The Unorthodox Website Blog

London government

05 May

On May 3rd we had elections for the London Mayor (not to be confused with the Lord Mayor of London, an ancient office which applies only to the ‘square mile’ of the City of London financial district), and for the London Assembly members.

London local government is very complicated and has undergone several changes in the years since I was born. Back then there was the London County Council (LCC) which had wide powers in inner London. There were many more boroughs in London than there are now, and those in outer London outside the LCC area were in the various Home Counties. However to complicate things even further many of these had London postal districts, so Wood Green where I grew up, for instance, was in the county of Middlesex but the postal address was London N22.

In the mid 1960s London government was reorganized and the old boroughs were merged to form 32 new boroughs plus the ancient square mile of the City of London, which remained intact. Also the Greater London Council was established to replace the LCC but it covered a much greater area. Even the GLC area, however, did not cover the whole Urban Area of London, which is the continuous conurbation which now officially includes places like Watford, Hemel Hempstead, Hoddesdon, Dartford and Woking, all outside the Greater London administration area.

With this reorganization Middlesex was abolished as a county, and the other Home Counties lost large portions to the new Greater London administrative area. The Post Office refused to allocate London postal districts to all the areas now in Greater London, and this caused much confusion as it was then necessary on postal addresses to retain the old county names which no longer applied to many outer London areas. In the mid 1990s this requirement was dropped as the new postal codes came in, so now for any addresses in the UK it is not necessary to include county names. For reasons of snobbishness and nostalgia, however, many people still include these, and many in West and Northwest London, for instance, still pretend they live in the non-existant county of Middlesex, while those in other London suburbs like to pretend they are in the rural neighboring counties of Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent and Surrey.

The Greater London Council was abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1986 and its powers transferred to the 33 London boroughs. This created much chaos and confusion, as London now no longer existed as a city – probably the only major city in the world without a unitary administrative body. London became 33 separate towns and cities with little attempt to coordinate planning across the capital.

In 2000 the Greater London Authority was established to give London a voice and an administrative center once again, but it did not retrieve all the powers of the old GLC now delegated to the 32 London boroughs and the City of London corporation. Therefore it is a much weaker body, but at the same time the office of Mayor of London was created, directly elected by the Supplementary Vote system. There is also a London Assembly of 25 members, 14 representing new constituencies each consisting of several London boroughs and 11 members elected by proportional representation. These 11 additional members are selected by the political parties, as the party name just appears on the ballot paper. The London Assembly scrutinizes the work, budget and decisions of the directly elected Mayor.

What this has meant, since the abolition of the GLC with its wide powers and the loss of County Hall opposite Westminster, is that despite the creation of the Greater London Authority in new headquarters upstream on the River Thames, the various London boroughs and the City of London have,in effect, retained their status as cities and towns in their own right, and so it is now common practice to see shopping centers in these boroughs described as ‘town centers’ and London suburbs described as towns in neighboring counties or in the long abolished county of Middlesex.

It has also led to local initiatives, such as the London Borough of Croydon (whose residents largely like to pretend that they live in a town called Croydon in Surrey) re-introducing a tramway system, which is excellent for people in that area, but does not cover the rest of London. Such piecemeal transport systems really don’t make much sense in a major metropolis.

However the GLA and Mayor now does have authority over Transport for London, which runs the Underground system, Overground, buses, river services, etc. It also has overall responsibility for the Tramlink in the Croydon area, and apparently there are plans for new tram systems if the money can be found. It also tries to coordinate the many regional rail companies which provide services into and around the capital.

Frankly the whole thing is a mess, and privatization hasn’t made things any easier. With many Underground lines, the bus companies, and rail companies all privatized coordination and unitary ticketing/fares are difficult to achieve. One proposal, not yet achieved, is to bring all London rail services within the Greater London Area under the direct control of Transport for London (excluding the main lines from London to other places in the UK and the Eurostar services to Continental Europe.) The only rail lines so far coming directly under Transport for London (apart from the Underground system) is the privately owned Overground system, created quite recently from largely existing rail lines inherited from the old British Rail.

In the May 3rd elections maverick Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson, got elected for a further four years, narrowly defeating former Mayor and former GLC leader, the charismatic Ken Livingstone, the Labour candidate. Ken Livingstone has also been something of a maverick in the past, in 2000 standing and being elected as Mayor as an Independent against the Labour candidate (Ken was expelled from the Party, but later re-admitted.)

The election for London Mayor has, since its inception, been based on personalities rather than party labels. Whether this continues depends, I suppose, on how charismatic the candidates are for the office. Boris and Ken are both over-the-top individuals who encourage endearment and dislike in varying quantities. Considering he’s a Conservative and something of a buffoon, I actually quite like Boris though have never voted for him (I voted for Ken each time). He did, for instance, introduce the famed ‘Boris Bikes’, a very green measure to encourage cyclists (they are blue push bikes which can be hired from various centers around central London.) I can tolerate Boris for another four years, though am sorry Ken didn’t get re-elected to host the London Olympics. Ken has announced he will not stand again.

So London is a bit of a mess administratively, but has always been a mess. It was no better back in the 1950s when I grew up and the only elected authority for the capital only covered the inner London boroughs. The London postal district then, and now, bears no relation whatsoever to Greater London nor to the old LCC area. What I’d like to see is further coordination so all areas in the Greater London Authority area are allocated London addresses and postal districts, and all transport systems within Greater London are directly run and managed by Transport for London, thus reversing the privatization of recent decades.  Both these measures are unlikely to happen.

So London bumbles on in the old, rather disjointed way, at least helped by the fact it now has a London Mayor and a Greater London Authority and Assembly to try and coordinate things in this huge metropolis which still seems to think it is 33 separate towns and cities.

In this it is not alone. Los Angeles has been described as many suburbs in search of a city, and places like the conurbations centered on Manchester, the Yorkshire counties and the West Midlands have similar problems in identifying as unitary metropolitan cities with the separate areas fiercely defending their independence as separate towns and cities in their own right.

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