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London

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:50 pm on 28th April 2004.

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Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour 3:50 pm, 28th April 2004

My Lords, I too should declare an interest. In my case I was born in London and have lived here all my life. I am also an elected Member of the London Assembly and chair the Metropolitan Police Authority. I also had the pleasure of being co-chair of the London Pride Partnership with the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard of Didgemere. Coming as we did from slightly different political perspectives and slightly different outlooks on life and life experiences, it was interesting that we very rapidly realised that there was an enormous community of interest and community of agenda which we and all the other partners in that organisation wanted to follow on behalf of London and Londoners. So I am particularly grateful to him for initiating today's debate in your Lordships' House.

It is also interesting to note in the discussion we have had that no one is suggesting that the clock should be turned back and that we should cease to have the Greater London Authority, the Mayor and the London Assembly. It is abundantly apparent that in the past four years the Mayor and the GLA have filled a void in terms of the strategic elected governance for this great city.

There have been substantial successes in that four-year period. Mention has been made of the introduction of the congestion charge. I suspect that the congestion charge for London is something that Sir Humphrey Appleby, had he been consulted, would have said was a courageous decision to have taken. But that decision was taken and pushed through. It has resulted in congestion which is 30 per cent less in the central London zone, the lowest since the mid-1980s. There are 65,000 fewer cars, and 50 to 60 per cent of people from those cars have transferred to public transport.

I am particularly grateful to the Members of your Lordships' House who have stopped me from time to time in the past year or so and given me considerable details of how the precise arrangements for payment and non-payment are working in their own personal experience. It is always helpful to have such insights.

Another area of enormous progress has been the bus system. There are 1,000 new buses, and improved services on virtually every route where the contracts have been renegotiated. That has led to a 30 per cent increase in bus usage. Bus occupancy is now twice the level of any of the other English metropolitan areas. Then there are the plans for the new river crossings in the East End which will transform the economic development prospects of many areas there.

Obviously, I should like to refer to the progress that has been made on policing. There are 4,500 extra police, so that we now have over 30,000 police officers in London, the highest level ever. The 1,400 police community support officers who were recruited spend all their time on uniformed patrols in every London borough leading to a situation in which street crime is down by 20 per cent in two years; burglary is at its lowest level for 29 years and, despite the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, violent crime per head of population is lower in London than in any other part of England with the exception of the west country. If the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, wants to know why there has been an increase in the precept, he need only look at the policing budget. Virtually all of the extra resources that have been raised in the precept have gone on policing, something which, as far as one can tell, the people of London think was a sensible decision.

My contention would be that those successes, that progress, would not have happened without the Mayor and the GLA. But could more have been done? That is the substance of the challenge that the noble Lord, Lord, Sheppard of Didgemere, puts before us. Certainly, the report published by London First a few months ago, entitled, Who is responsible for London?, which argued that the present division of responsibilities in London is inefficient and ineffective, clearly indicates that more can and should be done.

That report argued that central government should devolve tasks to the London level unless there is a real need for it to be held centrally, and that most of the programme delivery functions of the Government Office for London should be transferred. I find it extraordinary that there are now more civil servants in the Government Office for London than there were prior to the creation of the Greater London Authority. That makes one wonder what precisely were the issues that were devolved as part of that progress.

The report from London First specifically argued for the Mayor of London to be given more power over housing, neighbourhood renewal and skills training. That has also been picked up by my colleagues on the London Assembly, who have recommended that the GLA should take control of housing investment and housing strategy and that the Mayor should chair the London Housing Board.

The noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, who is not in his place, recently stated that London's future success,

"requires a significant increase in the powers of London's directly elected Mayor".

He went on to say,

"Today, no one is in charge", so, that might have been a lapse into the party political as opposed to the strategic overview that he was giving. But the point that there needs to be a significant increase in powers is important.

The interim report of the Strategy Unit at No. 10 on the London project concluded,

"If London's economy is to continue to prosper and deprivation to be reduced, real strategic focus needs to be brought to London's challenges in the realms of housing and transport, and to the management and funding of its public institutions".

Then we have the Barker Review of Housing Supply, which recommended that regional housing boards and regional planning bodies should be merged. That would imply that in London, the Mayor should take over the functions of the London Housing Board.

As we all know in this House, there will be referenda later this year in the North West, North East and Yorkshire and Humberside on whether elected regional assemblies should be set up. I find it extraordinary that if the people in those regions vote in favour of the creation of those regional assemblies, those assemblies will have more powers than the GLA over housing, waste, European Union structural funds, arts spending and sports spending. That does not seem to be a sensible distribution of responsibility.

The Government have argued in relation to elected regional assemblies that the people who have responsibility for such important issues should be democratically elected by and accountable to the people who are affected by their decisions. If that is the view in the other regions of the United Kingdom, why should that not be the same argument in London too for those particular issues? London has unique problems, which only London and its resources can resolve.

My view is that the GLA has demonstrated competence in the past four years and it should not have to wait for perhaps another five or 10 years to be given powers in relation to housing, culture and sport or, indeed, training and skills, until other untried or untested organisations assume responsibilities in other parts of the country.

I want to say a few words about the London Assembly. I believe that the greatest successes of the London Assembly in terms of making a contribution to London have been the outward looking scrutinies that its members have carried out; those involved, for example, in respect of smoking in public places; affordable housing, or the task of dealing with graffiti in London. I believe that those scrutiny exercises—I can say this because I was not part of any of those three exercises—set the terms of debate in London. That is precisely the role of Members of the London Assembly; that is, to set the terms of those debates.

I think that we have been less effective or useful when we have been inward looking. But perhaps when we were inward looking we would have been more effective had we perhaps had powers in relation to the Mayor's strategies. The Mayor's budget can be amended by the Assembly uniting in a two-thirds vote. That has yet to happen, but it concentrates the mind wonderfully as far as both the Mayor and the Assembly are concerned. Perhaps it would be sensible if there were a similar power to enable the Assembly not just to comment on mayoral strategies but to amend them in line-by-line specific circumstances where a two-thirds majority of Assembly Members propose such a change.

Of course, London assembly members have a role to play by sitting on the Metropolitan Police Authority and the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, and some sit on the London Development Agency. That is where many of us play our biggest role in London life.

We should also be clear that there are very many challenges for the future. London is the fastest growing city in Western Europe. Its population is projected to rise by 800,000 by 2016. That will lead to enormous pressures on public services, especially housing—all the more reason for housing investment and strategy to be included in the GLA powers.

Transport capacity must increase for sustainable growth. The noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, referred to the need for Crossrail. I add my voice to his about how important that decision is and getting it made firmly and clearly. I trust also—if I can be slightly partisan—that Crossrail will go through west London as well as simply down to Heathrow and Richmond.

We need to look at how we resource policing and the other emergency services. When we have been successful in securing the Olympic Games for London there will be the major matter of delivering a world-beating Olympic Games in 2012.

At present, London contributes between £9 billion and £15 billion a year more to the UK economy than it recoups from public spending. If the rest of the UK is to continue to get this benefit, London's infrastructure must be modern and efficient. There is, therefore, a need for investment in the capital's assets and its people to ensure that London remains a world-class city and a powerful driver of the rest of the UK economy.