George Osborne used to tell the world’s most expensive jokes. At the 2015 Budget, the then-chancellor said £1 million would be spent to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, primarily to land a gag about a Labour-SNP alliance. Further public money was allocated to reducing tolls on the Severn Bridge, seemingly to poke fun at Harriet Harman’s pink (or was it magenta?) van.
I’m prepared to believe the policies came before the jokes. But that’s hardly the point. In how many other countries does the finance minister stand up at the most important fiscal event of the year and set aside, by the standard of nation-states, tiny sums of money for local projects?
All political systems have their foibles. The French constitution permits the president to pass bills without the bother of a vote in the National Assembly. Australia’s head of state is not Australian, while the next one for the US may attempt to pardon himself. Britain, for its part, stands out by being one of the most centralised high-income nations on earth.
The point of devolution is to do things that may run counter to national policies, on the basis that the needs and interests of London are different to those of Leeds or Exeter
And if anything, ministers want more power. This week, it was revealed that the Government sought legal advice over whether it could overrule the expansion of London’s ultra low emission zone on the grounds that it is “inconsistent with national policies”. I’m sorry, what? The point of devolution is to do things that may run counter to national policies, on the basis that the needs and interests of London are different to those of Leeds or Exeter.
This capricious, I-support-devolution-but-only-when-it-suits-me attitude isn’t limited to the Conservatives. Sir Keir Starmer also came out against the Ulez extension, for his own political purposes.
These attitudes are not cost-free. And while Britain’s highly centralised system is not the sole cause of our economic malaise, it is a factor. Take planning — why do we think it is totally normal for housing secretaries to intervene whenever they please?
I give you just one example, a skyscraper planned for the South Bank. Last year, Lambeth council and City Hall approved plans to replace ITV’s former studios with a 25-floor complex. This was then “called in” by Greg Clark, so nothing happens for months if not years. It’s just not a serious way to run a country.
While central government is overmighty, local government is under-resourced and fragmented. Where is the fiscal devolution for local authorities to raise new and local taxes? This would not only provide additional revenue streams but also an incentive to pursue pro-growth policies, such as building more houses, by enabling them to keep more of the money. What’s stopping us from experimenting? Oh yeah, the Treasury.
None of this is aided by a paucity of cash. According to the Centre for Cities, between 2015 and 2019, local government spending per person rose by two per cent, compared with 21 per cent in France, 23 per cent in Spain and 25 per cent in Germany. Even when the Government tries to help local areas, it is in a typically top-down fashion. This is perhaps best exemplified by the time-consuming and labyrinthine Levelling Up Fund.
Speaking of which, did you hear the one about local councils unwittingly wasting time and money on bids for central government cash that could never succeed due to a decision not to allocate funding to places in round two that were successful in round one? That joke isn’t funny either.
Hall’s unexpected campaign tactics
I thought I understood how election campaigning worked. Say popular things, avoid saying unpopular things and pretend to like the electorate. Susan Hall appears to relish doing the opposite.
From her previous support for Donald Trump to her comments on Carnival, the Conservative mayoral candidate is going out of her way to prevent the next election from being a referendum on Sadiq Khan — a contest that she has a better chance of winning.
Her opposition to the Ulez expansion will provide a floor beneath which her support will not fall. But her rhetoric threatens to blow the Tories’ best chance of winning in London since 2012. That is because a switch to first-past-the-post voting means the next mayor could be elected on less than 40 per cent of the vote.
This gives a Tory prepared to meet the electorate halfway a chance in a Labour city. Hall seems to have other ideas.
Jack Kessler is chief leader writer and author of the West End Final newsletter.