Tom Harris is right that devolution is irrelevant to the argument, but Iain Dale is still right that the Barnett formula needs to go

Iain Dale has had a pop at the Barnett Formula (the agreement forged when Lord Joel Barnett was Chief Secretary to the Treasury more than thirty years ago that residents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should automatically and in perpetuity get a larger slice of public spending per head than people living in England) and Tom Harris has then had a go at Iain Dale for saying that the Formula is outmoded because of devolution. 

Tom Harris is right in saying that the devolution argument is irrelevant to the case against the Formula, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the Barnett Formula does need to be replaced by something that genuinely reflects the needs of the population in the different parts of the country. 

Of course, Tom Harris spoils his argument with a gratuitous side-swipe at London.  London has Boroughs that consistently have the greatest levels of deprivation and needs in the UK, but London and Londoners have to subsidise the rest of the UK year in and year out to the tune of more than £20 billion.

Yes, of course, the Barnett Formula needs to go and the rest of the UK that relies on London for its prosperity should stop knocking the Capital.

People are talking of nothing else but constitutional reform …..

There seems to be a media response to the current anger about Parliamentary expenses that says that what is needed is wholesale constitutional reform.  I tend to agree that many of the constitutional reforms suggested might be quite a good idea, but I am not sure that they are the response  that the public are looking for.  Tom Harris has it right when he suggests (with considerable humour) that this may be something of a diversion away from the real issue that has grabbed the attention of the public.

I suspect that the public will not be satisfied until there is a substantial change in personnel in all of the established political parties with those who are felt to have abused the spirit of the expenses system being exiled from Parliament.

However, having said that, if there is a mood for there to be constitutional reform as well, then that is no bad thing.  So here is my personal list of seven reforms to add to the pot:

  • fixed term Parliaments with general elections every five years;
  • retaining single member constituencies in the Commons but with elections on the alternative vote system;
  • a power to recall individual MPs if more than a certain proportion of the electorate (probably at least a third of the number who cast their vote in the previous election) formally request a fresh election;
  • powerful subject-based Select Committees that not only hold inquiries but scrutinise and amend Bills before they are passed into legislation and go through departmental budgets;
  • directly-elected regional governors with powers over transport, economic development, major planning issues, further education and skills training, health provision, policing resources etc;
  • a shift of taxation-raising powers with far more being raised by local and regional government than is currently the case (with proportionately less being raised centrally); and
  • a power of general competence for local government.

I deliberately haven’t mentioned the House of Lords – partly because I can hardly be described as disinterested, but also because I think there has to be some prior debate about what the Second Chamber is for.

Anyway, there is more than enough in what I have written for people to disagree with ….

Has Mayor Boris Johnson discovered that working together is harder than it looks?

A report in Local Government Chronicle suggests that the much-vaunted “Charter” due to be signed between London Mayor Boris Johnson and London Councils representing the 32 Boroughs (and the Corporation of London) is running into difficulties. 

I remember when I chaired the Association of London Government (as London Councils was then called) in the five years preceding the creation of the London Mayoralty.  It was always clear that the arrival of the Greater London Authority would present challenges for the London Boroughs.  It was almost inevitable that any directly-elected Mayor would start to encroach on the Borough’s statutory and non-statutory responsibilities.  I remember speaking about this on a number of occasions – my theme was that any incoming Mayor would need to keep his or her tanks off the London Boroughs’ lawns.

During the period of Mayor Ken Livingstone, there were indeed tensions over such matters as – for example – his desire for street cleaning in London to be improved and his ambitions for education.

When Mayor Boris Johnson was elected he proclaimed that he was much more ready to work with the London Boroughs (many of which were by then Conservative controlled).  A new concordat or charter was promised, but now – nearly a year on – it looks as though the initiative may dissolve without any real substance into a bath of warm words.

If this happens, it will be unfortunate and I would urge both those in the Mayor’s team and those in London Councils who are trying to finalise the document to redouble their efforts to reach some form of meaningful statement. 

Although the London Mayor is always going to be more visible than London Borough councillors and, of course, is directly accountable to Londoners, he/she cannot run local services and it is the local councils that are accountable for them.  The Mayor of London cannot dictate to the Boroughs, even though he/she has a direct mandate from Londoners and may have a clear vision for the future of London (I am still waiting to be clear about the current Mayor’s vision, although I sense he his groping towards one). 

Working together is harder.  However, it is essential if progress to be made. 

