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London

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:01 pm on 28th April 2004.

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Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative 4:01 pm, 28th April 2004

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey. Like him, my elective offices both at council and parliamentary levels have always been in north London. It is also a pleasure to follow one place back my former constituent, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, whose contribution was as characteristic as it was relevant. I declare my own interest as pro-chancellor of the University of London.

The whole of your Lordships' House is in debt to my noble friend Lord Sheppard of Didgemere for initiating this debate on the governance of London when, as he said, the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit has been conducting a review of this issue. The review is not only in incidental anticipation of the second mayoral elections, but also just under seven years after a similar parliamentary debate with exactly the same title. That was carried out in government time in the other place in the first week of June 1997, a little over a month after the Government's general election victory. At that stage, the Government were resting on their manifesto commitment to reintroduce a strategic element into London's governance without resurrecting the GLC. As to the detail, their response was not dissimilar to Alec Douglas Home's answer in the 1964 general election. When asked what the Conservative plans for VAT were, he replied:

"A lot of clever chaps are working on that at this moment".

If we are in my noble friend Lord Sheppard's debt for initiating this debate, we are further in the debt of London First, of which he is now president. Its recent inquiry, which he described, and to which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, referred, is entitled, Who is responsible for London? Running a world city. For myself, and allowing for my necessary ignorance of many of the underlying factors, I found myself in agreement with 28—or around two-thirds—of the 41 recommendations; I found 12 of the remainder arguable without full personal knowledge of the arguments; and only outright mentally rejected one of them.

London First was not so indelicate as to say that the great Frank Pick would have had difficulty in drawing a schematic map of the London governance system analogous to his legendary map of the London Underground in the mid-1930s.

These remarks will necessarily be as much a commentary of the London First report as a critique of the Government's stance and the irony that, seven years after the Government's London strategy was unveiled, that same government should be revisiting it. Seven years ago the mayoralty was taken as a given, though Mr Livingstone himself expressed misgivings about the concept in the June 1997 debate, to which I referred. No one in government ever even tried to rebut the Economist's famous leader in an August edition of the early 1990s, that the then London should be taken as a model for 21st century city government and effectively added,

"Mexico City newspapers, please copy".

The subsequent legislative gestation through the Commons Committee stage was a delight, with 27 of the 29-Committee members representing London constituencies. Your Lordships' House took great credit for amendments, but in fact many of them had been run as amendments in the Commons. Often they were on subjects new or unfamiliar to officials, who advised Ministers to reject them in the lower House, but then to adopt them in the upper House.

Achilles' heels should logically be unique, but on the London Bill its Achilles' heel was a commonplace, that the legislation was festooned with anti-Livingstone safeguards. It was a case of that familiar metaphor from rugby football of playing the man and not the ball. It will be for historians to calibrate the consequences, especially now that he is back in the larger scrum.

The Bill's persistent accretion of Christmas tree ornaments, so that the number of clauses rose 50 per cent during the gestation, was evidence of the famous observation that if you do not know precisely where you are trying to get to, any road will get you there. In parallel, Private Members' Bills, intended to eliminate the delays inherent in incoherent road works have been rejected in the interim in a vivid illustration of the principle that the best is the enemy of the good. We must hope that the best, which the delays embraced, will turn out in the current Traffic Management Bill to have been worth the wait.

Not so much in parallel as end to end, the equally delayed success of getting health authorities' boundaries and police boundaries to coincide with local government ones has now been overtaken by the discovery that learning and skills council boundaries are not quite so convergent. So, no doubt, metaphorically speaking, the road will have to be taken up again.

As to education, the abolition of ILEA, which survived the creation of the larger and wider area GLC, was the fruit of Back-Bench guerrilla tactics by that interesting political coupling of my noble friends Lord Heseltine and Lord Tebbit and not of premeditated government action. The arguments in the 1980s that the weaker boroughs needed the support of the ILEA structure have been sustained by the continuing low performance of the weaker brethren; and the speed of inner London's educational fleet is still crippled by the slower municipal ships.

