London is home to the Palace of Westminster; the so-called "Mother of Parliaments" and the seat of government for the whole United Kingdom. But it is also home to over seven million people, countless businesses and public services, and all the complex infrastructure needed to support them. Governance of London is a problem that the Westminster government has tried to solve in several ways; the latest is the Greater London Authority.

Governing London: The Last Hundred Years

From 1889 to 1965, central London was governed by a single county council, called the London County Council, established by an 1888 Act of Parliament. It had powers over education, city planning and housing, and the old tram system. As the replacement for the Metropolitan Board of Works, it also had a role in establishing and maintaining important municipal infrastructure. From 1933, they resided in the magnificent County Hall building, just across the river from Westminster. Voters initially had a choice of The Progressives, a party allied to the Whigs, and the Municipal Reform Party. But by 1934, normal politics had won out, and the Labour Party took control, which they held until the abolition of the body.

The local government baton was picked up in 1965 by the Greater London Council (GLC). It had been designed by a Royal Commission which recommended a wholesale reorganisation of the capital's government. This would coincidentally have the effect of reducing the chances of a continued Labour stranglehold in the capital. The commission's findings were incorporated into a 1965 Act of Parliament which created the GLC. The geographical scope of the body was expanded into Middlesex and the other Home Counties, and across all of Croydon, East Ham and West Ham. They took over control of public transport in 1970, and had other powers including emergency planning, refuse management, flood prevention, the fire brigades, and overall development strategy. They had a role in overseeing the 32 borough councils' efforts on roads, housing, planning, and public sports facilities.

The GLC's last leader was "Red Ken" Livingstone, a popular left-wing Labour man who took control in 1981. This was the era of radical Thatcherism in the national government, and "Red Ken" Livingstone's control of the capital city was a symbolic embarrassment and political nightmare for the Conservative government. Livingstone relished this role, for he was the only Labour member to have any direct political power until Tony Blair's election in 1997. He used his position to challenge the Westminster government wherever possible, and sometimes as a platform for Tory-baiting stunts. In 1985, the UK government passed the Local Government Act, which cancelled the May 1985 GLC elections, and abolished the GLC itself on 31st March 1985. The GLC's powers were devolved to the borough councils. London was without a central governing body.

In 1999, under Tony Blair's first term as Prime Minister, the Greater London Authority Act was passed, which set up the Greater London Authority in 2000. The new body was part of the government's plan for dealing with the "unfinished business" of devolution in Scotland, Wales and in some senses Northern Ireland; as in those nations, a referendum result conferred legitimacy on the new arrangements. Ken Livingstone was the first ever directly-elected British mayor, running as an independent candidate and soundly beating his old party into third place. The new body took power in July 2000, taking some responsibilities away from the borough councils.

The Authority's Make-Up and Powers

The Greater London Authority consists of the Mayor of London (not to be confused with the ancient and continuing role of the Lord Mayor of London), and the London Assembly. Today the role of Mayor is held by Boris "Boris" Johnson, who was the Conservative Party candidate in 2008.  The assembly currently consists of 11 Conservatives, 8 Labour, 3 Liberal Democrats, 2 Greens and 1 British National Party member.

Mayor of London

The Mayor of London is an executive post, meaning that he wields considerable direct power. He has general authority to promote economic and social development and environmental improvement of London. He is required to set a strategic direction for transport, buildings and land use, economic development, regeneration, cultural life, and the environment, but is not limited to these areas. He sets the budgets for the Police, public transport, the London Development Agency, Fire Brigades, and the Greater London Authority itself. Together, this budget is worth some seven billion pounds a year.

The Mayor appoints members of the governing bodies of the organisations above, and appoints a Deputy Mayor from the London Assembly. He directly oversees Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square, which takes them out of the hands of their borough council, Westminster City Council. He is assisted by an Advisory Cabinet and the London Cultural Consortium.

The Mayor is directly elected every four years; he next faces the electorate in 2008.

The London Assembly

The London Assembly forms a counter-balance to the Mayor's powers. It's 25 members are elected by a needlessly complexsuitably modern system at the same time as the Mayor. 14 members are directly elected to serve 14 assembly constituencies. These regions are coterminous with the borough councils. The remaining 11 members are selected from lists drawn up by the political parties according to the additional member proportional representation system. Voters thus select an individual representative to serve their constituency, and a party.

This group is a scrutiny body that has a role in questioning and investigating the Mayor's use of his powers. They have the final say in approving the Mayor's budget, and they can amend it with a two-thirds majority.

Assembly meetings include the Mayor, and, unlike a parliament, they also rope in representatives from the bodies and agencies under discussion. Members of the public are welcome to attend any meeting, although they have to make a booking. Ten "Mayor's Question Time" sessions are held each year, at which the assembly queries the mayor's decisions and actions.

Other London Groups

The 32 London boroughs retain powers over education, housing, street cleaning and road maintenance, social services, housing, waste disposal and recycling, the local planning regime and health and leisure services.

London's City Hall

The new City Hall sits on the South Bank of the Thames, opposite the Tower of London and between Tower Bridge and the More London office development. It has no architectural sympathy with the older buildings whatsoever, but manages to look fairly attractive in a glassy way. It couldn't be more different to the classical bulk of the County Hall building once used by the old GLA. It is best described as a car headlight or as the "Glass Bollock" since it's roughly ovoid.

It was designed specifically for the new body. As befits the its environmental role, the glass surfaces are sloped so as to collect the maximum sunlight on the north side and and so that each floor shades the one beneath on the south side, reducing the heat load. It is cooled by pumping heat into the ground, and pumping up cool ground water. Together these mechanisms use about one-quarter the power of a typical air-conditioning system for a glass office block. The 25 members of the assembly and the mayor sit round a ring-shaped table. A semi-circular set of banked seating is offered to the audience of Londoners. A spiral walkway, suspended from the top of the building, leads from this chamber up through the building, past eight floors of glass-sided offices, to a roof-top viewing platform. Germans will be instantly reminded of the dome of the new German Federal Parliament building in Berlin, which was also designed by the international superstar architect Norman Foster.

Where It Leaves Us

The Greater London Assembly continues the UK's lop-sided lurching meander between centralised power at Westminster and organised federalism. London, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales all have a different mix of powers, and are subject to Westminster for everything else; the rest of England remains fully under Westminster, having rejected their chance to establish several regional assemblies in referenda. Differences in the powers of the other assemblies and the varying sizes of Westminster constituencies lead to interesting anomalies like the West Lothian Question.

Sources:

  • http://www.London.gov.uk/london-life/city-government/history.jsp
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_County_Council
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Board_of_Works
  • http://www.mayorwatch.org.uk/article.php?article_id=26
  • http://www.arup.com/europe/project.cfm?pageid=186

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