The Politics of Emptiness


On 5 May, Londoners will choose their new mayor. In doing so, they will grant a single individual the third biggest direct personal mandate of any politician in the whole of Europe (only France and Portugal are larger). That person will have control of a £17bn budget – roughly the same as the entire national budget of Serbia. The lion’s share of that budget – about £11.5bn – will go to Transport for London.

One could be forgiven, therefore, for expecting to find transport – and more particularly a deep and nuanced understanding of it – at the heart of both the Conservative and Labour candidates’ campaigns. Unfortunately, there has been little evidence to suggest it is there.

Perhaps indicative of both Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith’s lack of interest in transport was their noticeable absence at a long-planned debate on infrastructure, with a focus on transport, at the Institution of Civil Engineers. Instead of defending their manifesto promises themselves, outgoing London Assembly Transport Committee Chair Valerie Shawcross AM and Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport Claire Perry MP stepped in for Khan and Goldsmith respectively. Neither gave a convincing performance.

Readers may also have noted the absence of both men from the digital and physical pages of LR. Both Sian Berry, representing the Greens, and Caroline Pidgeon, representing the Liberal Democrats, accepted our challenge to talk openly and in depth about transport issues. The absence of similar detailed conversations with Khan and Goldsmith can be left to speak for itself.

This isn’t to say that both candidates have not commented on transport at all. Both have done so frequently in the press and in various debates. On few occasions, however, have those comments ever revealed more than a superficial understanding of London’s transport issues. More often than not they have been vague statements carefully dressed up as actual answers, soap-box bubbles that pop at the the gentlest application of actual journalistic pressure.

That both candidates suffered early transport scares perhaps helps explain their reticence to stray into the murky waters of actual transport policy. For Goldsmith, this came in November last year when a series of ill-judged comments on LBC betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of bus lanes and, well, buses:

I think that if I am right and I am absolutely convinced I am, that we are going to see a massive shift in the type of cars people own, then within two or three years there will be no point having bus lanes because everybody is going to be driving these things around.

It was a comment that he would later attempt to walk back, claiming that he meant that a temporary removal of some bus lanes would help promote the take-up of electric cars (although it’s very hard to see how his statement could actually have been intended this way). It remains hard to see the incident, however, as anything other than a brutal, early lesson in the dangers of overstepping one’s knowledge of the capital’s impressive, but delicately balanced, transport eco-system.

It was an error that, unsurprisingly, Khan was swift to pounce upon. Yet his own misstep was not far behind. There are two things in life a putative ruler should never do: start a land war in Asia, or pledge a fares freeze in a London mayoral election. Khan did the latter. Tom Edwards at the BBC was quick to question the numbers and Khan’s heated defences of them on television won him few friends, as well as giving Goldsmith’s campaign a solid line of attack.

Like Goldsmith on bus-lanes, Khan has since made multiple attempts to walk his figures back. We will look at how he has done so shortly when we consider his manifesto in more detail. That it remains, however, perhaps the only regular non-race card still played by Lynton Crosby in Goldsmith’s ongoing campaign somehow manages to speak badly of both candidates.

If both candidates have hewn firmly towards safer transport ground since then it is perhaps no surprise. It is important, however, for us to at least attempt to build a picture of what their future policies are likely to be. So, let us look at some of the key sections of their respective manifestos, which in this context are very important. They will form the basis of the victor’s Mayor’s Transport Strategy – a five year plan on the priorities and projects the new mayor seeks to achieve in this term.

Breaking down the manifestos

At first glance both of their manifestos seem to promise Londoners a lot of rail projects – ones we’ve seen in the news and heard about. We have certainly heard the narrative that London needs Crossrail 2 and the vision of a South London Overground. If it all sounds familiar it is because Transport for London is already working on these projects. It is thus clear that both Khan and Goldsmith have taken their lead from Transport for London on which projects to list in their manifestos. Superficially, this seems sensible. Transport for London is the technocracy established to run transport.

But the barrier to delivering many of these projects is not strategic will or desire on the part of TfL, but money. And neither manifesto offers a coherent and funded strategy to meet the needs of those projects, maintain the legacy infrastructure or expand the network.

So the candidates are setting themselves up to be ill prepared for the term ahead. Projects are now committed to without full analysis of them – meaning possibly projects better suited to address the issues are already dismissed.

In Zac’s case, depressingly, even here this narrative is augmented by one of fear, presenting a vision in which it is repeatedly reiterated that if Sadiq Khan was elected all of TfL’s projects would somehow be in jeopardy.

Fare shake up

That fear is, in part, built on the perceived impact of Sadiq Khan’s fares pledge.

