Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have put down their names to speak in this short debate. As somebody who has lived in London all my life, I should explain that my starting point is that London is the greatest city in the world. I would find it difficult for anyone to argue against that. I spent 26 years as an elected politician in London: as a councillor, council leader, chair of the Association of London Government, and member of the London Assembly. I believe that the London Finance Commission should be congratulated on the report that it has produced.
I should explain that the London Finance Commission was established by the Mayor of London and London Councils, which in my time was called the Association of London Government. It was an independent group, chaired by Professor Tony Travers, who is probably the country’s pre-eminent expert on local government finance, and it contained cross-party representation and senior representatives from elsewhere in the United Kingdom, including Stephen Hughes, the chief executive of Birmingham City Council. It published its final report in May, and its recommendations have been accepted by the Mayor of London and by Mayor Jules Pipe, on behalf of London Councils, with both Conservatives and Labour accepting. It has been supported by all four parties on the London Assembly.
The context for this report is that London is the engine that drives growth in the rest of the UK economy. I will give just one example. Forty-one thousand jobs were supported outside London last year simply by Transport for London’s supply chain—24,000 of them in the North and Midlands. That is more than the number directly employed by Transport for London—London Underground, buses and so on—in London itself. In addition, 62% of Transport for London’s procurement spend went to suppliers outside London, with the bulk outside the south-east. That is one example of the extent to which London drives the rest of the UK economy. London also makes a net contribution of over £5 billion in tax to the rest of the country each year.
Even without my bias, London is universally acknowledged as one of the leading international cities in the world. To quote the report:
“It is difficult to envisage a scenario in which London’s economic decline would be favourable for the rest of the UK and we reject the notion which is occasionally articulated that London should be constrained in order to ‘balance’ UK economic growth. In most markets, London is competing as much, if not more so, internationally than against other UK cities. Many foreign direct investment projects that London wins in competition with other international cities provide benefits for other regions, and many tourists who visit London go on to other parts of the UK. Other international cities vie for investment, visitors, students and talent, and in the global competition, London risks falling behind and, in respect of infrastructure, further behind”.
That is the context in which this report was prepared.
London's population is equivalent to those of Scotland and Wales combined—and probably to that of Northern Ireland as well if those here in this capital city illegally are included in the count. Its economy is almost double the size of Scotland and Wales combined, but as the report says,
“while the dynamic of devolution continues to offer new powers and financial freedoms to the governments in Edinburgh and Cardiff (and, indeed Belfast) there have been no proposals to increase the autonomy of London government”.
The commission received no evidence as to why London and other English city regions should not be afforded the kind of decentralised power offered to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Yet London’s international status and its continued ability to help drive the rest of the UK economy cannot be taken for granted. Historic population growth in London has already placed considerable pressure on the full range of public services and local infrastructure and this is set to increase from a growing population with increasingly complex demography. London's population is growing at a faster rate than any other region in the country. By 2020, its population will exceed 9 million. London’s school-age population grew by 107,000, at a rate of 8.2%, in the past decade—the fastest regional rate.
London has an inherently mobile and changing population. In 2011, it had approximately 70,000 short-term residents, over a third of all short-term residents in England and Wales. It is estimated that 240,000 households live in overcrowded conditions, with 90% of London’s housing stock built before 1991, and new housing supply meeting housing need in only six of the past 20 years. This means that London has the most overcrowded households in the UK, living in the oldest homes, where the market is not delivering sufficient new homes to match current and future demand.
However, if London’s infrastructure crumbles and the quality of life deteriorates, its ability to attract and retain international business will decline, and that cannot be good for the rest of the United Kingdom. It is economic growth that the commission sees as the potential prize of a further shift of financial and fiscal control to London. As the city population grows to 9 million, then perhaps 10 million by 2030, there will need to be massive investment in enabling infrastructure simply to accommodate these new residents and, indeed, commuters. Beyond this investment to keep pace with the population, the commission is convinced that London would be better able to prioritise decisions about that investment. After all, Londoners know they need new railways, schools, homes, waste facilities and streets. Because of their day-to-day dependence on physical infrastructure, London voters are much more likely than voters elsewhere in Britain to prioritise spending on longer-term investments.