I think it would be fair to conclude from the text of the report, that London First is somewhat "agin the boroughs". Its report says at the start of page 13 that the London boroughs lobbied for the creation of the GLA—but that is only up to a point, Lord Copper, to cite a legendary non-Member of your Lordships' House. The ALG or either of its constituent predecessors may collectively have been in favour, but some absolutely key boroughs among the best-managed ones were implacably opposed. I understand London First's implicit view that the boroughs are untidy, but that is because London is ultimately a higgledy-piggledy collection of villages. Le Baron Hausmann of Paris was unmistakably not an Anglo-Saxon, especially not the night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

For Londoners, Notting Hill was enough for our fictional Napoleon. In my former constituency of the "Two Cities", what the mistaken calculations of Brussels about central London called the richest area in the European Union marched admirably side by side with also being the 48th poorest constituency in the country. The boroughs may be untidy, but their democratic link is much more tightly bound than the hybrid electoral arrangements of the Greater London Assembly.

London First's desire to have a say in the expenditure plans of the boroughs is double counted special pleading. A decade and a half ago the CBI argued for taking the non-domestic rates arrangements away from the boroughs on account of seismic rate rises when control of boroughs changed hands.

Another irony occurred in the second half of the 1980s. The GLC may have gone, but the strategic explosion, the Big Bang in the City, transformed for the good the economic growth rate of the whole of London. It invalidated the judgment of the social historian Sir Roy Porter in his Carlton Lecture, shortly before his tragic death in a cycling accident, which called for the restoration of the GLC and intoned that London was a city in decline. When in Question Time afterwards I asked him whether the new wave of refugees on top of the existing waves of creative energy and of new technology did not cause him to wonder about his pessimism, he said he did not know enough about technology to comment.

Nor am I entirely easy about London First's desire to integrate or divert agencies such as the Arts Council or English Heritage into the maw of London government. I know that the Mayor is personally opposed to the concept of heritage where it may significantly obstruct employment, but with his tourism responsibilities, he may be forgetting the richness and individuality of London's charm, and in his housing and population extrapolations, he may be forgetting the sheer pleasure of living in London as it is.

For the past 25 years, the City of London, two millennia in the making, may have been the liveliest archaeological site in Europe; the great squares of London were the product of a leasehold system largely unknown outside these islands; and first Bath and then London reinvented the crescent as an architectural concept, which had disappeared since the time of the Romans. Indeed, we must regret that the nerve of the great Lord Camden, an erstwhile Member of your Lordships' House, did not hold to execute the plans for an S-shaped double crescent in his eponymous Camden Town, which he had commissioned. The semi-detached house first appeared as an advertisement in St John's Wood in 1784.

Lest I seem carping about some of London First's jeux d'esprit, let me say that its putting into practice Emerson's great dictum that action begets thought is a massive improvement on Glenda Jackson's wild gallimaufry of sectoral strategy piled on sectoral strategy in the Bill, now enacted. When asked what would happen if the strategies were in conflict, she replied that that was impossible because the Bill would not allow it. Happily, London is not a playwright's script, but a creature of energy and imagination whose very strength lies in its running riot.

I have two questions for the Minister. As the Government have endorsed the Mayor's strategic plan, can he explain why the Government believe that there will be a planning gain of 50 per cent affordable housing in Greater London when the boroughs told the former director of Shelter's inquiry on the matter on behalf of the Mayor that the target figures could not be achieved? Secondly, without ascribing blame, but in one of London's growth areas, why have houses been built in parts of the flood plain of the Thames Gateway, that great opportunity for regeneration, which the Association of British Insurers says that it is not prepared to insure?

Finally, whatever the Cabinet Office review shows, London will continue to be held back as long as the key positions in the Cabinet are held by Ministers from out of London: the Prime Minister from Sedgefield, the Home Secretary from Sheffield, the Foreign Secretary from Blackburn, the Deputy Prime Minister from Hull, the Education Secretary from Norwich, the Defra Secretary from Derby, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry from Leicester, the Leader of the House from Neath and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Health Secretary and Transport Secretary from Scotland. Against that critical mass, the only London MPs to serve in Cabinet since 1997 have been Mr Dobson, who was seduced from office to fight Mr Livingstone, the two Secretaries of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the present Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

In 1763, General Braddock's dying words, after ambush by the Iroquois, were, "We shall know better how to deal with them next time". I hope that this debate will have some of the same effect.