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Demands for governance reforms
in London hit by partisan backlash

By Andrew Stevens

22 February 2005: The Commission on London Governance, a joint body established by the London Assembly and the Association of London Government, was formed in 2004 with the remit to examine the workings of all aspects of government in the capital and recommend an outline for reform. Since then the 2004 Greater London Authority (GLA) elections have intervened and the subsequent reduction in Labour representation saw the Commission lose its chairman and reference to consider the future of the 32 London Boroughs, but it has continued to examine the status quo and hear evidence from a number of key groups.

In June 2005, the Commission published its interim report, Capital Life, which made a number of recommendations for the future of city government in the capital, which included:

• Returning business rates in London to local control
• Scaling down the size and role of the Government Office for London (GoL), particularly where its functions overlap with London’s local and regional government
• Restructuring the health service in London, including the establishment of a single Strategic Health Authority for the capital

Improvements to the way funds are distributed for housing in London

The commission found that London government operates as a “virtual secret state”, with radical decentralisation from central government required for effective governance in the future. Chairman Hugh Malyan argued the there was an appetite for reform and decentralisation among the public: “We want Londoners to have a much greater say over how their affairs are run,” he said. "This can only be achieved by bringing government closer to the people it represents and ultimately through the restoration of local democracy.

"This issue of the 'naked councillor' needs to be addressed - we currently have elected local politicians without any real power in their communities." he argued. Deputy Chairman Bob Neil also made the case for simplification of London’s bureaucracy: “We are calling for a new deal for London because of the pressing need to re-engage its citizens with the institutions that shape their lives. It is not clear to many people who is responsible for what service, how they are funded, how to hold providers to account and influence their decisions. A more streamlined government structure, which is better understood by communities, will increase accountability and raise levels of engagement in local initiatives.”

The report’s recommendations were backed by business lobby London First, whose Chief Executive Jo Valentine remarked: “There are too many organisations involved in London’s governance. Added to this is the fact that central government is not well organised to think about London strategically and unwilling to hand over control of many services.”

However, the report’s publication was marred by the resignation of two of the London Assembly Members on the commission, Brian Coleman of the Conservatives and Damian Hockney of Veritas-Ukip. They argued that the report did not enjoy all-party support and would erode the power of councillors in London’s 32 borough councils, with Mr Coleman adding that the proposal to return the power to set business rates to the boroughs would undo the anti-“loony left” policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative administration set down in the 1980s.

The commission will continue to meet throughout the rest of 2005 and will issue its final report in December.

Commission reviews structure
of local government in London

In early 2004, the Commission on London Governance came into existence. Set up by the London Assembly, the commission followed press reports of a desired shake-up of London local government by London’s Mayor, Ken Livingstone. The commission is on-going and is examining not only local government in the capital but also the Greater London Authority itself and the relations between it and central government.

Why was the Commission on London Governance set up?
For some time now, the Labour Mayor himself and local government commentators in the capital have argued that London is suffering from ‘over governance’. With 32 London Borough councils (and the City of London Corporation) and now the Greater London Authority itself, as well as a range of other bodies, it is claimed that some thought needs to be given to how London should be governed in the 21st century.

The London Assembly then took the initiative and established the commission earlier last year. Originally it had hoped to take a wide-ranging examination of local government structures in the capital but the London elections of last June intervened and deprived Labour of its near majority in the Assembly, causing other parties to remove the reference to local government structures from its remit.

Why does the GLA want to examine local government structures?
The Mayor has stated his desire to see the number of local councils in London reduced from 32 to five, though some have suggested that 14 (mirroring London Assembly constituencies) might be more reasonable. However, understandably, London local government is opposed to such a move and the London Assembly had to bring the Association of London Government (which represents the 32 London Boroughs) on board when it established the commission.

It has been suggested that a reduction in the number of London Boroughs is desirable to achieve economies of scale. Few identify with the London Borough boundaries as they exist. The government is thought to be considering the reduction in the number of local councils outside of London so the review will feed into that process. At the moment, the London Boroughs are responsible for the maintenance of council housing in the capital, though the Mayor is seeking a stronger strategic role in the field of social housing provision, a role currently undertaken by the government’s Housing Corporation and the Government Office for London.

However, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats oppose any plans to reduce the number of London Boroughs and voted to remove any reference to this from the commission’s remit following the elections last June.

When was the last review of London government?
During the late 1950s, the then Conservative government charged a Royal Commission with the task of recommending new arrangements for London local government. The Herbert Commission recommended the creation of a Greater London Council over a wider area than the then London County Council and a sub-tier of London Borough Councils. The government legislated for this with the London Government Act of 1963, which saw the new Greater London Council (GLC) and the 32 new London Boroughs inaugurated in 1965. In the late 1970s, the GLC’s own Marshall Inquiry examined these arrangements again but the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC and passed most of its powers to the London Boroughs in 1986. Since then, the reintroduction in 2000 of strategic London-wide government in the form of the new GLA’s Mayor and London Assembly was assented to in a referendum in 1998 but without any consideration outside of Parliament of the new body’s role, especially in relation to other arms of government in the capital.

What other governmental bodies operate in London?
In addition to the 32 London Boroughs and the City of London Corporation (which is elected by the business vote in the City), a range of central government bodies such as health trusts, regeneration quangos and educational institutions operate in London. There is also the question of the Government Office for London, which is part of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and was established in 1994 as part of the then Conservative government’s drive to increase regional coordination. Some have argued that following the creation of the GLA, the Government Office is obsolete and even an affront to the concept of genuine devolution to London. The commission has resolved to inquire into its role post-devolution.

Can the commission change anything by itself?
No. To change any aspect of London’s governance would require separate legislation by Parliament. The commission’s role is to allow the London Assembly to exercise the self-awareness that comes with its five years of existence. As the elected body for Londoners, it is best-placed to examine and recommend change. As it works jointly with the Association of London Government, its recommendations will have genuine consensus between local and regional government.

Who is on the commission and how does it work?
The commission was formerly established a joint body between the London Assembly and the Association of London Government. Each body has nominated seven members to sit on the commission on a cross-party basis. The commission works by commissioning reports on areas of interest to inform its work and by holding hearings from independent experts.