Amongst the general hubub of French politics – a general strike, an unpopular president, parliamentary votes of confidence over the nation’s return to NATO military command – a mini-row is simmering on over Nicolas Sarkozy’sproposals to radically redraw the administrative map of the country, knocking together many of the existing regions to more closely resemble France’s historic dukedoms and kingdoms. Nowhere, however are these plans more hotly contested than in Paris, whose administrative system has failed miserably to evolve alongside its demographic growth.
The area governed as ‘Paris’ – i.e. by the Mayor and Council is astonishingly small, covering just the 105 square km that fall within the boulevard peripherique, the ring road that follows the former line of the city walls. As a rather generous comparison, this could be likened to London stopping administratively at the North and South circulars, casting the likes of Woolwich, Wembley, Stratford and Wimbledon into the outer darkness of the shires from whence they came. Whilst the City of Paris is by no means universally wealthy, it certainly doesn’t represent the poorest portion of the Ile de France, as testified by the fact that prior to the current incumbent, no left-winger had been elected Mayor since the Commune.
Sarkozy’s proposals for a ‘Grand Paris‘ would bring the three small departements that ring Paris (Hauts de Seine, Seine St Denis and Val de Marne) under the auspices of the Mayor and Council, thereby encompassing most of the first wave of Paris’ 20th century expansion (useful map here). The objection of many, including of Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, is that this leaves the real problem untouched: the vast, depressing and depressed satellite towns constructed post-war in what had been rural areas of the Ile deFrance remain outsidethe scope of Paris government: an alternative proposal for an even greater Paris, comprising these areas, is now being touted by many socialists. It is easy to make the argument that these towns, which hit the news with alarming frequency as waves of rioting and violence spawned from poverty, unemployment and isolation take hold summer after summer, would be better governed by an urban administration than by those of the largely rural and small town departements in which they sit.
But setting the boundaries of urban areas is never easy. The Animal pondered this over the weekend during a walk on part of the London LOOP. Walking through the chalk downland of Happy Valley without a house in sight, it seemed a little incongruous that we were firmly ensconced in the London Borough of Croydon. Nothing wrong with a largely urban administration covering some rural land – around 10% of the GLA area is farmland – but there is something a little unfinished and dated looking in the way that the Greater London boundary has been drawn, based as it is on historic boroughs and long-departed counties. Is it time for an update?
In the last speech I heard him give as Mayor (for now!), Ken Livingstone suggested that the next Greater London Authority Bill ought to includethe expansion of the Greater London boundaries to include towns such as Watford. Now, you can dismiss that as the ramblings of a power-grabbing politician if you like, but I think it is worth considering if satellite towns such as Watford, Dartford, Borehamwood or Esherhave that much less in common with London than locations such as Bromley, Orpington, Romford or Surbiton. And the great thing is, we have a ready made boundary, London’s very own boulevard peripherique exterieure, the M25.
Now, London doesn’t really have the problem that Paris does: thankfully, we never really went in for the construction of huge soulless, concrete estates on peripheral greenfield sites (rather, we built them within the confines of the existing built up area and managed to create ghettos there, instead). But as the tendrilsof the city have stretched still further, the strip of land between the edge of Greater London and the M25 (see map here), populated as it is with several go0d-sized towns, begins to look a bit like a sort of no-mans land. The locations contained within this strip are highly varied in terms of their socio-economic status: hyper-wealthy towns such as Epsom and Rickmansworth; towns such as Watford with a genuine mixture; less well-off locations such as Dartford and Purfleet; and former villages massively expanded through the construction of GLC housing estates such as at Debden.
Despite the disparities, all these locations have in common that they are irreversibly caught within the centrifugal force of London. Much of their economicallyactive population work with the GLA boundaries, the residents largely look to London for cultural activities, house prices were (until recently) driven upwards by their proximity to the city. So should they get a say in how London is run? There is certainly a case to be madefor either extending existing London boroughs or creating new ones out to meet the orbital motorway.* Alongside policy cohesion, there would be significant material benefits to the residents of the areas in question: Freedom Passes, free school-age travel, student Oyster cards, an ability to claim London weighting, access to LDA grants. Such benefits would assist in tackling the small, but persistent, pockets of poverty that exist in these areas: pockets that due to their lack of visibility (physically or statistically) receive little attention.
There also exist potential benefits to London from the incorporation of this strip of land. Firstly, there must always be the concern that, as economic times get tougher, the towns bordering Greater London might adopt policies and regulations – or a lack thereof – that seek to undercut London (a ‘Delaware effect’). As in: ‘Hey, property developer! Don’t want to be forced to provide loads of affordable housing in your new development? Well, come and build it in Loughton.’ A more contemporarily relevant boundary would also increase the potential for main-line rail services to be brought under TfL control, as has happened successfullywith the existing London Overground routes. As an example, five almost self-contained stopping services (including the Animal’s own) operate out of London Bridge/Victoria to Orpington, Hayes and (via three different routes) to Dartford. Barring one station – Dartford- these fall entirely within Greater London and would seem highly suitable for a transfer to the tighter contracting controls and increased investment that would come with TfL oversight. But Dartford is the sticking point. It would be very difficult politically for a body answerable to the Mayor to take control of trains serving a town that can’t vote him or her out. Bring Dartford into London and problem solved.
And what would be the political fall out from this? Well, I would have to admit, that under current circumstances it would probably be a negative for Labour. It wouldn’t be as simple as merely extending the blue doughnut that Boris Johnson created: there are non-negligible Labour votes in towns such as Dartford and Watford. In good years for Labour, I suspect these changes would be net neutral for the Party in Mayoral election terms. The Party’s job is to ensure it once again has good years. If it makes sense to extend London’s boundaries, it should be done, party political considerations aside.
*: Pedants corner: I am aware that a small portion of the London Borough of Havering is outside the M25. In order to ensure consistency, I am happy to advocate that the residents of North Ockendon be set free from the tyrannous yoke of the GLA, if they so wish.