Yes, we have no greater authority

Dan Hawthorn writes about the constraints facing the new administration for London

London’s social and economic problems are severe. There are more unemployed people in the Borough of Islington than in Newcastle, and more in the whole of London than in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales put together. Nearly half the children in Inner London come from families on Income Support, more than twice the average for the UK as a whole. London contains 13 of the 20 most deprived areas in the country, and 94 per cent of the poorest council estates. Over the last year, street crime in the city has risen by 30 per cent. By October 1999, the Metropolitan Police had cleared up just 15 per cent of the offences reported in 1998. In February this year, the Home Office released new targets for cutting car crime and burglaries. The Met has been ordered to reduce robbery by 15 per cent: at the moment they are only solving II per cent of robbery cases. London’s roads are congested: the city is regularly exceeding Government standards on sulphur dioxide and particulate air pollution. The Tube runs at, or even over, its capacity and is in need of capital investment.

What use will the new mayor and Greater London Authority be in finding answers to these problems? Or at least in helping us come to terms with the fact that they can’t be solved? Proposing the reform of London’s local government in the Commons, John Prescott expressed Labour’s desire to make the city’s administration ‘more open, more accountable and more inclusive ... It is about modernising the government of the capital, and giving power to the people of London.’ The city does need to regain its political identity: it couldn’t, for example, make a bid for the Olympic Games, so decentralised are its facilities and powerbases. Labour’s 1997 election manifesto pointed out that London is the ‘only Western capital without an elected city government’. Since the demise of the Greater London Council in 1986 the city has lacked a body that combines a cohesive administrative identity with electoral accountability. As the separate bodies that took over from the GLC have become increasingly powerful, the only policies effective over the whole of London have been collaborative projects usually co-ordinated by central government.

I often make the mistake of telling people I work in local government. If I’m unlucky, the person I’m talking to lives in my borough. They usually start going on about parking restrictions. I explain that they are part of an effort to reduce traffic and encourage the use of public transport. Shouldn’t this, they say, be combined with some improvement in public transport? At this point, I hold up my hands and say that public transport is nothing to do with the council.

Soon, I’ll be able to tell them that the mayor is in charge of transport strategy. Similarly, life should improve in neighbourhoods at present divided by arbitrary boundaries between two or more boroughs, health authorities or parishes. These areas have tended to suffer from unco-ordinated and inconsistent services but agencies are beginning to combine their plans for regenerating them, and London-wide strategies for development and the environment should help.

The winner of the mayoral election on 4 May will be answerable to more voters than any other politician in Western Europe except the President of France. These voters, moreover, are some of the most disenchanted and (until now) disenfranchised people in Britain. Of course, there has been a Government Office for London for some time and a number of policy decisions affecting economic development, employment and even transport in the city were being made on a local basis long before Labour’s victory in 1997. The main shift associated with the new legislation is therefore not to regional policy-making, but rather to the accountability of policy-makers and the drawing together of work previously done by numerous agencies in the public, private and voluntary sectors.

In many ways the new body looks very similar to the GLC – a central elected assembly working with the boroughs. Not surprisingly, Government spokespeople are keen to stress the differences, and, to a certain extent, they’re right to do so. First, they remind us of the growing importance of boroughs, the greater involvement of the private sector in public finance and the boom in successful ‘partnerships’ across the city. The GLA will be expected to incorporate and build on these developments. Second, the GLC was a body of representatives which elected a leader from among its own number; the GLA will, in contrast, be presided over by a directly elected mayor whom its members will have no power to depose. Third, the services provided by the GLC were wider: for example, it initially oversaw the Inner London Education Authority, although the ILEA became an independently elected body before control over education was finally passed to the boroughs after the GLC was dismantled. The GLA will also have less power to offer financial and political support to external projects: Ken Livingstone’s controversial support for minority groups in the early 1980s could not be repeated.

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