Office Environment 1: London provides the setting for the greatest number of businesses in the UK, yet it is the city with the weakest infrastructure. In the first of two articles on the working environment Malcolm Brown considers alternatives for the capital's government.
Come back Ken Livingstone, all is forgiven. Well, not quite. No one has yet suggested that Red Ken and the GLC - abolished in 1986 - should be brought back, but there is unquestionably now a groundswell of opinion in favour of, at the very least, a body that can think strategically about London.
Its precise nature - elected, appointed, advisory, executive - is still a matter for debate. The need for it is not - at least not among the public. An opinion poll by Mass Observation in November showed that more than two out of three Londoners now wanted a London-wide authority to plan and co-ordinate services across the capital: 80% of Labour voters were in favour of a new tier of local government, 57% of Conservatives.
A few weeks later a research report, "London: World City," sponsored by organisations like the Corporation of London and the London Planning Advisory Committee, disclosed that 90% of London companies thought there was a role for an official strategic planning and transportation body to co-ordinate policy in the city.
The politicians will put their definitive plans in their election manifestos. The Labour party want a Greater London Authority. The Conservatives' intentions are more difficult to read. Despite confident predictions last year that they would give London a voice, several ministers, most notably environment secretary Michaell Heseltine, seem cool towards the idea.
London's dilemma is an historic one. The city may look from the air like a unified whole, but the reality on the ground is quite different. It is, essentially, a collection of villages and neighbourhoods which find it difficult to express a London-wide view on anything. Hence it has become almost impossible to develop effective city-wide government. The last try - the GLC, which ran from 1965 to 1986 - ended because the Conservative government killed it off for political reasons. But it would almost certainly have ended in tears anyway, whoever was in power, because its internal dynamics were all wrong. The council was neither fish nor fowl. It was not a big, city-wide powerful authority capable of delivering the strategic city-wide things that many people appear to want of such bodies (effective roads and railways, good management of city infrastructure). On the other hand, while it did not have enough power to deliver those things, it did have enough power over other functions, like planning, to be deemed meddlesome by all the boroughs.
Yet while the GLC per se is not widely mourned, its death does seem to have left a vacuum. There is a widespread feeling that London needs some sort of planning framework for the future (so that Londoners themselves and outside investors have some sort of idea of the direction the city is headed in over the next 10, 20 or 30 years). There is concern that traditional London-wide problems like transportation will never be solved while responsibilities are split between central government (too remote to be effective) and the London boroughs (too small to pack a punch). Finally, there is a deep sense of unease that if London goes on not having a "voice" - somebody or something which speaks up for it - it may well lose out to other international cities in all sorts of ways: investment, jobs, even culture.
The lack of cohesion in London shows itself at several different levels. There are the ludicrous planning decisions. How on earth was it possible for the remarkable Canary Wharf development in Docklands to end up being joined to the city centre by a "Mickey Mouse" transportation system like the Docklands Light Railway?
There are the lost international opportunities. Why, when other cities were sending their mayors and city commissioners to lobby for the 2000 Olympics, was London's effort so pathetic as to be almost invisible?
Is there a solution? The "World City" report, and "The Government of London" commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, suggest several. Some solutions are partial, tackling only the promotional side of the problem. Others go for more fundamental, political reform but with promotion (giving London a "voice") included as an important part of the package.
The "World City" report's strategic policy agenda comes down heavily in favour of a so-called London Partnership, a new promotional agency embracing both private and public sector interests which would coordinate existing promotional efforts and develop new ones.
"The Government of London" report examines no less than eight possible scenarios one of the most controversial of which is a London-wide authority plus an elected mayor. This would give the capital high-profile leader to rival New York's David Dinkins or Paris's Jacques Chirac.
The elected mayor might be a popular option with the ordinary citizens of London, but Tony Travers, leader of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics and principal author of "The Government of London," thinks realpolitik would get in the way:
"The elected mayor is an entirely foreign concept to British democracy," says Travers. "One of the very few subjects that unite politicians in all parties, centrally and locally, is their antipathy to the idea." Much more plausible, he suspects, would be the London-wide authority (without an elected mayor) or, a powerful joint committee, including members from all local authorities in the South East, which would advice central-government-appointed boards and local authorities on strategic planning and transport policy.
The powerful Londonwide authority, say the LSE researchers, would be a new upper-tier authority operating within the Greater London boundary (probably even as far as the M25) and responsible for strategic planning, public transport (including London Transport's buses and railways and Network South East's inner suburban services), major roads, traffic management, the fire brigade and economic development. Because it would wield real power, it would be likely to attract heavyweight politicians and top rank administrators. Weighing against it would be its similarities to the old GLC.
The joint advisory committee model, says Travers, would probably involve a sort of "senate" for the leaders of all the authorities within the region. "It would be charge with producing an annual report about London and the South east and would advise the Government and the boroughs ... indeed it would have a statutory right to be consulted." That option would involve another reform, the creation of a much-expanded central London borough, which might extend as wide as the old Inner London Education Authority area. It would take a lead role in promoting London to the outside world. "The main difference between London and most other cities in Britain and abroad is that its central core is split between a number of authorities whereas in Glasgow or Paris or San Francisco, the core of the city is in one authority."
One option guaranteed never to get beyond the drawing board is a Minister of London. "We ruled this out," says Travers, "because it would either have to be a cabinet minister which would mean that the whole of the rest of the country would want one and that would effectively change the whole of Whitehall, which isn't terribly plausible, or if it were only a junior minister it would be so weak as not to have any effect."
A London Development Agency is another suggestion which, while superficially attractive, has major drawbacks. Several different groups have proposed different versions of the agency. Surveyors Hillier Parker have been pressing the Government to introduce a central London agency, elected by those who live and work in the area, to control major investment decisions and lobby for improvements in services. The Confederation of British Industry has proposed an appointed planning agency.
While the LSE researchers concede that a development agency could act as a strong lobby for the capital and provide a "voice" for many of the interests in London, there are doubts about its local legitimacy. "Most agency proposals fall well short of being properly accountable to the local electorate and some actively seek to circumvent local political pressure. The greater such an agency's powers, the less accountable it would be: the more it was purely advisory the less it would achieve anything."
Because of the problem of electoral legitimacy, say sceptics, such a body, if created by a Conservative administration, would probably not be tolerated for long by a successor Labour government.
And therein, of course, lies the tragedy of London government. Many ideas are put forward but the deeply antagonistic political environment gives few of them any hope of long term survival. It almost seems as though there is a self-destruct mechanism embedded in London government which destroys it from within before it has a change to develop into anything worthwhile. For that reason, even if one of the options discussed is put in place soon, Tony Travers is not sanguine about its chances of lasting out, say, the next 30 years.
"What many people saw as the rather gloomy conclusion of this report," he says, "is a reflection of the way that as time moves on institutional reform becomes every political party's idea of having a good time. In such a world, London government, which anyway historically has been subject to significant regular reform, is likely to be reformed more not less ... The chances are London will be reformed and re-reformed regularly."
But, even if it is not necessarily lasting, something must be done. The London Planning Advisory Committee (LPAC), one of the "World City" sponsors, catches the nub of the problem in a comment on the work due by the consultants who drew up the report.
"The consultants clearly feel," says the LPAC, "though they do not express this explicitly, that London is a place which could lose faith in itself - and that this view could interact with others' views of us and result in an overall collapse in confidence. London is prone to shooting itself in the foot by under-selling its success and under-estimating its potential."