Posted: 11.11.14

Devolution gets a rocket: The brightest star – a manifesto for London by Centre for London

I really think Centre for London is now punching at its weight. The London Conference last week generated a lot of media interest around the devolution issue, which had quietened down since the Scottish referendum, but had the double whammy of Osborne’s

CoLBrightestStar

I really think Centre for London is now punching at its weight. The London Conference last week generated a lot of media interest around the devolution issue, which had quietened down since the Scottish referendum, but had the double whammy of Osborne’s comments about Manchester one day and the conference the next.

The groundwork was well prepared with the publication in October of The Brightest Star – A manifesto for London. Written by Ben Rogers, the director of Centre for London, this is the best thought through case for further devolution to London I have seen in recent years.

29 recommendations range from the inevitable independent reviews into things like recalling the Mayor and the structure of the Assembly to some specific, meaty proposals such as devolving far greater power around education, prisons, probation, employment and skills, and more control over taxes collected, very much in line with the London Finance Commission report from 2013.

It does take me back to 1998/99 when I was lobbying on the GLA Bill.

Central government was nervous about starting with too much power, fearful that if Ken got in (and he did) that he would have too much control. 15 years on the role of Mayor is now supported by the majority of Londoners, devolution has been shown to work under Ken and then Boris, and the pressure is on government to move away from 30 years of centralisation whether in London or Linlithgow.

Five key questions are triggered by this excellent document:

1. Will any new government delegate powers and taxes to London in the next few years? Well we will know soon enough when we read the manifestos of all the parties in early 2015.  The track record here though is not good – Ben notes that none of the leaders of the main parties have given a speech about London.  And no major politician with any real clout has yet broken cover and said yes, although all make warm noises about devolution nationally.  Personally, my concern is that a new government – almost certainly a coalition – will have so many other issues to row about that they won’t get to devolution that quickly.

2. Will local government in London support the additional powers and responsibilities for the Mayor without further delegation to them? The answer here could be a resounding no, but equally it is clear that in some areas, such as grants for rent subsidies and worklessness these would go to the boroughs anyhow.  No sensible Mayor would want to get too embroiled in this level of detail on the ground for fear of recreating a GLC. So it strikes me there is a clear way forward for the Mayor and London Councils to cut a deal.  Education, however, is perhaps an area where there may be some turf wars.

3. Would any authority on London’s boundaries actually consider joining London and, conversely, would any outer London borough promote a referendum to leave London? 50 years on from the formation of “Greater London” there are still some people who think they live in Middlesex and others who think Richmond is still in Surrey.  Equally there may be people in Thurrock who feel London should include them and can see real benefit, especially for inward investment in saying that they are part of London.

4. Would the borough leaders find it easy to scrutinise the Mayor, rather than Assembly members, given the delicate relationship between local and regional management of the capital? I doubt it.  They have too much vested in negotiations with the Mayor and would have even more invested if more powers and money flow down.  Furthermore, for all its perceived weakness, it is not the structure of the Assembly that is the problem but its lack of real muscle.

5. And finally, what chance will there be for proportional representation at the 2018 local elections? We already have semi-PR for the Assembly with 11 top up seats seeking to provide some balance.  Given the fact that the 2014 local elections saw Labour’s grip on London boroughs increase even more despite a lower share of the vote, there is no way they would support this, and I doubt the Conservatives would endorse this move either.  But the Lib Dems, the Greens and UKIP would welcome it with open arms.

So how is this being received nationally? Well Ben recognises the anti-London sentiment more widely across the UK and that it needs to be countered. I think it is important for places like Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool to realise that we are all fighting “Whitehall” and “Westminster” which happen to be in London, but that is not the same as London.  Too often people say London is making these decisions, when we are not and all the major cities and regions face the same challenge – to achieve greater autonomy.

And most importantly the manifesto recognises that whilst London is “currently shining especially brightly”, this is not the same as “quality” and as the London conference showed, affordable homes remain out of reach of the many and the level of poverty in London is simply not right for the world’s greatest city.