Matthew Offord is the MP for Hendon.
Since March 2020, the UK Government has supported London’s transport network with an incredible £4 billion of extra funding during the pandemic. Yet the Mayor, Sadiq Khan, seemingly ignores this – and indeed recently had the gall to describe its approach as “anti-London”. Transport for London’s services are critically important for London’s and the UK’s economy – but the solution to TfL’s current financial crisis (a crisis, in part, Khan’s own making) is grown-up dialogue, not petty political posturing.
Income from passengers has understandably dropped as people followed stay-at-home orders during the pandemic, and confidence in using public transport is still recovering. But even before Covid-19 forced us to stay inside, TfL was already faced with £12 billion of debt. This is an increase of 30 per cent since Boris Johnson had the job of looking after the capital’s finances. Now on the other side of the pandemic, we cannot allow TfL to become wholly dependent on government funding.
Khan’s poor management of London’s finances have led us down this path of ever-larger government bailouts and made our capital’s transport network less financially resilient for shocks like Covid.
But for the sake of my constituents who rely on TfL services to get to work and to visit friends and family, I’m urging the government to reach a settlement and plug the short-term shortfall. At the same time, the Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, must come forward with serious plans to repair the long-term structural deficit. After all, it’s his responsibility.
This settlement will likely come with conditions, just as the previous ones have done. The current package agreed that the Mayor would work with the UK Department for Transport to increase automatic train operation on the London Underground, deliver £300 million of savings or new income sources by 2022, and deliver at least £500 million of new or increased income sources each year by 2023. Also included in the current agreement was a review of TfL’s pension scheme, which is sparking strike rumours – that’s on top of the current driver strikes related to the Night Tube’s delayed reintroduction.
Plans from Labour City Hall on how these conditions will be met have been sent weeks late and with further clarity still being required by the Department for Transport.
This illustrates an important point. Not that TfL should have its funding cut, but that the Mayor is not holding up his end of the bargain. There cannot be an open-ended supply of money from central government with no clear action on efficiency improvements from London’s devolved authority.
Public and active transport is essential to the lives of Londoners in more ways than one. It physically connects our capital city but also provides an affordable, low-carbon alternative to car travel and reduces air pollution. The latter points could easily sound like an afterthought, but if the government wants to prove to working people that it is serious about decarbonisation and levelling up, it has to continue funding transport everywhere – including London.
London’s bus lanes, for instance, are a great example for the rest of the country on how to make buses a faster way of getting around than by car. The Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan laid out a vision for other cities to emulate London’s public transport network and has since provided the investment for eight city regions across the UK to improve their transport connectivity.
Congestion in London is notoriously bad. Bad for drivers who have to sit in traffic for hours, wasting fuel and precious time. Bad for pedestrians who have to breathe in toxic fumes from idling cars. Slow traffic cost the UK economy £6.9 billion in 2019 and air pollution contributed to a shocking 4,000 deaths in London in the same year. Aside from blindly telling people not to drive their cars, the clearest solution to this problem is to fund public transport options.
Investment in buses, trains, and the tube, will make a material difference to the lives of millions of Londoners and is central to so much of the government’s agenda. But time and again, the government has had to step in and clean up the mess left by the Mayor of London. We shouldn’t need to keep propping up TfL with emergency funding, but the stakes for residents and visitors of our capital are too high.
The Government can show it puts ordinary Londoners above Khan’s games and give our transport network the funding it needs. Longer term, London needs a Mayor who can properly steward our city’s finances.