• Details
  • Transcript
  • Audio
  • Downloads
  • Extra Reading

Much has been written about devolution and the problems of Scotland and Wales. Yet, London contains a larger population than either Scotland or Wales, and it is a great international capital, a world city. In 1999, following a referendum, new arrangements were put in place and a London-wide authority was restored together with a directly elected mayor. Yet, already, there is talk of further reform. How, then, should London be governed?

Download Transcript


30 January 2007



Professor Vernon Bogdanor

London contains almost as many people as Scotland and Wales combined.  Scotland has a population of around five million, Wales around three million, but London around seven million.  Almost an eighth of the population of the United Kingdom as a whole, almost one in eight of those who live in Britain, live in London.  Much less has been written on the government of London than on the government of Scotland or Wales.  Part of the reason for this is that there is no London Nationalist Party, as there is a Nationalist Party in Scotland and in Wales, putting pressure upon the Government to satisfy Scottish and Welsh demands.  There is no party threatening secession, independence, if they do not get what they want.  But I think there is also the fact that the problem of the government of London is actually more difficult than the problem of the government of Scotland or Wales.  It is interesting to think about it, but more difficult to resolve. 

In the last 50 years, London has had four different systems of government, a very rapid change, as I will be describing. Even today, it is still not clear which is the best.

The current structure of London, which I will describe first, was introduced in the year 2000, and is probably familiar to most of you, but I want to stress four very fundamental and novel features of the government of London which differentiate it from anywhere else in the country.  The first is that it has a directly elected Mayor, which we are beginning to take for granted, but it is in fact the first directly elected Mayor in British history.  Directly elected mayors are not really a British concept.  You have them in America and some continental countries, but in Britain, we are much more used to a ceremonial mayor, a person who is a figurehead in the local council for a year, with the chain of office and so on, but the real political power in local councils in the past was the Leader of the Council, the head of the majority group.  But here, we have a directly elected mayor who is the executive.

If you came to my lecture on local government before Christmas, you will remember that I spoke about the Blair Government's policy of encouraging elected mayors in other cities and other local authorities but that has not been particularly successful.  So far, there are only 12 other local authorities that have directly elected mayors, and none of them is a large city in the way that London is.  Blair's case was an important one, because he said, "Most people cannot really name their Council Leader if asked."  I think if any of you come from outside London, or if you live in London Boroughs, ask yourself can you really name the Leader of your local Council? I suspect perhaps not everyone at least can.  But Blair said a mayor would provide more visible and more exciting leadership, would be able to represent London to the people, and whatever one's view of Ken Livingstone, he has certainly done that.

As the Leader of the Council, there is a leader of the majority party and a party figure, who is engaged with the party, but not so much with the public. However, the mayor has a direct mandate from the public, and therefore, so the argument goes, can relate much more easily with the general public, perhaps cure some of the alienation from local government and encourage people to take an interest in it.

It is often forgotten that when Blair announced these plans, Ken Livingstone was very much opposed to the idea of a directly elected mayor for London.  He said that this was a move by Blair away from socialism and he described it as a ?move towards a more American style of politics that is about individuals rather than parties with ideologies and history.?  It is ironic that Ken Livingstone is an individual who has benefited from it.

Together with the Mayor, you have a London Assembly of course, but the Assembly has a much weaker role than local authorities.  It is merely scrutinises what the Mayor does.  It is not in any sense part of the executive.  Its role is a bit like a Select Committee of the House of Commons: it can scrutinise what the Mayor does, report what the Mayor is doing and so on, but it has not really got much power over the Mayor.  The only power is to reject the budget if you have a two-thirds majority against it, and obviously that is going to be very difficult to acquire Therefore, in practice, it has not got many powers, and that is because the Mayor is responsible not to the Assembly but to the people of London who elect him every four years.

As well as this reform of the directly elected Mayor and the Assembly, being opposed by Ken Livingstone, it was also opposed by both of the major opposition parties. 

