The way London is governed at a strategic level is a disgrace and an embarrassment. For the people who live in the ‘greatest city in the world’ (copyright S.Khan) to be governed in such an infantile way is an insult to democracy. London provides more than Scotland in revenue to the Treasury and in return the capital receives crumbs. America was lost because the colonies epitomised their plight with the slogan ‘no taxation without representation’. London has a better case for financial independence than Scotland yet still has to go Oliver Twist-like to the Treasury to have some more of its money back. As it is London is allowed to keep just seven per cent of the revenue it raises compared to half in New York and 70 per cent in Tokyo. Strangely the devolution of more financial powers to the capital failed to catch fire during the mayoral campaign. (In the eleventh century William the Conqueror confirmed the city’s independence and self-government)
The elections in May to become Mayor of London and the London Assembly were dominated by less all conquering figures. The Financial Times in an editorial, 23 April, was less than impressed with the leading candidates for mayor. “Staring at the voters of Europe’s largest city are two Lilliputian choices for mayor. The Conservative Zac Goldsmith and the Labour party’s Sadiq Khan have had many months to show they are equal to London. They have failed. It is hard to associate either man with a big policy idea or a definitive achievement in their careers. Sure enough, their plans for this city of global importance are woefully inadequate when they are at all discernible” They are described as a miserable brace of candidates for a position that has weak executive powers by global standards. (The same summary could be made of the latest intake of members elected to the London Assembly. They have failed to impress since they were elected.)
London has less self-governing powers since the London County Council was first established in 1889. By the time it came to celebrate its fifty years in existence in 1939 it had built itself a reputation unsurpassed in local government. W. Eric Jackson in his short history of the London County Council titled Achievement writes, “With its range of important functions, its great achievements, its immense equipment in buildings and installations, its recognition in the eyes of London and of the world, and with its influence in the development of the life, work and public services of the capital, the Council felt satisfied that it had in a great measure justified the hope and enthusiasm which had impelled its creation” Its range of responsibilities was to be enlarged during and after the Second World War until it was replaced by the Greater London Council in 1965.
It was not only the range of the GLC’s powers extended but the area over which it had responsibility was enlarged. Its demise in 1986 came not as a result of the extension of its powers geographically but because the Prime Minister at the time believed that the leader of the Greater London Council was using his role to extend his own powers beyond his remit. Thus in 2000 the powers of the new body were limited. Despite this being the case Ken Livingstone once again tried to increase the powers of Mayor. He succeeded in having some powers over housing returned to the capital if not the powers to finance a new building programme. It was his successor that reaped the benefit.
Housing was the big issue of the campaign yet the two main contenders failed to attend the two housing hustings that were held during the campaign. What was also inexplicable was the failure of the Evening Standard to connect its campaign, begun the previous September, on Angell Town council estate in Peckham with the state of housing in the capital, not just council estates, during the election campaign. Also during the months before the May elections the Evening Standard failed to highlight the devastating effects the Housing and Planning Bill – the worst piece of legislation to come before Parliament in many a year – would have on London 3,500 council estates. It will have a second chance to redeem itself next year when the government introduces a new Housing Bill with the promise of ‘radical’ housing ‘reforms’ that will have no doubt an equally disruptive impact, if unopposed.
It was only in November 2016 when some ‘star’ architect proposed that London should be socially cleansed of people whom he considered worthy to mix with people who bought the homes he designed that the Evening Standard found its voice. The ‘star’ architect seemed to have had a ‘brain fade’ and forgotten that it is people whom he considered not worthy to live within the city boundaries who service such buildings and do the jobs that keep the city moving, clean and fed. As it stated in its editorial, “It is wrong to categorise those occupying social housing as free-riders. The vast majority work, often in vital jobs that keep this city running. Affordable housing is similarly essential” (TMcG is a council tenant) It concludes that “central London filled only with the rich would not only be a depressing prospect but one which would make it unviable” Readers will be able to see when the new housing bill is announced whether its word is its bond. (A special mention for Inside Housing magazine, the mouthpiece of the National Housing Federation; its coverage of housing over the past year from the perspective other than housing associations, has been pathetic. Was that why the executive editor left?)
It will be not for any policy differences between candidates that the Mayoral contest will be remembered but the Tory campaign that was “vicious, dirty and personal”. That is how Evening Standard columnist Rosamund Unwin described the campaign. Peter Oborne, political columnist and life-long Tory, described Goldsmith’s campaign as the most repulsive he had experienced. Goldsmith’s denunciation of Sadiq Khan in a Sunday newspaper days before the election in terms that prophesied the end of London as we know it, if his Labour opponent was elected were pitiful from someone who was seen previously as a green compassionate Conservative. It too was a disgrace and an embarrassment.
PS The weekend after the election I went shopping and the girl at the checkout asked me why I looked so glum. I told her about the election and how I had come last in the list of candidates and that I was beaten even by the Animal Welfare Party. I voted for them, she said. I said nothing. There I was thinking the election was about such matters as housing.