Tony Devenish is the London Assembly member for London West Central
There can’t be many UK Mayors who don’t believe in further devolution. After all, pushing for more powers and more control so you can deliver more for your residents is a key aspect of the job. Any decent Mayor should be fizzing with ideas on how to improve the lives of their residents. Often this will mean finding ways to achieve your aims using existing powers. By bringing people together, working with politicians from all parties, and co-opting anyone who can help them to drive forward positive change, the best Mayors can achieve transformational change for their cities. Doing so will give those Mayors the best chance of persuading the Government to devolve the powers that will enable him or her to deliver genuine improvements.
There is an excellent Conservative case for devolution, resting on the localist idea that decisions should be taken as close to the people they affect as possible. There is a strong case for devolution to London, which in terms of population is larger than Scotland and contributes almost a quarter of the UK’s GDP. In short, any halfway decent Mayor of London should be able to make a reasonable case for why the Government should give them more powers.
However, London does not have a halfway decent Mayor. For the last seven years, we have had Sadiq Khan. Despite his record of failure, Khan has spent the last seven years consistently attacking the Government for its failure to give him more power.
Last year I wrote The Race to Net Zero: Delivering a Green Agenda in London Post COP26; a report on Khan’s environmental record and how it compared to three of his Mayoral contemporaries: the Tees Valley’s Ben Houchen, the West Midlands’ Andy Street, and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester. I wrote about my report for Conservative Home here. London’s Mayor does not do at all well out of the comparison. When we ignore Sadiq Khan’s hot air and look dispassionately at how different UK Mayors use the powers they have, again and again he is found wanting.
The Government giving Khan any more powers would be akin to devolving more petrol to an arsonist. Time and again he has used the powers he has poorly and, in arguing for devolution, he has promised he would use fresh powers in ways that it is clear would actively damage the interests of Londoners. How could any responsible Government enable him to double down?
For example, for over four years he has called for the Government to allow him to introduce rent controls in London. Rent controls have failed everywhere they have been tried, from Berlin to Ireland to San Francisco. Polling has showed that the inevitable failure of rent controls is a view that unites more economists – from all sides of the political or economic spectrum – than almost any other issue. Khan must know the evidence. He must be aware that rent controls would be deeply damaging to London. Frankly he must know that a Conservative Government would not be so foolish as to give him the chance to introduce rent controls into our city. No one reputable with any grasp of economics would suggest giving Khan that power, yet still he pushes.
Another area where Khan has pushed for devolution is on rail. The case here is that Transport for London, chaired by the Mayor, has done a good job on London Overground and would be well placed to ensure a faster, cleaner, more reliable service on London’s mainline rail. There are complexities to the issue as even suburban commuter lines tend to continue beyond the London boundary so a decent Mayor who was hoping to secure rail devolution would work hard to gain the support of all the county councils that ring the capital as they might otherwise worry that a TfL-controlled rail service might prioritise Londoners over their residents.
When Boris Johnson was Mayor he understood this and energy and effort was expended to ensure that Kent and Surrey County Councils supported his bid to the Government. Khan has not done this. He does not have the support of councils beyond London for his hoped-for rail devolution. In addition, when he was freezing TfL fares and damaging TfL finances to the tune of upwards of £640 million, the current Mayor claimed he would freeze rail fares as well if only he had the power to do so. Since no responsible Government could possibly endorse this – and put the travel of millions of additional commuters into the Mayor’s hands – this helped guarantee that rail devolution could not happen so long as Khan is Mayor.
I have written in the past on multiple occasions about how Khan is failing Londoners in the areas where he does have power – on policing, buses, his anti-car agenda which does nothing for our environment – but it is worth touching on what he’s done when the Government has devolved responsibility to him. Has he leapt at the chance to deliver for Londoners? Has he driven through transformational reform? In short, no. The Mayor’s progress on further education – responsibility for which, alongside a £306 million annual budget, was devolved to him in 2019 – has been non-existent. Meanwhile too much of the £8.82 billion that the Government has given the Mayor to build the homes London needs remains unspent. What he has spent has too often gone to build ugly, low-quality high-rise flats rather than family homes, for which my City Hall Conservatives colleagues and I have repeatedly pushed.
In a year’s time we face an election, in which Khan will be aiming for a record-breaking third term as Mayor. Over the last seven years he has inflicted many damaging decisions on London, but without the Government’s protection and refusal to give in to his requests for more devolution, things would have been much worse. Once we have a Mayoral candidate in place – as soon as possible, please, CCHQ – it will be up to London Conservatives to persuade Londoners that, far from giving Khan more power, it is time to make sure he (and Hamza Useless) has none.