Blog Post

Is the devolution debate stuck?

It’s the middle of summer, and everyone who is not on holiday is starting to get a bit tetchy.

The week started with the government publishing a surprisingly blunt letter from Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, James Brokenshire to Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. The letter drew the Mayor’s attention to the government’s new National Planning Policy Framework. Then it got stuck in: house prices in London are too high, the Mayor’s housing targets (though considerably higher than his predecessor’s) are much too low, and the London Plan should be amended as soon as it has been adopted.

But, Mr Brokenshire also adds his concerns that the current draft London Plan is inconsistent with government policy, goes into so much detail that it may stifle development, makes no proposals for working with councils outside London, and does not set out how its targets will be delivered. The Secretary of State therefore reserves his right to step in before the Plan is adopted, and states that he is looking at ways of getting better information about what is actually being built in London (perhaps an allusion to allegations of double-counting).

The letter is a direct and public attack on the Mayor, and unsurprisingly made a front-page splash in the Evening Standard. It may be a signal of growing politicisation of housing, with target-setting become an exercise in competitive virtue-signalling. Or the Minister may be paying the Mayor back in kind for his denunciations of the government’s failure to commit the housing funding he believes he needs, a line his spokesperson repeated in response to the letter.

But the letter may also be an unusually public eruption of the frustration with London government that seems to seethe below the surface in Whitehall. This isn’t just about Sadiq Khan; London’s boroughs and former mayors have been in the firing line too. One gets the impression that, far from considering further devolution to London, ministers and senior civil servants are poised to step in at any moment, whether ordering the Mayor to get a grip on crime, or deciding to retain control of the Grenfell Tower site.

For their part, the Greater London Authority and boroughs resent this treatment. Like local authorities across the country, they see a government that has delegated funding cuts while demand for services increases, reducing grants as fast in urban areas of high need as in areas of low need, and not granting the new tax-raising powers that councils could use to balance the books. And they bridle at being lectured about delivery by a government whose flagship policy seems unable to command support from its own ministers.

As the Greater London Authority turns 18, this combination of austerity and animosity casts a shadow over celebrations. We believe it’s time to look again at the relationship between London government and Whitehall. How does SW1 view SE1, and vice versa?  Are London governance structures still fit for purpose, and is the devolution debate stuck? What types of structural or behavioural change could unlock more powers for the capital, at a time of great political and economic uncertainty?


Richard Brown is Research Director at Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter.