For many of us, the Christmas period brings a welcome wind down from the busy year behind us, a chance to relax and reflect on the previous 12 months.
As Chairman of the Budget and Performance Committee, the Christmas period coincides with the busiest time of the year for me because my London Assembly Committee – the Budget and Performance Committee – considers the Mayor’s plans for next year’s budget.
While our annual cycle of scrutiny actually begins in July, when the Mayor publishes his budget guidance for the GLA Group, our work really ramps up in the late autumn, when we start looking at the Mayor’s budget proposals for the next year.
In November, we hold a meeting with all of the GLA’s Executive Directors to question them on their budget proposals for the GLA’s core policy issues. We focus our attention on the Mayor’s key priority areas such as affordable housing, regeneration and the environment.
We discuss the proposed budgets for the Mayor’s priorities and make recommendations for specific areas we’d like addressed in the first iteration of the Mayor’s budget.
This year, we asked for more information about how the GLA plans to manage the Government’s changes to business rates. We also asked if we could see the initial budget submissions of the GLA Group. Despite asking for these repeatedly since July, the Mayor has refused our requests.
After our November meeting, we begin writing the Pre-Budget Report. This report serves two key purposes: to alert the Mayor to challenges that need to be addressed in the draft budget, and to inform Assembly Members about key issues that require further scrutiny.
In our report released in December, we raised issues with the quality and quantity of information which had been provided to us at that stage of the budget process, and asked for more information about the Mayor’s plans for providing leadership to his two Mayoral Development Corporations. We also questioned some of TfL’s plans, particularly about changes to investment in the transport network.
We have been concerned that funding for some important transport projects, such as the Metropolitan Line extension and the Sutton tram extension, has been cut. This was not the first time we raised these issues. In our September 2016 report, we asked TfL to set out the changes it had made to its business plan to fund the Mayor’s transport commitments, namely the four-year fares freeze and the Hopper bus ticket.
Although the Mayor responded fairly positively to our Pre-Budget Report, it has taken several months and continued pressure on him and TfL to get answers to some of our key questions. This has been increasingly frustrating, as without this information it is difficult for the Assembly to hold the Mayor to account on behalf of Londoners. After all, it is our money that he is spending.
That said, the Mayor does sometimes listen to us. After we published our Pre-Budget Report, the Mayor published his draft budget for consultation. To inform our response, we held three meetings in January with representatives from the GLA, the five functional bodies, and the Mayor.
Through extensive questioning we discovered some interesting facts, such as the Mayor’s plans to reduce funding for police officers, and plans to cut funding to the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation (OPDC) by 40 per cent.
The Old Oak and Park Royal site is the largest regeneration area in the UK, and one which promises thousands of new homes and jobs for Londoners.
We pushed the Mayor to reconsider his plans to cut OPDC’s funding so drastically, and so I am pleased that the Mayor has now agreed to provide an extra £1 million for OPDC to develop its long-term plans.
This is a good example of how our work delivers real impact for Londoners.
Between late November 2016 and mid-January 2017, my Committee held four meetings and published two reports on the budget. These all formed a basis for the Assembly’s meeting on January 25th, at which I stood back from my role as Chairman of the cross-party Budget and Performance Committee and challenged the Mayor as leader of the GLA Conservatives.
Over the next month, as we prepare for a second Assembly budget meeting on 20 February, I – and Assembly Members from all five political parties – will be working hard to hold the Mayor to account and suggest improvements to the budget for the year ahead.
The Assembly has a vital role in ensuring the Mayor’s £16 billion budget works for all Londoners, and it is one we take incredibly seriously.