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London

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:40 pm on 28th April 2004.

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Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative 4:40 pm, 28th April 2004

My Lords, it is beginning to feel a bit like old times here today. Some of us have a long history in London local government that goes back a long way. I have worked as leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council, on which I still sit. I have had many an interesting clash with the noble Lord, Lord Harris. I have known the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in a similar capacity for the same amount of time as I have known the noble Lord, Lord Harris. I was a member of the board of London First when my noble friend Lord Sheppard first set it up, where we all worked together. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, was a very respected Member of Parliament in the City of Westminster. Of course, we worked very closely with the City of Westminster on local government affairs. As I say, today is really like coming home.

I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Sheppard for generating this debate, which has come at a very interesting time. The campaign, if not actually opened with the publication of Simon Hughes' manifesto, is certainly on its way to being opened within the next few days. Certainly, in the next three or four weeks, there will be a great deal of discussion on London and London governance by the candidates.

The debate is therefore timely. Interestingly, practically no one has covered the same ground. Everyone has brought his own experience and interests; for example, transport and general governance of London. The noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, has come from the unique position of his business role. He has played a major role in London and the work that has been done to bring business and the boroughs together to ensure that business has a hand in London's governance. I am not sure that I agree with him that the business rates should be taken up by the Mayor and the GLA: I think that we would part company on that almost immediately since the business rates form at least part of the council's grants at the present time.

I have listened to the debate with great interest. I have already declared my interest as a member of a London local authority. As a member or as leader, I was never in favour of the creation of the Greater London Authority or particularly impressed by the repeated calls for a voice for London. Today, I waited to hear whether there was evidence of that view being wrong. I am bound to say that my personal experience is that it is not. Not much that has been said today has encouraged me to change my view about a voice for London.

The embodiment of the voice for London in the person of the Mayor has provided us with some marginal amusement, but many of his actions have not. I carefully seek not to be too personal about that, but one cannot allow the past four years to pass untouched. As everyone has agreed, London is a complex city to run. However, the prime responsibility still lies with the 33 London boroughs which, by and large—whether they are very good London boroughs as is mine or not quite so good as some others—provide a coherent and co-ordinated service for their residents. Increasingly, they are looking to work together, as in the past, where rational combination for services is justified.

Since the demise of the Greater London Council, the boroughs have all come together in a voluntary capacity within the Association of London Government, which existed before the demise of the GLC. As has been said, currently, there is a review of the balance of responsibilities between them and the Greater London Assembly, and the role of the Government Office for London. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said something about that. I think that it is fair to say that there is a uniformity of view that the Government Office of London is too overweening in terms of London's affairs and needs to be reviewed. The current review will probably make recommendations on that, but I very much hope that it will trim its sails. Originally, it was reported that the review was set up to advise on a reduction in the number of boroughs. If that was its original intention, fortunately, wiser counsels have prevailed.

The demise of the Greater London Council was due to two main reasons: that is, first, the increasing burden of costs which were falling on the ratepayers, as they were then; and, secondly, the overlapping responsibilities and the increasing interference by the Greater London Council in the boroughs' affairs. The memory of that alone was enough to ensure that when the decision was taken to impose a Greater London Authority on the boroughs, there was resistance to it having anything but the most limited powers. However, there was strong agreement that if there was to be a Mayor and a Greater London Assembly, the assembly should have some teeth. Unfortunately, despite efforts in the other place and in this House, that did not happen. I think that at some stage there should be a review of whether the Greater London Assembly should have more control over the Mayor's decisions.

The cost to Londoners to run City Hall is beginning to bring into focus again the possibility that the Greater London Authority will be expensive. As has already been said, the cost has risen by more than 100 per cent within the three-and-a-half years of the authority's existence. The number of staff has accelerated. It seems likely that they will have to move beyond the glass house at Tower Bridge into other quarters as well. That does not augur well for other regional government that may result if electors are beguiled into voting for it because it would follow on the experience of devolved government.

There are increasingly areas in which mayoral policies are beginning to impact on individual boroughs. Let us take, for example, the desire by Transport for London to become increasingly involved in the boroughs' roads that are not strategic routes. That matter is in the Traffic Management Bill and was referred to by other noble Lords. We could also take the mismatch between the London Plan and the boroughs' local plans; the Mayor's enthusiasm for high-rise buildings, which is lacked by many boroughs; the Mayor's pronouncement on a 50 per cent proportion of affordable housing being required in any development—a size not practical or achievable by many boroughs; and, above all, the work undertaken by Transport for London.

I now begin to make a special plea. Nowhere has the effect been felt more than with the introduction of the central London congestion charge. There are many views about the success or otherwise of that initiative, which was given the go ahead under the Greater London Authority Act as a means for the Mayor to raise additional funding to support other transport costs; in particular, to improve the Tube. The congestion charge has raised such a modest revenue that little, if any, contribution has been made to London Underground. Indeed, the income for the contractors has already had to be covered by council tax contributions.

Traffic has reduced in central London, whether by the 70,000 vehicles claimed by Transport for London or not. Despite what it says, the down sides to that reduction are already being felt by business. A study by Imperial College has demonstrated conclusively that that is the situation. What is more, the effect is felt more widely than in the central zone because people are completely unclear about where the zone starts and finishes. Whether or not that reduction is a long-term phenomenon has yet to be explored. But it is certainly something to which one would have thought that more attention would have been paid before any decision to extend the zone was taken. But apparently not. The Mayor has recently announced that he intends to include my borough, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, if he is re-elected in June, despite the fact that the council, residents and local businesses are all implacably opposed to the scheme.

His decision has not been helped by the consultation document, which has been sent to over 3 million residents in Greater London, when only 150,000 residents will be affected. This has caused enormous irritation and great concern that the decision is to be taken by people who will not be affected by the congestion charge extension.

Elections are due in the next few weeks and no doubt many of these matters will be discussed over that period. There have been positive outcomes from the Greater London Authority. It is right to say that the Thames crossings are one of those. However, if there are at any stage proposals to transfer more powers to the Mayor, particularly in the areas of housing investment and planning, there will be more than a little concern in London, which feels that it is being governed well enough by its boroughs. It does not need too much incursion by the Mayor.