Our system of having a London mayor is not a traditional one. The position was inspired by what is done in several widely dispersed cities around the world, and perhaps most of all in New York, famous for larger than life characters who seem to be able to create camaraderie and get things done, or so we are encouraged to believe. In the ’90s London, you may recall, had no cross city civic government at all. The bloated and ponderous Greater London Council was not everybody’s idea of good local government but central government’s vindictive and arguably undemocratic abolition of that body in 1984 left London with no city government and no sensible mechanism for developing any coherent policies. That this had to be fixed, without replicating the GLC, provided an opportunity for a more suitable solution and for some reason the government was pre-occupied with the idea that strong local mayors needed to be sold to us. The general British response was deep suspicion about having executive mayors foisted upon us, but a referendum in London was favourable to the idea. Remember that the existing arrangement had been no city government at all and we weren’t actually offered an alternative model. So, a mayor we got.
It was with greatly satisfying irony that the first mayor was not only someone that the government was very keen should not win, but the very person who was running the GLC when the government abolished it. Excellent. Not often people at large get the opportunity to raise two fingers! It was also excellent that this winner stood as an independent and London shunned the wretched political offerings that were presented to us. Whatever one might think of Ken Livingstone and his policies, you knew where you stood and he was a character; he also understood the issues and had calmed down a bit since his time at the GLC – more carmine than red, perhaps. It is much too close to events to know what long term impact Mayor Boris has had, but at least we know who he is, and it is probably safe to say that around the world those who are professionally interested in London know who he is as well. I’m trying to avoid the word ‘character’ as he no doubt trades on that, but you know what I mean. He is a politician, so you do not necessarily have to like him or his policies, but from a London point of view it is no surprise to see him as mayor.
So that leads us neatly to the fact there is a mayoral election in the offing in May 2016. Several of the candidates I have never heard of at all but I can’t help thinking that none of them falls into my earlier description of ‘larger than life’ and natural creator of camaraderie. Apart from a Polish nobleman, who is the only true independent candidate, the others all represent political parties of one kind or another. The larger parties produce candidates according to their own obscure formulas where unelected groupings of people we’ve never heard of produce candidates according to their own self-serving criteria and in effect we have very little option but to vote for one of them or the other. The power exerted by all three of the main parties is out of all proportion to their combined membership representing only about one percent of the population. This does not, to me, reassure me that they should be trusted to provide London with the best possible candidates for an executive mayor (a job entirely different from that of an MP or local councillor).
On this occasion the public is having foisted upon it the dispiriting option of Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan. I have been through the policies they are promoting (we don’t know if they came up with them themselves) and many of them are strangely similar and none of them is very profound. It is true there are other candidates but the supplementary vote process means one of these two is bound to win. Does it actually make any difference? Well, with competent permanent officials, and the fact the winning candidate will soon discover the enormity of the real problems and the limited levers of change available to pull, then I suspect the differences between them will reduce further. Whether that is good is anyone’s guess, but I will certainly be considering the ‘none of the above’ option when I visit the polling booth. It is very frustrating. London is one of the foremost cities of the world and has huge challenges to face where all the complex issues are in some way linked. I can’t help thinking that if the present mayoral candidate list is the best that Londoner’s can expect then the system is wrong.
So why after going through the manifestos do I remain dispirited? I had better say now that I am neither going to indicate which is better or worse as you need to make up your own mind about that, nor am I going to go through the whole of them because I am not familiar with some of the territory. I will just make some observations about the TfL road and rail material that I am familiar with, which may or may not be representative.
