The former leader of Croydon Council was a surprise appointment by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. But it is already proving to be a shrewd decision. By WALTER CRONXITE
Val Shawcross, the former leader of Croydon Council who has been appointed as Sadiq Khan’s deputy mayor for transport, is to reduce the tiers of management at Transport for London, to cut the organisation’s costs but also, she says, to help make it more responsive to the needs of passengers.
Shawcross was speaking in an interview published last week by Mayorwatch in which the website’s editor, Martin Hoscik, suggested that by appointing the former London Assembly Member, “Khan has given himself the best possible chance of turning election rhetoric into reality”.
That “election rhetoric” is the fares freeze on TfL buses and Tubes which many City Hall watchers have suggested cannot be delivered without jeopardising the organisation’s investment finances.
At least some elements of that rhetoric are already being delivered, though, with new, cleaner electric buses, the death knell sounded for the new Routemaster and, last week, with the introduction of Hopper fares across the bus and Tramlink networks, allowing passengers to pay just one fare for journeys across multiple routes within one hour.
As deputy mayor for transport, Shawcross has also already overseen one cost-cutting measure which could save nearly £1 million over five years, with a slimmed down TfL board from that which was appointed under Boris Johnson, and which was accused of providing cushty sinecures for the Mayor’s mates.
Last week, the new Mayor’s office announced, somewhat pointedly, that the reconfigured TfL board “better represents the diversity of the capital”.
The Mayor’s press office noted, “The previous TfL board included 13 men and four women, with no BAME representative. By contrast, the Mayor’s new board will be 57 per cent female, 29 per cent BAME and 13 per cent with a disability – with the final position to fill.” That seat on the board will be allocated to a representative of the trades unions – another notable departure from the eight years under Johnson, who despite regular disputes with the transport unions refused to meet or discuss matters with the workers who keep London moving.
In the interview, Shawcross professes to having been surprised by her appointment as Khan’s deputy mayor for transport, “a role which is likely to prove pivotal to the success of his administration”, according to City Hall expert Hoscik.
Three weeks beforehand, Shawcross, who had been Assembly Member for Lambeth and Southwark since the first London-wide elections in 2000, cleared her desk at City Hall and handed in her office keys for a final time after having stood down in May.
“Sixteen years is long enough,” Shawcross had told Inside Croydon earlier this year.
“I feel now the time is right to move on and find some new challenges.” Shawcross’s City Hall career, which included standing as Ken Livingstone’s deputy in the 2012 London elections, had followed six years as a councillor for New Addington, when she had chaired the Town Hall education committee and been the Labour group leader.
But speaking to Shawcross then, there was a clear sense of thwarted ambition, that somehow she had exhausted herself in her City Hall role and that she had nowhere further to go. Having stood as the Labour parliamentary candidate in Bermondsey in the 2010 General Election when she failed to unseat LibDem Simon Hughes, two years later, following the death of popular MP, Malcolm Wicks, Shawcross sought selection in her own home constituency, the uber-safe seat of Croydon North.
After a selection process which remains a subject of contention among some within Croydon North’s Constituency Labour Party, Shawcross narrowly missed out to the controversial Steve Reed.
“I went for my home seat and didn’t get it. I was really gutted actually not to get that,” Shawcross said in her Mayorwatch interview. “I thought I’d missed my big opportunity.
“You get to a stage in your career where you have to think ‘is what I’ve done worthwhile?’ And I’m really pleased with what I did on the Assembly and I really was pleased to be chair of the fire authority for eight years.”
Having been credited with modernising the London Fire Brigade, Shawcross’s task under Khan is to modernise TfL.
TfL’s new board is signal of her intentions. “London does have a hugely diverse population of incredibly talented people and we’ve got quite a lot of them signed up,” she said.
“We’ve got a huge programme to deliver, it’s about getting it right for the passengers, it’s about getting it right to promote regeneration and housing, it’s about getting it right for the environment, it’s about getting it right financially as well.
“We’re here to serve the passengers and the public and the whole of London but we remember that there are issues around the workforce as well and we want to make sure TfL becomes an exemplary employer as well as an exemplary public transport service.
“There’s a job for the board to do challenging TfL to raise its game on all that, not to be a separate identity, not to be a separate organisation but to make sure that the administration itself raises its game.”
That administration could soon find itself being trimmed, too. Shawcross has already eyed what she describes as “about 12 layers between the guy at the top and the most junior person”, and when she speaks about it needing “modernising a bit”, it seems some middle management TfL jobs will be cut.
“We’ve had to get on quite quickly with looking at middle management,” Shawcross told Hoscik, “because this is an imperative for the business plan to make sure we are an efficiently run organisation… You do need to shape the organisation.
“There’s some cultural and structural changes to make over time that will make it a better place to work.”
After eight wasted years under Johnson, the breath of fresh air that is blowing through City Hall, with someone as experienced and understanding as Shawcross in charge of such a key aspect of London’s infrastructure, is already causing some observers, including sceptics, to comment approvingly.
When someone such as Hoscik, not noted as one of Mayor Khan’s biggest fans, states, “It’s clear Londoners are finally going to benefit from a much more efficient TfL,” you have to consider that under Shawcross, the right steps are being taken.
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