Charles Wright: DLR train deal is reminder of when government saw value of investing in London

Charles Wright: DLR train deal is reminder of when government saw value of investing in London

Hot on the heels of Transport for London’s unveiling of ambitious plans to extend the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) to Thamesmead, supporting up to 30,000 much-needed new homes and 10,000 jobs, comes another exciting DLR announcement – a deal for 11 new DLR trains, which will help to boost the network’s capacity by more than 60 per cent and unlock 10,000 new homes.

There’s a big difference between the two things, though – unlike the “currently unfunded” DLR extension – in simple terms, it won’t be happening any time soon –  the new train deal comes with some £280 million of government funding.

A sudden change of heart by an administration more inclined to slam the brakes on public investment, particularly when it’s the capital doing the asking? Not quite. The cash for the new trains, to be provided from Whitehall’s Housing Infrastructure Fund for “strategic and high-impact” projects, was allocated in 2018 by then Chancellor Philip Hammond.

Different times, perhaps, but also a clear recognition of the importance of publicly-funded infrastructure to get building going across the city’s brownfield “opportunity areas”.

Coincidentally, the new train deal was announced as the Department for Transport (DfT) released research precisely looking at whether transport improvements can bring about positive economic and social “transformative” change beyond what is commonly captured in “traditional” cost-benefit appraisals.

There wasn’t much doubt about one of its case studies, the £3.5 billion Jubilee Line extension (JLE) to Stratford. This has generally been seen, along with the original DLR, as vital to the regeneration of Canary Wharf and the wider docklands area. The new research found that view to be correct: “By enabling Canary Wharf to be developed, the JLE has made a major contribution to the whole London and national economy.”

What makes a project “transformative?” The research gives some clues. A “coordinated programme” of public and private investment is necessary, integrated with existing public transport, it says. Support must be targeted and potentially large, in order to “build new infrastructure…assemble land, encourage development and facilitate change”, the finds, citing the King’s Cross development as well as the JLE as a particular success story.

With the government itself, in its Levelling Up white paper, pledging support for “King’s Cross style” regeneration projects around the country, think tank Centre for Cities took a close look at that scheme last year. Its findings chime with the new ones.

The number of firms on the site roughly doubled between 2010 and 2021, including flagship occupiers Facebook and Google. The number of jobs increased threefold, and thousands of new residents moved in on what had been low demand, underused and dilapidated railway land. Substantial public funding had been the key to unlocking large-scale private investment, the centre found.

Increasing evidence, then, for informing current schemes such as the DfT’s Euston project – not just the HS2 terminus but improvements to the existing station and “over-site” development which, according to Camden Council, could deliver up to 20,000 jobs and 2,000 homes?

Apparently not, according to last week’s hard-hitting report on the scheme from the Commons Public Accounts Committee, whose chair, London MP Meg Hillier, describe the over budget and now “paused” project as “floundering”.

Eight years in, the DfT “still does not know what it is trying to achieve with the station and what sort of regeneration it will support”, the committee’s verdict says. “HS2 Euston station is yet another example of the Department…failing to learn lessons from its management of other major rail programmes.”

The hand of HM Treasury was in evidence too. Its instruction to the DfT to absorb inflationary costs within existing budgets, even on major multi-year schemes, immediately saw capital projects, including Euston, put on hold.

With the scheme now back on the drawing board, with one option being to dump its wider regeneration elements entirely, officials did at least acknowledge that there were lessons they could learn from King’s Cross. A glimmer of light. But is it too late to secure the benefits that were once forecast?

Twitter: Charles Wright and On London. If you value On London’s output, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to On London publisher and editor Dave Hill’s Substack. Thanks.

Categories: Analysis

1 Comment

  1. Greg T says:

    Tory dogma is more important than facts, I’m afraid
    It also does not help that neither Harper nor Merriman actually like railways at all.

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