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Five ways London’s mayors have changed the city

This year, the London Mayoralty turns 18 years old and ‘comes of age’. During this time, London’s three Mayors – Ken, Boris, Sadiq – have used the limited levers that they had – sometimes to breaking point –  to improve the city.

But what impact have they actually had?

Here’s five ways that the Mayors have transformed our city since the Mayoralty was established.

1. Leading London’s urban renaissance

The London Plan, as adapted and evolved by the three Mayors, set a world standard in promoting smart growth, sustainable development, urban renaissance.  The plans committed to accommodating growth within the city, focusing on public transport walking and cycling, developing ever more ambitious housing targets, renewing the public realm, and harnessing the dynamics of development to create a fairer and greener city.

2. Driving transport innovation

The Mayor’s ability to integrate transport and development – the envy of other cities like New York – has been central to the London Plan.  But Transport for London – chaired by all three Mayors in a signal of its significance – has also led policy innovation in transport – from the original congestion charging zone, to bike rentals, to the Oyster card and contactless payment, to the ultra-low emissions zone.

3. Providing civic leadership

The Mayors have also provided a focal point for civic leadership. This has not just been a matter of fronting bids for major events, and representing the city in trade fairs and Whitehall spending rounds. It has also sadly meant leading the city at times of tragedy – after the London bombings in 2005, and the terrorist attacks and Grenfell Tower fire that the city faced last summer. The Mayors have, with differing emphases and tone, presented London and the world with an image of capital that is inclusive, tolerant, diverse, open, united.  It’s an aspect of the Mayor’s role that is not mentioned in any statute, but eighteen years on you wonder how we lived without it.

4. Doing deals with central Government

Having a Mayor has enabled London to do deals with central Government on how to finance and deliver major infrastructure projects.  These deals – on the London 2012 Olympics and legacy, on Crossrail and on the Northern Line Extension – have helped London to accommodate its growth, to weather the storms of the financial crisis, and to transform areas benighted by decades of underinvestment – while also building world-leading capacity in major projects.

5. Making the case for more power

And the Mayors have secured new powers through statute.

  • In 2006, the Mayor was given powers to stage the London 2012 Olympics – which was fortunate given that he and the government had committed to do so the previous year.
  • In 2007, planning powers and housing powers were strengthened, as was the London Assembly’s role in approving mayoral appointments.
  • In 2011, policing oversight – always a bone of contention between the Mayor and Home Secretary was reformed, as the Metropolitan Police Authority was replaced by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime
  • Also in 2011 the Localism Act empowered the London Assembly to reject mayoral strategies, and passed control of HCA and LDA land to the Mayor, delegated the affordable housing budget, enabled the Mayor to establish Mayor Development Corporations – shifting the focus of the GLA from strategy to delivery.But progress since 2011 has been faltering.  There have been devolution deals on the Adult Education Budget, agreements on health and social care, and discussions on justice devolution.  But despite two London finance commissions, and strong representations from the Mayor and London Councils, further devolution feels like unfinished business.

And at no time since the Mayoralty was set up 18 years ago have the challenges facing the capital looked more daunting. Local government services are under increasing pressure. A cooling housing market is leading to a slowdown in the construction and availability of affordable homes. Migration from the EU and across the country is falling. And all of this before Brexit.

Against that background, we need to rethink the way London operates for new times. We need to continue to make the case for new powers for the Mayor – across housing, taxes, and skills, to help London meet the challenges ahead.

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Richard Brown is Research Director at Centre for London. Follow him onTwitter.