Diving Into The Fleet: Getting Conservative, 1980 – 1985
When we last left the story of the Fleet line it had become the Jubilee. The GLC’s Conservative administration had been unsuccessful in their attempts to persuade the Labour Government to push forward with Jubilee stage 3 to the Docklands. A Conservative Government replaced Labour in the May 1979 General Election. Here we explore their efforts to persuade a government of the same colour to fund the planned Docklands extension and look at the politics (and people) that created the DLR when these failed.
Economy still poor
A letter from the Greater London Council (GLC) to Dr Richardson, the Transport Department’s (DTp)’s Assistant Secretary in charge of London Transport, on 4 June 1979 stated their view that almost all London area MPs supported extending the Jubilee line. However inflation, fiscal uncertainty and poor value for money of Stages 3 and 4, as well as pressure from non-London regions, made the new Conservative Government very wary of proceeding with any Jubilee construction at all. Not least because although the politicians in charge had changed, the officials were still in post and their professional views hadn’t shifted.
As a result, the new Conservative Government adopted a similar viewpoint to its predecessor in this regard. In the Ministry of Transport Press Release of 25 June 1979 (DTp was still a junior ministry within the Department of the Environment at the time), new Transport Minister Norman Fowler ran down the idea of funding an extension to the Jubilee line in a press release. He gave it only two paragraphs of description before dismissing it:
It is, I believe, common ground between us [Fowler, and Horace Cutler of the GLC] that to proceed immediately with Stage II and to begin to commit public expenditure for Stage III at this time poses great problems. I have therefore asked him to accept a pause while we examine together the possibilities of lower cost options.
At the same time, I have stressed my view that the GLC are absolutely right in attaching high importance to settling the basic transport infrastructure in and around Docklands. I believe that new initiatives and special financial provisions are needed for this and I am prepared together with the GLC to earmark resources for a continuous programme for the specific purpose of improving road and rail links in and around Docklands…
I hope these measures I am taking will indicate my own strong degree of commitment to getting the right transport links in and for Docklands.
However Fowler then expounded six paragraphs on the need for “getting the right transport links in and for Docklands”, being completing the North Circular and Southern Relief Roads with connections to the area road network. It is notable that Fowler did not mention any costs for these roads, which would cost almost double what the full Jubilee line would have, even though the Tube extension was rejected due to ‘high costs’.
In the end, the practical policy difference with Labour was largely that the Conservative Government placed less emphasis on industry and a presumption of more suburban business parks.
GLC relents on Jubilee line aspiration
The Report of the Minister of Transport, Norman Fowler, which commented on the London Transport Bill for the 1979/80 Parliamentary session, stated:
The Minister has no objection to the Bill. However, he does wish to make it clear that he is not persuaded of the case for the eastern extension of the Jubilee Line, or the construction of the Woolwich Tunnel as part of the present industrially-based strategy for the redevelopment of the Docklands [our emphasis]. His attitude toward the Bill in no way implies, therefore, that expenditure on the third stage as a whole, or on the Woolwich Tunnel, will be accepted in the future as eligible for Transport Supplementary Grant. The Minister has already expressed his intention of opposing those provisions in the Greater London Council (Money) Bill which contain financial authority for the start of work of the second phase of the Jubilee Line.
As the Bill made its way through Parliament, Fowler did not object to the Jubilee extension, but clarified in July 1979 that this was merely:
being sought so that there can be no danger of works being delayed should a decision to build be taken with respect to any part of the proposed line of route. The Minister’s view in no way implies acceptance of expenditure on any such works as eligible for Transport Supplementary Grant.
In January 1980, the Minister of Transport Norman Fowler then:
asked Sir Horace Cutler to accept a pause while there was a study of lower cost options for transport infrastructure in Docklands… In accepting this pause the GLC withdrew the Jubilee Line provision from the Money Bill.
GLC’s policy blinkers
Horace Cutler was the Conservative leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) between 1977 and 1981, after that party took control of the council from Labour in May 1977. He had been the last leader of Middlesex County Council from 1963 until its abolition in 1965. Under his direction, the GLC accumulated £100M to pay for Stage 2 of the Fleet/Jubilee line to go east from Charing Cross along the Fleet Street/Strand corridor as originally planned. So why didn’t this happen?
The arrival of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in May 1979 surely would give the ideal political moment for a self-funded Jubilee extension, initially to Fenchurch Street then poised for east and/or south-east London and the Docklands regeneration area.
