CBE

Professor of Law

Vernon Bogdanor CBE is Emeritus Gresham Professor of Law, former Visiting Gresham Professor of Political History, Research Professor at King's College London, a Fellow of the British Academy and an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.

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