The Liberal Democrats said they wanted devolution for London; they wanted an Assembly, but not a directly elected Mayor.  They wanted something along the lines of the National Assembly for Wales, which has certain executive powers, but not the power to make laws; not the power to legislate in the way the Scottish Parliament does.  That is what the Liberal Democrats said was the right answer for London, to have an Assembly but not a Mayor.

The Conservatives took the opposite view.  They wanted a Mayor but not an Assembly.  The Conservatives said the Assembly would be wasteful, just another legislative body with no influence and no power, and that to scrutinise the Mayor, what you should do is collect the leaders of the borough councils together.  Of course, you do not only have an authority in London, but each authority within London has its own council, each borough.  So you may live in Camden, Haringey or wherever it is, and you have got your own borough council, as well as having the Greater London Authority.  The Conservatives? idea was that the leaders of these 32 borough councils should themselves constitute an Assembly to scrutinise the Mayor.

Oddly enough, Ken Livingstone himself came to agree with this position in 2005.  He said, ?Yes, the Assembly?s a nuisance ? scrap it, and let?s let the boroughs do that sort of work.?  The problem with that answer is that the boroughs consider what is best for their own particular patch but not for London as a whole.  In other words, the Borough of Camden asks what is best for Camden, the Borough of Haringey asks what is best for Hillingdon, and so on. But no one is asking what is best for London.

The Government sidestepped the opposition parties by asking a single question in a referendum: ?Are you in favour of the Government?s proposal for a Greater London Assembly??  The Liberal Democrats wanted the Assembly but not the Mayor; the Conservatives wanted the Mayor but not the Assembly, so there are really 2 questions involved in that question.  The Conservatives said there should be 2 questions really; ?Do you want a Mayor?? and ?Do you want an Assembly?? but as it was, there was one question and you either had to vote yes or no to that.  It got a quite comfortable majority, but on a fairly low turnout.

This is the first fundamental feature of London, which differentiates it from everywhere else in the country.  It has got a powerful, directly elected Mayor.

The second interesting feature is that the Mayor is not elected by the ?first past the post? system which is used for all other local government elections in England, and for elections to Westminster, but by a system called the supplementary vote, which allows second preferences to be taken into account.  So you do not vote with an ?X?, you vote with a ?1?, ?2?, ?3?, and if the candidate who is ahead has not got an overall majority, votes are then redistributed so that second preferences are counted.

The Assembly itself is elected by proportional representation, the same system as is used in Scotland and Wales, roughly very similar to the German system of proportional representation.  The Assembly is the first English local government to be elected by proportional representation, and the first experiment with proportional representation in England since 1950 when the university seats were abolished.

However, in Northern Ireland, local authorities have been elected by proportional representation since 1973, the Scottish Parliament has just introduced a provision that Scottish local authorities will be elected by proportional representation, and the National Assembly of Wales is considering that also.  So you may say proportional representation is seeping in.

This is a second innovation in London: there is a new electoral system used for the election of the Mayor and the Assembly.

The third innovation is that the Mayor, Ken Livingstone, was first elected in the year 2000 not as a Labour Party supporter but as an Independent.  Ken Livingstone had been a Labour MP and stood for the Labour nomination for the Mayor position, but he was defeated by Frank Dobson, a former Labour Cabinet Minister who had been encouraged to stand by the Government.  The Government constructed a rather peculiar Electoral College for the choice of candidate, and a lot of people thought that this Electoral College was so constructed that Ken Livingstone was unlikely to win, because it gave a lot of power to the trade unions who did not support Livingstone and less power to the individual members who did.  Livingstone said the electoral process was rigged and he said he would stand as an Independent candidate in 2000, and in consequence, he was expelled from the Labour Party for opposing a Labour candidate.  In fact he defeated the candidates for the 3 major parties to win fairly comfortably in 2000, but by the time of the second election in 2004, Livingstone had been accepted back into the Labour Party, largely because they thought he was likely to win and didn?t want him to defeat another Labour candidate.

Nevertheless, an important precedent had been created, and it was one that Blair hoped would be created, namely, that an Independent could defeat candidates of the party machines.  It may be recalled that Blair said there was too much domination of party caucuses in local government, we need some independent-minded figures.  Whatever you think of Livingstone, he is not a strict Party man.  So it was a precedent that an Independent won that election, and incidentally, of the twelve other local authorities with mayors, four are Independents.

