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Greater London Authority Bill

December 12, 2006

Greater London Authority Bill

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): In the midst of considering an essentially parochial set of priorities for our capital, we should remind ourselves of a few more general considerations. First and foremost, London is a global city, an attribute that all of us London Members love greatly. Its outstanding success has been based on its unique diversity?a rich mix of people, innovation and energy, which has served London so well over the 2,000 years since its foundation.

The overall strength and well-being of England and the UK depends on London’s continued success. The strength of which I speak is not confined to the economic sphere: London is also a creative, cultural, administrative and political capital. London’s success is plain to see. With one eighth of the UK’s population, London contributes roughly one fifth of our GDP. In the course of this decade, 40 per cent. of the UK’s crucial export growth has been fuelled from London. It is estimated that some £20 billion of tax paid by Londoners every year is used to subsidise public spending in other parts of the country. London also leads the way in the all-important area of productivity, which has increased by some 27 per cent. in this decade.

Given that roll call of London’s contemporary achievements, one might ask whether and why the capital needs more government at all. In my view, London’s future prosperity can be assured only if our capital city remains a cradle for capitalism. Indeed, I would contend that the reason that Londoners have these past six years been able to tolerate Ken Livingstone?a maverick Mayor who has shown himself incapable of efficient, competent administration?is that he has so few effective powers. As a result, the damage that he has been able to inflict upon London’s engine of economic growth has been thankfully limited.

In the midst of this debate about the Mayor’s powers, I am keenly aware that one cannot dismiss the importance of the office simply because of the incompetence and financial ignorance of its incumbent. To do so would be making the same mistake as the Government made at the outset. That serious role requires some serious powers and one day?I hope it will be sooner rather than later, for the financial welfare of all Londoners?Mr. Livingstone will no longer be in office. The London Mayor will then cease to be a quasi-independent, celebrity figure, but instead someone with the capacity and integrity to be a first rate public administrator, making the case for London to Government as well as promoting London’s global importance on the international stage, alongside other truly global cities such as New York, Beijing, Tokyo, New Delhi and Hong Kong.

I have been lobbied by several local residents groups, including the Knightsbridge Association and Paddington Residents Active Concern on Transport, about the strategic dimension that this devolution brings in to play. Those groups feel that the present system allows decisions to be taken openly in the full knowledge of the local context. While no one would deny that a case can be made for a wider range of planning applications to be treated as genuinely strategic and left for referral to the Mayor, it is not clear how such a referral would be made. Above all, the Mayor, whoever it is, should not be given carte blanche in the matter.

Frankly, no London Mayor is likely to have the depth of intimate local knowledge that would justify his interfering in planning applications refused by local councils, yet the proposal is that he be given more power to reverse a locally made decision. Furthermore, the notion that any Mayor should be able to direct boroughs to amend their local development schemes surely runs counter to the very devolutionary principles on which the Bill is supposed to be based.

I am also very much opposed to the idea of the Mayor of London being a signatory to section 106 agreements so that they can be treated as a potential source of revenue for housing or improved transport schemes. The purpose of a section 106 agreement is to provide ring-fenced benefits to offset the disadvantages that a development might bring to its immediate neighbourhood.

I accept that controversy already surrounds section 106 agreements, even under the present scheme, but it has always been easier to make the case for them when local councillors are able to identify specific projects to enhance a locality that is plainly losing out as a result of a development. Handing that power to the Mayor of London will mean that section 106 agreements will be regarded as no more than an additional development tax, and that in turn can only further corrupt, in the eyes of the general public, the transparency and openness of planning decision making.

I also fear that, given his track record, the Mayor’s intentions in planning matters are not likely to be limited to strategic issues. Paradoxically, the potential grandstanding that the Bill will make possible is likely to add a further layer of bureaucracy, complexity and delay to the planning process, at precisely the time when the Government want to streamline it. I very much agree with Sir Simon Milton, the leader of Westminster city council, who has asserted that the number of cases in which the Mayor needs to intervene should be minimised.

It is easy to see how developers and other interested parties might use the Mayor as an additional means of delay and a way to mess up the system further. If we are to make improvements in housing and focus on our targets, we need to minimise the potential new layer of bureaucracy.

Finally, I want to stress the importance of maintaining our heritage. London is a very exciting city, full of hope, passion and vision for the future. We need to encourage exciting new development, but my constituency has some of London’s best known listed buildings and most important heritage. In contrast, the Mayor’s stance has been unashamedly pro-development, and he prides himself on his tall buildings strategy.

As I mentioned earlier, the Government’s consultation papers on the Mayor’s powers list some 25 examples of strategic planning applications that would have benefited from positive mayoral planning powers. I strongly oppose the provision that would make the Mayor responsible for listed building and conservation area consent. As I said, I suspect that my constituency contains more listed buildings than any other in the UK. I do not want to defend a nimby charter: one has only to look at the superbly designed new buildings that have gone up in central London over the past decade to see that a balance can be struck between protecting heritage and encouraging innovation. Local borough politicians have been getting that right in recent years, and I hope that we will let them get on with the job.