Wise observers anticipated that once the mayoral election was over, the barrage of tendentious claims and outright lies by political opponents – including the Prime Minister – that Sadiq Khan had been responsible for chronic financial mismanagement at Transport for London and even, laughably, that the capital’s transport body was “bankrupt” before the pandemic hit, would at last come to an end. The Conservatives upstream would finally acknowledge, if only privately, that Covid-19 alone is the reason TfL has needed bailing out. They would also recognise that dogs bark, cats miaow and that grass has a way of being green.
Sadly, such optimism now feels premature. Even sensible London Tories continue to ostentatiously shake their heads and tell anyone who will listen that the Mayor has presided over catastrophic budgetary failures, although they never get much into the specifics.
They talk about an increase in TfL debt since 2016, but not the far larger one Boris Johnson presided over when he was at City Hall. They mutter about Khan’s four-year fare freeze, but stoutly deny that the income foregone was a drop in the ocean compared with the shattering effects of the pandemic. They tut about the Crossrail delays, as if unaware that until very recently the Department for Transport was as much responsible for the project as TfL. Familiar favourites – staff perks, “driverless” trains, “waste” – take their usual spins round the block.
Meanwhile, the government-commissioned independent report by KPMG into TfL’s finances remains a virtual state secret. Why ever could that be?
The second emergency funding settlement, arrived at last October and recently extended for a fortnight, is due to expire at the end of this week with a new one taking its place. Post-election, Khan expressed hopes that bridges with the government could be built. He has since welcomed its tiresomely-named Great British Railways (GBR) plan for being based on the contract-and-performance arrangement between train operators and TfL that has produced the London Overground service.
But while the GBR document accepts the value of public transport to cities – especially London – for fuelling economic growth and notes that when past investment in the capital is measured in terms of passenger journeys made rather than per head of population – the misleading formula preferred by “north-south divide” populists – London has not been treated as favourably as often claimed, its promise that London will continue to exercise its “current powers” over contracts and fares looks risible in view of the relentless erosion of those powers by transport secretary Grant Shapps and the PM’s transport adviser and former media supporter Andrew Gilligan for more than a year.
And, as Charles Wright has written, the plan’s talk of a “new strategic partnership” with local authorities and business across the wider south-east might not bode well for existing or future devolve arrangements. A combination of the government’s shameless politicking with TfL and its so far thin and fatuous “levelling up” agenda provide few grounds for optimism, either for the autonomy of TfL and the Mayor or the next financial deal.
The UK has an anti-London government. It has already demonstrated that if it can’t win the mayoralty it will seek to control the capital by other means. The mood music about TfL since the election is little different from before. It does not sound very sweet.
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