The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Understanding the political structure of London

In this first of a two-part article, Joe Peach explains the roles of the Mayor, London Assembly and the Greater London Authority that together govern the world's financial and business capital, as well as the Corporation of London, the anachronistic assembly of businessmen who independently govern its city centre.

Cities: London

Topics: National governance, City politics

British politics is in an unfamiliar place. The most recent general election, held this May, resulted in no one political party receiving a majority, instigating an historically unique coalition between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.

Britain is now being governed collaboratively, with positions of power occupied by politicians from different parties, often with wildly different ideas on how the country should be run. However, this collaborative form of governing has been going on in London for the past decade, receiving support from both the general public and politicians.

At the centre of London's political structure is the Mayor - currently Boris Johnson - who serves four year terms and is elected by Londoners. This independent vote means the Mayor of London is not necessarily aligned with the political party running the country, a result that London has seen on no less than two separate occasions in the short history of its Mayoral system.

However, Johnson has little involvement in the day-to-day running of this metropolis, with this being done by the 32 boroughs that make up Greater London (excluding the 'City of London' at its centre - see below). Whilst the Mayor works with each borough to ensure the delivery of his strategic vision for the capital, public services like social housing, refuse collection and schooling are managed locally. Each borough is run by locally-elected Councillors - at around fifty to sixty per borough - with the sheer number of councillors involved meaning all boroughs are run by politicians from a variety of parties.

What the Mayor does do is act as the face of London politics, announcing and promoting initiatives for the improvement of the city. But what exactly are the responsibilities of London's Mayor? According to the city's official website, the Mayor:

… sets the vision for how to make London an even greater city and develops strategies and policies and encourages and backs action to realise that vision.

More specifically, the Mayor is responsible for transport, planning and development, policing, fire services, environmental issues and the general economic well-being of the city, and has a total budget of less than £2 billion. So whilst Johnson is not involved in the implementation of public services on a local level, he is actively involved in the services that affect London as a whole. However, his work is not done independently, and his budgetary choices are closely scrutinised.

The Greater London Authority (GLA) calls itself a "strategic authority with a Londonwide role to design a better future for the capital" and it exists to provide administrative support to the Mayor in his efforts to improve London. As Mayor, Johnson leads the GLA, but the rest of the staff are permanent in order to provide continuity during possible changes in leadership. This ensures London's long term goals are achieved regardless of the Mayor's political background.

The GLA also exists to support the work of the London Assembly - a panel of 25 elected members who scrutinise the actions of the Mayor and investigate matters of importance to London. Elected at the same time as the Mayor, the members represent different areas of London with a view to creating a balanced panel. The Assembly directly question the Mayor on his policies and spending plans, and have some limited powers to change the way he governs the city. Provided two-thirds of the panel agree, the Mayor's budgetary decisions can be amended, and if there are bigger concerns over the way London is being run, the Assembly can investigate the Mayor's work, but cannot remove him from office.

This relative independence is typical of the London mayoral system. The GLA and London Assembly ensure the Mayor's role is undertaken successfully, but neither have the power to directly remove him from office. Similarly, the Mayor does not have the right to restructure either of these authorities without national government support.

In fact, this requirement is present in some of the Mayor's other responsibilities. Whilst he sets the budget for the Metropolitan police, the Home Secretary has the power to overrule his decision, and despite controlling Transport for London's £1 billion budget, large infrastructure developments need national government support.

Of course, this wouldn't be the United Kingdom without at least one ancient, historically-led exception to the rule, which in this case is the City of London. Located directly in the centre of London, the City of London is the historic core of the city which today acts as its main business and financial district.

Classed as its own city, the City of London has a separate Mayor known as the Lord Mayor of London, leading an administrative body traditionally known as the Corporation of London. The Lord Mayor's role is unpaid, and exists to promote the financial and business services on offer in the City. Despite comprising an ancient system of wards, committees and community assemblies, the responsibilities of the Corporation are similar to the 32 borough councils, and may be thought of as London's 33rd borough.

Tomorrow this column will review the changes to London's political structure being made by the new coalition government.

Joe Peach is a researcher at the Royal Institute of British Architects exploring the effects of technologies on cities of the future, and completing a Masters in Sustainable Communities and the Creative Economy. His opinions are his own.


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