It was, to use an metaphor familiar to many commuters, an uncomfortable and bumpy ride for the new London Mayor Sadiq Khan and his Transport Commissioner Mike Brown in front of the London Assembly this week.
Much awkwardness filled the City Hall as the new reality dawned on both men who had cause to reflect on – although defiantly not regret – things they had said in the heat of the election battle.
For the Mayor those words were in black and white. His transport manifesto promised that “Londoners won’t pay a penny more for their travel in 2020 than they do today.”
That promise evaporated like the “mist on Hackney marshes” (in Tory Andrew Boff’s practised phrase) when it emerged the promised only applied to single and Pay As You Go fares and not daily caps, contactless cards and travel cards – how most Londoners pay. The Department of Transport was looking at an RPI rise which the Mayor could do nothing about.
Mr Khan said: “My promise to freeze Transport for London fares is there but obviously I can’t make the government do what I am doing. If all fares were frozen including those set by the DfT TfL would have to compensate the DfT for lost revenue.”
Lib Dem mayoral rival Caroline Pidgeon was the first to announce he had broken an election promise while Tory Tony Devenish called it a “U-turn”.
All that and he was chastised by the chair for turning up late. Honeymoon over.
Revisiting the maths
For Mr Brown the awkwardness took the shape of “wriggling like a fish on a hook” (another helpful Tory simile) as he attempted to square several circles at once.
He had landed the then candidate Mr Khan in a lot of trouble during the election campaign when he suggested the fares freeze was going to cost £1.9billion. Mr Khan had said the figure would be around £600million.
In the intervening months Mr Brown had undergone a Damascene scale conversion, gleefully highlighted by the Conservatives, and was now an enthusiastic cheerleader for Mr Khan’s reduced figure, a shift entirely unrelated to the fact that Mr Khan is now his boss.
“I’m really excited to be working with the new mayor and his team,” announced Mr Brown who made sure during the quizzing that he was not unexcited about any of the mayor’s proposals which were all “absolutely achievable”.
He announced that in just a few weeks he had found tens of millions of pounds in efficiency savings that meant the fares freeze could be funded in full and there was no risk to infrastructure projects.
“I’m a fresh face, the Mayor is certainly a fresh face,” he said when asked how come a single grope down the back of the sofa had uncovered such riches.
There was a distinct chill in the air during the grilling but Mr Brown is a consummate operator and skilled in the art of deference and, by the end, Mr Khan was positively cosying up to his former nemesis, forming an alliance against the merciless inquisitors on the other side of the desk.
“I’m not being sycophantic but Mr Brown is a transport expert,” Mr Khan said when asked if he would be seeking a variety of opinions on the topic.
Job done, Mr Brown.
Housing v fares freeze – Pt II
Another dose of reality was delivered on the key issue of housing. TfL has hundreds of acres of land for development that the Mayor is eyeing up to meet his “strategic” target of 50% affordable housing.
TfL, in the direct control of the Mayor, has made a commitment to that 50% figure. And yet it also has a commitment to maximise land values in order to fund the Mayor’s fares freeze pledge.
High levels of affordable housing reduce land values because the business case changes. Who will win? Mayor Khan the property developer or Mayor Khan the commuters’ champion?
The king is dead
The commissioner took the opportunity to have a bit of a dig at his predecessor, the blunt and outspoken Sir Peter Hendy, chairman of Network Rail, who had suggested that TfL would have to cut bus services in order to reduce congestion and increase passenger numbers.
Sir Peter had supported an authoritative study that concluded that buses were heading for extinction because it was, in short, quicker to walk.
Mr Brown said: “There is no intention to cut services. None of the funding issues that we face going forward will require us to cut services. The very core of what we do is to deliver enhanced services that continue to respond to the demands of Londoners.”
For the record, the esteemed former TfL boss is now officially lumped under the label “some people who used to work here”. The apprentice becomes the master.
In between more substantial matters, between them the Mayor and Mr Brown:
- Reaffirmed commitment to the Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf cycle bridge to ease the Canada Water crush.
- Announced that more Jubilee trains would be pushed through at peak times.
- Confirmed the Night Tube dates .
- Re-stated the painfully scripted line that the Silvertown Tunnel still had the “potential” to ease congestion in east London .