Podcast: No Exit

Italia! Image: Getty.

Partly because of the crisis, partly for reasons we’ll come to in a moment, our production schedule on Skylines has got a bit lax. So the first of this week’s interview, with my pal Claire Cocks in Palermo, about what lockdown, Italian-flavour, looks look is already a little out of date: Italy, unlike the UK, has begun lifting its lockdown. 

But it’s still a fascinating insight into both what a stricter lockdown looks like, and also into how great Palermo would be if she were allowed to see it at all – so I’ve kept the interview, but added a brief update about what the situation there is now.

Our second interview is with Hala El Akl, a senior associate at PLP Architecture and chair of the ULI’s UK Urban Art Forum. She tells us exactly why cities should be paying more attention to the role of arts and culture.

Now, the explanation for the lax schedule I mentioned. In case you’ve missed the announcements on social media: Skylines is coming to an end. I’ve handed over the reins at CityMetric to the new editorial team, and the next episode will be number 150 – for those and a host of other reasons, this felt like the right time to stop.

But don’t worry, because our final episode is going to be an absolute monster, in which I speak to all sorts of people who’ve been involved in the show in some capacity over the last four years, about their favourite bits, what they would have liked to have spoken about but didn’t, and also, inevitably, the tube. It’s the messy self-indulgent send off this podcast deserves, and I hope the final product is as much fun to listen to as it was to record.

Incidentally – as part of that I’m going to include some clips from listeners, being nice and/or mocking me in an amusing fashion. If you’d like to be one of them, email me your clip to jonnelledge at gmail dot com.

The episode itself is below. You can subscribe to the podcast on Acast, iTunes, or RSS. Enjoy.​

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

Skylines is produced by Nick Hilton.



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.