Dave Hill: Government contempt for London’s devolution settlement bodes ill for city regions elsewhere

Dave Hill: Government contempt for London’s devolution settlement bodes ill for city regions elsewhere

It began with a rude note from Robert Jenrick. Last March, the communities secretary informed Sadiq Khan that his proposed new London Plan was rubbish. “I am left with no choice but to use my powers to direct changes,” Jenrick wrote. He added that, in his view, Khan’s record on housing delivery during his four years at City Hall to that point had been rubbish too. Again, Jenrick pulled rank. “I expect regular meetings between you and I and my ministers,” he declared. Loose translation: Your actions must meet with my satisfaction; we give the orders round here.

It was the start of a sustained assault by the national government of Boris Johnson on the autonomy of London regional government and an office Johnson himself had profited from holding for eight years. The Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto pledged “full devolution across England”, augmenting the existing powers of city mayors “so that every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny”. Yet throughout the pandemic ministers have been doing the precise opposite to the UK’s capital city.

Jenrick’s intervention was an effective nationalisation of the London Plan – an imposition of Tory national government priorities on London’s directly-elected Labour leader. Soon, the impacts of Covid enabled others to get in on the act. Transport for London had come to depend on public transport fares for nearly three-quarters of its income. The first lockdown saw bus and Underground use plunge to a fraction of normal as people followed instructions to “stay at home”. TfL needed government help to avoid financial collapse. The government took full advantage.

The first bailout’s conditions required Khan to increase fares by more than he had intended and ordered him to suspend TfL travel concessions for under-18s and, during the morning peak, for 60-65 year-olds – the latter an expensive innovation of the erstwhile Mayor Johnson for wooing older voters prior to the 2012 mayoral election. Retaining those discounts has since entailed Khan increasing his share of Londoners’ Council Tax.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps made the laughable claim – enabled by the Evening Standard, for pity’s sake – that this outcome was “fair” because it would be wrong to “force” taxpayers in Exeter and Barnsley to “fund benefits for Londoners”. In the real world, London taxpayers have for years been funding the public services of Exeter, Barnsley and almost everywhere else in the UK to the tune of more than £3,000 a year per head. What Shapps had really done was deprive London government of its freedom to implement policies Londoners voted for in order to curry political favour with Tory voters elsewhere. So much for regions shaping their own destiny.

At the time, it was hoped that all this posturing at London’s expense would end after the mayoral election and Whitehall grown-ups pointed out – as Johnson frequently did when he was Mayor – that without a resurgent London economy, the UK as a whole will find it harder to recover from the pandemic. But no. The latest funding so-called “agreement” imposes even stricter conditions on TfL then the second one did in the autumn, many of them relating to long-running Tory obsessions with TfL’s pension scheme and the introduction of “driverless trains”, which they hope will reduce the power of Tube unions and never mind the practicalities or expense.

All of this points to a bigger national issue which goes as surely to the heart of how we are governed as scintillating tales of Lulu Lytle sofas and fixing tax problems for vacuum cleaner salesman. The long-delayed White Paper on devolution is now to be replaced by a “levelling up” one, in which Johnson’s government will presumably at long last attempt to define what it thinks “levelling up” actually means and entails.

It ought to mean sustained and tailored programmes of public investment together with the radical devolution of new powers to regional government across the country to make best use of it. But given what has been done to London, is any such transfer of real power away from the Whitehall on the cards? Is such a basic requirement of any serious “levelling up” strategy likely to be provided to the metro mayors of Labour-leaning Merseyside, Manchester, Bristol or even the currently Tory-run West Midlands and Tees Valley?

In London’s Mayor At 20, Tony Travers and Ben Rogers wrote that Jenrick’s London Plan muscle job “had the effect of showing the government’s understanding of devolution in England: devolved power could be tolerated, but only if it delivered to national policy objectives.” A national government ostensibly committed to increasing devolution across England has been dismantling it in the nation’s capital. London calling to the faraway towns. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

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