Politics and London Transport

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At London Reconnections we tend not to be introspective. After all it is transport you are interested in, not us. Amongst other things we try to maintain our reputation (and our readers) by being objective and refrain from giving too much personal opinion in any article we write.

We also have a very clear policy on politics – largely that this is an area which is best left to voices in London other than our own.

This editorial policy is enforced by John Bull and emphasised in, ahem, editorial meetings. This enforcement appears to be done by plying us with alcohol and then repeating the mantra “and we don’t do politics” so that all one can remember afterwards is that expression swirling around in one’s head.

It is certainly true that we try to refrain from the political – our business is economics, analysis and as many reasons to post pictures as we can find – but of course the idea that you can always discuss transport issues without mentioning the politics behind it is a bit like trying to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room.

The British education system has traditionally tended to encourage us to study subjects in isolation and this is what often happens in transport. There are many schemes for improving transport which make sense when viewed solely through that lens. When one considers whether they make sense from an engineering, financial or planning perspective, however, sometimes the view can be very different. Getting all those perspectives to align, and providing the glue to make it all happen, requires the political element.

It was Otto von Bismarck who first said that “politics is the art of the possible”. A transport plan that ignores the political reality is a transport plan that doesn’t happen.

So whilst the transport analysis, “statement of case” for planning purposes and financial scrutiny all play a vital part, it is it the politician who will finally authorise or reject any large-scale plans put forward and any plan that does not have this approval will not go ahead. If follows, therefore, that all plans must be politically acceptable. Politicians, particularly at government level, probably behave in a far more rational and business-like way than they are given credit for and generally follow the advice of their civil servants (whether that advice is good advice is another matter), but there is always the danger of a “Jim Hacker” moment and it is this sort of thing that discredits the political involvement. The other great danger at a political level is, of course, the politician obsessed by ideology. Margaret Thatcher’s obsession with rail privatisation and Gordon Brown’s blind commitment to PPP on the Underground, have both proven costly.

To give a rather extreme of politics interfering with rational decision making in transport, one could do worse than go back a little further and consider the case of a proposed closure of a loss-making Welsh railway line.

Harold Wilson had won the general election by 4 seats in 1964. He had campaigned against the Beeching cuts but when in office changed his mind and, if anything, accelerated the programme. Presumably, now he was in power, he realised just how expensive these underused lines were and regarded it as essential to stop the drain on cash regardless of previous words to the contrary. In Cabinet, he announced the proposal to close one Welsh line. Immediately George Thomas, later the speaker Lord Tonypandy, exclaimed “You can’t do that!”

Other cabinet members were aghast. One simply did not tell the Prime Minister what he could and couldn’t do. All eyes focused on George Thomas. He continued in his strong Welsh accent “But Prime Minister, that railway line goes through seven marginal constituencies”.

Indeed if we look at four big London rail schemes that won’t be, are being, or have been built in recent years one can see that the only reason to rationally explain their success or otherwise is by considering the political factor.

Looking East

First to get approved was the East London section of London Overground. We take it for granted now, but when considered in purely transport terms it really is difficult to make a good case for a line that doesn’t go to or though Central London, serves the less affluent parts of the Capital and needs complete reconstruction of a long-disused railway that can only run four-carriage trains once built. It had already been rejected once by Transport Secretary Cecil Parkinson back in the 1990’s when the government of the day really did not want to spend money on railway projects. What transformed the case was when transport in London became more devolved and the fact that the project was seen less as railway project and as more of a regeneration project for some of the most deprived areas of London. It also helped that Ken Livingstone was then the Mayor and was well-known to been keen on improving the lives of people in the inner suburbs. Basically, the political will was there when it wasn’t before.

Playing the Long Game

Next along was the big daddy of them all – Crossrail. Crossrail had been talked about for many decades but it was always going to be very expensive. Incredibly, Parliament rejected Crossrail in 1994 largely on the basis of the report by a few non-London MPs who were given the job of scrutinising a private bill for Crossrail. Even more incredibly, when taken at face value, was the fact that the Liberal Democrat local council in Tower Hamlets campaigned against it.

For the next few years Crossrail was put on hold, although senior rail managers managed to make sure the project didn’t die. The problem was that although it was generally seen as a good and necessary thing, it was very expensive, would cause a lot of disruption and was probably not seen by the average voter as being necessary. One can almost imagine Sir Humphrey saying “Yes, minister. I am sure it is an excellent scheme but the time just isn’t right”.

