Talk, money and institutional design: comparing urban policy prospects in Toronto versus London.
Subject: City planning (Forecasts and trends)
Urban policy (Forecasts and trends)
Author: Bashevkin, Sylvia
Pub Date: 12/22/2004
Publication: Name: Canadian Journal of Urban Research Publisher: Institute of Urban Studies Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2004 Institute of Urban Studies ISSN: 1188-3774
Issue: Date: Winter, 2004 Source Volume: 13 Source Issue: 2
Topic: Event Code: 010 Forecasts, trends, outlooks; 290 Public affairs Computer Subject: Market trend/market analysis
Product: Product Code: 9107130 Urban Planning Assistance NAICS Code: 92512 Administration of Urban Planning and Community and Rural Development
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Canada Geographic Name: Canada; Canada Geographic Code: 1CANA Canada
Accession Number: 129248093
Full Text: Abstract

Discursive social movement, political economy and institutional approaches tend to dominate studies of large urban centres and, in particular, efforts to assess the prospects for progressive public policies in them. This article uses a revised version of Vincent Lemieux's 1996 framework to compare Toronto and London, two cities that underwent major governance transitions during the late 1990s, with respect to their normative discourse, fiscal resource, institutional and local leadership contexts. The discussion concludes that talk, money, design and mayoral factors seemed less conducive to progressive policy outcomes in early post-transition Toronto than London.

Keywords: Toronto, London, urban governance, institutional design


Les etudes traitant de mouvements sociaux, d'economie politique et d'institutions tendent a dominer celles portant sur les grands centres urbains et tout particulierement celles demontrant des efforts pour etablir des perspectives en politique progressiste urbaine. Pour comparer Toronto et Londres cet article utilise une version revisee du modele elabore par Vincent Lemieux en 1996. Vers la fin des annees 1990 ces deux villes ont subi dans leurs facons de gouverner, des changements majeurs relativement aux discours normatifs, aux ressources fiscales et aux contextes de leadership institutionnels et locaux. Cet expose demontre que dans les conjonctures d'apres-transition des deux villes, le discours public, l'argent, la planification et la mairie ont, a Toronto, ete moins favorables aux politiques progressistes qu'ils ne le furent a Londres.

Mots cles: Toronto, London, gouvernance urbaine, projet institutionnel


As concern grows over the multiple challenges facing large international urban centres, so too do the number of thematic pivots in the relevant research literature. At least three important analytic lenses are employed in studies of major cities and, in particular, assessments of the prospects for progressive public policies in them. Although the three perspectives overlap considerably, they can be roughly identified as the discursive social movement, political economy and institutional approaches.

Scholars influenced by social movement and post-structural research streams tend to emphasize the influence of talk, or discursive climate, in creating the potential for progressive mobilization in cities. In Caroline Andrew's words, effective action on such issues as public transportation, women's safety and child care "depends on the existence of a discourse that articulates this potential and justifies municipal politics as a space for progressive citizens. Unless this articulation exists, action is unlikely." (1) Andrew and others thus understand progressive policy outcomes as requiring a rhetorical space that promotes the coming together of urban citizens.

By way of contrast, researchers who adopt an urban political economy view often focus on fiscal resources, specifically the constrained revenue base of cities in Canada, Britain and elsewhere. Many highlight a pattern of longstanding municipal dependence on fiscal transfers from other levels, specifically central governments. Although as Keil and Kipfer point out, political economy "is still privileging the national over the urban question," (2) Canadian finance studies show that "almost all provinces have been reducing their transfers to local governments, although they are doing it in different ways and at different speeds." (3) From a political economy perspective, progressive urban policies are unlikely without adequate financial resources either from municipal governments themselves or through intergovernmental transfers.

Alongside discursive social movement and political economy analyses are institutional studies that explore the design of urban governance. The restructuring of metropolitan organization in many large Canadian cities, including municipal amalgamations in Toronto and Montreal, has drawn considerable attention from social scientists, as have efforts to introduce a strategic governing authority in London, England. As Andrew Sancton suggests, alterations to municipal governance systems can re-define levels of institutional autonomy, including by determining whether local versus central regimes gain or lose political control in the restructuring process. (4) Studies that focus on the creation and operation of urban political units tend to share a core assumption that structures matter, whether to a city's social policies, the quality of its citizens' public engagement, or the democratic fabric of some larger political unit.

Obvious and important links exist among these themes of talk, money and institutional design in an urban context and, indeed, many studies look at all three dimensions. In Canada, for example, it is difficult to imagine a resurgence of progressive discourse or activism vis-a-vis cities that would be unrelated to demands for increased fiscal resources, just as it is rare to find a discursive, social movement-oriented account of progressive urban policies that ignores the fiscal dimension. (5) Similarly, critical accounts of municipal amalgamations in Toronto and Montreal frequently posit that these institutional arrangements undermine local citizen engagement, and will fail to produce the cost-saving advantages that their proponents promised. (6)

Yet relatively few efforts have been made in the Canadian literature to connect these themes at a theoretical level, and apply them to the study of centre-local relations and the possibility of progressive urban policies. One early step in this direction was taken in Vincent Lemieux's 1996 article titled "L'analyse politique de la decentralisation," which offered a comparative framework for exploring institutional restructuring with reference to its normative or discursive as well as fiscal dimensions. (7) For Lemieux, the effects of centralization as well as decentralization can best be understood in terms of the policy objectives of senior levels of government. Once these goals are known, his account suggests, specific propositions can be developed to predict progressive policy prospects in city A versus B.

