As 2019 comes to an end, Transport for London commissioner Mike Brown will surely be anticipating starting his new job next year, chairing the body charged with stopping the Houses of Parliament from falling apart. Perhaps too he’ll be pleasantly reflecting that that task, considerable though it is, will be a lot less taxing than holding TfL together, which is what he’s had to expend a lot of energy on since his appointment in 2015. He hasn’t had an easy time. An admiring former colleague put his predicament like this: “He got the top job he deserved, but sadly at a time when it was almost impossible to succeed.”
Brown was the obvious and right choice to succeed Sir Peter Hendy. The Northern Irishman had a long and wide experience of working in the capital’s transport networks, beginning as manager of London Underground’s Neasden depot in 1989. He rose to become the Tube’s chief operating officer from 2003 until 2008, when he left to be the boss of Heathrow. But in 2010 he came back to TfL as London Underground’s managing director. His return underlines that Boris Johnson, then in his first term as Mayor, did not always install ideologues and oddballs in senior posts, particularly at TfL. He seemed to recognise that knowledge and know-how were what mattered most in that large and complex organisation, which has its own corporate culture and relationships with national government.
London Reconnections has credited Brown with “often brutal, but never less than honest” criticisms of the disastrous private public partnerships set up under a Labour government to deliver extensive Tube upgrade programmes, which he oversaw the end of as the Underground’s chief. Johnson once jokingly termed this a mayoral “nationalisation” – and indeed it was “insourcing” on a large scale. But towards the end of Tory Mayor’s time, when Brown stepped up to TfL’s helm, making good progress was becoming much harder.
The continuing squeeze on the transport body’s finances was well summarised in a November 2018 report by the London Assembly’s budget and performance committee. An operating loss of £986 million for the 2018/19 financial year was anticipated while at the same time TfL’s grant funding from the government was coming to an end, Johnson’s successor Sadiq Khan had placed a four-year freeze on the level of fares, the long-term growth in public transport passenger numbers – the people paying those fares – had slowed or fallen, and a delay to the opening of the Crossrail Elizabeth Line had been announced.
Nearly three-quarters of TfL’s income – about £5 billion for the year in question – comes from fares, dwarfing other sources such as congestion charging and various commercial revenues. Mayor Khan had put in £929 million from the increased share of business rates he’d been allowed to retain, compensating for the fall from £876 million it received in 2015/16 towards zero. But the struggle to deliver what Khan wanted and most agreed a fast-growing city needed was getting harder.
In such a context, the main criteria for assessing Brown’s record must be the extent to which he’s been able to prevent things grinding to a halt. The delay to the main opening of Crossrail was a big blow to TfL’s business plans, which had foreseen the new Elizabeth Line service generating up to £190 million in fares and advertising income in 2019/2020 alone. Brown was drawn into the extraordinary blame game which followed the late-breaking news, denying that he had misled the Mayor about the true scale of the unfinished work and claiming that some of the briefing material he had received from Crossrail “wasn’t even legible”. He himself had been misled, he said, by the Crossrail bosses of the time (a winner of that blame game may never be formally declared, but one TfL insider makes a plausible case that a simple and common human failure was largely to blame – no one in the Crossrail ranks wanted to give the officer class the bad news).
The Elizabeth Line might now not be fully running before March 2021, adding to TfL’s financial pain. It has borrowed to the hilt, partly to allow a loan from the Department for Transport to be made to help meet Crossrail’s rising costs. Plans to buy new Underground trains and other important projects have been dropped, suspended and pushed back. The conflict between solvency and investment has been extreme.
Yet at the same time, Brown has presided over important changes that have limited some immediate financial damage. Mayor Khan ran for office in 2016 calling TfL “good but flabby” and promising to make it fitter and leaner. The 2018 Assembly report praised some “real successes” in increasing commercial income and acknowledged that TfL’s “drive for efficiency…has been mostly successful”, albeit some of the measures have been controversial – a reduction in the bus service is still a reduction, even if in the form of a redistributive “streamline”. In March, TfL said that the previously-forecast £968 million operating deficit would actually be £500 million.
Quarrels continue about TfL’s budgets, not least their complexity. And there is no doubt that huge pressures remain, even with current projections based on a future fares hike the Mayor has not yet pledged to approve. It has indeed been tough on Brown that so much of his tenure as commissioner will have been spent cutting and rationalising and keeping TfL’s affairs from going wildly off the rails, not to mention headaches like dealing with Uber. “He’s a very positive and loyal public servant,” says one old close colleague, adding that Brown is noted for knowing the names of everyone who works around him. “He’s withstood tons of shit and protected his people admirably”. Some sources say his problems have, at times, included a mayoral administration he has found “difficult”.
Another ex-colleague stresses that straddling a change of mayors presents a huge challenge all of itself, but adds that Brown’s experience equips him well for his new, part time role, chairing the authority carrying out Parliament’s restoration. “Who better could they get to do a big refurb job on ancient infrastructure? Just like the Tube upgrades really”. Some will say that Mike Brown will leave TfL in a sorry state. A fairer way to look at it would be imagining how much worse things might have been without him.
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