Finally, and fourthly, and finally, there is a new model of government in London.  One may remember the old Greater London Council (GLC) but this new London government is very different from that.  It is what the Government calls a strategic authority.  What they mean by a strategic authority is that it?s an authority whose main role is not to provide services but to develop a strategy for London as a whole. 

The London Mayor and the Authority have hardly any executive powers because they are not primarily concerned with delivering services.  That is the job of the borough councils ? Haringey or Camden or wherever you happen to live.  Indeed, the London Authority is specifically prohibited from providing health, education or housing services.  Its main powers in terms of delivery lie in the area of transport.  Hence, Livingstone being in charge of the congestion charge.  He has got power over the buses and power over the London Underground system. 

However, having said that before transferring power to the Mayor in London the Government established a PPE arrangement, a private/public partnership arrangement in London in the Underground, to which Livingstone was opposed.  Livingstone said it was a mistake to bring private capital into the Underground and it should remain, as it were, a publicly owned concern.  One may argue the election of Livingstone in the year 2000 could be interpreted to mean the voters of London did not want the public/private partnership either.  They got it anyway, because the Government did not want Livingstone to have that power over the railways, over the Underground.  Livingstone took the Government to court over this and lost the case, but nevertheless, he could argue that his transport strategy has been nullified because the Government already made the key decision before giving him control of the Underground.

One may wonder how the Mayor going to operate if he has got so few powers: his powers are primarily those of patronage, persuasion and publicity.  The argument in response is that if he is very powerful, if he really represents London, the boroughs will not be able to offend him, that he will, through the force of his presence, personality and electoral mandate, be able to exercise authority without having real power to do so. 

However, in addition to not having any executive authority, he cannot raise any money either, and I think the Government would have been concerned that Ken Livingstone should not be able to raise any taxes.  Livingstone?s money comes either from Central Government or from a precept on the London borough councils.  In fact, around 75% to 80% of his money comes from the Central Government, and about 15% from the boroughs.  Now this means that if the Mayor chooses to increase expenditure, the only way he can raise it is through the boroughs.  It will be seen that if only 15% comes from the boroughs, there is a gearing effect whereby there is a great proportion increase from the boroughs, so the Mayor then becomes unpopular.  It could be argued that the Government organised that to try and avoid a high-spending London Mayor, because the criticism of the old GLC was it was spending too much money.

You may say it is rather odd that a rural parish council in the area in which I live can raise a certain amount of money but the authority representing the whole of London, the capital city, cannot raise a penny.   The Evening Standard said at the time that London is to have the only elected Mayor in the world without a single proper tax to his or her name.  The New York Mayor has six, can raise six different taxes.

With all this, you can see this is a strategic authority; it is something quite new in British political experience.  Taking all this together, one would say that there is no basis in past political experience for knowing how this new and untried system would work.  It is a leap of faith with no precedents for this sort of structure in Britain.  It is perhaps too early to see how it has worked, but there are a few indications, which I will address later. 

The critics would say that it is an awkward compromise because the Government could not make up its mind in two different respects.  First, is London a local authority or is it a region ? should it have a regional-type government as one might claim Wales to have?  Or is it a local authority, like a borough council?  Then, the critics could say, the Government could not make up its mind whether there was to be a strong London authority or not.  On the one hand, it claims to want a really powerful Mayor who is elected by the whole people, who represents the whole of London; but on the other hand, he has got so few powers and he is trammelled, checked and constrained all over the place?  So in two respects, it could be argued, the Government couldn?t make up its mind: firstly, is London a local authority area or would regional government be more appropriate; and secondly, do we want a strong leader of London or a weak one?

I think it is not accidental that the Government could not make up its mind.  All this is understandable in the problems of London government, which is a very old problem.  In order to see why these problems come about, and are almost insoluble, I think it is worth looking at the historical origins of London government, because these very problems I?ve addressed were there from the very beginnings of local government in London.