The skill of any London Mayor will be whether or not he/she having articulated a view of how London is to develop can carry not only Londoners, but their elected representatives in the Boroughs (and indeed all the other elements of civil society), along with their vision and inspire them to work with him/her on delivering it.

LibDems want to replace the word “growth” with the words “development and regeneration”

Bismarck said if “You like laws or sausages, never watch either of  them being made.”  It is 8.45pm and Labour Peers have been told to hang on for a possible vote on an amendment to the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill.  

The amendment moved by the LibDems apparently raises an important point of principle.  Or at least that’s what the LibDems say.

So what is the amendment?  In Clause 67 of the Bill (which creates a requirement for there to be a regional economic strategy for each region) the LibDems want the Bill to say “The regional strategy for a region is to set out policies in relation to sustainable development and regeneration in the region” rather than “The regional strategy for a region is to set out policies in relation to sustainable growth in the region” .

Is someone taking the p*ss?

And after all that they didn’t press it to a vote!

Archie Galloway loses his seat in the “elections” for the City of London Common Council

The City of London is a strange quasi-democratic organisation – much more akin to the management committee of trading estate than a local council.  I say that because even its “reformed” electoral system residential voters are potentially overwhelmed by voters nominated by the businesses in the area.  This year in its “elections” a number of individuals stood for election explicitly as Labour candidates (most candidates describe themselves as “Independent” or give no description at all).  None of these Labour candidates were elected, but there does seem to have been rather more interest in the Corporation’s elections than normal with a majority of wards having contested elections and in some instances the turnout creeping up to over 400 “votes” cast.

I am not sufficiently versed in the internal politics of the Corporation (and I am not sure I want to be) to make much of the significance of the detailed results.  However, I did notice that Archie Galloway appears to have lost his seat on the Common Council, having been a member since 1981.  Having seen Archie on a variety of London-wide committees during the 1990s, I always regarded him as a fundamentally decent man who seemed to have the wider interests of London at heart.  I trust the “electors” of Broad Street knew what they were doing.

Another directly elected Mayor arrested – what next?

The news today is that the directly-elected Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, Mark Meredith, has stood down following his arrest a few days ago by police investigating alleged corruption.  Mark Meredith was elected as a Labour Mayor and his arrest follows the arrest a few days earlier of the Conservative Group leader on the same Council.  I don’t know the background of this series of events and I make no comment other than to note that both men have said that they are standing down “to clear their names”.  However, this is more evidence that the history of directly-elected Mayors (outside London) has not been an easy one.

Another, directly-elected Mayor – this time in Doncaster – has just defied a vote of 46 to 6 by Doncaster council calling on him to resign.  This is at least the second occasion that that Mayor has ignored motions of no confidence passed by the Council.

And, of course, in 2003 the Mayor of North Tyneside had to resign following his arrest on child pornography charges – charges of which he was subsequently acquitted

Much was made of the election of a “monkey” as Mayor of Hartlepool in 2002 but, of course, the record of Stuart Drummond was sufficently good that he was re-elected in 2006 with 68% of the vote.

So what next for directly-elected Mayors?  Of the nine Mayoral areas outside London, two have had their Mayors resign following police action.  And the history elsewhere has often been turbulent.  Obviously, it is a small sample, but two out of nine does begin to look statistically significant.

In London, the experience seems to have been different.  In the three Boroughs where there are directly-elected Mayors (Hackney, Lewisham and Newham) the administrations appear to have been by and large well-run and many would argue an improvement on what had gone before.  And whatever Londoners’ views of the current incumbent of the London-wide Mayorality or of his predecessor, there is little doubt that Londoners prefer to have directly-elected Mayor presiding over the capital, compared with either the absence of city-wide authority that existed from 1985 to 2000 or the old Greater London Council that rather uneasily operated on top of the Boroughs from 1965 to 1985.

Certainly, my own experience in London makes me a supporter of the concept of directly-elected Mayors.  And both the Government and the Conservative opposition would support more directly-elected Mayors in the big cities at least.

I hesitate to suggest that the reason the model has worked in London is because of the fact that London has innately more sophisticated electors than those in the rest of the country.  While this may be true (and, if that doen’t excite hate mail from out-of-Londoners, I don’t know what will), I suspect the real reason is that so far outside London there have only been a small number of directly-elected mayors and often these have been in areas where the local political processes have not been working well or have been under great stress (as in Doncaster).  And why have two Mayors been arrested?  I don’t know.  However, it is certainly the case that directly-elected Mayors will by their very nature be more high profile than more traditional civic leaders and as such they attract strong feelings (which may mean politically-motivated attacks) and greater scrutiny. 

