Having lost control of its capital, a besieged national government has decided to invade. The pretext is Transport for London’s desperate need for money, the motive is to suppress Sadiq Khan. Strings attached to the £1.6 billion rescue package – of which £505 million is a loan – include fares increases beyond the modest and selective ones Sadiq Khan signalled in mid-March, an insistence (apparently) that the Mayor’s preferred “stay at home” advice be replaced at Tube stations by the Prime Minister’s wartime motto “stay alert”, and government officials joining TfL’s board.
A paragraph from TfL’s note to the stock exchange defines the new regime in coded terms: “During the period in which the Funding Package is being provided to TfL, appropriate governance and oversight arrangements will be put in place, allowing the parties to work closely together.” You will adopt our values. You will speak our language. We ask the questions. We give the orders around here.
Forgive the exaggeration for effect, but also be under no illusions about what’s happened. In imposing those conditions, Boris Johnson’s government has seized from the capital’s elected leader a huge chunk of the limited autonomy devolved to London since the Greater London Authority was created 20 years ago – and which he himself enjoyed during his eight years at City Hall, all the while seeking more.
No comparable demonstration of top-down muscle has accompanied the bailouts of private rail operators or other cities’ transit systems. The sense of political expediency is strong. Brexit Boris, Darling of the North, wouldn’t want to be seen as giving Remoaning “rich London” a free handout.
Transport minister Grant Shapps’s remark that he could not permit “a situation where people outside the capital are unfairly carrying the burden” is an outstanding addition to the extensive modern library of “levelling up” populist drivel. If fairness is the issue, can the region with the UK’s highest poverty rates please have its £30 billion-odd annual tax export back? Shapps should be writing columns for the Guardian.
Of course, the politics of this travel both ways. Mayor Khan has expressed his displeasure with the deal, calling it a poor reward for virus-hammered Londoners who’ve led the way in getting transmission rates down, not to mention his prior success with reducing TfL’s deficit. The Mayor is adept at political jujitsu. Blame for the inflation-plus fare hikes that look to be on the cards will be laid loudly at Downing Street’s door. Meanwhile, becalmed Conservative mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey, eager to nurture the umbrage of private motorists, has wasted no time blaming Khan for the congestion charge rise that will take place in June, pointing to a reported DfT claim that he opted for the hike, rather than having it forced on him.
But whatever the effects, if any, on the interrupted mayoral race, the Johnson government’s TfL power-grab has demonstrated the fragility of the exceptionally centralised UK’s still tentative moves towards devolution during this century. Control over fares and of public transport policy through TfL has been one of the few areas where London Mayors have enjoyed much independence.
They remain beholden to national government for cash for building big new things, though there’s a sense in which austerity has increased their autonomy: most of the funding for the two new Northern Line stations at Battersea Power Station and Nine Elms due to open next year was secured at the London level, from developers and businesses (it’s been described as “a version of Land Value Taxation”); the frequently-bemoaned removal of TfL’s operating grant (agreed by Mayor Johnson with David Cameron) has been partly compensated for by allowing the Mayor to keep a bigger share of business rates, placing stewardship of that money more fully in London government hands.
How far and in what forms such mechanisms should evolve might form part of the debate about the future, as will the Crossrail delays. But for now, Johnson has parked his tanks on Khan’s lawn and, given TfL’s parlous financial state, there wasn’t much to stop him (leaving aside the substantial risk of being told to move on by a security guard from More London). It’s not the first such incursion this year. In March, just as the mayoral election campaign was revving up and just before the lockdown, communities secretary Robert Jenrick’s scathing rejection of Khan’s draft new London Plan made it very clear that if London Mayors want to do big things that national governments don’t like, gunboats can and will sail down the Thames.
Mayors have quite hefty “strategic” planning powers and these have got bigger over the years. But government inspectors had already obliged Khan to drop important parts of his new Plan, and Jenrick’s letter was a big stick display of where ultimate power over the physical shaping of the capital still lies.
From all this emerge some big questions and a big truth. The big questions are recurring ones about the UK’s balances and distributions of national and regional power – matters on which the new Labour Party leader Keir Starmer has firm views. Just as fractures with Scotland and Wales are being opened up by the virus crisis, so are those between national government and London government, as well as, in different ways, those with other city regions in England.
At least Mayor Khan has been asked to COBR meetings. But that concession also points to the same big truth that the London Plan intervention and the TfL bailout terms illuminate. It is that, like it or not, the UK’s economic dependence on London is so profound that without a thriving London the rest of the country is likely to be even worse off as Brexit approaches and a huge recession looms.
The resilience of London’s economy during the financial crisis of 2007-08 was essential to national recovery. This crisis is very different, hitting the tourism and culture sectors hard. But Johnson and his ministers know perfectly well that no amount of “levelling up” presentational gloss will change the reality that unless London gets its strength back, the UK will be ailing for a long time.
What is the best thing they can do to help that happen? A lot of things would have to change for London’s transport systems to become financially self-sufficient, and even in “peacetime” national government has a valid interest in how the capital is run: London and the rest of the UK are, after all, far more interdependent than simplistic “north-south divide” narratives acknowledge. For now, the current government might contend that in a national emergency, a tighter grip from the centre on the capital is necessary – especially if, as they believe, the leader of the capital is too keen on scoring points and is doing a bad job.
But as a longer term approach, it is undoubtedly the wrong direction of travel. It is beginning to look as if some of the worst shortcomings of the response to Covid-19 can be traced to a long legacy of over-centralisation. If London and the country are to emerge stronger from this crisis, it is time to turn the train around.
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