Local Government Reform: Greater London — [Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:53 am on 17th October 2018.

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Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords) 9:53 am, 17th October 2018

The Minister’s intervention was perhaps tangential, but I do not mind replying to it. Of course, I cannot speak on behalf of the Scottish Government, but from what I observe, over the last 11 years they have driven the idea of putting power in the hands of local communities, through their work in the highlands and islands of Scotland; through their work to relax controls on local authorities; and, in particular, through their work on the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the community land fund, which gives local communities the ability to get together, without reference to their local authority, and take over derelict parts of land or buildings to bring them into community use. There is lots of good stuff going on in Scotland.

I will not prolong matters, because this is not the most subscribed debate that I have taken part in, but let me make three brief observations for the record. The first is that I believe, just as I believe that governance of Scotland should be a matter for the people who live there, that the governance of London should be a matter for those who live there—that principle needs to be established. I remember the dangers of doing things without popular consent. I was a London councillor in Hackney from 1986-1993—I represented the Defoe ward in Stoke Newington—and even then, in the mid-1980s, there was a genuine sense of grievance among many people about the fact that the borough of Stoke Newington had been abolished 20 years before. They identified much more with that area, as the hon. Member for Romford said, than with the new borough council that was created in 1964.

I understand the need for local identity, and I think it is vital that, as the debate continues, attempts are made to engage with the people of London about the various options that are available for the governance of this great city. I know not what the plans of the Mayor, the GLA, or the London boroughs are, but I hope and would welcome any initiatives that look towards engaging the public through a “People’s Assembly” or through a commission that will look at particular structures for the future.

Secondly, we ought to define the principles on which reform should take place as well as the criteria and the objectives that we are trying to achieve. Central to that must be the notion of equality and fairness across this great city. To that end, I think we ought to address the elephant in the room that no one has yet talked about: the City of London Corporation, which operates almost like a reverse-Bantustan in the City and commands a great and disproportionate amount of power and wealth in the capital. Any reform that does not look at how that can be distributed more fairly across the city is probably not worth undertaking.

My final point, which refers to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Romford, is that in these debates—I think that this is true in Scotland, England, and throughout every advanced democracy—it is important to make a distinction between democratic political control by communities and the administration of services. Too often, we get the two confused. That means, for example, that we end up saying, “It’s impossible to run a certain service on too local a level, and therefore we won’t bother letting local people have control of that”, or, “We won’t bother decentralising and setting up structures that allow people to govern a local area, because they cannot control or manage a service on that basis; it’s completely uneconomic.”

In a model whereby an agency provides a service in a public interest framework across a wider area, however—the police are an apt example—but within which local communities and local councils are able to act as the client for that service and to say what they want from the agency, there is a way of giving people democratic control over what is happening in their area without them having to be the managers of the individual service. The same is true for pretty much any major service. In fact, the same is now true for a lot of back-room services, such as information technology or administration, which would probably be much better organised on a larger scale to service a wide range of authorities beneath them that command and direct what needs to be done.

If we do that, we begin to open new possibilities for new, much more localised and decentralised structures that relate to local communities. Such structures would allow people to get much more involved than they are, and at the same time to retain services in a public interest framework and in public ownership. If we were to do that—London might be the place to start—we could play catch-up with much of the rest of Europe, where we can find much more democratic local decision making and, crucially, much greater levels of participation in local affairs and elections than we have in this country. At the end of the day, that is the thing that we all need to address: no matter where we are in the United Kingdom, it is rare for the majority of people to take part in an election for their local council. That is surely something that we need to change.

I am glad that this debate is getting things started—I hope—and next time perhaps we can attract a few more people, in particular Members of Parliament from the capital city, to engage in it. We can take matters forward at that point.