Guest article: what national government could learn from London’s

by Ben Rogers

Ben Rogers is the founder and director of think tank Centre for London, a friend of this website. This is his first piece for On London. 

Two weeks ago was budget day. Last week, the Mayor of London published his draft London Plan. The budget, along with the Queen’s Speech, is arguably the most important day in central government’s political calendar. The publication of a proposed new London Plan is arguably the most important moment in a Mayor’s four-year term. A comparison of the two events tells much about the different natures of national and London government.

Britain is a pretty well run country. Our system of national government has evolved over an exceptionally long period and has a proven ability to adapt to changing times and new demands. Though parliament is not held in the high regard it once was, both Westminster and Whitehall continue to attract talented, motivated and public-spirited people. Moreover, some of it works very well. The Department for International Development, to take just one example, is widely admired as a leading agency in its field.

But Britain’s national government system is also widely deemed to have a number of long enduring deficiencies. Prime ministers are relatively weak and cabinet ministers and their departments strong, militating against joined up and strategic government. And for all the decentralising moves of recent years, the British state remains remarkably centralised and overstretched. According to Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics, the Treasury sets 95 per cent of taxes raised in Britain. Moreover some departments, notably the Department for Education, have hoarded more power rather than giving it away in recent years.

Brexit is highlighting some of these failings. Ministers are in violent disaccord and habitually leak against each other. Leaving the European Union would be a challenge for any government but is particularly great for one as over-extended as ours – the resources and energy expended on Brexit inevitably detract from other priorities.

Budget day is equally revealing of these weaknesses. A chancellor’s budget is judged largely in tactical terms. It is deemed successful if it goes down well with the press and interest groups during the days and weeks after its release. Almost inevitably then, the Treasury’s focus tends to be on short-term wins: a headline-grabbing bung to pensioners here, a hit on foreign investors there.

The contrast with London government and the London Plan in particular is almost painful to contemplate. When the Greater London Authority (GLA) was set up in 2000, it represented a major innovation. The idea was that the election of a mayor would provide the capital city with a strong, high profile leader with a large personal mandate. This, it has largely done. All three London Mayors have quickly established themselves as important national figures, and the first two were re-elected. The role is popular with the public.

The GLA was intended first and foremost to be a strategic body, and much of the Mayor’s power lies in publishing statutory strategies to which other London government bodies, including the boroughs, must attend. Sadiq Khan has spent a great deal of his first year in power overseeing the writing of these documents. The London Plan, governing London’s spatial development, is the keystone and housing, environment, transport and other strategies sit alongside it.

There is a striking consistency between them all – witness the emphasis they all place on healthy streets, active travel and good quality design. Mayor Khan is, arguably, showing himself to be a particularly deliberate holder of the office. But the point is not about this particular London Mayor. It is more about the way the office encourages its holders to plan for the long term and think strategically.

No doubt there are things the Mayor could do better and the mayoral system of government is far from perfect. Nevertheless London government emerges rather well from any comparison with its over-stretched national overlord. Her Majesty’s Government seems too often like an exercise in permanent crisis management. It almost makes you wonder if it should give a bit more power to the capital’s Mayor.

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