Richard Tracey has been AM for Merton and Wandsworth, where he and his wife live, since 2008 and lead Conservative on Transport. He is deputy leader of the Conservative Group, and was previously for 14 years an MP and one of Margaret Thatcher’s ministers. He has been involved in London politics particularly in Wandsworth since the 1970s, having earlier been a BBC presenter.
I think as I prepare to retire from the London Assembly next May that it has come of age. The teenager of nearly 16 years has matured towards adulthood. It is a strange thought for me because in the whole of my final 10 years in the House of Commons I fiercely argued that London did not need a “superfluous” regional body. We had tired of 20 years of the abolished GLC’s shenanigans and must resist any idea of a Mark 2 version. However the incoming Labour government had different ideas, hence the GLA ( a “slim line body” they told us) appeared. And despite Ken Livingstone’s eight years when undoubtedly the GLA started to fatten rapidly and cost too much, the eight years of Boris Johnson (with Edward Lister at his elbow since 2011) has slimmed the London body down and reduced the Council Tax Precept.
I do accept now that the Mayor has done a great deal for our capital city on the world stage with Olympics 2012 and through regeneration and encouragement of international business and technology . We are now the world number 1 and long may that continue, although we must watch out for the real problems of growth towards 10 million people – ensuring fair housing supply for Londoners, good transport, safe streets, and so on. And that is where the London Assembly must deliver as an adult.
I have seen the quality of scrutiny of the Assembly move alongside – and often surpass – the Select Committees of Parliament. The members bring a lot of experience on all sides and I am convinced that the role of the AMs should never be replaced by a committee of borough leaders who have a big enough job of their own and could not realistically replace AMs.
I have been a part of the Transport Committee for all my time and we have made major contributions to London’s infrastructure, scrutinising TfL and the Mayor on building Crossrail, the Underground upgrades and overcrowding, the taxi and private hire scene, buses, fast-growing cycling in London, accessibility, the main line and Network Rail failings, and we even far outstripped the Commons committee with our snow investigation six years ago. The committee also helped me enormously to encourage growth of river transport since 2008 in a way that a certain recent ex-Transport Commissioner thought was never possible for 20 years. The Assembly’s other committees are doing equally detailed quality work these days, plus the thoughtful reports from GLA Conservatives.
So where should it go now after May 2016 with a new Mayor and many new AMs?
I must confess I have been attracted by suggestions of a larger London with new boundaries as Andrew Boff has written recently. After all, TfL is bidding for more power over rail in the counties as the commuter group grows apace. The Metropolitan Police spreads its wings outside Greater London in many ways. And London has been the economic powerhouse of much of the country long before Northern Powerhouses or others were discussed.
Tony Travers’ London Commission has looked in depth at much possible and realistic devolution of financial powers to the Capital – and the GLA and Assembly would be integral to that. I have believed for some time that the Assembly should be formed differently, with 32 AMs representing each one of the London boroughs individually and no top-up List – and perhaps districts outside London represented if the boundaries were extended. The other element is that the Assembly should have extra powers of veto on policy in addition to the limited ones at present. Certainly if devolution truly comes, it will be necessary for the powers of veto and scrutiny to match the financial potential and clout. And the Mayor should appoint a Cabinet .
The mature teenager now should have a productive future. Good luck to it.