Local government in London began in 1888, when the Conservative Government of the day, under Lord Salisbury, passed a Local Government Act establishing county councils in England and Wales.  One of these county councils was the London County Council.  The London County Council was very different from the Greater London Council of the ?70s and ?80s or the current London Authority.  The London County Council only covered the inner London boroughs. 

At the first election for the LCC in 1889, it was won by the Left, by a party calling itself the Progressives, which comprised the Liberals, who were then the leading party on the Left and the Fabian Socialists (the famous Fabian Socialist Sidney Webb played a very large part in the early days of London Government).  Their policy was to improve social conditions in London through active government, taking private services, essential private services into municipal ownership, and using revenue from the rates to pursue a social welfare programme.  These ideas frightened the Conservative Party, which had not anticipated this, much as nearly 100 years later, the ideas of Ken Livingstone frightened Margaret Thatcher.  They were worried about a Left Wing authority in the middle of London. 

Moves to abolish the London County Council came pretty quickly. Again, there is a parallel with the Greater London Council 100 years later.  In about 1895, people started thinking of getting rid of the Left Wing body.  But the Conservatives did something rather different, in 1899, when they passed another act of Parliament, adding to the London County Council, London Borough Councils, some of them were Left Wing, some of them were Right Wing (the poorer ones tended to be on the Left, and the more prosperous on the Right).  It was thought, that these borough councils would act as a check on the London County Council.  For the period of the London County Council?s existence, there was a conflict throughout, between the London County Council and the boroughs. 

In the 1960s, you begin to get more changes because in 1963, the Conservative Government, under Harold MacMillan and Alec Douglas-Hume, they abolished the London County Council, and replaced it by a Greater London Council, and that, as its name implies, was not just inner London, but roughly the area we have got now ? Greater London.  That was the first change.

But moves to abolish the Greater London Council began almost immediately after it was set up, and eventually, Margaret Thatcher did so, in 1986, just 20-odd years after it was established.  London then became unique amongst all the large cities of the world in having no authority at all until the year 2000, when it got the current structure.  Therefore, in the last 50 years, you have had four structures: first, the London County Council; second, the Greater London Council; third, no Council; and now, the Mayor.  Instability is not terribly good for London, but you can see from this history that there is a conflict which is absolutely central in London and why the Government has had so many problems with the Mayor, this central theme of London government, which is the conflict between a London-wide authority and the borough authorities.  That is a fundamental reason why it is so difficult to find a stable and long-term system of government in London.

Sometimes people compare the government of London with, say, Paris, Berlin or New York, and ask why we do not have a really strong mayor as New York has.  But these comparisons are a bit facile and over-simple, because Paris, Berlin and New York do not have very powerful boroughs, as London does.  It is true that New York has boroughs, in Queens, Bronx, Brooklyn, and so on, but most New Yorkers regard themselves as New Yorkers first, and inhabitants of Queens, Bronx and Brooklyn and so on second.  Now, is that true in London, particularly in the suburbs?  Do people in the suburbs not feel themselves as belonging first to Richmond or Croydon first, and London afterwards?

Susan Cramer was a candidate for the Liberal Democrats in 2000, in the Mayor election against Livingstone.  She had been canvassing in Croydon, and people said, ?What is this got to do with us?  We thought this was an election for London.?  They didn?t see themselves as belonging to London.

This raises a fundamental question, of whether there is, in political terms, a London entity at all, whether people feel themselves Londoners, or whether London just a collection of villages and units linked together.  Now, you may argue perhaps, London identity conflicts with borough identity, but does London really need an authority at all?  Is there such a thing as London-ness?  Can?t people be perfectly well represented by their borough councils, and if they want a directly elected mayor, they could have it in Richmond, Croydon, or Hillingdon, or wherever it is? 

This has particular importance when it comes to matters of planning, which are obviously central to London, because the Mayor is required to introduce strategic plans for London as a whole.  But what does that mean if the power of development planning the power to determine whether you are allowed to build an extension to your house or a new factory etc. ? that all that power lies with the boroughs and not with the Mayor?  Is this just not an empty power, if the real power on the ground lies with the boroughs?

