How Boris Johnson’s government is undermining London’s mayoralty

How Boris Johnson’s government is undermining London’s mayoralty

It is 20 years since Londoners first elected a Mayor and 21 since the legislation enabling it was passed by parliament. The Greater London Authority, comprising the Mayor and the London Assembly, was created by a Labour government, although the preceding Conservative one had also becoming persuaded of the need for a new form of London regional government to replace the Greater London Council, abolished by their party in 1986.

Now, in this anniversary year, another Tory national government appears intent on eroding the already limited powers of the Mayor, perhaps to such a degree that by the time next year’s delayed mayoral election is held, the importance of the office will be so diminished as to be hardly worth holding.

People who don’t like Sadiq Khan – and they include a number of influential people in and around 10 Downing Street – might think this a good thing. They should be careful what they wish for. Even shrewd observers who thought Boris Johnson was, at best, a four-out-of-ten Mayor believed City Hall should have had more powers devolved to it, not fewer, including the radical proposition Johnson himself endorsed that London government should control the use to which its share of property taxes raised in the city are put.

In short, the dismantling of the 1999 devolution settlement in one of the most hopelessly centralised countries in the western world would be a very bad thing for London, its people and the rest of the country, whose prosperity, like it or not, has long depended heavily on London’s economic productivity. A desire to lessen that dependence is reasonable. Denying its existence is a fashionable self-delusion among politicians and media alike.

So what are Prime Minister Johnson and his various colleagues playing at? There is no suggestion of a cunningly co-ordinated plot – after all, recent evidence suggests such a feat of organisation would be beyond the former Mayor’s national administration. But there does appear to be, at the very least, a cocksure indifference in various corridors of national power to the spirit of the 1999 Act (and its subsequent additions and modifications) and the principle of mayoral autonomy.

A personal theory, is that, although they dare not say so because of all the “levelling up” rhetoric, Johnson and company know only too well that London is vital to the UK’s recovery from the pandemic, know too that no Tory is likely to win the mayoralty in the foreseeable future and are so convinced they could make a better job of it than Khan that they just can’t stop themselves muscling in on his territory.

There are four main policy areas in which London Mayors have meaningful clout.

 

Transport

We’ve already seen the government use Transport for London’s Covid-created financial crisis to restrict TfL’s independence and its agents impose their own policy agenda. Conditions attached to the May bailout included a Department for Transport-led review of TfL’s finances, along with a larger and wider fares increase than the Mayor had committed to prior to the postponement of the 2020 mayoral election, the suspension of free travel for under-18s, an insistence that the level and operating hours of the congestion charge increase, and the provision of more dedicated road space for bicycles. The latter two measures are strongly favoured by the Prime Minister’s long-time media supporter turned transport adviser Andrew Gilligan, a cycling fanatic who has been made one of two “special representatives” of the government on the TfL board and two of its important committees.

TfL are hoping that a practical long-term funding agreement will eventually result, leaving it less dependent on fares revenue in future. But insiders are not ruling out the extreme outcome of an effective nationalisation of TfL, removing London’s transport networks from the mayoral portfolio. As London First’s Daniel Mahoney has observed “history suggests this would not lead to good outcomes”.

 

Planning and housing

Secretary of State Robert Jenrick was throwing central government’s weight about even before the pandemic took hold, with an overtly political attack on not just Khan’s proposed new London Plan – which, months later, he has yet to approve – but also his record on the related area of housing. There is a fundamental difference of attitude to these areas between Khan’s administration and those of various Johnson allies.

Khan’s predecessor’s deputy for planning Sir Edward Lister, now a Downing Street adviser, took a far more ad hoc, laissez faire approach to regulating development. Another of Johnson’s team, former Hammersmith & Fulham Council leader Stephen Greenhalgh, now a housing minister in the Lords, was a kindred spirit and follower of Lister and a prime mover behind the original, disastrous Earls Court regeneration scheme, which Johnson as Mayor enthusiastically endorsed.

Now, planning experts, boroughs and the influential influential Westminster Property Association among others have looked at Jenrick’s proposals for reforming the planning system and wondered where in the new system the capital’s Mayor is supposed to fit.

There is a mention of the “metro mayors” of other English cities, but no specific one of the Mayor of the UK’s capital city. One seasoned observer of London government dropped Jenrick’s department a line after the White Paper’s publication, pointing out this omission and wondering what it might signify. A reply thanked him for his interest and asked him if he had any ideas. Reassuring, isn’t it?

Khan and the two Mayors before him have increasingly been able to intervene in the planning system to influence the quantity, affordability and design of new housing. Is that ability to be by-passed or pegged back? London has also received funding from the government to contribute to the delivery of “affordable” homes of various kinds, with increasing amounts of control over how it is spent devolved to the Mayor. Khan and his team were pleased with the allocation they received in 2016 from the government of Theresa May. Is the government of Johnson and Jenrick likely to be as obliging? Is the government’s collective objective in both planning and housing effectively to by-pass or constrain London’s Mayor as much as possible?

 

Policing

The constitutional position is that the role of elected police and crime commissioner (PCC) for London comes with the job of London Mayor, who then sets the priorities of the Metropolitan Police through a statutory four-year police and crime plan. Those responsibilities are primarily discharged by his deputy mayor for policing and crime through the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC).

The Mayor and MOPAC also set the Met’s budget, though most of the money for the Met, which also has national responsibilities, comes from national government. The Mayor can top it up by increasing his share of the Council Tax or allocating a larger proportion of the business rates he retains, both of which Khan has done in order to limit the impact of recent government spending cuts.

In other UK regions, PCCs are elected separately. The London situation is unique. There is speculation – I know nothing more than that – in City Hall circles that the government might seek to detach the London PCC role from the mayoralty. Last month, a government review of the PCC model, with a view to strengthening it, was launched by minister of state for crime, policing and the fire service, Kit Malthouse, who chaired the old Metropolitan Police Authority for Mayor Johnson before it was replaced by MOPAC and was his deputy for policing from 2008 until 2012 (his successor was Stephen Greenhalgh).

Malthouse often gives the impression of believing his boss’s self-publicity about driving down crime when they were occupants of City Hall. Criticising Khan, he recently told a credulous Times: “As deputy mayor for policing in London I successfully fought the last spike in knife crime, which grew under a Labour government, so attempts to politicise a complex and difficult problem seem cheap and unpleasant”. His expertise on that last point appears borne out. Johnson himself has pronounced through the Telegraph, his daily fanzine, that Khan is guilty of an “abject failure” to grip the problem.

Criminologist provide very different accounts of why the recorded levels of some types of crime in London, including violent crime among young people, rise and fall – accounts in which the effects of pronouncements and policies by London Mayors of any stripe are of marginal relevance at most. That’s a story for another day. But don’t rule out an attempt by the government to dilute or even remove the London Mayor’s role in the capital’s policing before too long.

It can be argued that Khan has been his own worst enemy in his attitude to Johnson’s government, by continually picking fights with it in public. While this might find favour with voters, they are fights he is unlikely to win. Would he not be better off using his hefty store of political capital to woo Johnson instead, perhaps with some big, UK recovery-linked ideas? On the other hand, you can see why he might think making overtures to a regime in which people convinced they made a great job of running the capital between 2008 and 2016 are so strongly represented would be a waste of time. But one point seems unarguable – if things keep going the way they are at present they are not going to end well.

Image from Mayor of London Facebook page.

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