Goldsmith’s transport manifesto is notable for (1) making promises to deliver things that are already in the pipeline, committed and pretty much inevitable, (2) vague generalizations of the ‘I will work with…’ type, (3) knocking the other lot, and (4) making the usual PR-generated statements where some attention-grabbing factoid is mentioned and a completely unconnected political point is made. It is a bit empty. There is a fifth element where he promises to do something extraordinarily specific that isn’t really a transport policy and which I suspect is already being done. More anon, but I wonder how often Goldsmith uses public transport (other than for photoshoots); with his inherited millions I suspect not very often, and mention it only because I’m not sure he actually understand the problems that have to be faced. There is nothing in the manifesto that shouts ‘Our transport system in London is chaotic and can’t cope and here is how I will fix it’ (this may be as well, as one mayor in one term would be hard put to do this). The manifesto can be found HERE (courtesy of issuu) but you may need to use a third party downloader to print it off.
Khan’s manifesto is mercifully shorter and to the point. His agency has ensured that his points are clearer and punchier, and are nearly all of the ‘I will [do something]’ type, which is a good thing, but the ‘promises’ are a bit lame and even some of those are stuff that is already happening. However, while there are more specifics than in Goldsmith’s proposals, they don’t all seem to be very central to what needs doing. Khan tries the ‘good guy’ tactic as he and his family have at least been involved in transport, but the proposals don’t shout out anything very strategic. The main plank of his strategy (if that is what it is) is to freeze fares ‘because Londoners pay some of the highest public transport fares of any major city’. Now, let no-one say our fares are cheap but this does feel like cheap politics. What is the point of comparing London fares with Moscow, Delhi, Washington and Madrid? If one ranks average transport fares in world cities and then one ranks average earnings in those same cities then one stands back in amazement to discover that the ranked list of cities is similar and that in the western world transport costs as a proportion of income largely rank similarly. This is hardly surprising as most transport operating costs are actually people costs so there is almost bound to be correlation in any city between fares charged and economic prosperity. What matters is what proportion of income is spent on the various household outgoings, of which transport is just one and probably not the largest, but, as usual in manifestos, absolutely no facts are given. I come back to this shortly. You can find it all at: HERE.
The Public Transport Elements
I list the specific public transport policies below, with observations, but I think I have only two real points to make in all this. First, the main problem facing London is the huge explosion in population and the immense pressure this will place on the transport system. The challenge for the transport operator is that a great deal more capacity is urgently needed at a time when the already ageing (and arguably under-maintained) existing infrastructure is struggling to cope and needs more and more attention. To fix the old stuff appears to suggest more temporary closures at a time when system use demands fewer closures because they are becoming disruptive to increasing numbers of people. The second, though connected, point is that the consequences of train and signalling failures and delays become more acute and less tolerable as the system becomes excessively busy; so much so, that even small incidents have the capacity to disrupt huge numbers of people causing real economic loss (apart from possible distress and fear for those immediately involved). These are formidable challenges and we need the best minds we can find to identify an imaginative long term plan. It is a great deal more than just ‘build Crossrail 2’, or whatever the present mantra might be. We need real flair, imagination and leadership.
And that is just rail. At the same time we have conflicting demands about use of our streets where there is clearly not enough space in our largely Victorian street-scape and buses are brought to a crawl in order to meet other conflicting objectives (reducing optimal capacity). To grasp all this and deal with it in a sensible, humane, affordable but practical way we need some kind of super-hero and not party apparatchiks just passing through. Just my view, of course, but if you have some sympathy with my thoughts about the challenges you can make up your own minds how either manifesto is going to move things along.
GOLDSMITH TRANSPORT MANIFESTO
Increase capacity on London’s busiest Underground services, increasing SSL capacity by a third and protecting new trains for Jubilee and Northern.
This is all in hand already and could not rationally be stopped. No mention of New Tube For London upgrades.
Deliver Night Tube and Extend it.
The aggravation about this would appear to be sorted already and a summer start is expected with recruitment in hand. I am not sure the consequences of extending it to the SSL lines in 2017 have been thought through as this coincides with installation of new signalling. He knocks Khan for having union backers who don’t want it but fails to mention Khan also supports night tube. Cheap.
Will take stand against union bosses holding city to ransom
This is a ‘will work with government’ promise. Not sure that strikes have been very frequent in recent years (much less than in years gone by) and I wonder if this is central to most people’s concerns.
