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.