In Khan’s manifesto that pledge is refined and laid out in full. It is a pledge to freeze public transport fares at 2016 prices for his 4-year mayoral term. It is an eye catching proposal – and one he clearly hopes will prove popular with voters. As Khan explains, he wants to reduce the transport cost burden so families do not have to choose between putting dinner on the table or clothing their children and using public transport.

Before breaking down the numbers it is perhaps worth noting that the idea is not a new one for Khan, or London Labour. Indeed whilst Khan has occasionally been accused by his rivals of being a man prepared to be “all things to all men”, his commitment to an (effective) fare reduction has actually been lengthy and consistent, with him first going on record with the idea in 2013.

The devil, however, is in the numbers. Khan estimates the policy will cost £450m for the term. He envisions that the budget reduction can be bridged by finding efficiencies within TfL – such as merging departments – and reducing the use of consultants and agency staff. Indeed Khan claims Transport for London ‘wasted’ £383m last year on consultants and agency staff, and wants to halve that bill – a promised saving of £190m a year then.

Khan is not alone in insisting that further efficiencies can be found within TfL. It has also been a familiar refrain from Pidgeon and, to a lesser extent, from the other candidates as well. It is also almost certainly true. Any organisation of TfL’s size inevitably accrues fat. In all cases, however, talk of cuts to TfL as a source of funding fails to take into account the fact that the organisation was, and is, already undergoing an extensive exercise to do exactly that. Not to raise additional funds for the incoming mayor, but in order to meet the £2.8bn cuts to its Government grant that are already on the table. For any candidate to rely heavily on the ability of TfL to find extra efficiencies in the short term whilst maintaining the same level of delivery of both services and projects is a dangerous game indeed.

In addition, Khan proposes to meet any remaining short fall by creating a trading arm ‘that can run bus and other local transport services at home and abroad’ as well as a TfL consultancy that will sell best practice and lessons learnt to others around the world — to other transport agencies and those looking to improve transport in their city. The former seeks to replicate the success that other European state owned railway businesses, such as Deutsche Bahn, that run the London Overground, have had.

Khan argues that by Transport for London bidding and running services elsewhere, the profits realised can be funnelled into keeping transport fares low in London. The latter proposal to create a TfL consultancy sounds similar to London Transport International – the consultancy arm of TfL’s predecessor that advised over 25 metros around the world between the mid 1970s and the mid 1990s when the organisation was shut down. Of all the rail ideas in both manifestos this is perhaps the most intriguing, but at the and it being same time it is far from an assured success. The transport elephant in the room is that the “foreign” market that has until now proven such a quick and easy cash-cow for the European railway operators (which Khan suggests TfL emulate) has been the UK. That is a market that almost certainly will not be available to TfL.

Building up a successful overseas presence will thus take time, resource and money, and inevitably questions will be asked about whether it is worthwhile on balance, even should the enterprise prove to be a long term success.

In addition, Khan suggest that TfL can support the fare freeze by putting ‘spare TfL land to better use, retaining ownership while building affordable and market homes, as well as commercial space, [to] generat[e] long-term and secure revenue stress’. Again, this is indeed possible, but again TfL already has an ambitious plan to generate £3.4bn in non-fares commercial revenue by 2023 through partnerships with property developers. That £3.4bn is already set to be reinvested in London’s transport network. In February, TfL announced the appointment of 13 major property developers and consortia to bid for work on 50 TfL sites across London. Based on a the brochure put out by Transport for London for property partnership opportunities 65% of the 50 opportunity sites on TfL land are in zones 1 & 2 – all the best sites will already have been factored into its financial calculations.

Khan’s ability to meet the cost of his pledge is thus already on shaky ground. The real controversy associated with the fares pledge, however, has grown up not around this but from a broader question – whether Khan’s assessed headline cost of £450m was accurate at all.

After the pledge became public, Ian Brown, former MD of London Rail at TfL and non-executive director of the Crossrail Board, admitted that Transport for London was worried about the impact of the fares freeze pledge in a webinar with the Washington-based transport think tank ENO. Unlike Khan, Transport for London estimates the price tag for the policy to be £1.5bn for the four years.

For the sake of clarity, it is worth noting here that figure again – £1.5bn. the widely circulated £1.9bn figure is actually for five years. This poorly reported revision was clarified in the London Assembly Plenary Meeting on the 10 February.

For such a gap to exist between a major candidate’s forecasts and those of TfL was astonishing. This, combined with the initial vehemence with which Khan insisted that TfL had told him his figures were accurate in the face of their denials, suggests that there is more to the events that caused this discrepancy than meets the eye. In the spirit of never assigning to malice what is equally possible to have been caused by accident, the betting money at LR Towers has always been on a miscommunication between candidate and transport authority. A wrong or ambiguous question was asked, perhaps or a wrong or ambiguous answer was given, and neither party spotted the issue until it was already public.