Will back a privately financed river crossing at Silvertown in SE London
This is an ‘I will back’ proposal for a scheme TfL already pursuing.
I will deliver a Southern Overground.
This is potentially more mayoral territory and obviously builds on government consultation already in hand which is very likely to support transfer of some or all inner suburban services to TfL over time and as contracts allow. However, it comes with a tremendous caution. Much of the present dissatisfaction is wrongly focused on the present operators who are delivering to a DfT spec and where most failures are capacity-related or Network Rail failures, and mere transfer to TfL won’t of itself fix any of this. It is not like the North London Line. If real improvement is going to result then it will be very, very expensive and take quite a while to deliver results. It may be a scheme whose day has come, but raising false expectations could backfire.
A Range of Tube Improvements including WiFi, more step free access and extra policing.
Wi-Fi and step-free are already policy but extending wi-fi into tunnels might be expensive and I shudder at the thought of making phone signals available on the tube (that is only a personal view – I find personal phone calls taking place within inches of my on a crowded tube very offensive). The benefits of the extra policing promised is not quantified, and policemen are very, very expensive. To put extra police in at a time when LU has just taken three times that number of staff out seems to me very peculiar and a policy designed to achieve nothing more than get votes from people not asking ‘why? And who’s paying?’. Am I reassured to see all these policemen? Actually there is some cause to think it might have the opposite effect.
By the way, though not in his manifesto, it emerged in April that he proposes to pay for 500 extra police by withdrawing a staff perk. I estimate the police cost as roundly £30 million a year, over time, including recruitment and training. The perk (a frequent target of the political classes) is the so-called nominee pass (formerly called a spouse pass). The Goldsmith camp have assumed each one is worth the value of an annual travelcard and have arrived at the conclusion that if they stopped the perk it would bring in £22 million and ‘pay for’ the extra police. I won’t comment on the merits of staff perks but the child-like jam-jar accounting method is horrifying. A travelcard has far wider availability than the pass, many are not heavily used, and then only for short journeys, and the prospect of all of them converting to full-rate gold cards is just laughable. TfL (who can measure usage) reckon the true number is £5-£7 million and is a useful part of the employment package (which might otherwise have to be topped up in cash). I know whose numbers I trust and it means the extra police (which I understand the police authority has not asked for) are not actually funded. In the meantime, he has irritated very large numbers of staff at a time when things are already a bit fractious, the more so as Goldsmith’s inherited fortune is vast enough to pay for the 500 extra police each year for the whole of an 8-year double turn as mayor without it even denting his lifestyle.
There is a very specific policy to set up a partnership (Broadband for London) with the telecoms industry to deliver superfast broadband across London using TfL infrastructure. Goldsmith appears not to know that TfL infrastructure is so useful for trunk haul fibre optic cables it has worked with the telecoms industry for decades and LU actively markets the facility and already has thousands of miles of third party cables in its tunnels, lineside runs and old tramway ducts etc (the latter he doesn’t seem, to know about). The network is not suitable for house to house cabling because of the problems of getting cables into and out of stations (I used to run this arrangement). Sounds like a policy created over a drink in his club!
Publish a Review into Outer London Bus Network.
Good. Orbital travel in outer London is a nightmare, but why restrict it to buses? Goldsmith is also besotted with the issue of ‘frequent’ routes, whatever that means. Can we be clear that overall journey time is probably the most important factor and that service reliability and journey speed are factors at least as important (and maybe more important) than scheduled frequency? Unless this is grasped, the effort is entirely wasted.
Will bear down on fares by creating new sources of income.
An opportunity to knock the other lot’s policies. No specific new sources are given and there are constraint’s to TfL’s powers in the GLA Act 1999 (notwithstanding I was able to get some of them loosened in the 1998 bill, but that is another story).
Protect concessionary passes
No actual action required.
The bold summary at the end includes that he will extend the Northern Line (already in hand) and the extraordinary claim that ‘South Londoners will no longer be dependent on a second rate transport system’. Now that is courageous.
