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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 213-i
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Communities and Local Government Committee
Greater London Authority Act 2007
Wednesday 5 June 2013
professor john stewart and professor tony travers
Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 16
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Taken before the Communities and Local Government Committee
on Wednesday 5 June 2013
Mr Clive Betts (Chair)
Mrs Mary Glindon
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Professor John Stewart, Emeritus Professor for Local Government, University of Birmingham, and Professor Tony Travers, Visiting Professor, Department of Government, London School of Economics, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: Welcome to our oneoff session on the Greater London Authority Act 2007 and the operation of the London Assembly. You are both very welcome: could you just say who you are and the organisation, if any, you represent?
Professor Stewart: John Stewart, and I represent no organisation. I am a retired Professor at Birmingham University.
Professor Travers: I am Tony Travers, from the London School of Economics.
Q2 Chair: I think we have seen you both before somewhere. Thank you once again for coming along to this session, which will be a relatively brief one: we have members who are engaged in other things, including the Chamber, this afternoon, which has cut across things a little bit. However, thank you for coming.
When you made comments about the 2007 Act, Professor Travers, you described it as being a "small extension of the GLA’s powers", and Professor Stewart, you said it did nothing to strengthen the Assembly. I suppose the question is should it have done more, could it have done more, and was it really worth the effort for what it actually did?
Professor Travers: I think the 2007 legislation was a modest change. It was seen as modest at the time. It was only eight years after the original legislation creating the GLA, and we have seen a further modest iteration under the present Government in 2011. Could it have gone further as far as the Assembly is concerned? It certainly could have done, and of course it is always worth bearing in mind that the GLA, when it was introduced, was an unusual reform, a big change, creating a directly elected mayor with this Assembly that was not like existing elected councils in many, many ways. Of course that is not to say that the members who then went on to be on it did not think of it and try to operate it in some ways as if it were like that, but it was very different.
The modest reforms of the 2007 Act beg the wider, longer question of whether, at some point, the partly Americanised model of government represented by the GLA, with a mayor and Assembly, needs to be further reformed, so as to make it either a bit more like the American model from which it originates, or alternatively, slightly back towards the Westminster traditional local government model that we have all been used to in Britain. I think it is a hybrid, and the Assembly in particular is a rather weak element in the hybrid.
Professor Stewart: As you know, Chairman, I am mainly interested in just this question-the relationship between the mayor and the Assembly. As Tony said, it was supposed to be based upon the American model, but I do not think it really was based upon the American model. Indeed, very few people who have commented on it, including the Ministers who brought it forward, ever discussed the role of the council in America, and I believe that the council in America has a much greater role than the Greater London Authority, which I could expand on later if necessary.
I regard the arrangement as completely flawed. You have created an elected body with effectively no powers except those that it can exercise under a twothirds majority, which has never been attained at any time in the Authority. To have an elected body with absolutely no powers at all is a very strange thing, particularly since you are giving the mayor powers that it is unusual to give a single person-the power to set the budget, the power to preset, the power to tax are all unusual. I would have liked to see, in the 2007 Act or in the 2011 Act, more changes to give more powers to the Assembly-at least the position that applies in the rest of local government to the power of the mayor. There are very significant differences between the Act governing Greater London and the Local Government Act of 2000.
Q3 James Morris: Should it not just be abolished?
Professor Travers: Sorry?
James Morris: Should it not just be abolished, if it serves no function at all?
Professor Travers: The Assembly?
James Morris: Yes.
Professor Stewart: No. For all the powers it has, it could well be abolished-I agree that far-but there is the other alternative of giving it sufficient powers, rather than to have one individual who is virtually unaccountable for his four years in office. Again, that is a position that you do not find in most other countries. In most American authorities, there is a recall arrangement. In Germany, the council has exceptional powers that it can exercise to get rid of a mayor.
Q4 James Morris: What should be its purpose? If you had a blank sheet of paper, what should be the purpose of a check-and-balance Assembly?
Professor Stewart: I believe the relationship should be that the council is the policymaker and the budget controller. It should in effect, nominally under the leadership of the mayor, set the policy framework and set the budget.
Q5 James Morris: Isn’t that a massive constraint on mayoral power? Won’t it constrain the mayor and he will not be able to achieve anything?
Professor Stewart: It is giving the Assembly the powers that Parliament exercises over the Prime Minister. It is giving the council the powers that the Scottish Assembly exercises over the First Minister there. It is the normal way. What is unusual is to have a system that has no checks and balances against the position of a single individual with taxing powers. If you think about it in that light, it is an incredible arrangement.
Q6 James Morris: How would that work in practice? The mayor would come up with a budget in consultation with the Assembly, and the Assembly would be able to vote it down on a simple majority?
Professor Stewart: Yes. Yes, that is the position that exists in most of local government, and it is certainly the position that exists in Parliament. It does not actually happen, but it is the formal position. Formal positions are important.
