The governance, funding and maintenance of London’s roads is something of a hotchpotch – a mixed arrangement involving the Department for Transport (DfT), the boroughs, Highways England and Transport for London (TfL).
In terms of maintenance, TfL look after London’s red routes, Highways England run the capital’s motorways, and the boroughs take care of the rest. Funding arrangements are more complex, with the boroughs funding maintenance of local roads through Council Tax, borrowing, activities such as controlled parking, and with TfL money. TfL’s own funding comes from a wide variety of sources, not least the Congestion Charge and the new Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). Then there’s a new funding stream for road repairs from the DfT, which is allocated directly to TfL and the boroughs, plus the small issue of transport cross-subsidy. All clear?
The bottom line though, is that London’s transport system as a whole is starved of cash by Whitehall. As I’ve previously argued, TfL works minor miracles for the breadth of London’s commuters every day, despite having to do so in the absence of any direct operating grant from national government – the only major transport network in Europe to do so.
London is doing all it can to promote a shift towards sustainable transport on our streets, and yet we continue to be locked out of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) clear air fund. Perhaps most egregious of all however, is the government’s decision to spend Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) money collected in London only on roads outside of London from 2021. This will create a perverse scenario whereby profit-making elements of TfL’s public transport operations will be effectively subsidising the maintenance of its roads.
TfL-managed highways may only make up 5% of London’s road network, but they carry almost a third of its traffic. Much of this traffic is haulage, which passes through London without stopping, toxifying our air at a direct cost to the health and wealth of Londoners.
The damage to our streets caused by heavy good vehicles and years of threadbare maintenance also takes its toll in terms of encouraging take-up of sustainable transport methods. Potholes are a hazard for pedestrians (particularly those with disabilities) and actively dangerous for cyclists. Why would you switch your commute from four wheels to two if your experience of the roads was perilous and stressful?
While there are important matters at stake regarding the extent to which London has control over its own infrastructure and fiscal matters, ultimately the issue here is one of austerity. Those years of threadbare maintenance have come about in part because of the government’s diversion of funding away from London, but first and foremost because TfL and the boroughs have been expected to do so much for a growing population with so little.
This isn’t to suggest that austerity hasn’t impacted road maintenance elsewhere in England, and at the last budget the government was finally forced to recognise the severity of the issue and allocate an additional £420 million for roads repairs. But even then London lost out, with the boroughs allocated just £17.2 million between them and London receiving the lowest proportion of funding per mile of any region. This money was just a fraction of what was required, with an estimated £32 million per borough required just to tackle to the backlog of repairs, let alone fund ongoing maintenance.
Our damaged, patchworked roads are a very physical manifestation of the consequences of austerity. TfL and our boroughs are making the best of a bad situation. We continue to call for devolution so that London can deal with and pay for this maintenance itself. But until that time comes we remain reliant on national government. Will they give our city the investment it urgently needs? Or will they allow our vital infrastructure to crumble?
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