When Boris Johnson appeared before the House of Commons transport select committee during their report into the ‘snow chaos’ I was happy to agree with those who thought he’d been overly generous with his time – the Mayor of London is already scrutinised by the London Assembly and, uniquely among UK office holders, every voter affected by his policies has an equal opportunity to vote him out of office.
Unlike other key decision makers no Mayor has the luxury of hiding behind collective responsibility when policies become unpopular and every decision the Mayor takes is unshakeably his to be held account for – maybe something those thinking of running in 2012 might like to reflect on.
But if Londoners are to have a genuine understanding of how effective the Mayor’s polices are and how successful he is in delivering on promises of value for money it’s clear that expert analysis has a major part in the political scrutiny offered by the Assembly.
To date some of the most expert and impartial analysis of spending on public services in the capital has come from the PPP Arbiter who, as I’ve commented before, looks set to end up effectively redundant once Boris and TfL buy Tube Lines.
As we know, abolishing the role of Arbiter will require primary legislation because – thanks to Labour’s dogmatic attachment to the whole wretched PPP scheme – the 1999 Greater London Authority Act simply assumes PPP will be a roaring success and continue for the entirety of the original contracts.
As we also know there is a workaround and it’s not at all clear that formally abolishing the role is going to be a legislative priority for our new coalition Government but, just in case DfT officials are even now drafting plans to legislate the Arbiter out of existence, let me suggest that we pause and consider an alternative.
It’s already been reported that London Underground’s work on the former Metronet lines “is up to one third more expensive than similar work undertaken by Tube Lines” but with TfL about to swallow up Tube Lines, Londoners are potentially about to lose our ability to compare and contrast the value for money (or otherwise) of bringing the contracts in-house.
Of course we on the outside of TfL could just assert that costs are too high or that work could be done cheaper but what if we had some form of official benchmark – say a paper-based contractor – against which we could compare LU’s costs and real world performance?
In fact we, or at least the PPP Arbiter, already has such a beast in the shape of the ‘notional infraco’ – a comparison vehicle which “operates in an ‘overall efficient and economic manner and in accordance with Good Industry Practice’.”
With relatively little effort we could change the role of the Arbiter into that of an external auditor, harnessing existing expertise to provide impartial figures with which the Assembly Members (and voters) could better hold the Mayor and TfL to account.
This varying of the role would still need legislation but whereas abolishing it effectively switches off the spotlight of scrutiny in a highly complex area, recasting it would help bring the transparency which both Boris and the national government have promised their respective electorates.