London Will Finally Get to Elect Its Own Mayor

Candidates leap into fray after a plan is announced to put city under one authority.

London is Europe's most populous capital. Yet for the past decade, its 7 million inhabitants have had to get by without their own government.

The gap will be filled in May 2000 when Londoners, under plans unveiled last week by Britain's new Labour government, will be asked to elect an American-style mayor and a 32-person strategic authority to run the city.

Already about a dozen candidates, including the thriller writer Lord Jeffrey Archer, have said they are eager to run for the British capital's soon-to-be-created top post.

Hundreds more are showing interest in running for a London-wide authority to administer police, transport, and other urban services.

Sir Terence Conran, founder of the Habitat chain of furnishings shops, has complained for years that Britain's sprawling capital lacks a "board of management for making sure that necessary things are done."

Since 1986, when former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher abolished the Labour Party-dominated Greater London Council (GLC), London's 610 square miles have been without a central government.

Instead, 33 separate boroughs, each with its own local mayor and council, have tried to satisfy citizens' needs. Often, due to lack of cooperation, coordination or cash, they have failed.

Drivers in London are often frustrated by unannounced closings of streets and Thames river bridges.

Another infuriating fact of life is that local property taxes vary widely, even within city districts.

For example, residents on one side of a street in north London pay a higher local tax than their neighbors across the street.

The reason: A different council authority presides over each side.

Considering London's vital importance to Britain's economy, such confusion is surprising.

The size of London's economy, estimated as 75 billion ($115 billion) by the British government is close to Russia's and larger than that of Greece or Portugal.

Economic activity in London accounts for 15 percent of the United Kingdom's gross domestic product.

More than 100 of Europe's 500 largest companies have their headquarters in London, which has more miles of subway track per head than either Paris or Berlin.

According to Simon Jenkins, who has written several popular guides to London, "It is a miracle this city moves at all."

He points out that the average morning rush-hour traffic speed in London is 10.9 m.p.h. Twenty years ago it was 14.2 m.p.h.

Giving the capital a directly elected mayor and strategic authority is a "sensational and wholly welcome proposal," which will "restore London's pride in itself," Mr. Jenkins says.

Britain's opposition Conservative Party, however, is not as enthusiastic.

Shadow environment secretary Sir Norman Fowler has attacked Labour's plan.

"There is no way we will support the plan," he says. It would lead to the creation of an "unwanted bureaucracy."

Sir Norman is thinking about recent history. The old Greater London Council, which Mrs. Thatcher abolished, had a record of high spending.

The GLC headquarters, now being turned into luxury apartments by its Japanese owners, was directly across the River Thames from the Houses of Parliament.

Shortly before Thatcher decided to get rid of the GLC, its Labour Party leader, Ken Livingstone, infuriated her by hanging 100- foot-long banners showing Britain's latest unemployment figures, updated every day, prominently outside his headquarters, where everyone could see them.

Last week, however, seeing the growing popularity among Londoners for reviving their city government, Conservatives switched policy deciding to back the plan for a directly elected mayor.

Archer, a former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, says: "There is no question that London needs a real mayor. It is the greatest city on earth, but it also faces huge problems."

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