The left has always been accused of being a centralising force within politics. But in Britain it was the right that did most to centralise our state, during the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher ruthlessly disempowered any local tier of government that contradicted her agenda. The balance of the tax take in Britain swung decisively to the centre, making local services increasingly reliant on the handouts of an unfriendly Tory Treasury.
The vigorous campaign against abolition of the Greater London Council, like the campaign for a new constitutional settlement for Scotland, articulated the views of the great majority who rejected the contempt with which the Conservatives treated them. These struggles in the 1980s and 1990s against the excesses of Whitehall have remained embedded in the outlook of the Labour Party. Thus Labour has presided over the return of London government and the introduction of devolved powers to Wales and Scotland. Now the government has announced the next stage of the process, with further referenda planned for the English regions.
No one claims that this process of devolution has been perfect. On the contrary, the mix of powers devolved to the new bodies is inconsistent and not always sufficient. Furthermore, the actual physical act of devolvingpower--of letting go--was a painful one. The abuses in the first selections in Wales and London spoke volumes about this contradiction. Nonetheless, with a second set of elections in Wales and Scotland now over and three years of the London mayoralty complete, there is enough on the balance sheet to draw some conclusions.
For London, the lesson is that devolution delivers. Indeed, I think the government should draw on the examples of delivery within the devolved bodies in fighting referenda in other regions. The government will need to show voters that a new layer of government does not mean more bureaucracy but better services, delivered to address needs of local people.
Any politician in power who says he or she doesn't want any more is probably lying. However, the powers devolved to London's mayor are certainly sufficient to have made dramatic strides. Devolution to London has led to pronounced improvements to public services in the city.
Most obviously, London has led the world by introducing a congestion-charging scheme in a complex urban environment. The London congestion charge was possible because the government gave me the power in the GLA Act to do it and then contributed to the preparatory costs. Nevertheless, the decision to go ahead was entirely mine--and the responsibility for failure would also have been mine. Congestion charging worked because I was able to make my calculations purely in terms of London. I did not have to take national considerations into account.
The outcome is startling. The scheme was introduced to deadline and within cost. The system worked, technically. More important, it has worked as a tool of transport planning. After three months, the scheme is exceeding its targets for reducing traffic and congestion in central London. Traffic congestion and journey times for motorists, bus passengers and business journeys are significantly reduced both inside and outside the congestion-charging zone. The average speed of traffic across the charging day -- including time spent queuing at junctions -- has increased by 37 per cent to 11 miles per hour. This compares with 8mph at the same time of year in 2002 and 9mph in the few weeks before the charge was introduced.
Year-on-year comparisons indicate that traffic congestion -- as opposed to traffic -- during the charging hours has reduced by 40 per cent. I had expected congestion to drop by between 20 and 30 per cent. Traffic levels inside the zone have fallen by roughly 16 per cent. I would have been pleased with 10 per cent. Surveys show that typical savings on journey times on a round trip to and from the zone are in the region of 13 per cent. …