The London Assembly celebrated its 20th anniversary last week and with that milestone comes a time for pause and reflection. Does this unique scrutiny model work for local government and deliver for local people? What have we achieved?
Elected at the same time as the Mayor of London, we are a cross-party body, comprised of 25 Assembly Members, to hold the Mayor to account on behalf of Londoners. There is no comparable institution anywhere else in the country whose only job is to scrutinise and hold a Mayor to account.
The Assembly serves as a check and balance on the high-profile role of the Mayor of London with absolute powers to run the capital. Once Ken Livingstone, and the current Prime Minister. Now Sadiq Khan. We have the statutory power of summons, we can veto the Mayor’s core policies and amend his budgets. The policy remit is vast, including transport, planning, housing, the Metropolitan Police, the London Fire Brigade and the 2012 Olympics and Old Oak Common and Park Royal sites. The Mayor oversees a budget of over £18.5 billion and the Assembly makes sure that they, and the Mayor, spend this budget wisely.
Accountability of our executive leaders is more important than ever at this time of great economic and social change. Twenty years old, and in the middle of a pandemic, we are now facing exceptional circumstances, so what does the future hold for the Assembly?
A pandemic strikes
Thanks to the Additional Member System, which is a mix of First Past the Post and Party Lists, the Assembly has reflected the people it serves. Whilst in the past it has briefly featured UKIP, the ‘Veritas Party’ and the BNP, albeit in small numbers, politically today, it has a mix of Labour, Conservative, Green, Lib Dem and Brexit Alliance. Reflecting London’s diversity, we comprise of ten female Members - and eight are from a BAME background.
Mayoral and Assembly elections were scheduled to take place in May. However, with little notice, it was announced that these elections would be postponed. Elected back in 2008, I was due to step down along with a considerable number of colleagues. To then have the opportunity to become Chair was personally monumental for me. As the first British-Indian to hold this position, I feel immensely proud of this achievement and London’s ethnic and religious diversity, which ensures its position as a successful multicultural capital.
As with the rest of local government, the Assembly’s focus is on London’s response to COVID-19. The pandemic has completely transformed our way of life, but it has also been shown to worsen existing problems for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable and this is evident in the detrimental impact on BAME communities. As ever, the Assembly will listen to and stand up for Londoners, asking difficult questions they want answers to and embodying diversity and inclusion in all our work.
The Mayor’s charge
Sadiq Khan has a vital role in helping London sail through the storm. But much like local authorities across the country, the GLA has entered financial difficulty with the prospect of a reduced budget.
The Mayor has fired the starting gun on Government negotiations around a funding settlement, as the GLA faces a £493 million budget deficit over the next two financial years. He has proposed a move from City Hall to the Royal Docks, in order to save around £55 million over five years. As with the rest of the country London is at a crossroads in terms of its recovery. We can only guess at the outcome of the ensuing bartering process but, in the run up to the mayoral elections, it certainly won’t be a smooth ride. I hope we are given adequate resources, so Londoners don’t end up as ultimate losers.
A large component of the Assembly’s work is on GLA budget scrutiny and we will look at each functional body, examining the implications. If the GLA does not recoup its budget, programmes and services will take a hit. Our priority will be working out the impact of the cuts and what we can do to reduce the effects on Londoners.
The transport case
As with all public transport networks round the country, transport in the capital has been brought to its knees through a 90 per cent loss of fares revenue during lockdown. The Government and the Mayor negotiated a short-term financial deal, but there are concerns about TfL’s financial future.
London is a rarity when compared with other transport systems as it receives a lower state proportion of investment. If the Government is opposed to providing grant funding to support transport in London, then it will need to come up with a sustainable, post COVID funding solution. Fares can increase, but with the impact on affordability, this could turn Londoners and visitors away from using public transport to the detriment of the city.
These are the challenges that the Assembly will be putting to those who run London’s transport services in the coming weeks and months. Using the unique power we have, we will grill the people that matter and make recommendations for improvements, criticise poor performance and demand action.
This financial crisis is not confined to transport. We will adopt the same approach when it comes to examining police, fire, housing, health and other services in London under mayoral control.
Time for fiscal devolution
The post COVID world demonstrates that further fiscal devolution for London is vital. This mustn’t be kicked in the long grass.
Business rates are a large contributor to the core GLA budget with around half of the budget financed by business rates and the remainder by council tax. The potential for tax devolution to London is great. Diversifying the taxes at our disposal is needed more than ever. Stamp duty, Vehicle Excise Duty and a new city-wide tourist tax should all be on the table. This would do much by way of fairness, accountability and sustainability.
London not only needs essential services that need reliable funding, but also large-scale capital projects to promote growth and liveability. Fiscal devolution would allow the city to make the investment it wants.
There is cross-party consensus within the Assembly for further devolution in health, education, housing and economic development. We also stand united with other cities and regions calling for further devolution from central Government. It’s not simply a matter of us versus them, because devolution to London could lead the way for other cities and vice versa.
What have we achieved?
Many of the successes of scrutiny are the prevention and mitigation of potentially poor strategies, decisions and outcomes that we help to alleviate, but that the public will never see. Given the strategic nature of our work, some of our proposals may take years to come to fruition and may not be attributed to a single source. This can lead to confusion and nay-saying about scrutiny in general and our role. We know we have more to do when it comes to our profile. But I believe that through a consensual approach between political parties the Assembly has achieved a great deal since its inception.
Notable examples include the influence of the Assembly’s recommendations ahead of the introduction of the Congestion Charge in 2003. Its integral role in shaping the site, venue and legacy planning for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and its recent work to highlight, challenge and investigate the cost escalation and delays to Crossrail.
The work of which I am proudest, though, is the Assembly’s Review following the 7/7 terrorist attacks that killed 56 and injured hundreds. The Review’s reports led to the implementation of many of the 54 recommendations we made, principally in the area of communications within and between emergency and response services. These recommendations could be applied to any type of major incident and, as a result, London and the rest of the UK responds better to major incidents, which saves lives.
Whilst there are many other examples, this work is perhaps the clearest example of the real-world impact that our effective review processes are capable of, with a level of funding that is less than 0.05% of the Mayor’s total budget. Our ability will be hampered if we face major cuts.
The Assembly undertakes effective scrutiny work because of our direct democratic mandate – we are not a ‘pool’ nor a body in hock to the executive. Assembly Members are elected in their own right, to hold the Mayor of London to account. We are the voice of Londoners, accountable to voters, and not to internal structures or party-political operations and this gives our cross-party work legitimacy and influence. This is a governance model that has worked well for London and would work in any other city or region.
In the recovery phase and with the threat of budgetary meltdown, the Assembly will work tirelessly on behalf of Londoners. Our calls for further fiscal devolution will not stop. The wellbeing of our city rests in this great opportunity for change. We have been incredibly successful in the first 20 years. We will continue to shape mayoral policy in many years to come to make sure London stays a world-class city.
Navin Shah is chair of the London Assembly