The last six months have seen huge political developments in this country, but one area that has received surprisingly little attention is the progress that has been made in devolving power.
The last Government was very much in two minds over devolving power from Whitehall. Devolution was granted to Wales and Scotland – and regional government obviously returned to London, however a determination to keep a firm hold of the reins from number 10 and 11 Downing Street never went away.
The progress made by the coalition Government in such a short period of time has been impressive, especially in London. The new Government made it clear that they will devolve more responsibilities to London Government – the Mayor, Assembly and Boroughs – if there was agreement on a package of measures. I am pleased to say we collectively rose to the challenge and our submission was on Eric Pickles’ desk before the summer.
Our proposals would give the Mayor and London Assembly extra powers in the areas of housing, policing, regeneration, the Royal Parks and transport, alongside more powers for London boroughs. Governance would take place at the lowest possible level, which as a Liberal Democrat I believe is a fundamental principle of good governance. New legislation to deliver these changes looks like it is just weeks away, indeed hopefully a key Bill will be published before the end of this month.
But even without legislation small but important cultural steps have already occurred. After ten years of Labour saying no, a Government Minister has now been questioned by the London Assembly – a significant development demonstrating that Whitehall is at last treating London’s regional government with the respect is deserves. Equally the wise decision has been taken to abolish the Government Office for London, which lost its purpose with the creation of the Greater London Authority ten years ago, and has been trying to justify its existence ever since.
Yet while all these developments are hugely welcome, the Government’s legislation must ensure transparency and democratic accountability are improved at all levels.
For example the Mayor’s Transport authority effectively meets in private, yet it spends £9 billion of public money. It should be enshrined in law that all public bodies should meet in public and be open – including the Mayor when he makes planning decisions on multi-million pound developments that affect life in the capital, not to mention the London skyline, for generations.
Side by side with this greater openness the Mayor should also have an obligation to consult Londoners on key issues. It is quite frankly a nonsense that the Mayor has a legal obligation to consult over council tax changes, yet does not need to do so over the structure and level of fare rises across London’s transport network – despite the fact that fare rises typically cost Londoners 20 times more than any council tax change. If the Mayor wants to drive up the cost of one day travelcards by up to 74% in just one year we should at least have an honest debate about it!
Alongside this momentous shift in power from Whitehall to the Mayor of London and the Boroughs is the need for extra powers for the London Assembly as well. A strong Mayor (or whatever political party) needs a strong check and balance – which the Assembly is able to provide, with its democratic mandate.
And finally, and most importantly, we need to ensure there is real devolution in revenue raising powers to local and regional government. For too long local government has had to go cap in hand to Whitehall for every penny.
Trust is needed in setting local and regional government free from the ties of Whitehall. A good start has been made, but we now need to fully deliver on this vital agenda of truly devolving power downwards and saying goodbye to Whitehall always knowing best.
Caroline Pidgeon AM
Leader of the Liberal Democrat London Assembly Group