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ANALYSIS - DEVOLUTION OR BACK DOOR CENTRALISM?

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>> Ken Livingstone says powers over housing and planning are essential...
>> Ken Livingstone says powers over housing and planning are essential

>> London boroughs claim mayor will run roughshod over local democracy

>> Row has implications for any area facing elected mayors or city regions

By Mark Smulian

Humpty Dumpty's assertion in Alice in Wonderland that 'when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean', has taken on new life in row between the London boroughs and Ken Livingstone over his proposed new planning, housing and waste powers.

Are these 'devolution', as mayor Mr Livingstone (Lab) claims, or 'centralisation', as the boroughs fear?

Before anyone beyond the M25 concludes that this dispute concerns only London, think again. Similar conflicts will be inevitable if city regions are created elsewhere following the local government white paper expected this month.

At stake are both issues of principle, and less elevated ones of party politics.

In July, communities and local government secretary Ruth Kelly proposed to award Mr Livingstone new powers. He would gain a duty to publish a statutory housing strategy and strategic investment plan, and power to distribute public funds for affordable housing, taking over this responsibility from the Housing Corporation.

Boroughs could find their housing strategies challenged by the mayor for being out of line with his own.

On planning, the mayor would gain powers to 'direct changes to boroughs' programmes for [their] local development plans' and 'discretion to determine planning applications of strategic importance', though how 'importance' is judged remains unclear. The mayor did less well on waste, failing in his cherished goal of gaining control of a single disposal authority (LGC, 28 September).

Instead, the various separate authorities survived, though they will be required 'to be in general conformity with the mayor's municipal waste management strategy'.

This might all have been uncontentious had the mayor's Labour colleagues not lost control of all but eight of London's 32 boroughs in May's elections.

With his political opponents now calling the shots in the Association of London Government - renamed from this week as London Councils - a clash became inevitable.

This is because they disagree on whether the government proposals are devolutionary.

Mr Livingstone claims that they are, because the housing powers were previously held in Whitehall, and the planning powers would bolster the influence of London's devolved government.

But the boroughs argue that moving strategic planning applications from themselves to City Hall would be a straightforward act of centralisation, while his gain of housing powers concentrate influence in the mayor's hands over what they feel should be local decisions.

The boroughs' animosity stems in part from a feeling that there are too few checks and balances on the mayor.

In theory, the 25-strong London Assembly holds the mayor to account. But aside from its ability to mount an annual change to his overall budget, it cannot prevent the mayor from doing anything that the boroughs, or anyone else, finds objectionable.

Assembly members can scrutinise, question, inquire and complain to their hearts' content, but cannot compel.

Thus the boroughs fear they will lose powers to a single individual with little accountability, and not just to Mr Livingstone but to his as-yet-unknown successors.

Over the summer, the ALG began to plot how it could persuade the government to change its mind, and has since issued the supportive conclusions of an opinion poll (LGC, 28 September) and launched an elaborate public affairs campaign.

Mr Livingstone responded with a press statement that came close to accusing the association of hypocrisy. In it he argued the powers are both necessary and devolutionary.

'We have demonstrated that city-wide London government works and that Londoners are directly benefiting,' he wrote. 'The additional powers will enable us to tackle head-on the problems London faces, [the] planning and housing powers which will help promote our city's global economic status and also deliver the vital affordable homes Londoners need.' It was thus with pained indignation that the mayor learned of the ALG's opposition. He retorted that the association was 'in disarray' because its campaign contradicted its own previous position, and accused it of opposing devolution by saying: 'The ALG now stands exposed as preferring to see major powers over housing retained by Whitehall civil servants instead of being exercised by the democratically accountable mayor.

'I have always made clear that councils will continue to make the vast majority of decisions on planning issues, and there are also no proposals at all for councils to lose any of their existing housing powers.'

