Yesterday ought to have been one of the defining moments of Boris Johnson’s mayoralty. Three draft strategies published, covering housing, planning, economic development and transport (or, in other words, barring policing pretty much everything the Mayor has any meaningful influence over). Somehow, it didn’t quite feel that way, for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, there is Johnson’s sudden ability to hide from public view when matters of substance and detail rear their ugly heads. The contrast with his normal persona is remarkable. After all, the Mayor is normally happy to engage in publicity stunts for the TV cameras, write expensive rubbish for the Telegraph or inundate us with 13 oh-so-fascinating photos of himself at Conservative Party Conference via his Twitter account. But just as Blair didn’t do God, Johnson doesn’t do detail. So with three hefty documents being published in his name, Macavity wasn’t there. As Ken Livingstone’s former Chief of Staff Simon Fletcher writes on his blog:
Although these strategies are now up for public consultation, the mayor chose to launch them not with a press conference for the media who communicate with millions but with a meeting of City Hall staff.
All we, the great London unwashed, got from the Mayor is a solitary tweet.
Sure, the Strategies got some media coverage – but not what the Mayor would have wanted. Instead of running big on Johnson’s vision for London, The Evening Standard instead picked up almost solely on the most controversial aspect of the strategies – and amongst the least likely to happen – a bit of gentle boat floating of road pricing in order to cut TfL’s deficit. To my own cynical mind, this is a classic case of straw-man building: introduce road pricing as a possibility into the public consciousness, then attempt to reap the benefit of a 2012 manifesto pledge not to introduce it during a second term. But if he’d been prepared to be the public face of his strategies, Johnson might have managed media coverage that was a bit wider both in terms of reach and subject matter.
Perhaps the main reason for the lack of a ‘big occassion’ feel to yesterday was, on first skim reading at least, the lack of anything of any real interest in the document themselves. Most of the contents are either long pre-trailed Johnson policies, non-commitments (lots of use of the words ‘work with’, ‘consult on’, ‘study’ and ‘consider’), and restating of the Mayor’s predecessor’s policies. These are huge documents (300+ pages), so I may have missed stuff of vital importance and many better qualified people will no doubt be poring through them as I type; London Reconnections will no doubt have worthwhile stuff on the Transport document.
The Transport Strategy in particular appears to exemplify the half-baked, non-evidence based and generally contradictory approach to policy making that Johnson has adopted. Given it is the bastard son of the awful Way to Go! document, that should be no surprise. On major public transport schemes, we know that the Mayor abandoned projects such as the Cross-River Tram and Greenwich Waterfront Transit on the basis that:
What we cannot do is spend tens of millions keeping projects alive, for political reasons, when there is simply no government funding to deliver them.
Short-sighted, I argued at the time, but a policy position none-the-less. But those were his predecessor’s unfunded schemes. In the Transport Strategy we instead get some new unfunded schemes: a major extension of the Bakerloo line, and some new DLR extensions. Welcome, if they ever happened, but far more expensive than most of the schemes already scrapped and similarly lacking in either government or TfL funding. And what’s this we see? Our old friend, the Dagenham extension of the DLR – so cruelly cut down twelve months ago – has been reinstated in the strategy, but having lost a year’s worth of project development and funding lobbying opportunities.
Then we have the contradictions. Read paragraphs 711-13 on the Western Extension of the Congestion Charge (p.249) and you’ll be convinced that road user charging is a sure-fire way to kill off small businesses and enterprises. Move on three pages and road charging suddenly becomes an acceptable way to fill the (Johnson-inflicted) black hole in TfL’s finances.
Given that TfL fares are going to be a big issue this week, I thought it might be worth briefly focussing on what the Transport Strategy has to say on this issue, and to compare it with the previous Transport Strategy, published by Ken Livingstone in 2001. Boris’ strategy is on p.244 here, Ken’s here.
Firstly, we can note that the 2001 fare section is 7 pages long; the 2009 version 2 pages, lacking in the evidence base provided in 2001. It is also evident that the earlier strategy set out specific proposals on fares, e.g.
The approach to public transport fares over the next three years will include a bus fare freeze and capping of Underground fares in real terms.
That’s a quantifiable, ambitious pledge on which an elected representative can be judged. Similar specifics included the introduction of a 70p flat bus fare before the introduction of the Congestion Charge and the simplification of Tramlink fares. Turning to 2009, there is no such specific pledges. Instead, we get generalised phraseology about ‘striking balances’ and ‘maintaining affordability’. Nothing to be held to, no specific target to aim at.
And if you want to be really worried about what Thursday’s fare announcement could bring, all you need to do is compare the headline policies on fares proposed by both documents.
Fares policy will aim to make public transport more attractive and affordable, with more consistency between modes, greater simplicity and convenience for passengers, shorter queues and quicker journeys. [Policy 4B.2, 2001]
The Mayor will ensure that fares provide an appropriate and necessary level of financial contribution towards the cost of providing public transport services to ensure that public transport continues to play a central role in London’s transport system and overall economic development. [Proposal 119, 2009]
Lost in those intervening eight years is a commitment to affordability, gone is any real recognition as to what can be achieved socially through a low fares policy. Now, the key thing is to find ‘an appropriate and necessary level of financial contribution’, a phrase which could cover a multitude of sins. Even more worrying is Proposal 120:
The Mayor will keep the range of concessions for which he is responsible under review to ensure that they are focused on where they will be most effective at helping those in most need of them.
I think the writers of Yes, Minister blew the gaffe on what ‘under review’ means in politician speech some while ago. For something that hasn’t yet happened, it means it won’t happen, for something that already exists, it’s doomed. We know already that the half price fares for the unemployed are having a very low take-up rate thanks to minimal publicity; we also know that the travel concession for those on income support is costing TfL a lot more now its funded from their own pockets, rather than by cheap Venezuelan oil. Something tells me both may be early victims of the ‘review’.
I have little doubt that a comparison of any section of these two documents would turn up similar differences. From a quick read, the Transport Strategy is an odd mixture of meaningless platitudes, half-way completed schemes dating back to the Livingstone era, pie-in-the-sky thinking, missed deadlines (PAYG Oyster on National Rail now pushed back to December 2010) and phraseology that will allow for the worst sorts of slash-and-burn policy. An even quicker read of the other two documents suggests something similar. They may have been launched with minimal fanfare, but yesterday was still an important day. Eighteen months in, we have confirmation that Boris has truly made his mark on City Hall: it is churning out policy documents that like him are lazy, inconsistent, muddle-headed and of limited use to London.