If London had enhanced fiscal capacity to back such investment, there could be an enhanced level of capital spending which would, in turn, produce additional growth and tax yield. London government could then reinvest higher tax revenues in more infrastructure and a virtuous circle would be created. As the report acknowledges:
“London is not a city state. But it could have a greater degree of self-government and thus, in our view, be better governed. The same is true for other city regions. No one can seriously any longer believe that Whitehall always knows best”.
In terms of fiscal autonomy, London is an outlier compared to the other cities that the commission studied. By comparison, it relies heavily on transfers from central government, with 74% per cent of its income received through grant, compared to 37% in Madrid, 31% in New York, 25% per cent in Berlin, 17% in Paris and only 7% in Tokyo. Moreover, London does not have comparable access to the diverse tax bases enjoyed in other cities.
I understand that, in correspondence with the chair of the commission, no less a person—if such a thing were possible—than the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right honourable George Osborne, expressed support for the commission and stated that,
“under the right conditions, fiscal devolution has the potential to increase the financial accountability of local government and promote additional growth”.
The commission accepted his suggestion that the proposals should be judged against three tests. First, they should be based on evidence; secondly, they should have cross-party support; and thirdly, they should be without detriment to the rest of the UK. The achievement of the commission is to meet those three tests. The report is evidence-based. It has the support of all four parties on the London Assembly, all three parties in London Councils, the Corporation of London and significant, leading sections of the London business community, including the London Chamber of Commerce and London First. What is more, what is proposed would not be to the detriment of the rest of the UK. Indeed, it is likely to be of benefit in sustaining the UK’s future growth.
The commission proposed that any devolution of tax-raising powers would be offset by a reduction in government grant. Moreover, many of the commission’s recommendations could be replicated in other cities. Some cities, such as Manchester, have already evolved governance models from which London could learn.
The report, No Stone Unturned, of the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, who is not in his place, made a parallel case for devolution to city regions. I hope that the Minister will agree that technical working parties should be established by her department and by the Treasury, with the Greater London Authority and London Councils, to examine the detail of these recommendations.
The London Finance Commission report meets the Chancellor’s conditions. It provides a blueprint for taking forward the localism agenda that the Government espouse. It protects and enhances the position of the rest of the United Kingdom. Above all, it would ensure that London continues to be the greatest city in the world.
The first-order question to ask is whether there is a problem in London, and, if so, whether this report answers it. I do not think that London itself is a problem. In the 1940s, the French scholar over the Channel, Jean-François Gravier, wrote a great book, Paris and the French Desert, in which he reflected on the absolute dominance of the capital in French national life, sucking energy from the rest of the country. It is an odd reflection, which he would certainly not have predicted, that London is the city with the fifth or sixth largest French population, because of the large number of extremely welcome financial and professional people who have come here en masse to escape the Hollande terror.
London has dominated English life for a very long time—certainly since Cobbett’s day. Now it is the most dominant city in Europe, and one of only two or three true global megalopolises. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, who in his tip-top speech said that London was probably the greatest city in the world, among the two or three other megalopolises—the term was coined by another great French geographer, Jean Gottmann.
This has not happened because it was planned or because of governance. It happened of its own volition and vigour, always—at least until recently—more or less free from, and often despite, the actions and policies of national and local government of all colours. Truly, Mr Livingstone and his successor, Mr Johnson, inherited a going concern. This has not happened overnight. I do not think that this is clearly recognised in the report, which in many ways seems to think that London will run into problems caused by its own success, and that those perceived problems will be sorted out only by more government and more power going to London government. So much for lack of concentration.
All this is not surprising, because the commission, with its solemn, grand-sounding title, is a creature of the present London government, and so generally starts from the point, “Please give us more government and more powers as quickly as possible”. Yet already the United Kingdom is one of the most overgoverned countries on earth. This may well be reaching a satiation point rather than a tipping point.
There is a constitutional change industry that promotes constitutional change as the only way to deal with any issue facing any part of the United Kingdom. Hosts of experts, otherwise indigent scholars and think tanks without number and no visible means of support are always proposing more constitutional change as a solution. To suggest that constitutional change, more power and more government is a cure-all for London is a delusive and tinsel thing.
