What City Hall parties told Ministers about fire authority reforms

LFEPA oversees the capital's fire brigade.

LFEPA oversees the capital’s fire brigade.

Last month the government announced a public consultation over Mayor Boris Johnson’s proposals to change the composition of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA).

By law the authority must consist of 17 members, with 8 being London Assembly members, 7 local councillors and 2 personal appointments by the Mayor.

Boris wants to change the way the 17 seats are allocated, reducing the number of AMs to six, councillors to 5 and boosting the Mayoral quota to six.

The background to the proposal is last year’s row over the implementation of the London Safety Plan – which included the closure of fire stations and axing of fire engines – which only ended after Boris overruled authority members by issuing a Mayoral Direction.

The power to issue such Directions was granted to the Mayor by the 2007 Greater London Authority Act drawn up by Labour ministers when Ken Livingstone was still Mayor.

Had he possessed such a power in June 2007, Ken wouldn’t have needed to try blocking Tory nominations to LFEPA in order to get a vote on pay rises for station cleaners passed.

Yet despite giving the Mayoralty the power to overrule LFEPA members, Labour has been very critical of Boris for daring to use it. Their members on LFEPA even pushed for two separate legal views on whether they had to obey it.

Boris’s preferred reform is to turn LFEPA into a Mayoral agency along the lines of the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime – a proposal I made to the Communities and Local Government select committee last year and which was endorsed in the committee’s subsequent report on City Hall powers.

However there’s insufficient parliamentary time to make such a large and complex change so Boris has come up with an interim measure which would give him more say within the current set-up.

The deadline for submissions to the government’s consultation is now here and while the London Assembly failed to agree an all-party submission, individual AMs and political groups have sent ministers their thoughts.

Copied below are the Green and Liberal Democrat group submissions. Conservative AMs sent individual responses rather than a single group view so I’ve been sent a copy of James Cleverly’s to share with you.

Cleverly’s office tell me: “It’s important to stress, that whilst James unavoidably references his role as LFEPA Chair in the body of his response, he has responded as Conservative London Assembly Member for Bexley and Bromley – not in an official LFEPA capacity.”

With that duly noted, let’s look at a couple of issues raised by the responses:

The Greens, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all refer to LFEPA’s democratic integrity and accountability which they worry will be weakened should Boris’s proposals be implemented.

It’s worth noting the following two points – firstly no-one is elected to sit on the body, all of the Authority’s 17 members are appointed by the Mayor.

Secondly, while the allocation of LFEPA seats may reflect the broad outline of Assembly and local council elections, the body fails the true test of democratic accountability – a voter in the London Assembly constituency of Lambeth and Southwark can’t sack James Cleverly because they disapprove of his support for fire station closures.

In recent months Cleverly and others around the Mayor have accused Labour LFEPA members of acting like a local council opposition group which sees its job as resisting any proposal brought forward by the ruling group.

In a press release issued to coincide with the end of the government’s consultation, Labour gives credence to such claims, saying: “The Fire Authority is there to act as a democratic check on the Mayor”.

Unfortunately for the party, this isn’t correct.

LFEPA is an executive agency which runs the London Fire Brigade and employs everyone from the Fire Commissioner downwards.

Other than setting the body’s budget, the Mayor ordinarily has no role within it – despite the rhetoric of ‘Boris’s cuts,’ proposals received and voted on by members don’t come from the Mayor’s office but from LFEPA’s own officers.

The law which reformed the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority into LFEPA makes no reference to members holding the Mayor to account or acting as a “democratic check” on him.

Those who prefer to be challenging the Mayor rather than making the tough, regrettable decisions which come with being in office – which is what LFEPA members are – cannot logically resist either Boris’s less than ideal interim reform or the longer term ambition of a MOPAC style body scrutinised by the Assembly.

The responses:

Darren Johnson, Green Party Assembly Member:
I am writing to respond to the consultation on changing the composition of the membership of the LFEPA. I agree there is a case for looking at governance issues on LFEPA. In January, the London Assembly voted unanimously in favour of a review of the governance arrangements, given the ongoing tensions between the decision-making by LFEPA Members and the mayoral power of direction. However, I do not believe this flawed proposal is an appropriate way to deal with the issue.

For this to be successful, however, it would need to be undertaken on a cross-party basis where a number of different options could be properly examined. I believe this should include the following options:

  • scrapping the Mayoral powers of direction which were introduced by the previous government in 2007
  • limiting the scope of mayoral directions to cover only genuinely strategic matters
  • re-constituting LFEPA as a mayoral agency and establishing a separate scrutiny function within the Assembly, with the power to reject the London Safety Plan by a two-thirds majority, as with other mayoral strategies

However, the reform proposed by the Mayor is flawed. By increasing the number of unelected appointees, it will jeopardise the democratic integrity of the LFEPA. It should be elected members accountable to Londoners who make transparent decisions in the interest of everybody in the capital, whether through a proper mayoral agency or a separate body comprised of elected representatives.

