Leading article: A capital idea - anyone fancy being mayor?

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What was published yesterday under the heading "an elected mayor for London" was really about something else. Like the propositions for movement towards self-government in Scotland and Wales, the London plan says something dramatic about Parliament - or rather, the culture of politics that is played out in the Palace of Westminster. It says that MPs, ministers and their acolytes (and all who broadcast and write about them) are willing to stand back and give the nation's capital its own political air to breathe.

The Greater London Council had all manner of faults, mostly irredeemable, and it probably deserved to die. But the reasons it was killed by Margaret Thatcher and her supine ministers a decade ago were the wrong ones, in that the act was primarily politically malicious, and anti-pluralistic. The Conservatives at that time could not stomach the lowering presence of County Hall across the river and especially not the high profile of the GLC leader. Of course Ken Livingstone's politics were part of that story. But if, by some miraculous transformation, Sir Horace Cutler had been a charismatic leader, spite and jealousy might well have been provoked in similar proportion.

The great potential of the Blair government is that it is genuinely interested in sharing power and its plans for London are a token. But let's not get carried away. The day may dawn when these new sub-United Kingdom entities are controlled not by Labour loyalists but by bolshie members of other parties or even (whisper it who dares) Labourites of another persuasion. That day will be the real test. For the time being, however, Labour is entitled to parade its plans, and its good intention, and we are obliged to applaud. These proposals for London deserve sharp scrutiny - how London funds are to be decided and distributed, the relationship of mayor and elected assembly, the extent of mayoral jurisdiction. But they are fundamentally welcome, so long as Mr Blair and Mr Prescott and their more control-freak party colleagues are willing to give the new creation some space.

Londoners have until next May to think about how they want the capital to be governed, or at least to assent to the questions that will be put to them in the referendum. Nick Raynsford, the minister responsible, is to be especially commended on allowing their votes to be counted on a borough-by-borough basis: if, say, a majority of the inhabitants of Croydon were to vote against, it would be entirely feasible to redraw the boundaries of that area of the capital that will be served by the new mayor and assembly. But if they can be satisfied on these questions, even the residents of the far-flung suburbs should agree to let this great experiment in urban democracy go ahead.

Our questions can be grouped under three heads - money, bureaucracy and personality. Any mayor worth his or her salt is going to want to spend more money on transport. Apart from the lamentable state of state education in London, travel is the biggest bugbear. The Green Paper's faith in private financing of public infrastructure is touching but unconvincing. Sooner or later the new instruments of London government will start asking hard questions about how Parliament decides its budget - and the ratio between London's tax take and expenditure on services. The way forward must surely be Londoners paying more and more directly for services, including transport, with compensating cuts in their national taxes. Sooner or later, this reform will precipitate the question of local government taxation. What the Government is proposing for London is representation without taxation. It is an unstable formula.

On the second point, the Government is clearly desperate to avoid any comparison between its new authority and the behemoth that was the GLC. However it is slimmed down, the elected assembly could look like a GLC manque unless it is clearly secondary to the mayor and has only an advisory capacity. A mayor who is subject to day-to-day control by a sizeable elected authority is not really an executive. To be effective, the city mayor must have presidential powers in limited areas.

Meanwhile, the proposals do open the door to the committee jobsworths who spawn in any multi-tier system. The assembly will doubtless create sub-committees for, say, waste management - even though refuse disposal in the capital has worked pretty well since the demise of the GLC. There is a danger of overlap, too, between the elected assembly and the proposed new police authority, made up of nominees from the boroughs. Government reform must not become an occasion for over-government. Where we do not need change, let's keep things the way they are.

The greatest attraction in the idea of a mayor is that the office will tempt into local government a dynamic personality who will inject life into a sphere where too often grey has been the predominant colour. Running London, even restricted to the array of services in the Green Paper, is going to be a hard act. It will need to compound showmanship, political nous, party sophistication, managerial talent, media skills and the capacity to appeal simultaneously to Metroland and the Stockwell Park Estate. No disrespect to Richard Branson, or those Labour figures who have declared an interest, but it must be hoped the advent of a mayoralty piques the interest of others. This is, Nick Raynsford said yesterday, a chance to renew democracy in the capital. It would be fatal then if old stagers were the only candidates, especially politicians as stale as Ken Livingstone. The mayoral election looks as if it will be fought on party lines. Labour, especially, must make a strenuous effort to open wide its candidate lists.