In my experience, most Londoners are much more concerned with the present system of governance and whether it is delivering the goods. I will give one very rapid example: namely, the growing number of rough sleepers in London. The number is indisputably rising, not going down, at the moment. This is a tragedy. I walk along Victoria Street to our flat down the road by the cathedral every night. Since late May, just opposite New Scotland Yard, where Strutton Ground meets Victoria Street, there has been a growing number of rough sleepers, tragically, right under the window of the commissioner for the metropolis. I walked past them tonight at about 6.30 pm and counted seven. They were all clearly British. Two, possibly three, were extremely jolly Scotsmen. That is not a xenophobic remark. They deserve help and not criticism for being there. It is extraordinary, in the middle of what the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, called one of the greatest cities, if not the greatest city, in the world, that for the past six or seven weeks we have had a growing city of people sleeping rough on the streets. Where is the help coming from? Is the Minister in contact with the mayor, or with other authorities that could help with this issue?
That said, this thought-provoking report—it certainly provoked me—seems to set London, despite the somewhat disingenuous claims that of course it is not a city state, on a course of morphing little by little into becoming such a state. That is not in the national interest, unless it is set in the context of whether we need more or less government in the United Kingdom as a whole.
The report proposes the transfer of the full suite of property taxes to London government, and the assignment of income tax in the same way. There is also a wonderful aside:
“London government should be able to introduce smaller new taxes”.
I look forward to that innovation. How dear Mr Livingstone would have relished having that power in his hands in the old days.
London can properly be viewed only as part of the kingdom as a whole. It will continue to develop apace without many of these proposed changes. It needs to govern better in the first instance. I wonder whether the powers of scrutiny that the London Assembly has are adequate.
In the mean time, the foreword to this report states:
“London is not a city state”.
If all the report’s proposals were implemented overnight én bloc, London would be more than half way to becoming a city state, and that would not be in the national interest.
My Lords, I welcome and support this report, and did not want to miss the opportunity of saying so from the Liberal Democrat Benches just because I had not had the opportunity I would have liked to produce a perfectly honed and intellectually challenging speech. Sometimes it is more important to say these things than to be proud and retiring.
It is always nice to find one’s prejudices confirmed. I was not surprised at the commission’s finding, or belief, that there would be more jobs and growth if London had more financial autonomy. It goes without saying that it would need to be used well. What is proposed does not seem to be so very extreme. Central government would retain about 88% of taxes paid in London, as against around 93% now.
Devolution in 2000 was very welcome—to me at any rate. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, remembers it as well as I do. I declare an interest as a former member of the London Assembly and, some years ago now, a councillor in a London borough. It was welcome to the extent that there was devolution, as distinct from the hoovering up of powers from the boroughs. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, talked about more government, but normally one is talking about a rearrangement.
It would be disappointing if London government were not ambitious to do more—as are the Scots, leaving aside independence, and the Welsh. I am well aware of views from other parts of the UK about the London-centric nature of so much of our government. Non-Londoners might say, of the contents of this report, “Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?”. However, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, mentioned the membership of the commission—and they look to be a pretty independent-minded bunch of individuals.
What is good for London tends to be good for the UK as a whole because of London’s role in the wider economy. Knowing of the debate that is going on about HS2, I rather tremble about venturing that way, but, as regards infrastructure, one has only to ask not just any Londoner and not just any visitor but any company considering locating here.
Of course, housing is a hugely important part of the infrastructure and one about which, like other noble Lords, I feel very strongly, meaning that I support borrowing, including borrowing by the boroughs, to build housing within the prudential rules. That is not least because London’s government, representing Londoners and understanding what is going on in London, knows what is needed. Too often, the social housing element of bigger schemes seems a grudging add-on. It is easy for the developer and it is often identifiable just by looking at the development. Among other things, I think it is offensive.
In the foreword to the report, Tony Travers says that the message from the evidence was,
“clear and unanimous: London’s government needs to be given greater freedom to determine and use the resources raised from taxpayers”.
I read the subtext as including “clarity” and “transparency”. I suspect, too, that introducing new, smaller taxes may not have an entirely smooth path but, as someone who thinks that there is advantage in taxation, I do not dismiss that proposal.
Of course, the mayor should use his existing powers. It is not so very long since prudential borrowing was introduced in the form that it is now, and it does not advance the argument for new powers if the current ones are unused or underused. The mayor could fund a significant increase in affordable housebuilding.
The noble Lord, Lord Patten, referred to rough sleepers. I, for one, am not convinced that centralisation or the reduction of taxes would assist that.
If central government resists these proposals, it will not be the first time that any central government has grasped for arguments as to the importance of central control. I, too, lighted on the quotation from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It begs the question of what the right conditions are, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said.
