Tony Devenish: The Greater London Authority is undermining localism

14 Jul

Tony Devenish is a member of the London Assembly for West Central.

Older ConservativeHome readers will remember when Neil Kinnock used his Party Conference speech to attacking the dysfunctional Liverpool City Council. In recent years, a handful of other councils have failed to protect vulnerable children or to manage their budget prudently. On each occasion, the Government of the day “calls in the inspectors”. Usually parachuting in former senior local government officers.

There appears to be less precedent for what to do with failure from a regional devolved administration. As a proud localist I welcomed the reforms from Blair/ Brown to Cameron/Osborne. Long overdue attempts to stop running the entire United Kingdom from one square mile in SW1. I am delighted to see many devolved authorities flourishing under dynamic leadership, regardless of party political label. Supported by their teams of local government staff. Andrew Street in the West Midlands, Ben Houchen in Teesside, and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, are just three positive examples.

It is profoundly painful for me to conclude that the Greater London Authority is in very real danger of undermining localism. More importantly, it is in danger of letting down Londoners at a time of a global health and economic emergency.

The foundation of the problem is the Greater London Authority Act (1999) which, like much of the “soundbite” agenda of Tony Blair, failed to adequately think through the consequences. The GLA which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary has prospered despite “cracks in the foundations”. Papered over by the professionalism of its local government staff; its Assembly Members, most of whom are steeped in London Borough public service. And especially by the “larger than life” personalities of the two senior politicians who each served London for eight years’ as Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, supported by first-rate Deputy Mayors. Most of whom were the calibre of a Cabinet Minister.

Success, let us be clear must have clear outcomes: Livingstone, Mayor from 2000 to 2008, successfully improved the bus services, built council homes, clamped down on pigeons (this may appear a niche point but these “flying rats” were a real health and tourism nuisance). He trod the “fine line” of opposing the Government when necessary and working in a grown-up partnership to win the 2012 Olympics.

Johnson, Mayor from 2008 to 2012, successfully cracked down on violent crime, helped make London the global epicentre for housing; delivered the Olympics, and championed business and wealth creation. This was when London faced the health, economic, and social consequences of potential increased unemployment. Like Livingstone, Johnson “batted for London” with No 11 Downing Street. Both Mayor’s began the task of placing our Environment at the centre of successive national Government’s priorities. So today it is very clear that the GLA is responsible for four key areas of public policy in London: crime, housing, transport, and our environment. Much of grassroots delivery remains with the London Boroughs.

Since 2016, something serious has gone wrong. Khan’s major culpability is his failure to build a collegiate team in over four years. City Hall is not a happy place. In fact, many call it “toxic”. Many people loathe Khan’s attitude that he simply is never wrong. That is the private view of many London borough leaders – Labour as much as Conservative and Lib Dem. It’s a view shared widely across local government staff and across a wide spectrum of other public and private stakeholders.

I have worked with the public sector for 31 years. I have been an elected London Borough councillor for 15 years. Many public sector staff do tend to change jobs with alarming frequency. But I have never seen the “revolving door” spin so fast as it has done since 2016 at the GLA. Khan has lost numerous Deputy Mayors and advisers, including his first Deputy Mayors for both Housing and Transport plus his Commissioner for Transport. The loss of dozens of senior staff is telling.

Khan’s outcomes can also be measured.

  • Violent crime : before the lockdown crime figure dip – major crimes were at a ten year peak. Khan is all but invisible when it comes to keeping Londoners safe.
  • House building has collapsed in London pre-Coronavirus. One of the most transparent outcomes of the revolving door of GLA staff is over half of the nearly £5 billion of taxpayers money allocated to the GLA over three years’ ago to build affordable housing has not been spent. Rob Jenrick’s Ministerial letter on the London Plan, 13 March 2020 was so damning on Khan’s performance that for once even Khan was nearly apologetic in his response.
  • Transport is beyond doubt Khan’s biggest failure. Khan blames Coronavirus for Transport for London requiring a £1.6 billion bailout. More will probably be required in October. The reality is the four year record of mismanagement. Crossrail is two years’ behind schedule or is it three? Khan cannot say. Our economy is the loser.
  • On the Environment, the third Mayor of London has prioritised expensive tax-raising anti-car projects over fast tracking electric buses. The latter is one of the few imaginative policies to come out of City Hall since 2016, thanks to Shaun Bailey AM , the Conservative Mayor of London candidate.

During our current health crisis, Khan as Mayor failed to show the leadership that Londoners took for granted under Livingstone or Johnson. Khan avoided the London Assembly for six weeks earning the label “the missing Mayor”. To quote one London Borough Leader (not a Tory) “Sadiq Khan added little at the Gold Command London Emergency meetings. He sat there, mostly silently, like a work placement intern”.

London Councils in partnership with Government have performed well since 23rd March. My thanks to London NHS and all our public services and our key workers. But this shows why the failures of the GLA can no longer be tolerated.

Khan calls for social distancing yet rams through increases to the Congestion Charge which will make the tube and bus network crowded as people return to work. He appeases the transport unions – which adds to the cost of running the oldest and most expensive underground rail network in the world. Few believe Transport for London is an economic going concern. Union “absenteeism” during Coronavirus has been proportionately three times greater than any other public sector workforce just like their pre-Christmas near annual strikes. Never a squeak out of Khan.

London needs a fully functioning transport network (the arteries of our economy) as we ease our way out of coronavirus so London remains the engine of the UK and global economy as we all get back to work. Jobs, jobs, jobs has to be our mantra. Faith groups, pensioners, residents, and businesses are contacting me in record numbers because City Hall simply does not “get it”. If the Mayor and the Greater London Authority cannot do their job, the Government and London Councils will have to call in the inspectors and wave goodbye to a superfluous City Hall.