How much power does the London Assembly have, and are Londoners paying enough attention to it?
Over 20 years ago, the Greater London Authority (GLA) Act 1999 created a strategic government for London, consisting of an executive Mayor and a small, scrutiny-oriented Assembly. After a delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, Londoners are set to elect both the Mayor and their Assembly representatives on 6 May, but over the last year, the latter has been overshadowed by the mayoral contest. Most Londoners are hardly even aware of who the Assembly members are, let alone their responsibilities.
Scrutinising the Mayor
The primary responsibility of the Assembly is to scrutinise the Mayor’s actions – this includes the budget, the London Plan and other strategies, and the bodies under mayoral control: Transport for London, the Metropolitan Police, the London Fire Brigade, development corporations and The London Economic Action Partnership.
The GLA Act (and subsequent legislation) confer on the Assembly three key powers: the power to pass (or vote down) the Mayor’s annual budget, the power to reject and propose amendments to the Mayoral strategies, and the power to conduct regular scrutiny meetings – monthly ‘Mayor’s Questions Time’ with the Mayor, and equivalents with the Transport and Police commissioners, and deputy mayors.
The Assembly also has a research budget to conduct investigations (for example into Grenfell, Crossrail delays, the Garden Bridge, or tram safety) as well as to evaluate policies and making recommendations to the Mayor.
An unusual body
Whilst the powers above seem standard for a city council, the London Assembly is atypical in many ways.
The first characteristic that sets the London Assembly apart from other councils is its small size. The Assembly has 25 members to represent nine million people – by comparison, London’s least populated borough, Kensington and Chelsea, has 50 councillors for 150,000 residents. It was the intention of government to conceive a lean and strategic Assembly, to avoid recreating the mightier and highly political Greater London Council (92 seats) or its predecessor, the London County Council (150 seats). A small Assembly also means lower running costs (out of the GLA’s £708 million 2019/20 budget, £8 million was spent on London Assembly functions).
The second difference is the Assembly’s decision-making rules. Unlike most local authorities and parliament, the Assembly as scrutiny body is elected separately from the Mayor as executive. Initial propositions to give the London Assembly the power to remove the Mayor from office should he lose a confidence vote were overwhelmingly dismissed by the House of Lords in 1999, for doing so would have rendered the democratic vote for mayor pointless. Consequently, mayors can only be dismissed if they fail to attend six consecutive London Assembly meetings or break the law.
For the Assembly to oppose or amend mayoral strategies, and to amend the GLA Group Budget, it has to reach a two-thirds majority – making the odds of winning a vote very low. Critics say this neutralises the Assembly while those in favour argue it enables the Mayor to act freely without the pressure of petty politics. To this day, the Assembly has never formally amended the Mayor’s annual budget, even when the Mayor’s party did not hold the majority of seats in the Assembly (this happened after the 2012 election, when Londoners elected a conservative Mayor but a labour majority in the Assembly). However, the Assembly’s power to amend the budget has on occasion pushed the Mayor’s office to strike deals with different party groups to ensure that it can pass.
The third difference is in electoral rules. The London Assembly consists of 14 members elected from each constituency (made up of two or more London boroughs), and 11 additional London-wide members (AMs). This is a hybrid between first-past-the-post and election-by-list electoral systems. While this means smaller parties stand a good chance to secure a seat on the Assembly – which has benefited the Greens, UKIP, and even the BNP in the past – it means some members lack a specific constituency.
These three differences sometimes create a bit of an identity crisis for the London Assembly. Should it remain a scrutiny body with ‘soft’ power – or should it have more say over the Mayors’ decisions? Does it have the resources to evaluate the Mayor’s policies, given the Mayor has been granted additional powers over the police force, housing, skills and employment, planning and transport? The London Assembly cannot veto on the London Plan yet the Secretary of State has the power to direct changes in cases of inconsistency with national policy. Is scrutiny a strength of the Assembly?
What next for the Assembly?
The upcoming election will mark a few ‘firsts’ for the London Assembly. It is the first time that longstanding members of the Assembly (who have been around since its inception) have stepped down – Tony Arbour, Jennette Arnold, and Nicky Gavron. It is the first time that the Conservative challenger to the Mayor comes from the benches of the Assembly. It is also the first time the Assembly has ‘produced’ the leader of a UK wide party – in Sian Berry.
As new elects replace current members, will new forms of pressure follow in the new term? Additionally, is the Assembly becoming a springboard towards a London – or even national – political career as has been the case with members becoming MPs and ministers such as Bob Neill, James Cleverly, Kit Malthouse, Gareth Bacon and Florence Eshalomi to name a few? Or, on the other hand, does this illustrate that city-wide changes can only be made from one side of the GLA?
There is still an evident imbalance between Mayoral power, and the Assembly’s influence within London’s government. Until this is addressed, the role of the scrutiny body will remain advisory and opinions on policies and statutory strategies will hardly be a constraint to the Mayor’s action.
Outside of the capital, government has since created alternative mayoral scrutiny models, to enable local councils to be part of strategic decision making. For example, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is run jointly by the Mayor and the council leaders of the 10 boroughs in the city. Not only are members direct representatives of their councils but they are also more hands-on when contributing to their Mayor’s strategic decisions, that require consultation and unanimous or majority support.
Could this ever work in a city of 33 boroughs? Perhaps not, but as the Mayor – and many London organisations including Centre for London – make the case for more self-government, new questions are raised around the strength of the Assembly when it comes to holding the Mayor to account.
Note: This blog post was first published on 26 February 2020 and has been updated to account for the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Mario Washington-Ihieme is a Researcher at Centre for London.