It was not to be. As we have seen in Part 2 of this series, extending the Jubilee to Fenchurch Street didn’t achieve much in its own right, so Stage 2 depended on the case for extensions beyond that – well in excess of the £100m funding available, thereby requiring central Government funding and Parliamentary Bill passage support. The Transport Department consequently took the view that the tube extension merits weren’t proven whilst public finances were still tight. In relation to the available £100m, the Prime Minister ultimately took the view that there were other more important political priorities.
Even if the main Jubilee extension appeared poor value, the Woolwich Tunnel scheme could have been a legitimate use of some of the GLC £100m cash pot in order to underpin Docklands regeneration. It would have been hard for Government to deny the GLC that opportunity. Yet the Conservative-led GLC since 1977 had failed to rewrite the industrial focus of the Labour GLC’s Docklands strategy, which as we have seen undermined the business case for both the Jubilee and North London Line (NLL) cross-river extensions. This turned out to be the fundamental flaw.
The absence of a new policy game plan was despite Cutler’s previous sponsorship of the radical ‘Docklands’ reports of 1970-72, when a variety of development scenarios were considered. Even these though didn’t make full use of a tube’s capabilities.
Moreover, the Jubilee extension was aligned towards Thamesmead – one of the GLC’s own creations – and powers were being sought for that part of the line during 1979, even though much Thamesmead development had already taken place or was authorised. Objectively, scope there for stimulative impact from a Tube extension risked being too much railway, too late to make a difference. Thamesmead was originally planned to have 60,000 – 100,000 residents. Yet even in the mid-2010s Thamesmead is only on target for a final population of 50,000 (although there are local hopes that Crossrail will achieve more).
So let’s follow through the sequence that transpired after May 1979.
The immediate result of the Conservative government’s election to office was that Fowler didn’t back Sir Horace over the cost-effectiveness of extending the Fleet/Jubilee line as a ‘Docklands Spine’ as his civil servants were unequivocal. This despite the fact that Parliamentary powers were being sought for the line towards Woolwich and Thamesmead.
We discussed the Docklands Spine discussed in the first part of this series, including its struggle to demonstrate value for money. It came from the ‘Docklands’ reports mentioned already, which had been translated in the 1972-74 London Rail Study into a River Line proposal. In the years leading up to the 1982 Serpell Report (which will be discussed in part four), this spine could just as easily have been an arterial road similar to the Docklands Southern Relief Road scheme, or a ‘minitram’. All would have been pricey and out of kilter with the scale of redevelopment volumes then foreseen. That said, a main road would have conformed more closely to some of the prevailing policy thinking at the time.
The Conservative GLC spent the summer of 1979 trying to beef up their Tube extension case to what they hoped was a favourably aligned Government, politically speaking. The GLC’s full bid, published in Autumn 1979 in their 1980-81 Transport Policies & Programme budget (TPP), was £273m for the Jubilee extension to Docklands plus the Woolwich Tunnel, of which £24m was to be spent in that year for the start of Stage 2 works. The 1980 GLC (Money) Bill had £12m earmarked for Jubilee Stage 2 construction, and another £12m six months later for the same purpose.
It soon became evident, however, that high-level political clearance would be essential, given the declared dislike of the project by civil servants. A meeting between Sir Horace, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Tom King (Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services) was held on 3 December 1979.
The formal record of the meeting at 10 Downing Street notes (bolding ours):
The immediate problem which he [Sir Horace] wished to mention to the Prime Minister concerned his capital fund. He was now in a dilemma, with the deadline approaching for the laying out of a budget. The GLC had now paid its debts (except on housing account) and was accumulating funds through the disposal of surplus assets.
He [Sir Horace] wanted agreement that funds recycled from under-used assets and the disposal of surplus assets could go into capital expenditure. He would emphasise with Mr. Fowler [Transport Minister] later in the day that he wanted no Government money for Stage II of the Jubilee Line. He already had £100m earmarked for this. He needed simply the authority to use his own funds. The Prime Minister asked why he wished to spend so much on the Jubilee Line given the enormous problems of regeneration of docklands. Mr King acknowledged that there was a problem of getting in and out of Docklands. [However] The Government had doubts on whether the Jubilee Line was the best approach to this issue…
Sir Horace Cutler pointed out that the Jubilee Line would cross the Thames five times: no road could be provided to meet the need in an equivalent fashion [our emphasis]. He [Horace Cutler] was concerned that if, in the difficult [election] year of 1981, the Conservative Group lost control of the GLC, then there would be a nest-egg left for an incoming party. The Prime Minister noted the problem. She said that she would prefer to see the money locked into mortgages. Mr. King said that the issue was whether to concentrate on housing or communications in dockland.
