First came the tanks on the lawn. Now, Boris Johnson’s brigades have their boots on the ground and are stomping through London’s corridors of power. The main thrust of the invasion has, of course, been the financial bailout of Transport for London or, to be precise, the conditions attached to it. These have now been published in detail and spell out the extent to which national government has annexed one of the few policy areas Londoners’ elected political leaders, its Mayors, have substantially controlled – until now.
We already knew that the terms of the £1.6 billion rescue package included two number crunchers appointed by the government attending meetings of the TfL board and two of its financial sub-committees. In a letter to Sadiq Khan, transport secretary Grant Shapps has confirmed that these individuals will be able to request “additional information” and “report back” to him.
The Mayor has had to agree that anything TfL does to get the transport system going again will have to be approved and overseen by an entity called the London Covid Transport Task Force, “including but not limited to” increasing fares by more than inflation; the suspension of free travel for under-18s and for people over 60 at peaks travel times; reporting staff absence rates; coming up with ideas to “widen the scope and level” of London’s road-pricing schemes, including the congestion charge. The Mayor has also had to sign up to “pushing forward an ambitious Active Travel Plan to promote cycling and walking”, the latter to be “agreed and overseen” by a “dedicated oversight group comprising TfL and HMG [Her Majesty’s Government]”.
What further incursions on to TfL turf might this magnificently-named London Covid Transport Task Force attempt? Shapps’s letter said its term of reference were attached. In fact, they weren’t and are apparently still being drawn up. Its membership too has yet to be made public, as is also the case with the “dedicated oversight group” that will prosecute the Active Travel Plan. Which strutting commissars will represent the freedom-loving Johnson on these mysterious and martial-sounding bodies to ensure that correct ways of thinking are adopted? Will they wear exciting outfits of some kind?
It would be strange indeed if the Prime Minister’s special adviser on transport, a man called Andrew Gilligan, is not closely involved. Gilligan’s somewhat uneven media background includes being an ardent Johnson supporter during the mayoral election campaigns of 2008 and 2012. In early 2013, he was awarded the job of “cycling commissioner” by the Tory Mayor, despite having no prior experience in transport planning. Seemingly unperturbed by allegations of cronyism, Gilligan quickly won a reputation among senior TfL staff as an incorrigible know-all who acted like he was the Lone Ranger. City Hall contemporaries tell extraordinary tales about him (some other time, maybe).
What other areas of City Hall’s autonomy might Johnson’s divisions seek to reduce? Just before the lockdown, communities secretary Robert Jenrick effectively used a letter seeking changes to Khan’s proposed new London Plan as party election literature for the Tory mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey. It has since been announced that he is to co-chair with the Mayor something called the London Transition Board, another pop-up panel whose formal purpose is unclear but whose creation feels decidedly invasive. Jenrick’s job also covers housing, and his attitude to Khan in his job so far does not raise hopes for future affordable homes funding.
Perhaps his well-publicised knock-back over the Westferry Printworks site will have a puncturing effect on Jenrick’s ego, but students of the disastrous Earls Court redevelopment project will not be reassured by the elevation to the Lords and Jenrick’s department of former Hammersmith & Fulham leader Stephen Greenhalgh, who was one of its principal champions – backed to the hilt by the then Mayor Johnson. Also big on the Earls Court scheme was Mayor Johnson’s deputy for planning and chief of staff Sir Edward Lister, another a member of PM Johnson’s London circle.
Given the somewhat improvised nature of Johnson’s premiership – another echo of his City Hall regime – it is hard to divine exactly what motives have been driving these hostile raids. A genuine concern about directions London is taking cannot be ruled out – even some Labour boroughs complain that the Mayor is distant and short on vision. Spite, though, seems a stronger candidate: Gilligan has criticised Khan’s record on cycling and everything else. Hubris too seems possible: at times when he was seeking the Tory leadership Johnson and some of his erstwhile lieutenants seemed to actually believe the great claims they made about his largely indifferent eight years as Mayor.
Perhaps we should reserve judgement. Perhaps the “immediate and broad ranging government-led review” of TfL’s future financial structure mentioned in Shapps’ letter, embracing “current fiscal devolution arrangements”, will produce a good result. But I’m not getting my hopes up. And even those with low opinions of Mayor Khan should think twice before rejoicing in Downing Street’s hostile manoeuvres against him. History shows that a London remotely-controlled from Whitehall is not a prospect to relish, whatever party is in national government – and especially not this one.
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