Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Questions 732-739)


8 JULY 2008

  Q732 Chairman: Mr Travers, I think perhaps the easiest way to start would be to say whether, having listened (as I know you were) to Ken Livingstone's presentation, you differ from him at all in your perception of the advantages and disadvantages of the structure of London government which has created the Mayor/GLA structure?

  Tony Travers: I did not hear the very beginning, so I may comment only on part of it. First, I should say thank you for inviting me to give evidence. I agree significantly with what Ken Livingstone said, particularly about the weakness of the Assembly part of this Greater London Authority structure.

  Q733  Chairman: I was not quite clear whether, listening to him earlier, that was a virtue or a fault.

  Tony Travers: I should imagine, as a powerful mayor, he saw it arguably as a virtue. Whether democratically it is a virtue to have a very powerful executive not fully checked by what in an American system—which is what we are talking about here—would be a legislative arm of Government, I think, is a wide issue, possibly beyond the remit of this inquiry. The Assembly was given only the single annual power to stop the Mayor's budget, and then only with a two-thirds majority for an alternative proposition, an alternative budget, but that power is nuclear and it is actually very difficult, given the proportional representation method of electing the Assembly, to imagine any one party in London, as in Scotland and Wales, getting an overall majority very frequently, if ever. So getting a two-thirds majority for an alternative proposition to the Mayor's budget, I think, will always prove extremely difficult and, therefore, even that check is limited, but beyond that the Assembly has no capacity to stop the Mayor's policy-making in a way that would be more normal in a fully American system of government.

  Q734  Chairman: But in an American system, if you are making a comparison, what is the analogous power that you would be looking for? Clearly, legislative power would reside with the Assembly, it could pass by-laws and so forth, but otherwise are you talking about appropriation power, this kind of thing, or what is the comparison?

  Tony Travers: There are two things, I think, that one might do. I think it would be well worth considering giving the Assembly something akin to legislative powers and certainly a power to vote on mayoral policy and, indeed, perhaps to lower the bar on the budget. These would be ways of strengthening the Assembly without stopping the strong mayor model working, because I think that is what we are looking for here. It is a balance between the executive power of the Mayor and the legislative power of the Assembly.

  Q735  Julie Morgan: Mr Travers, what are your views on city mayors and city regions throughout England? Do you feel that would tackle the devolution issue?

  Tony Travers: I should declare, I was always a supporter of the idea of directly elected executive mayors and, having seen both the London Mayor and other mayors operate in England—as I think they are all in England so far—I am still broadly enthusiastic and I do think that the London model, although it could not be moved precisely to any other part of the country, would offer the potential for city regional government if other Metropolitan areas wanted this to happen. So I do think it would be transferable, though probably not in every single aspect. London is not like everywhere else and everywhere else is not like London, but, yes.

  Q736  Julie Morgan: Do you think that would help address the English question?

  Tony Travers: It could do, though I think it would risk not quite answering Mr Turner's question about the non-urban parts of England, to which I could return, but I think there is no question that larger cities, potentially, could be made significantly more powerful and, indeed, I would argue in the late nineteenth century they were: not with a mayoral system of government, but when the Imperial Parliament was focused on the dominions and the Empire, then city government, local government, shire government, was much of what governed England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

  Q737  Alun Michael: Could I ask a supplementary question about this relationship between a directly elected mayor and the Assembly. In the mayoral model, the directly elected mayor, there is a similar situation to the London model of what is the Council or what is the Assembly there for, and if you tinker at the edges, you address today's problems. So if you gave more powers to the Assembly to intervene on the budget, that is fine unless the numbers change, in which case you have a situation, not of challenge, but of instability. How do you resolve that, because it is not an easy one to resolve, is it?

  Tony Travers: No, and those of us who watch American politics indirectly and as a recreation are aware of the risk of gridlock; and I am not talking getting to a point where gridlock occurred, but, in fact, with something such as the budget, local authorities are required by law to pass budgets by a certain date, so my suspicion is that that would stop gridlock occurring for and of itself, so I think we could be spared that.

  Q738  Alun Michael: But that is more a hope than a necessary consequence?

  Tony Travers: I honestly think that the requirement that precepts and council tax are set by a certain date—a consequence of earlier battles between central and local government—would ensure that gridlock did not result, at least insofar as the budget is concerned. When it came to the possibility of a greater set of powers over policy, I can see that there is a risk, but as there is in this institution and with the House of Lords, a bit of a check and an argument and the capacity to negotiate is an essential element in the way in which democratic institutions resolve their differences. I do not want to weaken the directly elected mayor or the strong mayor model, but I think that if we are going to have it, it would be better to consider developing the other parts of that model to ensure that they have sufficient power for me to check this strong and powerful office.

  Q739  Mr Turner: I would like to hear his other half of the answer on the non-rural areas.

  Tony Travers: Certainly. Personally, I am very strongly pro-localist, and I would not want to force shire areas to do things that shire areas did not want to do. So, if a county is a recognised unit of government, as it is in many places, and districts may be as well, then that structure may be the best one in rural areas. I would not, however, personally rule out the idea of taking the directly elected official model to the county level in the form of something that could have a different name. It might not be mayor, but governor, sheriff—we are creative about these things. So the Sheriff or the Governor of Somerset, I think, would be something that it would be perfectly reasonable to offer, but I would not want to impose it.

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