It’s time to rebalance the powers of the London Mayor and Assembly

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 13th October 2016

This week is European Local Democracy Week 2016, and to mark it, we’re running a series of articles on how to make the London Assembly more democratic.

For the first two articles in the ‘Building a Better London Democracy’ series, ERS Policy and Public Affairs Officer Charley Jarrett argued that switching to the Single Transferable Vote for Assembly elections would be better for voters and politics generally, while FairVote Executive Director Rob Richie looked at what lessons US cities can learn from London in democratising voting. 

Today, Professor Nirmala Rao from SOAS university says we need to think about serious reform of the relationship between the London Assembly and the London Mayor – and their respective powers.

This is an external guest blog, and the views, opinions and positions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Electoral Reform Society.

The creation of a directly elected Mayor and assembly in 2000 marked the opening of a new era in the governance of metropolitan London.  While this model has delivered a form of city government that is effective, open and transparent, there is now a growing recognition of the need for reviewing and rebalancing the powers of Mayor and Assembly.

The GLA Act, 2000, set out the Mayor’s specific role as defining policy objectives, formulating London-wide strategies, and ensuring their implementation, while the Assembly’s primary duty was to hold the Mayor to account and to examine ‘issues of importance to Londoners’.  The Act, however, provided for significant reserve power whereby the Secretary of State could overrule decisions of the new authority, while the overall operations of the GLA powers was also heavily circumscribed by a broad duty to consult with various stakeholders.

The subsequent Greater London Authority Act, 2007, accorded greater powers to the Mayor in respect of such functions as planning, housing, large developments, skills and training.  Assembly powers were also strengthened in relation to checking Mayoral budget and planning decisions and proposing amendments to the Mayor’s strategies. The Assembly was also given the scope to develop new policy ideas and to press the Mayor for implementation.  The scale of the 2007 reforms was however modest but, importantly, it signalled a willingness on the part of the government to accord greater devolution to London government.

Since the establishment of the GLA, politicians and commentators have questioned the usefulness of the Assembly, some even calling for its abolition.  But the consensus remained that the ‘strong Mayor’ model of London Government can only be effectively scrutinised by a directly elected body.  The London Assembly currently uses a range of standing subject committees to carry out scrutiny. Yet, much of the Assembly’s scrutiny work is ‘external’ and hence can only influence, not command, the behaviour of other organisations.

In other metropolitan cities such as New York, Tokyo, and Berlin, the legislature or the councils enjoy extensive powers of scrutiny. They have powers of recall, which may result in new election, either through a petition from the people or a council vote of no-confidence with a special majority.

One of the proposals made during the passage of the Greater London bill, 1999, was for such a power to be given to the Assembly to impeach the Mayor. The government vigorously resisted an amendment to that effect, officials privately conceding that the example of New York had made them wary of a provision that could paralyse decision-making.  As a result, if a mayor proves ineffectual during the four-year term, and loses the confidence of the council, there is no provision for his or her removal until the next election.

All this adds up to a marked asymmetry between the powers of the Mayor and those of the Assembly.  Some feel it renders the assembly toothless. Proponents have recently argued for an enhanced role for the Assembly to include such powers that would enable the Assembly to amend the capital budget; to reject the Mayor’s Police and Crime Plan; to scrutinise external bodies appointed by the Mayor; and reject, if necessary, key Mayoral appointments (deputy mayors). The more radical critics have in fact called for the Assembly to develop as a separate, independent body, clearly distinct from the mayoralty to help Londoners better understand its work, rather than enhance its powers as a scrutiny body.

A Mayor and Assembly was designed to introduce a new style of politics for the Capital city –inclusive, consultative, and collaborative.  It has certainly been inclusive and consultative, and focused on the issues that surveys repeatedly revealed mattered to Londoners.  However, hopes for a ‘partnership’ style were quickly, if inevitably, disappointed.

Collective leadership has many virtues, as Archie Brown argues in his recent work, The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age.  Its benefits include the sharing of leadership tasks, providing for greater accountability and enhanced transparency. On the other hand, it was almost two decades ago that Ken Young warned how ‘strong executive models of metropolitan government tend to produce deep conflicts that, in time, erode their support and lead to their dissolution…’ It is a salutary reminder to policy makers and practitioners who strive to make city management more effective and leadership more visionary.

In the case of London governance, then, it is essential that a balance is achieved between a strong mayor able to decide on strategies and implement them, and an Assembly that can veto ill-considered policies and call in Mayoral decisions.

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