Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by London School of Economics and Political Science


  The Greater London Authority (consisting of the Mayor of London and the London Assembly) was created a year after the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Although the new London arrangements resulted indirectly from the decision to abolish the Greater London Council in 1986, the reform of London government involved the devolution of power from a number of Whitehall departments to the new authority. While not "constitutional" in the same way as the Scottish and Welsh reforms, there were elements of constitutional reform in the new London settlement.


  The GLA, as stated above, consisted of a directly-elected executive mayor and an assembly to provide oversight of the mayor's policies, budgets and services. This kind of mayor was very different to the traditional ceremonial mayor in England & Wales. The Mayor of London was, in reality, an American import which was intended by the government to provide a visible figurehead for the capital's government. Because of London's population (now 7.5 million) and its importance within the United Kingdom the scale of the mandate is significant.

  The GLA assumed responsibility for a major part of the capital's transport services, for spatial planning, for part of economic development provision and, in a less direct way, for fire & emergency services and the police. The Mayor of London appoints some or all of the boards of the four `functional bodies' (Transport for London, the London Development Agency, the London Fire & Emergency Planning Authority and the Metropolitan Police Authority) that come within the GLA's ambit. The Mayor also sets the budget of these institutions.

  Funding for the GLA bodies is provided by government grants, charges for services (ie transport fares and the congestion charge) and from a council tax precept. Compared with the Scottish and Welsh governments, the Mayor of London enjoys rather greater access to both a tax source and to charges.


  Following the recent election, the first change of mayor has occurred at London's City Hall. Like its predecessor the GLC, the GLA has proved a politically plural institution, in the sense that both the Labour and Conservative parties have been able to win control of it. The London Assembly, which is elected using the same form of proportional representation as is used in Scotland \and Wales, has not yet provided one party with a majority of its 25 members. Indeed, it is unlikely ever to do so.

  The Greater London Authority, consisting of the Mayor and Assembly has, by the standards of many British government reforms, been a reasonable success. There is no serious lobby to abolish it. London has regained its self-government and, to a significant extent, civic self-esteem. There is more accountability for transport, the police and planning than when such services were embedded within Whitehall. It would, of course, be possible to make improvements to the 2000 arrangements.

  The Greater London Authority Act, 2007 extended devolution beyond the powers given to the Mayor in 2000. First, the GLA was given responsibility for the allocation of resources for social and "affordable" housing, previously in the hands of the Housing Corporation. The Mayor was also given increased potential powers to intervene in boroughs' housing plans if these do not conform with his housing strategy. Second, the Mayor's planning responsibilities were extended so as to give City Hall development control powers over larger developments. In future, the Mayor would be able to give planning permission for major schemes even if the local borough rejected them. Third, the Mayor was made chair of a new London Waste and Recycling Board. Fourth, the Mayor was given new powers to direct the policy of the fire authority. Fifth, strategic direction over funding for skills and training was transferred to the GLA, with the Mayor to chair a new London Skills and Employment Board. Finally, the Mayor was also given the right to make additional appointments to the boards of functional bodies and, if he chose to do so, chair the police authority.


  The creation of the Greater London Authority, including a directly-elected executive mayor, was intended by the government to be a radical "presidential" import into the British political system. In the longer term, there would be arguments for legislative change to strengthen the institutions created in 2000 to make it operate more effectively in the way American political institutions are intended to.

  When it is next decided to review the GLA legislation, the government will almost certainly be encouraged to consider a number of improvements. For example, the Assembly could be given an enhanced "legislative" role and there could be an end to Assembly members sitting on the boards of functional bodies the Assembly itself is required to scrutinize. The government could reconsider the issue of whether the Mayor needs to be responsible for all staff appointments to deliver his policy programme. The question of term limits could be re-examined, given the extent of the personal power in the hands of the Mayor.

  Any future reform of London government could reasonably consider the question of whether more "Whitehall" provision could be transferred to the GLA. The funding and oversight of the NHS, commuter railways within London, full responsibility for the police and an effective system of local taxation would all be candidates for reform. Wales (with a population of 3 million) and Scotland (5 million) each enjoy far greater autonomy than London (7.5 million). Now the Mayor and Assembly are properly embedded and functional, a wider devolution of central government power to London is surely a possibility.

Tony Travers

July 2008

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 24 May 2009