London devolution does not mean London revolution

I’m a firm believer in local governance. In an age where issues either need to be dealt with on a supranational scale – global terrorism or climate change springs to mind – or at a city-wide, county-wide level – transport services and rubbish collection to name just two – local government clearly has a key role to play. In fact, national governments – the stalwarts of the system – have gradually become the black sheep of the governance family; the ones that we could really do without.

National defence aside (and some could argue that bodies like NATO and the UN already have this one covered), there seems to be less and less need for a national body; and more importantly, less and less want of one. MPs are tarnished, smeared with a particular brand of distrust, characterised by their distance. Ordinary citizens feel they are more likely to serve their own interests than that of the community. Their designated mouthpiece is not speaking up for them.

This democratic deficit – this feeling of being unrepresented – should not be underestimated; Brexit is testament to that. Councils, for all their valuable work, are not visible entities. In fact, they work best when they silently pull the strings. For someone in Boston or Wigan, their most visible representative is their MP – over 100 miles away in the far flung realm of Westminster. Both of these places voted for Brexit with over 60% of the population – despite their MPs being in favour of Remain. It’s no surprise that some of the biggest Remain votes were found in London and Scotland – places with their own powers and politicians.

Invariably those at the helm of local government hail from the area – or at the very least live there. They know the issues; they experience them first-hand. There isn’t this sense of detachment that comes with an MP. A local politician – be it a Mayor or a councillor – is much more accountable, visible and accessible; the key ingredients for trust in politics.

Local politicians’ sole purpose is to make decisions that benefit the community. Their mission is plain to see. Why do you think Sadiq Khan is one of the most popular and trusted politicians in the UK? The man with the biggest personal mandate in British history epitomises this local governance criterion; a Londoner, living and working in London, looking out for London. I’m sure he cares what happens in Wigan, but that’s not his remit, not why he was elected by over one million people.

It should come as no great shock therefore that Sadiq is calling for more wide-ranging devolution to the Capital in the wake of the Brexit vote; a vote Londoners didn’t want. Sadiq, naturally, wants London to have more of a say over its affairs; to be more in control of its future. If London wants to continue to be ‘Europe’s Financial Centre’ then it needs to be able to shape its economic landscape. We’ll see what the reconstituted London Finance Commission recommends, but hopefully the Government will take heed; a Government that is apparently intent on giving power back to localities.

Yet, there is an uneasiness about all this; a feeling that somehow any powers given to London are going to be watered-down, feeble. Phillip Hammond – whose name is synonymous with platitudinous announcements – will likely tell London that it can have complete control over council tax, but by complete control he means the power to raise them by no more that 0.25% per year. The same complete control will be bestowed over stamp duty and business rates.

Maybe I’m being overly cynical, but I get the feeling that central government doesn’t want to give London the powers it needs. Firstly, it would mean that central government’s role would be diminished even further – elected politicians don’t like to give up power. Secondly, as London needs stronger powers than other places, it would look like central government was again ‘favouring’ the capital – propping up London’s pedestal.

But, giving London more powers isn’t about the capital breaking away from the rest of the country –it won’t lead to an urban revolution, it won’t signal the creation of a city-state – it will just allow those tasked with overseeing London’s trajectory given the tools to make a proper job of it.

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