Cllr Kevin Davis is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Kingston Council.
Ken Livingstone hated the London boroughs. He found them all too complicated, and too often the boroughs wanted to defend their rights and autonomy when Ken wanted to run London all to himself. Livingstone’s mistake was that unlike other global capitals, London is steeped in the history of each of the 32 boroughs. The diversity of culture and outlook varies between each, and whilst on the surface they appear complicated, they are the building blocks of the city that is London.
Where Livingstone was right was that the Governance of London is complicated. 32 boroughs, plus the City of London, nearly 1,800 councillors, a London mayor with 12 political appointments which includes deputy mayors, and the London Assembly to hold the Mayor to account. Add to all this the other structures of London public services, like the NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups, and it is a miasma of confusion where coordination is driven by the personalities running the services, not the needs of the resident. Unsurprisingly, decisions and change are slow with the level of governance London has. At borough level, some councils take decisions in committees which creates painfully slow decisions and implementations. Even those with cabinet systems struggle to work at the pace a dynamic business works and the speed at which Government should act. Some argue that slow and considered decisions are better decisions, but often the world has moved on before the change has been made.
Livingstone’s proposals were to divide London into a pizza with a Central, North, South, East and West borough, pushing together ancient historic boroughs and losing the identity that so defines London. Whilst I don’t agree with his solution, I do think change needs to happen. What could this look like?
Messing about with the mayoralty and London Assembly is not on the agenda, but I do think the time has come to change the boroughs. Why not have all the boroughs opt to move to directly elected mayors? 32 London mayors with executive powers would move London on faster and better mirror the role of the Mayor of London. Decisions in the boroughs would happen speedily, and elected mayors would be much better suited to working with and holding to account the Mayor of London, working with their colleagues in the Assembly. An elected mayor would also have more freedom to help shape their borough and be directly accountable at the ballot box for the direction of the borough. This would hardly change the roles of local councillors, as their role now is very much to scrutinise the decisions of the council and, as in some of those councils who have mayors, they appoint a cabinet or deputies to help support the mayor in their role.
Where this gets interesting is a discussion about how the boroughs could develop with this simple change. Centralisation has always been an ambition of the Left, levelling public services so that we are all deemed “equal”; this is reflected in Livingstone’s pizza model. Elected mayors would enable us to move to further devolution to the boroughs. We could unwind the merger of borough police commands back to the boroughs, and place neighbourhood policing under the budget and control of the directly elected mayors. There would be local police and crime commissioners for borough policing. The Met could then concentrate, with the Mayor, on strategic policing matters and terrorism. It works for the City of London, so why would it not work elsewhere? Primary care could also be devolved to the borough mayors alongside public health, which would give us a real chance of bringing about change in the quality of life of Londoners.
The move to directly elected borough mayors is not something the Mayor of London has power over, but I would like to see our mayoral candidate lobby for this with Government so that we can create a dynamic London that takes fast paced decisions. Next year will be 20 years since the Greater London Authority Act. Maybe the time has come to think what next?