The following discussion reviews the main components of Lemieux's argument, summarizes the empirical supports provided in his 1996 account, and introduces the variable of local political leadership as a critical intervening factor in the analysis of intergovernmental relations. The article then compares two urban governance transitions that took place since "L'analyse politique de la decentralisation" was written, namely the transformations that culminated in the creation of an amalgamated municipal government in Toronto's inner city and inner suburbs in 1998, and a Greater London Authority (GLA) in London's inner and outer boroughs in 2000. The interpretation of these developments that emerges from a revised version of Lemieux's 1996 framework leads to relatively pessimistic conclusions in terms of progressive policy futures in early post-amalgamation Toronto in particular. (8)

A revised view of Lemieux's perspectives on talk, money and institutional design can be summarized as follows: when public debate is focused on the normative criterion of efficiency, reinforced by limited fiscal resources and circumscribed institutional autonomy for relatively compliant or discredited urban politicians--as arguably characterized Toronto in the early megacity era--progressive policy outcomes are unlikely to follow. By way of contrast, a discursive context in which norms of local democracy and revitalization are emphasized, and where municipal fiscal capacity and structural autonomy are contested by credible urban leaders--arguably characteristic of the initial GLA period--could be associated with greater possibilities for progressive policy action.

The relatively weak public standing of Toronto's first amalgamated municipal mayor, Mel Lastman, versus the considerably more popular status of the Greater London Authority's first mayor, Ken Livingstone, draw out a crucially important dimension of this contrast. Although both mayors were colourful local populists, they clearly differed in ideological terms, with Livingstone considerably more left politically than Lastman. Moreover, if leadership capability can be expected to compound discursive, fiscal and institutional factors, then it would appear that after 1997, Toronto faced an especially ominous scenario of weak conservative leadership, dominant right-wing discursive values, constrained fiscal resources and limited structural possibilities to respond to these challenges.

Lemieux's Thesis

Vincent Lemieux's study presents two core propositions that relate directly to the role of talk, money and institutional design in understanding urban public policy:

1. Some resources at stake in restructuring processes are more important assets of power than others. The setting of normative standards (for example, efficiency, accountability or equity) that govern how shifts in governmental responsibility are evaluated remains a crucial attribute of power, as does control over financial resources.

2. Criteria employed to evaluate restructuring processes are generally not grounded in objective or scientific standards, but rather in ideological and political preferences.

From these two starting points, Lemieux distills a useful set of corollary statements to guide empirical observation.

Perhaps the most relevant corollaries to the present study concern fundamental asymmetries between constitutionally supreme senior levels of government, on one side, and subordinate local governments, on the other. First, Lemieux argues, strong control by the former over the setting and enforcement of normative standards governing the operations of the latter will, by definition, constrain the autonomy of local units. Second, senior levels of government that retain control over normative standards can devolve responsibilities without providing the fiscal capacity necessary to address those tasks. Third, in neo-liberal times, senior levels of government frequently impose private sector values and modus operandi upon junior levels; as a result, they elevate efficiency norms to the status of unassailable assets that trump competing participatory or equity values.

Two empirical cases examined in Lemieux's 1996 study were drawn from Anglo-American systems. One involved efforts by the Reagan administration to introduce "new federalism" arrangements, under which greater power would be placed in the hands of sub-national officials because they were ostensibly closer to the people than their counterparts in Washington. Reagan's initiatives during the 1980s promised to increase state and local government autonomy and, at the same time, reduce reliance on what the president saw as inefficient federal fiscal transfers to those jurisdictions. Lemieux suggests that the Reagan approach was promising from a White House perspective because it cut federal spending, downloaded policy responsibilities (particularly in unpopular areas such as social welfare) and benefited the Republican party base that rested for the most part outside major cities. By way of contrast, progressive urban--and primarily Democratic--interests were conveniently punished under this scheme.

A second and seemingly contradictory case involved Great Britain during the Thatcher years. In this instance, a parallel emphasis on reducing government expenditure led British Tories to centralize power so that municipal governments in large cities with Labour party majorities (including London) saw their taxation powers limited by the imposition of "rate caps" and, in an ultimate coup de grace, were shut down by the central government. Like Reagan, Thatcher defended her decisions on the basis of efficiency and cost-cutting arguments; unlike her close friend and ally in the United States, however, the British prime minister concluded that only the central government could be entrusted to meet those normative standards. From Thatcher's perspective, centralization was useful because it helped to contain wasteful public spending by out-of-control local politicians, eliminated competing sources of authority (notably the Greater London Council or GLC under the leadership of Ken Livingstone) and benefited Conservative allies in suburban, small town and rural areas.

In short, Lemieux's account encourages researchers to probe the policy implications of discursive, fiscal as well as institutional changes. In his view, cross-national shifts in power arrangements--especially as they concern relations between central and urban governments--that appear to move authority in opposite directions can in fact be quite similar, as was the case with devolutionary processes in the hands of Ronald Reagan and highly centralizing efforts to limit local government autonomy carried out by Margaret Thatcher. In both instances, he suggests, progressive urban regimes controlled by opposition interests ended up with limited autonomy and vastly reduced financial resources, to the point that the GLC in 1986 possessed none of either attribute once it was eliminated by central government fiat.

Unfortunately, Lemieux's account does not probe the specific attributes of political leaders. The broad lines of his study, however, suggest that the ability of municipal politicians to articulate and defend competing normative standards to those of senior levels of government would constitute a valuable political asset for local regimes. Effective urban mayors, for example, who contest efficiency or competitiveness norms or who challenge central government rhetoric about the revitalization of local democracy would, following Lemieux's formulation, have the capacity to advance and imprint alternative discursive constructions in public debate. Once they made a competing rhetoric of social justice, representation or local control sufficiently robust, this line of argument suggests, urban mayors could challenge to some degree their limited fiscal and jurisdictional autonomy. Similarly, innovative local mayors who found sustainable new sources of revenue would be better equipped to contest their subordinate institutional status than mayors who lacked such creativity and, of course, fiscal resources.

