No accounting for Boris Johnson

The mayor of London made many promises about changing the way the city is governed, but nothing has materialised

“If elected, I will aim to create a different style of government at city hall by introducing a series of measures designed to make my mayoralty more accountable.” So said Boris Johnson in his election pledges. He even issued a special election manifesto dedicated solely to improving accountability of the mayor of London. Close followers of London politics will recall the brouhaha in the run-up to the May 2008 elections about a secretive mayoralty, with cronyism embedded (and worse, it was suggested) under Ken Livingstone.

Two years on it is time to wake up and smell the coffee. Johnson has been keen to cover his tracks. The Conservatives have even tried to prevent people checking what has been promised by shutting down the relevant websites and deleting the 2008 election manifestos. Fortunately the Liberal Democrats saved copies, and the promises made by London’s mayor are still in the public domain.

Alas, Johnson’s bold claims to change how London is governed have proved to be largely fanciful. The specific promise to introduce a cabinet system at city hall – an idea introduced by Livingstone, but afterwards abandoned by him – was quickly dropped, despite my constant probing. (Johnson explains his change of mind here). Just how key decisions are debated among the mayor and his advisers remains a mystery.

The mayor has also stopped holding regular press conferences at city hall, unlike his predecessor. Johnson’s approach to the media is literally to keep moving – if they have to chase him around as he undertakes one photo-op after another, he knows he can avoid tough questions. Posing for photos for the local newspaper is a lot easier than being questioned by a political journalist on your record of delivery on complex transport, housing and policing issues. This evasiveness is well-documented.

Even where he is legally required to come and answer questions – in front of the London assembly once a month – he reveals a shocking lack of respect for accountability to Londoners. This month’s questioning on the big tax-and-spend decisions by the mayor marked a new low in evasiveness, as even Tory members privately acknowledged.

At the monthly mayor’s question time, Johnson makes a deliberate point of repeating the question that has been submitted to him as a way of eating into the time allocated to assembly members to ask supplementary questions. He also has a poor record of answering written questions submitted by London assembly members. Two written questions asked by the assembly member Caroline Pidgeon about Shepherd’s Bush tube station have still not been answered, although the deadline was 1 February. This is far from an isolated example.

So what should be done?

First, stick to the promises made: a proper cabinet system, with mayoral advisers to come once a month, or as often as needed, to the assembly. Johnson should attend subject committees like transport when requested. He should give prompt, full and factual answers to members’ enquiries.

Second, new levels of accountability: hold mayoral planning meetings in public. Put formal strategies to the vote of assembly members. Consult the public about fare rises – which cost Londoners 20 times more than council tax changes.

Third, change the law to open up government: abolish the government office for London and devolve power and money to London. But at the same time give more powers over spending to the assembly. Budget spending and tax levels should require majority approval. There should be a line-item veto, like the one enjoyed by Congress in the United States, with powers to burrow into the mayor’s £13bn expenditure across the police, fire, transport and economic development.

Immense power rests in the hands of one person, and real checks and balances must operate. This kind of strong governance ultimately leads to good decisions and a better quality of life for Londoners.

This article first appeared in The Guardian.

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