If communications were chosen, the money could not be spent by 1981, but could be tied up on tenders and contracts. The Prime Minister asked whether the GLC would get a better reception by using its funds on housing rather than the Jubilee Line. Sir Horace Cutler repeated that his problem was the restrictions on the form of his spending. The Prime Minister asked whether this should be examined in the context of the [then] Local Government Bill. Mr. King emphasised that the issue was not the ability to recycle funds, but the decision as to whether the GLC were to be allowed to use such funds. This was bound up with the issue of what would be the best use of the money. On the housing side, one could question whether significant amounts of private money might be waiting to come in. Sir Horace Cutler said that his credibility depended on the Jubilee Line Stage II being started next year. He emphasised the sound financial position now created by the Conservative GLC.
Sir Horace Cutler mentioned in passing that the GLC had been having discussions with Sir Peter Parker on a fully integrated commuter service for London, to be supervised by a passenger transport executive or authority.
The meeting record is a fascinating insight into Thatcher’s thinking at the time. As our first piece of bolding shows, housing and its political uses were foremost in her mind (Right to Buy would arrive the following year).
It is unclear exactly why Sir Horace made the last point bolded point, but perhaps he was trying to demonstrate the consequences should approval for the Jubilee extension not be given – GLC support for fully integrated public transport, something that Thatcher was known not to be keen on.
Knighthood – relevant or not?
Horace Cutler had been knighted in mid-1979, in the Queen’s birthday honours. So was this December meeting at 10 Downing Street just a token gesture?
There was certainly a belief in some quarters of Whitehall that Sir Horace was offered his knighthood as an advance consolation prize for the Jubilee Line extension being turned down again. The reality was that GLC appreciated that most major decisions were being overseen closely by No.10, therefore the meeting was essential. It was hoped that political minds of the same party persuasion might remove the prevailing impasse within officialdom.
Despite protestations from Sir Horace that funds under control of the GLC couldn’t be arbitrarily used for other government spending purposes, the PM’s views, as usual, prevailed – at least during the meeting. Home ownership was more important to her than a Tube line which struggled to justify itself. The episode did at least offer one crumb of comfort – that lower cost transport options would be reviewed in place of a Tube extension, and potentially better aligned to the low expectations for return on investment.
Rejection of the Jubilee extension
After the meeting, the GLC managed to hold on to its £100m, which was not put into mortgages but was held and ultimately used to fund the initial DLR scheme (£77m) and Docklands road construction, as we shall see later.
The rejection of the Jubilee Line extension was deeply disappointing for Sir Horace, as he had put much personal commitment behind it. His reputation did indeed suffer, as the Conservatives were voted out of GLC control in May 1981. Transport shortcomings were definitely a contributing factor to this. He ceased to be the Conservative party leader on the GLC in 1982, and gave up politics altogether when the GLC was abolished during Thatcher’s second premiership.
It is ironic that in his early GLC period as Deputy Leader (1967-73), Sir Horace had been given the chairmanship of the Housing Committee, and instituted the aforementioned “Right to Buy” scheme to allow tenants to buy their own homes at a discounted price – later to become a main Thatcherite policy. In that period he also forcibly transferred much of the GLC housing stock to the London boroughs. As a result, the December 1979 meeting with the Prime Minister saw him unable to argue from a balanced position of the GLC itself having to choose between housing and communications. In a way, he was ‘hoist with his own petard’.
It will be obvious by now that the Jubilee’s problems amounted to two sides of the same coin:
a poor business case for a high-cost Tube extension, not helped by being advocated during a difficult period for national finances, and with London a high-spend zone for any significant infrastructure which therefore risked being marked down against an English expenditure norm per local authority area.
There was also a shared policy vision by both major parties and their civil servants, who anticipated low-density Docklands developments (though some details might vary). Number 10’s view of the world also saw the political benefits of stimulating more voters into ownership of their own homes. So the policy priorities during this period were fixated on providing roads for vans and lorries for new businesses in Docklands, and support for car-based commuting for such territory.
