Power to the people of London town

Following the loss of the GLC, a movement has begun to campaign for change. But will its ideas lead to action?
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The Independent Online
The abolition of the Greater London Council by Margaret Thatcher has had at least this advantage: it has forced Londoners to think creatively for themselves about their city, rather than to leave it to local politicians. Into the vacuum have come dozens of bodies to consider virtually every aspect of the capital and campaign for change.

On the list in front of me are more than 120 separate organisations: Action for London, London First, London Cycling Campaign, London Rivers Association, London Forum, London Pride, and so on. Drawn into these groups are people who would never think of standing in a local election. Some are concerned citizens in a general sense. Some are committed to a particular cause. For some, London has become a sort of hobby. But they are all involved in a never-ending dialogue in which some highly creative thinking has taken place, unburdened, it must be said, by the responsibility of representing an actual group of people living in a particular area.

Then along came the Architecture Foundation, with the notion of holding public meetings on London themes. It found to its astonishment that between 1,000 and 2,500 people were prepared to come to each of the monthly debates, which began in January and finished last week.

This sudden widening of public participation has changed the nature of the enterprise. A collection of disparate bodies of well-meaning people is beginning to turn into a movement, and becoming something more than a series of single-issue pressure groups.

The reason for this coming together is that improving London is such an attractive enterprise. It is not just the place where the campaigners live: more than that, London is a world city comparable with Paris, New York and Tokyo. A recent study showed that London and New York level peg as the world's leading financial centres; London matches New York and Paris in tourism; it is fully up with the others in creative and cultural industries; and it retains substantial power and influence well beyond national boundaries. Equally, these four cities have disgraceful shortcomings - transport in London and New York, areas of great social deprivation in all but Tokyo.

The challenge, therefore, is nothing less than to make London the best place in the world. Such an achievement could take many forms. Herbert Girardet, for instance, who studies the metabolism of cities, believes that London could become a pioneer in the 21st century as it was in the 19th. In the last century, London set the pattern for cities everywhere in its early use of fossil fuels, in its public transport network and its sewage disposal arrangements. It could do so again, by achieving what Girardet calls a circular metabolism. No longer wantonly dumping sewage, exhaust gases, household and factory waste wherever it could, London would recycle plant nutrients as well as physical goods, and it would fully embrace clean energy technology such as solar systems. The capital city would become self-sustaining.

Wonderful! But there is a prior question. How is the connection to be made between ideas and action? Once you have excited thousands of people with your notions, you have to get real and find ways of influencing the decision-takers in the direction of new ideas for a better city.

At the last of the series of debates on Friday - extracts from which can be seen on Carlton TV this evening at 10.40pm - it was agreed that in the absence of an elected authority, there are two subsidiary sets of decision-takers that can be worked on. First, there are the financial institutions which own so much office, retail and factory property in London; and, second, there are the London boroughs, which retain considerable powers. As for central government, the difficulties were exemplified by the behaviour of the Environment Secretary, John Gummer, who came into the debate to deliver some soundbites to camera and then promptly left.

This leaves most people engaged in the London crusade hoping for a change of government. That is Plan A. Mr Blair enters 10 Downing Street and delivers an elected strategic body for London and a separately elected mayor - as he said he would at the public debate held in April. The trouble with this approach is that it is passive and trusting.

So Plan B has emerged. Under this scheme, a sort of unofficial Royal Commission is established to do the hard work of turning ideas about the future of London into coherent policy proposals. Care is taken to make the exercise as consultative as possible by reaching out to ordinary Londoners. It is done quickly in order to fit into Plan A. Perhaps the City of London is invited to provide the necessary standing as well as the secretariat. In this way, ideas begin to be transmuted into action by gaining authority. The movement for a better London makes progress.

Perhaps even a Conservative government with a renewed mandate would find it difficult to reject a well-argued case for reform. The abolition of the GLC would finally have produced a great benefit, albeit too long in coming - a completely fresh start in the government of London.