As a corollary to Lemieux's account, then, we propose municipal political leadership as a critical intervening variable in the study of central/local intergovernmental relations. With respect to post-restructuring London and Toronto, the contrast between a rhetorically gifted, fiscally creative and progressive leader in one location (Livingstone) and a relatively inarticulate, fiscally unimaginative and conservative mayor in the other (Lastman) could hardly have been more stark. Ken Livingstone had a long and reasonably successful history of promoting powerful counter-discourses to those of the British central government, dating back to his sustained opposition to Thatcherism during the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, Livingstone had developed a distinct but equally compelling challenge to Tony Blair's New Labour directions, and was prepared to experiment with creative revenue ideas including congestion charging in central London. (9) In comparison, Mel Lastman tended to echo the efficiency rhetoric of the Ontario Conservatives, and promised as mayor to freeze Toronto property tax rates. To the extent that Lastman sought additional revenues for Toronto, these were largely expanded versions of existing provincial grants and loans as well as user-pay schemes that did little to alter the city's precarious fiscal and political status. (10)

Cross-Case Similarities

Since the late 1990s, Toronto and London have confronted a series of significant and, in many respects, parallel challenges, despite the differing ideological orientations of their Ontario Conservative and British New Labour central governments. Although they varied with respect to such factors as date of first settlement and population size, both the greater Toronto and London urban regions stood out as crucial economic and cultural centres in an increasingly competitive, globalizing international context. Both cities grew rapidly, to the point that each held about 15 percent of the respective country's total population. Toronto and London were also identifiable immigration magnets, attracting remarkably high proportions (approximately half) of diverse newcomers to Canada and Britain, respectively. (11)

In the face of these patterns, central government elites in Ontario and Britain pursued various strategies that would ostensibly advance the competitive edge of their capital cities. At the level of institutional design, both cities underwent major governance transitions that sought to re-shape them in a manner desired by their political masters. Ontario Conservative as well as British New Labour interests sought to contain what they viewed as an inherent tendency toward local government wastefulness and self-aggrandizement. In Toronto, municipal amalgamation was presented as an efficient, streamlined scheme to improve the coordination of local decision-making and eliminate expensive overlap and duplication. GLA creation was championed as a way to modernize and revitalize local government, reversing what Tony Blair referred to as "a dangerous loss of civic pride" and a declining quality of life in Britain's capital city. (12)

In both contexts, senior levels of government rejected claims for dramatically widened local fiscal and political autonomy. The rapid demographic growth fuelled largely by international immigration to Toronto and London in this period, therefore, did not result in a commensurate increase in taxation powers or jurisdictional authority under the terms of governance reforms. Instead, as detailed below, Toronto's fiscal resources stagnated or declined, at the same time as provincial controls tightened in crucial areas. (13) Although New Labour's decision to cede strategic authority over transportation, economic development and public safety to a new London municipal unit was significant, the GLA had limited influence in these sectors due to narrow taxation powers, the continued constitutional dominance of the central government, and the strong interest of London's local boroughs in defending their policy roles. (14)

One additional commonality involved the effort invested by central government elites in recruiting sympathetic and compliant mayors in major cities. At the helm of an amalgamated Toronto, Ontario Conservatives believed, Mel Lastman would be able not only to freeze property tax rates, create efficiencies of scale, and take on additional redistributive policy responsibilities with limited funds, but also he could shield the provincial Tories from any negative fallout from their various decisions. Lastman's leadership eventually imploded in such a way as to cause maximum damage to his senior government allies. To the dismay of his Queen's Park supporters, the mayor condemned amalgamation, the results of the "who does what" policy reorganization process, and the Harris government while still holding some semblance of public respect. Once Lastman's public legitimacy had severely eroded, the provincial government was left without a reliable mayoral ally in Canada's largest city, and risked sharing at least some of his discredited reputation. (15)

New Labour seemed to assume a friendly party modernizer of the Blairite persuasion would fill the "strong mayor" position in London. The varied maneuvers that saw Frank Dobson emerge as the official party candidate, only to lose badly in the spring 2000 mayoral elections, undermined claims that the new central government was genuinely committed to renewing democracy in Britain's largest city. The fact that Ken Livingstone was elevated to the status of populist hero twice, first by Margaret Thatcher, and then by Tony Blair in what was portrayed as a "stitched-up" Labour party selection process, meant he threatened to become an even stronger "strong mayor" than New Labour had intended. (16) In place of the damaged insider mayor who confronted Ontario Conservatives from Toronto city hall, New Labourites faced a crusading outsider mayor in London--one whose potential to challenge a control-obsessed central government loomed large.

Amalgamation in Toronto

At first glance, Ontario Conservative efforts to create a single amalgamated municipal government in Toronto seemed surprising. How could Premier Mike Harris, an outspoken foe of what he viewed as big government, champion not just the elimination of the six units that comprised Metropolitan Toronto, but also their forced merger into an unwieldy, amalgamated "megacity"? (17) Once accomplished, how would the discursive, financial and institutional terms of amalgamation shape policy outcomes in Toronto? Did voters elect a mayor who would contest these new circumstances?

Much of the rationale for urban government changes during the Harris years can be gleaned from Lemieux's account of Reagan- and Thatcher-era precedents. Leading Ontario Tories after 1995 valued efficiency and cost-cutting norms that called for "less government ... fewer politicians ... less bureaucracy ... less overlap and duplication." (18) Consistent with claims by previous Liberal and NDP governments that existing municipal government arrangements were not working well, the Conservatives imposed a single unit on the downtown City of Toronto and a surrounding ring of five established inner suburbs. (19) Bringing the approximately 2.2 million residents of Metropolitan Toronto into a single structure contrasted with the more geographically expansive recommendation of an NDP-appointed task force, chaired by Anne Golden, to create a regional government unit that would cover the Greater Toronto area, thus reaching a combined population of about 4 million. (20)