It is important to remember that the Mayor and the Greater London Authority are not a superior authority to the boroughs.  They have no power whatever over the boroughs and their only power is the power to persuade.

That problem arose with the GLC in the 1970s and ?80s, because what Ken Livingstone wanted to do was to deal with London?s housing problem by re-housing people from the East End of London to Richmond.  The Borough of Richmond did not agree to this and the GLC had no power to compel them.  Well, the Mayor has no power to compel either.  It is a strategic authority, which means it has hardly any powers.  Thus the real check on the Mayor is not so much the Assembly, but the boroughs.

If you take the view that London does need an authority, you may say that things haven?t gone far enough, because if a borough still has all this power, you are in danger of continuing with the balkanisation of London.  As was shown earlier, it is no good simply saying the London Assembly can be Borough Councils of Richmond and Camden and Haringey and all the rest, because they look at things in borough terms not in real London terms, but you are still in the same danger if the Mayor has no power over the boroughs, because the boroughs can still go on looking at things in their parochial terms on this argument and you can do nothing to override them.

Livingstone has argued for the Mayor to have larger powers to be able to deal with this problem.  In the Evening Standard last year, he had an article which was headlined ?Give me the means to help London flourish,? and he gave a good example.  He said, ?I can directly refuse the planning application of strategic importance,? ? he can veto something ? ?but I cannot direct agreement.  Local interests can completely block something with real London-wide consequences, most obviously the need for housing.  I firmly believe that local boroughs should remain the mainstay for planning decisions in London, but not at the expense of NIMBYism.  Too many good applications for new homes are being turned down, already more than 40% of all applications.?  Livingstone said he wanted powers to direct the boroughs to meet these strategic targets, and he provided the further example of his problems with buses.  He said, ?If we are developing a bus priority strategy, with 17 major routes cutting across London, it would be ridiculous if one borough could opt out of that,? so the bus priority strategy goes to one side of the borough and then resumes on the other side which is obviously unsatisfactory. 

In the other words, there is a built-in conflict in this arrangement  which is a recipe for getting nothing done and which presents a danger of the Mayor being squeezed between the Government on the one hand and the boroughs on the other.  After all, it is the Government that determines spending on the services that affect Londoners, like the National Health Service, higher education, further education, housing, social security.  The boroughs determine spending, to a large extent, on schools and local planning.  What is left for the Mayor?  He is responsible for just 10% of public expenditure in London,  compared with the Scottish Parliament, for example, which is responsible for around 65% of Scottish public expenditure.

When all this was being debated in Parliament, one Conservative MP, Richard Ottaway, the Conservative spokesman for London, said, ?In truth, the first Mayor of London is going to be John Prescott because he is going to have more powers than the Mayor.  He is the man who is going to make all the decisions and he has got the power to decide how the budget is spent.?  Therefore it is natural for the Mayor to seek further powers, which Livingstone is already doing, powers over the National Health Service in London, powers over further education, and above all, powers over the boroughs.

I think it should be clear by now that, whatever the Government?s intentions, what you have got in the London-wide Authority is a fairly weak government, certainly compared to the Mayor of New York.  It will be remembered that after 9/11, they way Rudolph Giuliani took control and was seen as the spokesman for New York and indeed is now a Presidential candidate for the Republican Party.  Now Giuliani has control of the police, the fire services, the hospitals, the housing, and personal social services in New York, with 70% of his expenditure funded by local taxation.  He can raise revenue from no different than 6 sources of taxation, so he has one of the most powerful politicians in the United States. 

Some people think the Mayor is responsible for everything in London and not just the congestion charge.  They say, ?Why aren?t you doing something about crime?  What about the Underground?  What about the roads?  What about the homelessness?  Why aren?t you doing something about it??  The answer is he cannot do anything about it.  All he can do is try and persuade others, primarily the boroughs, but also Central Government, to act.  He has no real powers. 

