As someone who teaches an MA course on the subject, I accept that the capital’s governance has long been complex and weird: every first week with a new class involves repeatedly explaining that the City of London is the odd little bit in the middle of London, the city, rather than the same thing. The City has a Lord Mayor; the city has a Mayor. Yes, it can be confusing, but is the product of a long history.
It is also the consequence of a centuries-old national approach to governing that Peter Hennessy has described as ‘Muddling Through’. This long history is also one relatively free of revolution and upheaval. Rather it is mostly one of gradual adaptation and improvisation, of mending and making do.
But two separate ongoing stories illustrate that the London mayoralty’s complex tangle of powers have now led to democratic confusion. I am reminded of Michael Heseltine’s line: “Show me a problem and I will ask first who is in charge”. If you cannot identify the latter, how can you remedy the former?
Last week Sadiq Khan announced that Transport for London will be increasing fares by 4.8 per cent from 1 March. The Mayor campaigned on and implemented a TfL fares freeze in his first term, but is now bringing in what the Financial Times and others are noting is “the biggest rise in public transport fares in the UK capital in a decade” – the biggest since his predecessor, Boris Johnson, imposed a bigger one in 2012.
The Mayor argues that conditions placed on the government’s financial support for TfL after its income from fares collapsed due to people following Covid “stay at home” rules have forced this on him. Conservatives argue that Khan’s financial management is really to blame. Either way, repeated short-term “bailouts” with strings attached remind us that the Mayor has become only notionally responsible for transport policy in the capital. Central government has “taken back” a great deal of control.
You may have also noticed the resignation of the Metropolitan Police commissioner, Cressida Dick. Khan let it be known that she no longer had his confidence, which effectively forced her to go. The Met commissioner is appointed by the Home Secretary, while the views of Mayors are only to be taken into consideration. But in practice it is all but impossible for a commissioner to serve without having the backing of the Mayor. Johnson did the same thing to one of Dick’s predecessors, Ian Blair, in 2008.
This slightly odd situation exists partly for historic reasons, but is also partly due to the Met’s dual role – policing London’s streets while also being responsible for national issues like counterterrorism. It is often said that the Mayor has the largest direct personal mandate in Western Europe and although the Met, quite properly, has operational independence, the Mayor sets its priorities and budget. Yet central government provides most of its funding.
Who should Londoners hold responsible for transport and policing and how? If the answer is “a bit of both London and central government”, then the answer is surely ultimately “no one”. Who do they vote out if they seek or need change?
The answer is surely to simplify. Several experts have asked if it is time to disband and reform the Met, separating its local and national responsibilities as part of rebuilding public trust. TfL has different issues, but the current level of central government control over what is supposedly the Mayor of London’s primary sphere of influence is also deeply flawed. Don’t like the upcoming fare rises? Blame the Mayor. Or the transport secretary. Or the Prime Minister. Or perhaps, as I’m sure many will conclude, simply give up trying to work it all out.
Politicians of different political persuasions will always debate who is to blame for failure and responsible for success. That is entirely proper in a democracy. But I would argue that we are at a point where the half-hearted devolution of powers to London is causing fundamental democratic issues. This is not merely about the individual politicians involved. It appears systemic.
Yes, reform is easier said than done. Designing new systems from scratch is daunting, and not without tremendous risk. But London’s Mayor, of whichever party, should be politically accountable for the policing of London and the Home Secretary for national crime. And Mayors should be accountable for TfL. They have huge personal mandates. They should be able to do their job. And Londoners should be able to tell whether or not they are doing that job well.
A government that has implemented Brexit has a real chance to ensure that citizens can “take back control”. The levelling up white paper contains serious thinking on devolution in England. But there is a democratic as well as economic argument for reallocating power across the country. Perhaps it is time to take the next step – and this includes in our nation’s capital.
Jack Brown is a lecturer in London Studies at King’s College and author of The London Problem. Photograph: The new City Hall building from above.
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