Professor Travers: If we go back to how we ended up with mayors-and I was more than John a supporter of mayors-I think that in particular the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, saw directly elected mayors, and wrote accordingly, as a way of concentrating such power as was left in local government. In a sense, mayors are a paradoxical piece of evidence of how weak local government had become, because the then Prime Minister wanted to make the power of that office, or the executive part of a council, much more obviously visible in order that it could then exercise power. I think that is a fair description of the then Prime Minister’s then view. He was on to something. There is no question: local government has become weaker over time in England and in the United Kingdom as a whole, and of course the challenge that John rightly points out is that if you go for this rather powerful individual, it does feel a bit alien in the British body politic. There is no question about that.
If you do not then have the conventional American separation of powers and checks, the question is: "How do you, in a British system, think through how the mayor is to be held to account without the whole thing being gridlocked all the time, with the Assembly behaving like an Opposition, and the mayor like the Government?" If the Opposition could always outvote the Government, it would not be much of a Government. I am afraid that what this points to, which is perhaps going too far today, is that there is a need with this model to think through how all the parts of it are constructed, so as to give the mayor reasonable power of the kind that was originally expected. Indeed, the current Prime Minister supports this: David Cameron has made very similar points. However, you must come up with a model of an Assembly that is more like a city council in America and that creates a much greater chance of that Assembly, that city council, genuinely holding the mayor to account. There are lots of ways this could be done, even with the existing arrangement.
Q7 James Morris: Just as a final thing, why can the 32 boroughs not hold the mayor to account?
Professor Travers: I think that a committee of the boroughs as an Assembly could undoubtedly save money; I can see that. The main risk would be a risk of what I think Americans would call porkbarrelling. By that I mean the mayor, in order to get a majority to get his or her budget through, would have to do deals with the borough leaders, and that would undoubtedly involve carveups of what was spent where. I think the idea of having 14 superconstituencies out of the 25 members on the Assembly was to make them so big as to make that kind of behaviour difficult.
If you went to the borough, it would become even more likely. That is not to say that you could not construct a version of this that reflected the boroughs more effectively in the scrutiny and oversight of the GLA, but I think they are supposed to be separate levels of government. They are supposed to be separate kinds of government, and they each do a different job. On balance, I think probably not.
Q8 Mrs Glindon: Professor Stewart, you say the Assembly’s representativeness is in part based on proportional representation, and that the Assembly has its own mandate, since its members have collectively been elected by the whole of London. The mayor is elected by the supplementary vote, however. How would we compare and weigh the strengths of the mandates?
Professor Stewart: One of the arguments for the mayor having such powers is that the mayor has a mandate, and therefore he must have the means of delivering it, but you are quite right: the Assembly also has a mandate, or different mandates. They are both representative bodies, but you could actually argue that because of proportional representation, the Assembly is more representative than the mayor, who will only have been elected by about half the people. The Assembly as a whole has been elected by, and represents, all points of view in the city. One of the arguments for the mayor’s power is this mandate, but I believe that there is an equal argument for the mandate held by the Assembly.
Can I make just one other point on this? In many ways we are talking about the twothirds rule. You require two thirds, which is slightly different from the American situation, where the mayor has a veto. That tends to lead to a gridlock situation. One of the things that has been happening recently in Parliament generally is the emergence of qualified voting. Until about 1995 there was virtually no example in legislation, or at most one, of qualified voting-Parliament setting a standard of two thirds that you have to reach in order to pass, rather than a simple majority.
Since then, on my count alone-other people may be able to think of more-there have been five bits of legislation that have introduced a qualified majority: the Scotland Act, the Fixed Term Act, the Police Commissioners Act and the two Local Government Acts. Parliament or Select Committees should at some point consider the reasons for a special majority. What justifies it, why do you do it, when it is appropriate, if at all, and when is it not appropriate? How is the level fixed? What is magic about two thirds? Why two thirds? Why not 60%, 55% or 75%? It surely needs discussion, whereas there has been very little discussion of it.
Indeed, the one that applies in local government generally was not even in the Act. It was a very obscure bit of regulation-Standing Orders, Schedule One-that introduced the twothirds for local government generally in relation to mayors, without any real discussion in Parliament. Yet it is a big constitutional change, isn’t it, to start introducing qualified majorities?
Q9 Mrs Glindon: I would like to say, Chair, that I know a lot about the twothirds majority, because we had the issue in North Tyneside Council that you might look into, whereby that did not hold against the mayor.
Professor Stewart: Yes, of course you will have experienced that.
Q10 Chair: We can have an argument about what percentage it should be, but is it more fundamental? As Professor Stewart was saying, it is really about the Assembly having the power to set the budget and the strategy, rather than the mayor having the power, and the Assembly having some sort of vague blocking mechanism.