A Government who believe in entrepreneurship should apply the same thought—that freedom facilitates creativity and success—and apply that to finances, with the raising and spending of taxes. The dynamic in a wider context is towards more financial autonomy. I welcome the Raising the Capital report and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for the opportunity to say so.
First, I declare that I am chief executive of London First, a not-for-profit membership organisation for businesses based here in the capital. I am also a board member of Peabody housing association.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harris, on securing this debate today. The London Finance Commission and its report on local government finance might sound arcane but its analysis is in fact at the heart of how we can stimulate growth, not just in London but across our country as a whole.
The commission’s starting point is that the Mayor of London should have a long-term, high-level capital investment plan for the city—a position that manages to be banal and radical at the same time. It is banal because surely every great city ought to have such a plan, and it is radical because local government in the UK just does not do that sort of thing, not least because it does not have the powers or the cash to finance and fund it.
So let us pause for a moment to consider London’s starting point. As the report politely puts it, London, in fiscal autonomy terms, is an,
“outlier compared with other cities”.
Nearly three-quarters of the GLA’s income is through grant, compared with roughly a third in New York and less than 10% in Tokyo. The core competence for a London mayor, therefore, must be good lobbying skills with central government, and particularly the Treasury, to try to get some of our money back at every spending review. This is no way to run a world city and it needs to change. That need is becoming ever more urgent as London accelerates towards a population of 10 million, and maybe more, by 2030.
The commission recommends, in essence, that London government takes ownership of a suite of property taxes raised in London—council tax, business rates and stamp duty land tax—and uses them to create a stable funding stream to support a long-term infrastructure investment programme. This does indeed have the potential to create a virtuous spiral for both the city and the Treasury. New infrastructure will support private sector investment, which creates jobs, adds to private consumption and leads to greater tax revenues for City Hall and Whitehall. This, in turn, supports further, future investment. It is, in my view, a powerful analysis, persuasively made, and a conclusion that could equally be applied to other great cities.
It is also important to emphasise that this is not a bid for more cash for London. The commission’s modest proposal is that the property taxes I referred to earlier simply substitute, pound for pound, existing government grant. However, this simple change has two merits. The first is that it gives much greater certainty to London government that it will have the revenue, over time, to fund investment. This means that it can plan into the long term and, potentially, borrow against that funding. This is substantially more efficient than annual, or even five-yearly, spending settlements. The second is that London government then has a share in growth. If its investments generate prosperity, it has an automatic share in that prosperity. It does not have to go back to the Treasury to haggle.
Those changes would be good, too, for central government in at least three ways. First, it could focus on driving the big policies such as—dare I say?—high-speed rail, which only national government can do, rather than fiddling around with local matters that can best be done elsewhere. Secondly, local government would have a real incentive to support growth. This goes with the grain of the Government’s localism agenda—and puts it on steroids. While London would keep the growth in London’s property taxes, the Exchequer would get the growth on the really big-ticket items such as income tax, national insurance and VAT. Thirdly, local politicians would no longer be able to blame all their ills on the Treasury. If they want more cash, they can make the case for taxing their voters more, or not.
As ever, some details require further analysis—for example, the mechanism to align business rates with council tax and the need to review the levels and banding of the latter. We cannot rationally or credibly base our property taxes on 1990 house prices. There also needs to be a more effective and formal mechanism through which London government consults and listens to business over its budget plans. This is particularly relevant to London, where many of those responsible for generating the city’s wealth do not have a vote on its governance.
However, those important points do not detract from the fundamental strengths of the commission’s conclusions. London, like our other great cities, needs greater freedom from central government if it is to generate the growth, jobs and prosperity that we all wish to see. The Government have recognised this in their localism agenda; the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, confirmed it in his growth analysis; and the London Finance Commission brings yet greater depth to the arguments. It is time to stop talking about devolution and wrest the cold, although all too alive, hand of the Treasury from the management of our great cities.
This report sets out the role that financial autonomy can play in driving economic growth. A greater tax base for London means a greater incentive to promote growth and, as the report’s conclusion states, this would be good news not just for London but for the whole country. It is amazing to consider that New York keeps over 50% of taxes levied there, yet London keeps only 7%. London needs to be freed up to compete with the other leading global cities.
On the whole, it is fair to say that I am not a huge fan of this Government’s economic policy—it seems to have almost pushed us into a triple-dip recession—and therefore I am not known for quoting its key architect, George Osborne, but perhaps I may change the habit of a lifetime and quote him very approvingly. The Chancellor of the Exchequer stated that,
“under the right conditions, fiscal devolution has the potential to increase the financial accountability of local government and promote additional growth”.
