Dave Hill: Harper and Gove underline Tory disdain for London’s devolved powers

Dave Hill: Harper and Gove underline Tory disdain for London’s devolved powers

When Mark Harper, the Oxford-educated erstwhile minister for constitutional reform, was appointed transport secretary just over a year ago, some dared to dream that the long, lockdown months of TfL-torturing in which his predecessor-but-one, Grant Shapps, had indulged might be over – no more “never-ending, exhausting, frustrating negotiations with government over funding” as the then TfL commissioner, Andy Byford, described them.

After all, Boris Johnson had been turfed out, Liz Truss had crashed out and the seemingly sensible Rishi Sunak had moved into Number 10. Surely now, sanity would get the better of ego and ideology. Surely now, national government would accept the need to help London’s recovery and, in the interests of the whole country, provide its strategic transport authority with the long-term investment it needed and let it get on with its job.

It has turned out to be more of a case of “dream on”. The largely unknown Harper first made close acquaintance with public attention in October when, to a mass dropping of jaws, he informed the Conservative conference that he was “calling time on the misuse of so-called 15-minute cities” as a “sinister” means by which “local councils can decide how often you go to the shops”.

This legitimising of zany, madcap conspiracy theories seems inconsistent with the type of mind required to hold down a job as an auditor at KPMG, as Harper has done. My advice is to pick your accountant with care. But, as is daily evident, this government is not above resorting to the lower forms of populism as it strives to cling on to power.

And now we have Harper’s letter to Sadiq Khan telling him what TfL shall and shall not do with the £250 million his department has dispensed for capital spending – in other words, for buying things like trains and stopping other things from falling apart. It’s about half the amount TfL has been asking for for months, and therefore means other projects, such as replacing the semi-antique Bakerloo line fleet, cannot be proceeded with.

It’s not just the money that matters here. It’s also the tone. “This is another significant funding boost to your budget from central government,” Harper’s letter closes, pompously. “As Mayor, it is up to you to ensure TfL delivers transport services to the Capital without placing an unfair burden on either Londoners or taxpayers more generally”.

That sign-off is pure Shapps. Loose translation – you pursue transport policies I don’t like, so I’m going to portray you for public consumption as a spoiled metropolitan spendthrift who has to leech off honest folk in other parts of the country because you like pissing money down the drain. Yes, as before, no opportunity must be missed to fuel the northern grievance machine as the general election approaches. The new ingredient is the reference to Londoners. Yes, there’s a mayoral election coming too.

Harper’s letter also comes with the same top-down, command-and-control attitude typical of this national government’s to London’s since “Boris” got his big majority four years ago. The Johnson-led administration seized on the havoc the pandemic played with TfL’s finances to police it remotely from upstream, demonstrating with a vengeance the very “Whitehall knows best” attitude the Tories’ 2019  election manifesto had pledged to end. An “oversight group” was set up. “Special representatives” were installed on the TfL board. The same arrangements are a condition of the new capital funding deal, which will peter out in just a year.

It was Robert Jenrick, a recent departee from the government because he thinks Sunak’s Rwanda scheme isn’t unworkable enough, who, in March 2020, founded the convention of making a big display of targeting Khan politically and eroding City Hall’s autonomy. Required only to set out his response to the evolving new London Plan, the then Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government devoted four grandstanding pages to denouncing both it and everything he disliked about the Labour Mayor’s approach to housing. There was a mayoral election coming then, too.

This lends a certain symmetry to the content of Michael Gove’s latest big speech about housing, in which he reprised the telling-off he gave Khan back in July and echoed Sunak’s much-hyped vow of that time to “step in” to make the Mayor do what he think the Mayor should do, rather than what the Mayor thinks Londoners elected him to do. To be a little more precise, Gove again declared himself in favour of lots more housebuilding in London except those parts of it where Theresa Villiers doesn’t want it (not his exact words).

For his part, Khan has favourably compared housing delivery in London during his time as Mayor with that across the country and drawn attention to a now former transport minister, lobbied hard by Villiers, using an obscure piece of the Greater London Authority Act to prevent TfL building homes on Cockfosters station car park. That transport minister was Grant Shapps. Surprise!

This week’s parades of ministerial muscle would be more daunting were the government less puny. Even so, they highlight yet again the contempt of the Conservatives for London’s devolved government and their casual readiness to undermine it if they think doing so will fortify their emaciated standing in the polls.

Last week, the London Assembly’s cross party oversight committee – whose deputy chair, by the way, is Tory mayoral candidate Susan Hall (pictured with Harper above) – published a report with 23 recommendations for giving London’s Mayors more control over London’s affairs. A key finding warned that the government’s “levelling up” agenda could leave London “in a position where it has neither the fiscal powers to raise revenue, nor the funding from the Government to provide investment in the capital”.

Harper’s letter to Khan suggests that state of affairs might already apply: a minister from a government that declines to bestow on City Hall greater ability to raise and spend money itself, ticks City Hall off when asked to hand the money down instead – and, of course, declines to dispense the full sum required.

There will always be tensions between national and regional government. That is perhaps especially so when the respective layers are in opposing party hands and, as is the case in the heavily-centralised UK, if the former – like the UK itself – is so heavily reliant on the economy presided over by the latter. That said, Whitehall and City Hall have a shared interest in fostering London’s success. Sadly, the current national government sees its interest as lying elsewhere.

Support OnLondon.co.uk and its writers for just £5 a month of £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details HERE. Threads: DaveHillOnLondon. X/Twitter: On London and Dave Hill. Photo from Susan Hall’s X/Twitter feed.

Categories: Comment


  1. Mark Platt says:

    And yet for all their shenanigans, Scary Susan will not win.

    Not least because they have forced Londoners to forgo voting for whom we want by returning us to the awful FPTP system, and so forcing to judge both who would both like and definitely want to keep out of City Hall when casting our ballot.

    I hope she’s also voted out of her City Hall seat as demonstration for just how much we hate what they’ve done to our country, if not how much they seem to despise most of us who dwell here.

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