The Politics of Doing Not Being

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To regular readers of London Reconnections the name Caroline Pidgeon will be a familiar one. A veteran of London politics and one of the leading voices on transport issues within the capital for over eight years, she has regularly featured in our coverage of London’s transport issues. This year sees her standing as the liberal Democrat candidate for mayor and there thus seemed no more natural place to start our mayoral candidate coverage than in discussion with Caroline herself.

We meet at the Liberal Democrat offices in London, a short walk from Parliament Square and are greeted in reception by the candidate herself.

“I’ve been looking forward to this!” She says, as we look for an empty meeting room in which to talk. “I get to go into real detail on transport not just headlines! So refreshing.”

With her experience both on, and as past Chair of, the London Assembly’s Transport Committee it is perhaps no surprise that she feels confident talking freely about the transport issues the city has, and has yet to, face, and this is where our conversation begins.

“I’ve been on the Assembly eight years now,” she says, “and the challenge we’ve seen is the growing population of London. We’re now 8.6m people and growing by several thousand every month and that is a huge, huge challenge.”

“The PPP [Public Private Partnership] collapsing was also hugely significant. For the first few years on the assembly I spent considerable time looking at the PPP. Looking at the disastrous Jubilee line upgrade that effectively finished it off and at the proposals that were then put forward for the Northern line upgrade. It’s quite noticeable that in recent times there have been issues on the Tube, but some of those really nitty-gritty issues, with one party blaming the other, that at least is long gone. I think that having all of that back in-house at TfL is a positive thing, but that took a lot of time.”

I’ve been looking forward to this! I get to go into real detail on transport not just headlines! So refreshing.

What then, we ask, are the challenges now?

“It’s a very different landscape now.” She says. “We have a government that will move forward now on the devolution of rail. And that’s a very different place to where we were eight years ago.”

“The huge challenge now though is going to be budgets,” she explains, “because so far TfL has been relatively protected. We did a lot of lobbying, indeed I did a lot of lobbying, of our people in government when we were part of the coalition, because it’s so important to keep investing in transport in London. But with the revenue grant to go over the next few years that’s £700m gone. Then there are threats to cut the capital grant that TfL get.”

“I mean, assuming it’s going to come out of business rates?” She continues, with a mixture of annoyance and amusement, “Well everything is going to come out of devolved business rates! That really threatens the investment that we desperately need to keep the transport network growing to try and keep up with the demand that there is.”

We ask Caroline what implications this restrictive financial climate will have for the incoming mayor. It means, she suggests, that it becomes even more important that the next mayor is able to hit the ground running.

“If you look at my eight years on the Assembly, for the first four you saw a mayor come in not having a clue about London regional government and its various organisations. What a waste of time the first few years were, fumbling around trying to come up with strategies, not having a clear idea.”

She happily admits that this is one of the strengths she feels she can bring to the role.

“I think I am the most experienced candidate out of everyone. I have eight years on the assembly and I have twelve years as a borough councillor, as a deputy leader of a borough making massive decisions around which services to provide and where to invest.”
We built lots of schools – in fact I saw one the other day when I was out on the Aylesbury Estate! the new Michael Faraday Primary School! That was one of mine! I have that experience and know my way round City Hall. I know my way round the various organisations and know where changes can be made.”

What impact, we ask, has all this had on her approach to the election?

“Well it’s about putting forward strong policy ideas and not getting involved in this personality nonsense.” She says, bluntly.

“Do you mind if I…” She begins, before breaking off suddenly with a laugh.

“Sorry! I was about to ask if I could get technical, but then I remembered this is for LR! Oh this is nice! Just stop me if I start going on too much!”

“Financing.” She begins. “It’s about making tough decisions. It’s also about TfL looking at where they spend money. What more they can get from their estate, for example? I think their new commercial director, Graeme Craig, is very impressive and has got, going forward, very impressive plans to open new revenue streams to help keep transport funded in London.”

“It’s going to be about accepting that, unfortunately, the cut from the government has come a few years earlier than they were expecting, but that they were planning for this. And there is still waste within TfL as well. Perks for staff. The nominee pass for example, which LR readers will know about. I find that very frustrating. £10m a year it effectively costs so that you can have a member of your family or… or your lodger even, getting free travel. that just doesn’t seem right in this day and age.”

It’s about making tough decisions. It’s also about TfL looking at where they spend money. What more they can get from their estate, for example? I think their new commercial director, Graeme Craig, is very impressive and has got, going forward, very impressive plans to open new revenue streams to help keep transport funded in London.

“Equally TfL have a very high use of consultants, at great expense. And particularly when government guidance is very clear that you should not be paying people through their companies because it’s a way of avoiding paying some tax, and yet they have an awful lot of that going on. In fact I raised that with Mike Brown back in December and he said he’d look at it.”

She explains that being smarter with budgets, however, is just the starting point, not the end.

“There are ways we can make savings, but equally, you have to keep that investment coming going forward.” She says. Emphatically. “And we’ve got to find other ways to generate revenue and income. If more of the property taxes were devolved to London, for example, then actually we’d be, in a more sustainable way, able to plan our investment better going forward.”

We ask where she feels that investment should go. Not just, she answers, on obvious big-ticket items, but on smaller things behind the scenes as well.

“I do think – and I think we put it in one of our Transport Committee reports on the Tube – that TfL clearly needed more internal management capacity. Very senior management capacity, to manage large projects. That has possibly been a weakness.”

“If you look at the Sub-Surface signalling and the issues around that” she explains, by way of example, “Yes, it was a bold decision of Mike Brown to scrap it, but what an awful cock-up to start with. To have put in place such a contract that they were clearly never going to be able to deliver, and to have spent so much money on it.”

“And TfL’s press releases have been very misleading suggesting that they were going to be saving money, when you look at what they were originally going to be paying, what they’re paying now, and how it’s taking five years longer. Well actually, perhaps if there was some more senior experts in there, then we may have avoided that.”

“This doesn’t mean that there aren’t real, public-facing wins to be found, however, just that they have to be achievable and grounded in the financial reality of what is to come.”

“More detail will be found in the manifesto.” She says, “But there are programmes I don’t support. I don’t support more road tunnels and crossings in east London unless it’s for pedestrians and cyclists like the Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf bridge, which I’ve been pushing and which is now in TfL’s plans. I’d be looking at removing resources from those to allocate to other projects – such as Sutton Tramlink.”

If you look at the Sub-Surface signalling and the issues around that… Yes, it was a bold decision of Mike Brown to scrap it, but what an awful cock-up to start with. To have put in place such a contract that they were clearly never going to be able to deliver, and to have spent so much money on it.

She also suggests that there needs to be a step change in how TfL approaches walking and cycling.

“It’s absolutely not that I don’t support having the quality people that you need to deliver a world-class rail, Tube and bus service.” She stresses. “But there are other weaknesses within Transport for London as a whole. If you look at the corporate structure, you’ve got Tube and rail, very clearly in one area, but some of the surface transport… everything else is just lobbed in!”

“And when you’re looking at having a transformational cycling experience in London, it can’t just all be lobbed in. If you want more people cycling and walking, and that has to be part of the solution for the overcrowding and dealing with the greater population,” she stresses, “then actually you need a proper senior director who has got the credibility that the Tube and railways have.”

“I’m afraid that having it buried under someone who loves buses is not good enough! And that’s the sort of thing that I would like to change. To give the cycling and walking programmes much greater strength and emphasis.”

“So I will be putting forward a bold platform. And there will be things that transport people won’t like, and indeed they won’t like me even talking about them. As you can see I want to change the directorates. I also want to see far more women at TfL – certainly far more at a senior level. And black and minority ethnic Londoners there. Because it’s so white, and so male, and it really doesn’t represent the Londoners that we’re trying to help get round our great city.”

“And I think women bring a very different perspective in some ways to transport.” She continues. “I find so often at Transport Committee meetings that I talk to people and it’s absolutely fine, and it’s great – but they’re passionate about the railways. They’re passionate about the train set and this junction or that. And actually I’m thinking about passengers, and fares, and how they’re going to get on and off transport with their buggies or their wheelchairs, or whatever, and I think it’s that different approach. And I think having a more diverse TfL and a more diverse board and some of the leadership would really help change some of the thinking in that organisation.”

We comment that talking directorate and management changes are something that voters rarely get excited about. Big projects and promises are the things that grab the headlines. That must be frustrating, we suggest, along with the knowledge that even on big projects, you generally only get to start them or open them as mayor – but rarely both.

“Oh yes that’s true!” She laughs. “In fact, that was one of the arguments that we were all putting to the current mayor in the first year or two when I was on the Assembly, when we were lobbying for the extension to Clapham Junction of the London Overground.”

“We said: ‘Look! Not only could you make this decision, but you will get to open it! Come on!’” She says, still laughing, “It’s only a few million, Boris, and you get to open it! Come on!”

“But look,” she continues, more seriously, “There are always going to be shorter term things you can bring in that people can see will change their lives. So around fares. Half-price fares before half past seven? I could bring that in next January. I know how I’d fund it. It’s a very simple thing that would help ease overcrowding in the morning, but also really help lower-income Londoners predominantly as well because they’re the people who travel in at the crack of dawn to do the cleaning and the security jobs, and serving coffee in the cafes in London.”

“The one-hour bus ticket is another example. Those are things you can bring in fairly quickly and have a real impact with that. Obviously, in their costings to me, TfL are saying it is diffcult, and I can imagine Shashi Verma [TfL’s Director of Customer Experience] et al. going ‘Ah that’s tricky!’ But if that’s what you want to do then they have to deliver it. You just have to be very firm and clear about what things you want to deliver, and what things you’re prepared to stop doing.”

“Another thing this mayor has failed to tackle is congestion.” She continues. “Congestion is growing in London, in central London particularly, because of the massive growth of private hire, because of taking away road space, and because, relatively, the congestion charge has not gone up enough.”

I also want to see far more women at TfL – certainly far more at a senior level. And black and minority ethnic Londoners there. Because it’s so white, and so male, and it really doesn’t represent the Londoners that we’re trying to help get round our great city.

“I will be putting forward proposals where we’ll see an increase in the congestion charge. You’ll pay more in peak times, and we’ll review that every few months as they do in places like Singapore to decide what those hours are.”

“I will also be looking at bringing in a workplace parking levy in the Central London Zone and also going out to Canary Wharf. So that if you chose to take up the luxury of taking up road space to drive into work and to your nice parking space, you’re going to not only pay more in the congestion charge but have to pay for that parking space. And we can invest that back into cycling and walking and other transport.”

“The mayor, having been persuaded on the subject of segregated cycle lanes, has failed to deal with drivers and congestion. And that, actually, people want taxis to be able to move quickly. People want traffic to flow. They’ve got to have priority on that road space as well.”

“The other issue that we’ve got to tackle alongside that is the massive growth in light goods vehicles. A lot of that is internet shopping. I do a lot of internet shopping so I’m as guilty as others for that! But actually we’ve got to get that whole industry to look better at consolidation centres, to look at using the river more, where possible – particularly with some of the big developments along the river – Tilbury Dock has got a lot of space for consolidation and that needs to be used better.”

“The idea that some of the developers near Battersea Power Station have not used the river to take spoil out is also putting more vehicles on the road. More dangerous vehicles which are a particular danger to cyclists, and to women cyclists disproportionately. We’ve got to do something to tackle that.”

“And the other thing we’ve got to do – and I think I’d particularly like to trial – is a rush hour ban on heavy goods vehicles. We’d have to look at the night time ban on lorries maybe and look at shifting the hours on that, as we did for the Olympic and Paralympic games, and there were hardly any complaints that I’m aware of. Too many cyclists are being put at risk by some of these dangerous vehicles on the road.”

“Some of the other, long-term things? Yes. Clearly. You need to be planning to get Crossrail 2 through. Get the Transport and Works Act Order to get that building. Clearly that’s going to take longer, but actually…”

She pauses, and sighs.

“… Look I’m in politics to do something, not to be something. And I think that’s another difference between me and the other mayoral candidates. I just want to get on and do something to make sure that London works for everyone.”

“The state of the Bakerloo line is appalling!” She says, when we ask for more examples of what she feels would have a real impact for Londoners. “The carriages and everything, and actually Mike Brown has confirmed to the Transport Committee that they are going to start looking at refreshing the seating and stuff.

It’s a real state and it’s at the back end of the upgrade programme so we’ve got to keep on top of all those things.”

Look I’m in politics to do something, not to be something. And I think that’s another difference between me and the other mayoral candidates. I just want to get on and do something to make sure that London works for everyone.

