Time for London to ‘take back control’

After a momentous vote predicated on regaining control, it seems chaos which has the upper hand.

So, amid all the tumult, it was good to see new London mayor Sadiq Khan with his eye on the ball yesterday, making a speech of fundamental importance to the future of London.

As someone who has joked about London declaring independence practically since the mayoralty was first created, it is a sobering reflection of the existential crises many think we are facing when a petition calling for the capital to become an independent city state garners more than 175,000 supporters.

There certainly seems to be a gulf between what London thinks, looks like, and aspires to for its in terms of its cultural mix and economic future.

But having defended the Union in 2014 and backed the Remain campaign this year, running away from the decision taken by the country, and its consequences, cannot be right. However, that does not mean the status quo is acceptable for London either.

Devolution is changing the political landscape of England’s cities, with Manchester trailblazing – gaining powers and control over Whitehall-run services like health, which will truly allow it to plot its own course and reflect local people’s priorities.

Scotland and Wales already have deepening constitutional settlements, with greater fiscal powers.

Yet London set-up is basically the same as what it was handed more than a decade ago when Labour (of course) restored citywide government.

In the wake of a Brexit vote that risks destabilising London’s economy, it is even more essential that the capital is given more autonomy.

As I have written here before, greater powers over funding must be key, in London as elsewhere. If we wish to compete with other world cities, it cannot be right that only seven per cent of all taxes raised from Londoners and London businesses are spent by London government, whereas the equivalent figure for New York is nearly 50 per cent.

What is more, we have an excellent blueprint for action – the London Finance Commission, chaired by Tony Travers – developed a suite of proposals for devolving greater fiscal autonomy to both City Hall and London’s boroughs to enable greater and more responsive investment in our capital.

As Khan said yesterday, this is not about London getting a bigger slice of the British pie. ‘All I’m asking,’ he said, ‘is that we get more control over the slice of the pie we already get’.

And this is crucial because ‘growth in London creates jobs, wealth and prosperity across the UK. So giving London more autonomy will benefit everyone in every part of the United Kingdom.’

And it is for the same reason that Mayor Khan must have a seat at the Brexit negotiation table. We have already seen post-referendum warnings about job losses in the city; but this goes way beyond the future of London as a financial centre. It will impact on the lives and economic contributions of hundreds of thousands of ordinary workers – cleaners, small business owners, public service workers and tradespeople – who have made London their home.

Our future relationship in Europe is too important to be left as an afterthought to the Tory leadership election. Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones rightly expect their nation’s governments should have a voice in shaping our future relationship with Europe. A future that should include access to the single market.

Respectfully, London’s population and wealth outstrips both those countries. It is unimaginable that our mayor, with the biggest personal mandate in British political history, should be side-lined as if his office was on a par of that of a rural district council leader.

This is not a power grab – Khan has the backing of London councils of all political colour and London businesses of all size and type.

Failure to understand and respect this would further stretch the ties between the rest of the country and its capital, at a time when many Londoners are still coming to terms with the impact of Brexit; thinking about friends and colleagues from EU countries whose future is now in doubt; let alone the impact on our wealth and international standing.

Frankly, this should not really be up for discussion. Given the febrile nature of our polity, respecting and reflecting our differences – through devolution – is the best way to keep our country united.

If you love something, set it free. That was the leitmotif of the Leave campaign. Now it is essential that those who prosecuted their case so effectively stick by these principles to the capital and give London the powers and freedom to find the best way forward.

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Mike Katz is a Labour activist. He tweets @MikeKatz

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