Part of the problem with regenerating the Docklands was that there were no obvious precedents either in terms of scale or transport infrastructure. The latter point was especially difficult in London. The Local Authorities had no experience of public transport infrastructure, nor had their mentor, the ex-Ministry of Housing and Local Government (MHLG) side of DoE, and nor had any (ex)-New Towns staff. None of the New Town Development Corporations were on a scale to require investment in anything other than roads (and the Runcorn busway).
So part of the reason the case was not robustly made for high-density development in Docklands was that those responsible were overwhelmed at the size of the task (in acres and in magnitude) facing them. Furthermore, the geography of the Docklands made the area terra incognita for many Londoners, as its winding river bends forced main roads and most rail lines to avoid the area.
There were then parallel moves on both the transport and the Docklands policy fronts during the next four years to 1983, with some policy crossover between them. Ultimately it was the Docklands policy changes which had the bigger impact, but this wasn’t foreseen at the time. Meanwhile, the transport aspirations and actual investment decisions also contributed to the eventual turning of the corner on the case for a Tube line. This was happenstance rather than a structured plan, as we shall see. Let’s start with the transport schemes which were proposed in response to the Number 10 discussions.
The Department of the Environment, Ministry of Transport, GLC, Docklands Development Organisation and the London Transport Executive compiled and released A Study of Lower Cost Alternatives to the Jubilee Line in Docklands in early 1980, which provided five alternatives to the full Jubilee Line buildout to Docklands (and Lewisham):
- Express buses running between Aldgate East and a loop around the Isle of Dogs, then a dedicated busway from Canning Town to Beckton (£15m)
- Buses in mixed traffic between Aldgate East and a loop sharing roads around the Isle of Dogs, then a dedicated busway from Stepney to Beckton (£24m)
- A street tram from Aldgate East to Beckton, some on dedicated right of way (£40-60m)
- An Automated Light Rapid Transit (ALRT) system from Aldgate East to Beckton on dedicated right of way, with a branch from West India Docks to North Greenwich (£120m)
- An interim Jubilee Line from Charing Cross to Beckton, with no stations at Aldwych, Ludgate Circus, St Katharine Dock, a simpler Cannon Street station, and no Thamesmead branch (£200m)
In comparison, the full Jubilee Line buildout to Docklands and Thamesmead was then estimated at £325m. The GLC still had its £100m nest egg which might be a source of funding. Interestingly, the GLC did not press the case in this study for an early Woolwich Tunnel, although a branch from West India Docks to North Greenwich was considered.
Had the GLC lost its nerve on the Woolwich scheme, which formally had nothing to do with JLE Stage 2, which is what the government fundamentally objected to? Or was a railway river crossing there considered too remote from the then perceived heart of Docklands renewal which was still the upstream area?
Certainly, the GLC failed to respecify the area development elements which might have underpinned a Woolwich Tunnel. Transport modelling was (and still is) often weak in valuing adequately the impact of entirely new transport links as opposed to marginal changes in existing service patterns.
London Transport performs its own Docklands study
The 1981 LT Annual Report listed two of London Transport’s own proposals to extend the East London Line (ELL) to serve the Docklands:
- Branching the ELL from south of Rotherhithe east with stations at Isle of Dogs and Millwall, estimated at £70m.
- A western branch from Wapping to Tower Hill, estimated at £40m.
Even minimal plans require infrastructure
Now we need to catch up on the planning policy front. What began as a Conservative Government policy in favour of minimalism led to a sense of urgency once a new Docklands administrative structure was in place to expedite regeneration. At least there was some consistency of policy alignment – as a happy accident – between national Government, its chosen delivery authority in Docklands, and a recognition of investment in transport infrastructure as a necessary and early priority.
Ironically, the Labour and Conservative Governments of the day were quick to put down the GLC’s required ridership numbers for Stages 2 to 4 of the Jubilee Line as an ‘act of faith’, whilst maintaining their own beliefs about the most realistic development strategy. That policy aligned with the GLC density numbers, but was itself still an ‘act of faith’. Moreover, the Governments’ preferred course of action was itself not a free market choice, even during the Thatcher period, but represented Whitehall’s view on preferred development styles. This ran the risk of being self-fulfilling by reinforcing the likelihood of upstream Docklands remaining as low-density sprawl, with the river’s geography constraining accessibility and development to a series of peninsulas.
