Friday, 11 July 2008

Is Boris Johnson planning his way out of power?

In his new report 'Planning for a Better London,' Boris sets out London's 'direction of travel' over the next four years. But with the Mayor's powers increasingly being delegated to advisors and to the boroughs, is this just really the first step on the road to the end of London-wide government?

At almost every Assembly meeting and committee since Boris came to power, the Tory Members have tried to tease out ways in which powers can be stripped from City Hall and given over to individual boroughs. 

And as representatives of those boroughs and with no real powers of their own, it is hardly surprising that they should want to see the end of big government at City Hall. 

But as the most powerful Tory politician in the country, it has been more surprising to see Boris Johnson so keen to get rid of his own responsibilities.

Because when Boris ran for Mayor he did so as the man who would wade in to solve the big problems that London faces. But at every stage over the past two months, he has been intent on giving away exactly those powers which would help him to do that.

The first sign of this was his decision to hand over all of his powers on major planning decisions to his unelected advisor Ian Clement. 

Ian, who was given the title of 'Deputy Mayor for Government Relations' has effectively been given full powers over the biggest planning decisions in the capital, despite being virtually unknown outside of his old borough of Bexley.

So from now on in, when local groups appeal to the Mayor to intervene over the decisions of local authorities, it will be the old head of Bexley Council rather than the new head of City Hall who will be making the call.

The result of this is that in these first two months, Clement has allowed all of the major planning applications received so far to go uncontested  through City Hall.

Now it may be that these were all perfectly acceptable applications, but what the Mayor's new consultation paper shows, is that Clement has been directed to allow almost all applications to pass without interference:

"The GLA Act 2007 has given the Mayor powers in certain circumstances to take over planning applications that are of “potential strategic importance” for his own decision. The Mayor intends to use his powers carefully and sparingly, only taking over those which do have genuinely strategic implications for the planning of London. It is likely, therefore, that he will use these powers only in the most exceptional circumstances.

Equally, in commenting on those applications which boroughs are required to refer to him, the Mayor intends to focus  on strategic issues, rather than on matters of detail that are better dealt with locally. He intends to take a similar approach with borough local development frameworks. resources, and would not encourage the re-submission of applications simply because of the change of administration.

Now this is, or should be, dynamite. What it means, and what the first two months have proved, is that all but the most barmy of major planning applications will now be waved through without getting so much as a patting down from the Mayor's aide.

These decisions. And I'm talking only about major planning decisions here, will now be almost exclusively in the hands of the individual boroughs. So why does this matter?

Well seasoned Boris-watchers will remember Boris Johnson's much repeated promise to preserve the capital's playing fields for future generations. This pledge, which was part of a wider people versus the developers posture, was one of the few areas in which I thought Boris might bring improvements.

However, when Kensington and Chelsea Council decided to sell off Holland Park school playing fields to developers for luxury flats, the decision caused local and city-wide anger. 

At a time when our children have become the most obese in Europe and when kids in London have fewer and fewer ways to use up their energy, the decision was clearly a bad one.

So when Boris and Kate Hoey made so many noises about protecting playing fields, local campaigners thought they had a new champion for their cause and threw their weight behind Boris's campaign. 

But when the application was sent through to City Hall last month, Boris's aide waved it through without an objection. The parents and children of Holland Park had quite simply, been had.

A manifesto for abolition?

Because the problem with handing over more powers to the boroughs is that they often make completely bonkers and unpopular decisions. 

In areas where voting majorities are high and seats secure, local authorities will often do exactly as they and as developers please without fear of recourse from the voters or from the press.

This is one of the main reasons why establishing a Mayoralty was a good idea in the first place. After a decade of bad decisions from selfish, reckless and often unaccountable local authorities, the Mayor and the GLA were able to serve as a final check, strategic director and democratically accountable face of a multitude of conflicting and rival bodies. 

