“One thing we cannot do is spend tens of millions keeping projects alive, for political reasons, when there is simply no government funding to deliver them. The truth is that we don’t have to cash to do everything we would like, and it is better to be honest than continue to play upon false hopes.”
–Boris Johnson, “Way to Go“, November 2008
So said the Mayor last year, as a justification for removing any ambition from Transport for London’s infrastructure investment programme. Johnson’s implied criticism of the previous mayoral administration was that it had spent money developing and promoting transport projects that were unlikely to ever come to fruition. The weakness of the argument is palpable: it was investment in the development and promotion of schemes such as Crossrail and the East London Line Extension that paved the way for funding eventually emerging from central government.
However, a few schemes escaped the Johnson Axe, including stage 1 of the Greenwich Waterfront Transit, a partially-segregated bus route linking the Jubilee Line station at North Greenwich with Woolwich and Thamesmead. The principle aim of the route was to improve bus services to Thamesmead, a heavily deprived area on the borders of Greenwich and Bexley with woeful public transport links. Given the opprobium heaped on the Transit scheme by Boris-friendly commentators, in particular Andrew Gilligan, its survival in November was very surprising: all the more so as its proposed future extensions across the river had been rendered impossible through Johnson’s scrapping of the Thames Gateway Bridge.
So, having been given the Johnson seal of approval, TfL pressed ahead with the scheme, including submitting planning applications to Greenwich council in December 2008. Then, at the start of last month in a further wave of cuts, TfL announced that Johnson had scrapped the scheme entirely (that’s really scrapped, not just ‘postponed to happier financial times’) . This despite positive responses to the consultations conducted by TfL and the strong support for the Transit from the two boroughs concerned, Greenwich and Bexley (one Labour, one Tory) – neither of these was apparently consulted over the move.
From May 2008 onwards, therefore, TfL had been working – and spending money – towards a dead end. So here we have a prima facie example of Johnson doing precisely what he accused Livingstone of doing: spending large quantities of taxpayer’s money on developing a scheme that wasn’t going to be built. Thanks to a Freedom of Information request to Transport for London, we now know just how much money was spent by the Johnson administration on this scheme – in the year from 2nd May 2008 this came to a cool £2,747,123. This is more than 10% of the estimated total construction cost of the Transit. Putting together detailed planning applications doesn’t come cheap.
Whatever you think of the Waterfront Transit scheme, this is an astonishing waste of money. As Johnson seemed happy enough to jettison the scheme in April 2009, the Animal finds it impossible to believe that his heart was really in it in November – or even May 2008. So if you, like Gilligan, think the Waterfront Transit is a ‘vanity project’, then surely Johnson should have jettisoned it twelve months and the best part of £3m pounds ago. If, like me, you think it is a modest and worthwhile scheme, then the scrapping of the scheme is bad enough: so much money being spent to no effect whatsoever adds insult to injury. It is, quite simply, symptomatic of the drifting and indecisive nature of the Johnson regime. I am beginning to think that Labour’s candidate in 2012 should make a promise of a Forensic Audit™ of the financial effects of this style of city government.
So, with millions of pounds of TfL cash spent to no benefit whatsoever – in an allegedly ‘cash-strapped’ organisation – the question remains as to how south east London is going to benefit, transport-wise, from Boris Johnson’s mayoralty. With no Waterfront Transit, no Thames Gateway Bridge, no Cross-River-Tram and the South London Line effectively being killed off at the Mayor’s request, it is beginning to look like a very bare few years indeed. With the Mayor’s ‘big idea‘ on boat services proving to be a squib so damp that it could well have been dangled over the side of a Thames Clipper, no sign of the promised orbital bus services, funding slashed for suburban cycle routes and the scrapping of the Congestion Charge Western Extension increasing traffic levels on many arteries across south London, the only improvements we have to look forward to are those fought for and funded by the previous administration – the DLR Woolwich extension, Crossrail and the East London Line. After all, Ken Livingstone did have this odd idea of spending money to actually achieve things. How unutterably weird.