Confessions of a Political Animal

March 28, 2010

Boris and Transport: Easy Words, Broken Promises

Two years and half way through Boris Johnson’s first – and I trust, only – term as London Mayor and the opposition parties on the London Assembly rightly took the opportunity last month to step up scrutiny of the Mayor’s…ahem…interesting approach to his manifesto pledges.

Johnson’s 2008 manifesto was a fascinating mix (rather like the man himself) of the sweeping, the generalised, the populist and occasional flashes of obsession with random bits of minutiae. But what was partially evident at the time of it’s publication, and has become even more so since, is that it was written with very little input from anyone who had the foggiest idea what they were talking about. Nowhere was that more clear than in the transport manifesto, saved from oblivion by The Guardian here. Everyone knows its headline-grabber: the removal of the bendy bus and the introduction of a new Routemaster – a policy which it has since become clear has no significant economic, environmental, safety or public utility case to its name. Sadly, this was not a lone case. And a badly thought-out, media-driven manifesto means a manifesto that gets broken all too easily, with just this week a new entrant to the fast growing list emerging.

“It is not good enough…that the Tube doesn’t run later on Friday and Saturday nights. [...] It would be a major benefit to Londoners if the Tube ran one hour later on Friday and Saturday nights, and we want to see this happen.” (p.20)

If it wasn’t good enough when Johnson wrote his 2008 manifesto, he’ll have to say that it still isn’t good enough when/if he writes the 2012 version. This week saw the death of this pledge after TfL announced that it was impossible to implement later running and that this would remain merely ‘an aspiration’. This should have come as no surprise to anyone who has had a passing interest in London’s transport pre-2008 – so we can assume it came as a surprise to the Mayor. In his second term, Ken Livingstone consulted on running a one hour later service on Fridays and Saturdays, with commencement of service at weekends cut back by one hour to ensure the amount of time available for engineering and upgrade works was not curtailed. From the consultation it became evident that the later start would leave the many commuters, particularly shift workers, who relied on an early Underground train at weekends heavily inconvenienced, so in 2006 TfL proposed a compromise: running trains 30 minutes later on both Fridays and Saturdays and cutting back starting time on Saturday mornings by one hour whilst leaving Sundays unaffected (this would have meant that Saturday and Sunday start up times were the same). However, by February 2007 it had become clear that negotiations with unions over changed working hours had ground to a halt, and the proposal was shelved.

Despite all this, Johnson in his manifesto reverted to the original proposal of an hour extra for both Friday and Saturday, strangely neglecting to mention that this would need two hours to be cut from somewhere else. Even if this barely-disguised Thatcherite could have succeeded where Livingstone failed with the RMT and ASLEF, he would either have had to at least partially break his manifesto promise by implementing the 30-minute extension plan or taken a potentially highly unpopular decision to leave early-morning commuters without an Underground service. And we all know Johnson doesn’t like making unpopular decisions. So, this manifesto promise was setting Johnson up for a fail, as anyone with a bit of nouse could have told him. The Mayor is trying to claim that upgrade work is what is preventing him from keeping his pledge, but this is clearly rubbish: whilst upgrade work does take place at night, so too does the day-to-day engineering work necessary to keep the Underground running. Even when the upgrades are complete, it is almost certain that any extension of operating hours in the evening will have to be matched by a curtailment in the morning. (more…)

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