The changes to the governance of London with the advent of the Greater London Authority are seismic and the waves created by its election will rock the whole of UK local government.
On 4 May Londoners will elect the GLA, comprising the nation's first directly elected mayor, and a 25-member assembly. The GLA, effectively both local and regional government, will be a city-wide strategic authority operating with effect from 3 July. The 'principal purposes' of the GLA are to promote economic development, wealth creation, social development and environmental improvement.
It will also take over considerable powers from central government and the capital's quangos. Funding will be by central government grant and a precept from the London boroughs.
The government wants the directly elected mayor to provide a vision for the capital, be inclusive in style, and generate an integrated approach to the city's problems. Backed by a mandate from an electorate of approaching five million, and assisted by the assembly, the mayor will have the authority to work with organisations beyond their direct control, such as the London boroughs, to tackle the capital's problems.
There will be a separation of powers between a political executive (the mayor) and a political assembly, a set-up unlike any other UK council. Elections to the GLA, which will take place every four years, also pioneer new territory. For the first time in the UK three different methods of electing local politicians will be used.
The mayor will be elected using the supplementary vote system, where each voter specifies a first and a second preference. If no candidate receives more than half the first preferences, all except the two candidates receiving the most first preferences are eliminated. The second preferences of the eliminated candidates are added to the first preferences of the remaining candidates.
For elections to the 25-member assembly, the additional member system is used. Fourteen members will be elected using the familiar first past the post system. The constituencies for these members will be formed by combining two or three London borough constituencies.
The remaining 11 members (known as London members) will be elected by a version of proportional representation. Voters will therefore have three votes: one for the mayor, one for their constituency representative, and one 'London vote'.
The Local Government Act 2000 will require all councils in England and Wales tointroduce a separation of powers between an executive and an assembly. This legislation will enable councils to introduce entirely new approaches to decision making.
In London, the mayor will be responsible for the proposal of strategies and their delivery, while the assembly will call the mayor to account and, in certain circumstances, amend the mayor's policies or budget. Assembly members are not, however, limited only to reacting.
As full-time, paid representatives of the community they can help to make policy by proposing courses of action to the mayor and by carrying out investigations into London issues. They can represent the views of their constituents and communities. Some will be required to take up formal positions in the assembly, and some will serve on organisations created to help the GLA deliver its programmes.
Bodies created at the same time as the GLA (see box) will enjoy various levels of oversight, scrutiny and input from the mayor and assembly members. Bodies absorbed into the GLA include the London Ecology Unit, the London Research Centre and the London Planning Advisory Committee.
Some other London-wide bodies will not go to the GLA. Instead, they will be incorporated into the new Association of London Government, representing the 32 London boroughs and the Corporation of London. The Greater London Employers Association, London Borough Grants, the London Housing Unit and the Transport Committee for London will all be the responsibility of the new ALG.
For the mayor, special leadership skills will be needed. The ability to facilitate collaboration between multiple partners will be vital to the mayor's success. In an era of place-based competition, where cities vie with each other for public and private investment, the ability to promote London as an attractive location will be important.
In terms of local democracy the creation of the GLA goes some way to reducing the local democratic deficit in the capital. It is a directly elected tier of government, incorporating proportional representation. The high media profile will ensure intense public scrutiny of the mayor, and give local government a strong voice at national level.
The GLA will transform the governance of London. It will set down a challenge to other big cities. Who would bet against the GLA prompting a 'domino effect' as cities opt for visible civic leadership?
This article draws on research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. A briefing paper, Modernising local political management, is available from Jane Newton, tel: 0117 965 6261 ext 3102 or e-mail Jane.Newton@uwe.ac.uk