London 2050 (Part 1): The Trillion Pound Time Warp


In both science and science fiction, time warps are where there is a multi-dimensional fold in the space-time continuum which allow the traveller to pass from one space-time environment to another, as easily as stepping off an escalator at Kings Cross. The London Infrastructure Plan 2050 (‘London 2050’), published in July by the Mayor and directed by Isabel Dedring and many GLA staff, TfL and other colleagues, is an attempt to provide the London of today with a blueprint for such a transition to the London of tomorrow.

The main London 2050 report is set out here. We are invited to witness the changes and investment required to ensure London’s stellar future as one of the world’s great cities but to do that, as always requires context, and that context is vital. We thus offer advance apologies to those who want to jump straight into the transport detail, for first we must step through the time warp and look at the context within which the transport specific parts of this plan sit.

London wants…

“Bigger and Better” is the first statement, on the title page of the presentation. In Section Four of the presentation, the fundamental World City comparisons based on 2012 are Transportation and Infrastructure (London currently 8th in ranking) and Green City (London 11th in ranking). So the underlying aspirations are clear.

Coincidentally, on 30th July, the famous planner Sir Peter Hall died. He was one of the leaders of modern attempts to shape and control the development of cities, including efforts to plan London’s growth. In 2006, he completed direction of a two-year, seven-country study of Polycentric Mega-City-Regions in Europe.

Earlier this year Sir Peter Hall actively supported the ‘Shaping a Growing London’ conference hosted by Boris Johnson and the GLA (Sir Howard Davies also attended from the Airport Commission). He also strongly supported London’s growth and investment eastwards, and his advocacy on the day of the conference brooked no hesitation for the scale of ambition now set out in London 2050.

Tests – what, why and how?

What, why, how, where, when, who, how much and who pays are the usual tests to apply to any project. London 2050 is no different.

Let’s start with what London is and is trying to be. London is an entrepreneurial, thriving, commercial world centre. Its reach far exceeds its formal land boundaries. If commuter land were included within the definition of London then its geography would now include Bournemouth, Bath, Birmingham, Derby, Doncaster, and Diss. Its funding needs are also far greater than a nominal 650 square miles of an average British county, or even a standard city region or devolved nation.

The why is the combined driving pressure of growing population, jobs and competition between world cities – economic growth on a large scale. London Reconnections has covered already London’s forecast population and jobs growth in the preceding coverage Suburban Commandos: Transport and London 2050.

The objectives of effective investment are better capacity and better quality of lives. GLC Leaders and Mayors from Ken Livingstone onwards have been addressing these factors. London 2050 says that London can create more housing and jobs capacity, but not enough to meet foreseen pressures. Similarly London can fund part of the required investment, but not enough on present UK tax raising and distribution rules.

So London seeks to break out from being a land-locked – and tax-locked – world city. This is the strategic how, with London 2050 being a manifesto for changes in regional planning, in tax capacity, and for the UK government to permit a high level of investment beyond conventional Treasury rules. As with other devolved administrations across the UK, London is now asking to be granted some tax raising powers. If London 2050 is a serious blueprint for the next 36 years, it relies on the neighbouring Home Counties accepting additional commuter populations, and UK Government rules on tax raising and tax distribution to be flexed.

Some will argue that it is the Mayor’s personal manifesto for what he wants to be the world’s greatest city, and that it is either mostly good or mostly a waste of time, depending on your view of Boris Johnson himself. London 2050 will certainly be his legacy, but all future Mayors will have to face up to the same issues – the why, how, where and so on – which are being driven by pressures beyond the control of any Mayor or the GLA. Would the next Mayor’s strategic assessment be much different, other than being three or four years’ later on?

A costed strategy

Now to the documents and the detail. First of all what we find, other than a very long read at a cumulative 621 pages, is that London 2050 is in practice a costed long term infrastructure investment strategy which has looked at various options in reaching its conclusions. It is also a consultation document, with a comment period open for three months – so readers are explicitly invited to contribute to its final shape.

There could be a long list of ‘what is isn’t’. It is not a detailed land-use allocation as in the Administrative County of London Development Plan 1951. It is also not a statutory document, nor could it be, such as the zoning and regional structure plans in the 1960s-1973 Greater London Development Plan – though it might become a background document to further statutory plans. It is also not an architectural-visioned plan, such as the County of London Plan 1943.

In fact the general consensus in LR towers is that London 2050 is closest in scale of strategy to something with which attendees of our regular monthly meet ups might be familiar, for it has made a physical appearance a number of times – the Greater London Plan 1944 and the immediate post-war railway plans in 1946-49.

A civil servant of those days minuted that “it would take priority on the Battle of the Atlantic scale” to make some of those schemes happen. Almost all didn’t. Nor did they benefit from any financial strategy. London 2050 does, of sorts, as discussed below. However it is dependent on wider policy choices which may be within London’s influence but are not under its control.

