Political editor WALTER CRONXITE reports on the existential crisis facing not only the Mayor, but the whole London regional tier of government
The news that the Tory government is to impose a 2.6 per cent fare hike on the capital’s public transport passengers from January really ought not to come as a surprise.
In just a few months, this government has made plain its dislike of London, and Labour-voting, Brexit-opposing Londoners.
And now it is trying to take back, bit by bit, many of the powers that were devolved to London 20 years ago.
Little more than four years since Boris Johnson left the office of London Mayor, his replacement, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, is being forced into a series of compromises and surrenders of authority which are seeing his position, and that of the London Assembly, eroded utterly.
The BBC reported this week one commentator who described the anti-London agenda being pursued by the Dominic Cummings-led government as “an extraordinary intrusion on the Mayor’s autonomy”.
And a spokesperson for the Mayor put it bluntly: covid-19 is being used “as an excuse to attack and undermine London government to an extent we haven’t seen since Margaret Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council in the 1980s”.
But it is not only on public transport services where the Tories are attacking London’s status.
Robert Jenrick, the housing minister who hands out planning permissions to millionaire pornographers who happen to be Tory donors, so that they can avoid paying any development levies, is also trying to impose himself on the capital’s planning system.
The London Plan is an important piece of medium-term local policy which has been years in the making, hundreds of pages long, and which has required checks and balances from borough level to Whitehall. It determines such things as housing targets (of particular interest in Croydon), green space protections (ditto), even the number of waste incinerators allowed in an area (ditto again).
In March, with the London Plan prepared and almost complete, Jenrick stepped in.
“It had gone through all the examination,” Professor Tony Travers, the London School of Economics expert on local government, told the BBC.
“And then the government said it would impose its own version of the London Plan on the Mayor of London, largely because of a disagreement over housing and planning policy.
“That would be unthinkable in Scotland or Wales.”
Jenrick wrote an excoriating letter to Khan on March 13 which said the Mayor’s housing record was “deeply disappointing” and “only serves to make Londoners worse off”.
The Secretary of State ordered the Mayor to go back and rewrite sections of the London Plan. It is, according to some observers, an “erosion of the Mayor’s planning powers through the back door”.
It is London’s transport system which is coming in for immediate attack from the Tories.
Control over the transport network is one of the few clear-cut powers the Mayor exercises. But nearly three-quarters of Transport for London’s income comes from fares. When lockdown was enforced, its revenue was choked off.
As early as March 24, the day after the nation entered lockdown, Khan spoke to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to, as the BBC reported this week, “explain TfL was spending its reserves at an unsustainable rate of knots – it costs £600million a month just to run the network and it spent its £2.1billion reserves in a matter of months”.
TfL’s finances were not in terrific shape even before coronavirus, after four years of Mayor Khan’s fare freeze and the hugely over-budget CrossRail.
Today’s reports that the Essex to Berkshire line will need another £450million cash injection and still won’t even be ready to partly open until 2022 will have been felt like a hammer blow to Khan and TfL officials. Khan said today that he is “deeply disappointed”. That he has failed to deal better with this festering problem could have far-reaching repercussions.
The Mayor knows that he faces more showdown talks with government ministers and mandarins in the next few weeks, just to keep the Tubes and trams running and London’s buses on the road.
As Inside Croydon predicted in May, at government insistence all kinds of other TfL plans and projects have now been shelved, including the important improvements promised at Fiveways on the A23 Purley Way, and traffic remodelling in Croydon Old Town near the Minster.
The coronavirus lockdown forced Khan’s hand, sending him off with a begging bowl to transport secretary Grant Shapps.
The £1.6billion bail-out came with a bundle of strings attached. “Negotiations would be slightly easier if I wasn’t standing for re-election next May,” Khan told MPs at the Transport Select Committee last month.
That emergency fund to keep the buses, Tubes and trams running runs out in October. The next deal Khan is forced to accept in the coming weeks is unlikely to be any kinder.
One of the conditions attached to the initial bail-out was that two government-appointed members should sit on the TfL board. Cummings and Johnson have used this to twist the knife further into London’s back, with the appointment of Andrew Gilligan, in the latest shift of this country to a plutocracy.
Like Johnson, Gilligan is merely a journalist. Unlike Johnson, there was a time when Gilligan was quite a good one.
It was Gilligan who in 2003 broke the story over Tony Bliar and Alistair Campbell’s “dodgy dossier”, which the government used to enable the illegal war on Iraq. Campbell sought revenge, Gilligan got sacked by the BBC, and Gilligan has spent the past 15 years – mainly in the columns of the Daily Telegraph – attacking anything and everything to do with the Labour Party.
For a while, when Johnson was London Mayor, he gave Gilligan another job, as the city’s “cycling commissioner” (it was Gilligan who worked on the “Mini Holland” schemes and rolled out the city centre cycle lanes).
Hand-picked Gilligan’s appointment to the TfL board means that Johnson, and his chief plutocrat Cummings, have eyes and ears all over any negotiations conducted with Khan, while there’s a journalist taking notes to ensure that the juiciest bits of the Mayor’s problems will be widely publicised in the right-wing media in the weeks before next May’s London elections.
If only the Conservatives in London had a candidate for Mayor worthy of the task, Tory Central Office must be thinking.
Politicians of hues other than red or blue have seen through this scam: this week Caroline Pidgeon, the senior LibDem at City Hall, described the situation as Londoners continuing “to pay the price for the political games being played by the Mayor and the government”.
Pidgeon said, “From stripping school children of free bus travel to punishing cash-strapped commuters on the Tube, it’s time for the blame game to come to an end and a new fairer deal for Londoners is struck.”
It took eight long weeks and a touch of brinkmanship for Shapps and transport ministry officials to tease Khan into agreeing to their £1.6billion bail-out in May, just minutes before the Commissioner of TfL was required by law to stop the Underground and buses from running the following morning.
The strings the Tories attached then included extending the scope and level of the Congestion Charge; suspending (who knows how long for) free travel for the under-18s and over-60s; and raising of fares in January.
All of which suggests that when it comes to agreeing the second round of funding in the next few weeks, Dominic Cummings and other shady, unelected figures running the country could leave Khan and City Hall with precious little control of matters in London altogether.
Which is something which no one ever voted for. Just as Cummings and his mates prefer it.
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