Now if Boris Johnson wants to return to the heady days of the end of the GLC, then that is fair enough. The people have voted him in and if he wants to use that mandate to set off gunpowder in the basement of City Hall then that is up to him.

But if, as it appears, the powers of City Hall will be quietly sneaked out of the back door without anyone even raising the alarm, then we could soon end up with the very worst kind of lame duck political body at the very centre of London government.


Anonymous said...

Once again it is Thatcherism re-branded. The only achievement of David Cameron is to have taken something that voters don't want and then dress it up as something that they do.

In the meantime in power they just get on and do what they were going to do all along.

Steve said...

Very interesting and raises lots of other questions as well, such as why they chose Boris as a candidate in the first place. Why not have an incompetent leader if they aren't actually going to be exercising any power? Hell, you might as well put the latest winner of big Brother in there for all the difference it makes.

The Tory Troll said...

That's certainly an interesting argument Steve. If you have someone who is notoriously unreliable but a vote winner then where better to put them as a candidate than for a body which you have plans to divest of most of its powers?

The problem with this is that they didn't bargain on the people who they gave power over to being the ones who would cause them trouble as we have seen in the last few weeks.

Zanu Liebour said...

NEWSFLASH- We don't like the GLC so we got rid of it, and we don't like the GLA so we get rid of that as well. First step we get rid of the blind cycling disability forums and all the other bollocks that our money has been poured over for the last ten years and then next step we get rid of the whole lot. don't like it? Tough we won and you lost. If you don't like it MOVE OUT.

The Tory Troll said...

'blind cycling disability forums' Is that you in there Mr. Gilligan?

pastyface said...

I've long suspected and posted before on the fact that they are trying to destroy London government from the inside.

I tried to comfort myself with the hope that Boris would be so disinterested that he wouldn't try to change too much but he's not in charge so I"m screwed.

pastyface said...

I see he's scrapped the plans for Parliament Square today as well.

The Tory Troll said...

Indeed he has. Pedestrianising Parliament Square was an example of a way in which a strong Mayor could have made a real long-term positive change to the capital in the face of short-term opposition. Unfortunately he's bottled it.

Helen said...

"In this city there are unacceptable and growing
disparities in wealth, health and
quality of life. Too many Londoners
cannot afford a home. There are
serious problems of poor air quality
and noise pollution and we have
to step up to the challenges of a
changing climate"

So I'm scrapping half-price travel for those on Income Support, scrapping the £25 C-charge so screw you and the environment. Oh, unless you happen to live in an Outer London suburb and you voted for me, of course.

The Tory Troll said...

Yes basically it's saying: here are the strategic problems in London, and here are the ways in which we are going to give the responsibilty for those strategic problems to bodies which have no strategic powers.

Is it plain bonkers, or just entirely cynical? You decide.

Anonymous said...

The new London Plan paper out today pledges to protect playing fields, what's the point of pledging things like this without any intention of carrying them out?

Now the decision has been made by the council the Mayor must look at the proposals again. I say the Mayor, but of course Boris doesn't look at planning proposals he's passed it off to one of his multitude of Deputy Mayors.

It boggles the mind that a scheme that has been widely condemned by local residents and professional designers is going to be allowed, all to the detriment of local school kids.

The Tory Troll said...

A few of the assembly members have tabled some questions to the Mayor on the subject of Holland Park school for next week's Mayor's Question Time. Hopefully he will be shamed into a rethink.

Unfortunately though I have just noticed that he will only be giving a written answer to the questions on Holland Park. However, we should get his answer by Monday 21 July and I can pass it on to you if you would like. Just drop me an email and I will send you his answers when I see them.

victor allen said...

Do we have to ahve postings from Zanu Liebour? It's not a question of censorship, but disabled people rely on state support, particularly if they are not wealthy and it is noticeable that Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and City of London (ie Tory boroughs) don't participate in the blue badge schem used absolutely eveywhere else.
Or is it the case some people ahve no useful politics to put forward so go out of their way to be offensive?