You may ask yourself, is there any real point in establishing this complex new system of government but not giving it any powers?  Clearly, Central Government, as I said, the Labour Government, couldn?t make up its mind.  They didn?t know whether they wanted to hand over power to London or not, so in the end, they decided to hand it over, but make it very constrained.

A London-wide government, a really powerful government like that in New York, would give London politicians and particularly the Mayor a powerful weapon, and you cannot predict how it would be used.  It might be used against the Government of the day.  You cannot predict whether it would be used for good purposes or bad.  You take a risk.  You give someone power, and they have got the power to do good things as well as bad.  But you may also say, if you deny a body the power, you deny it the power to do good as well as to do bad.  You have to make a decision as to what you want, one way or the other.

I?ve said that one of the criticisms that people have made of London Government is that you do not need it, it is too large, and people relate much more closely to their local boroughs.  They feel much more citizens of Richmond, Croydon or wherever it is than they do of London as it is too remote from those people.  They say, ?We can go to the Town Hall in Richmond or Croydon if we want, but London is just too far away for us.?  If you take that view, you can say, ?Well, alright, perhaps the Liberals were right.  Perhaps London shouldn?t be a local government authority.  Perhaps it should be a regional body, with powers devolved from Central Government, a bit like Wales.?  In other words, perhaps London really is not another tier of local government, but a regional authority, with large powers devolved from the centre.

But you might argue, from another point of view, well, is London a region in that sense?  Isn?t the region much wider than London?  You see, you may say it is too large for local government, but too small to be a region, because you may say London is very heavily interlinked with the South-East, the whole South-East region, and large numbers of people who work in London live outside, commute in and out, and therefore London is too small.

In the late 1980s, a great planning expert, Sir Peter Hall, wrote a book called London 2001, in which he said the real unit for regional planning is the vast area stretching from Basingstoke in Hampshire to Chelmsford in Essex, from Bishop Stortford in Hertfordshire to Horsham in Sussex.  Such an area comprises 22 million people, over a third of the country.  An architectural historian called Dayon Sujitch has written a book called ?The 100 Miles City?, again, a similar region.

You obviously could not have that as a possible authority, with 40% of the country, but you may nevertheless say that one of the problems of governing London is that the economic scale ? the scale of the travel to work area, which is what economists are usually concerned with ? is so much larger than any appropriate political or administrative unit of government, and much larger than the current Greater London Authority ? it would have to cover a lot more.

The final reason why the government of London is so difficult is that London being the national capital, a really strong Mayor, with an electoral mandate behind him, could challenge the Government of the day in a manner which I think even a Mayor of Birmingham or Newcastle or Manchester could not.  There is a paradox really: the very size and importance of London ensures that it remains politically weak, because Governments are terrified of having a rival on their doorstep.  Margaret Thatcher was incensed by the Left Wing GLC in the 1980s, and Tony Blair was not very happy when Ken Livingstone won the election in 2000 as an Independent, and probably delighted that he had constrained him with all these powers so he could not actually do very much.  So Governments are terrified of having this monster on their doorstep.

That was the final sort of major problem I think with London, within that structure that was set up.  But even if you think there ought to be such a structure, there is still a tremendous problem.

The first problem here is the lack of clarity about the division of powers in London.  Powers in London are divided between Central Government, its various quangos, a body called the Government Offices for London, the Greater London Authority, and the boroughs.  The quangos are bodies like the London Housing Board, various health bodies, and so on.

I wonder if anyone in the audience, and I expect not ? I think it?d be prepared to make large bet not ? I wonder if anyone could describe what the actual division of powers is between these different bodies, and which body has which power, and therefore, if you have got a problem with health or housing or whatever, who you go to, in this large conglomeration of government and quangos and so on?  You may argue, part of the purpose of setting up a London Authority would be to get rid of the quangos.  That is what the Welsh National Assembly has done but the Greater London Authority has not.  This is a completely bad system of government if the average person is not able to understand what the division of power is and how it is actually run.  One of the first requirements of a good system of government is that it must be absolutely clear.

