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What Does the Mayor of London Actually Do?

What does the British capital's mayor control and why should Britons care?

by Mark Wilding
May 22 2015, 5:35pm

Photo by Henry Langston

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

With the general election only just out of the way, the contest for the May 2016 London Mayoral election is already kicking into gear. With Boris standing down so he can dedicate his full attention to plotting the political demise of David Cameron, the competition is wide open. Several Labour and Conservative politicians are already jostling to be the official candidate to try and replace him. Everyone's aware that the mayor of London is a pretty big deal, but what do they actually do?

In most places, the ability to wear an oversized neck chain and turn up with a giant pair of scissors whenever a new Asda opens is pretty much the only qualification necessary to hold the office of mayor. In London, whoever wins will get a £17 billion [$26 billion] budget to play with and will set out their vision for the future of London. They will also appoint a team of deputy mayors and advisors, which is presumably how Boris has juggled the role with writing a book, a newspaper column, and becoming an MP.

As mayor, you don't have absolute power, apart from the power to get stuck on a zip wire. Any decisions have to be made within the laws set by central government, so you can't just invade Berkshire or bring back the death penalty. There is also the London Assembly to deal with—a body of 25 elected members whose job it is to hold the mayor to account. But you do get to decide the overall strategies for things like housing, culture, and policing. For example, the mayor decides how many houses we need to build in the capital, while day-to-day decisions on planning applications are handled by the London boroughs in accordance with the rules set by the mayor.

The mayor's responsibilities can be grouped into a few key areas. Here's a guide to which parts of your life they're in charge of.

Photo by Henry Langston

FIRE AND EMERGENCY PLANNING

It's the mayor's responsibility to plan what happens when the shit really hits the fan—like if there's a terrorist attack or World War III breaks out. Don't worry, Boris Johnson hasn't personally bashed out a plan of action for a nuclear winter on the margins of an old copy of the Evening Standard. He just has to make sure someone else has a plan. The details are worked out by the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, which manages the fire brigade and works out what to do in the event an emergency. The mayor's job is limited to appointing its board members and setting its budget. Under Boris, this has meant closing ten fire stations, a decision described by the Fire Brigades Union as "deeply troubling" and by the mayor's press team as "efficient."

Photo by Oscar Webb.

PLANNING

There are plenty of ways in which the mayor can leave their mark on the city. For starters, you get to write the London Plan, which covers everything from housing to the environment and sets out where development should take place. You also get the final say over any major projects—most notably, tall buildings. While it was central government that ultimately approved the Shard, it was helped in no small part by Ken Livingstone's support. In 2012, when the tower was completed, Livingstone said the Shard would "define London." Which is undeniably true, particularly if you define London as a playground for the super-rich, dominated by a ludicrous phallic symbol of Qatari wealth.

HOUSING

Monuments to capitalist excess might be in abundant supply, but places to live are not. To tackle this problem, the mayor has to produce a housing strategy which outlines the kind of housing the city needs and where it should go. Traditionally, this involves setting a lot of ambitious targets, which developers then fail to meet every year. On one of the most important issues facing our generation, the mayor has, so far at least, proved powerless. Still, better make this vote count, because spiraling rents will have forced you out of London well before the next election.

People on a night bus. Photo by Juatinas Vosylius.

TRANSPORT

London's transport network is managed by TfL, which in turn is managed by the mayor who decides the budget, strategy, and and appoints the board. For many years, the main part of this job has been to argue about tube strikes with RMT union leader Bob Crow. Sadly, Crow passed away last year, leaving it up to new leader Mick Cash to point out that maybe it's not a great idea to close down all the ticket offices, leaving late-night travelers to negotiate scenes of Mad Max-style anarchy armed only with their addled wits and malfunctioning Oyster cards.

Read: The Police Are Trying to Kill Off Glasgow's Best Club, But the City Is Not Going Down Without a Fight

Of course, the mayor has other transport responsibilities, such as choosing which bank gets to pick the color of the Boris bikes and deciding whether fares go up or down (spoiler: They're not going down). Then there are more outlandish projects, such as the Thames cable car. Boris has described it as a "howling success"; an interesting euphemism for a project which consumed tens of millions in public funds and is now used by a handful of tourists and no commuters whatsoever.

Photo by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete

ENVIRONMENT

Air quality, water, waste, and climate change all come under the mayor's remit and there is at least one strategy for all of them. The motivation for this is spelled out by Boris in his municipal waste management strategy, where he outlines the need to recognize the "massive economic opportunity inherent in London's waste" and "to turn waste into a lucrative commodity." Rather than, say, preventing irreversible climate change and the extinction of the human race.

Photo by Jake Lewis

CULTURE

Despite being one of the most important parts of life in the city, London's mayor doesn't have all that much power where culture is concerned. The role is mostly limited to producing a woolly cultural strategy and organizing busking competitions. That means limited opportunities to tackle the cultural apocalypse which has seen the demise of various nightlife institutions in recent months. In fairness to Boris, he did recently launch a Music Venue Taskforce, aimed at protecting these "teeming wombs of London talent." Unfortunately, London's overall trajectory still points towards a cultural wasteland populated only by estate agents who long ago gave up trying to sell flats to each other and are now trying to escape their ennui by drinking themselves to death at All Bar One. Perhaps a more interventionist approach is needed.

HEALTH

Health isn't a major concern of the mayo—mostly that's handled by central government through the NHS. But there is a responsibility to tackle "health inequality." Apparently, every tube stop you travel east from central London, the life expectancy in the surrounding neighborhood drops by a year, as you get further and further away from a life of organic quinoa salads and life-span enhancing luxury hand soaps.

Photo by Oscar Webb.

POLICING

The mayor sets the budget and priorities of the Met Police and, in theory, holds the criminal justice system to account. In reality, Boris used his powers to buy a second-hand water cannon from Germany. Permission to use the cannon is yet to be granted by the Home Office, although the prospect of civil unrest during five more years of Tory rule makes the go-ahead seem all the more likely. So, it'll probably come down to the next mayor to decide whether or not to actually use it. If you're the kind of person who finds yourself at street protests, the person you vote for next year will decide whether you're being leveled by a water cannon or merely having your head bashed in with a police baton.

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