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Devolving upwards Dec 09

Oh, Polly, Polly, Polly… I’m tempted to write a letter to theguardian, but rather than cut my rant down to something short and pithy, let’s do the show right here.

Polly wants to see Red Ken given some more powers. Everyone loves good old Ken, so that’s OK. Let’s not have lots different waste authorities for London, but make them into one. Might be sensible. Let’s take powers from the Government Office for London, a UK body, and devolve them to the elected mayor of London. Excellent. She argues that councils need more control of planning to help regenerate their areas. Fine (although this would also give them more powers to be the very NIMBYs she complains about elsewhere in the article).

But… Polly has found herself a worthy-sounding project in Lambeth which might be blocked by local LibDem councillors, but which Ken would back. Ergo, local councils should lose powers over this sort of thing, and it should be up to the Mayor.

Or rather, up to Ken. Because it’s all very well demanding this when you agree with the Mayor and disagree with the borough council, but what if it was the other way around? Making constitutional changes on the basis of who hold particular posts at a particular time is never a good idea. For every Labour voter in a Tory council area wishing the Government would overall the local “tin-pot dictators”, there’ll be a Tory voter in a village somewhere demanding that Labour let the local Tory council veto a new incinerator/wind farm/asylum seeker detention centre. And if the Tories get back into power nationally, the two groups will swap.

Why would a party political Mayor of London be less inclined to oppose automatically, as Polly suggests, a proposal from another party than a local council group? Why should Kenthe Mayor, running the whole of London, be more appropriate to decide on the structure of an estate in Lambeth than Lambeth council? If she wants devolution – she argues that the council should approve the plan because local people back it – Polly should be asking for the local neighbourhood to have the power to institute this sort of change without needing approval from a distant authority, whether that’s the local council, the Mayor of London or the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Polly cites “accountability” as a reason for giving these powers to Ken:

This is the kind of arbitrary nonsense that happens right across London as tin-pot dictators in the 32 boroughs run economies the size of small African countries with virtually no accountability. In this empty democracy, few people vote and no one knows the name of their council leader, council member or even which party has control. But the one person voters do know is the mayor of London. Give him the power and make him accountable if he gets it wrong. Let them blame him for London’s woes – and praise him for improvements.

(“Small African countries” have their own governments but carrying the analogy to its logical conclusion, a load of them should group together and elect one man – well, it would be a man, wouldn’t it? – to run all of their affairs centrally.)

So how is Ken accountable? Elections are once every four years. In the mean time, the GLA – a body elected by proportional representation (which Polly backs) that is more representative of London than a single Labour mayor – doesn’t have the powers to truly hold him accountable. There is an election every four years, but it’s across the whole of London, so Ken could turn down every popular planning application in Lambeth and still remain Mayor on the votes of the other boroughs. Is that local accountability?

What about those London boroughs who have directly elected mayors themselves. Why should their powers be handed over to Ken?

Local government needs reform, but what it doesn’t need is to be eviscerated. Just because boroughs are part of London doesn’t mean they don’t have their own identities and their own problems, and it doesn’t mean that they should be run from the other side of the city. Taking powers away from bodies the public already take little interest in will not enliven local democracy. Give them the power to make a difference – and, of course, an electoral system that makes them representative of their communities – and people will notice them.

8 Responses

  1. 1

    And that she wrote that article slagging off Narnia. The bitch.

  2. Indeed. Furthermore, her argument should surely lead her to conclude that instead of “tin-pot dictators” we should have elected borough Mayors (as indeed we already have in Lewisham, Hackney and Newham). Yet, strangely, she concludes that the only solution is to devolve up to Ken.

  3. 3

    Sorry, I know this isn’t related as such, but every time I read anything about Ken Livingstone, in my head Kate Bush is singing her song from the Comic Strip film “GLC”…

    #”Ken is the man that we all need… Ken is the leader of the GLC”#

    I’ll get my coat.

  4. 4

    I have now read the article and am even more angry than when my objection was ill informed…

    She doesn’t mention that shes a resident of the estate she mentions. I’m sure we’d all like a full page in a national newspaper to vent our spleen about neighbourhood issues. yes a full page in the daily mail about my unreliable bin service…

  5. 5

    Today (13/12) Polly says “That pointless rift between Labour and the LibDems needs to be fixed”. Those’ll be the same LibDems she was slagging off last week…

  6. 6

    its not pointless if you are opposed to the war, or tuition fees or want to see taxation shifted from income to unsustainale consumption.shut up polly!

  7. Well said Paul

  1. […] Having just returned from Lincoln, Simon Titley’s examination of the emasculation of local government there seems quite timely. Titley is quite right about local government consistently losing powers – whether through nationalisation or privatisation. Earlier this year I read Tristram Hunt’s Building Jerusalem, a book describing how municipal government had created the grand cities of industrial England. Earlier this week I was sat at a carol concert in St George’s Hall in Bradford, a building erected as a sign of civic pride (specifically, trying to show Bradford was as great a city as Leeds). Today, only a few exceptional large metropolitan councils can make such a difference (and usually there through using a persuading influence rather than any legal power). London of course, is a special exception having a high-profile Mayor in Ken Livingstone, who does have the influence to knock heads together (although as Will Howells points out he wants to take more power from the Boroughs). All the main political parties keep saying they believe in a ‘new localism’, but few seem willing to accept that this will mean different councils choosing to deliver different services and being held accountable for those decisions (something the Whitehall target-setters and sensationalist opposition politicians who should know better seem unwilling to accept). The new year promises another round of council tax capping rather than introducing annual elections so the local electorate can do the ‘capping’ themselves, and a schools reform that will massively change the role of elected Local Education Authorities. We’re going to be treated to opposition politicians complaining that the residents of one town have poorer services than those of another (but conveniently forgetting to mention their lower taxes) or hopping on any passing bandwagon and demanding that ‘Something Must Be Done’ by the national government where those decisions should be made locally (at least according to those politicians professed beliefs). Call me cynical, but I’m yet to be convinced that our politicians can deliver stronger local government, and they probably won’t be as long as we, the public, blame the national government every time a council fails. To get back to the Victorians, the good burghers of Lincoln, Newcastle or Sunderland would have never thought of blaming Messrs. Gladstone or Disraeli for the state of their cities – they knew that their councils had the power to make a difference, and with that power came with responsibility. Local government can be returned to its ‘glory days’ but only with real leadership from national and local politicians. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.   [link] […]