Friday, October 16, 2009

End of the Road?

Rumours have been kicking around for several days concerning supposed secret conservative plans to abolish the London Assembly and replace it with a committee of London borough leaders. The proposal originated with Conservative Thinkers - although you don't need to be much of a thinker to recycle a policy that was first mooted a decade ago - and has been 'exposed' by Tribune magazine. The Evening Standard covers it today and it is being debated over at Tory Troll and on Conservative Home, with fairly predictable comments in both places.

Support has been expressed by Hammersmith & Fulham leader Stephen Greenhalgh, who I suspect would do a fine job of scrutiny as part of a leaders' committee. Other council leaders may not have the time, indeed some struggle to control and reform their own backyards.

My colleague Andrew Boff has also expressed some support for the idea. This may seem strange but it is understandable in the light of the strategy of the Labour, Liberal and Green parties to deny the eleven strong Conservative group a proportional share of committee chairs. I can well understand some members seeing little point in an organisation that limits their participation.

I don't support abolition but I do think reform is essential in a number of areas:


The Act that set up London government created a strong mayor and a relatively weak assembly. Subsequently, the mayor's powers have been increased but the assembly remains the same, so here are three suggestions:

1. At present the budget can be passed by only a third of the assembly voting in favour. Not surprisingly, it has never been rejected or amended in nine years. Raise the bar by requiring an absolute majority.

2. There is currently no democratic check on the mayor's strategies. The London Plan, Transport Plan and Economic Development Strategy should all require approval by a majority of the assembly.

3. Members are required to sit on the police and fire authority boards, may take part in the LDA board and are prohibited from serving on the board of TfL. This confusing fudge should be swept away with members appointed to all the functional body boards in proportion to the size of their political groups.

Democratic Deficit

The combined first past the post and party list election ensures that the assembly is always hung. As a practical result the third party Liberal Democrats get to decide who chairs the committees, treating the public vote as merely a consultation. This leads to weak 'me too' government.

The list element should be discarded and the existing large constituencies halved in size. The result would be a 28 member body with enough members to serve on the functional bodies and clear political control.

Presently the assembly is elected on the same day as the mayor, making it very likely that the mayor's party will dominate the assembly. The elections should be staggered to allow for a mid term assembly vote which could potentially give the opposition a much stronger hand.


Over the last twelve years politicians at all levels have lost a lot of their power, and the current expenses scandal threatens to dilute their influence still further. Constituents wonder why MPs can't prevent hospital closures, councillors can't vote on bus lanes and assembly members can't make the buses run on time. The reason is that many of these powers have been devolved to professional officers - well meaning people who act in line with standards set by their national bodies and strategic plans that bury proposals in turgid detail. Often we are told we can't do things because of health and safety or judicial constraints. Expression of opinions is confined by the threat of the standards regime.

Across the board these restrictions need to be rolled back. The people should be in charge and their elected representatives need to be empowered, not controlled and restricted.

The Record

Notwithstanding its relative impotence, the assembly has produced some good work over the years, but it has been like playing Scrabble without the vowels. The 7/7 review chaired by Richard Barnes provided the only opportunity for a public examination of that terrorist atrocity, given the government's reluctance to hold an inquiry.

The transport committee reports on the collapse of Metronet and the value of bus contracts must have been high quality because Commons select committees incorporated them into their own findings. We were questioning Boris about the heavy snow disruption weeks before his spat with the Commons. My own flooding review from 2002 is still quoted whenever there is heavy rainfall.

But we missed some opportunities too. The failure to scrutinise PPP during the first term left the assembly scrambling to catch up as the complicated structure collapsed under its own weight several years later.

There have been high and low points but with proper reform the assembly could be so much better.


sjm said...

Thank you for that exemplary explanation - very enlightening.

Rog T said...


The report I read said that the mayor should be abolished as well. Do you agree with this proposal?

With my political allegiance, it may not surprise you to know that I thought Ken did a great job. As to Boris, I don't think he's been great, but I think he's probably better than no Mayor at all and Whoever does the job has a mandate. I was quite shocked that one of your colleagues suggested scrapping the role.

I get the feeling that there are too many politicians who have a knee-jerk abolish everything reaction, rather than a more sensible and pragmatic, "lets improve this" mentality

Roger Evans said...


I don't support abolition of the Mayor or the Assembly and I left some clues to that effect in the article...

morris hickey said...

The idea of assembly members making buses run on time is an interesting one. It was always claimed that Mussolini made the trains in Italy run on time, and whilst I am not persuaded that assembly members should have at their disposal the same range of sanctions as he did to deal with failure I do think that rather more effort could be made to secure improved reliability.

Let us start with the transport commissioner who was allegedly paid last year the scarcely trifling sum of £484,884 in salary and bonuses. The iniquity here is the bonus culture. Why should anybody be paid a bonus for achieving the tasks required of him? If he performs to requirement he should be paid his salary, and if he does not then he qualifies for receipt of a P45.

My perception of transport in London is that the Central Line seems generally reliable for my limited use of it, and that many bus operators are woefully incompetent. Complaints to TfL about their failings are met with little, if any, discernable impovement that is sustained. Of the four operators in Redbidge whose services I use one gives an excellent service, one is variable, and two are notoriously unreliable.

TfL - from the commissioner down - need to engage urgently in some digital disengagement or take a quick career change. To this end they need to be regularly and rigorously scrutinised both by the assembly members and the travelling public.

David Grantham said...

You simply can't run a city like London without a central body of some sort - on everything from transport to international gatherings it must make sense to have one body rather than 33 (32 London boroughs plus the City). And it's helpful to have a figurehead who the public can identify - whether you agree or disagree with them, both Ken and Boris have energised London politics.