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Twenty years on from its formation, the London Assembly desperately needs to be granted greater powers to hold the Mayor of London to account. If the serious power imbalance between the two persists, London’s mayoralty will increasingly become unaccountable to Londoners, undermining the legitimacy of the city’s devolved Government.
Never before has a Mayor been so willing to pass blame, avoid his responsibilities, and play the part of a broke powerless Mayor. It’s a tragedy for Londoners that Sadiq Khan has squandered his opportunity to deliver for the city and chosen instead, to use City Hall as a PR machine to attack the Government. However, the answer to a Mayor like Khan is to strengthen the London Assembly, a body which the Conservatives can maintain a strong foothold in, and hold the Mayor’s feet firmly to the fire.
In the past two decades, the responsibilities of the Mayor of London have expanded rapidly. Since 2000, City Hall is now responsible for adult education, housebuilding, ruling on planning applications with strategic importance, and has the power to establish Mayoral Development Corporations. In comparison, the Assembly’s toolbox has only grown very slightly after being granted the limited power to reject Mayoral strategies with a two-thirds majority in 2011. Despite the vital importance of the London Assembly, it is struggling to keep up with the Mayor’s expansive role.
In Khan’s term alone, City Hall’s budget has increased by about £2 billion with more than 300 extra staff. In comparison, the Assembly’s budget sits at £8.4 million with only two extra staff. The huge expansion of the Mayor’s responsibilities and budget has left the Assembly far behind.
The case for the London Assembly remains strong. It is a unique scrutiny body in the UK and a necessary part of London’s devolved regional Government, comprising 25 elected Assembly Members. Our sole focus is on turning over every stone in City Hall, scrutinising each mayoral decision, and investigating the concerns of Londoners. It also offers London taxpayers good value for money. The Assembly budget is only 0.04 per cent of the Greater London Authority’s budget. The often-discussed alternative is the combined authority model which would bring council leaders together to scrutinise the Mayor. This is an unsuitable scrutiny body for an office as powerful as the Mayor of London. As a sitting London Assembly Member, and an admirer of London’s hard-working council leaders, I cannot see how the two jobs could be done by one individual. Ultimately, it would be a step backwards and result in less scrutiny, not more.
If London is going to have a directly-elected Mayor, it needs to be checked and balanced by a dedicated and powerful Assembly. Without the Assembly, the Mayor would go unchallenged, and inevitably the lack of scrutiny would lead to poorer, lazier decisions from City Hall. But after two decades of the Mayor of London gaining additional responsibilities and an even larger budget, there are five additional powers that the Assembly must be granted to do its job.
Firstly, the London Assembly should be allowed to reject and amend the Mayor’s strategies, plans, and budget by a simple majority. Currently, the Assembly needs a two thirds majority to stop or amend the Mayor’s proposals; in practice, this neuters the Assembly and prevents it from acting. Scrapping the excessively high number of votes needed would make cross-party efforts to intervene more likely, and in turn, make the Mayor of London more likely to listen to any opposition in the Assembly.
Secondly, an independent Budget Office for London should be established. This office, combined with greater budgetary powers for the Assembly, would ensure that City Hall’s budgetary process is more accountable. This reform is vital after Khan’s failed transport policies created a black hole in Transport for London’s budget which in part led to its bailout during this crisis and recent concerns about the Mayor’s plans to fix City Hall’s finances by cutting the Metropolitan Police budget by £109.3 million. Greater transparency and a greater opportunity for the Assembly to amend the Mayor’s budget will help ensure every penny is spent properly.
Thirdly, the Mayor’s planning powers should be transferred to a Planning Decisions Committee. At the moment, the Mayor has the sole responsibility to decide the outcome of planning applications in secret when they referred to him. A committee would provide greater transparency and scrutiny.
Fourthly, the London Assembly should be granted the power to call-in Mayoral decisions. This would allow the Assembly to review, debate, and ultimately send decisions back to the Mayor to reconsider. Granting this power would enable the Assembly to act as a democratic safeguard against the Mayor’s currently unconstrained exercise of executive power.
Finally, Mayor’s Question time should be reformed. This is the main opportunity for the Assembly to question the Mayor directly but it happens too little. In this crisis, the Mayor went two months without facing the Assembly. This allowed him to escape timely questions, for example, about his decision to cut the Tube services, which led to overcrowding. By the time we can hold him to account on these issues, it can be weeks later. MQT should be held twice a month, which will allow each session to be shorter, sharper, and more engaging.
A weak Assembly and a powerful Mayor is an unsustainable democratic disaster. To do its job, the London Assembly needs greater powers to hold the Mayor of London to account. This would not weaken the Mayor, but strengthen London’s regional Government at City Hall. Twenty years on, the Assembly is needed more than ever, but it is in dire need of reform.