Chapter 4: London's institutions

London at a crossroads

Chapter 4: London's institutions

Institutions, especially public sector ones, have always been crucial in London’s development. The City of London originally prospered, in part, because its businesses and citizens formed bodies tasked with public works and services. Bridges were built and maintained, city walls were constructed, and eventually the services that we recognise today – the fire brigade, hospitals, schools and police – came into being. Here our assessment of London as it is today turns its critical eye towards London’s institutions, from governance via the media to sport, charities and many other fields.

Evolving civic government

All large cities have complicated governance arrangements, each with their own peculiar history and culture. London is no exception, with one of its hallmarks being a high degree of instability. The founding feature of the city, the Thames, is managed by the Port of London Authority, founded in 1909, with a remit that stretches beyond the city boundary to the wider estuary. The City of London Corporation – governing the “square mile” but also a voice for financial and professional services – goes back much further, in fact for many centuries. Yet the wider capital only got a semblance of its own government in 1855 (the Metropolitan Board of Works) and its first elected government in 1889 (the London County Council), with a reformed system of 28 urban parishes below it created in 1900. This was replaced by the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1965, covering the whole urban area within the Green Belt (itself a creation of the 1940s Abercrombie plans), with a new arrangement of 32 boroughs plus the City of London Corporation underneath it. The GLC, however, was in turn abolished in 1986 by the Thatcher government as a wasteful and left-leaning bureaucracy. In the 1990s, in the interregnum between its abolition and the establishment of the Greater London Authority, intricate diagrams were plotted to show the overlapping and intertwined jurisdictions of different tiers of government, agencies and authorities.

In this period, the absence of citywide government allowed a wide range of new partnerships and structures to form, many encouraged by government ministers and supported by structures such as the London Research Centre, London Ecology Unit and London Planning Advisory Committee – joint bodies that were formed when the GLC was abolished. Businesses came together to form London First, with a focus on promoting the capital and its interests, alongside membership bodies such as the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry and national groups such as the Confederation of British Industry.

Local authorities formed two London-wide groupings that were subsequently merged to form the Association of London Government in 1994 (now London Councils). They also formed local and sub-regional partnerships to argue for infrastructure, develop strategies and bid for funding. London’s borough councils often struggled with efficiency and political disputes in the 1980s. Over time, however, they became more collaborative, and some even became exemplars in delivering effective services. 76 Partnerships such as London Pride at the metropolitan level, sub-regional bodies such as Central London Partnership and Cross River Partnership and local partnerships such as business improvement districts, also cemented stronger ties between public and private sectors.

A mayor and assembly for London

The establishment of the GLA in 2000 was explicitly designed to supplement rather than supplant existing institutional structures. The elected Mayor and Assembly have powers that are overlaid onto those overseen by London’s 1,958 councillors and (now) four directly elected borough mayors. The Greater London boundary from 1965 was retained, despite increasing urbanisation on its fringe.

The GLA’s remit in relation to housing and planning policy has been extended over time, most notably in the Mayor’s power to establish mayoral development corporations that can take over planning in specified local areas. Transport for London as a mayoral agency has relationships with boroughs that touch on everything from local transport infrastructure funding and street management to bus routing and property development. While the Mayor’s office has lost its economic development arm, the London Development Agency, the Mayor continues to chair the London Economic Action Partnership (one of 38 English local enterprise partnerships responsible for local growth strategies). The Mayor also funds London and Partners, the city’s international promotion arm. As Mayor, Ken Livingstone set up a London Sustainable Development Commission, which has since advised on issues of sustainability in the capital. The London Assembly, compromising 25 elected members, has held the Mayor to account since the post was created, and approves the GLA budget annually.

In relation to policing, there is an overlap with Whitehall. While the Mayor sets the budget and strategy for the Metropolitan Police, the Met retains a national role in areas such as diplomatic protection and counterterrorism, and significant powers (including the power to appoint and dismiss the Commissioner) are shared with central government.

Public services beyond city halls

Many of London’s key public amenities and institutions are not controlled by the GLA or by local authorities, but by separate institutions. For example, many of London’s parks are controlled by The Royal Parks, a charity established in 2017 as part of an effort to transform quangos into charities. In a similar fashion, the Canal and River Trust was created in 2012 to manage the capital’s waterways (other than the Thames). The National Health Service, which employs around 200,000 people in London, is managed through 32 clinical commissioning groups and nearly 40 acute, mental health and other trusts 77 – though formal collaborative arrangements such as the Healthy London Partnership and the London Health Board are also in place. Boroughs’ formal role in health has grown in recent years, and in 2013 they were given responsibility for improving health and some healthcare services.

