Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Five problems London's next mayor will inherit

In just over two years, London is highly likely to have a new mayor. The Boris Johnson show - arch clown, Latin performer, the mayor of the Olympics - could well have drawn to an end. The blond one insists he is not standing again and if that were to be the case, though many doubt his promises, it would result in the most open, unpredictable London mayoral election since the position was established.

Boris has not been a bad mayor. His great talent is championing the capital, most vividly demonstrated before and during the London Olympics. It is hard to imagine any other British politician so effectively, and eccentrically, exhorting the crowds to enjoy themselves. He has also, for the most part, remained assuredly independent, not dogmatically pursuing a Conservative agenda, a tacit acknowledgement that his support derives far more from his personality than from his party's politics.

But, he has been a surprisingly unambitious mayor. Much of Boris’ creations have been built upon the legacy left by Ken Livingstone and his own legacy relies too heavily on curious vanity projects and follies; fun while they last but ultimately ephemeral and unsatisfactory. Boris' Vision 2020 is a remarkable document in its vapidity, and the next mayor, he or she, Tory or Labour (sorry, the Lib Dems won't win) will inherit several high profile, potentially politically awkward issues. Here are just five of them:

The Cable Car

Boris was very proud when the cable car – or the Emirates Air Line as it is officially called – opened in June 2012, ahead of the Olympics. It was, he said enthusiastically in this interview, ‘a fantastic deal for the taxpayer’ with much of the £60million cost covered by sponsorship and the European Union:

‘We’ve got a wonderful new way of getting over the river… at virtually no cost to the taxpayer….. The real advantage of it is that it is an important addition to our transport network, it’s as good as a bus route with 30 buses on it… it’s a viable addition to people's commuter route’.

And certainly, during the Olympics it was a notable success with more than 20,000 trips made per day but since then it has been nothing short of an embarrassment for the mayor. Far from being the equivalent of a bus route with 30 full buses, it emerged in December that just four passengers were using the service regularly enough to qualify for discounted prices. 

It wasn't a good deal for the taxpayer either as it later emerged Transport for London paid £15.5million towards construction with a further £6million for operational costs.

The abject failure of the cable car to attract passengers is hitting Transport for London's finances - not hugely, but enough not to be ignored. Mayorwatch reported revenue from tickets last year was 35 per cent lower than forecast. While Emirates has a ten year sponsorship deal for the cable car, it clearly isn't a 'viable addition' to commuter routes and the next mayor is likely to try and sell it, hoping someone in the private sector can run it successfully as a tourist attraction.

The Boris Bus

The New Bus for London (NB4L), or the Boris Bus, is perhaps the current mayor’s greatest demonstration of his vanity. Designed by Thomas Heatherwick, he of Olympic cauldron fame (and also the considerably less successful B of the Bang), the NB4L is an enormously expensive bus especially notable for its many design flaws.

B of the Bang, in its brief prime

As something of a nostalgic public transport enthusiast, in some ways I applauded the initial aim of creating a successor for the Routemaster, to add character, quirk and identity to London’s streets, but this entire project has been a tale of excessive folly.
From the start, the selection of Heatherwick as designer was odd considering he is not a bus engineer. It can be argued that the resulting vehicle has one staircase too many (two) - the desire to maintain a hop off/hop on capacity being mainly to blame for this. The back staircase works perfectly well during the day but at night, when the rear doors are closed, the central staircase is vital as passengers board and alight.
Last summer, the overheating on the bus, particularly on the top deck, promoted hundreds of complaints. The bus relies on air conditioning as the windows don’t open, but the system is clearly inadequate and several blogs and papers reported temperatures soaring above 37 degrees last summer. It was later claimed that the problem had been ’fixed’ but temperatures have still been measured over a stifling 32 degrees.
Then there is the little matter of cost. At £354,500 per bus - on top of the £11.4m development costs - they are substantially more costly than a conventional double decker bus which has a price tag of about £190,000 each. And then there is the additional cost of conductors, with an estimated annual amount of £60,000 each.
Ah yes, the conductor. They are not actually conductors but ’Passenger Assistants’ and their primary role is not ticket collection but, according to a job description, ’to travel the length of the route and ensure that passengers board and alight the bus safely’. They are, in fact, merely responsible for ’encouraging passengers’ to pay for their journey.
The next mayor will have 600 of these vehicles. Clearly, the buses cannot simply be scrapped, that would just add even more cost. But, we can expect the conductors to vanish - though the fare dodging problems that afflicted Ken Livingstone’s bendy buses are likely to return - and the notion of a hop on/hop off bus in London will be consigned to history. And gradually, over years, the NB4L too will be phased out from our streets.
 A crashed Boris Bus near Hyde Park corner, causing problems, much like the new bus

The Boris Bike

In many respects this has been one of Boris' great successes; more people are cycling than ever before, a network of these familiar hire bikes is well established across large parts of the city - the south east of London remains a glaring exception - and, unlike the cable car, the system genuinely does add another 'viable' commuter choice. It was not Boris' idea, of course, but he was responsible for its implementation. Their Barclays blue livery is a familiar sight across central London and the scheme has expanded, going further west, and continuing to prove a hit.

