Nick Bowes: That is how London ought to push for extra decentralization


The mayor should convene a broad coalition to support the submission of new laws in parliament, writes the chairman of the Center for London.

Nick Bowes, Managing Director of the Center for London

In the Mayor of London’s 21 years, the prospects for further decentralization of the city have never been so distant. But within London, support for more power and responsibility remains strong. The local authorities are crying out for more decentralization and the town hall urgently needs greater tax autonomy. Polls regularly show that Londoners prefer more say in city affairs, and even the current Prime Minister, when Mayor was a clamor for decentralization.

When things are at a dead end it will be hard to break free. But as is so often the case, you can learn a lot from history. In the 1990s, many citizen movements strongly advocated decentralization. North of the border, political parties, trade unions, business groups and religious groups came together to form a Scottish constitutional convention. And in London, a loose coalition of groups like the Architecture Foundation, London First and others argued hard for the restoration of citywide government. These moves proved convincing and difficult to ignore.

London needs to rekindle this spirit and advocate more decentralization with a unified voice. The Mayor should convene civil society, local governments of all political colors, business groups, religious leaders, charities, campaign groups and communities into a broad coalition to jointly draft a new decentralization agenda for London. In essence, this draft should outline more powers and freedoms for local communities, the counties, subregional partnerships, as well as the mayor and the assembly.

Build an impressive city-wide consensus

Buried in the Mammut Greater London Authority Act 1999, which spawned the Mayor and Congregation, is Section 77, which gives the GLA the legal power to propose parliamentary laws. With s77, the decentralization plan can be converted into a new draft of the London Powers Bill, with the aim of getting it to parliament for approval. By taking on s77’s legal obligations to consult fully with Londoners, this could create an impressive city-wide consensus.

London has a greater appetite to be bolder about some of the great causes of our time, such as the environment

The bill could include giving London full power over the drivers of local economic development and the tools to create programs tailored to the city’s particular needs. With more skills, entrepreneurial support and responsibility for renewal, London could meet its own significant rebalancing challenges and better promote jobs and growth. Whitehall will find it just as difficult in London as it is in the north.

Similarly, meaningful and sustainable tax freedoms and powers are a big missing part of London’s decentralization. Much work has already been done on this. Two bipartisan reports by the London Finance Commission – under both the former and the current mayor – advocated tax decentralization, particularly in relation to property taxation. In all fairness, the city’s transportation system will likely need potential new taxes to survive until fare revenues resume.

In general, London has a greater appetite to be bolder about some of the big concerns of our time, such as the environment. The freedom to levy fees and taxes to incentivize greener and healthier behaviors, such as a fee for disposable coffee mugs, disposable plastic bottles and unhealthy foods, could be included, as could more powers to combat air pollution.

Why ministers should give London more powers

Of course, the government could easily deny time to parliamentary debate, so convincing ministers that there is something in it for them will be crucial and I think there are three reasons why the current Conservative government should support any bill.

The Prime Minister himself said in his recent alignment speech that the government is open to suggestions from places for more decentralization

First, party political perspectives. Totally rejecting a program put together by a broad coalition across London is unlikely to go down well with the city’s electorate.

Second, it can help with the government challenges posed by the Red Wall. Like it or not, hostility and resentment towards London mean that it is difficult for ministers to be seen as helpful to the city. Proposals presented in a private bill are a relatively “fingerprint-free” alternative. Similarly, legislation that would allow London to raise more of its own money would release ministers from accountability when they appear to be spending money on the city.

Third, more autonomy makes it easier to make decisions in relation to the rest of England, as ministers do not have to try to cater to the special needs and circumstances of a city so different from the rest of the country.

Having London more say on its own affairs is long overdue, and if the pandemic has shown us anything, it is that too much has been done for too long and often too far from Whitehall. Given how bogged down the decentralization debate currently feels, building a new movement around the s77 powers might be worth a try. At the very least, these efforts should lead to relationship building within London.

The Prime Minister himself said in his recent alignment speech that the government is open to suggestions from places for more decentralization. Given that decentralization to London can benefit both the current government and the capital, which it will certainly want to thrive after Brexit, there are political, economic and “soft power” reasons for policies that the Prime Minister privately must recognize as correct.

Nick Bowes, General Manager, Center for London