Capital idea for London: A city mayor would end identity crisis

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The Independent Online
The abolition of the GLC, together with the English metropolitan county councils in 1986 was an act of political vandalism. The measure was nurtured in the intolerant mind of Margaret Thatcher and accomplished without thought for either the wishes of Londoners or the consequences for the capital. Today London is the only capital in the world without a city-wide local government structure. As a result it lacks a voice, an identity and strategic coherence. There is simply no one to speak on behalf of London.

The city's governance is in the hands of a rag-bag mixture of elected borough councils, indirectly elected authorities, quangos and government departments. Bodies as diverse as the CBI and the Labour-controlled Association of London Authorities call routinely for some form of strategic authority, but still disagree on its precise nature. Even the Government has attempted to plug the gap through its quango 'London First' and has two ministers with a city-wide brief, Steven Norris, the Minister for London Transport, and John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, where London has its own regulation office. Mr Gummer recently instigated a consultation exercise on the future of London, but specifically vetoed from the outset any form of an elected strategic body. This is the option still preferred by around two-thirds of Londoners according to recent opinion polls and the Labour Party retains a firm commitment to legislate accordingly.

It is depressingly characteristic of the British political system that although just about every politician agrees something must be done about London it has so far proved impossible to secure a consensus. Because of its position as the capital city the scope and functions of London's local government have always been the subject of intense political debate. But for close on 100 years the political parties in London maintained the need for a city-wide authority. What structural changes occured did so after lengthy consideration, the results of which were generally acceptable on all sides. Now we have changes in local government structure imposed by ministerial diktat and using parliamentary majorities to ram them through. London has been turned into a political football and is the worse for it. Now one longs for a Paris situation where a Gaullist mayor and a Socialist President vie with each other to endow that city with ever greater riches.

Looking at other European capital cities it is fairly easy to identify the range of services which sense dictates should be run by a single London body: transport, tourism, strategic planning, police, fire services and waste disposal. However, it is difficult to draw a neat line between strategic and local services in a highly interdependent area such as London. At the moment the adjoining boroughs of Camden and Westminster are running different parking restrictions and the result is confusion and unfairness. Bus and cycle lanes cannot end at a borough boundary, but in the interests of both justice and efficiency neither should elegibility for pensioners' travel passes, the development of leisure facilities or support for voluntary services. After all, why should one borough's reduction of services be allowed to lead to greater pressures on the service costs of the borough next door? Once this argument is accepted, it becomes clear that the definition of strategic has ragged edges indeed. Personally, I would favour an authority having responsibility for rather more services than the old GLC. Not simply on the grounds of economy of scale and social justice, but because there are far too many areas of power not subject to democratic accountability. Why should the discipline of the ballot box be confined to a handful of politicians when so many London services upon which we rely are run by unelected, unaccountable individuals who are never exposed to the judgement of those they claim to serve?

Frustration with unreliable or poor quality service is compounded by nobody seeming to be responsible. On whom can you vent justifiable anger? I suspect I am not the only one who has felt like assaulting a government minister after a day on the public transport system or trying to avoid endless roadworks. I believe Londoners want someone to take the responsibility for running the city and whom they can get at when things go wrong. With this in mind I tabled a Bill in Parliament in 1990 to provide for a directly elected London mayor. Not a time-serving ceremonial post holder, but a powerful executive elected on a London-wide franchise. It was heartening to hear Michael Heseltine making similar noises but since then he has gone quiet.

An elected London mayor is hardly an original idea given similar figures around the world. Trouble is, such an office is not part of recent local government structure in this country, though there was a time when the Lord Mayor of the City of London performed something of the role. A directly elected mayor would preside over a 'cabinet' of appointed commissioners and an elected strategic London council. Council members, few in number and full-time, would have the primary functions of revenue raising and budget formulation. Revenue itself would possibly come from a cumulation of borough precept, central government grant and sales and tourist tax. With due regard for history it would be fitting to base London's new mayor and council in the Mansion House and Guildhall. Although the City Corporation would disappear we would still maintain many of the city's historic traditions, including the present Lord Mayor's show.

A London mayor elected for a period of four years would be extremely powerful and that is another problem. Such a figure would be able to claim a personal electoral base more extensive than any other single politician in the land - including that of Prime Minister.

Westminster politicians are already experiencing a steady flow of power to the European Union so I expect no great enthusiasm for the creation of a political office holder in London of national significance. Jealousy is still the strongest driving force in politics. However, London cannot go on in its present shambolic fashion. Until we have a person or a with the function of governing London we will continue to decline as a city. London desperately needs a voice and an identity. A mayor could provide both.

Tony Banks is Labour MP for Newham North West

(Photographs omitted)

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