Have London boroughs had their day?
by Ben Rogers
Ben Rogers is leading the development of the Centre for London, a think tank for the capital, based at Demos. Here, he makes his introduction by looking at the relationship between the borough system and the GLA.
As a general rule public services leaders don't like to give up power or merge their services with others; so it's impressive that, as announced yesterday, Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea have agreed to merge key services and share two chief execs among three. The move won't eliminate the need for front line cuts, but the savings that will result - amounting to about 16 per cent of saving needed over all - aren't to be sniffed at either.
The move, as has been widely noted, raises some awkward questions for other boroughs in London like 'why aren't we doing the same?' But they arguably raise an even larger question for London boroughs as a whole like 'What are we for?'. The case for some fundamental reflection on the future of local government in London looks very strong.
It's been nearly half a century since the present system of borough level government was established with the London Government Act of 1963 in a characteristic piece of 1960s technocratic re-engineering. And much has changed since then. At one level super local issues of liveability, neighbourly institutions, and community ties have arguably become more important to people - polls by MORI and others certainly show that people consistently identify issues of local 'liveability', community life and civility as the ones they most want to see tackled - at least until the recession came along. At the same time, new communication technologies have lowered transaction costs and increased economies of scale for public administrations, so making it easier to run at least some services in a more centralised way. All of which raises the question sometimes asked by Barry Quirk, Chief Executive of Lewisham: ‘Are London's councils too big to do the little things but too little to do the big ones?’
The question is made all the more relevant by Coalition policy with respect to London. Throughout most of England the Localism Bill and associated policies can reasonably be presented as a gain for local government at the expense of national and regional government. But this is much less so in London, where it is the Mayor and the GLA, rather than the boroughs, that have gained most.
The Localism Bill gives the Mayor much greater control over housing, regeneration and skills budgets than he had before; powers of compulsory purchase over land for housing and regeneration purposes; and the power to create Mayoral Development Corporations on the model of the original London Docklands Development Corporation that gave us Canary Wharf. Boris and his successors also have greater control over the Royal Parks and the Olympics site. Of course the Mayor won't be able to use these powers unilaterally - he will need, to some extent at least, to bring local and central government and other 'stakeholders' along. But it is the GLA more than the boroughs that is the real winner from recent government policy. For London uniquely, localism has turned out to mean a good dose of regionalism.
That doesn’t mean that relations between the GLA and Central Government are now settled. Boris would doubtless like more powers to raise money and set taxes. And it is not hard to imagine him or his successor gaining other new powers from central government and national quangos, in areas like health and education or even migration. Why not give GLA, rather than Whitehall, leadership of academies and free schools? Why shouldn't London be able to offer its own work visas allowing migrants to live and work in London only?
But the point remains that the GLA is seen to have 'proved itself' and its future looks fairly bright - in so far as any part of government can, in an era of universal cuts, be said to have a 'bright future'. The future of the boroughs feels much less certain. Surely, after 50 years, it is at least time for a proper debate.