Receive our newsletter - data-led analysis, original reporting and insights
Government / Local politics

How London's mayors helped turn the tide on Britain's political centralisation

The eight years in which Boris Johnson has served as London mayor have proved eventful for British government as a whole, and for London in particular.

When he was first elected in 2008, the then Labour government was preparing the grounds for new legislation to enact combined authorities. Greater Manchester councils had developed an economic plan, and were operating a form of voluntary “city regional” governance. The global economic downturn was still four months away, and would trigger an unprecedented period of public sector “austerity” which, from 2010 onwards, has seen English councils face the biggest cuts in expenditure since at least 1945.

The Coalition came and went. Scotland voted to stay in the UK, while following the unexpected result of the 2015 general election, the Labour Party selected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader.

A lot has happened – but polling suggests that, even after eight years, Boris remains remarkably popular. Having been attacked by his opponents before taking office for being incompetent and unprepared, his period in office has been surprisingly, well, normal. Transport, police, fire and planning services have run effectively, while London’s economy defied the recession. The Olympics were a big success. If anything, the continuing rapid growth of the capital’s GDP under Johnson’s mayoralty has become a political issue precisely because the city has been so successful.

It is impossible to know how much of London’s growth is because of a particular mayor. Following decades of decline from 1945 to 1985, London suddenly became resurgent from the mid-1980s onwards: it was the right city in the right place and the right time. The boroughs improved their service delivery from the 1990s, and have benefited from being able to capture the benefits of three decades of near-continuous economic development.

There is little doubt the office of mayor of London is viewed as a success, both at home and abroad. Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have been highly-effective lobbyists for the capital, nagging away at Whitehall for funding to improve the Tube, host the Olympics, build Crossrail, regenerate housing, and extend the bus network. Elections for mayors in combined authorities for the city regions surrounding Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, Liverpool, Birmingham and the Tees Valley, to take place in 2017, will produce a crop of new “metro mayors” who will have the opportunity to enhance their areas’ reputation and capacity to lobby.


The contest in London this year is rather less visible than the previous four. Neither Ken Livingstone nor Boris Johnson are standing, which removes some of the glitter that attended the 2008 and 2012 elections. Moreover, there are parallel campaigns in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as mayoral elections in Bristol and Liverpool, plus local government polls on the same day.

Casting a shadow over all domestic elections is the EU referendum. Given that the leading London candidates, Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan, are on opposing leave/stay sides, and that Boris Johnson is a looming presence supporting Brexit, it is possible there may be some pre-referendum proxy-voting in both directions in the mayoral election.

London-only issues in the campaign include housing, transport, fares and tall buildings.  There is little doubt (polls show it) that the capital’s rising housing costs have become politically-salient. Lower-income households find themselves trapped in often sub-standard privately-rented accommodation, while the young are shut out of owner-occupation. With the capital’s population rising at the rate of 100,000+ per annum, at least 50,000 new homes (or their equivalent) are required every year.

The rising population also puts pressure on the Underground and commuter rail systems.  Despite the heavy expenditure on London’s transport infrastructure (compared with other British cities, though not, say, Paris), the city’s commuters suffer extraordinary crowding and regular station closures. Even when Crossrail opens in 2018, it will not relieve all of the pressures on the system. With population growth of over 1m by 2030, more new capacity will be required.

Fares in London are relatively high, though less so for regular commuters who buy Travelcard-type tickets. The Conservative and Labour candidates have been trading statistics about the costs of a fares freeze, as proposed by Sadiq Khan. In reality, there is a trade-off between cutting fares and the potential for longer-term investment. If fares were held down, which might be popular, TfL’s income would be lower, meaning less money to invest in new capacity – and, possibly, worse overcrowding.

London’s changing skyline. Image: Getty.

Tall buildings policy is another London-specific controversy. Recent research by New London Architecture, a design and development think-tank, suggests that over 400 new towers are currently planned for London. While many cities in Britain would love the challenge of handling so many large buildings, in the capital there are powerful heritage and skyline lobbies.

A number of west London boroughs are unenthusiastic about towers, though others to the east are generally happy to give mega-structures permission – and then benefit from the substantial resources (New Homes Bonus, Community Infrastructure Levy and “Section 106” resources) that flow from them. The full retention of non-domestic rates from next year is likely to intensify the pressure for big developments. Indeed, the government’s policy is intended to do so.

London is important to the whole of the United Kingdom. Its high levels of productivity and tax-generating power provides the Treasury with GDP and revenue without which the country as a whole would be in difficulty.

That’s not to say that other cities shouldn’t enjoy the investment and skills-improvements which would allow their output to rise towards London’s. One of the most interesting aspects of the Boris Johnson years is that London and the Core Cities have worked harmoniously together to form an “urban lobby”, which was previously lacking. London, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham now make common cause about devolution and increased fiscal autonomy.

By the summer of 2017, there will be a gaggle of city regional mayors.  Their coming into existence suggests the London government experiment of 2000 has proved successful. It will be interesting to see how long it is before they decide to meet and lobby jointly for particular pro-cities policies.

Britain will soon be a country where big city mayors compete with ministers and MPs for the authority to govern. Then, just possibly, the long tide of centralisation can be reversed.

Professor Tony Travers is director of LSE London.

This article was originally published by the Centre for Cities as part of its Mayoral Elections 2016 blog series.
This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.