Greater scrutiny has to be a good thing.  Moreover, if the end-result, is that the political parties exercise greater care as to who they chose as Mayoral candidates (and that does not mean more celebrities!) and, if the local media and indeed local electorates are more discriminating as to who they back as “independents”, that will be good both for local democracy and local government itself.

Val Shawcross’s indictment of the snow chaos makes important reading for the Mayor and London Councils

The London Assembly’s Transport Committee, chaired by Val Shawcross, has published a powerful indictment of last month’s snow chaos.  It is clear that there was little proper planning for the snow (about which there had been plentiful warnings from the Met Office), virtually no coordination between the relevant bodies, and it took the best part of 24 hours before anyone took a proper grip of the situation.

I am quite clear that most of the Boroughs were woefully ill-prepared: they should all have had in place proper plans for gritting the most important routes and protocols in place for clearing access to bus garages, to London Ambulance stations and for other emergency services.  I am also amazed that there were not better arrangements for coordination and what there was was only finally triggered on the Monday after the snowfall with no direct communication with Transport for London until nearly 30 hours after the severe weather warning that a major snow-fall was hours away (ie 5pm on the Monday – some 17 hours after buses were ordered to return to their depots).

So who should have triggered the emergency coordination?  It may not be a statutory responsibility for the Mayor and the GLA, but the whole premise of the Greater London Authority Act is that the Mayor should use the authority of his elected office to bring people together and make things happen in the interests of London.  I trust the failure to do so on this occasion (until it was too late) will not be repeated again.

Population data figures to remain rigged so as to short-change Londoners

It is well-known that Londoners already have to subsidise the rest of the country but this has been made consistently worse by the failure to calculate London’s population properly and, in particular, properly to reflect in Government grant calculations the number of migrants in London.

Back in May last year, the House of Commons Treasury Committee reported that the means used by the Office of National Statistics for measuring international migration was not fit for purpose and called on the ONS to develop a new survey to provide more accurate data.  It also concluded that:

“it is evident that there are substantial problems in generating accurate population estimates in some Local Authority areas. The current methods of estimating internal migration are unsatisfactory and lead to decisions on the allocation of funding to Local Authorities being based on inadequate information.”

The Committee warned that it was “seriously concerned about the reliability and validity of ONS estimates of short-term international migrants” and pointed out that “evidence from administrative data sources such as the National Insurance Number register suggests the ONS estimates do not reflect the scale of short-term migration in England and Wales.”  It recommended that:

“the Statistics Authority examine the feasibility of producing estimates of short-term migration at sub-national level, using the successor to the International Passenger Survey that we recommended earlier and a greater range of administrative data.”

and that: 

“the Statistics Authority continue the ONS’s work with Local Authorities and carries out a series of case studies to identify alternative administrative data sources. These include the National Insurance Number register, GP lists, other health service lists, council tax records, and various registers on children and school children.”

The Government responded to the Select Committee’s report last September, saying that it accepted the Committee’s analysis on this issue and welcoming the efforts that the ONS would be making to resolve the problems.

However, the ONS has just announced that it does not propose that anything be done about the problem before the 2010 grant settlement.

London Councils has commented on this, pointing out that this failure to act is going to cost London millions of pounds of funding and that the ONS figures on the basis of their existing flawed methodology suggest a decline in London’s population of 100,000 and a loss of £130 million to council services.

This is not a new issue: the London Boroughs had been raising concerns about this long before the Treasury Slelect Committee examined the issue.  It is frankly extraordinary that another year is going to drift by with London still being short-changed.

Mayor Johnson claims victory despite the finding that his actions “were extraordinary and unwise”

Mayor Boris Johnson has issued a press statement trumpeting that the investigation into his conduct over the Damian Green case has not found that he breached the MPA or GLA Code of Conduct. 

Interesting that he does not mention that the same report found that “his actions in speaking to a person arrested in a criminal investigation were extraordinary and unwise”, that “he should have sought advice from MPA officers before issuing a press statement relating to an ongoing police investigation”, and that “there is a risk that frank and full discussion of operational matters between senior MPS officers and the MPA Chairman could be inhibited in future if Mr. Johnson were to make public his reaction to operational briefings on critical incidents as a matter of course”.