Changes in London aren’t always down to politics. Sometimes, they’re down to the weather

Primrose Hill, north London, in the recent sunshine. Image: Getty.

I’ve got a reality check for politicians and civil servants in London: be aware that changes in your local area or city – positive and negative alike – are not always a result of your policies. The reality is that some changes in the capital are down to external effects beyond your control. And one of those is the weather.

As Brits, we love talking about the weather. It changes what we wear, how we travel, and our moods. But we don’t think about the broader implications for the city. And now new data shows the alarming impact that extreme weather events can have on things like crime, transport and air quality. The ‘Beast from the East’ also impacted our economy, with sectors like construction and retail hit by a lack of activity.

With climate predictions suggesting London is increasingly likely to experience more extreme weather patterns moving forward, how should we understand and respond to its impact on the day to day functioning of the city?

Crime in the capital is top of both politicians’ and the public’s radar given the spate of violent attacks and murders in the first few months of the year. A recent poll showed 67 per cent of Londoners thought that crime had got worse – a figure rising to 79 per cent for knife crime.

But figures for March suggest that the cold weather had a significant dampening effect on crime across the capital. Intuitively, this makes sense: in the cold, people are less likely to go out and less likely to be involved in crime of many types, especially violent ones. After years of rising, often at quite an alarming rate, total crime, violent crime and knife crime all fell in March this year, compared to the same month in 2017. Experience from international cities which typically get more snow than London, such as Boston, suggests this is not a statistical anomaly. And the hot bank holiday weekend, which saw several violent attacks in the capital, has led some commentators to suggest rising temperatures means more violent crimes.

There might, however, be seen to be a ‘peak temperature’ for crime. Analysis of Greater Manchester Police data suggests that, when the mercury rises above 18°C, crime rates begin to fall. So, while many people may complain about the increasing extremes in London’s weather, cold snaps and heatwaves may end up slightly dampening any increases in crime.

But changes to crime were not the Beast from the East’s only impact on the city. London’s transport network, despite some degree of preparation, also had a tough time.

 

The number of journeys on the tube and bus networks during February and the beginning of March was down compared to the previous year. Undoubtedly some of this was due to people staying at home during the snowy spell, as well as deficiencies in the network’s service as many train lines and bus routes ground to a halt.


And the roads fared little better, perhaps unsurprising given that the capital’s local authorities have cut winter service spending from their highways and transport departments by a quarter in the last seven years. The RAC suggests the snow will have longer term impacts, with a legacy of potholes developing as water froze in cracks on the road, a significant challenge for Transport for London and the boroughs. This effect of the snow was not good news for TfL, given its ongoing budget troubles and reliance on fare income – particularly the profit derived from tube passengers.

While recent cold weather has affected crime and transport, a longer-term view can show how weather affects other things in the city. One of Londoners’ top concerns is the poor-quality air in the capital, and Sadiq Khan has begun to introduce a range of measures to tackle the toxic fumes that come from London’s transport system and built environment.

While these policies are starting to take an effect, the monthly pollution levels continue to fluctuate, often down to the weather. High pressure and low wind tend to make London’s pollution worse, as damaging particles are not blown away from the capital, whereas low pressure can bring pollution from elsewhere into the city.

As Professor Frank Kelly points out, many of the mayor’s policies may fail to reduce pollution concentrations to legal and healthy levels, without complementary effects from national and even international legislation. London is not an island – the weather proves that.

So what can we learn from this? Policymakers at all levels should attempt to better understand how extreme weather will affect demand for services and their ability to provide these services, among a raft of other things. This is especially important given London’s likely volatile future climate, and can help them to better prepare for a more uncertain future.

These lessons are not just limited to modelling how the weather will affect the city, but can also be applied to areas such as population change or changing lifestyle habits. Some things will be easier to understand and prepare for than others. But the more we know, the less damaging their effects on everyday Londoners are likely to be.

The London Intelligence tells London’s story through data. Read the latest edition here.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.