Cllr Peter John OBE's speech to London Government Dinner

  • By Cllr Peter John OBE

The London Government dinner was hosted by the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House on Thursday 10 January 2019.

Cllr Peter John OBE addressed the dinner for the first time as London Councils chair, along with the Lord Mayor and Sadiq Khan.  Here’s what he said:

My Lord Mayor, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Firstly, on behalf of tonight’s guests, from across London’s government and public services, may I thank you Lord Mayor for the toast that you have just offered us and your words reaffirming the City’s role as a sponsor and advocate for all that is good about our city.

And may I thank you for the warmth and generosity of the welcome that you and the Lady Mayoress have shown to us this evening.

The City of London Corporation is an essential part and partner in our work at London Councils, and the contribution which it makes to the promotion, government and improvement of our capital city is invaluable.  May I especially thank - through you Lord Mayor - Catherine McGuinness and John Baradell, who so many of us here regard as friends and a source of great support.

When we gathered together a year ago for the London Government Dinner Brexit was the hot topic of debate.  In his speech then Sadiq spoke about the results of a report the GLA had commissioned on the economic impacts for our city of the various Brexit scenarios – none of which presented good news.  As a city we were concerned about the uncertainty caused by the lack of a clear direction from government; about the inability of the Prime Minister and Parliament to agree any deal; and the impact which any Brexit would have on the wonderfully diverse communities we represent across London.

Well all I can say is that 12 months on thank goodness all that nonsense has been sorted out!  Isn’t it wonderful that all the uncertainty has been removed and we can look forward to March 29th with the supreme confidence that we know exactly what is going to happen.

Of course I’m being unsubtly ironic.  But it is a mixture of tragedy and farce that with less than 80 days to go until we are due to leave the EU the issues which challenged us a year ago remain.  How can that be? 

Well it’s certainly arguable that since a referendum was first proposed we have allowed our national political debate to be taken over by those who don’t merely advocate easy choices – they advocate no choice.  You can have your cake and you can eat it. 

And whilst the will of the people is of massive importance we do live in a representative parliamentary democracy. 

And our Parliament is constituted of people who – in that classic role defined by Edmund Burke – owe us a duty to provide their judgment as well as their industry.  They must provide leadership; not just followership. 

London needs all members of Parliament to provide that leadership now - Not to abrogate or avoid their responsibility.

So it’s my personal belief that if a majority of MPs believe that leaving the EU is a potential disaster they should vote to stop it now.  It is time to act in the genuine national interest.

Because London and Londoners know that leaving the EU will harm our city and regional economy even further – but not just our fantastic businesses – it will have a harmful effect on the amazing and diverse communities we represent, on our neighbours, friends, colleagues and constituents.

But there is a wider issue for London and governments acting in the national interest.  Because whether it is a good thing or a bad thing for our national economy, London is the engine room for delivering growth and our national income – nearly a quarter of our national wealth being produced by our city alone.  Study after study has shown us that investment in infrastructure in London more than pays for itself in terms of economic and housing growth.

So it is in the national interest to continue investing in London’s infrastructure – now more than ever – we need Crossrail 2, the Bakerloo Line Extension, the extension of the Croydon tram network and a myriad of other transport improvements, to deliver the growing world-class city that the UK needs.

We are not saying this because we are being London-centric; but because we want every part of the UK to thrive, and every community to prosper.

It is why London Councils values the partnership we have with our Mayor and government – and with our renewed set of priorities as an organisation for the period to 2022 we look forward to continuing our work together to build the homes London needs; create the jobs Londoners need; tackle the violent crime London faces and create an environment where the air we breathe and the healthier lives we lead are a testament to the diverse and outward-looking city we inhabit.

And it’s in London’s interest and the national interest that austerity ends for local government.

As the government moves to review how local government is funded under the Fair Funding Review it has already signalled that the significance of deprivation as a measure which determines the amount of money which councils receive is likely to be reduced.  We do need to ensure that whatever approach is ultimately taken that it does not harm London - where we have some of the poorest areas on any national indices of deprivation, and some of the most extreme pressures in terms of homelessness, No Recourse to Public Funds and Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children.

After a decade of tough choices; and having already lost 63p in every £1 we received of government grant; we are getting to the point where it will be difficult to deliver even basic services.  But to my mind services such as libraries and leisure centres are not “nice to haves”.  They are at the very heart of the communities we represent; and their value in promoting good physical and mental health is priceless.

I know we are not the only public service which has faced cuts.  Many others in this room will have had tough budget decisions to take since 2010.  But our collective and unequivocal argument must be that we need to level public spending up – not redistribute away from London and put at risk the progress we have made.

Because if our public services are not working, our communities are not working and then London is not working.  And that is certainly not in the national interest.

In the past 12 months we have had local elections across London, resulting in some new administrations, some new leaders and Mayors and many new councillors.  I’m pleased to report that Mayor Glanville scraped home in Hackney with 66% of the vote – with a manifesto which contained only 38 photos of Mayor Phil in action – the Mayor cycling; the Mayor running; the Mayor listening; the Mayor talking; the Mayor cycling and talking – I have been told that the massive posters of a beneficent Mayor Phil welcoming you to Hackney are at the printers.  How things have changed since the days of that Jules Pipe.

I should pause and recognise the great contribution of my predecessor as Chair of London Councils, Claire Kober, who is with us here tonight.  Claire was a great advocate and asset for London local government and we miss her contribution on the front line.   

And whilst I am recognising and thanking, I should also mention a group of people who keep our councils and our city working – those are our council Chief Executives – the women and men who make sure that what we say as politicians is translated into something which makes sense. 

I have spoken about the need for urgent national leadership – but local leadership is as important. 

We’ve done a pretty good job in London over the past decade, responding to austerity whilst meeting the needs of an ever-growing and unfunded population which requires ever more costly services; overseeing the growth of our neighbourhoods and boroughs from Barking & Dagenham – or Barcelona-on-Thames, as I think we’re now required to call it, and Bexley in the East – to Ealing and Hounslow and Hillingdon in the West, we have delivered or have plans to deliver the homes that London needs.  And only last week we announced the formation of a company amongst London’s boroughs to tackle the cost and quality of housing for those at risk of homelessness.

But meeting the challenges of our city isn’t easy and requires us as council leaders to sometimes argue for things which are not universally popular or which provoke outright hostility. 

We have to make sure that locally we don’t allow the loudest voices to dominate or divert the debate. 

We know we don’t do our residents any favours by avoiding the big decisions or not arguing for what is in the interests of our borough or of London.

Our collective duty to provide the leadership that our boroughs and London needs is absolute. 

We need to argue for the perhaps old-fashioned reality that facts matter; experience and expertise have value; that politics isn’t always easy and sometimes requires politicians to make tough choices. 

We do face challenges, but London’s interests are both our national and our borough interests. 

But I am confident that if we always and collectively look beyond our borough and our city boundaries we can show that our local and regional government has the capacity and ambition to lead and nurture this amazing city we all love.

Cllr Peter John OBE, Chair of London Councils and executive member for Public Service Reform and Devolution and Finance and Resources