Indeed in the same February meeting it was hinted that the discrepancy between the Labour candidate’s campaign and the TfL figures might hinge on different inflation forecasts – Labour assuming inflation levels to continue at current low levels around 1% and Transport for London assuming higher figures upon recommendation from the Bank of England.

We will likely never know the precise cause, but it seems almost certain that whatever has transpired behind the scenes – positive or negative – between Khan and TfL will likely have set a tone for their relationship over the next four years, should he win the election.

Ultimately, whatever the discrepancy, it is clear that a financial gap will exist. Transport Commissioner Mike Brown has admitted that he thinks it will be hard for Transport for London to pay for the fare freeze through efficiencies. That does not mean that he has said the freeze couldn’t happen, simply implied – heavily – that a freeze could lead to a scaling back of TfL’s large investment programmes. It remains to be seen whether that’s a price that Khan (or indeed London) could afford to pay.

Sir Peter Hendy, Brown’s predecessor at Commissioner, once described to us his own approach to a mayoral change thusly:

When Boris was elected we wrote down everything he said. And the first time I went to see him I said: ’Here’s a list of what we can do today – because that’s what politicians want to do – here’s a list of things we can do in a bit. Here’s the list of things that are more difficult. And here’s a little list of the things you probably shouldn’t have said and that we’re going to find bloody difficult. I didn’t say weren’t going to do them – but that we’ll find really difficult.

Luckily Mike Brown is a shrewd and accomplished political operator in his own right. For should Khan win then Brown will likely require his own version of Hendy’s little speech.

Commuter rail take over

Both candidates are also calling for TfL to take over management of the railways in London. The vision is to replicate the success of London Overground across the capital.

A jointly published DfT and TfL consultation document, covered by a lot of media outlets as an announcement of the intention for TfL to take over South London mainline rail services, indicated the things were moving towards TfL playing a greater role in the management of the train services in South London. Again here both candidates’ policies align with a strategy TfL is already pursuing. Whether this means that TfL will adopt the routes and a similar structure as for the incumbent London Overground for South London, or just have more say in stipulating the details of franchise agreements, is not clear.

What is relatively clear is that the publication of the joint document, the timing (if not the contents) of which clearly took TfL slightly by surprise, appears to have been done to position Zac Goldsmith favourably – rather than map out a plan to realise ‘turning South London orange’.

In theory, Transport for London adopt the first South London routes in 2018 as franchises expire. According to TfL Rail’s head of planning, Geoff Hobbs, it would take approximately two years for the transport agency to prepare a management take over. This is why South West’s network is unlikely to be added to TfL’s rail services when the franchise expires next year.

Missing once again though from both candidates manifesto pledges and the wider hype of ‘turning South London orange’ is a coherent funding plan. The success of the London Overground orbital was reliant on over a £1bn in infrastructure as well as refurbishment of stations and new trains. Yet neither Khan nor Goldsmith go beyond the hollow promises that they hope will win them support south of the river.

Without a robust plan and sufficient funding the South London Overground endeavour will not be a success.

Crossrail 2

Hot on the heels of Crossrail, both candidates also pledge to work with the Government to realise plans for Crossrail 2 – a new link from the South West via Central London to North East London. Again this project has already been in the works for a while. The National Infrastructure Commission concluded that London ‘would grind to a halt’ without it. The national government also announced in its budget in March that it would provide £80m, which it expects Transport for London to match, to develop the Crossrail 2 scheme further. This is only a drop in the ocean of the project expected to cost twice as much as Crossrail – rolling in at between £27bn -£32bn.

A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that half this cost could be met within the current funding mechanisms available to the mayor. These include the Business Rate Supplement, Mayoral Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), council tax precept and the resale of land and property compulsory purchase to build the new underground railway. Neither candidate goes beyond regurgitating this potential and neither suggests a plan to find the missing funding beyond the nebulous rhetoric of working with government.

South London

Khan also promises to secure funding for the Bakerloo line extension to South London. This project seeks to unlock areas for higher density housing in South London and has already been consulted on a number of times. The most recent survey indicated that 96% were supportive of the extension from the current terminus at Elephant and Castle in principle. The debate continues on which route south the Bakerloo will take. As of this year, TfL are developing a technically detailed case. Goldsmith meanwhile is prioritising new trains on the existing network over a Bakerloo line extension.

Instead of committing to the Bakerloo line extension Goldsmith has promised the extension of the tram network in South London. Transport for London has already committed £100m to the project. It is estimating the full cost would be triple that amount and seeking a £200m contribution towards the project from the local borough, Sutton. The project is currently stalling as no agreement has been made with the local borough and Transport for London. Goldsmith fails to indicate how he will plug that gap.

