Coronavirus has up-ended and changed our society in ways that we may not yet be fully coming to terms with. The economy has been required to largely shut down, companies furloughing workers left and right and institutions of government up and down the country have been thrown into severe crisis management mode. In local government, councils up and down in the country have been rallying around protecting their most essential services and completely rethinking how they engage with residents and take decisions in an era of social distancing. In the local authority where I am a councillor, Sutton in South West London, our officers and contractors have responded to the challenges all of this poses extremely well; adapting to work from home requirements incredibly quickly.
But these working from home arrangements have had a major impact on the economy, arguably no more so than for public transport. Mainline rail companies have, according to some, been de facto nationalised; their franchise contracts temporarily suspended. Transport for London (TfL) has also fully complied with national guidelines (such as they were at the time), strongly urging commuters to stay at home and not travel. Furthermore, making all urgently needed travel on buses effectively free by removing the need to ‘touch in’ when boarding to limit the potential for infection. These extreme measures have, however, had an almost unbelievably massive impact on TfL’s finances, explored in extreme detail in an excellent article from London Reconnections, causing TfL to lose upwards of £150 million a week in lost fare income. In recent weeks, this lost income has seen TfL sounding the alarm over it’s long-term viability necessitating urgent action from Government, as the only body able to refinance TfL to this degree, to ensure that services could operate to allow key workers to continue doing their essential work.
While these warnings from TfL have now been heeded, and Government has provided TfL with the much needed cash to continue operating, the move has kicked off a major political bunfight across the capital and beyond. This fighting centres on some of the specific arrangements the Government is requiring TfL make, and indeed the necessity of the deal at all. For instance, Conservative politicians including their Mayoral candidate for the rescheduled 2021 election have launched fierce attacks against the Mayor claiming the deal is the result of wasteful spending by the Labour Mayor of London. While Lib Dem Mayoral candidate, Siobhan Benita has joined local campaigners in attacking the Silvertown Tunnel initiative, in general left-of-centre parties including the Lib Dems and the Greens have joined Labour in defending the necessity of the deal to keep essential services running. Political battle lines are now inevitably being drawn, around these fault-lines amid concern that Government is slowly undermining and encroaching on London’s regional government.
This entire debate- which will no doubt rage on right up to election day in 2021- does however provide an extremely interesting parallel to a major political fight between London’s previous regional government- the Greater London Council (GLC)- found itself in with the boroughs in the 1980s. Throughout the 1980s, Conservative politicians nationally and locally challenged the then-Labour controlled GLC over changes to fares policies. This challenge would eventually boil over into widespread discussion within Conservative circles about the continued feasibility of regional government in London; culminating in the GLC’s abolition in 1986. While the decision to challenge these transport policies did not outright lead to the GLC’s abolition, it certainly did set in train a discursive snowball.
Are we seeing a similar trend now? A conservative administration nationally, with a large majority fiercely attacking a divisive Labour administration in City Hall while Conservative members show increasingly hostile attitudes to the devolution of power, away from Westminster?
While we might not necessarily be seeing history repeat itself- at this stage it would be unwise to make a pronouncement either way- we can say with some certainty that history is rhyming right about now.
Written by Jake Short