The rapidly expanding outer suburbs of Toronto proved to be fruitful political space for Mike Harris' 1995 campaign platform. Known as the Common Sense Revolution (CSR), the Tory manifesto promised to balance the provincial budget, lower personal income tax rates by 30 percent, and freeze municipal property tax rates. Ontario voters were told the Tories would "spend more efficiently" because Mike Harris would, in his own words, trim "a lot of fat, a lot of waste." (21)

Parallel with Margaret Thatcher's motivations in shutting down the Greater London Council, the Harris Conservatives believed they would gain politically by eliminating the downtown unit known as the City of Toronto. (22) Under the leadership of Mayor Barbara Hall (whose previous positions included family lawyer, social housing advocate and NDP councillor from the Cabbagetown neighbourhood) and several of her predecessors, the City of Toronto built a reputation as a progressive municipality where equity initiatives, low-income housing, child care programmes and responsible commercial development were viewed as key priorities. (23)

According to progressive critics, the Harris agenda promised to focus on "rationalization, privatization, marketization and centralization." (24) After 1995, Hall along with other centre and centre-left members of Toronto city council became vocal opponents of provincial efforts to cut funding for large cities, and to eliminate rent controls, local control over education taxes, smaller downtown hospitals (notably Women's College Hospital), community school boards and a raft of other elements they saw as integral to life in the inner city. The high-profile Days of Protest campaign against the Harris government brought together diverse activists including anti-amalgamation interests who organized under the banners of Citizens for Local Democracy (C4LD) as well as the more immigrant-based New Voices for the New City. (25) Proponents of the Common Sense approach continued to condemn what they viewed as the "political and administrative extravagances" of downtown politicians and their allies. (26)

By early 1997, the Harris government apparently reached a point analogous to the one Thatcher arrived at in 1986. Just as the British prime minister refused to participate in a series of Livingstone-inspired by-elections that might have been construed as a referendum on the future of the GLC, so too the Ontario Conservatives ignored a 76 percent Metro Toronto referendum vote against amalgamation in March 1997. (27) They also rejected the Golden Task Force recommendation of a greater Toronto area structure that would integrate the older downtown, established suburban and newer suburban areas--in large part because it risked alienating crucial Conservative interests in the outer-ring suburbs, and would ostensibly create a mini-province of Toronto. (28) Leading provincial Tories threw their support behind suburban North York mayor Mel Lastman, a home appliance tycoon who was assertively pro-business and promunicipal tax freeze, in his campaign against Barbara Hall for the mayoralty in the enlarged Toronto.

Lastman defeated Hall in the first amalgamated mayoral election in November 1997. During the same period, Ontario municipal affairs minister Al Leach followed through on his promise to cut the number of Toronto city council seats and school board posts; in Leach's words, the overarching aim of "cleaning up" the municipal "mess" was to "save money, remove barriers to growth and investment, and help create jobs." (29) Despite concerted opposition efforts to mobilize public and media opinion against amalgamation, and despite a court challenge contesting the actions of the Harris government, the scheme went ahead. (30) The judge who turned down the constitutional challenge confirmed that the Canadian constitution awards exclusive control over municipal institutions to provincial governments.

Overall, the discursive framing of amalgamation by Harris government elites was clearly unfavourable to proponents of local democracy and urban diversity. Ontario Conservative talk about ensuring efficiency and competitiveness, and of eliminating waste, duplication and extravagance in downtown Toronto in particular, tended to push aside other normative discourses including those promoting responsive municipal government, enhanced citizen representation and social justice issues.

In fiscal terms, Ontario Conservative politicians maintained it was possible to freeze urban property tax rates and significantly lower provincial income tax rates without imposing major expenditure cuts. By way of contrast, opponents claimed the upshot of provincial financial decisions, including the results of the "who does what" exercise accompanying amalgamation, would be punitive and anti-urban, designed to press additional costly and largely redistributive social spending onto municipal governments. According to critics, the services realignment or disentanglement scheme emanating from Queen's Park was not revenue neutral from an inner Toronto perspective, since it entailed major reductions in social spending in areas where provincial and municipal governments had shared funding and delivery responsibilities, and necessitated sharp increases in residential property taxes in older downtown neighbourhoods, administered under the guise of "actual value assessment." (31) Parallel with the downloading model pioneered by Ronald Reagan in the US, the Harris approach moved responsibility for child care, social housing and public transit onto the shoulders of municipal governments (32) while centralizing control over areas of middle-class priority, including elementary and secondary school education. (33)

At the level of institutional consequences, the provincial restructuring of health care, education and housing that accompanied amalgamation in Toronto seemed to hold particularly disastrous consequences for residents of the inner core. If the Tory promise to cut excess capacity in downtown hospitals was such a good idea, then why were ambulances unable to deliver emergency patients to rooms, beds or even stretchers in corridors? (34) If all public school boards in Ontario faced the same rigid provincial funding formula, then who would compensate for the fact that the Toronto urban area remained the destination of nearly half of all immigrants to Canada? (35) If rent controls were vastly weakened because they ostensibly discouraged private sector investment, then how long would it take to find a laissez-faire solution to growing urban homelessness and underhousing? (36) For many Toronto residents, particularly in the urban core, palpable evidence of decay and decline in health care, education, housing, transit and other areas began to undermine provincial Tory claims about efficiency, fiscal responsibility and the need to restructure both intergovernmental relations and urban public policy.

Prospects were dim that local leadership in Toronto could challenge Harris government directions. Mel Lastman initially imposed a municipal tax freeze and led a reasonably effective new city council, (37) but eventually changed sides in the debate over amalgamation--to the point that he portrayed it as "a disaster"--and seemed increasingly erratic in his behaviour as mayor. (38) Lastman's credibility either as a Tory ally or critic shrank further once media outlets and judicial enquiries began to probe a series of questionable spending decisions by his administration. (39)

By the mid-point of their second term in office, the Ontario Conservatives faced a far more potent political challenge. The popularity of the party and of Mike Harris as its leader weakened dramatically over time, especially among women voters. (40) An official report by the provincial auditor confirmed that the "who does what" exercise had indeed punished Ontario's largest city. (41) As doubts deepened regarding the Tories' ability to retain any of the already few downtown constituencies that they held in Toronto and other Ontario cities, Harris announced his retirement.