Risks and rewards

The broad policy battle exists, and is fundamental to London’s new manifesto succeeding in its ambitions. Here are two standpoints, with different critiques, concerned about the London 2050 proposition:

I would have thought it would be far more sensible and in the interest of UK to invest more in decentralizing UK, not sinking so much in London which will probably be to the detriment of other, more deprived areas.
Richard Beswick. New Civil Engineer comments, 31st July 2014

London faces difficulty persuading Government to invest in it unless it does a better job persuading the rest of the country of its contribution. As a recent Centre for London/Centre for Cities report revealed, only 24 per cent of non-Londoners believe the capital helps their local economy. The Mayor could start by inviting other major UK cities to join a commission looking into London’s contribution to the UK and how to optimise this. At the same time, devolving more tax powers to London would reduce tensions around the impression of London competing for public spending with other regions. 
Ben Rogers, Centre for London. London Evening Standard letters, 30th July 2014

Other commentators have argued that it is the first time that London’s transport needs have been looked at collectively, not just as a list of projects, and that grasping the nettle early, of making good progress in a non-politicised way, is important. Below are extracts from New Civil Engineer’s online commentary on 30th July:

The mayor estimates we have to more than double London’s infrastructure spending – from an annual average of £16bn in 2011-15 to one of £38bn in 2016-50 – if London is to tackle the backlog of historic under-investment and keep up in the global race.

We must prioritise ruthlessly and plan and deliver these investments efficiently, but we can’t shrink from the fact that we will all have to pay more. The costs can be shared across users, taxpayers and others who benefit directly – but they cannot be wished away John Dickie, London First Director of Strategy

The mayor has today launched a consultation on what is an unprecedented policy response to meet the needs of London’s population, which is growing at a rate of 2,000 every eight days.

Infrastructure investment activity will be required on an industrial scale not seen since Victorian times.Alexander Jan, Arup Director

The capital’s railways, housing and schools will all require substantial investment just to accommodate the additional 1.5m Londoners government statisticians forecast will live in the capital within 15 years.

In reality, with higher densities will come a disproportionately greater need for investment. This plan makes it possible to draw up proposals for developing schemes and raising resources.Tony Travers, Director, LSE London

This is a step forward. For the first time, this plan looks at London’s transport needs collectively; not just as a list of projects.

Investors, regulators, government and the public need to get behind infrastructure plans like these. If we start politicising the London Plan in the way that other national infrastructure investments have been, without making any commitments, delays will make London become a less attractive place to live and work and, ultimately, we will start to lose our competitive advantage on the world stage.Mat Riley, EC Harris Global Head of Infrastructure

Digging into the paperwork

So where does the balance of discussion lie? A simple comparison of page size tells the reader where to look once the main presentation has been consumed – it is about cost and transport:

The scale of requirements is huge over the next 36 years (or perhaps more correctly 35 by the time anything starts). The estimate of demands is summarised here (presentation p25):


What London needs by 2050, according to London 2050

The big number for us to hold in mind at this moment is a 70% required increase in public transport capacity, which in the consultation text is stated as rail and tube capacity; buses are scarcely mentioned.

Jobs and Population distribution

In a way, this article is a sequel to our earlier piece, Suburban Commandos: Transport and London 2050 and we will avoid going into more detail about the projected population and job growth (central population estimate 11.3 million, 37% above 8.2m in 2011; central jobs estimate 6.3m, 29% above 4.9m in 2011). Those interested can find more detail there. These trends are seen as inevitable in principle, although the actual volumes might vary above or below those numbers.

How to try to deal with the demand and supply consequences of that, especially for infrastructure, is the purpose of London 2050. Various strategic options for how London should accommodate the population and job volumes are discussed. Good visuals are set out in the presentation pages 34, 35 and 36. An out-of-London option is shown on page 37, which alleviates (not solves) the suburban capacity pressures. We’ll come back to that page 37 option, when we get onto transport in more detail.

If you flip between them, they show the scale of population densification expected across London and most noticeably in the suburbs, based on three options: continuing with current policies (p34), focusing or areas with good public transport access (p35), or at town centres (p36). The widest impact of densification, affecting most of suburbia, is by continuing with current policies. It is also when the greatest expansion of East London population is seen.

Overall, more London suburbia is protected from high levels of densification if you were to concentrate expansion either on public transport nodes or (most of all) by focusing on town centres. This may be an attractive proposition to some outer London boroughs, which then do not face ‘semi-detached’ outrage at widespread upheaval in the suburbs caused by City Hall policies.

Interaction between Jobs and Population distribution, and public transport supply

There is some analytical discontinuity, when contrasting the jobs and population densification options with the individual transport projects discussed below, as opposed to the gross transport capacity increase. The extra jobs are expected to be mainly (but not exclusively) within the Central Activity Zone (CAZ), so are more dependent on total transport volume available for the CAZ than assessment of individual transport corridors.

The population location analysis is based on a transport reference case, with spatial scenarios spreading population growth beyond the London Plan level in various ways as described above, eg using high Public Transport Accessibility Level (PTAL) locations or around town centres. A 2050 demand forecast was defined for the transport reference case, to inform the population spread and then to test the impacts. The model was based mainly on committed schemes plus the planned schemes currently most likely to come to pass, for example, emerging ideas from Network Rail Route Studies, the New Tube for London project and Crossrail 2.

