Leading Article: Big city, small council

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The Independent Online
Many Londoners do not like living here any more but feel powerless to do anything about it.

THIS bleak assertion, made to the Prime Minister by a group of distinguished Londoners (including Sir Ralf Dahrendorf, chairman of Newspaper Publishing plc, which produces the Independent), is likely to ring bells with fellow citizens. The latter will agree with the group's further claims that the physical and social environments of the capital are deteriorating, that public transport is becoming more congested and less reliable, and that many streets and public places are neglected and dangerous.

What is heartening is that most of those expressing disenchantment would also be inclined to subscribe to a further defiantly loyal thrust from the experts, who have come together to establish the Institute for Metropolitan Studies. 'No other city in the world can claim quite such a combination of significance in public affairs, business and culture,' they say in their pamphlet, A Fresh Start for London, published as an open letter to John Major. Londoners want their city to work. What has gone wrong?

It is worth remembering that all large conurbations have problems. Traffic runs more slowly in central Paris than in central London. Tokyo residents endure far longer commuting times and enjoy only one-twentieth of the green space per head. New York is beset by danger and decay on a scale unimaginable here. The authors do, however, identify one specific impediment to London's revival. Since the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986, London has been unique among capitals in having no single democratic authority to set 'directions of policy'. There are ad hoc bodies, junior ministers with special responsibilities and 32 local authorities. These are virtually all one-party states in which power is unlikely to change hands at the ballot box. They are characterised by a low turn-out in elections and, however unfairly, by the whiff of corruption. (More than half, at the start of 1992, were being investigated by police or auditors.)

The authors' solution is the establishment of a small, strategic authority for London, charged with control over important areas including land use, transport and the environment. It would be an enabling body with 'fewer than 10' full-time, salaried members directly elected from a single, London-wide constituency. There would not, however, be an elective mayor - to avoid possible conflict between between a charismatic leader and central government. There would be a consultative standing conference consisting of London MPs, borough and City corporation representatives and co-opted members.

This initial study leaves key questions unanswered. Without proportional representation, a single constituency would surely mean that one party would sweep the board. Could this be tolerable? Would not a directly elected mayor help to provide a focus for the city and render it far more difficult for unrepresentative plotters to organise coups like the one that brought Ken Livingstone to power in May 1981? How would conflicts between the hungry new metropolitan authority and the 32 jealous boroughs be resolved? Its virtue is that it moves the subject beyond the tedious debate over whether or not to revive the elephantine GLC, whose demise few Londoners now mourn.