You had to smile at Rishi Sunak’s appearance on the Trevor Phillips programme this morning, so palpable was its sophistry. The Chancellor had to admit that most of the pre-trumpeted £6.9 billion for public transport in city regions – excluding London, naturally – is, in fact, not new, and he declined to confirm whether either the Northern Powerhouse rail link between Leeds and Manchester or the north eastern prong of High Speed 2 for connecting Birmingham and Leeds will be built. Mayors in the Midlands and the North are probably not holding their breath.
By comparison, Sunak’s message about London – as distinct from for London – was both more subtle and more straightforward.
The subtlety, if the word is not too kind, lay in his pointed exclusion of the capital from his caring remarks about “our big cities” except for a slighting aside about those elsewhere deserving “the same type of transport settlements that London’s have always enjoyed, where locally elected Mayors can take a pot of money and decide how best to spend it to help all their residents.”
The straightforwardness lay in the pre-meditated depiction of London as being over-privileged in transport matters. That is, of course, now standard practice for ministers of the government led by Boris Johnson, who, when he was London’s Mayor, banged the drum loudly for transport investment in the capital on the grounds that doing so would help the entire country. These days, Boris of the North is effectively at one with Greater Manchester’s Labour Mayor Andy Burnham in seeking political advantage from repeatedly stoking anti-London attitudes.
For me, a more novel part of Sunak’s remarks was his message that Mayors in other parts of England will – “crucially”, as he put it – be given the same freedom as London’s to dish out funding they receive as they see fit. Let’s not dwell on the fact that London no longer receives the operating grant from the government it once did or that half the cost of Crossrail has ended up being met from from money raised at London level, and concentrate instead on the devolved spending power the capital supposedly has.
Did Sunak make his observation unaware that the government he is a senior member of has been deliberately and gleefully engaged in destroying the autonomy of the UK capital’s Mayor and Transport for London since May 2020, taking away its freedom to spend transport funds as it thinks best ever since the start of the pandemic? Conversely, is he fully aware of this yet perfectly content to pretend it isn’t happening, never mind that the consequences of TfL’s near-nationalisation have already damaged the capital’s economic recovery and threaten to do worse?
Sunak’s colleague Grant Shapps, that little slyboots of a transport secretary, and Andrew Gilligan, Johnson’s erstwhile media supporter and now his know-all transport adviser, have between them imposed a micro-management regime on TfL which looks worryingly like a precursor to imposing further public transport cuts. TfL Commissioner Andy Byford has warned that this could plunge London’s public transport into a “death spiral” of decline. The city’s economy could easily follow. If that happens, money for any serious “levelling up” will be in still shorter supply.
Of course, the government, if it isn’t in full denial about London’s vital importance to the entire UK economy and public finances, may really have collectively concluded that substantively damaging transport networks in the capital as well as denouncing them rhetorically is a price worth imposing on the country if it helps it to remain in power. We will know better when the detail of the spending review and budget emerge next week.
In the meantime, unless the small print contains little gems of reassurance, it looks as if appearances so far are a good guide to reality: a national government led by a former Mayor of London intends to damage London’s transport networks while, at the same time, failing to deliver the investment cities elsewhere merit and need, and hoping nonetheless that such sums as it does provide will somehow pass muster as “levelling up”.
Image of Rishi Sunak from Sky’s Trevor Phillips Show.
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