Emma Burnell: Bring on the London devolution revolution

Emma Burnell: Bring on the London devolution revolution

The powers devolved to London regional layer of government are designed to be just big enough for Mayors to take the blame when things go wrong yet also small enough to provide few levers for doing much to put them right. The job provides a high profile platform and many see it as a stepping stone to a bigger national job – the last incumbent certainly did. But both Boris Johnson and Sadiq Kahn were and are frequently accused by critics of inaction.

Perhaps Ken Livingstone, the first Mayor, was lucky in having the opportunity to set a benchmark others simply didn’t have the opportunity to live up to, by setting radical standards with the bus service and introducing the congestion charge, for example. Yet, it was with Livingstone in mind that Tony Blair’s Labour government devolved so cautiously. The memory of his leadership of the Greater London Council made Blair concerned that he would become the Labour candidate – he didn’t, but went on to win the mayoralty anyway, as an Independent – meant the design of devolution was far from bold.

Over time, the situation has evolved – a tweak here and there. But ultimately the government still holds the purse strings and thus the power. This was amply demonstrated recently when, having been forced to all but close down the Underground due to the Covid-19 lockdown and seeing fares income falling off a cliff, Mayor Khan was forced to accept conditions on the government’ bailout of Transport for London, such agreeing to “widen the scope and level” of the congestion charge and increasing public transport fares from next year by more than the rate of inflation. Luckily, Khan is blessed in having the ever hapless Shaun Bailey as an opponent for next year’s delayed mayoral election.

But it isn’t London-wide government that has had the main role in holding the capital together during the crisis. Holding frontline service delivery together has fallen to local government, from emergency social services for the shielded, housing the street homeless and delivering essential services, to working around the clock to keep the show as much on the road as possible. When the crisis started, councils were promised they would be financially supported by the government to do “whatever it takes”. That was essential – London local government had been cut to the bone already. Yet councils have since been told that they may not be fully compensated by the government for extra spending and loss of income after all.

Central government will have to pay up. But that is simply not enough. The balance of powers, responsibilities and capacity for action between different levels of government has to change radically. Just as the crisis has illuminated this, it should also be the catalyst for changing it. Interestingly, it seems that Keir Starmer may be thinking along these lines. Since becoming Labour leader, he has gone out of his way to raise the profile of Labour local government,  inviting its leaders on the Local Government Association to attend meetings of the shadow cabinet. Labour has often talked a better game on devolution than it delivers, but Starmer seems to really get it. 

The paucity of powers devolved to London is ludicrous, especially given that its population is twice the size of Scotland’s. The capital’s economic and social needs are also very specific, quite unlike those of most of the rest of the country. London government should therefore have the power to address these without having to go cap in hand to central government. It should have much more of a say over its own NHS provision and be able to set London-specific immigration policies –  a measure that would have popular support in the capital. 

But it shouldn’t stop there. “Subsidiarity” is a long and silly word that basically means doing things at the right level. This should be the key principle for how London is governed and run. More powers should absolutely be devolved from the government to the Mayor. But equally, more power has to come to the boroughs, which understand individual communities they serve. In some policy areas, a London-wide answer is the right one, but the needs of different boroughs vary hugely – those of Kensington & Chelsea will be quite different from those of Redbridge, and Islington’s from Hillingdon’s. 

Boroughs should have oversight of the welfare needs of their people and the ability to deliver much better-tailored and managed systems than the cruel and formulaic approach offered by the Department for Work & Pensions. They should be able to intervene more imaginatively in local criminal justice issues, working with communities to lower crime rather than sending more and more people through the prison mincing machine, turning local tearaways into career criminals. These are just two examples where properly devolved powers could give London boroughs a radical chance to change lives. 

Local government in London has shown just how much the can do and just how well they can deliver during this crisis. Now it’s time to empower them to do so permanently. Not least to allow them to build the resilience we will need for the next one. 

Emma Burnell is a freelance writer and the person behind Political Human. Follow her on Twitter

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Categories: Comment


  1. Jack Jillings says:

    I think there are also areas, notably transport and control over roads, where more powers should be transferred up from the boroughs to the London wide government. The blocking of Oxford street pedestrianisation and the preventing of comprehensive cycle networks by certain boroughs illustrate this.

    1. Jack Jillings says:

      I’m not sure I see much benefit to devolving health either, at least the hospitals and GPs, it takes away responsibility from the national government who ultimately are the ones funding it. Smaller services that can be financed directly through taxes would be the responsibility of city hall but devolving things like health and education run the risk of the same thing that has happened to the police, namely, the mayor being blamed for issues in the police force that is run at a London level but whoose budget has been cut by Westminster.

  2. Matt Pyke says:

    I would be OK with this, however, there could be implications that will not go unnoticed in greater England. Would, for example, London MP’s accept no longer being able to vote on, say, motions on health or education pertaining to England (outwith London), if those decisions are taken in the London Assembly? Would London be happy to cede England only health, education, transport departments (amongst others) and their relevant jobs to greater England? Having more of a say on your own area means having less of a say elsewhere and London could be taking early steps to ending its status as capital of England.

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