This year, the Greater London Authority (GLA) quietly celebrated its 20th birthday. Next year, London’s latest governing body will come of age. But will it survive to celebrate its 40th anniversary?
With the government moving to take more control of Transport for London (TfL) and commentators, including London Assembly Member Tony Devenish, urging them to repatriate even more powers, the signs may not be good. However, there have been calls to abolish the GLA – which comprises the London Mayor and London Assembly and their staff – throughout its history, and their pleas have come to nothing so far. A better solution may be to actually devolve more, so that the Mayor’s responsibilities are clearer and the role is more accountable.
Mayoral elections can too often seem like personality contests, with the importance of actual policies coming a distant second. One way to change that is to make the job a serious one that reaches beyond virtue signalling and vanity projects. This seems counter-intuitive but, having worked on decentralisation in other countries, I have seen voters become more engaged when the candidates are seeking real power and the result of the election can be seen as having tangible consequences for their communities. Of course, there would need to be accountability too, to balance this increased power, which is why the London Assembly should be enhanced at the same time as the mayoralty.
The creation of London Overground, with control over some suburban rail services transferred to TfL, has been hailed as a great success, with more investment leading to ticket barriers, permanent staffing and safety features at stations which had become run down and unwelcoming. TfL Rail from Liverpool Street got off to a less promising start and has been overshadowed by the delays to Crossrail. But once this major project has been delivered and TfL has recovered from the Covid-19 financial hit, plans to transfer more suburban rail services to TfL control should be dusted off.
London Travelwatch, the capital’s transport watchdog, currently sits awkwardly between the Department for Transport and the London Assembly. Its role could be taken on by an enhanced Assembly transport committee.
Emergency Services : Ambulance & City of London Police
With the Metropolitan Police and London fire services already reporting to the Mayor, it makes sense for the GLA to take on responsibility for the ambulance service too and create a fully integrated emergency response under the same umbrella. The fight against knife crime could be boosted, as these NHS front line staff often see victims before the police receive a crime report. There would also be opportunities to rationalise property, call centres and the provision of crime prevention and fire prevention advice.
It could also be time to reconsider merging the separate City of London Police with the Met. The Square Mile’s force has developed considerable expertise in handling fraud, but this crime is increasingly widespread because online crime doesn’t respect historic geographical administrative boundaries.
Waste collection is properly the responsibility of individual London boroughs, but its final disposal is achieved through a confused hotchpotch of waste authorities, partnerships and boroughs acting on their own. The Mayor’s environment strategy contains ambitious targets for reducing, reusing and recycling London’s waste, but the powers needed to achieve them are largely not in his hands.
Sadiq Khan has complained – with some justification – of being shut out of the government’s COBR meetings – more often termed COBRA – that coordinate the response to emergencies, including the current Covid crisis. London has a resilience board, but it is low profile and we haven’t heard much from it. Perhaps it is time for London to have its own version of COBRA – a Mayor’s Office Briefing Room A committee. We could call it MOBRA.
A public Risk Register for the city would also be valuable. At the moment, this information is held on different registers by the organisations that report to the Mayor, but having it all in one place would ensure that important risks are not overlooked and that duplication of effort is avoided.
The London Assembly is almost always politically allied to the Mayor, compromising effective scrutiny. To some extent the problem can be solved by separating the elections, so that the Assembly contest takes place in the middle of the Mayor’s term of office, coinciding with London’s local government elections to minimise additional cost and disruption. These mayoral “mid terms” could become important ways of registering voters’ verdicts on the Mayor’s performances, much as they are for the US President.
Since 2000 London has grown considerably, yet the Assembly has not changed to reflect this growth. Furthermore, the population growth has not been evenly spread across the capital. Residential developments in the Lea Valley and along London Riverside have swollen two Assembly constituencies – City & East and North East – well beyond their original numbers or those of the other seats, registering turnouts of 214,000 and 231,000 respectively in the 2016 election. Constituents in those boroughs could reasonably claim they are currently under-represented. The South West seat too registered a high turnout – of over 213,000 – whereas the lowest turnout was in West Central at 153,000. There is considerable variation across the constituencies.
Unfortunately, the original GLA legislation was very prescriptive. It actually specifies in statute the number of Assembly seats and a requirement for them to respect borough boundaries (a stipulation that isn’t applied to much smaller parliamentary constituencies). So boundaries urgently need to be reviewed and the legislation amended to enable this.
Greater Greater London
Recent reports have suggested that renewed London Covid-19 restrictions, if needed, should be to the area bounded by the M25. This highlights the need for political and administrative boundaries to reflect the growth of the capital city. It makes a lot of sense for Greater London to expand out to the motorway, particularly as the GLA has strategic transport and economic development responsibilities relating to that additional territory. Such a move would make it easier to take on suburban rail networks and could herald more measures to enable home working or motorway-based park and ride schemes.
Peoples’ Question Time
The legislation is overly prescriptive on other matters too. The requirements for two Peoples Question Time public meetings every year, as well as an annual State of London debate are unnecessarily set out in statute. The Assembly chair and the leaders of the political groups at City Hall should be given the final say, in consultation with the Mayor, on the form and frequency of these events.
Office for Budget Responsibility
The Assembly’s budget and performance committee has acquired a well-deserved reputation for rigorous scrutiny but, faced with an overall budget heading for £20 billion and the opacity of TfL and the Met, it struggles to cover the ground. New York City has a well-resourced body of this kind, with finance experts scrutinising the Mayor. A similar organisation backing up the Assembly committee would have highlighted the current Crossrail and TfL finance problems at an earlier stage. It would be a sound investment in London’s future.
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