Of these claims, London Councils chair Merrick Cockell (Con) says: 'We have supported the devolution of powers from central government to the mayor, but this is not devolution.

'It would mean taking planning powers from councils and moving them up a tier.

'The evidence that boroughs cannot act strategically is flimsy. Councils can be very fast on their feet when something like the Olympics comes along, where four councils have joined together to deal with planning applications.'

He fears Mr Livingstone will use his planning powers to enforce his housing strategy and then try to grab control of waste disposal.

Cllr Cockell dismisses the mayor's argument that there should be a single waste body - rather than boroughs or groups of them - as 'only an argument that seems to be an assertion that a single body must be better than many bodies'.

But at least Mr Livingstone is a devil the boroughs know; they are concerned about who might follow him.

'I hope this is not a sweetheart deal between the government and Ken Livingstone because one day there will be another mayor and the powers should be specific to that position not to an individual,' says Cllr Cockell, adding that at the very least mayoral accountability should be improved by allowing the assembly to challenge his budget line-by-line and not just in total.

The Association of London Borough Planning Officers also opposes the extension of Mr Livingstone's powers, which it feels are contrary to devolution and lack clarity about which applications the mayor would determine.

'He is talking about calling in any application on metropolitan open land, and they can be quite minor,' its chair Steve Clark says.

Planners are also concerned that the mayor, and not the borough in question, would get the money from any planning gain negotiated.

There is also an issue of democratic deficit. 'Boroughs take decisions in public with objectors permitted to speak,' Mr Clark says. 'If the mayor becomes a one-person planning authority he will take decisions in secret.'

While the spectacle of the public being invited to watch Mr Livingstone debate planning applications with himself might have its attractions, Mr Clark feels there is an issue of planning losing its reputation for openness.

Tony Travers, director of the London School of Economics' Greater London group, thinks the boroughs have a point.

'There is no doubt that the proposals for planning in London are a raising of powers upwards rather than downwards,' he says.

'This is an issue elsewhere too, where councils find that something, perhaps the regional assembly planning committee, clashes with an individual council.'

But Mr Travers also questions how deep attachments to devolution really run.

'Local government would rather be told what to do by central government than a by any tier that is nearer to them,' he says.

'Possibly the boroughs see central government as more predictable and less radical than the mayor.'

London's devolutionary waters are already rather choppy; whether other city regions will be in the same boat depends on Ruth Kelly's imminent white paper.

The mayor should be given his powers, says Peter Stewart

Strategic planning applications should be determined at a strategic level, so the government's plan to give the mayor these new powers is a good one in principle. The mayor's strategic plan-making powers have been, for the most part, a success. Without the right decisions about big projects, important parts of the strategy cannot be implemented.

A project like Lots Road power station, offering well-designed and much-needed housing, should never have been bogged down in the planning system for so long. One of the problems was that it straddled borough boundaries. The enormous projects at Kings Cross Central and Stratford City will affect people in neighbouring boroughs, and London-wide, as much as those in the boroughs which decided on the planning applications. And the future of the South Bank Centre is not principally a local issue - it is a metropolitan one. Decisions on planning applications at borough level can be dominated by ward-based politicking - unfair even on small projects, but certainly not in the public interest for big ones. Local residents have legitimate interests, but so do many other people.

For the architectural community, the mayor has been a 'Good Thing'. His policies give design issues more weight than those of most boroughs and are more progressive. Looking to the future, though, there are two big caveats concerning the proposed new dispensation.

First, it seems that the present mayor's interests are turning increasingly away from an emphasis on good design to affordable housing numbers and renewable energy targets - laudable aims, but ones which, for developers, put pressure on the quality of design.

Secondly, Ken Livingstone won't be there for ever. A more gung-ho, pro-development mayor might not be such welcome news for architecture - or for Londoners; there need to be adequate checks and balances on what is in effect a one-person planning authority.

Peter Stewart Chairman, Royal Institute of

British Architects Planning Group

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