In March 2002, Ontario Conservatives elected former provincial finance minister Ernie Eves as their new leader and premier. Eves initially promoted a more consultative, less polarizing approach to governing, one that promised to soften some of the sharp ideological edges of the Common Sense Revolution. Over time, however, Eves drifted toward more harsh right-wing positions, and led his party to defeat in the October 2003 provincial elections. (42)

In short, the circumstances in which amalgamation unfolded in Toronto were overwhelmingly unfavourable to the emergence of progressive urban policies. After 1995, Canada's largest city faced a senior level of government that was determined to advance norms of efficiency, low taxes and cost-cutting; pursue the off-loading of redistributive policies to municipalities without providing them with adequate fiscal resources; and enforce an institutional redesign that vastly diluted the influence of competing political interests. Once they elected a mayor who was sympathetic to the provincial government agenda, Toronto voters ensured that the mandate of the largest single constituency in Canada would not be used to contest the Ontario Tories' discursive, fiscal or institutional directions. Even though Mel Lastman later condemned amalgamation, he was unable to mount a forceful or credible challenge to his Queen's Park masters.

Creating the Greater London Authority

Decisions by the New Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair to create a small, narrowly streamlined London government with limited policy authority seemed perplexing on first inspection. Why would Blair, a consistent critic of what he saw as the undemocratic, centralizing practices of his Conservative predecessors, create what some observers described as a "heavily circumscribed" new London unit with an executive mayor and "toothless" assembly? (43) What discursive, fiscal and institutional circumstances faced the new strategic authority for London? Were they likely to be challenged by the city's first popularly elected mayor?

GLA creation followed from a particular set of normative considerations. The 1997 Labour party manifesto stressed the need to improve the "economy, effectiveness and accountability" of local government. (44) At one level, this meant New Labour endorsed a decentralist agenda that would enhance local democracy by creating elected bodies in Scotland, Wales and London, and thus remove some authority from central government agencies that controlled those areas through the Thatcher/Major era. On another plane, New Labour elites wanted to avoid a repetition of what they saw as the bloated, expensive, inefficient and "loony left" ways of the Thatcher-era GLC. Somewhere between Ken Livingstone's old left flagship, on one side, and the absence of any overarching elected body for Greater London after 1986, on the other, Tony Blair proposed a scheme that was more responsive than no pan-London government, but significantly less autonomous than the old GLC. (45)

Mindful of these considerations, New Labour proposed a plan that retained 32 existing local boroughs and their councils (as well as the financial district's Corporation of the City of London) and introduced an executive mayor, to be elected at large by voters, and a weaker Greater London Assembly, whose 25 members would hold oversight and supervisory responsibilities. Taken together, the mayor and assembly would constitute the Greater London Authority, described as "an overall coordinating body" charged with looking after the economic development, transportation and public safety (police and fire) responsibilities for inner and outer London's approximately five million residents. (46)

New Labour's discourse about the need to circumscribe local autonomy in order to prevent a return to wastefulness and inefficiency was mirrored in its fiscal decisions after 1997. Despite efforts by urban interests to remove control over business property tax rates from the central government, the National Domestic Rate established by the Conservatives remained in place. As a result, local governments continued to rely on the central government for up to 85 percent of their operating funds. (47) Under New Labour, Westminster also retained the power to limit or cap spending by city councils.

In addition, Blair's government imposed selective, highly detailed and heavily "prescriptive" fiscal criteria, including so-called Best Value performance indicators, on municipalities. (48) The Best Value scheme represented a slightly modified version of the Tories' Compulsory Competitive Tendering and Private Finance initiatives, under which efficiency and privatization values were paramount. (49) According to critics, New Labour's intentions vis-a-vis local authorities were to monitor them closely, offer incentives to those that complied with central government demands, and threaten to penalize those that failed to comply--in each case by imposing market-based values that emphasized efficiency and low cost at the expense of social equity, citizen representation or social justice considerations. (50)

As an institutional arrangement, the GLA design clearly opened up important opportunities for public engagement and local democracy. In simple terms, Londoners won a chance beginning in 2000 to elect their own mayor, using a supplementary vote scheme that asked them to select both first and second choice candidates. (51) Yet the darker side of central government machinations--notably, efforts to deny the Labour nomination to Ken Livingstone and, later on, to ensure that he did not run or win as an independent candidate--revealed Westminster's overriding interest in controlling London's new mayor. In the end, the Blairites' unwavering hostility toward Livingstone seemed to backfire. "Red Ken" narrowly lost the party nomination to cabinet insider Frank Dobson, but triumphed as an independent candidate in the May 2000 mayoral race. (52)

Compared with the myriad central government agencies that dominated urban policy-making in such sectors as transportation or economic development after 1986, the more transparent structures set in place under the GLA scheme also signaled some improvement. For example, the creation of Transport for London as an executive body controlled by the mayor meant strategic responsibility for subways, buses, taxis and major roads rested as of 2000 in the hands of a locally elected politician. (53)

What distinguished Ken Livingstone from his Labour competitors including Frank Dobson, and from Mel Lastman in Toronto, was a firm willingness to push back early and often against central government elites. As a Labour left veteran, Livingstone insisted on public ownership and no privatization of the London Underground, and imposed a congestion tax on private vehicles entering London, knowing he would face concerted opposition from New Labour and others for his positions. Livingstone lost a high court challenge to prevent subway privatization, but secured support for a congestion charge that went into effect in February 2003 and was expected to raise more than 68 million [pounds sterling] net during its first year of operation. (54) In his mayoral vision statement for the 2002 official plan, Livingstone went considerably beyond New Labour rhetoric about inclusion and accountability, to argue that London needed to plan its future around the norms of equality of opportunity and environmental sustainability, in addition to economic growth. (55)

Livingstone's actions effectively resonated with broader criticisms of central government positions, and pushed New Labour to breathe air into Blairite talk about local democracy. Although he had his share of detractors, Livingstone managed to present himself as a crusading local democrat, one who was unafraid to take on the overbearing, control-obsessed denizens of New Labour. As part of his alternative approach, Livingstone initiated a series of twice-yearly open forums (known as People's Question Time) in which Londoners could meet and question their mayor.


