Last year the power balance between the Mayor and the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority changed with long-lasting consequences for transparency and accountable decision making.
In January 2013 Boris used his reserve power to overrule authority members and order them to proceed with a consultation on London Safety Plan 5, a strategic blueprint for the capital’s fire cover which included the closure of fire stations and the axing of engines and jobs.
The cuts were hugely controversial and were opposed by a majority of authority members – a combination of local councillors and Assembly Members – and the Fire Brigades Union which lead protests inside and outside City Hall.
Boris repeatedly distanced himself from LSP5 and the cuts contained within by telling critical opposition AMs that it was they who sat on the fire authority, not him.
It was their job, he insisted, to deliver a balanced budget and to bring forward alternatives to the Fire Commissioner’s proposals if they could find another way to make the needed budget savings. If they couldn’t, they were obliged to accept the recommendations.
Having sought legal advice, authority members were told they could not ignore the Mayor, the power to Direct them had been given to him by Parliament as part of the 2007 GLA Act and was a firmly established legal principle.
This is the point at which the balance of power between the Mayor and LFEPA changed forever.
Now that Boris had used his ultimate weapon, and authority members discovered they were powerless to resist, LFEPA stopped being a sovereign body and edged closer to being a full Mayoral agency.
Parallel to the closing stages of this row, the House of Commons Communities and Local Government select committee sought evidence as part of a review of City Hall powers.
In my written submission to the committee, I highlighted the Mayor’s use of his power to Direct, questioned whether LFEPA was still a truly separate body merely reliant on the Mayor for funding, and proposed the body be reformed along the lines of the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC), with a dedicated London Assembly committee to provide scrutiny.
My proposal – subsequently backed by the Conservative group on the Assembly and welcomed by the Mayor’s office – was accepted by the committee and forms part of its recommendations for change.
I made it because I believe the current arrangement is untenable and hampers public clarity – authority members can debate and vote to take action or reject a proposal only for the Mayor to come along at the end of the process and overrule them.
That danger was there ever since the 2007 reforms came into effect, but now that Boris has used his power of Direction and seen how effective and unstoppable it is, there’s nothing to stop him overruling the authority on every future decision.
For this reason I believe it would be more honest and transparent for the Mayor to set the Fire Brigade’s budget and strategic objectives while the Assembly provides the robust, pan-London scrutiny which they’re so good at.
This is the model which governs policing in the capital and, although I was one of those who had their doubts about the move from the Metropolitan Police Authority to MOPAC, I believe it’s been proven to work.
The Mayor’s name is on everything the MOPAC does, an important fact which meant he was unable to hide behind appointed authority members when he approved a crime and policing plan which included closing police front counters.
And the Assembly’s ruthless scrutiny of both MOPAC and the Met has boosted its profile and provided the important outside views needed to improve decision making in any organisation.
Londoners are also better served by being able to easily distinguish the body which makes the decisions from the body which scrutinises how well those decisions are made and implemented.
They deserve that same clarity about decisions affecting the fire service.
Unfortunately reforming LFEPA and moving to the MOPAC model would require primary legislation which is unlikely to be brought forward before next year’s General Election.
In the interim the Mayor has proposed asking ministers to amend the distribution of the 17 authority seats, granting him 6 appointments (up from 2) with the number of London Borough Councillors be reduced from seven to five and the number of Assembly Members cut from eight to six.
City Hall says this arrangement would “represent a better reflection of the Mayor’s democratic mandate” and that while Londoners can kick him out for unpopular decisions, it’s much harder for them to hold Councillors and AMs to account for decisions they take as LFEPA members.
Unsurprisingly the suggestion has not been popular, opposition parties at City Hall have labelled it a power grab – which it clearly is – and seem set to object, which I don’t think they should.
Instead of resisting the Mayor’s reforms, I believe AMs should fully embrace them and take the opportunity to remove themselves from a situation in which they’re legally responsible for decisions they disagree with but are ordered by a political foe to take.
One of the many criticisms of the policing governance reforms was that there was insufficient time for handover. Many of the frankly duff decisions taken by MOPAC – such as leaving it leaderless and having to beg staff from the Home Office – are directly attributable to this.
AMs have it in their power to ensure Londoners get a better deal this time.
They could – and I believe should – work with the Mayor to minimise Assembly representation on LFEPA in return for the body becoming subject to the oversight of a new Assembly committee which had guaranteed access to papers and senior staff.
This would allow both parts of City Hall to shape and test governance and oversight arrangements before any Government brings forward legislation to cement the reforms in law.
The alternative is for opposition AMs to condemn themselves to nod through the Mayor’s decisions like backbench Westminster sheep obeying the party whip, blurring the lines of accountability and limiting their ability to criticise and condemn.
On this occasion it’s surely better to be outside the tent peeing in than to be the one getting wet?