I was also very impressed by the three tests the Chancellor of the Exchequer set the commission, which my noble friend Lord Harris has already quoted. His proposal was that whatever the commission came up with, its recommendations should be judged against three tests; namely, whether they were evidence-based, whether the proposals had cross-party support and whether they were without detriment to the rest of the UK. Those are excellent tests and I am sure that we would all like a lot of legislation to be benchmarked against them, especially in the current climate.
However, the real issue is how we are going to deal with a huge and growing city, and support growth in London. It is estimated that the infrastructure spend required to support London and allow it to thrive will need to be about £75 billion by 2020. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I feel strongly that housing is one of the most important aspects of infrastructure, although it is not always technically considered to be infrastructure, along with transport and so forth.
As regards housing, the London Finance Commission states:
“Measures to shift public funding from personal subsidy to investment in built assets should be further explored”.
I have argued for that since I became an MP many years ago. The London Finance Commission has put that in very polite terms but the lack of affordable housing in London presents a massive, ongoing crisis. London workers need somewhere to live. Not everyone can commute into London, especially those on modest incomes which do not allow for the cost of the commute. If we do not have that investment in bricks and mortar, only the very rich, or the very poor in whatever social housing is left available, will be able to live in the capital city. That will inhibit growth for our capital, and that is putting aside for one moment the moral obligation that I think is there as well. Therefore, as has been stated, one way in which to resolve the issue is to move from individual subsidy to bricks and mortar. I trust that the Minister will press the Government to look at this issue with urgency.
While I am on housing, I cannot help but comment on what the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said. He decries the concept of more government but is concerned about rough sleepers. The biggest drop in the number of rough sleepers was under the leadership of Louise Casey who was tasked with reducing rough sleeping. Although she is one of the most innovative civil servants you will ever come across, even she would admit that a lot of her success was down to the fact that investment was quadrupled. A laissez-faire approach is the last thing that will reduce the number of rough sleepers on our streets. This cross-party report clearly argues that such an approach is also the last thing that will deliver a high-level investment plan for London.
The report essentially argues for a more grown-up relationship between London and central government. It argues that London needs greater freedom to borrow. Most critically, that would be subject to London’s own self-discipline. It is only where that self-discipline is proven that such freedom should be granted.
In summary, we do not want a city state. We want a world city which will support the growth of the whole of the UK. I believe that that is what this report sets out. It provides the framework for that and I sincerely hope, notwithstanding the politics between the Mayor of London and the Prime Minister, that this report will be acted upon.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for initiating this debate. He said right up front that London is the greatest city in the world and I could not agree more. It is the greatest of the world’s great cities. He congratulated the London Finance Commission on its report, Raising the Capital. I had the privilege of serving on mayor Boris Johnson’s Promote London Council, which was a great experience. It came up with what ended up being London & Partners and had huge success. It really understands London and looks at its competitiveness.
It struck me that few cities in the world—the report did not really touch on this—are a political capital, a government capital and a financial business capital. London is one of them: think about Washington, New York, Delhi and Mumbai. We have a huge advantage. But for London to develop I think that autonomy would help. Although Crossrail is going ahead and will make a huge difference to London and the country, we still have the problem of the third runway at Heathrow being delayed and delayed. Our airport infrastructure is creaking. We are losing our competitiveness.
Although tourism brings in well over £100 billion to the economy of Britain and London brings in a huge proportion of that, the most photographed building in the world is the Eiffel Tower. The second most photographed building in the world is our wonderful Houses of Parliament. Why is that? Is it because we do not belong to the Schengen scheme, which would advantage this country so much? Does the Minister agree that we should join the Schengen scheme? That would bring into this country even more tourism, business and investment which would benefit London.
The other aspect that the report did not really touch on was the whole relationship between the City of London and London. Of course, we all know the joke that the lord mayor of London makes the money and the Mayor of London spends the money. We have the richest and most important square mile in the world. Even after the financial crisis, the City of London is still the number one financial centre in the world and we are proud of it. But are the Government really clear about the relationship between the City of London and London? Is that a fair relationship? The report does not address that and I would be very interested in the Minister’s view.