In comparative terms, the discursive circumstances facing the new GLA arrangement were more promising from a progressive policy perspective than those that that confronted post-amalgamation Toronto. Tony Blair's New Labour central government was enamoured of efficiency and competitiveness criteria, but also endorsed greater responsiveness and decentralized decision-making, along with enhanced social cohesion, in the wake of the Thatcher/Major years. Blairite rhetoric thus offered important openings for progressives like Ken Livingstone, who sought greater local control and who viewed norms of social equality and representation as paramount.

Once New Labour created a strategic authority in London with narrow fiscal and jurisdictional limits, Ken Livingstone used his mandate as the city's first popularly elected mayor to push against these constraints, and to challenge Tony Blair's talk of local democratic renewal. Since New Labour discourse offered more progressive openings than did the rhetoric of the Ontario Conservatives, and since Ken Livingstone worked to exploit those opportunities using his base in Britain's most populous constituency, the early GLA years seemed considerably more promising from a progressive policy perspective than the initial amalgamation period in Toronto.

Neither the Toronto nor London scenario, however, represented a talk, money or design nirvana. What distinguished these two cases was the more progressive orientation of British New Labour than Ontario Conservative senior governments, combined with the greater likelihood that an effective municipal leader would challenge central government discursive, fiscal and institutional directions in London than Toronto. As a more creative, interventionist and credible mayor, Ken Livingstone pushed back against central government norms that elevated private sector, pro-efficiency values, and claimed he was infusing the local democracy ideas of New Labour elites with real-world content. As well, Livingstone made a compelling public case for enhanced fiscal resources, and used his limited authority base to win the high-profile battle over congestion charging in central London.

By way of contrast, Toronto's municipal leadership in 1998 and following failed to mount a compelling challenge to the provincial Conservatives. As the first megacity mayor, Mel Lastman initially carried out a promise to freeze property tax rates and thus tie the hands of downtown spendthrifts, all in the name of eliminating waste and duplication. Once Toronto became burdened with greater responsibilities for expensive redistributive programs, in the absence of commensurate fiscal resources or institutional autonomy, Lastman began to oppose Queen's Park, but lacked credibility by this point. Central government elites who had imposed amalgamation in the first place refused to compromise in discursive, fiscal or institutional terms, while the weakened Toronto mayor demonstrated limited capacity to push back at any level.

When applied to contemporary developments in Toronto and London, Vincent Lemieux's conceptual framework casts a spotlight on local/central government relations, and particularly the preferences and intentions of senior levels of government. Efforts undertaken by the latter, particularly in Ontario after 1995, to impose market-oriented efficiency norms as part of a larger reconfiguration of urban government, were assisted by their discursive power and by their control of municipal finances. Campaigns by the central government at Queen's Park to alter public norms and rhetoric held important consequences. For example, they tended to obscure the fundamental citizenship work performed by progressive municipalities, by ignoring underlying values about citizen engagement, social equality and the role of local governments in teaching democratic practice at the community level.

Although New Labour's rhetoric about reforming municipal governance in London was grounded in norms of local democracy and renewal, the actual practice of nominating an official mayoral candidate and ceding control to the GLA revealed profound reluctance and, indeed, contradictions on this score. As the major immigrant-receiving magnets in Canada and Britain, respectively, Toronto and London were cities where local/central government relations and the quality of urban democracy constituted far more than simply academic categories of analysis, since the language and actions of both tiers of power could shape the socialization experiences of a large generation of new citizens.

Lemieux's approach also reveals a critical link between discourses about cities, on one side, and urban institutional capacities, on the other. Local democrats in Toronto and London promoted a vision of urban autonomy that was predicated on an infusion of financial resources as well as authority by central governments. Progressives in both cities obviously needed additional resources to provide better public transportation, child care programs, housing and so on. What they also required, as Lemieux's thesis suggests, was greater control over the casting, creation and delivery of these schemes, because central governments could impose competing normative overlays that privileged markets, efficiencies and streamlining at the expense of citizen access, equity and voice. Without meaningful authority in the discursive, fiscal as well as design realms, cities were thus condemned to at best very partial progressive futures.

This assessment of contemporary talk, money and design scenarios demonstrates the important role played by local leadership in making progressive policy action in immediate post-amalgamation Toronto more difficult than in the early GLA period. For empirical analysts, the opportunity to probe this comparison further by tracing longitudinal policy outcomes in two cities where governance transitions occurred almost simultaneously, seems too rich to pass up.

Scholars frequently conclude that additional research is needed in a given area of enquiry. In this case, future accounts provide the only chance we have to learn whether progressive policy outcomes were indeed more numerous and meaningful in post-2000 London than post-amalgamation Toronto. In particular, further study is necessary to assess whether a change of municipal leadership in Toronto (with the election of David Miller in November 2003) would alter the talk, money and design contexts that seemed to constrain progressive action in 1998 and following in Canada's largest city. Given that Miller's victory followed a shift in party government from Conservative to Liberal at the provincial level, new mayoral leadership in Toronto could hold significant and indeed promising implications.


* Research funding for this study was provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I am grateful to Jean Coleno for his assistance, and to Andrew Sancton, Richard Stren, Tom Urbaniak and the three CJUR assessors for their insightful comments on an earlier version.


