Mayoral policy goes gently down the Tube

14 Feb 02
So the deed is done.

15 February 2002

Four years after it was first suggested and two years after Ken Livingstone became mayor of London, the public-private partnership for the Tube is at last a reality.

What it means for commuters we will find out over the next 30 years. What it means for directly elected mayors will become clearer much sooner.

Mayors were supposed to be the pioneers forging a new political landscape, shouting loud and proud for local causes, with the London mayor being the prime example.

They would, said Hilary Armstrong, the local government minister launching mayoral policy in 1998, 'provide powerful accountable leadership, able to bring together and speak for a whole city'.

Well, mayors may speak but it appears central government does not listen. The PPP decision has shown up a democratic deficit within the concept of the London mayor.

If the mayor cannot, despite a mandate from 58% of those in the capital, make the final decision on the biggest policy decision he faces, was there much point in creating this new tier of government?

'It [the decision on PPP] is inconsistent with mayors or devolution more generally,' says Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics. 'It's certainly dented the government's case as regards devolution.'

This has been a government that has constantly sent out confusing signals on devolution: giving power with one hand only to snatch it away with the other. Just ask those in Scotland and Wales.

But at a time when it is encouraging more councils to adopt a mayoral type system, could the government's actions on PPP undermine its case elsewhere?

Trevor Phillips, one time contender for Ken Livingstone's job, does not believe there will be long-term harm. 'I really don't think PPP is a problem for getting political powers elsewhere,' says Phillips, now deputy chair of the Greater London Assembly.

'I think there is a slight problem that people got so fixated by London, PPP and Ken Livingstone.' Step back from PPP and you can get a clearer picture, argues Phillips.

With referendums coming up in five councils – Bedford, Hackney, Mansfield, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stoke on Trent – it will be interesting to see if the deficiencies in the post of the London mayor have any significant effect on voters there.

Then there are the outstanding issues of Birmingham and Bradford, both waiting for ministers to order mayoral referendums.

George Jones, professor of government at the London School of Economics, says the problem with mayors goes a lot further than a decision over the Underground.

The way mayors have been established has undermined the experiment, he says. 'Having a directly elected mayor produces a very adversarial system in two ways: between the mayor and central government and mayor and assembly.' The person he blames for this is Nick Raynsford, local government minister, one-time London mayoral wannabe and an architect of the legislation eventually passed by Parliament.

Much better, says Jones, would be a system where the mayor is elected by the assembly, as happens in other countries such as France.

This would lessen the conflict at local level, he maintains, as the executive and the legislature will be working together rather than against each other.

However, for real power to be devolved to future mayors, Travers says there is one establishment that must be tackled: the Treasury.

Its permanently tight rein on the purse strings mean decisions will continue to be taken from the centre rather than in the regions. 'This government is no more willing than its predecessor to give any of that control up,' he says.

This is a country with a long tradition of keeping decision-making centralised. It will take more than a mayor to change that.


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