Prime Minister, remember when you weren’t hell-bent on infantilising local government?

Chris Game

 

I should just have returned from Limpopo, northernmost South African province and home to a substantial chunk of the famous Kruger National Park.  I, however, would have been there not for the wildlife, or even the wild life, but for the eminently respectable annual conference of IASIA, the International Association of Schools and Institutes of Administration, of which I’ve been a participative, though non-officeholding, member for the past quarter-century.

And now, after opening two sentences with a first-person singular pronoun, I should issue a READER ALERT!  There is, I promise, a serious point underpinning this blog. The first part, though, will contain more of those F-PS pronouns than even my average blog – sorry, but you have been warned.

Coincidentally, my very first IASIA conference, in 1996, was also in South Africa – in Durban, in the newly created province of KwaZulu-Natal, shortly after its first, violence-delayed, post-apartheid municipal elections had finally taken place.  The conference and the whole visit constituted a huge learning experience – and one acquired almost fortuitously.

For, despite INLOGOV being almost a model of the kind of institution IASIA/IIAS seeks to embrace – “involving both public service and academe”, whose interests and activities “target the education and training of public administrators and managers” – it always seemed colleagues in the then Development Administration Group, now the International Development Department, were the more active participants.

Anyway, it certainly gave me insights, opportunities and contacts I would never otherwise have had. That first Durban conference, for example, led fairly directly, if years later, to my involvement in a research project for the South African Municipal Demarcation Board on the relationship between size of municipality and efficiency of service delivery in the ‘new’ South Africa.

More recently, an exceptionally successful and in its way historic Ramallah conference in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy led to a paper (and subsequent blog) on how the new generation of elected Palestinian women mayors might have responded rather more impressively than Kensington & Chelsea’s politicians had managed.

Appreciation expressed, indulgent paragraphs over – thanks for your patience.  One thing I’m not really sorry to have missed with the Limpopo cancellation would have been the almost limitless curiosity of delegates – most following UK politics from several thousand miles’ distance – about the antics of the man who, for many, is our still relatively new Prime Minister. It would have been wearing, but I’d have borne it valiantly, not least because those with decent memories might well recall when I too had had positive things to say about the two-term Mayor of London – an office generally presumed abroad to be more powerful and prestigious than it is here.

Johnson never made it easy. Many delegates, whether or not they knew anything of his chaotic public and personal life, could certainly recall the man celebrating Britain’s first London 2012 Olympic gold medal by limply waving a Union Flag while stuck embarrassingly on a zip-wire.

It could sometimes be a tough gig, therefore, trying to persuade a predominantly overseas academic audience that, as London Mayor, the man had a record of some genuine achievement, if not on the scale of his hugely more experienced predecessor, Ken Livingstone.  But I tried, always starting with the headline statistics of his very election: twice, with over a million votes, to a post no other Conservative politician has come near to winning.

Evaluating his policy accomplishments was tougher, but, thanks to eventually effective delegation, there were, alongside the self-serving vanity projects, several tick-worthy boxes.  London’s homicide rate did fall dramatically between 2008 and 2016, by even more than it did nationally.  More so-called ‘affordable’ homes were built than during Livingstone’s two terms – though, in London especially, that A word is always debatable.

London Underground usage increased significantly, though ticket office closures continued and, by the time his planned night service finally arrived, he had gone. And it was bye-bye to fare-dodger-friendly ‘bendy buses’, hello again to environmentally friendly, double-decker Routemasters, albeit it at huge cost and some passenger discomfort.

Then there were the ‘Boris Bikes’ – nowadays the posher-sounding Santander Cycles – which, while not operating at the promised zero taxpayer cost, now constitute, I believe, Europe’s largest cycle hire scheme.

And, of course, like Paris for Bergman and Bogart in ‘Casablanca’, Boris will always have those undeniably memorable 2012 Olympics – notwithstanding that the idea and groundwork were Livingstone’s, the cost wildly over budget, and the legacy still debatable.

Over the years, then, I’ve felt able to talk – reasonably dispassionately, I hope – with international delegates about these things. But the topic I’ve always most emphasised, particularly in conference papers, has been finance: using London as a kind of headline illustration of how devolved government in the UK generally is centrally over-controlled and under-funded, compared to many of their countries’ systems.

In this I was much helped, unwittingly, by the man himself, who, as Mayor, professed similar concerns. For in 2012/13 he established a London Finance Commission, chaired by LSE Professor and finance expert, Tony Travers, which swiftly produced a neatly entitled report – Raising the Capital – with some seriously radical content.

Impossible here to summarise satisfactorily, the Commission’s conclusions were that London’s growing and changing population placed increasingly acute pressure on local services, while its existing sub-national governments lacked the financial powers to provide effective solutions.

A few illustrative stats: under 7% of tax paid by London residents and businesses was redistributed directly by locally elected bodies; 74% of London’s funding came through central government grants – compared with Berlin’s 25%, Paris’s 17%, and Tokyo’s 8%.

Taxation powers were merely one important part of the required reform.  But the Commission recommended (p.11) that “the full suite of property taxes” – council tax, business rates, stamp duty land tax, capital gains property development tax – be devolved to London government (GLC and/or boroughs), which should have responsibility for setting tax rates, revaluation, banding and discounts.

There was plenty more in the same vein – freedom to impose modest tourism and environmental taxes, planning fees and charges, and so on. My concern here, though, is less the Commission than the CommissionER.

Ever the catchy phrasemaker, Johnson launched his report by referring to tax-enfeebled London as “an economic and political giant but a fiscal infant …”.  However, while it was obviously the London Mayor’s Commission, making London proposals, the Mayor himself seemed more ambitious.

So, come the 2013 Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, there he was, leading a cross-party campaign with the London Councils and Core Cities Groups, arguing that England was much too centralised and calling for a comparable suite of fiscal reforms for England’s largest cities. An “historic and significant move …a partial but practical answer to the conundrum of English devolution … good not just for the cities involved, but for the country at large” … etc. etc.

Of course, nothing much changed substantively. London could still be tagged a “fiscal infant”, as could our whole local government system.

What changed was the man and his career: his personal political ambitions, the gift of Brexit, and the Johnson/Cummings project of running apparently the most unaccountable, centralist government of our age, in which the biggest city councils are mere marginisable infants.  A conference paper title for Limpopo 2021 perhaps?

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

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