New London Assembly chair Andrew Boff has called for London to have more powers “to make decisions itself”. Outlining his vision for how City Hall could be reformed, the Conservative Assembly Member (AM), who has served on the scrutiny body since 2008 and was elected as its new chair last month, said AMs and Sadiq Khan are “pretty united” in the belief that London “should have more powers to raise money” and “to make decisions itself without going cap in hand all the time to Whitehall”.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Boff said: “As the economic engine of the United Kingdom, we should be keeping more of the proceeds of our economic activity and policies.” Citing transport, Boff said that even “obviously good” projects, such as extending the tram service, entail “continually going back to Whitehall in order to get these schemes justified.” Such a process could be greatly shortened “if we had direct access to the funds that London produces” and could make the decision locally.
Greater devolution of powers to London was a key theme in Sadiq Khan’s re-election manifesto, with the Labour Mayor calling on national government to allow London government to retain more of the taxes raised in the capital and decide how to make use of them. Boff went a step further, arguing that the Assembly should have greater decision-making powers, such as determining the outcome of planning applications called in by the Mayor. Currently, the Mayor does that exclusively, sometimes delegating to his deputy mayor for planning.
Boff said he thinks this situation “undemocratic” and suggested that the Assembly should be able to set up a planning committee to determine the outcome of applications the Mayor calls in: “We’ve got that democratic mandate, we’re accountable ourselves, so why not give it to us to determine that?” He’d like the Assembly’s power extended into other areas too: “We could do so much on the railways, on public transport, on public health, on policing if we just had more control over our own money”.
Not only would this allow more to get done, said Boff, it would also be easier to hold the Mayor to account, “if he’s actually got control of the money” rather than “if he’s only kind of got control of the money [as is the situation now].” Greater powers for the Assembly could also serve to improve engagement with Londoners. “The Assembly is much under-praised, and it’s my job to make sure people pay attention to us. And the more they pay attention to us, the easier it is going to be with Government to be able to get those changes that we want,” Boff said.
The Assembly chair said that seeking additional powers for City Hall would be a “long-term process”, but that he and the other AMs would “keep putting that pressure on government, because it makes sense”. The government has already outlined plans to reform the way metropolitan mayors, including the Mayor of London, are elected, with a proposal to replace the current Supplementary Vote system with First Past The Post. Boff thinks this “willingness to talk about local accountability” might be a good opportunity to “squeeze” in proposals about reforming City Hall.
Since its formation in 2000, the Greater London Authority has had some further powers devolved to it, including the adult education budget and greater control over allocation of affordable housing funds. But Boff acknowledges that, “It’s very difficult to ask people who have spent their entire political lives trying to climb to the top of the greasy pole to then start handing power down to where they came from.”
He adds that MPs who have previously served as AMs or been local councillors wished at the time that they’d had more local-level powers. But then they “get into the big place and they completely forget about that and come up with all kinds of excuses about why that can’t happen – and it needs to happen.”
Nonetheless, Boff praised the Assembly as a “powerhouse” and said it has “done well” within the limits of its power. “For the people that say that the London Assembly isn’t worth it, we (the GLA) are a £19.4 billion operation and the audit function (the London Assembly) costs just £8 million. When you’re given that tiny amount compared to the overall responsibility of what we’re holding to account, you realise its enormous value for money.”
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