It’s almost 20 years since a Tony Blair government brought into being the post of Mayor of London, a new, untried system introduced 14 years after Margaret Thatcher axed the Greater London Council (GLC), leaving the capital with no city-wide government.
Two decades on, “London’s devolution settlement is here to stay,” concludes long-time London watching academic Professor Tony Travers, writing in a new Institute for Government essay collection which poses the question “has devolution worked?”
But is what Travers calls London’s “implied constitution settlement” – the Mayor delivering city-wide transport, policing and strategic planning and the boroughs providing local services – beginning to creak?
Reminiscent of those old battles between the boroughs and the GLC and with the capital’s first directly-elected mayor (and former GLC leader) Ken Livingstone over the western extension of the congestion charge zone, it is transport policy sparking division.
Mayor Khan’s flagship proposal to pedestrianise Oxford Street was stymied by Westminster Council, which has since also seen off City Hall’s planned Swiss Cottage to Oxford Circus cycle route.
Now, Kensington & Chelsea Council (RBKC) has followed suit, controversially blocking Khan’s plans for segregated cycle lanes on Notting Hill Gate and Holland Park Avenue, a move that prompted a call this week from Khan’s transport deputy Heidi Alexander for Transport for London (TfL) to investigate ways “to stop Central London boroughs from holding the rest of the city to ransom when it comes to delivering safer cycling routes”.
This was backed by Green Party London Assembly Member Caroline Russell, who has previously urged Khan to take control of Oxford Street. But it was described as a plan to “steal our roads” by Conservative AM Tony Devenish, who represents Kensington & Chelsea at City Hall as part of the West Central GLA constituency. He is also a Westminster councillor.
Meanwhile, RBKC has stuck to its line over segregated lanes. “Our position represents the clear view of residents,” it says. “The Mayor and TfL would be ill-advised to ride roughshod over those views.” This echoes Westminster’s position on Oxford Street, where local residents opposed the plans to pedestrianise it.
A wider consultation found greater numbers in favour, but Westminster is the highway authority for Oxford Street, which means it had the final say, quashing the scheme last year. TfL directly controls only 4% of London’s roads, comprising the 580 kilometre red route network, which actually predates the mayoralty and doesn’t include either Notting Hill Gate/Holland Park Avenue or Oxford Street, despite the latter’s regional and arguably wider status as the “nation’s high street”.
In transport, City Hall needs to keep the boroughs on board if it wants to get things done. This is true in other key policy areas too. At the same time, Whitehall still plays a major role in the financing of London regional government. Almost 69% of London’s revenue comes from central government, compared to 33.2% for Berlin, 26% for New York and 16.3% for Paris. Khan, like previous Mayors, has consistently called for more powers from Whitehall for City Hall, most recently to impose rent controls on private landlords.
Despite these tension between national government and City Hall and between City Hall and the boroughs, Londoners still seem happy, Travers concludes. We’ve been devolution fans from the start, delivering 72% support for introducing a mayoral system in a confirmatory referendum in 1998, including a majority in favour in every borough.
While comparative data is limited, public services, particularly transport, have improved since then, and city-wide government is “embedded in London”. Londoners identify with their high-profile Mayors, who have consistently outperformed national politicians on the satisfaction stakes, boosting London’s diverse, global city “brand” and using their huge electoral mandates to become powerful voices in negotiations with Westminster and Whitehall.
There’s been a perhaps surprising level of continuity too from one Mayor to the next, on tackling pollution, encouraging tall buildings, supporting transport and backing business, alongside distinctive policies which might not have happened before, from the congestion charge to the ultra-low emission zone, public bike hire, the Oyster Card, the cycle lane network, and the creation and expansion of the London Overground.
The challenge now, with Brexit prompting renewed interest in devolving power within England particularly, “is to sustain the process of devolution so as to deliver even better and more accessible government to Europe’s largest city,” Travers says.And Londoners still seem keen, despite the tensions now emerging- 46% support more devolution, to both City Hall and to the boroughs. Just 13% are against.
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