Sort Out “Dog’s Breakfast” London Assembly

londonassembly_171013A new Parliamentary report has recommended changes to the way the London Assembly functions, to sort out (in the Committee’s own words) the “dog’s breakfast” of anomalies and confusions around what it does.

The Communities and Local Government Committee brought in people from and close to City Hall for hearings in June. The aim was to get to the bottom of a series of legislative changes that have given the Mayor more power but not increased the Assembly’s scrutiny role alongside – or done so in ways that don’t make sense compared to what it already does. The Assembly’s lack of power is nicely illustrated by Boris’s chief of staff, Eddie Lister, when talking about budgets:

All the political parties have always put forward their own proposals; it is just that the Mayor has declined to accept any of their proposals.

Darren Johnson makes the point that the Assembly, while having precious little statutory power, has other ways of making its presence felt.

The Assembly has had very significant influence in terms of the investigations we have done, the recommendations that have been taken on board, and the way that we have been able to shape both mayoral administrations on a number of issues and get a number of our recommendations taken on board.

This is almost reducing the Assembly to a think tank, and it is time to give it some more firepower. At the moment, for the Assembly to  pass or veto anything significant it needs a two-thirds majority. The current political split is that the Conservatives have nine members out of 25; one fewer would allow the parties on the left to ally and create a two-thirds majority. In fact, the Assembly has never had a two-thirds majority on party lines (and surely, woe betide the Tory who votes against the party). So in reality the bar is too high for the Assembly to genuinely affect mayoral decisions, something Eddie Lister agrees with:

Are you going to say an Assembly is going to prevent the wishes of that Mayor, having been elected by over 1 million people?

Reducing the Assembly voting threshold to a simple majority has the potential to hold the Mayor to ransom and shrink the ability to get anything done without concessions and bargains – just look at what’s happening in America over healthcare and the budget.

What’s being put forward instead is the ability for the Assembly to ‘call in’ decisions for discussion and scrutiny before they take place, rather than being left to rail against poor planning and analysing failures for lessons to be learned. The report notes that of the country’s other directly elected mayors, the London Assembly is the only scrutiny body that doesn’t have such call in powers.

The Committee also recommended that the Assembly get the powers to amend the Mayor’s capital spending budget (housing, regeneration, London Legacy Development Corporation and capital spending at Transport for London, the GLA etc) in the same way as it does the revenue budget (TfL, Fire Authority, Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime etc), and to give the Mayor’s Police and Crime Plan the same status as other mayoral strategies – i.e., the Assembly should have the power to reject it (with a two-thirds majority). It also proposed the Assembly should have the opportunity to review and reject all Deputy Mayors, not just for Policing and Crime.

Another recommendation that may not go down well in the Assembly is that members shouldn’t have dual roles. The Committee seems baffled that members can take part in scrutinising the Mayor and his boards and, in some cases, also sit on them:

We question how the public are supposed to disentangle a situation in which an AM can carry out scrutiny work in one area and perform an executive role in another as a Deputy Mayor or a mayoral representative on a GLA board. For the sake of the Assembly’s credibility this situation has to change.

If the Mayor wants to appoint an Assembly Member as a deputy or to any role on a GLA board, they say the member should step down from the Assembly. This would obviously reduce the power and influence of certain AMs (for example, James Cleverly currently heads LFEPA and Kit Malthouse is deputy chair of the London Enterprise Panel) and could well trigger Assembly by-elections, which we believe would be a first. It would, however, remove the situation we’ve had this year, where AMs try to hold the Mayor to account on fire closures only to have him shoot back that as said AM is on the Fire Authority they’d better look to themselves.

The recommendations have been passed to the government.

Photo by EZTD from the Londonist Flickr pool

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  • Save the London Fruit and Wool

    Spitalfields Market’s 1929 London Fruit and Wool Exchange, a building hugely important to the East End, was subject to one of those decisions of Boris Johnson’s, using the special powers he has as Mayor for London. On October 10, 2012, he decided to overturn Tower Hamlets Council’s unanimous cross-party refusal to demolition, and granted his permission to the developers to demolish. So much for local democracy and so much for democracy at the GLA where there was no opportunity for Members then to call-in or even scrutinise his decision. All Members John Biggs and Nicky Gavron could do in this instance was appeal to Mayor Johnson. The former Fruit Exchange is not only the second-to-last standing building of Spitalfields Market, it is also already an office block with shops below, so could be refurbished and reused. This would save not only London’s Spitalfields Market, which relies on its historic market buildings, but also “Mickey’s Shelter” which was London’s largest World War Two public under ground air-raid shelter, in the Exchange basement.
    The Exchange in 2012 was home to hundreds of small and medium enterprises. These tenants were given Notices to Quit and by January 2013, the building was emptied. It is now boarded up. Meanwhile, in June, an American property company purchased Spitalfields’ Market Hall opposite – the only other original Market building – for over £110 million. Their investment and hundreds of people’s livelihoods are now at risk from the Mayor’s single disastrous decision. Let alone the devastating effect on London’s built heritage.
    Thanks Londonist for following the story of the London Fruit and Wool Exchange, Mickey’s Shelter, The Gun pub and Barclays Bank (all ca.1929) and Dorset Street (17th C.) at Spitalfields Market. Please keep supporting the campaign to save all this as the story hasn’t ended yet….

  • Tom Chance

    What’s happening in America is that years of gerrymandering House districts has left the Republicans hopelessly beholden to an unyielding minority faction. It isn’t a problem with simple majorities, bargaining and concessions, Congress has functioned well enough for a long time with that system.
    http://www.channel4.com/news/us-gerry-mandering-tea-party-us-debt-deadline

    Most democratic bodies run quite effectively on simple majority lines, including countries where the electoral system is more representative and therefore more pluralist (unlike the House of Commons for example).