Over the last few days there has been speculation about the London Assembly being scrapped and the £8 million of savings that it could bring. I am a low tax, smaller state Tory and as such I have given the idea some serious thought. It is right that we question the effectiveness of public expenditure not just because of Brown’s recession but because it is the right thing to do.
The general thrust of what I have read advocates the scrapping of the Assembly and it’s members, the retention of the Mayor and the scrutiny being done by borough leaders or a nominees drawn from the council.
As a member of the London Assembly I see the workings of London Government up close and personal so I’m not going to pretend that it is a good system or that Assembly Members are as effectively utilised as they could be. But neither am am going to accept that all we do is ask a few awkward questions once a month and wave through the Mayor’s budget once a year.
London’s governance and scrutiny system was devised by Labour with the intention of having an all powerful Labour Mayor, the weakness of the Assembly in holding the Mayor to account is no accident. It so happens that Boris is far more collegiate and open than Livingstone was, but that is down to his personality. The system would allow him to be just as dictatorial and extreme as Livingstone if he so desired.
I would argue that the Mayoralty needs more and better scrutiny, not less. I have no doubt that borough leaders would be just as effective as Assembly Members in asking searching questions of the Mayor but they would still need a team, however modest, to support them in that function. Either that support would be from GLA staff, which would significantly reduce the saving, or it would have to be provided by local authority staff which would just shift the financial burden down to the boroughs.
As the Mayor would no longer be responsible for the budget of the scrutiny function it would be in their interest to flood the borough representatives with work. They would either have to beef up their scrutiny support (at the borough’s expense) or just accept that stuff will be missed, reducing their scrutiny of the Mayor.
There are plenty of savings to be found in London’s governance, the £14million plus spent each year on the Government Office for London and the unknown millions on a London Select Committee would be a good start. There are many things that the GLA does which should be done by the boroughs and things which central government does which could and should be done at a London level.
It is good that London’s governance is re-evaluated because duplication and waste were build into the system by Labour when the Mayor and Assembly were created. The change of national government would be the right time to have a complete overhaul of London government and institutions, scrapping the Assembly might look a quick and simple cost saving measure but not completing wider reform of London government and it’s relationship with national and local government would be a job only half done.
I believe that the Conservatives can create a fairer and more effective model for Mayoral scrutiny and London government and if that means my post get scrapped, fair enough. But we need to ensure we take reform seriously and understand that if there is going to be a Mayor they will need to be scrutinised, and scrutinised properly.