This blog post is based on a discussion held in February 2021, as part of London Futures. Participants included local politicians, council officers and academics. The event was held under the Chatham House Rule.
In the final of our series of five London Futures expert roundtables looking at the big issues facing the capital, we discussed power and democracy. What should we make of London’s current settlement? How might we improve the distribution of power and reshape democracy in the capital? And what will all of this mean against a backdrop of turbulence caused by COVID-19, Brexit, the climate emergency and new fissures between national, devolved and local government?
We began our discussion with the case for devolution in principle. It can be seen as a matter of fundamental rights to have power exercised as locally as possible – of ‘subsidiarity’, to use the unfashionable EU jargon. Devolution can make governance, and so, local services, better, by minimising the gap between citizens and those with public power, making services more accountable and tailoring them to local circumstances, and through healthy competition between regions. These factors outweigh the case for centralisation (efficiencies, and a leaning to fairness across regions, in short). But devolution has suffered since the exit of Tony Blair, and then George Osborne, with no standard-bearer in Cabinet since the Brexit referendum hari kiri of David Cameron’s government, though a few new devolution ‘deals’ have been struck.
London’s current settlement
New Labour’s leadership, though devolution enthusiasts, were cautious when it came to London, at least in comparison with Scotland and Wales. The Blair-led reforms have left the capital with new bodies for strategic oversight, but limited teeth. Yet London’s Mayor is perceived to be broadly in charge of the city. The Mayor sits at the centre of a complex array of agencies and responsibilities, but crucially has very few formal links with the boroughs, though the pandemic has birthed some new collaborative structures. Overall there was a consensus that London’s current governance equates to less than the sum of its parts, except perhaps in a crisis or where, as in the Olympics, there has been a strong unifying goal.
Some participants urged caution that focussing on the ‘what’ of governance reform risks losing sight of the ‘why’. There was a strong view that governance reforms need to be presented not as ends in themselves but as means to tackling local challenges, such as how to improve the health service, or how to best tackle climate change. We also risk arguing too much about ‘dividing up the pie’ at the cost of growing it (see also ‘It’s the economy, stupid’).
What could change?
Some participants argued that people are losing patience with our current models of local government and that we need a shakeup that switches power to a more granular level, to neighbourhoods. Many spoke up for more participatory methods such as citizen’s assemblies, and the need to foster more innovation – let’s look for inspiration in the ‘flatpack democrats’ of Frome in Somerset, or the cantonised Swiss model. This might look like recasting London’s power in line with the ‘city of villages’ conceit often used to describe London. These reforms might align with fewer, larger boroughs to manage services that really benefit from scale, like waste disposal perhaps.
Others disagreed with the idea of such radical changes. There was however a strong current of opinion in favour of more formal links between the Mayor and the boroughs.
At conflict with centralisation
The pandemic has forced new crisis-driven pragmatism and cooperation across London but it could also have reinforced the nation-state’s position as the primary unit of public administration. So have we have reached a devolution high watermark? If not, there are plenty of contradictions and paradoxes to pick at. The uneven devolution of powers across the UK has left the British Prime Minister looking increasingly like the ‘Mayor of England’ according to one participant, lamenting the lack of consistency in responsibilities given to the Celtic nations and England’s ‘city regions’. Why shouldn’t London have the same powers over health and social care as Manchester? Or the same as Scotland over education?
But, through another lens, if devolution has been limited in London, it can look even slighter outside, where quasi-contractual deals have delegated some powers without any formal statutory framework. However, there remains little obvious appetite for regional government in England’s regions amongst the public at large or policymakers.
Arguably London has a particular challenge because of its scale, and economic heft, in how it relates to its hinterland. There does seem to be scope for London to convene and foster more collaboration to tackle big challenges across the wider South East.
How the distribution of power evolves across the UK, and in London, will be determined by the skirmishes of a few political tribes. The default power holders do seem to be the centralisers, a tribe seemingly, and a little paradoxically, led by our current ex-Mayor of London Prime Minister. Whether this centripetal tendency can be countered, or even repelled, could depend on whether the ‘evolutionists’, who mostly hold local power and want to build gradually from that base and the ‘idealists’ (wonks, academics, community groups) can join forces.
So, what to take away then from this pandemic-inflected reflection on power and democracy in London? First, don’t make it about governance. The case for reform must be premised on enabling better services, and better delivery of other public priorities, like tackling climate change: governance as a means to tackling our big challenges, not an end in itself.
Second, London, with all its complexity, works best when coming together with a clear goal, helping align local, city and national government, and also voluntary and private sectors. Just look what we did for the Olympics, and, now, to tackle coronavirus. The mission-based recovery plans forged between City Hall, and London Councils might point the way.
Third, we could be better at trialling new more local approaches that put power and resources into the hands of citizens, and neighbourhoods more directly, through participation, experimentation, so they can own and deliver new solutions to their challenges.
Finally, with a government apparently confused about how its centralising approach instinct fits with its high profile declarations to ‘level up’, Londoners needs to forge pragmatic new alliances, and perhaps eventually new or reformed institutions, to ensure that London’s interests are represented and London citizen’s needs are met.
This phase of London Futures has been made possible with the generous support of our Funders, City Bridge Trust, Impact on Urban Health, Mastercard, and Van and Eva DuBose, our Major Sponsors, Greater London Authority, and the London Borough of Lambeth, and our Supporting Sponsors, Bosch, Port of London Authority, University of London, and Wei Yang & Partners.