“Also, we’ve got to look more creatively at things. More and more people are living in outer London so we’ve got to look at orbital travel properly. The mayor promised it early on and then was persuaded by TfL ‘no, no, no!’ But I think we have to. Because more and more people will want to work in town centres outside of central London and we need to allow that ease of travel between them.”

“So you can make some short-term things. Buses, fares and so on, but the bigger things? Yes, your name can be on them in terms of making decisions but you just have to accept that you’re unlikely to open them.”

What should be the long-term transport priorities then, we ask, for the new mayor?

“Crossrail 2 is the obvious one, though there are still some real technical issues around that. Wimbledon? Some massive technical issues there. Tooting? They’re not likely to be able to build there so obviously that means looking at Balham. That’s obviously the major project.”

“But I think we also have to look at the metro rail lines. Not just in terms of TfL running them – although can they run them as well as the existing Overground? We’ve seen the challenge with TfL Rail – but looking at how they can increase metro services. That’s going to be so important and particularly…” She pauses, before continuing, “…You know, I’m a south-east Londoner, south London? South-east London? We don’t really have the Tube. We rely so much on rail to really improve the services there. Getting a turn up and go service is really important.”

“Thameslink will be a game-changer, actually, when that opens.” She continues. “We’re all suffering the pain at London Bridge and so on, but actually that will be a game-changer. Every couple of minutes you’ll be able to get a train through the centre of town and therefore we need to be looking at things like whether we should have a station at Camberwell on the Thameslink service. Could that be the solution? Have the Bakerloo down the Old Kent Road but still have Camberwell?”

She stresses that even in the long term, it is important to be honest and realistic, citing the topic of driverless trains as an example.

“You can’t just say ‘okay, we’ve got drivers going on strike, so we’ll take away their right to strike – which is wrong – and we’ll bring in driverless trains.” She says, with a sigh, “Because you can’t do that overnight and it’s really misleading.”

“Driverless trains is the Tory answer to everything, but ultimately as you know – and as your readers know – the only way we’re getting driverless trains is with the New Tube for London, which will mean the Piccadilly line, the Bakerloo and the Central having all their trains replaced. And they will still have a cab, which will have to be taken off. And then you’ll still need to have platform edge doors, which you see on the Jubilee Line Extension, at every station, and then at that point you can take off those cabs and they become driverless trains. But you’ll still need a captain going up and down like on the DLR!”

“We are a long way off that. We are such a long way off of that! A decade! Two decades!”

One thing that all of London’s long- term transport projects have in common she stresses, is the critical role they play in helping address the problem that she highlighted at the very beginning of our discussion – London’s continuing growth. Making sure that public transport develops alongside housing and employment is critical, she argues.

“If you look at Barking Riverside it’s a good example.” She says. “Masses of land, yes some of it contaminated and needing some investment. They’ve started building there. They’ve built some nice homes, very ecologically friendly, but when you look at it… it’s car city out there! Two or three cars per household! Why is that? because there’s no transport. There’s one bus route which drops you at the end of this vast area.”

Driverless trains is the Tory answer to everything… We are a long way off that. We are such a long way off of that! A decade! Two decades!

“Extending the London Overground there will absolutely transform that area. You’ll be able to build far higher, far denser, you can picture, in decades to come, a thriving riverside there alongside this residential quarter – or whatever the latest buzzword is!”

“Transport can make things like that happen. And that’s why we need to look at places like Sutton. Extend the tram not just to Sutton but beyond and you end up helping the Royal Marsden [hospital]. You will help create so many jobs by turning it into an even greater centre by improving the transport, and you can build homes there too!”

“I’m very much about building homes.” She admits. “We’ve got clear plans to build 50,000 council homes by keeping the Olympic precept that runs out next year, and then beyond that a further 150,000 homes using GLA land to put into the deal – and that would be for private rent and sale. But you can’t just build blocks and blocks of homes and nothing to support it. Transport has to be part of that mix.”

Given how clearly her time on the London Assembly’s Transport Committee has influenced her policies and thinking, we ask Caroline what she feels have been the Committee’s biggest achievements in the last eight years.

