The government of London is not a shambles.
It is just thoroughly incompetent
Two weeks ago an event took place that would once have been headline news. A 100-page plan was published for the future of London. It embraced new Tube lines, a transport tax on businesses, the better man- agement of training, even that will-o'-the- wisp, a revival of the Thames. Nothing like it had appeared since the 1970s. Paris, Washington, Berlin, Chicago, Tokyo, all have such plans. They are often pious hopes, but they refresh a city's politics and inform its development.
This plan was good. It was not a whinge for more public money. It included support for the twin pillars of the London economy, tourism and financial services. The midwife was the impeccably Thatcherite Lord Shep- pard of Grand Met, who had gone to some lengths to win the backing of Labour and Tory boroughs. The plan was signed by the leaders of Westminster and the City Corpo- ration, by Labour's Toby Harris and Nicky Gavron and by the Chambers of Commerce and voluntary organisations. Public rela- tions firms were hired, press releases draft- ed, coffee and drinks poured. But hands up anybody who noticed. Nobody did.
When Kenneth Baker abolished the GLC in 1985, he admitted that the one crit- icism he found hard to answer was that `London needed a voice, since every other city has one'. He did not let this worry him. He proceeded with abolition and gathered all ideas for a strategy for London under his wing in Whitehall. By the time he had left office, he had some 400 officials run- ning the city from his monolith in Marsham Street. County Hall was empty.
When foreigners visit London — busi- nessmen, journalists, politicians — and ask who is in charge, there is no answer. There is no mayor of London, no leader of Lon- don, no personal or political embodiment of the London community. The nearest we can get to a democratically accountable human being is an amalgam of the Envi- ronment Secretary, John Gummer, and whoever is currently designated 'Minister for London' (at the moment I believe a Mr Steve Norris). There is no entity that lob- bies for the capital. London cannot make a coherent bid for the Olympics or for a multinational headquarters. Capital events, from train crashes to arts festivals, are graced by no civic dignitaries, except a min- ister if there is a photo-opportunity. The nearest to a metropolitan executive is the Cabinet's London sub-committee. Its meet- ings, agendas and decisions are secret. Most of its time is spent postponing trans- port projects. Last month it reportedly threw the new London plan in the bin.
The reason the plan was ignored (and is now binned) is that there was no democrat- ic wind behind it. There was nowhere to publicise it or debate it. Ever since Baker's centralisation, Whitehall has been nervous that it might have gone too far in stripping London of democracy. Ministers have coaxed into being various ploys to keep the citizens quiet: tame, impotent bodies such as London Forum, London Partnership, London First, London Pride (who pro- duced the Sheppard plan) and even Lon- don: Making the Best Better. Some minis- ters, such as Michael Howard, wanted nobody tainted by local democracy near them. Others, such as Mr Gummer, are more broad-minded.
Lord Sheppard was thought to be trusty. Even he has had to fight every inch of the way to express more than woolly pieties. But then John Major thinks he has a fine government for London already. It is called the Department of Environment. Last year it set up a 'government office for London' under an able 'deputy secretary', Robin Young. Mr Gummer promised that Mr Young would 'make arrangements to get out and meet colleagues in the London world as soon as possible'. It read like a District Commissioner waiting to get his knees brown. This was ten years after GLC abolition.
London government is not a shambles, Just thoroughly incompetent. Mr Major may believe that Whitehall is a Rolls-Royce but it cannot initiate big decisions. The sagas of Crossrail, the Heathrow Link, the Channel Tunnel Link or such lesser fiascos as Battersea Power Station, St Pancras or the British Library are worthy of a banana republic. The one scheme steaming ahead, the Jubilee Line to Docklands, was a dis- reputable bid by Lady Thatcher to bail out her friends the Reichmann brothers at Canary Wharf. But if that is the only way Downing Street can take decisions, let us have more sleaze not less.
There are executive activities that cities need and that are beyond the power of local boroughs. In London they include the planning of railways, the removal of the homeless from streets into refuges and the beautification of through routes and gate- ways. The beggars in the Strand, the filth of Regent's Canal, the squalor of the M4 from Heathrow all show how inadequate is a London ruled from Mr Gummer's office. These are not big spending items, but they do require a definable executive power. They need somebody elected to care, to feel personal or institutional shame.
In every other big city that person is the mayor. If the mayor lacks power or money, then his job is to lobby the person who does. If there is no lobbying, nothing hap- pens. Crossrail does not get built. The buck is passed. That is what has blighted London government for the past ten years. When Lech Walesa paid a state visit in 1991 he was feted by the Lord Mayor at Guildhall with much banging of tables and blowing of trumpets. I found myself sitting next to a Warsaw official eager to meet somebody responsible for London. I realised that among 500 guests not one could be said to have that job. All the City's flummery had been wheeled out to greet this great demo- crat without a single spokesman for the metropolis present. No such spokesman existed.
The Sheppard plan realised this lack. It timidly suggested 'the nomination of a small group of London hosts — civic, busi- ness and community leaders — whose remit will be to invite, welcome and host influential visitors, organisations and dele- gations to London'. This is London's answer to Ed Koch of New York, Jacques Chirac of Paris or Willy Brandt of Berlin. `A small group of hosts' is all we can muster. And the Cabinet sees even that as too much of a political threat.
Simon Jenkins writes for the Times.