By Dr Andrew Blick, Lecturer in Politics and Contemporary History, King’s College London; and Senior Research Fellow at the Federal Trust

This article was first published on The Conversation.

As the new mayor of London, Sadiq Khan will gain command of a budget worth £17 billion to be spent mainly on fire services, transport and policing. He will also take on responsibilities for culture and the environment, addressing health inequalities, urban regeneration and development. The mayor also has a duty to issue strategy documents covering each of these fields, as well as performing the function of London’s police commissioner.

The mayor is an important symbolic figure: holders of this position have achieved a high profile in the capital and beyond. Both of London’s previous mayors have introduced some attention-grabbing policies: Ken Livingstone brought in the congestion charge, while Boris Johnson saw the iconic “Boris bike” sharing scheme through to completion.

But we should not exaggerate the extent of the London mayor’s powers. The delivery of key local services remains the responsibility of the 32 London boroughs. And alongside the mayor, Londoners have elected a 25-member London Assembly, which helps to hold the mayor to account for his or her activities (though its ability to do so is circumscribed to a worrying extent).

Although the capital’s devolved powers have grown modestly over time, they are slight compared with other territories. For example, the devolved parliaments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all have primary law-making powers across a wide range of fields including education, health and the environment. What’s more, they’re in the process of gaining further autonomy: Scotland is to take on a large additional responsibility for tax-raising.

Of course, London is only a city, while Scotland and Wales are nations (the status of Northern Ireland is more complicated). Yet the population of Greater London stands at slightly under 9m people: it far exceeds that of Scotland (about 5m); and is larger than that of Wales (about 3m) and Northern Ireland (about 1.8m) combined. And (for better or for worse) the financial and economic importance of London is greater still.

It would certainly not be out of keeping with international democratic practice if a city-region of the scale and significance of London were to enjoy much more autonomy than it does at present. Berlin, for instance, has the status of a state within the German Federal Republic. Though it is not a panacea, the potential advantages of this kind of empowerment are numerous. It enables an area to plan for its own needs, and decide how to raise the money to meet them. And it carries democratic advantages, since policy and services are devised, delivered and held to account much closer to the public they are intended to serve.

England’s powers evolve

Until recently, one could argue that – although the powers devolved to the mayor and the Greater London Authority are not extensive – the city was nonetheless in a stronger position than the remainder of England. This is because, while the other parts of the UK obtained and expanded on their devolved authority from the late 1990s onwards, England was left behind.

Initially, the Labour government which instigated devolution had intended to introduce directly-elected assemblies to a group of nine English regions, including Greater London. In 2004, the first referendum was held on the issue of establishing a devolved system in England’s north east. It was thought that there was a greater chance of achieving popular support for devolution in this region, but the proposition was decisively defeated.

Advocates of devolution failed to convince a sceptical north east electorate that a new tier of governance was needed, the “no” campaign proved very effective and the package on offer was perhaps too modest to appear attractive. The Labour government responded by dropping plans for regional devolution, and to many, the whole idea seemed dead.

But since Scotland’s referendum on independence in 2014 triggered proposals to extend devolution – especially in Wales and Scotland – the coalition government and its Conservative successor have brought forward plans to bring more devolution to England. The resulting “devolution deals” have been made with individual local authorities such as Cornwall, and with groups of local authorities, such as the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

The powers on offer still fall well short of those available in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Furthermore, some of the proposals are highly controversial, with critics regarding them as detrimental to local government, rather than an enhancement to it. Nonetheless, it is conceivable that a new progression towards more expansive English devolution could take hold. In such a circumstance, London’s new mayor will want to press for more powers to be placed at their disposal. Otherwise, the city risks missing out on powers in areas such as health and social care, as they become available to other authorities in England.

If we follow this process far enough into the future, we could see regions and nations covering the whole of the UK with extensive autonomy, with authorities possessing primary law-making and wide tax-raising powers. Admittedly, we are some way from such an outcome, and may never reach it. But if we do, then the UK will have come more clearly to resemble a federation, in which a series of “states” rest below a single “federal”, UK tier of governance.

London could participate at the level of the UK parliament, alongside the other nations and regions of the UK. It could be a fully-blown city state. To be directly elected mayor of such an entity would then be a great political prize indeed.


Click here for Andrew’s latest pamphlet for the Federal Trust:
Federalism – The UK’s Future?
April 2016