London's Borough Leaders
By Andrew Stevens, City Mayors Fellow*
ON THIS PAGE: Boroughs are vital | Recent history | Borough council services | Governance | Borough populations | Council leaders and Borough mayors | Leaders’ remuneration | Stepping stone to national politics | Table: London’s Boroughs and their Leaders |
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Not the Mayor but the Boroughs
provide London’s vital services
December 2022: While most Londoners can name its Mayor, fewer would recognise their local council leader in the street. Despite over half a century in existence, the municipal tier of government in the UK’s capital city London rarely hits the headlines, even as its mayors have enjoyed global prominence, particularly current Prime Minister Boris Johnson during his two terms. Taken together, the London Boroughs and the historic City of London Corporation form the 33 municipalities of Greater London, though their roles and workings are often less well understood than the Mayor and City Hall of the regional Greater London Authority. Elections for the 32 boroughs are held every four years, with Londoners last going to the polls in May 2022.
The current system of local government for Greater London, which consists of the municipal tier of the 32 London Boroughs and the entirely separate City of London Corporation at its centre, was fashioned from reforms introduced in 1965 under the 1963 London Government Act. This was intended to replace an incoherent patchwork of separate counties, boroughs, and districts across the metropolitan area of London which had expanded substantially following earlier local government reforms in the Victorian era aimed at managing sanitation, education, welfare and road transport for the rapidly growing centre of what was then the British Empire. Above the 32 London Boroughs and the City of London (largely unreformed under either reorganisation thanks to its sui generis status) sat the Greater London Council, though in comparison to the boroughs this was relatively short-lived at only 21 years in existence before its abolition in 1986.
Of the post-1965 boroughs themselves (setting aside the ancient City Corporation for the so-called ‘Square Mile’ financial district at the centre) these were fashioned out of either the 28 metropolitan boroughs of the former London County Council area (so-called 12 of Inner London) and the remainder from several surrounding historic counties (20 to become Outer London) and their assorted boroughs and districts. The naming of the new local authorities required certain compromises to be made among merged former districts and in many cases, these reflected neutral landmarks and rivers rather than past identities, with many historic names disappearing from the map. As well as the three ‘royal boroughs’ (so named for their various historical connections to British monarchs), Westminster is designated as a ‘city’ rather than a London Borough on account of its longstanding royal, political and religious significance.
Borough council services
Following the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986, the 33 London local authorities were largely left to govern alone, save for several joint committees for fire services, waste and spatial planning, with the capital’s policing and public transport overseen by central government departments. Since the 2000 reforms which reintroduced a regional tier in the form of the Greater London Authority, consisting of the Mayor of London and the 25-member London Assembly, the roles and pattern of London government has largely remained unchanged. Although the Mayor may direct the 32 boroughs and the City through his London Plan across a range of issues (including but not limited to spatial development), for the most part, municipal services in London are provided for by the boroughs as per local authority services as provided outside of the capital e.g. education, social care, waste, environmental health, leisure (including libraries), social housing, consumer protection, civil registration and roads/public realm.
While Mayors of London enjoy one of the largest electoral mandates in Europe (almost on a par with the President of Portugal), the London Boroughs on the other hand are mostly led by council leaders chosen by a handful of other local councillors rather than directly elected by voters on a borough-wide basis. Under this system, local councillors in 25 boroughs are elected every four years on an ‘all out’ (all at once) basis, with one chosen at the council’s first annual meeting after the elections to serve as council leader and appoint other councillors as responsible for portfolios covering council service areas (so-called ‘leader and cabinet’ system). In essence, among councils governed by a majority party (all but one), this decision is taken behind closed doors by councillors belonging to that party group rather than by the whole council.
A further two councils in London now use the ‘committee system’ of governance whereby instead of a cabinet, local councillors vest executive decision-making power in committees drawn from all councillors to cover each council service area (e.g. housing, social services). The final exceptions here are the five boroughs that use the elected mayor system of governance (out of 16 across England which do so), where each party (or independents) contests the election for mayor on an all-borough basis. Hackney, Lewisham and Newham were the first councils to introduce this system from the 2002 local elections, following local referendums backing its introduction (Tower Hamlets followed suit in 2010), while Croydon residents voted in October 2021 to introduce an elected mayor from May 2022 (Newham and Tower Hamlets voters also chose to retain the system in referendums held May 2021).
