Big, Chaotic and out of Control: Tony Travers Argues That the Capital May Benefit from Being Governed Only Fitfully. (Special Report/London 2)

By Travers, Tony | New Statesman (1996), July 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

Big, Chaotic and out of Control: Tony Travers Argues That the Capital May Benefit from Being Governed Only Fitfully. (Special Report/London 2)


Travers, Tony, New Statesman (1996)


London is not Paris. As the two European cities size up to each other to compete for the 2012 Olympic Games, the differences between them will most surely be laid bare. Visitors to the French capital will be able to marvel at the litter-free streets, the reliable Metro, the absence of the dispossessed mingling with city-centre tourists. The Eiffel Tower has been rewired: it can once again deliver an hourly spectacular of twinkling lights. A regional high-speed rail network has already been built -- unlike the benighted Crossrail. Schools and hospitals are among the best in France. All in all, Paris works.

Small wonder that a recent Corporation of London study gave the top score in a quality-of-life survey to Paris, ahead of London and New York. Its achievement is all the more impressive given that it has a residential population density two and a half times that of inner London (almost five times that of London as a whole). By good management of high-quality public services, Paris offers its tightly packed population the means to coexist in comfort.

London has evolved a different model. Almost eight million people now crowd together in a city that clearly cannot manage itself effectively. That is not to say London is unsuccessful. People, many of them from overseas, are voting with their feet. London resembles an American city in the early years of the 20th century, with a net increase in its foreign-born population of perhaps 100,000 a year. It is, in many ways, an exemplar of tolerance: opinion polls show attitudes to race, immigration and asylum-seeking are significantly more benign in London than in other regions.

Yet the city's system of government does not seem well placed to manage what a New York mayor described (in his own city) as the "glorious mosaic" of its population. Since London emerged as one of the world's great metropolises, it has resisted efforts to rationalise and strengthen its government. The very complexity and fragmentation of its make-up have conspired to repel "strong government". Thus, decisions are now divided between the mayor, Ken Livingstone, 32 boroughs, the City of London and an array of central government departments and quangos. Decision-making is burdened with what economists call "transaction costs".

Yet some London boroughs are among the best councils in the country. Camden, Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea and the City of London have been adjudged "excellent" by the Audit Commission -- despite the extraordinary pressures of running complex social services in the heart of Europe's biggest city.

The boroughs cannot provide city-wide services and infrastructure, however. That is why the government created the Greater London Authority in 2000. The mayor of London was explicitly intended to run public transport, economic development and city-wide planning. As Livingstone has disarmingly admitted, both the mayor's capacity to deliver services and his access to resources are severely limited. …

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