Charley Jarrett is Policy and Public Affairs Officer at the Electoral Reform Society and Jonathan Roland is a Consultant at Cadence Partners. They write in a personal capacity.
Earlier this week, Matthew Barrett wrote on this site that the new local authorities developed in the 1970s, particularly Greater London, were too disconnected from the communities they serve, and that we should return to the traditional county system.
However, we will argue that not only is the current system a more efficient and effective form of government than the one which it replaced, but that the boundaries of Greater London should be extended.
One of Barrett’s biggest gripes is that too many regions were developed based on having a large urban area within them. However, this is not as artificial as it may seem: when the German geographer Walter Christaller published his Central Place Theory in 1933, he realised that, in Europe, our large cities exist at the centre of a naturally evolved series of towns and villages that all exist in a symbiotic relationship – with goods, labour and services all mixing.
This does not mean, though, that we should ignore changing circumstances: if London grows, as it has done, so should its boundaries. We cannot stick our head in the sand to the changing needs of our great cities. Since the mayoral system has worked in London, it should be expanded to other urban areas. If devolution to city regions (such as Devo Manc) works in Manchester, it should be introduced in London. Incremental reform which reflects economic realities is exactly the sorts of organic change embraced by conservatism.
Many of us cheer for Croydon each time it reapplies for city status, thinking Greater London could use a third city. Why would its odds be bettered by rejoining Surrey? On Croydon, the idea that busy Thornton Heath would make a better fit with Surrey than London is spurious, whilst allowing leafy Purley’s residents to enjoy the savings of a TfL Travelcard and a say in how it’s run – whilst also writing ‘Purley, Surrey’ on their envelopes if they so wish – is exactly the sort of ‘no one-size-fits-all solution’ approach to local governance congruent with the Conservative manifesto.
Barrett’s first point, that traditional counties “mean something to their people” may be true, but that does not make them politically sensible entities: turnout in Parliamentary constituencies, which bear even less of a resemblance to traditional boundaries (when did you last hear someone proclaim their heritage as Houghton and Sunderland South?) will always be significantly higher than in a local election. Similarly, sports teams inside the modern boundaries of Greater London using their original, county-based names is not a good enough reason to change the whole local government system.
The Local Government Act 1972, by developing new counties such as Greater London and Greater Manchester, was not delivering an ideological hammer-blow to traditional counties: it was, rather, making local government fit for the service economy we had started to see, which would then be cemented by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. This model has been phenomenally successful: London is now the fifth largest city economy in the world, and people are attracted to the city in their millions, further fuelling its growth.
Thatcher’s abolition of the Greater London Council was rather untimely. Not only was an unintended consequence the creation of many costly pan-London quangos, but it came at the moment that opinion polls showed the GLC’s popularity was growing (by 1994, 66 per cent of those in Inner London and 61 per cent of those in Outer London supported an elected council for London).
Whilst Ken Livingstone’s municipal socialism must undoubtedly have been frustrating for an administration sworn to streamlining the state, the abolition of pan-London government was not the solution. Municipal government may tend to the left (our current Mayor and select others excepted!), but the consequent services and infrastructure ultimately serves the interests of capitalism. As Frank Marshall (later a Conservative Peer) said in his 1978 inquiry: “The total needs of London as a whole transcends that of its constituent parts, their local needs and aspirations.”
Whose democratic interests are served by ceding the Outer London boroughs to the counties from whence they came? Certainly not the millions of Conservative voters in Inner London (whether in Wandsworth or Westminster or the Labour-run boroughs), whom Barrett would condemn to a lifetime of London Labour rule. Nor would it be served by the Londoners in marginal boroughs he would sooner see in the one-party states of the Home Counties: Mihaly Fazekas has demonstrated that ‘one-party state’ councils of whichever party make fewer savings for local taxpayers than their democratically competitive counterparts. Scrutiny matters.
Due to a lack of available housing, more and more of the people attracted by London’s dynamic economy and world-class universities are forced to live further away from the centre, and the number of people residing in the Home Counties but spending the majority of their waking hours in London is increasing every day. These people, despite being attracted by its advantages (jobs, education, culture), being adversely affected by its problems (housing, air quality and, despite being daily users of its services (transport, police), are denied any say in its governance. It can only be right that we embrace the honorary Londoners of the Home Counties as people who play full parts in the development of this great city, and give them the democratic right that should go with that.
Barrett may call this “London Imperialism”, but we believe that is the moral thing to do. He has decided that “people living outside Greater London are unlikely to want to become part of it.” We say that we should put this to the test, and see if these Home Counties residents want to become enfranchised in to one of the world’s greatest cities.