Nevertheless, it is still beset with problems. Barclays is ending its sponsorship in 2015, three years earlier than expected and the scheme is proving costly. A report last year found that TfL faced an annual bill of £11.1million – or £1,388 per bike. The price of the service also rose by 100 per cent; 24 hour access is now £2, and annual membership increased from £45 to £90. The price hike was way above inflation and combined with a chilly winter, the number of rentals fell by a third over the year to March 2013.

Perhaps the most fundamental problem of the system are its most typical users, white, middle class professional men between the ages of 25 and 44; these are not the usual recipients of a heavily subsidised means of transport. The next mayor will have to do something to broaden the network’s appeal.

The lack of a new east London bridge

A few weeks ago, I found myself going through the Blackwall Tunnel for the first time, going north on a 108 bus. With the narrow Victorian passage twisting its way under the Thames, offering no sign of surface light from either end, it feels like the preamble to a disaster film.

The bus route is one of the most unreliable in London due to the constant congestion in the tunnel; any accident, particularly on the older, north bound line, almost certainly incurs massive delays. Yet, the Blackwall Tunnel is one of the most important transport arteries in London and one of the very few river crossings east of Tower Bridge.

One of Boris’ first actions as mayor was to cancel the Thames Gateway Bridge, the go-ahead for which had been given by the previous mayor. Had everything gone as scheduled the bridge would now be open.

The plan had faced considerable opposition but there is now widespread acknowledgement that a major new river crossing is needed in east London to relieve traffic congestion and to encourage investment into the area, especially as the Olympic Village and Greenwich Peninsula are currently such massive redevelopment sites.

Potential mayoral candidate for Labour, Andrew Adonis, wants three new east London river crossings but just one would take a new mayor, I'm reliably informed, about five years to deliver. It will be near the top of the next incumbent’s ’To Do’ list.


This is not a problem of Boris' making - it goes much further back than his administration - but one upon which he has failed to have a significant impact. His successor will have a troubling trio of housing challenges: supply; affordability; and construction.

London desperately needs more homes - yes, the city is awash with property building but not of the sort we need, genuinely affordable homes in the right locations and family homes.

According to the Office for National Statistics, in its release published the other day, in the year to February this year, house prices in London soared by almost 18%. If you're lucky enough to own a home in London, it is very likely it earned you more money in the last year than you did from your salary.

Boris Johnson has a target of building 42,000 homes a year but last year only about 20,000 were built. In September last year London Councils estimated 809,000 extra homes would be needed by 2021, with currently only 250,000 scheduled to be built.

Boris has not been a disaster for London; instead a celebrant and champion of the city. But his mind wanders; too often, he gives the impression of being semi-detached and like an excitable kid he is prone to throwing himself into a new project before completing the one he had already started. Assuming Boris doesn't stand it's hard to know who the Conservatives will pick to stand in his place; names such as Sebastian Coe have been suggested. There also seems to be uncertainty from the Liberal Democrats.

A whole host of possible candidates have emerged for Labour. As previously mentioned, there is Andrew Adonis, but also transport journalist, Christian Wolmar, Tessa Jowell, David Lammy, Sadiq Khan, Diane Abbott and Doreen Lawrence.

But will any of the eventual candidates have the ideas to solve these - and many other - issues facing the capital?


  1. Another problem making promises on segregated cycling to make polulation healthier and reduce population.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. While it is true that the housing crisis did not begin with Boris, he hardly helped matters by insisting that the new affordable homes supplied through the GLA housing programme be set at "affordable rents" of up to 80% of market rent, a level wholly unaffordable to low income households in all but a few London boroughs. The delivery rates of the programme have also been dismal, disguised by his inheritance of the Livingstone/Brown programme which delivered over 10,000 housing starts a year in each of the first four years of his term and for which he naturally took unwarranted credit.

    The London Plan now explicitly states that boroughs should accept the full range of sub-market rents (ie including 80% in some cases) in any new 'affordable housing' schemes receiving Mayoral grant funding. This means that even on his own figures, the number of genuinely affordable homes the Mayor will look to deliver (i.e. those at around a social rent level) are less than a third of the annual assessed requirement.

    The only other means of bridging the gap are through S106 agreements with developers to provide affordable housing as part of private schemes, but these are being squeezed out of the system too as the government has made it much easier for developers to appeal such requirements on the basis that they make developments unviable. Then there is council funding, but their borrowing powers are still capped (to his credit Boris is arguing that the cap should be lifted) meaning their ability to invest in new housing is severely limited.

  4. Hmm... rather bad form to delete my comment, particularly as you haven't corrected your error about bus pricing...

  5. Erm, no idea how that happened. I would never remove a comment, certainly not one as reasonable as yours. Unfortunately, it appears to have completely vanished from blogger; if you have a copy I'll restore it immediately.

  6. The below is 'Wintergreen's' first comment, which I must have somehow accidentally deleted. Thankfully, I still have a copy in my email. Apologies.

    ’The new bus for London costs over £300,000 because it's a hybrid diesel-electric bus. All hybrid double decker buses cost that much. Comparing the upfront price to a conventional (diesel-only) bus is very misleading as it does not take into account either the environmental benefits or the money saved through increased fuel efficiency over the lifetime of the bus.’

  7. Cheers, no worries!


The comments expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the blog.