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Why was it introduced (political/sociological context)?
In 1996, the Labour Party (which at that time was in opposition) in the consultative document A Voice for London, proposed a new democratically elected system of local government for London. The Labour party made this proposal a manifesto commitment during their 1997 election campaign, noting that London was at that time the only Western capital which lacked an elected city government. Local government in London at the time had consisted of a complex variety of joint boards and ‘quangos’ since the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986. The manifesto promised a referendum “to confirm popular demand” for the proposals, followed by a “new deal for London, with a strategic authority and a mayor, each elected directly. Both will speak up for the needs of the city and plan for its future”. Labour of course won the election and a referendum was duly held pursuant to the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Act 1998.The citizens of London voted overwhelmingly in favour of the proposals on 7 May 1998, with a majority of 72% and a positive result in all 33 of London’s boroughs.
What was the aim of the Act (legal context)?
The Act established the structure of local government for the capital and facilitated the direct election of a Mayor and an elected body by the people of London. This intended to address what was perceived as a deficit of democracy in the governance of London through the introduction of an elected executive Mayor accompanied by a small Assembly.
What main changes did it make to the law?
The key legal changes introduced by the Act were the establishment of the three major institutions which remain the basis of local government in the capital to this day: the Greater London Authority; the London Assembly and the Mayor of London. The Mayor is elected using the ‘supplementary vote’ system, according to which voters select both a first choice and second choice candidate. The two candidates with the highest number of ‘first choice’ votes go through to a run-off, and then the ‘second choice’ of those who voted for other candidates first are reallocated between these two. The candidate with the most total votes (whether first or second choice) at the end of this process is the winner (s.67).
The role of the Mayor is to represent the people. The Act also imposes certain specific requirements, for example that the Mayor must hold ‘People’s Question Time’ events twice per year and similar events before the Assembly ten times per year. The Act also set out the powers of the Mayor, which vary between different areas of policy. For example, in areas such as strategic housing funding the Mayor has full control, whereas in others his powers are limited to producing rather than implementing strategy documents. The Assembly consists of twenty five elected members with significant powers to scrutinise the Mayor’s exercise of his powers. Though this is the primary purpose of the Assembly, it is also responsible for matters such as accepting or amending the Mayor’s annual budget proposals. Together, the Assembly and the Mayor’s Office comprise the Greater London Authority. The Authority has a general competence to act in the interests of the city, specifically to promote economic and social development and environmental improvements (s. 30(2)). It also has specific responsibility for a number of functional bodies which carry out its work: Transport for London; the Metropolitan Police Authority (now the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime); the London fire and Emergency Planning Authority and the London Development Agency (now the London Legacy Development Corporation/Land and Property).
In addition to establishing the structure of local government for London, the Act addressed a number of other related issues, most notably policing in the capital city, creating the Metropolitan Police Authority. The Act also established some bodies which have since been abolished, such as the London Development Agency (abolished by the Public Bodies Act 2011, following which many of its residual powers were allocated to the Greater London Authority).
The Act proved a great success with the people of London. Ken Livingstone, an independent candidate, was the first to be elected to the position, and was succeeded by Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan. All three have proved popular as a political leader for the city, often transcending party political allegiances, and have played a major role in directing the development of the city at major turning points such as the London Olympic Games and on critical issues such as air quality. The office is now an indispensable feature of city life and the structure of local government established by the Act appears likely to remain in place for years to come.
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