The area of declining economic activity and derelict land in the Docklands totalled almost 22 sq.km – a potentially enormous blight, close to Central London, and certainly needing positive political action. A genuinely uncontrolled free market would have highlighted the proximity of very high density, high-value Central London, with the economic chasm adjoining it to the east, and would have pointed to the likelihood of a fairly radical shift in densities and land values over the following years in inner East London.
As we shall see, this is what actually happened as a consequence of Thatcherism when applied locally to Docklands planning – and with no thanks to the 1976 London Docklands Strategic Plan (LDSP) which had dammed earlier opportunities for that differential in values to turn to advantage, and in turn damned any business case for a Tube extension. The next policy changes breached that dam.
From the beginning, the 1979-1983 Conservative Government was committed to a minimalist approach – which meant minimalist planning. This was perfectly illustrated in the 1980 regional review and priorities for the South East – all very high level and all only three pages long. Radicalism then entered the agenda, from right-of-centre. To address Docklands’ shortcomings, the DoE, by then led by Michael Heseltine as Secretary of State, shut down the Docklands Joint Committee (DJC) which had submitted the disjointed transport planning in the 1976 London Docklands Strategic Plan (LDSP) described in Part 1 of this series.
Heseltine gained political support for a radical new development authority to be overlaid in upstream Docklands – rather like a New Town Corporation but with more freedom of manoeuvre – and to remove planning approval controls from the GLC and local boroughs for the designated area. The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was the Government’s preferred administrative solution. The conventional local authority process was considered to be failed, although peculiarly their ‘plan-making’ powers were retained, which led to large complications where this was apparently contradicted by later priorities. The backcloth gifted to the LDDC was a tabula rasa, right down to the infrastructure, and its task was greatly complicated by the serpentine wending of the Thames.
Reg Ward, with a strong background of unconventional thinking within local government, was appointed by Heseltine as the new London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) chief executive in 1980. Indeed for nine months he was its only employee, until it gained full powers. This CAPX profile gives a large insight into the man, his motivation and the consequences for LDDC. He was a deal-maker, he passionately wanted a quality Docklands, and he led the visionary thinking. Rapidly gaining a reputation as a dynamic leader for change, he appointed a similarly motivated team of planners and let off their leash. He also relied on a high-calibre small team of officials to get him out of trouble if he exceeded official and governmental norms. As the introduction to the Thunderbirds series might have said, ‘anything can happen in the next half decade’. It did, in some unexpected ways.
The LDDC fully came into being on 2 July 1981, with powers and functions that included expropriating land and assembling land parcels for developers, and the creation of a ‘free market’ Enterprise Zone (EZ) in the Isle of Dogs to regenerate the centre of the depressed area, plus a 10 year rate holiday.
There were genuine worries, however, that most of the Docklands would lie undeveloped for decades, so the LDDC was grateful for any development, no matter how sprawling, in such a relatively vast and isolated area.
One of the first buildings developed (and still extant) from the early LDDC period is the low rise Billingsgate Fish Market, relocated from the City in 1982 to beside the then barren North (Import) Dock of the West India Docks. Ironically this low-density exemplar of the LDDC’s low expectations still survives, juxtaposed across the dock from the new Canary Wharf Crossrail station and the epicentre of Canary Wharf.
Billingsgate Market is indicative of the scale of development envisaged for the entire Docklands area before Canary Wharf came along – definitely not tube material!
Docklands Rail Study and Public Transport Provision for Docklands Report 1982
The initial thinking was still about low-density affordability, but Reg Ward was clear about the need to embed quality rail-based links within the Enterprise Zone, given that London was a railway-minded city. One of the first steps the LDDC performed was to commission LT in early 1981 to develop a Docklands Rail Study, which was issued in September 1981.
Based on that study, the Docklands Public Transport and Access Steering Group was then set up by the GLC, the Docklands Boroughs, London Transport Executive and the LDDC, in association with the (by then) Department of Transport, Department of Industry and Department of the Environment to study feasible transport schemes, costs and benefits. The Group issued the ‘Public Transport Provision for Docklands’ report in June 1982. The simplest benefit of the report was that all the necessary partners who would need to agree a way forward were now party to the same document, unlike all previous studies.