London’s universities employ a further 94,000 staff, 78 and are formally independent entities, although 17 are grouped as the University of London, and nearly 50 are members of London Higher. Even London’s schools, the large majority of which were run by the boroughs only 20 years ago, now have highly disparate governance arrangements. As of January 2017, the capital had 1,855 schools managed by local authorities, 738 academies and free schools funded and overseen directly by central government, and 549 feepaying independent schools. 79

London also has a large and diverse “third sector” of voluntary and community organisations. Some of these – such as the housing associations that build around 12,000 homes in London each year – are big businesses. Others are national or international organisations that have their base in London. Many, however, are much smaller and often firmly rooted to the needs and interests of a specific London neighbourhood or community – frequently supporting those who have trouble accessing public services due to local issues or legal exclusion.

Third sector, sport and culture

Alongside these are myriad sporting institutions, from London’s worldleading football teams to the diverse clubs serving every diaspora sport from Gaelic football to Kabaddi. Cultural institutions range from the Royal Opera House and Notting Hill Carnival Trust to small local festivals. A few large funders (including Trust for London and City Bridge Trust) collaborate to specifically support London’s third sector, but charities based in London are more numerous than those focused on London causes. 80

London has also been the proving ground for social movements that have grown over time. One example is Citizens UK, which had its roots in The East London Citizens Organisation (TELCO). This alliance of trade unions, faith groups, charities and other organisations played a leading role in campaigning for local benefits from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Faith groups of all sorts are active, reflecting the diversity of the population, while the city has a higher level of religious observance – and a lower proportion of children born to unmarried parents – than the UK as a whole. 81

Some of the largest third sector institutions in London are museums, galleries and theatres. Including the national institutions based in the capital (such as the National Gallery), London’s cultural institutions employ more than 60,000 people and are a major draw for tourism, business visits and inward investment. They also frequently cross-fertilise with the capital’s broader creative sector.

London is a global and national centre of TV, film, broadcasting, publishing and journalism. The BBC and Channel 4 have relocated broadcast operations from London, but most national newspapers and broadcasters are based in the city. However, London has only one regional daily newspaper and a declining number of local papers; attempts to sustain a dedicated TV news channel have foundered.

Complexity and challenge

Directing a city as complex, democratic and diverse as London can never be a simple exercise in command and control. In fact, London’s recent successes have been brought about by the development of networks and alliances, when the city’s vast range of interest groups and agencies have come together behind shared objectives.

London also faces a particular set of challenges in 2020. A government that came to power pledging to “level up” the UK economy, and shift economic and political power out of the UK capital, has talked more of devolution outside London than in it. Many are concerned about the longer-term implications of clashes over transport funding and planning policy. While national government has promised further devolution to cities, many in London government may be pleased if the city manages to hold onto the powers it has, rather than lose more to central government. That London has become an increasingly Labour-voting city over the last few decades, while the rest of England has tended to vote Conservative, does not help.

To some extent, these issues are typical of the tensions between capital cities and their governments across the world, though they do also reflect growing differences between London and the rest of the UK in terms of politics, demographics, economy and cultures. These tensions, and the political blowback that they create, also challenge London’s ability to chart a course that will be successful for both capital and country in years to come. To succeed throughout the coming decades, London’s institutions will need to show the shared resolve to tackle common problems that has characterised its moments of success since the 1990s.

Looking to the future, London and its leaders may need to consider the following questions:

  • Will London’s institutions be fit for purpose during the rest of the 21st century? If not, where are changes or reforms most needed?
  • Which public services in London work well, and which are most in need of improvement?
  • More specifically, does London government work well? Where are the major institutional pressures?
  • Should London be made more democratic, and if so, how?
  • What should the government prioritise next in devolution for London?
  • 76 Travers, T. (2015). 50 years of the London Boroughs. London: London Councils/LCA.
  • 77 NHS Digital. (2020). NHS Workforce Statistics – April 2020. Retrieved from:,more%20than%20in%20April%202019.&text=FTE%20rose%20by%2011%2C655%20between,between%20March%20and%20April%202019.&text=make%20up%20over%20half%20(52.8,608%2C749%20FTE)%20in%20April%202020.
  • 78 London Higher. (2019). Factsheet 2018/19. Retrieved from: https://www.londonhigher.
  • 79 Mayor of London. (2017). Annual London Education Report 2017. London: GLA.
  • 80 Harrison-Evans, P., et al. (2018). More, Better, Together: A strategic review of giving in London. London: Centre for London.
  • 81 Bickley, P. and Mladin, N. (2020). Religious London: Faith in a global city. London: Theos. Retrieved from: