Chris Grayling’s veto on London rail devolution shows why mayors, not ministers, should control city transport

A train, of the sort Chris Grayling wants to be held responsible for, for some reason. Image: Getty.

Last week saw the transport secretary Chris Grayling veto Sadiq Khan’s attempt to move more of London’s privately-managed commuter railways over to publicly-owned Transport for London, to the annoyance of Labour and Conservative MPs alike. Grayling’s claim that his motivation was to avoid “deckchair shuffling” was only slightly undermined by a memo between him and Boris Johnson, leaked to the Evening Standard, admitting his block of the move was to keep control of the rail network “out of the clutches of any future Labour Mayor”.

On the face of it, this is a manifestly short-sighted and self-defeating decision. Rail devolution is supported by passengers, London’s neighbouring counties, and the evidence, which shows a 600 per cent increase in passengers on other routes since they were transferred.

Unfortunately, this is a predictable and familiar response from our system of government, which often centralises decision-making in ministers who have little connection with the issues at hand and little accountability when things go wrong. The result is a triumph of cynical partisanship over informed and long-term decision making.

Take length of time in office. Both of the past two Mayors served for eight years, and Sadiq Khan could well do the same. Grayling is the fourth transport secretary in just six years. Ministers are here today, gone tomorrow, off to another department where past failures to deliver can be quietly forgotten. Few will ever be held to account for bad policies in the way that the mayor is by direct elections and by the London Assembly.


Unlike at Westminster, devolution of powers to the mayor of London has resulted in a mature and “what works” attitude to London politics. Despite their differences, the policies of both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, and now the current mayor, have been to extend the mayor’s control of the rail network and increase investment in cycling. New mayors have built on the successes of their predecessors, not torn them up as new governments are wont to do.

This points to a deeper truth. Politics at the city hall or regional level often just delivers better than national politics, as the political scientist Benjamin Barber highlights in his recent book If Mayors Ruled The World. City leaders are judged by their ability to deliver practical improvements, not to score political points. Ideology won’t tidy the streets or make the trains run on time. Cities are also on the frontline of global challenges like climate change, and their mayors are already working together to push for a more ambitious climate plan while national leaders squabble.

The transport secretary should let the mayor get on with his job, put pragmatism before politics, and give City Hall the powers it needs to run an effective rail system. Besides, the mayor might get the credit when things go well - but he’ll also get the blame when they don't.

Tom Follett works on devolution policy at the think tank ResPublica.

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Pembrokeshire's innovative new eco-hamlet is great. But it should be the size of a city

The eco hamlet. Image: Western Solar.

The opening in January 2017 of an “eco-hamlet” for council house tenants in West Wales is great news. I have nothing but praise for a development which builds houses with a low carbon footprint, using locally grown wood, to make homes which are well insulated and powered by solar energy. It was also quick to build, with large sections being made in a factory and then assembled on site. And it was relatively cheap – at around £70,000 to £100,000 per building, it is certainly comparable to the costs of more conventional builds.

These houses are an inspiration to the construction industry and an aspiration for the home owner. After all, who wouldn’t like to live in a house that had yearly utility bills of £200, rather than the national average of £1,500?

So the problem is not the six wonderful solar houses at Glanrhyd, Pembrokeshire, or the lucky people who will get to live in them (and enjoy shared use of an electric car). The problem is that we’ve seen all of this before – but nothing changes. What we really need is far, far more of them.

Pentre Solar in Pembrokeshire. Image: Western Solar.

I’ve been involved in sustainable construction for nearly 25 years and seen many inspirational developments like Glanrhyd. There’s Julian Marsh’s home in Nottingham, Susan Roaf’s Oxford Ecohouse and the Hockerton Housing Project, to name but a few. The list is long.


Yet while many individuals continue to build these innovative and inspirational structures, we have a construction industry which still responds to these buildings with disdain. One executive from a large well-known house building company told me recently: “This is a new, expensive and untested technology. We just can’t risk building something so new with all the risks to the consumer and at a higher cost.”

But the situation is even worse than the disdain from the mainstream construction industry. Rather than being welcomed, the latest versions of these sustainable buildings are challenged at every turn. The initial response to the Welsh eco-hamlet plans were concerns about the materials, the technology and the design. The houses at Glanrhyd then had more than 20 planning conditions placed upon them. The CEO of Western Solar, the company behing the hamlet, freely admits that nearly half of their research budget went on solving problems they encountered along the way.

Thinking and building big

So it seems this kind of development just isn’t celebrated enough. There is a general atmosphere of mistrust from construction professionals. It is seen as too complex, too expensive, too risky. Yet there are positive reactions, too. Welsh politician Lesley Griffiths had this to say about the new houses in Glanrhyd:

This scheme ticks so many boxes. We need more houses, we need more energy efficiency, we want to help people with fuel poverty. It’s been really good to hear how they have sourced local products. It’s great they’re using local people to build the houses.

Surely we need to take the eco-technology we have and start rolling it out on a much larger scale. To do so would be a massive step in meeting the significant housing shortage (an estimated 125,000 extra new houses are needed every year). It would also address the disrepair of our current housing stock, and help refit the millions of houses in good repair but requiring improved performance in order to achieve the government’s 2050 carbon reduction target.

We must not forget that the 2050 Climate Change target is not some arbitrary political policy, but one based on the environmental challenge facing all of us. We need to play our part in slowing down the speed of climate change and adapting to the changing natural, social and economic environment.

The solar houses in Pembrokeshire are wonderful. But until we start building huge numbers of buildings with similar credentials, we are just celebrating a cottage industry rather than restructuring our urban environment for an uncertain future.The Conversation

John Grant is senior lecturer in natural and built environment at Sheffield Hallam University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.