Blog Post

Five ways London’s mayors have changed the city

In 2020 the London Mayoralty turned 20 – an anniversary that we marked in our new book, London’s Mayor at 20. During this time, London’s three Mayors – Ken, Boris, and Sadiq – have used the limited levers that they had (sometimes to a breaking point) to improve the city.

But what impact have they actually had, and what challenges lie ahead at the end of a tumultuous year?

Here are five ways that the Mayors have transformed our city since the Mayoralty was established.

1. Leading London’s urban renaissance

The London Plan, as adapted and evolved by the three Mayors, set a world standard in promoting smart growth, sustainable development, urban renaissance.  The plans committed to accommodating rapid growth within the city, focusing on public transport walking and cycling, developing ever more ambitious housing targets, renewing the public realm, and harnessing the dynamics of development to create a fairer and greener city. However, London’s success has pushed house prices beyond the reach of many Londoners, widening inequality in the capital, and housing delivery has not matched aspiration.

2. Pioneering transport innovation

The Mayor’s ability to integrate transport and development – the envy of other cities like New York – has been central to the London Plan.  But Transport for London – chaired by all three Mayors in a signal of its significance – has also led policy innovation in transport – from the original congestion charging zone, to bike rentals, to the Oyster card and contactless payment, to the ultra-low emissions zone. But 2020’s lockdowns have exposed London’s reliance on fare incomes to pay for public transport, and posed questions about how the capital will configure and fund its transport system in years to come.

3. Providing civic leadership

The Mayors have also provided a focal point for civic leadership. This has not just been a matter of fronting bids for major events, and representing the city in trade fairs and Whitehall spending rounds. It has also sadly meant leading the city at times of tragedy – after the London bombings in 2005, and the terrorist attacks and Grenfell Tower fire that the city faced last summer. The Mayors have, with differing emphases and tone, presented London and the world with an image of capital that is inclusive, tolerant, diverse, open, united.  It’s an aspect of the Mayor’s role that is not mentioned in any statute, but 20 years on you wonder how we lived without it.

4. Doing deals with central Government

Having a Mayor has enabled London to do deals with central Government on how to finance and deliver major infrastructure projects.  These deals – on the London 2012 Olympics and legacy, on Crossrail and on the Northern Line Extension – helped London to accommodate its growth, to weather the storms of the financial crisis, and to transform areas benighted by decades of underinvestment. Deals have been more difficult in recent years, not least as a result of electoral politics and the government’s focus on ‘levelling up’; debates over transport bailouts, the London Plan and housing delivery have been particular flashpoints.

5. Making the case for more power

And the Mayors have secured new powers through statute.

  • In 2006, the Mayor was given powers to stage the London 2012 Olympics – which was fortunate given that he and the government had committed to do so the previous year.
  • In 2007, planning powers and housing powers were strengthened, as was the London Assembly’s role in approving mayoral appointments.
  • In 2011, policing oversight – always a bone of contention between the Mayor and Home Secretary was reformed, as the Metropolitan Police Authority was replaced by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime.
  • Also in 2011, the Localism Act empowered the London Assembly to reject mayoral strategies, and passed control of HCA and LDA land to the Mayor, delegated the affordable housing budget, enabled the Mayor to establish Mayor Development Corporations – shifting the focus of the GLA from strategy to delivery.

But progress since 2011 has been faltering. There have been devolution deals on the Adult Education Budget, agreements on health and social care, and discussions on justice devolution.  But despite two London finance commissions, and strong representations from the Mayor and London Councils, devolution feels like unfinished business.

And at no time since the Mayoralty was set up 20 years ago have the challenges facing the capital looked more daunting. The capital’s economic, social and cultural life are still staggering from the blows dealt by the pandemic and response, and the impact of these seems to be falling heaviest on people from ethnic minority communities, younger people, and people experiencing poverty and precarious work. And the end of the Brexit transition period threatens further disruption to London’s service sector exports and international workforce.

As the capital recovers, we need to rethink the way London operates for new times. We need to continue to make the case for new powers for the Mayor – across housing, taxes, and skills, to help London meet the challenges ahead.

Note: This blog post was first published on 7 November 2018 and has been updated to account for the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Buy the book: London’s Mayor at 20


Richard Brown is Deputy Director at Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter. Read more from him here.