Professor Stewart: Subject to the leadership of the mayor. You would expect the proposals to come from the mayor, in the same way as in an authority they would come from the leader.
Professor Travers: We are, as I say, tottering on the brink of moving. This is discussing the difference between the model we have and the model we might have if we went over to the full American version of this, in which there is no doubt that the city council would become a legislative body and the mayor would be the executive: the mayor could propose, but the city council would have to pass the legislation, budgets and so on for the mayor then to operate with as the executive. As in many aspects of the way the GLA was created, it is a compromise between the way we do things in Westminster and most of British and UK local government, and a pure American system. Again and again you can see how people in this country-I talked to the Ministers at the time who were involved in doing this, and know them well-were aware that they were trying to make it look like, and acceptable to, the British political system but nevertheless be radical.
There are other aspects of the way the Assembly functions-to wit, whether or not its Members sit on the board running the services for which the mayor is responsible-that are also terribly confused. There is a whole range of things about the way the GLA operates, well beyond the scope of the 2007 Act, that probably need to be sorted out.
Q11 James Morris: Professor Travers, you chaired the London Finance Commission, which made some recommendations about quite significant devolution of financial power to the mayor. What are the implications were that to happen? What therefore would be the implications for the Assembly? How would its role fit in? It was only mentioned very briefly in that report.
Professor Travers: I think John’s remarks earlier more than adequately pick up an issue, which is that precisely because the office of the mayor was deliberately designed to be powerful, and is powerful, the question of how the mayor is then held to account by the Assembly and other actors in the democratic system is most important. Clearly, if the kind of reforms that the London Finance Commission suggested were implemented, which would be to potentially give the mayor-but it might also be the boroughs-greater fiscal freedom, both freedom over taxation and indeed expenditure, and the mayor were the recipient of additional power, it begs a serious question about how the mayor is held to account. That would argue for the Assembly improving their game and/or having, perhaps, additional powers.
This is something I have written about in the past. If you compare the instruments and machinery available in this place to Select Committees and in particular the PAC-there is the National Audit Office, clerks, the House of Commons Library and a whole array of sources with which scrutiny can be informed-I think the Assembly remains underpowered in some of these aspects. For example, the question of whether there should be some sort of independent budget office is begged by the way the GLA was created, because again, going back to the heroic compromise, the core administration of the GLA works both for the mayor and the Assembly.
If there were full separation of powers, the Assembly would have something much more independent with which to scrutinise, and so on. I think that the Assembly definitely needs not only itself beefing up but also the capacity it has to dig into the mayor’s budget and the mayor’s strategies, and then to report on them.
Q12 James Morris: Just a slightly counterfactual question: if this had been in place when the mayoralty was created, what would have happened differently? What could the mayor, or London government in that arrangement, have achieved that has not been achieved in London over the last few years?
Professor Travers: If the Assembly were more effective?
James Morris: Yes.
Professor Travers: For a start, it would bring the benefits of consistent oversight of the mayor and particularly the bigticket agencies that the mayor is responsible for, most particularly Transport for London, spending on economic development and indeed planning. Bigticket items like Transport for London would have been held to account more consistently and with greater backing for the Assembly than has been the case. TfL is a very large corporation, and I think that it and any large corporation, such as the police in London as well, need to be under consistent, rigorous oversight by committees of the kind that exist in this place, backed up by the kind of capacity the NAO has to inform the PAC. I think that is missing.
Professor Stewart: To add to what Tony is saying, though it may be in part due to the resource thing, the Assembly has not equipped itself to carry out a real scrutiny of the budgetary process. If you contrast it with New York-where admittedly the legal position is different-a council in New York will consider the budget in four separate meetings. Between those meetings each committee will be holding public hearings on the report. The council form a view; the mayor will respond to it, and in that response again public hearings would be held by every committee, and again it will report back to the council, and the same would apply to policy statements. I do not think the GLA has equipped itself to carry out that scrutiny of the process, and in the end there is-and this is the official description of that happens in New York-prolonged negotiation between the council and the mayor about what will actually happen, after they have both formed their views.
Professor Travers: Very briefly, I think they will do that in the budget committee at the Assembly. The Assembly budget committee has functioned relatively well in terms that might have been hoped, but more generally all the things I have said apply.
Professor Stewart: Because the budget is not merely about budgeting.
Professor Travers: Yes. The budget is the one time of the year that they have consistently had this faint opportunity, with the twothirds override, of imposing their will, although they have never actually managed to do it.
Q13 Mrs Glindon: The London Assembly say that, on occasion, mayoral planning priorities have received greater funding through Section 106 contributions at the expense of borough priorities, but the mayor says boroughs have continued their involvement in Section 106 negotiations after he has called in any applications. How do you assess the way in which the mayor has used the planning powers conferred on him by the 2007 Act?
Professor Travers: In truth, it is not something that I am hugely expert on. I have not followed it in detail. Planning is a subculture like housing, which you need to know a lot about in order to know a reasonable amount. All I would say is that in any of these borderlines where you have the mayor, the Greater London Authority and the boroughs all with overlapping powers and responsibilities, there will always be friction, with each side-each sphere of London government-thinking the other is getting a better deal out of it. This was always true: it is true in counties outside London, where it exists, but particularly in London, where you have those overlapping responsibilities. I would not quite be in a position, if I am honest, to say whether these powers were being effectively used or misused by either side now. I would not want to mislead you.
Professor Stewart: I do not regard myself as an expert on this particular aspect. The powers clearly are important, and probably more important in their effect, even beyond the exercise of the power. Once other planning officers and planning committees become aware that their powers may be called in by the mayor, they will take that into account in their own deliberations, for good or for ill.
Q14 Chair: One point that seems to be an inconsistency in these rather hybrid arrangements is that members of the Assembly can end up being on some of the bodies they are supposed to be holding to scrutiny, like the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, and also Transport for London, though I do not think any have been appointed there at present. Isn’t that rather an odd situation, with mixedup roles, where you have people elected to do the scrutiny who could actually be part of the bodies that will be scrutinised?
Professor Stewart: You would expect the scrutiny would normally be carried out by a committee of the assembly or council. It should be a requirement that people on the boards should not serve on those scrutiny committees. That would be the arrangement that would apply in local government generally. When you had police authorities, before the commissioners, you would not have scrutiny of the police by the local authority that included a member of it. The members could give evidence to the scrutiny committee, but scrutiny is best carried out by such committees, rather than by the council as a whole, where the issue of conflict of interest would arise. The process of scrutiny itself should be carried out by members who are not on that body.
Professor Travers: In some ways there is an even more fundamental problem. At its simplest, the model that was created under the 1999 legislation, which has been amended subsequently, was one in which the mayor is the executive power in the system. We talked earlier about how that might or might not be changed, but the mayor is the executive power, and the mayor operates through boards. There used to be four of them, and the machinery has changed since they were first created, but Transport for London explicitly does not have Assembly members on it, and actually I think that is the right way round-having an appointed board, as it if were a quango in national Government, although this is a board that the mayor chairs. It is therefore an extension of the mayor’s remit, but operated through a separate board and with a separate executive.
A similar arrangement existed at the London Development Agency, but when you get to the Police Authority, when it existed, and the extant Fire Authority, you do have Assembly members on that board, and I think it is a mindtingling complication to have elected members from the Assembly on a board that I think most members of the public would think the mayor was responsible for. It is not just that the mayor has policysetting powers, but the public would expect it, and I think it then inhibits the capacity of the Assembly to scrutinise.
Of course the difficulty, given that the Assembly is relatively weak, is that what we are discussing would be taking further things away from them and leaving them with what would appear to them like an even weaker role-what they would see as merely scrutiny. The Fire Authority, I should say, contains within it elements of the settlement after the abolition of the GLC, because it has borough members and Assembly members on it, so it is more complicated still.
Q15 Chair: So really we could look at tinkering with further changes to the Act, or we could go back and think: "What is the mayor for? What is the Assembly for?" and recast precisely what they do.
Professor Stewart: Yes, yes.
Professor Travers: I think so, and I think it would have implications for the big city mayors where they come into existence, and indeed in North Tyneside-where they exist outside London. Although the mayors outside the mayor of London, including the London borough mayors, are different in type, some of these issues also apply, and there are others besides, like the appointment of executives, that definitely need to be considered. If you have a political executive figure like a directly elected mayor in a British political system, the way people are appointed there needs to be handled with care, because we are not used to politically appointed executives. There are several things that need to be examined, if I am honest.
Q16 Chair: A final word? We have to conclude.
Professor Stewart: It is important that, in looking at this situation, you carry out a systematic comparison with a mayor outside London, because the legislative arrangements are different; indeed the concept is different. The mayor in London is almost a separate institution in his or her own right. The mayor-even a directly elected mayor-in the other authorities is a part of the same authority. The legislation makes clear that the mayor and council act together in setting the budget and policy framework. The mayor’s role is an executive role within that framework, in which the mayor of course is a leading figure in determining the nature of the framework, and a lot of the provisions in the two Acts are different. I think it would be important for the Committee to consider to what extent these are because of the special nature of the GLC-different sorts of functions, a different sort of election-or whether they are almost accidents of the Bill being drawn up at different times, with different Ministers and different civil servants involved in the process. At least it would enable one to look at two different concepts of the elected mayor.
Chair: Thank you both very much indeed. It has been really helpful to set this in the wider context of mayors outside this country and within the rest of the country outside London as well. Thank you very much indeed for coming along.