As ever, the City of London sits aside from all of this in being governed by a bicameral body elected along nominally non-partisan lines by registered local businesses and led by a Policy Chair rather than a Leader. All 33 however belong to the pan-capital London Councils association. In authorities with a council leader rather than an elected mayor these elect a civic mayor annually by the council to perform ceremonial duties and preside over council meetings, though again owing to its historic status the City of Westminster installs a Lord Mayor as first citizen. In Hackney, Lewisham and Tower Hamlets the chair of the council is known as the Speaker.
Today the London boroughs have populations of between 150,000 to 400,000. Inner London boroughs tend to be smaller, both in population and area size, and more densely populated than Outer London boroughs. The two largest London boroughs are Barnet, in the north of the capital, and Croydon, in the south. Both boroughs are home to just under 400,000 residents. Kensington and Chelsea has a population of 157,000 while London's financial district, the City of London, has only 11,000 permanent residents. Bromley is by far the largest borough and 30 per cent of its area is farmland. The City of Westminster, which includes some famous landmarks of the West End as well as Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament, has a population of some 270,000.
Council leaders and Borough mayors
Among the 32 boroughs, the Labour Party has the lion’s share of political control, with a tally of 21 councils at the May 2022 elections (on par with 2018), while the Conservatives now lead six and the Liberal Democrats also retained their three. Havering and Tower Hamlets are now both led by local parties.
The vast majority of council leaders were elected as local councillors after the turn of the century in 2000 (the first year of the Greater London Authority and the London mayoralty), with just three first elected in 1998. Most leaders served around a decade or more on their councils in backbench and executive posts before being elected to the council leadership, with Enfield’s Nesil Caliskan and Kingston’s Andreas Kirsch having a fast track to the top post in just three years from their initial election. Four of London’s five elected mayors had previously served in senior leadership positions on their respective councils before taking on the mayoralty.
Compared to the rest of England’s local government, where the average council leader is white, male and over 50, London’s borough leaders are more diverse as should reflect the capital’s wider demographics. Of the 32 boroughs, 10 are now led by women (down from 12 at the last elections in 2018), still short of 50 per cent, but higher than the 17 per cent across the rest of England. Upon her election in 2018, Enfield’s Nesil Caliskan was the youngest female council leader in England at 29 years old and also the UK’s first of Turkish heritage. Nine of the 32 borough leaders are minority ethnic, including four women of colour.
Of the council leaders and elected mayors whose professional backgrounds are publicly listed there is the usual tendency in English local government towards the public and voluntary sectors, such as former council officials, charity workers and politicians’ aides, with one teacher and former police chief also.
Each London Borough sets councillors' remuneration by considering expert recommendations of the pan-London independent remuneration panel. Local government as a public service is not intended to attract those seeking any financial reward for their time commitment and civic duties - this is reflected in both the annual allowances set for council leaders (contrasted to senior paid officials of the council) and their freedom to undertake other paid work if they choose to do so. Again, the majority of boroughs fall into line with annual allowances for their council leadership at around £50,000 a year as the median, though some pay considerably less and more, such as Kingston at £35,577 and Hillingdon at £70,714. There are no particular partisan attitudes in payment levels, nor geographical bias, as several inner London Labour leaders receive rates around £65,000. At the same time, Conservative councils can pay between £37,254 (Bexley) and £67,456 (Kensington and Chelsea). The exceptions here are the five elected mayors, as the consensus across English local government is that such posts and their executive responsibilities require more time commitment, with annual allowances ranging from £77,722 (Lewisham) to £87,997 (Newham).
Stepping stone to national politics
Council leadership can act as a well-trodden route to a national political career. Former London council leaders currently serving as Members of Parliament (MP) include Mike Freer (Conservative, Barnet), Steve Reed (Labour, Lambeth), Andy Slaughter (Labour, Hammersmith and Fulham), Nickie Aiken (Conservative, Westminster), Catherine West (Labour, Islington), Stephen Timms (Labour, Newham), Margaret Hodge (Labour, Islington), and Bob Blackman (Conservative, Brent). Although not as council leaders, prominent Labour MPs Stella Creasy and Wes Streeting previously served as the civic mayor of Waltham Forest and Deputy Leader of Redbridge respectively.
London Boroughs and their Leaders
* The research was originally conducted in January and February 2022 and fully updated in December 2022. Principal author Andrew Stevens
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