Dick Whittington's turn again

30th January 1998 at 00:00
Tony Travers argues that plans to give London a powerful voice in the form of a mayor have implications for schools nationwide while potential candidates Lord Archer and Margaret Hodge fine-tune the education brief

By May 2000 the first-ever directly-elected mayor of London will take office. Backed by a city of seven million people, the capital's new first citizen will be a political figure to reckon with. The mayor will rank with Cabinet ministers in terms of political importance. Foreign leaders will want to visit the embodiment of what the international media would have us believe is the world's coolest city. The mayor of New York will at last have a rival as a civic leader with a world profile. Other towns and cities in Britain should take note.

Hyperbole surely? Not if you believe the well-placed newspaper stories about who is in the race for mayor. Jeffrey Archer, Margaret Hodge, Glenda Jackson, Steven Norris, Trevor Phillips, Simon Hughes, Tony Banks, Michael Cassidy, Ken Livingstone and Chris Patten are - or are letting it be believed that they might be - interested in running for mayor of Europe's biggest city.

The election will probably take place late in 1999, with the new mayor (and an assembly) taking office in April or May 2000. Rarely can so many candidates have declared themselves (more or less) for an election so far in advance of the poll. Never have so many national politicians and celebrities wanted to go into local government. The mayor of London will be a big and powerful character.

The mayor will have responsibility for the police, public transport, fire and civil defence, strategic planning, economic development, the environment and, less directly, some aspects of the arts and leisure. He or she will propose policies, budgets and appointments to boards that will actually run the services. All these activities will be overseen by a directly-elected assembly of between 24 and 32 individuals. The mayor and assembly will together be known as the Greater London Authority. Some form of proportional representation is likely to be used in the elections.

Education and health are not included in the list of service responsibilities. Schools will remain within the control of the London boroughs. Further and higher education institutions will continue to be funded and overseen by their respective quangos. So, why should the education world bother with the arrival of Britain's first mayor?

There are two answers to this question. First, it is inconceivable that the London mayor, who will be a figurehead and sounding board for all things good and bad about our capital city, will keep out of education. Second, under separate legislation, the Government is taking powers to license local authorities which want to experiment with new forms of local administration, including elected mayors. That means other cities may opt for mayors before London.

To take the first point, think back to the nationwide debate about the future of St Bartholomew's Hospital. Even though the mayor of London would not have had direct responsibility for the NHS in the capital, he or she would certainly have had a view about the future of Bart's. Now think forward to the day when there is a debate about the quality of education in London's inner-city schools, or a further education college appears to be on the verge of closure or a university suffers a catastrophe. Would the mayor really sit back and do nothing? Of course not. Mayoral aides would have a policy and the mayor would appear on the television to explain it.

Indeed, the quality of a city's education and training is of such importance to its economic future it is inevitable there will be mayoral (and assembly) policy about it. London has some of the country's worst-achieving schools and some of the world's highest-achieving universities. The mayor will want to improve the schools and be seen to enjoy the success of the colleges.

The London boroughs will, of course, have continuing responsibility for schools. But international evidence suggests the authority that will be conferred by direct election in a city the size of London will give the mayor immense political clout when it comes to debates with the boroughs. Even if the mayor and a borough council leader are of different political colours (and the mayor could, of course, be an independent), it is difficult to see a borough ignoring the mayor's views. The media - not least The TES, one suspects - would certainly relish a public disagreement between the mayor and a borough about education policy.

Outside the new capital-wide government arrangements, metropolitan districts, unitary authorities or even London boroughs may opt to experiment with directly elected mayors. It is hard to believe that cities such as Birmingham and Manchester will allow London to have a powerful and highly-visible civic leader while they struggle along with low-key leaderships. As with many other trends, good and bad, what happens in London first may spread to the rest of the country.

Mayors in metropolitan districts or unitary authorities would be a very different proposition from the London mayor. In these non-London authorities the mayor would set education policy and budgets (presumably within the oversight of an assembly). For the first time ever, education would be run by a directly-elected executive rather than by non-elected (and non-political) executives within the control of non-executive, elected, politicians.

The London reforms are more radical than they look. Not only will they create a new and powerful kind of local politician, but they will stir up media interest in local government. Once elected, the mayor of London will be able to aid London boroughs in lobbying for more government grant, more facilities and for more large international events to be staged in the capital. London cannot at present make an effective bid for, say, the Olympic Games or the World Cup. The mayor will doubtless lead a number of bids to bring such events to London.

The next stage in the progress towards the GLA will be in March, when a White Paper will be published containing the Government's definitive views about the mayor and assembly. Then there will be a campaign culminating in a referendum on May 7. If Londoners vote for reform, the legislation should pass through Parliament between November 1998 and July 1999.

The mayor could be ensconced in Admiralty Arch (the current hot favourite for London's city hall) by Bonfire Night on 1999. Given the hype and interest likely to be generated by the first London mayoral election, perhaps the first meeting of the mayor and assembly would be a fitting - and exciting - inaugural event for the Millennium Dome.

Tony Travers is a local government analyst at the London School of Economics

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