“All the work we did on the PPP,” She says, immediately, “and all the work on Tube upgrades. We said that TfL needed to look at short blockades to do the work intensely, twenty-four hours a day. At the time we were mocked, very rudely, by Richard Parry the acting MD of LU [London Underground]. We were quite openly mocked. We had experts from Madrid over giving evidence of how it had worked on their system and we took, and still do take, great international experience and examples. Mike Brown came in and the first thing he did was short blockades, and he credited our committee and our work on that. That really was fantastic.”

“The cycling strategy as well.” She says. “Really moving the mayor on that agenda and the segregated cycle lanes. That felt fantastic.”

“And then more recently the work that I’ve led on about taxi and private hire licences. The denial at TfL that there’s anything wrong with it and us saying that they were woefully inadequate. And we chose those words carefully, it’s not something we say often, but they absolutely failed that whole industry. There’s still a lot of work to do, but I think what we highlighted there – that black cabs are part of the infrastructure, that private hire are, that taxi ranks haven’t been invested in in years! They’ve got a backlog of them! Outside hospitals. Outside Twickenham Stadium! For goodness sake, get on with it! Because that’s an option.”

On the subject of taxis, we ask what she feels the role of TfL should be in relation to the industry. Should they simply regulate, or do they have a responsibility to protect it as well?

“It’s complex,” She admits, “because on the one hand they set the regulations and licence both black taxis and private hire, and they also enforce.”

“They don’t understand that role and to me it appears that there has been too cosy a relationship in recent times between senior people at TfL and some of the private hire operators. When you can not only grant a licence, but are also the regulator who can withdraw that licence you have to be very careful. They haven’t quite been enforcing it as they should. They should have massively increased the number of resources there particularly as the number of vehicles on our streets has been going up.”

“I mean,” she continues, “coming from a local government background I think of a council planning department and how careful they need to be there, every conversation is properly logged with an applicant or with whoever. And yet half the stuff on private hire licences hadn’t even been logged. And through hundreds of FOIs we know that there were cozy conversations and conversations between people’s mobiles.”

She accepts that this doesn’t automatically translate to wrongdoing, but points out that it is about perception as much as reality.

When you can not only grant a [taxi] licence, but are also the regulator who can withdraw that licence you have to be very careful. They haven’t quite been enforcing it as they should. They should have massively increased the number of resources there particularly as the number of vehicles on our streets has been going up.

“It doesn’t feel proper and you have got to be whiter than white. You have got to show you are treating everyone equally, and they haven’t done that at TfL, and I think they have done themselves a lot of harm in this area. I’m hoping they’ll start to turn some of this around.”

“Black taxis need to be able to survive.” She explains. “I think moving them to full electric is part of that and one of the things I’ve suggested, and that TfL are now looking at is that the new taxis will be expensive, about £10k more than a new one now, but actually if TfL bulk bought a load they could both bring the price down and then either lease them to the drivers or sell them on.”

“Once you have these vehicles the running costs are so much cheaper and so fares can be as well. I think that could help make them more sustainable alongside private hire – which is thriving at the moment, certainly, but only in the sense that there’s one company [Uber] that’s out there dominating the market, offering very cheap fares which are very tempting to many Londoners.”

“I’m all for consumer choice, of course, but they’re going to drive everyone else out of the market. and then they’re going to hike fares. We’ve seen this model elsewhere in the world.”

Having talked in general terms about achievements and plans, we finish by asking Caroline what she, personally, remembers most warmly about her time on the Assembly.

“Actually,” she says, smiling, “You know what? It’s some of the really tiny things I’ve managed to achieve on the Assembly that I’m proudest of.”

“One of the things I managed to get changed was a bylaw, on the Tube, which meant that if you were blind and had a guide dog you couldn’t take your guide dog on a moving escalator. And this dated back to when you used to have wooden escalators and the heat and stuff on the dog’s paws.”

“I’d been lobbied by a number of visually impaired Londoners who told me that this was a real issue for them, because TfL had to switch the escalator off so they could use it as a staircase, which meant at rush hour they couldn’t really travel! So it was really discriminating against a group of Londoners. And I managed to get that bylaw changed! I managed to get TfL and the Department for Transport to change it. And yes… it’s a small thing, but for that group of people it isn’t is it? It really matters.”

“And I did that as an Assembly Member.” She says, with a grin, “As mayor? You’ve got all that executive power and my goodness wouldn’t that be satisfying? Think of the difference you can make then!”

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Written by John Bull