(1) Caroline Andrew, "Municipal Restructuring, Urban Services and the Potential for the Creation of Transformative Political Spaces," in Wallace Clement and Leah F. Vosko, eds., Changing Canada: Political Economy as Transformation (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003), 315.

(2) Roger Keil and Stefan Kipfer, "The Urban Experience and Globalization," in Clement and Vosko, eds., Changing Canada, 338.

(3) David Siegel, "Urban Finance at the Turn of the Century: Be Careful What You Wish For," in Edmund P. Fowler and David Siegel, eds., Urban Policy Issues: Canadian Perspectives (2nd ed.; Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2002), 36.

(4) See Andrew Sancton, "The Municipal Role in the Governance of Canadian Cities," in Trudi Bunting and Pierre Filion, eds., Canadian Cities in Transition (2nd ed.; Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000), 440.

(5) See, for example, Caroline Andrew, "Municipal Restructuring, Urban Services and the Potential for the Creation of Transformative Political Spaces," 313, 315. See Andrew Sancton, Merger Mania: The Assault on Local Government (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000).

(7) Vincent Lemieux, "L'analyse politique de la decentralisation," Revue canadienne de science politique 29:4 (December 1996), 661-80.

(8) Other comparative accounts of developments in these two cities include Kennedy Stewart and Patrick Smith, "'Big Tents' vs. 'Big Sticks:' Regional Governance Reform in Greater London and Metropolitan Toronto," paper presented at the Policy Research Initiative conference, Ottawa, 2000; and Kennedy Stewart, "Explaining Regional Governance Reform Initiatives and Structural Choice in Greater London and Metropolitan Toronto," paper presented at the Canadian Political Science Association meetings, Toronto, 2002. For an account of Toronto versus Los Angeles governance changes that parallels Lemieux's argument on the 'hollow shells' represented by centralization and decentralization, see Roger Keil, "Governance Restructuring in Los Angeles and Toronto: Amalgamation or Secession?" International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24:4 (December 2000), 758-80.

(9) For an overview of Livingstone's background, see Tony Travers, "Local Government," in Anthony Seldon, ed., The Blair Effect (London: Little, Brown, 2001), 129-31.

(10) On Lastman's fiscal approach, see Sancton, Merger Mania, 127-29.

(11) According to Anisef and Lanphier, "the Toronto metropolis currently attracts almost half of all newcomers to Canada." See Paul Anisefand Michael Lanphier, "Introduction: Immigration and the Accommodation of Diversity," in Anisef and Lanphier, eds., The World in a City (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 3. According to Buck et al., London during the 1990s "absorbed about 55 per cent of the national inflow" of immigrants. See Nick Buck, Ian Gordon, Peter Hall, Michael Harloe and Mark Kleinman, Working Capital: Life and Labour in Contemporary London (London: Routledge, 2002), 141.

(12) Tony Blair, New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country (London: Fourth Estate, 1996), 314.

(13) For an overview of this situation, see Sanction, Merger Mania, 125-36; and Enid Slack, "Have Fiscal Issues Put Urban Affairs Back on the Policy Agenda?" in Caroline Andrew, Katherine A. Graham and Susan D. Phillips, eds., Urban Affairs: Back on the Policy Agenda (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002), 309-28.

(14) See Travers, "Local Government."

(15) On Lastman's changing views, see James Rusk, "Lastman Sours on Amalgamation," Globe and Mail (9 January 2001), A17; and John Barber, "Lastman Sends a Warning to Queen's Park," Globe and Mail (9 January 2001), A17.

(16) "The London Stitch-Up" is the title of chapter 8 in Liz Davies, Through the Looking Glass: A Dissenter Inside New Labour (London: Verso, 2001). Journalists' accounts of the London mayoral race and the evolution of the "strong mayor" idea include Mark D'Arcy and Rory MacLean, Nightmare! The Race to Become London's Mayor (London: Politico's, 2000); and Andrew Rawnsley, Servants of the People: The Inside Story of New Labour (London: Penguin, 2001,), chap. 18.

(17) The term megacity was employed primarily by critics of amalgamation, to suggest that the large size of the new unit contradicted citizen concerns about retaining smaller-scale, ostensibly more responsive local government units.

(18) Municipal Affairs minister Al Leach, as quoted in Andrew Sancton, "Amalgamations, Service Realignment, and Property Taxes: Did the Harris Government Have a Plan for Ontario's Municipalities?" paper presented at Governing Ontario Conference, University of Western Ontario, 1998, 9.

(19) On widespread frustration with the status quo in Toronto, see Andrew Sancton, "Signs of Life? The Transformation of Two-tier Metropolitan Government," in Andrew et al., eds., Urban Affairs, 189.

(20) Toronto's outer suburbs were already organized into the four regional municipalities of York, Durham, Peel and Halton. The Golden Task Force recommended a single, indirectly elected, upper-tier regional government that would focus on economic development and infrastructure priorities. See Graham Todd, "Megacity: Globalization and Governance in Toronto," Studies in Political Economy 56 (Summer 1998), 200; and Sancton, "The Municipal Role in the Governance of Canadian Cities," 439-40.

(21) R. D. Gidney, From Hope to Harris: The Reshaping of Ontario's Schools (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 235,244.

(22) See John Ibbitson, Promised Land: Inside the Mike Harris Revolution (Toronto: Prentice-Hall, 1997), 247.

(23) Progressive mayors of Toronto prior to Hall's tenure included David Crombie and John Sewell. Their records contrasted with those of more conservative mayors who governed through the early 1990s, notably Art Eggleton and June Rowlands. See C. Richard Tindal and Susan Nobes Tindal. Local Government in Canada (5th ed.; Toronto: Nelson, 2000), 321-25.

(24) Engin F. Isin, "Governing Cities without Government," in Engin F. Isin, ed., Democracy, Citizenship and the Global City (London: Routledge, 2000), 161.

