Little known fact: the 10th anniversary of the first GLA elections was Tuesday 4th May. Taking place just two days before the double whammy of the General Election and London Borough elections, it’s no surprise the significance of the date passed most people by.
In fact I was expecting the 10th anniversary year of the GLA to come and go with hardly anyone much noticing, let alone expressing an opinion about the next 10 years – and for reasons totally unrelated to such distractions as the World Cup this summer! – unlike Wales and Scotland where their ten year anniversary of devolution is seen as a significant historical milestone.
London has had some form of regional government for well over a century. The London County Council, the predecessor to the Greater London Council (GLC), was created way, way back in 1889 – six years before the invention of the radio. For most Londoners regional government is widely accepted and simply taken as the norm, with the 14 year Thatcher-inspired gap very much the exception.
Yet almost overnight things have changed in London. The coalition government is made up of two political parties that are formally committed to decentralisation of power. Already it’s been announced that the Government Office for London will be abolished. There is much talk that the Mayor will obtain new powers in policing, housing, the Royal Parks and possibly other areas. Three Bills in the Queen’s Speech will have a direct impact on the GLA: the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, the Decentralisation and Localism Bill and the Public Bodies (Reform) Bill.
The future of London governance is firmly on the agenda and the 10th anniversary should turn out to be the year when fundamental decisions are made about the future of London. For Liberal Democrats, the key thing is that decentralisation leads to better services, increased accountability and improved cost-effectiveness.
I would however immediately flag up two concerns.
Firstly, creating a single elected police commissioner for London risks confusing strategic leadership with operational interference. The police in London as elsewhere should be more accountable to the communities they serve but is this the best way? I know many people, especially from a local government background within both parties of the coalition government, share this concern.
The second concern is the low awareness amongst the electorate and even the media of some of the existing powers of the Mayor. Planning decisions on multi-million pound schemes that will affect life in the capital not to mention our sky-line for generations are currently made behind closed doors. Planning committees in town halls meet in public and so should the Mayor when making key decisions at City Hall. After ten years of a Mayoral system we must redouble our efforts to ensure the powers the Mayor already has are properly scrutinised.
So yes, let’s seize this opportunity for more powers to the GLA and the Mayor, but at the same time increase the powers of the London Assembly and enhance accountability to ordinary Londoners as well.
Here’s my five-point plan, as a starter for this debate.
1. Let’s open up how decisions are made and involve Londoners much more. All Mayoral planning meetings and the actual decisions must be held in public. Let’s also engage Londoners by placing an obligation on the Mayor to consult every year with the public about fare rises – which cost Londoners 20 times more than council tax changes (where a duty to consult already exists).
2. The London Assembly needs far greater powers to examine and vote on specific aspects of the Mayor’s budget. A simple majority of Assembly Members should be sufficient to amend any part of it. This is even more vital if budgets for housing and skills are to be devolved, and the Metropolitan Police Authority in effect abolished.
3. Likewise mayoral policies and strategies should be subject to an affirmative vote by the London Assembly. Currently, the power is limited simply to commenting. The need to secure majority support would work wonders for the seriousness with which officials and indeed the mayor treats that process.
4. With increased powers over a broader range of subjects the case for a proper cabinet system is even stronger, so decisions are properly debated and a record of these discussions formally created. Then cabinet members and Mayoral advisers should come, say once a month, before London’s elected Assembly, as in Parliament. The powers of the London Assembly to summon key people should be extended. Incredibly at present Assembly committees do not even have the power to summon the Mayor.
5. Let’s think bold and radical: the coalition’s commitment to funding the NHS should not exempt it from reform, by stripping out layers of management. The days of NHS London are surely numbered, constituted as it is. Let’s be bold and give the GLA responsibility for strategic regional health in London.
Lets bring the London Ambulance Service under the oversight of the GLA. It is the only emergency service excluded from oversight by London’s regional government – and indeed used to run by the GLC back in the early 1970s.
Decision-making closer to citizens, improved accountability, better and cheaper services. That’s the prize at stake here. And if immense and growing powers are put into the hands of one person, real checks and balances must exist. In cities across the world this basic principle is long established. It is time it was now established in London.
Mike Tuffrey AM speaks for the Liberal Democrats at City Hall on finance, housing, planning and the environment. Formerly group leader, he was elected to the GLA in 2002 after serving 12 years on Lambeth Council and on the GLC before abolition.