As regards devolution, the future of London and its success is a prize for the whole country. However, in the latest results on productivity, when London was compared with other countries in Europe for example, its productivity was average at £58,000 per worker. Cities such as Paris, Frankfurt and Brussels were higher. Stockholm was number one on the list. Yet London’s productivity is 44% above the UK average. That is a serious issue. We really need to get the productivity of this country up in a big way and London’s productivity could be so much more.
The other point is that cities are the engines of growth for an economy. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, said that we are the most dominant city. In the United States, the Olympic Games did not take place in Washington or New York. Another city was chosen. Here, the Games took place in London and we are very proud of that.
We have not spoken about Europe and the European Union. In my role as the founding chairman of the UK India Business Council, I always see Indian businesses looking on the UK as a gateway into Europe, although in fact they are looking upon London as a gateway to Europe. Again, that would help London in its competitiveness. We must remember that outside London there are other great cities in Britain. Recently, I was in Liverpool where I spoke at the Accelerate Conference. Next year, the International Festival for Business will take place in Liverpool, showcasing the whole of Britain. It is important that in promoting London and giving autonomy—I will come to that later—there is also autonomy for other cities, which will unlock the UK’s economic potential.
The other thing that the report does not really emphasise enough is that we have the best of the best in the world in professional services in London when it comes to lawyers, accountants, insurance and banking. We need to enhance that competitiveness. However, the Financial Times states:
“The Greater London Authority has just one tax—the council tax—from which it receives a precept alongside the other local authorities within its boundaries, while Tokyo raises 16 separate taxes and New York has an array of levies, including property, sales and income taxes. Berlin wields a wage tax, among others, while Frankfurt receives a share of VAT. The drive by London’s authorities for greater leeway on tax is taking place amid a wider devolution movement in Britain”.
City deals are about to take place and incentives will be given to eight large urban centres in Britain. Can the Minister say why those incentives have been given to all those cities? Should they not also be given to London?
I chose London as the headquarters for my business because I think it is the best place in the world to have a global headquarters. I think what the London Finance Commission suggested would without doubt help London and our whole country. More flexibility and more autonomy would unleash London’s potential.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey for initiating this debate on the London Finance Commission's report, Raising the Capital. It touches on matters which spread across a range of policy areas and which have broad implications, not least for macroeconomic management of our country. Noble Lords may understand, therefore, if I forgo the opportunity of making new policy announcements this evening—however tempting—but say that we view this report as a serious piece of work that requires proper consideration and analysis. We recognise that it has strong cross-party support and, as the report suggests, its recommendations have potential application for cities beyond London.
The central proposition of the report is that London can grow faster and create more jobs if it has greater autonomy in managing its own affairs, particularly when it comes to planning infrastructure. That autonomy would come from relaxing some of the borrowing rules applicable to local authorities and from devolving certain tax revenue streams. The report’s recommendations are underpinned by research that demonstrated that, compared to other major cities, London has very little fiscal autonomy, although the report recognises that academic research is inconclusive on whether increased fiscal autonomy has a measurable effect on growth.
We recognise, as does the report, that London is an economic powerhouse, one of the strongest growing regions in the UK and one of the world’s greatest cities —indeed, the greatest city, as my noble friend said. That success must be sustained not just in the interests of Londoners but in the interests of us all. It is, after all, our capital city. We should look to it for help to drive our national growth.
We also recognise the case that has been made for investment, which is needed as a direct consequence of population growth to provide housing, schools and primary healthcare. It is also needed to sustain economic growth through improved transport, skills, innovation and research. This case is not unique to London, and we have long been arguing the case for a proper plan for growth and for jobs.
The question is whether the scale and complexity of London's economy and communities mean that they can be addressed only by London government rather than by—as it has been put—23 Whitehall departments. We support a localist approach but, of course, London government is not a homogeneous entity. The 32 boroughs, the GLA and the mayor collectively comprise a vast range of different communities, economic and social circumstances and political make-up. The report recognises that the different interests that the formula funding system exposed in local government could re-emerge at London level should there be greater financial devolution. There is a clear risk that this may be so.
There is an acceptance that, should there be greater financial devolution to London, existing governance arrangements would have to change. The proposition is advanced that it would require new governance systems and structures that are sufficiently robust to cope with a variety of possible situations but sufficiently simple to be efficient. That is a goal worth having, but one more easily stated than achieved, we suggest.
