Today it was the turn of the troubled London Development Agency to face questions from the whole Assembly. Chairman Harvey McGrath and Chief Executive Peter Rogers faced a gruelling session which began with my colleague Andrew Boff asking What difference would Londoners notice if the LDA did not exist? A blunt question but the organisation was set up by New Labour in 2000, and it's absence was not remarked upon before then...
Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
Harvey McGrath admitted that the LDA could surrender many of its functions to other bodies - with consequent cost savings. Grant giving could be taken on by the London Councils grant committee, skills training could be taken on by the new London Skills Council, land ownership and administration could be carried out by the GLA itself from City Hall.
However the witnesses pointed to progress being made in reforming the organisation with a demanding new board - who are certainly not slaves to the mayor - and plans to outsource elements of financial management. These would be lost if the LDA was broken up.
Support for business had been somewhat haphazard and the recession meant this could no longer continue. The LDA were focusing their efforts on programmes with a record of success and discarding the less effective initiatives. The witnesses were keen to point out that many government sponsored programmes were also not targeted effectively.
In meetings with small businesses over the last year I have heard complaints about the current Business Link service in London - too bureaucratic, impractical, hard to access and generally not relevant to much of the sector. Peter Rogers accepts that the service could be much better and the LDA intend to relet the contract. However the size of the contract and uncertainty over the future direction of policy had led them to postpone the tendering process until after the General Election - yet another reason why London needs an election as soon as possible.
Harvey McGrath - himself a leading figure in the finance sector - was keenly questioned by Labour members seeking to dispel rumours that the industry was leaving London to avoid the government's populist banker tax. He admitted that he knew of no institutions who were planning to leave, although many of their more highly paid employees were packing their bags. As one of London's main attractions is its expertise in financial services he hoped that large numbers of professionals would choose to stay, or their employers would eventually be forced to follow them - let's hope they like snow.
The meeting concluded with the usual knockabout debates around motions - we criticise the government, Labour criticise the mayor with support from their Lib Dem and Green Mini Me's.
However the final motion received cross party support, calling upon the planning and housing committee to investigate fire safety in timber framed tall buildings. This follows two recent fires which devastated partly built blocks in Southwark and a similar fire in Colindale some years ago. As a former planning committee chairman at Havering, I was often concerned about granting permission for large timber framed blocks of flats, but planning law and government policies - pile 'em high, sell 'em expensive - prevented consideration of fire safety issues. I look forward to the findings of this investigation.