The following table lists the studies undertaken by various entities to address the blank spaces for Docklands transport, each taking the prior study’s work into consideration.
|Early 1980||Department of the Environment, Ministry of Transport, GLC, Docklands Development Organisation and the London Transport Executive||A Study of Lower Cost Alternatives to the Jubilee Line in Docklands|
|1981||LT internal study||Summary in 1981 LT Annual Report|
|Sept 1981||LT, commissioned by LDDC||Docklands Rail Study|
|June 1982||Docklands Public Transport and Access Steering Committee||Public Transport Provision for Docklands Report|
Table 1: Docklands initial transport studies
The last two studies evaluated:
- improving bus service and implementing express bus routes,
- branching the East London Line from Surrey Docks station, under the Thames to serve the Isle of Dogs, but the cost of over £100m was considered too rich.
- constructing a Jubilee line extension to serve the Docklands, at an estimated price tag of £450m. The Study recognised that nowhere near that amount of funding was available. Moreover, any Tube extension was feared to be an ongoing revenue draw, given the low-density Docklands urban form then envisaged.
- building lower cost and risk options such as a mini-tram or surface light rail from Mile End and/or the City to the Isle of Dogs (LT’s preferred option was surface light rail from Mile End).
Faced with these conclusions, Reg Ward decided that the required chemistry for a high profile development stimulus wasn’t a conventional tram or subterranean scheme, but the very opposite.
He told LT he wanted a visible transport spine – not least as LDDC had freedom of manoeuvre to approve elevated lines within the Enterprise Area, cheaper to build than an underground line, and there were plenty of disused and semi-redundant rail lines available for re-use. So the surface light rail became the automated Docklands Light Railway (DLR) partly on viaduct.
As a result, the last study (Docklands 1982 Transport) recommended the construction of a new automated light railway along east-west and north-south axes across the Docklands, at an estimated cost of £65m. It would tie into Central London via Tower Gateway near Tower Hill, and also tie into Stratford rather than south of the river (unaffordable within budget, and not part of the LDDC area), which was another rail planning precedent by giving an early high profile to Stratford interchange.
The decision to proceed with the DLR wasn’t made by the Secretary of State for Transport – as the LDDC was DoE’s creature, not Transport’s. LDDC’s wish to promote its “own” self-contained transport system mostly unconnected to the rest of London was considered by some as a silo mentality. The reality was different, however, as we shall see.
Heseltine was convinced by a helicopter trip over the Docklands that a Light Railway was required to stimulate development. He announced the DLR proposition at the October 1982 Conservative Party conference. Around this time there was Cabinet discussion about the need for the DLR, and was where Nicholas Ridley made his first objection to the scheme, in his position then as Financial Secretary to the Treasury.
The first round of this challenge was concerned more with the principle of the DLR, but Ridley did not miss any opportunity to needle Heseltine, whose personal animus was mutual. Ridley argued for a bus-based system, to be privately-financed. It was eventually determined that the DLR should be allowed to proceed. This is because the then-recent studies and development thrust pointed to that being a more appropriate solution for Docklands.
All this suggests that the Party Conference came after this first ministerial joust; it wouldn’t have been necessary to have more than an agreement in principle to make the public announcement – as we see with many contemporary projects such as HS2.
The DLR No.1 Bill started wending its way through Parliament in November 1982, but ran into tactical trouble with capacity relief proposals at Tower Hill station. So DLR No.1 Bill was not passed by Parliament until 1984.
Heseltine was succeeded in January 1983 as Environment Secretary by Tom King, who understood the merits of a low-cost alternative to the Jubilee extension from his attendance at the fateful 1979 No.10 meeting, and subsequent events. If King’s presence in the first half of 1983 was helpful at the helm of the DoE, he had a further beneficial opportunity after the General Election in June 1983 when he was moved to become Secretary of State for Transport. King was only in Transport for three months, but the drafting of the second DLR Private Bill (Poplar towards Stratford) made progress under his tenure.
King was then moved to Employment in October 1983 to make way for Nicholas Ridley as Transport Secretary. It was then that the DLR faced a further test, with Patrick Jenkin as Environment Secretary and Reg Ward (still leading the LDDC) both sponsoring the DLR project, but Nicholas Ridley still questioning its go-ahead all the way to Cabinet (David Howell had been the Transport Secretary during the original Cabinet decision in 1982, but allowed Ridley to lead the assault on DLR).
