It takes an urban village
It’s not very often that London local government manages to feature in two of the weeklies, if ever at all. And no, I’m not referring to the London LEP announced this week, on which there’ll probably be more later (at least it is a London LEP and not the feared Venn-like ‘sub-regional’ arrangement).
This week’s New Statesman leads with a piece by Treasure Islands author Nicholas Shaxson on how the largely unreformed City of London Corporation acts more like tax haven Jersey or the Isle of Man than a local authority on account of its legal privileges won under the Curia regis. More usually a topic of interest to municipal trainspotters than the Staggers‘ bien-pensant readership (it rues “lack of media interest” in discussions thus far), Shaxson welds interest in the elevation of veteran City critic and community organising guru Maurice Glasman to the peerage as Lord Glasman of Stoke Newington (under Ed Miliband’s search for ideological coherence) with the rise of tax justice campaigners UK Uncut. The existence of twee livery companies like the Cordwainers and Loriners is naturally deployed to hammer home the antiquated workings of the Corporation and its unusual electoral system, but given that its 11,000 inhabitants receive the best performing local authority services in the kingdom then I suspect the Barbican and Farringdon Without Liberal Democrat Focus Teams are going to have to wait a little longer before they can trouble anyone’s doormats with election literature.
The Economist this week however goes with the movement towards the creation of parish councils in London, again possibly the most ‘niche’ subject for debate since the demise of the Metropolitan Board of Works, whenever that was. Of course, this opens with the by-now obligatory reference to the Vicar of Dibley (Richard Curtis did also direct Notting Hill, it should be noted), one which was frequently uttered at the recent London Civic Forum event on parishes in London, which I not only attended but chaired by dint of having edited the 2008 London Says report (PDF) on the subject. Around 50 people assembled in a room in South Bank University to pore over the prospect of their creation now the law actually permits this, with experts on hand from the National Association of Local Councils and the Local Government Association, as well as the Queen’s Park Forum mentioned in The Economist piece. Views in the room, which came from Islington’s award-winning Paradise Park through to the currently defunct Liberty of Norton Folgate, tended to reflect concerns about the precepting required (more tax avoidance, tsk) to fund the activities of any new community-level council (which doesn’t necessarily have to call itself ‘parish’, not least in places like Tower Hamlets), the right geographic size for these bodies and how they can engage with the planning system (don’t mention the mega-mosque). London Councils (no fan of parishes, it has to be said) declined to field a representative, but there was much discussion of town hall obstinance despite their new legal duties.
The Economist rightly notes that despite the relaunched Big Society rhetoric of the Coalition, the prospect of potentially costly little platoons and their ‘non-job’ clerks carving up the capital is not one that sits easily with Eric Pickles’ lofty view from Eland House in as-yet unparished Victoria. But if the Mayor can face down the demands of Tory municipalists in Wandsworth and Hammersmith craving their Heathrow and Battersea Park LEP, Londoners can simply evoke the spirit of Reg Ward and get on with it. And perhaps Lord Wei of Shoreditch can find a few hours in his schedule to set one up in Hoxton, to go alongside Lord Glasman’s potential hotbed of community organising in Stoke Newington and the East London Tech Parish of Silicon Roundabout. Either way, in London governance there’s a quiet revolution taking place above and below the borough level.