However this was not an interactive, dynamic model where employment and population could themselves then change in distribution to reflect optioneering between different public transport options. For example, an Outer Orbital (discussed below) should surely influence where housing could be located in the alternative options, but clearly has not done so, otherwise Bromley would not be allowed to get away with minimal densification in those options (as pages 35-36 clearly illustrate if you look at the Bromley territory compared to a normative page 34). That is potentially to the Outer Orbital’s disadvantage as a project business case, and applies to other potential railways and development areas as well.

Overall, one may be concerned that outline prioritisation of some public transport schemes may be out-of-sync with emerging spatial pressures which can be dynamic in nature, and that the valuation of the benefits different transport options will have from external development they will naturally encourage is underestimated, certainly in comparison to an evaluation that anticipated housing and better transport being devised on a conjoint basis.

That housing and transport should be considered together is not a new idea. The South East London and The Fleet Line report, put together by Llewellyn Davies and commissioned by London Transport argued that if you have a railway coming you should maximise its usage with directed housing locations. In that case, it was an attempt to post-justify the planned Fleet Line to Lewisham which was already in trouble as a project, but the principle remains and other reports since have argued the same thing. Indeed Crossrail 2 is starting to emerge as a project with focused work on aligning housing maximisation to railway opportunities, something which is now informing TfL Planning’s priorities.

If you think of the Outer Orbital, would outer London boroughs such as Bromley really want that scheme if its only worthwhile business case were that it was hand-in-glove with densification? Without that it might generate a poor BCR, caused by high investment costs to shoehorn in orbital services on top of primarily radial routes in South London, plus what looks like significant tunnelling in various possible locations.

Costs across the board

We must now discuss costs taken as a whole. This should be one of the primary virtues of London 2050. All major infrastructure needs are being costed en bloc, allegedly for the first time ever at a full urban scale in Britain – although it is perhaps more realistic to say that it is for the first time since the New Towns era.

Arup has undertaken a massive and, inevitably, fairly high level costing analysis. It is important to accept that not all costs will be right, and to avoid nit-picking as much as possible, though some rail schemes (at least) do appear on the light side on costs compared to recent real-world estimates. It’s the relative spend between infrastructure sectors, and overall investment timescales and priorities, that really matter though at this gross scale of financing.

It would cost at least £1.3 trillion to step through the time warp and have an easy transition into London’s future.

To reduce Arup’s judgment to a few lines, John Dickie from London First says in his comment above: “We have to more than double London’s infrastructure spending – from an annual average of £16bn in 2011-15, to one of £38bn in 2016-50”. The pressures are greatest early on, in doubling expenditure levels from the first five years, to the third in 2021-26, from roundly £86bn to £174bn. There is then a gentler ramping up in proportion, over the following five quinquennia, to roundly £250bn in 2046-50.

The broad sectoral spends by investment period are seen as requiring:

  • doubling of investment in rail and tube to 2021-26 onwards, then basically on a flat line, compared to the already historically high spend this decade
  • moves to double and then triple housing investment per five years, after 2011-15
  • moves towards a 9-fold increase in energy infrastructure investment per five years
  • expansion of other infrastructure investments, though much less than other sectors in gross terms.

Projected Expenditure, according to Arup

The transport expenditure pressures don’t hit hard until 2021-26, when they double compared to 2011-15 and 2016-20. As we shall see, that period includes Crossrail 2 and the New Tube for London projects, which are already in the forward programme though nowhere near full programme authorisation yet.

But it will be critical that the increase does kick in then, otherwise other schemes will merely get deferred rightwards on the timescale, assuming that schemes such as Crossrail 2 and NTfL are regarded as the top priorities.

The timing for that transport investment uplift is unfortunate, as London’s total infrastructure spend is then also looking at 100% uplift compared to 2011-15, while in 2021-26 the proportion of transport spending rises to over 40% of the total cake, compared to a more typical one-third. Consequently the transport spend profile is particularly vulnerable in the political and funding environments of the late 2010s and early 2020s.

The one factor in London’s favour, from this helicopter view of the overall investment profile, is that there is an opportune ‘conjunction of the political planets’ in 2019 and 2020. On a normative three-yearly basis, there would be a Comprehensive Spending Review in 2019, setting the nationally permitted spend levels for 2020-21 to 2022-23. With a fixed five-year parliamentary term, there will also be a national election in May 2020 (following the one due in May 2015), and simultaneously there will be a London Mayoral and GLA election (following the one due in May 2016). This alignment might work in London’s favour, since both Labour and Conservative parties normally place a premium on winning the London elections.

So there might be some manifesto and funding alignment in that critical period of 2019-20. However, do also bear in mind that other major English cities face elections regularly, with some hustings in 2020. Unless London has managed to make an effective national case for London 2050 before then, or has already secured adequate taxation devolution, London could find itself being shouted down for its required uplift in funding.

There’s much more to write, but at least we’ve reached transport topics now. So time to stop, and in part Part 2 we will focus on the transport specifics.

Title image by Painless Heart. You can see the excellent full size image here.

Written by Jonathan Roberts