With the fourth election of the London Mayor and Assembly, in which I’ll be taking a part, fast approaching (all those doors to knock on!), now seemed an opportune time to take a look back over the origins and structure of this rather curious institution of the Greater London Authority (that term applies _only_ to the combination of the two, for those who like to get the technicalities right – hi Darren!)
I’ve got a lot of respect for Tony Travers, not only because I know that he’s one of a handful of experts on local government in Britain, but because he very sharply chaired one of the ten hustings in 2010 for Holborn and St Pancras, and helped make it one of the most interesting. So his The Politics of London: Governing an Ungovernable City seemed a must-read.
In it, he covers the lead-up to the creation of the GLA in 2000, and the first three years of its existence. I must admit some of the latter is really only of interest to the specialist, but he’s very interesting on the historical long-view of London – broadly what he sees as the “ungovernableness”, and the strains, stresses and nature of the unusual (in British terms) and rather anomalous constitution structure that we have today.
He explains: “The status of the GLA is unclear. The mayor’s hugh electorate and the GLA’s strategic role suggest devolved regional government, like the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, but the financial rules and close continuing central government control make it look more like local government. … it is not the top tier in a vertically integrated hierarchical system of metropolitan government. As set out in the legislation, and confirmed in practice, the powers of the mayor are largely those of patronage, persuasion and publicity. Patronage, through his or her ability to appoint to functional bodies; persuasion, using limited control over resources and position at the centre of hat is a continuing system of network and multi-level governance; and publicity through exploiting the mayor’s legitimacy, accountability and democratic claim to ‘speak for London’.” (p. 68)
But Travers is also good on colour: “Livingstone’s first words after the result had been declared, uttered just after midday of 5 May, were, ‘As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted 14 years ago…’… Rarely can there have been a comeback of such biblical proportions. Having been evicted – as leader of the GLC – from County Hall by Margaret Thatcher on 1 April 1986, ‘Red Ken’ returned in triumph – as Mayor of London – against the bitter objections of Tony Blair. Even in an increasingly centralized country such as Britain, local politics can occasionally bite.” (p. 75)
He’s also good at exposing, to some depth at least, the internal politics – so how Nicky Gavron came to be deputy mayor (an appointment solely at the discretion of the mayor except that it must come from the Assembly members) for four years, although at the beginning the theory had been the post ould rotate through four Labour AMs.
Travers also has interesting things to say about the changing politics of Livingstone. He appointed Judith Mayhew, from the Corporation of London, on the London Development Agency, showing “a very New Labour concern for full business involvement”… in the 1980s Livingstone had been strongly committed to the abolition of the City.” (p. 90) And about how the LDA’s Spatial Development Strategy “gave primacy to London’s financial and business services sector. The EDS (Economic Development Strategy) more strongly supported economic diversity, warning that increasing concentration on finance and business services within London’s economic base would leave the London economy weaker, not stronger, in the face of global economic change and market volatility. … The question remains, however, as to the extent to which the LDA, given its recourses and complex political remit [also reporting to Westminster] could do much to affect the future of London’s economy.” (p. 131)
(The mayor also appoints the boards of Transport for London, the Metropolitan Police Authority, and the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, and their chairs, although the mayor can take TfL for him/herself. The MPA appoint their own chair. And the mayor appoints the TfL and LDA cheif executives. p89)
On the Assembly, this was Travis’s conclusion (noting also that the Conservatives originally wanted the assembly to consist solely of borough council leaders) after three years: “it is clear that many (members) worked hard during the GLA’s first two or three years to assist in making the new institutions ork. But they achieved far less than the sum of their collective efforts. In part this as because of the way the GLA was set up the assembly simply does not have sufficient power to actas an effective counter-balance to the mayor. But it is also because assembly members have not focused their activities. In particular, they have neglected to:
* concentrate scrutiny on GLA-funded services, including police and fire, in ways that take direct account of public concerns and expectations;
* hold hearings into mayoral appointments and the work of the Mayor’s office;
* build the reputations of individual assembly members as policy and scrutiny experts (in the way parliamentary select committee chairs have built such reputations).” (p. 197)
And these are his conclusions on the mayor’s position: “because the GLA depends on central government for almost all of its resources, the mayor has vert little capacity to deliver major projects.The long-running problems associated with redeveloping Wembley Stadium, the South Bank arts complex and King’s Cross railway lands all attest to LOndon’s incapacity to deliver major projects. The World Athletics Championships, due to take place in London in 2005, had to be abandoned by Britain because it proved impossible to arrange the construction of a stadium at Picketts Lock in Enfield. [Used to drive past the ghost signs for that regularly!] … it is a demonstration of the extent of centralization in modern Britain. To undertake a major project such as a railway line or a sports stadium requires the creation of a complex partnership, generally involving public and private sector institutions. Despite the centralization of taxation and financial control, Whitehall itself is unwilling to lead key projects because it fears the political consequences of failure. As a result, public or private bodies – such as CrossRail, a joint venture company set up by the mayor and the Strategic Rail Authority, or, at Wenbley, the Football League – must attempt to lead partnerships set up to deliver the project.” (p 204)
Travis also notes that the executive elected mayor on the US model has a problem with the traditional British civil service roles. “In a presidential/mayoral system, loyalty to the first citizen and a willingness to deliver particular policies are paramount considerations to the elected office holder. The dispassionate and objective approach of British civil servants and council officers will inevitably be put under pressure in such a system. The only way round this problem is to allow the mayor to appoint all the key staff in his administration.” (p. 201)
But it’s broader reform that he thinks is really needed, including a proper devolution of powers (at least on policing, transport, economic development, fire and planning) from central government to the London-wide tier; a rebalancing of power between the GLA and the boroughs(the boroughs and the city collectively spend about three times the GLAs net budget); a cull of centrally appointed quangos and other government undergrowth, fiscal and financial devolution and stronger powers for the mayor.