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House of Commons

Friday 6 June 1997

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Governance of London

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

9.34 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): As a London Member, a Minister with special London responsibilities and a long-time London resident, it is a great honour for me to open the debate, and it is a great pleasure to do so with an excellent attendance for a Friday, particularly on the Back Benches behind me. I very much welcome the many hon. Members--many newly elected to the House--who have come to show their support for the Government's policies for the future of London.

The fact that we are having this debate so soon after taking office demonstrates the priority that we attach to London, and our determination to see early action to right its wrongs--wrongs that have seen our capital city rudderless and without a voice for 11 long years, following the spiteful, short-sighted and anti-democratic decision of the former Government to abolish the Greater London council. The consequent lack of leadership has seriously damaged the ability of our capital city to fight effectively its corner in the national and international arenas and has left London showing all too many signs of a lack of co-ordination in planning, transport and in the state of its environment.

This is not the first time that the governance of the capital has been debated in this House or, indeed, the other place, but it is the first time for almost 20 years that there is a Government in Westminster who give the governance of our capital city the priority that it deserves.

The fact that London is the only western capital without an elected citywide government is not just an affront to the people of our city. It also puts London at a disadvantage. That is bad not only for London but the country as a whole. It is time that there was a new deal for London and, following the decisive verdict of the electorate in London and, indeed, throughout Britain in the recent general election, a new deal there will be.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I apologise for intervening this early in the Minister's speech, but I do so for this reason. When the Minister uses the term "London" in his remarks today, will he have a rigid idea in his mind about London as presently defined, or will he--among all the other reviews that he will no doubt discuss, in tune with the mood of the

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moment--be prepared to review what London is for the purposes of the argument that he will probably go on to make about governance, mayors and so on?

Mr. Raynsford: The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I shall try to respond visually. This is the map of London following the general election--

Madam Speaker: Order. The Minister must articulate what he is saying and not show us maps.

Mr. Raynsford: I am sure that Conservative Members do not need a painful reminder of the political map of London following the election on 1 May.

The right hon. Gentleman will know perfectly well that the geographical boundary of London has been set for some time and it embraces the 32 London boroughs and the City corporation. That was the former GLC area. That is the area of London for London government purposes, and that is what we are talking about at the moment. The issue of the future geographical boundary of London will be covered in the Green Paper that will be issued in due course.

There is, quite rightly, widespread public interest in the subject of how London is governed. That was well demonstrated by the packed houses and animated discussion in the series of debates on the future of London organised by the Architecture Foundation and the Evening Standard last year. There is also a very real determination among Londoners to ensure that we create the right structures for our city. I share that determination. Londoners know that the current system of government in the city cannot be allowed to continue.

The public debate--although not, I suspect, the political instincts of the neanderthal tendency of the Conservative party--has moved on from whether London should have a strategic authority to what form that authority should take. That is also what London's business community is saying. Yesterday's Financial Times reported research by the London Chamber of Commerce, which was reinforced by a letter in today's Financial Times from the director of the chamber of commerce, confirming that 75 per cent. of the capital's business leaders view the present arrangements for governing London as inadequate. It said:

We agree. Our manifesto made clear our commitment. That is why, following a referendum of Londoners to confirm popular demand, we will introduce legislation to provide for a strategic authority, made up of both a directly elected mayor and a directly elected authority.

The new authority and mayor will work together for the good of London, speak up for the capital city's needs and plan for its future. They will not duplicate the work of boroughs, but take responsibility for London-wide issues such as transport, planning, policing, economic regeneration and environmental protection.

That will be a totally new style of strategic authority, drawing on the lessons of the past from this country and overseas and designed to meet the challenges of the future. It will not be a new GLC. The clear message from business, the voluntary sector, local government and the

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public in London is that they want a streamlined and effective authority that is able to tackle the real problems that confront London today.

Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham): The hon. Gentleman says that the plan would not be for a new-style Greater London council. I take it that he accepts that the old-style GLC did not serve the purposes of London correctly, because he proposes something different. If that is true, he presumably endorses the previous Government's decision to alter the structure of London government by doing away with the GLC.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman cannot have been listening when I opened my speech with a reference to what I described as the spiteful, short-sighted and anti-democratic decision of the former Government unilaterally to abolish a tier of government without giving the people of London any say at all in the matter. We deplore that. We believe that times move on. We are talking about a different situation and the needs for the 1990s and the 21st century. The structures that we propose are appropriate for that new period.

The GLC performed many valuable services and the people of London were outraged at the former Government's decision to abolish it, but we would not claim that everything was right, and we recognise that, in the GLC's previous arrangements, which were put in place by a Conservative Government, there was too often confusion between the boroughs and the GLC. That is why, in our new framework, we seek a clear separation so that the new strategic authority will focus only on strategic issues that have to be dealt with across London as a whole, whereas the boroughs will continue to be the main agents for service delivery at local level to ensure that proper separation and to minimise the prospects of the overlap that did occur with the GLC.

Mr. Forth: While on this point of definition, which will be central to the development of the argument as we go on, is the Minister satisfied that he has a clear idea in his mind of the likely division of responsibilities, powers, duties and perhaps tax-raising powers between the boroughs, the strategic authority and the executive mayor? That is a three-way split, not a two-way split. Is he satisfied that he has cracked that one?

Mr. Raynsford: The right hon. Gentleman strays into territory that I think, with reflection, he may wish he had not entered into. If he wishes to consider the current structure of government in London, he will find not a three-way split, but approximately a 150-way split. Perhaps he has seen the organogram--I think that that is the technical word for it--devised by Mr. Tony Travers, an expert on the subject, at the London school of economics. The organogram shows a maze of lines going in every direction, trying to bring together the huge, myriad organisations, many of them totally undemocratic and unaccountable, that contribute to the government of London.

We are about ending that confusion and lack of accountability. We are about creating a simpler, streamlined, effective structure that will give the government that Londoners need and that will distinguish

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properly--as I said in my answer to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant)--the strategic functions that must be dealt with at a strategic London-wide level, from the local functions that are best handled by the London boroughs. There is no duplication and no overlap in that. It defines separate functions and ensures that they are discharged at the appropriate level.

Londoners want an authority that is able to fulfil the strategic and democratic needs of this great city. They want it to be inclusive, to listen to the views of Londoners and to build a consensus. They want it to rid London of the confusion, duplication and waste that they currently see and to help the city develop in a sustainable way.

The authority must, therefore, be streamlined and effective, with strong leadership that is able to get things done. It must be free of the draining and undermining effects of undue bureaucracy. It must focus on providing a powerful voice for London and on sorting out the real problems that London faces. It must be directly accountable to Londoners and reflect the priorities and aspirations of local people, local businesses and other organisations, not least in the voluntary sector, that work in our capital city. It will work closely with all of them and promote partnership and joint working, but, at the same time, it must be structured to avoid duplication of responsibilities and the opportunities for conflict and waste.

Over recent years, one of the healthy developments in London has been the creation of sectoral and geographical partnerships, often bringing local authorities, business and the community together in practical programmes to tackle problems and issues. The list is too long to name them all, but I should like to assure them that this Government fully support their efforts and intend that the new authority should help them to build on what has already been achieved.

I should also like to commend the growing involvement of the business community in projects and activities that promote the capital and deal with its problems. We are fully aware that, without the business community, London would be nothing. We intend to ensure that the new authority works to support the business life of London and that it works closely with the business community.

London needs strong leadership to tackle its problems and to seize the opportunities. For the past 11 years, there has been no answer to the question, "Who runs London?" What a demeaning position for one of the greatest cities in the western world. [Interruption.] Conservative Front-Bench Members seem to express surprise at the question of who runs London. I remind the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) that he recently aspired to be the Minister with responsibility for London, although he represented a constituency somewhere in Suffolk. What an insult to London that the Minister given designated responsibility for speaking for Londoners did not represent a London constituency. We are not going to allow that nonsense to continue.

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