This chapter was written for The Fabian Society’s ‘Our London’ pamphlet, launched on December 13th 2013
London is the world’s greatest city. It is the engine of the UK economy, an international hub, a home to millions, and the cultural capital of the world. Maintaining this status depends crucially on improving the veins and arteries of this marvellous metropolis- its transport and infrastructure.
This is not optional. Without modern transport links the tired and frustrated Monday morning commuter at Bank is left standing not moving, and so is London. Without new, better and affordable housing the family in Hackney or Croydon or Brent have their teenage children sleeping two, even three, to a room, and there are no homes for them to move to in their twenties. Without a new bridge east of Tower Bridge it is a nightmare even to traverse the 300 yards from Barking Reach to Thamesmead, impoverishing both. And without new airport hub capacity London will be closed to new markets in Asia, Africa and South America, vital to our future prosperity.
London is hugely reliant upon public transport. Half of working Londoners depend upon it every day, compared with only 9% of workers in the rest of the UK. There are almost as many journeys on the tube each year as on the entire National Rail network, and over two thirds of all journeys on the rail network begin or end in London.
As for housing, London’s population is exploding, growing by nearly 100,000 per year, the equivalent of a new city of Worcester added every 12 months. Housing supply is not keeping up. Completions in London – 18,000 last year – were less than half of the 40,000 a year that Boris Johnson says are needed, and only one third of the 52,000 required simply to keep pace with the growth in households. At this rate, how can our city accommodate the extra 1.5m Londoners projected in the next 20 years?
Housing is also at the heart of the cost of living crisis. London rents are rising more than twice as fast as wages; the average monthly rent is at £1,240 and the average house price at £509,000. So not only is there no room at the inn, but if you can find one you probably can’t afford it.
I would highlight two other major infrastructure challenges. Bridges and tunnels may not be the most exciting of electoral issues, but they are utterly central to London’s economy, and to the future prosperity of east London in particular. There are 16 road bridges spanning the 20 miles of the Thames between Tower Bridge and Kew. In stark contrast, those living or working east of Tower Bridge can see the other bank of the river, but getting there is like crossing a chasm. For 20 miles, there is only the Blackwell and Rotherhithe tunnels and the Dartford Crossing, which are three of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the country for precisely this reason. The inability to cross the Thames is not just an inconvenience; it divides our city socially and culturally, restrains growth in the economy, and costs us regeneration, jobs and housing.
A fourth crucial infrastructure challenge is London’s airport capacity. Heathrow opened in March 1946, less than a year after the war, and has since grown to the world’s third busiest airport. Once the fastest growing airport in the world, Heathrow is now operating at 99% capacity, and it has erected a giant ‘closed for business’ sign to most new business flights. New air services to emerging markets are going instead to viable European hub airports: Schiphol in Amsterdam with its 6 runways, Charles de Gaulle in Paris with 4, and Frankfurt which has just opened a 4th runway as well as a high speed rail link to other major German cities.
London’s competitive disadvantage risks becoming entrenched, with fewer weekly flights than its European rivals to seven of the eight major emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China, Mexico, South Korea and Indonesia. Over 20 emerging market destinations are served by daily flights from other European cities but not from London. Besides Hong Kong, Heathrow offers only three to five flights a day to China’s developing cities, compared with 11 from Paris CDG and 10 from Frankfurt. There are no direct flights to Chile, Columbia or Peru, and while you can fly direct to Santiago, Spain, you cannot to Santiago, Chile.
Then there is Dubai, a growing competitive threat. Dubai’s existing international airport already serves 260 destinations worldwide. Dubai’s new Al Maktoum airport opens in November 2013 with five runways and capacity for 160m passengers a year, more than twice Heathrow’s existing traffic.
These infrastructure challenges are not insurmountable; the solutions are tangible, if grasped effectively. The 2012 Olympics showcased not only London’s cultural and sporting glory, but also its capacity to deliver essential infrastructure. Taking these four imperatives in turn:
(1) Tube and rail capacity
To address the capacity crisis on the tube and suburban rail lines from the mid-2020s, we will need a second Crossrail line to go from south-west to north-east London, tunnelled from Wimbledon to Seven Sisters. Crossrail 2 will relieve both the Victoria and Northern Lines. It will also relieve a string of major London stations and termini, including Clapham Junction, Waterloo, Victoria, Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross, as well as overcrowded suburban services in south-west London. It will also support huge regeneration around the stations in Hackney, Haringey and the Lee Valley. London has opened only one and a half new underground lines since the Second World War; Crossrail 1 needs to be followed by Crossrail 2.
Boris’ first major act as Mayor in 2008 was to cancel the Thames Gateway Bridge, which would have connected Greenwich and Newham, two of the most deprived yet ambitious boroughs in London, at a point close to City Airport and the Royal Albert Dock. The Thames Gateway Bridge should be revived and built as soon as possible. Equally urgent is a new Thames crossing to relieve and supplement the M25 Dartford Crossing, which opened 22 years ago and is desperately short of capacity.
Local authorities need greater freedom to borrow to build against secure rental streams. Micromanagement by the Treasury should be suspended. Councils that want to authorise substantial new homebuilding – and they do exist – should be enabled to do so. Stevenage’s council leader told me she would support a substantial 16,000 home extension to the town, ideally located for jobs and growth, and not environmentally sensitive. She is held back by lack of government support in the face of Nimby opposition from neighbouring North Herts council, which doesn’t want these houses crossing its rural “border”. At the same time, the mayor of London needs a credible plan for at least 50,000 new homes a year and the infrastructure to support them.
We need to consider building new towns within reach of London. New towns are one of the great unsung successes of post-war planning. Nearly 1.5m people – almost the population of Birmingham and Manchester combined – live in the new and radically extended towns around London started in the 25 years after the war, including Stevenage, Milton Keynes, Crawley, Basildon, Harlow and Hemel Hempstead. The first such new town could be at Ebbsfleet near Dartford, which is currently little more than a station surrounded by fields on the high speed line from St Pancras to Ashford. More than 10,000 houses plus a commercial district have been intended at Ebbsfleet for years, and there is a credible proposal for a theme park to rival Disneyland Paris. These proposals are do-able and feasible, but not without resolute action by the Mayor and central government. We must transform blueprints into living communities.
(4) Airport capacity
We must sustain London’s status as the world’s best transport hub. The Government’s Airports Commission must assess the available options with urgency. David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Boris Johnson (as Mayor of London) should agree to accelerate the Commission’s work, asking it to report next summer, not after the election in 2015 as currently intended. They should all say- as do I- that they are genuinely open-minded on the options and will not pre-judge the Commission’s report. They should also agree to hold joint talks over the next summer to seek to forge a consensus. Whether they succeed or fail they will then have to tell the voters in 2015 what they intend to do. It will be hard for them to reconcile inaction on airport capacity with any claim to be pro-growth. Equally, people who live around airports have a right to know what is being proposed before, not after, the 2015 election.
Reforming London’s transport and infrastructure may not be easy, but it is essential. Our city’s history is a story of adaptation and growth, and it is time for a new chapter. Improved tube capacity, better railways, new bridges and expanded airport capacity must all complement a big increase in housing supply. Only by doing this can London be a bigger, better and fairer city.
To read the whole pamphlet, go to http://www.fabians.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Our_London_WEB.pdf