Goldsmith’s housing manifesto also states that TfL’s land-holding is equivalent to the size of the London Borough of Camden [8.4 square miles] and that ‘much of this land is surplus to requirements’. I really cannot get my head around this suggestion, which seems intrinsically unlikely. Most railway surplus land is above stations and thanks to earlier government policies are already let on long leases (and were not by any means a good deal for tax payers). This invites some closer questioning to find out exactly what is meant and (therefore) whether it is feasible. There may be large tracts of TfL non-rail land lying around, but this feels unlikely.
KHAN TRANSPORT MANIFESTO
I will freeze fares for next four years, while pay growth catches up.
Fares policy is central ground for a mayor and ‘cheap fares’ feels like it is just intended to gain votes. I mention earlier that I think the statement ‘London fares are amongst the highest’ is an unsound driver of policy as people’s disposable incomes are dependent on other factors too (and housing costs in particular). If we are talking about what in reality is keeping fares down artificially then I ask (1) why is the system filling up at such a great rate and do we actually want to encourage more crowding, and (2) who pays, because it isn’t free. This isn’t gone into, but see next point.
I will fund the fares freeze by making TfL a more efficient and profitable operation.
The perceived problem (so his manifesto states) is that TfL is vast, inefficient and flabby, but no metrics are offered about what the right size might be. It spends hundreds of millions each years on agency and consultancy staff and fails to shares functions across TfL, and so on. Fine – all good knock about stuff but assuming that there are legitimate functions to be done it may be cheaper to use agency people for specific projects than be stuck with long term staff that are expensive to get rid of. The point is we don’t know because no evidence is offered so there must be a doubt about whether the aspiration is achievable, let alone enough to pay for a fares freeze (do you remember Ken Livingstone doing a fares freeze in GLC days, this was a real financial problem after a while, though inflation was far greater in those days). The plan is to cut consultants and reduce duplication. Well good luck with that. I am tempted to use the word naive here.
There is a dispute about how much a fares freeze would actually cost but even at the lower figure of £450 million (TfL says £1.9bn) costs savings (principally staff at about 20 staff to the million) comes to an implausibly high proportion of the TfL workforce. Has this been thought through, and does it take account of massive efficiency savings that TfL has already planned? I have some experience in this area and have reason to think there are several areas where TfL could save very large amounts of money, but these are not hinted at in the manifesto. I don’t see a plan at all.
Khan also wants to increase alternative income by selling expertise elsewhere (anyone remember LT International?). Well, if this is to be credible, who can we let go in large enough numbers with the right skills at a time when many key skills are already in short supply within TfL and Khan has got rid of the consultants, presumably replacing them with hard-to-get internal people with the right experience? Experience with LT International did not suggest an income stream was so great as to pay for a fares freeze: far from it, it was marginal. Land will also ‘be put to better use’, but no examples are given of what land and where that is already not let or leased. I’m not saying there isn’t any, but to gauge whether it will bring in the required money quickly I want to know. Otherwise it is just, for all I know, a daydream.
The use of the word ‘profitable’ in a labour manifesto is interesting.
I will Introduce a hopper ticket (a 1-hour bus ticket).
Fine. Hope this works with wave and pay contactless.
Will support Oyster and contactless with equality of benefits
Good. Isn’t this current policy?
Support Freedom pass
Press for Tfl to take over more [main line] commuter routes.
Fine. Assume my comments here same as for Goldsmith (above) who supports this
Encourage more competition in the bus sector (eg not-for profit groups)
Want to make it easier for alternative suppliers and TfL commercial arm to bid. (Not clear why and to what end).
Deliver Night Tube and reduce days lost through strike action
See observations under Goldsmith
Improve accessibility for buses and step free Underground
Already long term general policy but frequently subject to funding availability. Not clear what more will be done at what cost.
Examine Impact of Ticket Office Closures
No concrete plan here even if he finds impact negative.
Khan also plans to produce houses on TfL land but proposals are ’’vague.