Roundtable 2: Finance and delivery of transport
Fares; funding; quality of service; transport mode; effective linkages with the Wider South East and the rest of the country; investment in the existing infrastructure; new investment on major programmes; air quality; climate change – let alone Mayoral responsibilities and powers – you name it and everyone wanted to talk about it. Equally, it is almost certainly the area where Covid 19 has most dramatically changed the story. Two main reasons stand out: the bailout that the Mayor had to accept means that the GLA is now very much at the mercy of central government and (ii) unless and until the economy returns to where it was, almost every aspect of transport will be affected – as will be the agglomeration and density benefits on which London’s growth relies. There will be many more policy changes over the next months which we will continue to monitor.
But some fundamental questions remain in place – even if the answers will be different:
Fares: The Mayor’s decision to freeze fares for his first term was clearly a problem for TfL’s finances –as was the increasing numbers of Londoners who do not have to pay at all. His initial decision to continue the freeze into his second term has now been reversed first for the Underground and now, under national government pressure, across all fares. Restrictions to the Freedom Pass put in place during the crisis could also well be maintained or extended which will probably not go down well. But as important for the more efficient running of the services is to re-open the discussion about fare structures to improve incentives for those who actually pay. Fares cannot help but be a core strand in any pre-election debate, especially given TfL’s likely continuing financial crisis.
Charges: One question on which there was much discussion was the future of the congestion charge especially in the context of the extension of the ULEZ (ultra low emissions zone) out to the North and South Circular Roads. In the discussion it was stressed that it makes no sense to extend the congestion charge zone in a similar way without making the charging system far more sophisticated and more directly related to congestion. It was also suggested that it would be politically difficult – but perhaps that would matter less to someone entering their second term. And always there are trade-offs between setting efficient structures and making simple/simplistic adjustments to increase revenues (as has now been done).
Outer London/South London/ the Wider South East and further
Much of the discussion in the media tends to be around Inner London issues – Underground overcrowding; buses and congestion; and indeed the congestion zone itself. Yet arguably, and argued at the roundtable, many of the problems that need to be sorted are around the emphasis on car use in Outer London partly caused by the lack of adequate bus services as well as the interlinkages between the London transport system and railways in the South East and further afield which come under national government ‘s remit. TfL is generally seen as doing a good job in managing interlinked systems (although there was some dissent on this). So what would the candidates do about growing road congestion on Outer London roads and about those in South London commuters whose costs are often higher because of the lack of integration between TfL and national rail?
Day to day management/regulation
There have been periods when a great deal more emphasis was spent on the day to day – even minute to minute – management of the road system – making it more efficient and comfortable to use. But there was a feeling that priorities had changed and as a result capacity is being reduced and what there is not being used effectively. Yet the car is still the most important mode of passenger transport and deliveries, an increasing element, are all made by road. Safely introducing new forms of transport (eg electric scooters) is another element in the story – as is licensing app-based taxis as in other countries.
Maintaining the existing infrastructure
The situation was seen as being made worse by poor standards of upkeep on the roads and lack of planning and coherence with respect to road repairs and improvement. Again the discussion pointed to issues that should concern the candidates – even though the Mayor only has direct control over major roads, with the remainder being the responsibility of the boroughs.
While participants could probably have gone on talking about these more immediate issues for all the time available, discussion did turn to longer term issues notably around infrastructure.
New investment in the transport system
A starting question – which also came up in the housing roundtable – is what transport as infrastructure actually means. Decisions are made by the public sector and improvements are generally not charged for directly. Equally, major infrastructure investment has massive positive externalities (and some negative ones) which get reflected in land and property values. Increased residential values do not generate higher revenues through the council tax system and so provide windfall gains to those who benefit from infrastructure; the supplementary business rate on the other hand does, in time, reflect these higher values. Two core issues that cross topic boundaries are therefore how can the benefits arising from investment be maximised (eg by adjusting where and at what densities affected land should be developed); and how/whether the land tax arrangements should be changed to ensure that those who benefit pay more directly?
Of course even if these two questions were addressed, except in the case of Mayoral CIL, it is not clear who would get to make the decision about where the additional revenues would be spent – notably how much would go elsewhere in the country; be available London-wide, or for local investment and services.
Crossrail 1 – and Crossrail 2
Crossrail 1 will, open within the next couple of years – is it too late to ensure some of their benefits are taxed? And too early to enable at least some Green Belt Reviews so that land can be used more efficiently?
All the candidates say they want cross rail 2 – but many commentators say it only made sense forty years ago. Might, as was argued, an extension to the Bakerloo line (ie an old fashioned UK incremental approach) make more sense? and be more affordable? given national government says London must pay at least 50% of the costs? Or are there other more cost-effective options? Again candidates should be asked how they would address these enormously important decisions.
Air quality, emissions, zero carbon and sustainability
The current Mayor is looking for zero-carbon by 2030 and transport to be 80% sustainable by 2041. First, how do London’s carbon plans fit into the national policy? Second, as things currently stand 80% sustainability requires a massive shift to buses not just encouraging bicycles, scooters; walking and multi-mode journeys. And how can the mix of authorities involved help to ensure that those who cannot walk or cycle can actually reach their destinations?
Whatever way we look, and whatever the ‘post’ covid-19 environment there will be many policy and operational changes made in the next few months and a myriad of questions for the candidates to answer.