A recent Commission on London Governance called Making London Work Better, said: that ?An overarching theme running through this report is that Londoners should have more say in the way the City is run.  One of the current barriers to this is the extreme complexity of London?s government arrangements, which involves 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 to reform services, 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 as users of public services.?  In other words, the complex system doesn?t make for good public services, and it does not make for good democratic government either ? a damning criticism.

Furthermore, I said earlier that the London Authority is a new type of authority, a strategic authority, which means it does not really have many powers.  You may think, after what I?ve said, that the notion of a strategic authority does not make much sense.  It is all very well to think that the Mayor will be so popular as a result of his electoral mandate that he will be able to persuade people to do what he wants, but life isn?t really like that, and the boroughs will say, ?We?ve got the powers.  You keep out.  We do not care about your mandate.  You go somewhere else with it.?  So I think that the idea of a strategic authority may not make much sense.  It is a very fashionable idea, that local government should not provide any services but supervise those who do, but it does not actually work in practice.  The particular difficulty of a Mayor to get the power to implement his so-called strategic decisions over planning in London plan is just something in the air, unless he can get the boroughs to conform with it, and therefore of little value.

I want to conclude by asking you what you think the answer is.  I will give you four options.

The first option is whether the current structure should be maintained, with perhaps minor amendments.  Now, I fear my lecture?s probably been biased against the current option, but no doubt will argue for it in the discussion.

The second option would be to rebalance the structure by giving the Mayor more powers, and I think one solution might be, in place of the Assembly, to have a kind of London Senate, which represents the boroughs, but to go even further than that, and to allow the Mayor to override recalcitrant boroughs if he has the support of two-thirds of them.  In other words, a few selfish boroughs should not be able to override two-thirds of London.  So you give the Mayor power if he can get the support of two-thirds of the boroughs.  In other words, in this argument, more interlocking of powers is needed for London government.  That is the second option, to rebalance the powers and give the Mayor some authority over the London boroughs.

The third option is the one supported by the Liberal Democrats, to treat London as Wales is treated, and to have a regional authority there with devolution from Central Government.  In other words, London is not a local government unit at all, but should be treated rather like a regional authority, even if, as I said, strictly it is not a region because it is not the travel to work area and lots of people come in from outside.

And the fourth answer why don?t we go back to the period before 2000, between 1986 and 2000, when London had no overall body at all?  Just get rid of the Mayor, get rid of the Authority, save a lot of money, and forget about it.  Is it an unnecessary layer of democracy?  Could London not manage without an overall authority?  Did people really notice or care when London did not have one?  The people who wanted the Mayor said yes, they did, people were desperately upset and they really want the London-wide authority, but when you had the referendum on the Mayor in 1998, the turnout was just 34%, and the turnout in the elections for London is just 36%.  The referendum for the Mayor was held on the same day as London Borough elections, where the turnout was 45%, but the turnout for the referendum, only 34%.  It does not actually look as if people are straining at the leash and saying desperately what we need is a government for London, and if you abolished it, some of its powers would go to the boroughs and perhaps others to the Central Government.  It is fair to notice as well that the economic regeneration in London, the turnaround in London, really occurred in the late 1980s when there was no London government.  Under the Margaret Thatcher and John Major Governments, it is fair to say, that London did achieve a great deal of development, particularly in East London  and you cannot easily attribute any obvious disasters to the lack of a London-wide government. So you may ask this question: is there politically such a thing as London, or are we not really inhabitants of Camden, or Haringey, Holborn, or wherever it is?

So we have these four options: retain the current structure, with perhaps minor amendments; rebalance the powers to give the Mayor power over the boroughs; abolish the current structure but have a regional structure like Wales ? treat London as a case study in regional government if you like, with powers devolved from Central Government; or abolish the whole thing entirely and just remain with the boroughs.

The question is of which you feel to be the right one.


©Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Gresham College, 30 January 2007

This event was on Tue, 30 Jan 2007

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.

Find out more

Support Gresham

Gresham College has offered an outstanding education to the public free of charge for over 400 years. Today, Gresham plays an important role in fostering a love of learning and a greater understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Your donation will help to widen our reach and to broaden our audience, allowing more people to benefit from a high-quality education from some of the brightest minds.