More power to Mayor’s elbow – now let’s make him Labour

While the Labour has been busy electing its new leader and the party’s candidate for London mayor, Boris Johnson has been seeking to get more powers from central government.  He proposes to do away with the Metropolitan Police Authority, which scrutinises and holds the police to account. He wants more powers over housing and rail transport. He also seeks the abolition of the London Development Agency and more direct control of the Thames and royal parks.

There has been little debate about these new arrangements during the campaign to decide who will take on Boris in 2012, but Ken Livingstone is sure to give them serious thought when developing his manifesto.

Despite the new proposals, the powers of London’s Mayor are still limited compared with those enjoyed by the mayors of other major world cities. Whatever David Cameron and his ministers may say about localism, they are still reluctant to let go of too much power. It’s a common enough trait in central government. Tony Blair’s Government was far too cautious when it returned devolved power to London 15 years after Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC.

The situation in Britain now is that the administrations of Wales and Scotland have more powers devolved to them than London, even though London is far larger than either in terms of both its population and the size of its economy.

The litmus test for many is whether the Mayor can get more powers over London’s finances. At present, just 7 per cent of the Mayor’s income comes from his share of London council tax, compared with 50 per cent in New York and more than 80 per cent in Tokyo. If the capital could get more revenue-raising power, the role of the Mayor (already dubbed the third most powerful position in British politics) could really be developed.

Boris may well be negotiating for these new powers just as his transport and policing budgets face up to 40 per cent cuts. Doubtless the Tory incumbent would be reluctant to preside over this. It would at least offer the prospect of Londoners being able to cover the cost of Government spending cuts through their Mayor.

The various local authorities and the London Assembly have already signed off most of the changes currently going through in London. The challenge now is to make sure the beneficiary of these new powers – and any others in the future – is Ken Livingstone as Labour Mayor in May 2012.  While his job won’t be as powerful as those of his New York and Parisian equivalents, the new settlement is a step towards making the Mayor of London more independent of central government. That can only be a good thing for London and everyone who genuinely supports localism.

Murad Qureshi is a Labour member of the London Assembly.

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