Dave Hill: It’s hard to see the government’s wrangle with TfL ending well

Dave Hill: It’s hard to see the government’s wrangle with TfL ending well

Let’s start on an optimistic note, if only to sustain us on our trip through many miles of stupidity and spite. A letter to Sadiq Khan from transport secretary Grant Shapps showing the government proposing a massive extension of the congestion charge zone and big hikes in mayoral Council Tax and public transport fares has fuelled a foreground political fist fight. But though I too have reported part of that letter I haven’t seen it all, the full story about it might not yet have emerged, and it was written on 1 October, which is many hours of negotiations ago.

Meanwhile, the Evening Standard has reported the concerns of a bunch of London Conservative MPs, and Boris Johnson chose not to address the congestion charge question when it was raised by Harrow East’s Bob Blackman at Prime Minister’s Questions last week. These things suggest that the government too is worried about the issue, if only its potential electoral consequences. And so it should be, as poll findings, the alarm of everyone from from business groups to the RMT, and the worries of those backbenchers confirm. And when it comes to taking advantage of Tory hostility, Mayor Khan knows how to look after himself.

All this gives grounds for hope that any enlargement of the current zone will not be as monumentally crude as Londoners across the city – including plenty outside the putative new North and South circular boundary – currently fear and that the deal as a whole might not be as damaging as it could be.

Then there is the Treasury’s interest in the matter. It knows better than most the critical importance of London’s economy to that of the UK. Transport for London boss Andy Byford, as well as placing on record the extraordinary refusal of Shapps’s department to share with him the bulk of the government-commissioned review of TfL’s finances by KPMG, has spelled out the point in detail in his public statements. He will surely have done so for good reason.

Running in parallel with the background wrangling and pulpit signalling there have been optimistic noises from environmental campaigners and champions of active travel. Take note that Green Party mayoral candidate Siân Berry, who is both of those things, has underlined she and her colleague Caroline Russell’s belief that any significant expansion of London’s congestion charging scheme should need technology that is far more sophisticated than we have now in order to enable fairer and more tailored pricing. Securing that any time soon might be too much to hope for. Even so, the revival of interest in road-pricing as a way of improving our surface transport overall does provide an opportunity for an intelligent, renewed debate about it – something London TravelWatch is rightly keen to see.

Is it, then, just possible that if we peer hopefully through the fog of the political war the shape of something good is forming? If by good we mean an agreement which, along with a realistic quantity of cash, includes a combination of greater powers being devolved to the London mayoralty and the means to create a road network in which smaller amounts of private motorised traffic flows more smoothly and cleanly and walking and cycling holds more appeal, what are the chances of that happening?

I’m not getting my hopes up. For a start, the baseline politics are getting lower and more vicious all the time. The government has made a great performance of trying to the pin blame for the precipitous plunge in TfL’s revenues on Sadiq Khan. Announcing its initial bailout in May, Shapps acknowledged that the most important reason for the crisis was “the significant fall in revenue caused by Covid-19” but claimed “an important secondary factor was the pre-existing poor condition of TfL’s financial position as a result of decisions made over the last four years”. This questionable sideswipe look half respectable next to Johnson’s enormous lie – even by his conman standards – in the Commons, that the crisis is “entirely” the fault of Khan.

Johnson knows full well that isn’t true, but he is desperate to give the falsehood legs. He knows equally well that the chances of Tory mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey winning next May’s postponed election barely exist, but needs to keep feeding the fib – which Bailey too is putting about – in order to limit the damage that would be done by a complete humiliation. Experienced insiders expect the misinformation to keep flowing deep into next spring. Perhaps more importantly, Johnson needs to make a great display of beating up a supposedly pampered and profligate London as part of what pitifully passes for a “levelling up” strategy – one that so far seems to amount to being beastly to Khan and shifting a few civil servants north of Enfield.

If being seen to punish London is thought a clever way to retain support in the “red wall”, might the reality of the TfL deal nonetheless turn out to be tolerable or even desirable? For Londoners aghast at the thought of a flat rate £15 being imposed, both precedent (in the form of hefty residents’ discounts in the current congestion charge zone) and the threat of furious opposition provide incentives for softening such a blow. But the resulting measures might also limit the amount of money the charge would bring in, which, even if maximised, would go nowhere near filling TfL’s budget gap on its own, and also lessen the beneficial effects clean air activists would hope for.

Another reason for pessimism is that there is more than one part of the government involved in the wrangle over TfL. Shapps and the DfT are one part, the Treasury is another. Then there’s Johnson’s transport adviser, Andrew Gilligan, his long-time media supporter and erstwhile unqualified mayoral cycling commissioner. Many jaw-dropping pages could be filled with tales of Gilligan’s behaviour when let loose in City Hall, some of the more alarming involving colleagues having to crawl from wreckage of his making.

I’m reliably informed that Gilligan’s contributions to the May bailout talks included carping constantly about being stopping by more senior figures from doing whatever he liked when in his mayoral role, rubbishing his successor Will Norman – as he’d already done for the Guardian – and forcefully insisting that free TfL travel for under-18s and over-60s should be suspended as soon as possible. (He was also, by the way, strongly approving of TfL’s proposal, required under that first agreement, that the congestion charge be increased to £15 a day and its operating hours extended to 10.00 pm and throughout weekends. Tory politicians unhappy about this might want to urge PM Johnson to get his Spad under control).

At some point in the coming week a settlement is due to emerge from this malfunctioning matrix of jostling power bases, conflicting policy options, political manoeuvring and a TfL team that doesn’t hold the national purse strings and isn’t even allowed to see all the figures the other side is working from. As London First has detected, long-term strings appear to be already being attached to what could be just the first in a series of heavily spun short-term deals. Even if these have features that appeal to some, they are unlikely to provide TfL and the Mayor with the autonomy and the resources they need to get on with the job of nurturing the city’s and the country’s recovery.

The Conservative manifesto included a commitment to “devolving power to people and places across the UK” so that “every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny”. Where London is concerned, honouring it is the last thing Boris Johnson intends to do.

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Categories: Comment

4 Comments

    1. Dave Hill says:

      Must politely disagree with you, Ted. You can argue with some of his policies if you like, but TfL’s finances have been destroyed by the virus, not the Mayor.

    1. Dave Hill says:

      Well, it’s an opinion piece, Ted. It’s supposed to be biased! I think the government has been behaving disgracefully toward TfL and the capital in general for low political reasons for a long time.

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