Matters had not eased when Ridley became Secretary of State for Transport – he merely had to re-assert his own previous judgment, however “anti-transport” it may have seemed to a passing observer. It was then that Ridley insisted on a cash cap to the project cost. Accounts suggest that the second round of the Ridley vs DoE match was fought at cabinet committee, rather than full cabinet. There was a detailed discussion on the size of the public sector contribution, which is what made it so odd – one spending minister arguing for another spending minister’s spending to be capped. It got to the point where senior officials wondered if Ridley had mentally left the Treasury at all.
Finally, it was agreed to limit the cost to no more than £65m cash – £77m outturn after Retail Price Index (RPI) adjustment – a tough condition. It is believed that the £65m was the value of project benefits that had been estimated by LT, and that hardliners in the Conservative Government weren’t going to allow a scheme to cost more than the benefits it generated. The obvious point is that Ridley had an unheralded two bites at the cherry, but the DLR stayed alive. The light railway’s survival was also despite the DLR Bills being led technically by London Transport. London Transport was being turned into a nationalised industry under direct DTp control during the Government’s local authority dismemberment legislation in 1983-84, which was aimed at the GLC and other city region authorities following the June 1983 General Election.
Was the DLR the outcome of a silo mentality? No. It was self-protection for the project and it had been shrewd positioning to place the DLR under DoE aegis to ensure the railway’s survival. If it had been fully integrated within LT/LRT, that would have gifted the project into the DTp decision-making zone, with a high risk of the project being dismissed.
The separate LT Tower Hill Bill (the second DLR Bill) started in 1983 and progressed through the Parliamentary machinery, gaining Royal Assent in 1985.
In general, the Docklands was not seen as an opportunity within the Transport Department – indeed DTp had hardly regarded it as an issue.
LDDC had the powers to promote their own transport of a somewhat limited choice, so they did – apart from trolleybuses, where they set out to argue that the “Trolleybus Act” should be applied to them – they slunk away when told that no such legislation existed. The LDDC also knew full well that with the GLC and LT soon to be gutted, it was down to them or nobody to push through their railway.
The LT 1982 Annual Report stated:
In October 1982 the Government accepted proposals for a light railway to serve Docklands [the Tower Gateway-Isle of Dogs and Isle of Dogs-Bow-Stratford system], at a cash-limited outturn cost of £77 million, financed equally by the London Docklands Development Corporation and the Greater London Council. In November, London Transport deposited a Bill in Parliament requesting the necessary powers for the east-west section. The target date for the completion is 1987.
The London Regional Transport (LRT) report of March 1985 states that LRT took over the responsibilities of the GLC for the specification and funding of the DLR on 29 June 1984, when GLC’s transport powers were reduced by Government:
The cost of construction of the railway is met 50% by London Regional Transport and 50% by the London Docklands Development Corporation who reimburse London Regional Transport on a costs incurred basis. London Regional Transport is responsible for the construction of the railway and carries it at full cost
The DLR book value at an early point of construction was £33.1m at 31 March 1985 (LRT £14.3m, third parties £18.8m), with a further £23m expenditure already authorised by the Department of Transport.
The LRT 1985/86 Report notes that a Bill was deposited for the Bank DLR extension desired by the Canary Wharf developers, and part of the cost of that would be met by those developers. This project expansion will be covered in Part 4.
The remaining £23m of the GLC’s funds, beyond the DLR’s £77m outturn, was funnelled to build a number of roads for the area, including the Docklands Northern Relief Road and the Isle of Dogs Loop Road, mirroring the Iron Lady’s insistence that modern society was based on the car. In that way, the LDDC and LT were able to support Docklands regeneration and to fulfil the Cutler/Government agreement.
|Dec 1979||Cutler’s GLC||Jubilee Stage 2||Charing Cross – Aldwych – Ludgate Circus – Cannon Street – Fenchurch Street||£103m|
|Early 1980||A Study of Lower Cost Alternatives to the Jubilee Line in Docklands||Interim Jubilee Line Stages 2-4||Charing Cross to Beckton, with no stations at Aldwych, Ludgate Circus, St Katharine Dock, and no Thamesmead branch||£200m|
|1981||LT||East London||Branch the ELL west from Wapping to Tower Hill (£40m).||£110m|
|Branch the ELL east from Rotherhithe to Isle of Dogs Millwall (£70m)|
|1982||Docklands Report||East London||Branch from Surrey Docks under the Thames to Isle of Dogs||£100m+|
|Jubilee Stages 2-4||To the Docklands, Woolwich and Thamesmead||£450m|
Heavy rail proposals for the Docklands 1979 – 1982
Meanwhile, in December 1982 the plug was officially pulled on the plans to extend the Jubilee line when the GLC didn’t seek to renew the Parliamentary powers for the Stage 2 extension to Fenchurch Street. The LDDC press release of 7 October 1982 about DLR had this as a farewell eulogy of the Jubilee extension scheme:
The challenge was to find the best system which could be implemented with the funds available. The extension of the Jubilee Line was a proposal which perhaps best met the needs of the area, but the very high costs of construction means it is not high now on the Government’s list of priorities.