The Mayor’s aim of gaining access to a wider pool of appointees should be achieved through the appointment of senior staff and advisors, rather than putting unelected appointees on a decision-making body.

I therefore urge that the Government rejects the mayoral proposal and instead supports a cross-party review to examine all the options for the possible reform of LFEPA in a balanced, measured and open way.

Caroline Pidegon, Liberal Democrat AM:
I am writing in response to your consultation to change the membership of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) on behalf of the Liberal Democrat Group on the London Assembly.

We are broadly satisfied with the current arrangements and do not believe that the proposals will lead to the improvements claimed by the Mayor of London.

1a) Improved democratic accountability
We believe that the present arrangements are well balanced. They are geographically and politically representative, with members bringing a wealth of experience to hold officers to account at LFEPA and ensure quality and effective decision-making. We question the claim that the Mayor has a mandate to reform LFEPA, as records show no policy commitment or comment on this issue prior to the 2012 Mayor and London Assembly elections.

However we do believe that LFEPA could go further in terms of ensuring it is more open and accessible, especially to the media. We would welcome for example meetings, especially Full Authority meetings, being webcast.

b) Greater clarity on executive-scrutiny responsibilities
The Mayor of London refers to a report by the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee, which calls for Assembly Members to perform scrutiny roles and uses this as justification to reform LFEPA. However the Mayor is also using this argument to remove local authority members who are not referred to in the report. We do not believe this is a significant issue.

c) Better links to budgetary responsibility
The current arrangements work well. For example members, working with stakeholders and the electorate, ensured a full consultation on the Fifth London Safety Plan (LSP5) which resulted in changes saving two fire stations.

d) Greater policy convergence across the GLA Group.
Given that the Mayor already has the power of Mayoral Direction we view these proposals as unnecessary and merely an excessive ‘power grab’ by the Mayor to have his preferred people on LFEPA rather than the politically balanced range of views we have seen over the years.

e) Achieving efficiencies
LFEPA has always been seen as a very efficient public authority with the right level of scrutiny, debate and policy direction from elected members. Whilst the recent fire station closures have seen opinions polarised, over the years LFEPA has had a united front across the political divide on major issues including previous strikes.

2. Our views on altering the composition of the membership of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority
Following careful consideration of your proposed reforms, we do not support these proposals. It was only a few years ago that the Mayor’s office promoted the model of LFEPA as the preferred option for a reorganisation of the Metropolitan Police Authority.

Whilst we understand the emerging desire to have a Mayor’s Office for Fire and EmergencyPlanning, in a similar set up to the Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime (MOPAC), we believe that we need to see how MOPAC is really operating before any such changes are sought for London’s fire service. We therefore think that now is the time for maintaining the status quo, particularly following the recent major cuts and changes to London’s fire service. We are also concerned that any changes to the composition of members on LFEPA could have national implications for fire authorities across the country and could set a precedent for other authorities. To rush through this consultation, without any national debate is therefore regrettable.

If, following this consultation, you are still minded to push for these changes, we would seek an absolute assurance that there is a transparent process for Mayoral appointees and that they are subject to a London Assembly Confirmation Hearing. We would also seek that the membership is politically balanced ensuring that all parties who are elected to the London Assembly are represented.

James Cleverly, Conservative Assembly Member:
1. Do you agree with the Mayor’s overall aims?

Yes I agree.

2. What are your views on altering the composition of the membership of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority to achieve these aims as requested by the Mayor of London?

During my tenure as Chairman of LFEPA I have witnessed how broken the current governance arrangements have become and wholeheartedly share both the Mayor’s desire for a short term solution and goal of longer term reform.

It became apparent early on in the debate over the 5th London Safety Plan that a number of LFEPA Members felt a significant conflict between their decision making role as the executive and their desire to reject the Mayor’s budgetary decisions. Instead of accepting the financial reality in which the Brigade had to plan its resources and working together to achieve the most agreeable outcome, certain Members decided to relinquish their responsibilities to LFEPA. Having failed to draw up any alternative proposals they proceeded to reject the Commissioner’s sensible package of reforms and voted to increase operational expenditure by millions of pounds, threatening the financial stability of the London Fire Brigade. This forced the Mayor to intervene through his power of direction. These events and the subsequent failed legal challenge of the Mayoral Direction not only established the previously untested control the Mayor wields over LFEPA but highlighted the inappropriateness of the current governance structure.

