Twenty years on, it’s hard to remember just what an innovation the creation of a directly-elected mayoralty for London was – a style of government never before seen in the UK, but which now seems as much part of the fabric of the city as Tower Bridge or the London Eye.
Could we imagine not having a Mayor of London today? It’s the question posed by Tony Blair, instigator of the reform, in his Foreword to what is, at the same time, a comprehensive survey of mayoral powers and policy, an academic account of City Hall’s machinery of government and a must-read collection of insider stories from prominent participants and observers, including insightful interviews with Sadiq Khan and Ken Livingstone.
Edited and co-written by Centre for London’s Jack Brown and Richard Brown – the latter himself a City Hall veteran – with Professor Tony Travers of the LSE, the book, while positive “overall” as to the achievements of the mayoralty, is no hagiography, ably chronicling the policy missteps, failures and shortcomings of the various City Hall regimes as well as continuing tensions with central government
Largely written during a pandemic which has wreaked particular havoc on the west’s mega-cities, it notes a new mood of uncertainty around metropolitan governance, highlighting the truth that nothing in the metropolis lasts for ever (except, perhaps, the City of London Corporation), yet giving a tentative ‘”yes we can” answer to Blair’s question.
Its journey starts in that 14-year interregnum after the abolition of the Greater London Council when the shape of London-wide government, if any, was very much a matter for debate. The Conservative government wasn’t interested, and Labour initially preferred a conventional council and leader model.
Blair, becoming party leader in 1994, remained wary of reforms that might see a return of “Red Ken” politics, until apparently persuaded in a private meeting with former Evening Standard editor Simon Jenkins, the book recounts, that a directly-elected mayoralty could “supplant party politics in local government”.
By 1995 Blair was publicly endorsing an elected mayoralty and beginning the process which would lead to the 1997 promise of a new strategic and streamlined authority for the capital and the UK’s first ever directly-elected Mayor.
In parallel, as Travers writes, an “array of quangos and joint committees spawned by (GLC) abolition” was effectively sustaining city-wide government – “as if most of the GLC’s valuable assets had been carefully packed away until a new owner came along…” A “London industry” had been taking shape too, promoting the city internationally, beginning to forge the “world city” vision which is still at the heart of institutional metropolitan thinking today, and laying the strategic foundations for revived city government.
The book rightly highlights the parts played during this period by business lobby group London First, the statutory London Planning Advisory Committee (LPAC), charged with providing strategic planning advice to Whitehall, and even the Government Office for London, and there’s welcome recognition of the role of figures such as Nicky Gavron, chair of LPAC, deputy mayor to Livingstone, driving force behind the first London Plan and early environmental policies, and a London Assembly member since the start.
A “curious continuity” therefore, in Travers’ words, but also a strong sense of the uniqueness, even strangeness of those early days of the mayoralty, notably from Richard Brown, who was on the spot as part of the “transition team” welcoming the new Mayor to his temporary home, the unprepossessing Romney House in Westminster.
“As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted fourteen years ago,” Livingstone began his acceptance speech, a line apparently suggested to him by a stranger on the Tube. But he was also “starting from scratch”, he says in his interview with Jack Brown, and he is very much the hero of the book, creating the role, and his successors operating within the framework he set.
It was during his incumbency that many of the key milestone moments of the mayoralty had their inception, from the congestion charge to the Olympic bid. And he became the voice of London, not least in his powerful response to the 7/7 bombings, recounted by long-term aide Neale Coleman, with his speech reprinted here in full.
He significantly improved the city’s transport system, appointing former CIA officer and New York transport chief Bob Kiley as his lieutenant, and confounded his critics further by embracing the “world city” growth agenda and a London Plan vision, still embraced today, of densification in response to population growth, investment in infrastructure, safeguarding the Green Belt and encouraging tall buildings, notably the Gherkin and the Shard.
As Jack Brown writes: “Livingstone’s two terms are held in high esteem by many expert mayor-watchers to this day, for the sheer breadth of activity and the boldness of action taken.”
Johnson gets more mixed reviews – “ultimately…neither a disastrous nor truly transformative mayoralty”. His stumbling start is well-chronicled, alongside some interesting off-the-record assessments reported by BBC London political editor Tim Donovan: “He really didn’t have a clue how the capital was run”.
Timing worked well for Johnson though. He basked in Olympic success, secured cash for Crossrail, more police and more affordable homes – albeit with a controversial definition of affordability – and engineered a significant power grab in bringing about the removal of Metropolitan Police commissioner Ian Blair, an episode crisply retold by then adviser and now Home Office minister Kit Malthouse.
And if his second term was soured by the impact of global financial crisis and the austerity policies that followed, Johnson’s sights were already elsewhere; described by many as an increasingly “part-time” Mayor, he became an MP again in 2015.
Khan has struck a different tone: “I’ve tried to move from a strategic, personality-driven body towards a focus on delivery”, he tells Jack Brown. His City Hall arguably has more power than ever before, but his first term has been particularly beset by adverse circumstances: a hostile government, continuing austerity, terror attacks, escalating knife crime, growing “anti-London” sentiment, Brexit, and then the pandemic.
While he can point to the ground-breaking Ultra-Low Emission Zone, the hopper fare, the Night Tube, new money for London’s first council homes in years, and his post-Brexit “London is Open” campaign, the sense remains, the book says, that his first term has “lacked a radical, transformative centrepiece”. Delivery is not always headline-grabbing, and takes time.
So where now? Inevitably, there are more questions than answers – not just because of the pandemic, but because devolution has stalled and the current government’s understanding, as exemplified by its rejection of Khan’s London Plan and its “strings attached” Transport For London bailout, is that “devolved power could be tolerated, but only if it delivered to national policy objectives”. Less optimistic times, then, in which, for the mayoralty, “survival may be the least-worst way ahead”.
But if this is a story about Ken, Boris and Sadiq, it’s also a compelling story about London, imbued with the sense that the city can still shape its own destiny, and will do so. And, for London-watchers, just in time for Christmas.
London’s Mayor at 20: Governing a global city in the 21st century, edited by Jack Brown, Tony Travers and Richard Brown, published by Biteback Publishing, is available from Centre for London here, from Biteback and from all good bookshops. Full disclosure: On London publisher and editor Dave Hill has contributed a chapter to the book.
Footnote: London’s Mayor at 20 was supported by eight sponsors: Argent LLP; Gensler; Gerald Eve LLP; Herbert Smith Freehills; Landsec; London Communications Agency; Stanhope PLC and the project’s academic partner, King’s College School of Politics and Economics.
OnLondon.co.uk exists to provide fair and thorough coverage of the UK capital’s politics, development and culture. It depends greatly on donations from readers. Give £5 a month or £50 a year and you will receive the On London Extra Thursday email, which rounds up London news, views and information from a wide range of sources. Click here to donate directly or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for bank account details. Thanks.