This was all at the time when Transport was a poor relation of Government, previously being a subsidiary of the Department of the Environment. When Heseltine, at Environment, presented DLR at the Conservative Party Autumn 1982 conference as the solution to Docklands transport shortcomings, the political tide had turned in favour of Docklands being an urgent priority. Heseltine had better lines of argument to put before the Prime Minister than Cutler, having started the LDDC and cultivated a free-market ethos for area replanning (so being more likely to secure No.10 approval in that era).
There are parallels today with London’s (Conservative) former-Mayor Boris Johnson and his Labour successor Sadiq Khan, and the Mayors’ battles for financial autonomy with the Coalition and now Conservative led government. Ultimately it is not professional and impartial transport planning and needs that generally determines what transport scheme is approved, but political will and power, via control of funding. As one of the core tenets of LR Towers holds: you get the railways that politics allows, not the ones that transport planners would like to build.
Personalities not Principles
So what we have seen during the first Conservative Government from 1979 to 1983 is a couple of strong personalities who shaped all of the initial (rail and road) transport for the Docklands. Specifically for rail transport schemes, Reg Ward and Michael Heseltine were key proponents, fighting to push their vision forward in the cacophony of ideas that was Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet. In January 1983 Tom King became the next Environment Secretary after Heseltine, and then moved to be Transport Secretary in June 1983 – a happy accident for DLR when it needed high-level DTp support.
Conventional ideas didn’t always win out. Horace Cutler’s vision of a Tube line through the Docklands – itself poorly matched to the prevailing development policy for the area and which the GLC had itself failed to modify – was stopped by a much stronger personality, the Iron Lady.
If it weren’t for these strong-willed individuals, the Docklands would likely have become a difficult-to-access sprawling business park, with some equally inaccessible housing estates.
Death of the Jubilee extension…
The key underlying failing of the Fleet/Jubilee extension project was that no-one went out of their way to make a case for a higher-density Docklands, which in turn would have provided a stronger baseline for a Tube business case. The 1976 LDSP projected and effectively locked in the perception of a low-density semi-industrial/business park development pattern there, which didn’t foresee new large volumes of commuting to/from Central London. This despite the fact that a Tube line would enable higher development densities (either as cause or effect).
It is reasonable to conclude that the GLC’s long-standing involvement with Thamesmead also dragged the early River/Jubilee Line schemes to too distant and low-density a destination.
No private developer would have built in Beckton then, and the LDDC itself couldn’t justify public transport or even road improvements there at the time, as the demand was negligible. The concept of building infrastructure to stimulate development was a difficult sell. Even when the Beckton DLR scheme was being promulgated, it was seen as a Dock too far.
Upstream Docklands were seen as having some development potential sooner, but as part two of this series demonstrated, even shorter distance Jubilee Tube extension schemes to Surrey Docks or Millwall didn’t cut the mustard.
…and birth of the Docklands Light Railway
In 1984 the first Docklands Light Railway Bill was finally approved by Parliament, with construction starting later in the year. It was sponsored by LT in its new form divorced from the GLC, London Regional Transport. The DLR opened in 1987 and proved very successful, after initial teething problems, in assisting the area’s economic rejuvenation. It has been expanded multiple times, going from 13km to 40km in route length. The original section has been partly rebuilt and strengthened at least twice since. Where there were once two-car articulated automated units, there are now six-car trains, with frequency and capacity still growing.
Passenger volume grew fifteen-fold from 6.6m annual passenger journeys in 1988/89 to 110m in 2015. But the DLR story has been told in greater detail elsewhere.
Looking forward to the next part of this series, there were major shifts in the economic and planning realms that were about to have a fundamental impact on this part of London.
Acknowledgements to Graham H for his many contributions.