I am of the opinion that ultimately the structural reform suggested in the CLG Select Committee report into the GLA Act, namely reshaping the Authority along the lines of the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, is the most appropriate solution. I do however appreciate the Mayor’s position that changes in the short term are necessary and agree that increasing the number of Mayoral Appointees is an acceptable way forward. In my opinion the criticism levelled at this proposal seems largely misguided. As the Authority is not directly elected these changes could not be seen as undemocratic. Local councillors who represent all Londoners when they sit on LFEPA cannot be expected to be accountable for the decisions they make on the Authority by the residents of their ward. Alternatively the Mayor, who is arguably held accountable by the public for the running of the London Fire Brigade, is the only one with a democratic mandate to exercise control. It cannot be claimed that these changes would in some way reduce the transparency of the Authority as the rules that govern it would remain the same. At an operational level the London Fire Brigade maintains an excellent working relationship with all London Boroughs and the idea that losing the representation of less than a handful of Local Councils from the Authority itself would somehow threaten this, is in my mind unfounded.

Where the roles of scrutiny and executive have become somewhat confused over the past year I would recommend that the CLG Select Committee’s recommendation of enhanced London Assembly scrutiny would be both wholly appropriate and helpful in rebalancing these responsibilities. I hope that the Assembly will take this opportunity to review its scrutiny role in regards to LFEPA.

Labour party press release:
Fiona Twycross AM today condemned the Mayor of London for attempting to pack the London Fire Authority with political appointees.

The Mayor is planning to remove two of the London Assembly Members and two of the councillors that currently sit on LFEPA, and replace them with four additional Mayoral Appointees, wiping out the majority that Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Greens hold on the Authority. Fiona Twycross AM today described the Mayor’s actions as “perverse”.

The Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green Groups on the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) currently form a majority, but if proposed changes go ahead this will no longer be the case. If the current system was to be maintained, following Labour’s gains in this year’s local elections it would see an increase in its representation on LFEPA. The Mayor’s proposals would effectively prevent the results of this year’s local elections having any bearing on the make-up of LFEPA and would provide him with a majority.

In her response to the Department for Communities and Local Government’s consultation on the composition of LFEPA, which closes today, Fiona Twycross AM states:

  • The move has come as a response to the circumstances that led to Boris Johnson having to issue a ‘Mayoral Direction’ to drive through his decision to close ten fire stations last year, which LFEPA opposed.
  • By packing LFEPA with political appointees, the Authority would not reflect the political balance of London as it does now.
  • It is perfectly possible for political parties to work together consensually on the Authority, as happened during the 2000-2008 period.

I am willing to have a proper debate about the future of LFEPA, but the Mayor’s proposals are flawed – they are neither one thing nor the other and pose a real threat to democratic accountability.

Commenting on her submission, Fiona Twycross AM, London Assembly Labour Group Fire Spokesperson, said: “This is a perverse move from Boris Johnson which I utterly condemn. The Fire Authority is there to act as a democratic check on the Mayor, and by packing it with political appointees so he holds a majority, Boris is riding roughshod over democracy.

“The Fire Authority consists of elected members who are accountable to Londoners, making transparent decisions in the interests of the capital. The Mayor’s plans jeopardise this important role and could potentially impact the safety of Londoners. At a time when all parties are looking at improving the link between the electorate and decision making bodies, it is crazy that Boris wants to get rid of elected politicians and replace them with his cronies.”

Comments

  1. ian leahair says

    I have read your blog piece with interest and it clearly shows your bias towards the Mayor and his proposals, you claim that the LSP5 proposals amount to rhetoric because they were conceived by officers, yet you fail to mention that those same officers had no choice given the financial restraints placed upon the authority by the Mayor. Had the Mayor not put such financial restraints in place then Officers including the the Commissioner have openly stated that they would not have made the cuts to the service, i therefore believe that it is not rhetoric to blame the Mayor and state that the proposals are his. You also fail to mention that the Commissioner and Chair of LFEPA were tasked by the Mayor to share the proposals with him and again he failed to withdraw such proposals and in fact fully endorsed them.

  2. Martin Hoscik says

    Hi Ian

    “you claim that the LSP5 proposals amount to rhetoric”

    No such claim is made – the only reference to “rhetoric” is in relation to the “Boris’s cuts” campaigning line that Labour and other critics pushed out, not to LSP5.

    There were cuts in central and local government funding to LFEPA, as there have been to many parts of the public sector and LFEPA officers therefore needed to look at how they could operate within the reduced budget.

    Of course, had there been no budget cuts decisions to close stations would not have been made.

    But there were and LFEPA members were under a legal duty to run the authority and LFB in a financially viable and sustainable way, something they were advised could only be done by implementing LSP5 which, as you know, was drawn up by the commissioner and his team.

    The commissioner doesn’t work for the Mayor, he is an employee of the fire authority.

    When they refused to do so, the Mayor used his power of Direction – a power which authority members knew he had.