New London Assembly chair Andrew Boff has said that London should have more powers “to make decisions itself”.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, the Conservative group member who was elected chair of the cross-party Assembly last month outlined his vision for how City Hall could be reformed.
Mr Boff, who has served in the London Assembly since 2008, said that Assembly Members and the Mayor of London are “pretty united” in the belief that London “should have more powers to raise money” and “to make decisions itself without going cap in hand all the time to Whitehall”.
He said: “As the economic engine of the United Kingdom, we should be keeping more of the proceeds of our economic activity and policies. For example, let’s look at infrastructural projects.
“Even if an infrastructure project is obviously a good one, such as the extension of the tram in Croydon, that could have been short cut if we’d had direct access to the funds that London produces. That would’ve been in place already if it wasn’t for the fact that we have to continually go back to Whitehall in order to get these schemes justified. We could do that locally.”
Greater devolution of powers to London was a key theme in Sadiq Khan’s re-election manifesto, with the Labour mayor calling on Government to allow the capital to retain money raised from things such as business rates, council tax and vehicle excise duty.
As chair of the London Assembly, Mr Boff has said it is “reasonable” that London should be able to retain business rates, but he has also gone one step further and suggested that the Assembly itself should have greater decision-making powers.
One such idea suggested by Mr Boff is that the London Assembly should be able to determine the outcome of planning applications called in by the Mayor of London.
Currently, the mayor has the power to call in major planning applications if they contradict the London Plan, but it is also the mayor who makes the final decision on these applications.
Andrew Boff told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that he thought this was “undemocratic” and suggested that the London Assembly should be able to set up a planning committee to determine the outcome of applications called in by the mayor.
He said: “Why not give that power to the London Assembly? We’ve got that democratic mandate, we’re accountable ourselves, so why not give it to us to determine that?”
But Mr Boff added that “there is so much else the London Assembly could be involved in”, and that “we could do so much on the railways, on public transport, on public health, on policing if we just had more control over our own money”.
Not only would this allow more to get done, according to the Assembly chair, but it would also make it easier to hold the Mayor of London to account.
“It’s much easier to hold the mayor to account if he’s actually got control of the money, than if he’s only kind of got control of the money. If he’s actually allocating the money out of his own specific schemes, then we’ve actually got something to hold him to account for,” said Mr Boff.
But greater powers for the London Assembly could also serve to improve engagement with the Assembly by Londoners, suggested Mr Boff.
The London Assembly elections in May saw a poor turnout, with only 42.7 per cent of eligible voters heading to the polls to elect their Assembly representatives.
Andrew Boff said: “The Assembly is much under-praised and it’s my job to make sure people pay attention to us. And the more they pay attention to us, the easier it is going to be with Government to be able to get those changes that we want.”
The Assembly chair said that seeking additional powers for City Hall would be a “long-term process”, but that he and the other members would “keep putting that pressure on Government because it makes sense”.
The Government has already outlined plans to reform the way that metropolitan mayors, including the Mayor of London, are elected to improve local accountability, and Mr Boff has said that the Government’s “willingness to talk about local accountability” might be a good opportunity to “squeeze” in proposals about reforming City Hall.
Since its formation in 2000, the Greater London Authority has already undergone several changes and had more powers devolved, including a devolved adult education budget and greater control over housing funds.
But Mr Boff acknowledged the difficulty of having more powers passed down to City Hall from central Government.
He said: “It’s very difficult to ask people who have spent their entire political lives trying to climb to the top of the greasy pole to then start handing power down to where they came from. So many Members of Parliament have actually been through this building and served here. So many Members of Parliament have been local councillors. And then they go on about how ‘if only we had more power locally’. They get into the big place, and they completely forget about that and come up with all kinds of excuses about why that can’t happen, and it needs to happen.”
But despite its limitations, Mr Boff praised the London Assembly as a “powerhouse” and said that it has “done well with the limitations of (its) power”.
“For the people that say that the London Assembly isn’t worth it, we (the GLA) are a £19.4 billion operation, and the audit function (the London Assembly) is £8 million. When you’re that tiny amount compared to the overall responsibility of what we’re holding to account, you realise its enormous value for money,” said Mr Boff.