(25) See Myer Siemiatycki, Tim Rees, Roxana Ng and Khan Rahi, "Integrating Community Diversity in Toronto: On Whose Terms?" in Anisef and Lanphier, eds., The World in a City, 437-41.

(26) Sancton, Merger Mania, 162.

(27) On the London by-elections, see Ben Pimlott and Nirmala Rao, Governing London (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 41. On the Toronto referendum results, which represent an average across the six units of what had been Metro Toronto, see Julie-Anne Boudreau, The Megacity Saga: Democracy and Citizenship in this Global Age (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2000), 14.

(28) The Golden Task Force recommendation also added rather than eliminated a layer of government. See Sancton, Merger Mania, 121-22.

(29) Leach as quoted in Boudreau, The Megacity Saga, 8, 6.

(30) See Boudreau, The Megacity Saga; Martin Horak, "The Power of Local Identity: C4LD and the Anti-Amalgamation Mobilization in Toronto," University of Toronto, Centre for Urban and Community Studies, Research Paper 195; and Engin Isin, "Governing Toronto without Government: Liberalism and Neoliberalism," Studies in Political Economy 56 (Summer 1998), 179-84. On the failed court challenge, see Beth Moore Milroy, "Toronto's Legal Challenge to Amalgamation," in Andrew et al. eds., Urban Affairs, 157-78.

(31) See Boudreau, The Megacity Saga, 28-30; Slack, "Have Fiscal Issues Put Urban Affairs Back on the Policy Agenda," 314-16; and Katherine A. Graham and Susan D. Phillips, "Who Does What in Ontario: The Process of Provincial-Municipal Disentanglement," Canadian Public Administration 41:2 (1998), 175-209.

(32) Harris' action contrasted with the recommendations of the Golden Task Force and "Who Does What" panel that responsibility for redistributive policies rest in provincial hands. See Boudreau, 8.

(33) See Gidney, From Hope to Harris, 247-53.

(34) On health care pressures during this period, see Antonia Maioni, "Health Care in the New Millennium," in Herman Bakvis and Grace Skogstad, eds., Canadian Federalism (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2002), 87-104.

(35) This Toronto area was defined as the census metropolitan area, or a somewhat smaller zone geographically and demographically than the total inner city, inner suburban and outer suburban region. See Frances Frisken, L.S. Bourne, Gunter Gad, and Robert A. Murdie, "Governance and Social Sustainability: The Toronto Experience," in Mario Polese and Richard Stren, eds., The Social Sustainability of Cities (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 76; and Anisef and Lanphier, "Introduction," 3.

(36) See Jack Layton, Homelessness: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis (Toronto: Penguin, 2000); and David Cameron, "Homelessness," in Timothy L. Thomas, ed., The Politics of the City (Scarborough: Nelson, 1997), 219-28.

(37) On Lastman's early successes as mayor, see Sancton, Merger Mania, 136-39.

(38) In Lastman's words, "There's no two ways about it. Amalgamation for Toronto has turned out to be a disaster." See Rusk, "Lastman Sours on Amalgamation." Lastman's judgment was called into doubt on numerous occasions, including when he shook hands publicly with a Hell's Angels biker to welcome him to the city, and when he confessed worry before leaving on a trip to Africa (to support the 2008 Toronto Olympics bid) that his hosts on that continent might boil him alive. See "Mel's Moments," Globe and Mail (19 September 2002), A26.

(39) See, for example, John Lorinc, "Dirty Rotten Scandal," Toronto Life (April 2002), 57-68.

(40) See Richard Mackie, "Ontario PCs Far Behind Liberals, Survey Says," Globe and Mail (12 January 2002), A4.

(41) In 2001 alone, according to the provincial auditor, Toronto was shortchanged $140 million. See Murray Campbell, "Tory Offloading has a Foul Odour Indeed," Globe and Mail (4 July 2002).

(42) In spring 2003, for example, the Ontario Conservatives announced that they were considering a fixed time limit for receipt of welfare payments, parallel with initiatives adopted in the United States, and in British Columbia under Gordon Campbell's Liberals.

(43) Pimlott and Rao, Governing London, 75, 55.

(44) This emphasis appeared in the 1997 Labour party election manifesto, as quoted in Travers, "Local Government," 119.

(45) See Pimlott and Rao, Governing London, 59-61.

(46) Pimlott and Rao, Governing London, 65.

(47) See Ron Fenney, Essential Local Government 2000 (London: LGC Information, 2000), chap. 7; and Tony Byrne, Local Government in Britain (London: Penguin, 2000), 588-89.

(48) Byrne, Local Government in Britain, 599.

(49) See Fenney, Essential Local Government 2000, 113 ff.

(50) For an overview of competing perspectives, see Travers, "Local Government," 117-38.

(51) See Pimlott and Rao, Governing London, 89. One commentator argued that new electoral schemes introduced as part of the Greater London Authority reforms could encourage the "normalisation within British political culture" of alternatives to single member plurality arrangements. See Ian Loveland, "The Government of London," Political Quarterly 70:1 (January-March 1999), 97.

(52) The second place finisher was Conservative candidate Steven Norris, while Dobson ran third on the first count.

(53) See Christopher Foster, "Transport Policy," in Seldon, ed., The Blair Effect 279.

(54) On debates over Tube privatization and congestion charging, see Pimlott and Rao, Governing London, chap. 7. Congestion charging in central London went into effect on 17 February 2003, and reduced traffic delays and accidents during its first six months of operation. For details on revenues, public approval ratings and traffic impact, see Transport for London, Congestion Charging: Six Months On, cc--intro.shtml

(55) See Greater London Authority, The Draft London Plan: Draft Spatial Development Strategy for Greater London (London: Greater London Authority, 2002).


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Sylvia Bashevkin

Department of Political Science

University of Toronto
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.