In the early 21st century the GLA pushed hard again for the scheme. Fortunately the obsession with ideology had largely been replaced by realpolitik. Realising they had to sell the project to the Government, and that the Government had to sell the project to the country, they produced studies to show that far from being a drain on the Government coffers, over a long period the project would prove a good investment as it would stimulate growth that would provide far more revenue than the project costs. At the time, Gordon Brown was at the Treasury and was well-known for both his desire to stimulate the jobs market and his eyes glazing over as soon as transport was mentioned. The problems of a lack of the labour available for businesses around west London and Heathrow along with unemployment in the East End was highlighted as was the support of the City.

Local issues were not forgotten. A station was proposed at Whitechapel to get the support of Tower Hamlets. Regardless of the Liberal Democrats’ support at national level, the opposition to a railway being constructed through the Borough with absolutely no local benefit had not been forgotten. In later years George Galloway (then aspiring to be the local MP) showed his opposition citing considerable local disruption during the construction phase. A proposed construction shaft for extraction of spoil at Hanbury Street near Brick Lane was dropped in favour of extending the construction time-frame. The shaft may have made engineering sense and financial sense, but it didn’t make political sense. It is highly significant that at no point during the spending cuts was the idea of abandoning the station at Whitechapel mooted – even though, from a purely transport point of view, it isn’t really that important.

Finally, when it comes to Crossrail, its supporters recognised that the cost was really hard for the government of the day to swallow. The reality dawned that the best way to push the scheme through was to provide a good case for the minimally viable scheme. In the west the scheme was cut back from Reading to Maidenhead and in the south east from Ebbsfleet to Abbey Wood. Maidenhead is still the officially intended western terminus today, although just about everyone expects that in reality it will go to Reading. It’s really just a case of “keep the costs off our budget” – a bit of politics.

The Right Project At the Wrong Time

A project that really suffered from political machinations is Thameslink – or Thameslink 2000 as it was then known. One suspects even the original name was a political decision to get the politicians focused on getting on with it. Unfortunately, if so, it failed in its objective.

Here the time really wasn’t right. The government of the day was obsessed with rail privatisation and really didn’t want exposure to a large half-finished project. The privatisation act put the requirement on building Thameslink 2000 onto the commercial company Railtrack who had absolutely no incentive to build it, and inevitably produced lots of glossy brochures about it whilst doing absolutely no physical construction whatsoever. Things got delayed further when the Planning Inspector found fault with details of the scheme but one wonders if this was made worse by a government with a “prudent” Chancellor of the Exchequer. It possibly gave the politicians the perfect excuse to say “We want to go ahead but these planning issues need to be sorted out. Not our fault!”

A Lack of Political Will

Finally, we can see the effect of the lack of political will killing off the Airtrack scheme. We have covered this before. The main problem here was the numerous level crossings that would have resulted in more frequent closures for motorists. In the west of London this produced considerable opposition to the scheme that no politician dare ignore. To most commentators, the appointment of Philip Hammond as Secretary of State for Transport signalled the likely death of Airtrack more than any particular infrastructure or finance report though – for the new Transport Secretary was also MP for Runnymede and Weybridge. It is interesting and amusing to note that at the time Justine Greening, MP for Putney and the current Secretary of State for Transport, was broadly in favour of the scheme – but only if the trains stopped at Putney.

What Happens Next

These are examples of politics affecting, or even controlling, big projects but the effect is just the same on a smaller scale. As one former Northern Line manager once said “I can’t even change the timetable without getting letters from MPs”. The fact that transport questions (even on issues such as the placement of specific bus stops) dominate Mayor’s Question Time is another example.

It is easy to be cynical about politics and politicians chasing votes but before we get too carried away it is worth remembering that whilst transport planners may provided the ingredients for a transport proposal, it is the politician that makes it happen – or not.

The fact that we have three major transport projects happening in London simultaneously suggests that we are in a period where politicians are working for improved transport and making it happen. If nothing else, we should be grateful for that. What we must also do, however, is look – in political terms – at “what happens next.” With the Mayoral elections imminent, the transport promises of the four main candidates for the position (Boris Johnson, Ken Livingstone, Brian Paddick and Jenny Jones) are likely to have a major impact on what projects see the light of day within the next five years – regardless of who wins.

In the world of London realpolitik, they provide a weathervane as to where the political wind is blowing, and thus what we will be writing (and our commentors commenting) about for years to come. And so, now that all the key players have published their manifestos, we will look in the next few days at the transport policies those documents contain.

We hope this will be of interest both to those who find themselves in possession of a ballot paper, and those for whom London transport is a subject they enjoy from a distance. We also hope that this stimulates some positive debate – LR’s strength lies in the knowledge of its commentors more than it does in our own.

We do ask, however, that you remember that whilst Mr Bull tends to apply the editorial policy to us through the medium of the carrot, he is likely to deal with ad hominems or sweeping comments with the stick. Debate is good – mud throwing, however, is something we leave happily to comment sections elsewhere.

Written by Pedantic of Purley