Khan meanwhile envisages planning for the long term to include projects such as Crossrail 3, new orbital links as well as DLR and tram extensions

Night Tube

Both candidates are committed to implementing the Night Tube service which was not implemented as planned in September 2015 following disputes between unions and management, leading to strikes on the network.

Zac Goldsmith’s manifesto appear to outline plans to add all night weekend service on the London Overground in 2017 and the Docklands Light Railway by 2021. However, the extension of the Night Tube is already in place. The Circle, Hammersmith and City, District and Metropolitan lines will join once the modernisation programme is complete – completion date currently set for 2019. TfL also plans to add the London Overground and the DLR in 2017 and 2021 respectively.

Whilst Khan seeks to address further discontent between management and the unions, and prevent escalation to industrial action by engaging with the unions. Goldsmith pledges to clamp down on TfL staff’s ability to strike.


Sadiq Khan wants to shake up the bus fare structure by introducing a one-hour bus pass to replace the single fare passengers pay when they board a bus. Whilst not a new idea (nor even originally a Labour one – it was a Liberal Democrat proposal in the last election when Caroline Pidgeon was on the political undercard) this does seem to be one that is finally about to have its day.

It tackles the discrepancy between the bus and rail fare structure. It will provide a fairer fare structure for those that live in less accessible areas, with low income travellers now able to use multiple buses at the current cost of one to get to their destination. The next step from here could be to integrate bus and tube fares.

Levelling the playing field between bus and tube fares could encourage passengers to use the bus instead of the Tube network – reducing demand on the tube network without large scale infrastructure building.

The only policy Zac Goldsmith has to improve the bus network, meanwhile, is to conduct an urgent review into the outer London bus network. The review is to ensure that outer London is appropriately served by frequent routes. This promise seems directed at a particular voter base rather than focused on the most pressing issues. Importantly, there is no detail on who these new buses might be funded by or whether the findings of the review will be acted upon. Whilst it may represent a safer path to electoral success, therefore, it will not automatically translate to good government.

Whistling the same, safe tune

This, effectively, can be said to hold true for much of the remainder of both candidates’ manifesto promises on transport. It is not our intention to go into details of them all here. Our goal was simply to give a feel for some of the ways in which both candidates are equally lacking.

Indeed we suggest those keen to find out both Khan and Goldsmith’s views on roads, cycling and walking engage in a little mental exercise:

Before looking at their respective manifestos, ask yourself a series of general questions about a basic issue and take a stab at concocting the least offensive reply:- Black Cabs? Good. Keep them. Pollution? Bad. It should go. Cycling? Yes. It’s nice and should be safer.

As long as any real effort to describe how those things might come to pass, or fund it, is avoided, then more often than not you will find yourself surprisingly close to your chosen candidate’s policy.

Looking to the future

If we have painted an overly harsh image of our two lead candidates in this article, then that is perhaps not entirely fair. Both men have their flaws, certainly. Both men, in town hall meetings and debates, have frequently demonstrated a willingness to say precisely what is required of them within that individual setting at times, for example, whilst having no qualms about holding an opposing view at a different event. For Zac in particular this has been notable on the issue of mini-Hollands and outer-London cycling, where his commitment to London’s cycling future seems to wane considerably at campaign meetings in boroughs were the motor car rules supreme.

But both – generally speaking – have also demonstrated positives and the potential to lead. When it comes to transport at least it is so far little more than that – potential. In a few short days one of them will likely stand before the city as the latest holder of one of the most powerful and important transport jobs in Europe. The problem is that right now both seem to be lacking the understanding or policies necessary to hit the ground running.

There comes a point, for example, where you have to know more, as London’s mayor, about buses than simply that your father used to drive one. Although even this towers above Goldsmith’s own biggest use of buses in his campaign – which was to write a dog-whistle attack article featuring images of buses from 7/7 in the Mail on Sunday. An act that is well below the standard of politics and basic decency that the city he claims to wish to serve deserves.

Ultimately, both men will need to rapidly up their transport game. Not just for their own political benefit but because in London, arguably more than anywhere else in the UK, transport really matters. Transport in London plays a critical support role in meeting wider social policy objectives such as housing, employment and education. And yet at the same time pressures on transport are mounting due to continuing population and employment growth in London as many, many reports have detailed.

A robust, functioning transport network is key to accommodating the two Tube trains full of people moving to London every week. It is key to helping the city grow and survive. It thus requires a mayor who is capable of understanding, supporting – and most importantly – of funding that.

It is just a shame, and a concern, that neither Sadiq Khan or Zac Goldsmith have presented any real evidence of being able to do that thus far.

Written by John Bull
John Bull is the Editor of London Reconnections. A transport journalist and historian, his writing often focuses on the political or strategic challenges facing London's transport network and beyond.