The report bemoans the dramatic budget reductions suffered by local government, reinforced just last week, and makes the point that revenue constraints are inhibiting capital spending. It highlights that the Treasury is imposing additional capital controls over and above the prudential borrowing code and that these could be scrapped. We have debated this issue especially in relation to housing, and it also is not an issue just for London. I believe we had a common recognition that local government had adhered to the prudential borrowing code in a responsible manner, and we were not convinced of the Government’s position that it needed two tiers of capital control. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, local government should make full use of the headroom that the system offers.
We agree that it is time to consider the possible removal or relaxation of the housing capital limits, but only on the basis that prudential rules would continue to apply, as would the rigour of long-term HRA business plans. Measures to shift public funding from personal subsidy to investment in built assets, referred to by my noble friend Lady King, is also something that we consider should be further explored.
The proposal to devolve or assign to London taxes that are currently collected and paid to central government is more problematic. The focus is on property and property-related taxes, so potentially it is easier to establish the locus—in or out of London. Any new boundary lines are likely to open up avoidance possibilities and there would surely be a resource issue to administer these taxes.
Retention of 100% business rates raises issues of how the arrangements would be unpicked from the newly introduced business rate retention scheme and, within London, what needs and resources mechanisms would be required. The more radical tax reforms considered have even greater technical challenges, as the report acknowledges. However, the big question underlying all of this is what it means for the rest of England. Promoting and facilitating growth in London does not have to be at the expense of growth in other parts of the country. Indeed, quite the reverse, and other cities could follow suit. However, there will be a need to ensure that other parts of the country are not left behind, particularly rural areas.
Specifically on fairness, it is proposed that the devolution of tax streams to London could be counterbalanced by adjusting grant levels at the start of the process. However, this will do nothing to stop growing inequality after that. We should consider the effects of devolution of stamp duty land tax in a buoyant property market in London, with revenues going to London not to HMRC.
There is much else to be considered and the report has provided valuable food for thought. I thank my noble friend for bringing it before us and seeking from the Minister a practical way to examine the important issues that it raises.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for introducing the debate. Perhaps more importantly, I thank the people who produced the report, not least Professor Tony Travers, who is known to us all and who has been very influential on the London local government scene for—I had better not say a number of years, he might be offended by that—certainly some time.
The Government recognise the importance of this report. The London Finance Commission set up by the mayor has clearly carried out an in-depth study of what it thinks should be done. However, all I will say at the moment is that its potential impact on both London and, as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie said, the wider country requires a great deal of thought and consideration.
The report was produced by a distinguished and wide membership, which I was glad to see included people who were not from London but from what we now call the core cities, where devolution is beginning to happen. So they had an understanding of what would happen outside London, which again we need to hold on to.
The proposals would have wide-ranging effects, not only on London but on government finances and the United Kingdom. Given the legal, constitutional and fiscal questions raised, this is clearly a matter that is not going to be decided today and may not even be dealt with in the short term. We need to look forward to see how practical the proposals are not only for London but for the country. The report is London-centric, as one would expect, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, pointed out, there is a lot to London—not just London government but a whole edifice underneath London which supports its financial position in the world.
There are innovative proposals for a further devolution of powers, particularly in regard to finance, and well articulated reasons for this; it is a very well written report, as I would have expected. However, the recommendations have to be considered against the background of the current and perhaps future financial situation.
As to its impact on the London boroughs, I know they were represented on the commission but there is a wobbly bit in the report between London and London government, the mayor and the GLA. It nips in and out of London government and, after reading it quite closely, I came to the conclusion that London government was London and the boroughs, and that London was the mayor. Everything else—London and government and the mayor—was very clear. It is not totally clear where the main emphasis lies except, pretty clearly, with the mayor and the Greater London Authority. Any changes to the way in which the finances are delivered, controlled, measured and administered will affect London boroughs as well.
It would not be appropriate for me to anticipate the Government’s response. I accept that the Chancellor laid out the conditions of what he would want in backing this report. I have no knowledge of his view now of where to go from here but, as I have said, the Government will consider the full implications of the proposals very carefully.
We are already seeing devolution and enormous changes in governance in this country and we cannot ignore the fact that places such as Liverpool, Glasgow, Newcastle and Manchester are all beginning to develop their own core cities along devolved and different paths.
