London Mayor Sadiq Khan has called for a major transfer of powers and political autonomy to the capital and other UK cities and regions, claiming that their “dynamism” stands in growing contrast to what he called “the increasingly dysfunctional character of national government” and its inability to “respond to the challenges of our time”.
Speaking at think tank Centre for London’s annual London conference, held today at Congress House in Bloomsbury’s Great Russell Street, Khan said that the mayoralty, now in its 18th year, has come of age and that “a new constitutional deal” to allow it to build on its successes so far is essential as the capital faces “an unprecedented period in our history,” with the housing crisis, rises in violent crime and nationalist populism, the impacts of Brexit and “years of austerity” all posing major challenges.
Describing national governments as “powerless in the face of globalisation and powerless to respond to the needs of local citizens,” he criticised what he termed a “Sir Humphrey knows best attitude in Whitehall” and asked the Prime Minister to “re-set the devolution agenda and hand over more control” to London government over funding, housing, public services, skills training and taxes.
He called both council tax and business rates “totally broken taxes, creating real damage to our city,” and said that London’s boroughs and City Hall could reform them and create “a much fairer system” for the capital. Khan, who has been under pressure to do more to stem a rising tide of violent crime, also cited the House of Commons public accounts select committee saying that the Home Office lacks strategic direction and has a “limited understanding of the resources needed by the police.”
Detecting a rise in hostility to London from elsewhere in the country in recent years, the Mayor stressed his view that devolution to other cities and regions too is “absolutely vital”. Referring to the recent announcement that some of Channel 4’s operations will be relocated to Leeds, he said that “spinning out a few of our top institutions to the regions is no substitute for a proper strategy. If we don’t act now, mistrust between London and other parts of our country will only get worse. Yes, London is a global city, the but it is an English and a British city too, and I want our ties to remain strong. The social bonds binding are country together are already stretching to breaking point, and this will only get worse.”
Stronger UK cities would be better able to address their own internal tensions too, the Mayor argued. This strength would not be achieved “by making London poorer,” he maintained, but “by helping the rest of the country become more prosperous by creating a strong network of powerful cities and regions. The politics of blame and hatred have seeped far too deeply into our national debate over recent years, with extremists prepared to exploit lack of opportunity and a sense of insecurity in some communities. In our cities we can do more to bring people together to promote social integration, and by showing that we can get things done locally we can restore some civic pride.”
Khan joked that after having gone through its “difficult adolescent phase” under Boris Johnson, the London mayoralty is now entering adulthood. “We’ve proved that devolution works and that it can work well,” providing “a strong voice for our city even through adversity,” and, together with the Greater London Authority, realising “countless achievements” that would not have happened otherwise, such as introducing congestion charging, securing the final go-ahead for Crossrail, setting up Transport for London, and driving the transformation of East London by winning the 2012 Olympic Games.
The Mayor listed funding increased numbers of social rented homes, setting up the Borough of Culture award and “creative enterprise zones”, new air quality initiatives and creating a Young Londoners’ Fund intended to divert young people away from crime as significant achievements of his two-and-a-half years in power so far.
“There is so much potential waiting to be unleashed, but we cannot do it without being unshackled,” the Mayor said. “Devolution is clearly unfinished business and the need for cities to have more control has been made all the more urgent by Brexit. This can’t be ignored any longer. There’s far too much at stake. More autonomy will help us to protect London’s economy from the uncertainty of Brexit and allow us to determine our own future. And if powers are to be repatriated from Brussels, rather than being confiscated by Whitehall let’s make sure they are handed to London and other cities. This really would be taking back control.”
On London will be carrying further coverage of Centre for London’s London Conference in the coming days.