Devolution for London edged closer last night as experts declared that they expect all the major political parties to embrace the concept in their upcoming general election manifestoes.
The occasion was the NLA’s first public debate of the year: ‘What would devolution do for London?’ kicked off by Professor Tony Travers, Director, LSE London and Chair of the London Finance Commission. Travers, widely regarded as the man who started the ball rolling on the possibility of London keeping more of the property taxes it raises, said UK is an ‘incredibly centralized democracy’ compared to other countries, even France, which enjoys much greater autonomy. ‘London is an exporter of tax’, he said, and there is ‘undoubtedly a need for a wider tax base’, with property taxes well suited to operation by a London government. If we had full devolution of property taxes, he added, the mayor and boroughs could bring forward development and investments designed to drive up tax yield and pay for rail, road, and other infrastructure. ‘That’s the big incentive’. The redevelopment of Battersea Power Station and Northern Line Extension was a prime example of how this kind of local tax system could work. ‘London needs this kind of freedom to generate the infrastructure required to meet its rapidly rising population’, he said.
Colm Lacey, Director of Development, LB Croydon, said his patch is aiming to convince the Treasury it should be allowed to retain stamp duty - ‘we are asking for the ability to keep what we earn’. Deputy mayor for housing, land and property Richard Blakeway added that he was optimistic for change given that central government has been receptive to devolution and significant reforms around tax and that reforms could both incentivize and prioritise growth. Ben Harrison, Director of Partnerships, Centre for Cities, pointed to Greater Manchester as a good step forward in the devolution process but warned that London must not be held back while we wait for other cities in the UK to get their houses in order.
Undeniably, though, there is a ‘head of steam’ on devolution for London, said Harrison. ‘Each of the parties are going to carry this in their manifesto in some form or another’ he said. ‘If there is another coalition government I would expect to see something in this area form quite an important part of whatever coalition agreement comes out of that’.
David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly