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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Where actually is South London?

TFW Stephen Bush tells you that Chelsea is a South London team. Image: Getty.

To the casual observer, this may not seem like a particularly contentious question: isn’t it just everything ‘under’ the Thames when you look at the map? But despite this, some people will insist that places like Fulham, clearly north of the river, are in South London. Why?

Here are nine ways of defining South London.

The Thames

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

It’s a curvy river, the Thames. Hampton Court Palace, which is on the north bank of the river, is miles south of the London Eye, on the south bank. If the river forms a hard border between North and South Londons, then logically sometimes North London is going to be south of South London, which is, to be fair, confusing. But how else could we do it?

Latitude

You could just draw a horizontal line across a central point (say, Charing Cross, where the road distances are measured from). While this solves the London Eye/Hampton Court problem, this puts Thamesmead in North London, and Shepherd’s Bush in South London, which doesn’t seem right either.

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

And if you tried to use longitude to define West and East London on top of this, nothing would ever make sense ever again.

The Post Office

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Some people give the Post Office the deciding vote, arguing that North and South London are defined by their postcodes. This does have some advantages, such as removing many contentious areas from the debate because they’re either in the West, East or Central postcode divisions, or ignoring Croydon.

But six of the SW postcodes are north of the river Thames, so we’re back to saying places like Fulham and Chelsea are in south London. Which is apparently fine with some people, but are we also going to concede that Big Ben and Buckingham Palace are South London landmarks?

Taken to the extreme this argument denies that South London exists at all. The South postcode region was abolished in 1868, to be merged into the SE and SW regions. The S postcode area is now Sheffield. So is Sheffield in South London, postcode truthers? Is that what you want?

Transport for London

Image: TfL.

At first glance TfL might not appear to have anything to add to the debate. The transport zones are about distance from the centre rather than compass point. And the Northern Line runs all the way through both North and South London, so maybe they’re just confused about the entire concept of directions.

 

Image: TfL.

But their website does provide bus maps that divide the city into 5 regions: North East, South East, South West, North West and the Centre. Although this unusual approach is roughly speaking achieved by drawing lines across and down the middle, then a box around the central London, there are some inconsistencies. Parts of Fulham are called for the South West region, yet the whole of the Isle of Dogs is now in North East London? Sick. It’s sick.

The Boundary Commission

One group of people who ought to know a thing or two about boundaries is the Boundary Commission for England. When coming up with proposals for reforming parliamentary constituencies in 2011, it first had to define ‘sub-regions’ for London.

Initially it suggested three – South, North East, and a combined North, West and Central region, which included Richmond (controversial!) – before merging the latter two into ‘North’ and shifting Richmond back to the South.

In the most recent proposal the regions have reverted to North Thames and South Thames (splitting Richmond), landing us right back where we started. Thanks a bunch, boundary commission.

The London Plan

Image: Greater London Authority.

What does the Mayor of London have to say? His office issues a London Plan, which divides London into five parts. Currently ‘South’ includes only Bromley, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Sutton, and Wandsworth, while the ‘North’ consists of just Barnet, Enfield, and Haringey. Everywhere else is divvied into East, South or Central.

While this minimalist approach does have the appeal of satisfying no-one, given the scheme has been completely revised twice since 2004 it does carry the risk of seismic upheaval. What if Sadiq gets drunk on power and declares that Islington is in East London? What then?

Wikipedia

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

The coordinates listed on the South London article lead to Brockwell Park near Herne Hill, while the coordinates on the North London article lead to a garden centre near Redbridge. I don’t know what this means, so I tried to ring the garden centre to see if they had any advice on the matter. It was closed.

Pevsner Guides

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

Art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner might seem an unlikely source of help at this juncture, but we’ve tried everything else. And the series of architectural guides that he edited, The Buildings of England, originally included 2 volumes for London: “The Cities of London and Westminster”, and “everything else”. Which is useless.

But as his successors have revised his work, London has expanded to fill 6 volumes: North, North West, East, The City, Westminster, and South. South, quite sensibly, includes every borough south of the Thames, and any borough that is partly south of the Thames (i.e. Richmond). And as a bonus: West London no longer exists.

McDonald’s

I rang a McDonald’s in Fulham and asked if they were in South London. They said no.

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