We must not forget that there has been already significant devolution to London through the mayor and, through him, the Greater London Authority. That took place in the spending review of 2010. London recently has received a fair settlement despite the necessity for the deficit reduction. It is worth remembering that as a result of the Localism Act London has gained responsibility for housing. The noble Baroness, Lady King, raised the aspect of affordable housing. London now has responsibility for housing, economic development and the Olympic legacy as well as already having responsibility for transport, planning and the police. That is quite a big raft of local government life.
The London settlement, issued in February 2012, provided the mayor with about £3 billion in unring-fenced grant for 2011-12 to 2014-15. London also has a pretty broad range of financial levers, including business rates supplements—I think Crossrail is the only supplement that has been raised so far, but it has been done—infrastructure levy and tax increment financing. I know the latter is still constrained, and we have discussed this on many occasions, but the possibility of using tax increment financing is not only available to the mayor, but to the London boroughs. London also has, of course, its own enterprise zones.
The Treasury has agreed to provide a guarantee to allow London to borrow £1 billion from the Public Works Loan Board at a preferential rate to support the Northern Line extension to Battersea. Some of the infrastructure work, therefore, is already being done.
The Government are going to create a new enterprise zone in the Battersea and Nine Elms area. Anybody who was watching the news last night will have seen that being laid out, and what a large area it is. That will supplement London’s existing enterprise zone at the Royal Docks. My department has also transferred its assets in London to the Mayor to provide an important and financial growth lever. The Government have also contributed £25 million towards the costs of the Olympic stadium transformation.
London will also benefit from the flagship Francis Crick Institute for translational research which will open in 2015. That follows £650 million investment from the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust, University College London, Imperial College and King’s College. Finally, on the list of this there are three new catapult centres designed to commercialise new and emerging technologies, and they will be based in London.
London is not being ignored in any way at all. It is developing all the time with what it is able to do, and what there is for it to do. It is now largely independent of national government in a very significant range of policy areas, and it has greater financial autonomy than ever before. That is not to say that we should not look carefully at what has been proposed. I am not prejudging or saying that the Government have prejudged the report in any way at all. Clearly not; we have not had it for long enough. It is very detailed and it has some really important aspects to it. We will be looking at it.
The noble Lord asked me whether we would be setting up technical reviews. It is too early to say, but I am sure that one way or another this report has got to be studied very carefully by experts across the field. Whether that is a technical review or not, I am not sure, but if I can get any better than that for the noble Lord then I will let him know.
The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, was talking about London’s position in the world, and I think that we would all accept that it is now one of the most important cities. We recognise that; it is the fifth largest city in gross domestic product and it is a global city that is instantly recognisable. The mayor is instantly recognisable —I think both mayors have been instantly recognisable. It staged a fantastic Olympic Games and London is rightly ambitious for its future. We do not want to forget that the mayor has himself penned an attractive vision for London in 2020, and that is with this other report. It sets out a long-term plan for major investment in infrastructure.
We recognise the importance of investing in infrastructure. The Chancellor has announced that the Government will continue to provide the funding to get the £14.5 billion Crossrail project finished on time. There will be feasibility funding for London's Crossrail 2 project. We will continue to invest in transport and the Transport for London grant is now £1.5 billion.
I think that London has developed enormously over the last 10 years in terms of its independence and devolution. Further devolution, also part of this report, is something that we need to look at carefully on the basis of not only London but of other cities in the country. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, spoke about constitutional changes. Of course, further arrangements such as this would amount to a constitutional change.
Most of our expert speakers this evening recognised and supported the report. We had some excellent speeches on the subject, all of which were slightly different, so I am not going to refer to all of them. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, asked about rough sleepers, which takes us slightly away from the report, and we have had several Questions on this subject in the House recently. Yes, the number of rough sleepers did go down. Yes, it has increased again. I am interested in the noble Lord’s identification by nationality of those who were within his immediate sight. The figures that we have suggest that about 53% of rough sleepers are from eastern Europe—that does not excuse the fact that they are there. There is co-operation between the mayor and my department to ensure that there are projects set up for them, not least the mayor’s No Second Night Out programme, which means that people should not be on the streets for a second night. There is a phone line for people to ring if they are concerned about them.
The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, asked me a question right at the end, which I am afraid I missed—I have to be honest. So if I may look at Hansard and produce an answer for him in writing, I will do so. I was getting overexcited by that time.
I thank the noble Lord again for introducing this debate. We accept totally that this is an important report. I am almost certain that this will not be the last time that we have the opportunity to discuss it or London’s position in the world.