London’s success is plain to see. With one-eighth of the UK’s population, London contributes virtually one-fifth of our GDP. In the course of this first decade in the new century, 40% of the UK’s crucial export growth has come from London. It is estimated that some £20 billion of monies raised in tax by Londoners every year are used to subsidise public spending in other parts of the country. London also leads the way in the all important area of productivity, which ranks 27% above the national average.
Given this roll-call of London’s contemporary achievements, one might ask whether and why the Capital needs more government at all? I have said it before, but there are no problems in public administration that a little government interference often cannot make worse! Indeed, London’s future prosperity can only be assured if our Capital city remains a cradle for capitalism.
However, broadly speaking I support the notion of greater government devolution of power to the London Mayor, provided that the Mayor and GLA in turn devolve some of their authority and responsibility for activities to the thirty-three local London boroughs.
Indeed, I would contend that the reason that Londoners have these past six years been able to tolerate in Ken Livingstone a maverick mayor who has shown himself incapable of efficient, competent administration is that he has so few effective powers. As a result the damage he has been able to inflict upon London’s engine of economic growth has been thankfully limited.
I spoke in a debate in the House of Commons recently about my specific concerns about the costs of London governance under the current mayor. The level of council tax attributable to the mayor the mayoral precept has more than doubled from £123 in Band D in 2000, to almost £300 today. Yet and I shall repeat it again the Mayor of London empties not a single bin, cleans not a single street and runs not a single school, library or social services department. However in some London boroughs, including my own City of Westminster, over forty percent of council tax levied on residents is spent by the Mayor and the GLA.
The Mayor’s City Hall has a rapidly growing headcount, yet even their internal auditor identifies colossal financial waste courtesy of an incoherent staffing strategy. Londoners also lose out as a result of duplication between City Hall and the Government Office for London. The much-heralded improvements in London’s public transport are effectively run on the basis of the economics of the madhouse. There may well be more buses on London’s streets, but it comes at a colossal cost. Losses on the Mayor’s transport budget amount to some £900 million annually, the average bus being 85% empty and with concessionary fares and vast fraud leaving the relatively few who travel on our buses outside rush hour paying little if anything for the privilege. Similarly, the congestion charge has been a huge financial disappointment. Its attraction to the Mayor is the fact that it brings in ring fenced money, allowing him to invest as he would put it in other municipal projects.
In the midst of the debate about the mayor’s powers, I am keenly aware that one cannot dismiss the importance of the office simply because of the incompetence and financial ignorance of its incumbent. To do so would be making the same mistake as the government made at the outset. This serious role requires some serious powers. It needs someone with the capacity and integrity to be a first rate public administrator, making the case for London to central government as well as promoting London’s global importance on the international stage.
We need a streamlined mayoralty working alongside, rather than being in competition with, the Government Office for London. We need to ensure that the research on the Greater London Authority focuses more on its international importance and official responsibilities rather than the parochial and more marginal obsessions.