Devolution: the London Context by Andrew Walker

George Osborne devolution agenda has been, rightly, focussed on cities outside of London, in an effort to lessen the divide that exists between the capital and elsewhere, to rebalance the economy, and to better integrate services that are provided in patchworks across the country.  At some point, however, the government will need to develop a clear strategy on the role and the powers of local government in London.

Some may have noticed that 2016 is an election year for London, and it has not escaped the notice of campaigners and candidates alike that many of the arguments in favour of local service design also apply to London. Westminster and Whitehall are, conceptually speaking, remote and disconnected from the London boroughs, just as they are from Northumberland and Cornwall.

Relations between central government and London local government have been stormy in the past, to say the least.

After the Thatcher government made little headway forcing councils to reduce their spending by capping local rates in the early 1980s, it asserted its authority by abolishing recalcitrant metropolitan councils. Most notable was, of course, the Greater London Council.

It was not revived until Tony Blair introduced devolution in 2000. Though there was strife in the early stages between the Labour Party and the first Mayor, Ken Livingstone, most agree that devolution to the capital city has been successful, enhancing it’s global persona as a “world city”, drawing in huge amounts of investment, improving transport and so on.

Now there are calls for the government to go further.

It is unclear when or if this will happen, though it was announced at the end of last year that London will get its own devolution deal for health spending. Five pilot areas, in Barking and Dagenham, Havering, North Central London, Lewisham and Hackney are going to test out how Whitehall functions might be transferred to local groups.

Both of the frontrunners in the mayoral race support this move. Labour’s Sadiq Khan arguing that London cannot afford to wait as long as Manchester did before it gets these powers. Meanwhile Khan’s Conservative Party opponent Zak Goldsmith has also called for greater control over London’s spending power, and has particularly argued for control of the city’s criminal justice system.

It has become clear that the government likes a deal-based approach to its devolution programme, rather than a rigid framework. If there is a going to be a drive towards greater devolution, local leaders in the capital will need to be prepared to collaborate and negotiate their position effectively, championing their track record of success and improvement over the past decade or two.

In conversations with LGiU, officers from several London boroughs have said they’re keen to follow through on their successful work with skills and training as well as people with complex dependencies. In terms of skills, there is not currently enough power to make as much difference as they would like locally, because the remit is still split between individual boroughs and agencies like Job Centre Plus, with no commitment to properly integrate services so far.  As a result it is unclear how extra funding would be practically deployed without a conversation about governance.

This conversation needs to build momentum in any case. Complex questions remain about how London devolution would practically work. There are many questions up in the air around how central government might attribute powers, with the intertwining and overlap between the 32 boroughs, the GLA, and the Mayor.

Organisations such as the Knowledge Quarter will be crucial in bridging some of these institutional boundaries. The Knowledge Quarter brings together one of biggest knowledge clusters in the world, and offers a unique opportunity for knowledge exchange, collaboration and sharing of the latest developments with public, private and third sector organisations.

Devolution could offer specific opportunities for building relationships between Knowledge Quarter and local authorities. There are already several projects underway that indicate a potential future direction. Knowledge Quarter could also play a really useful role engaging various organisations in the devolution process itself.

The tension that exists between the Mayor’s office and the councils themselves remains, and in some ways is probably a healthy one. But it will require management if devolution is on the cards. This should is far from impossible, but will rely on building a clear and shared vision locally, in order to drive collaboration, sustain interest, and to engage the public.

A further dilemma that has yet to be tackled is the relationship between London and it’s hinterlands. There are some interesting discussions going on about how this works with cities elsewhere in the country, covering economic and travel to work zones, housing market areas, geographical boundaries and so on. As London’s reach into the South East extends, the question of how it relates to the surrounding counties will become a more important, and more challenging one to answer.

Up to now English devolution for this Conservative government has been about rebalancing power away from Westminster, to the cities and regions of the North, South, East and West. At some point it will have to acknowledge that it also needs to give power away to its immediate neighbours as well.