Six reasons Londoners should probably stop whining about the tube strike

Here we go again: a crowded train, during a partial shutdown in 2009. Image: Getty.

Break out the bunting, hand out the paper hats and let joy be unconfined. For, tonight begins the latest installment of a festive tradition as old as London itself: the 24 hour tube strike.

At 6.30pm tonight, members of four trade unions – Aslef, RMT, TSSA and Unite – will walk out, in protest at the staffing of the new "Night tube" services being introduced next month. Spokespeople claim that the changes in pay and conditions on offer are inadequate to make up for the introduction of night shifts. This is the second such strike in a month.

Until Friday (mystifyingly, 24 hour strikes seem to extend into three days), Londoners are likely to react with their traditional stoicism. They’ll bear their mild inconvenience with a shrug, only occasionally turning to social media to suggest anyone on strike should be fired or, if you're a fan of Jeremy Clarkson, shot.

Whatever your views on the strike, though, here are six reasons you should think before Tweeting.

Your inconvenience is not a side effect

Yes, the tube staff do know that you're trying to get to work. Making it a pain in the arse is the entire point of the exercise.

By taking to the internet to register your displeasure, all you're doing is helping to highlight how much disruption the transport unions can bring about if they feel the need, and strengthening their hand in negotiations. If you really want to beat them, pretend it doesn't bother you. Tweet about what a lovely walk to work you're having, and how fragrant the man you found yourself crushed against on the number 73 bus this evening was.


If you claim to be left-wing, you should probably shut up

If you believe in the right to strike, right up until the point when it makes your life slightly more difficult, you don't believe in the right to strike at all. Either rethink your views on industrial relations or just sodding deal with it.

If you believe in free markets, you should probably shut up too

There's a strain of thinking on the right that says that pay, like prices, is set by the interaction of supply and demand, and that any attempt by the state to interfere in such matters is only going to make things worse. That applies in every case except public sector pay disputes, when suddenly the state knows exactly how much people's labour is worth, and everyone employed by it should just take what they're given and shut the hell up.

There is a very obvious logical inconsistency here: either pay is set by workers' ability to demand more money for their labour, or it isn't. If you truly believe in free markets, then whether or not it's the taxpayer who's picking up the tab is pretty much irrelevant. Throwing a tantrum and howling, "But I don't want them to have more money!" doesn't change the fact that tube staff have the power to bring one of the world's richest cities grinding to a halt, and that’s why their pay has risen faster than yours.

Don't like it? Become a tube driver.

"Tube driver" is a senior role

Actually, you can't, at least not instantly: since 2008, driving a tube train has effectively been a sort of senior post, somewhere junior staff work up to after years of training and toil in the ranks.

Whether this is the best way of managing the network's staff is perhaps open to question, but nonetheless, it makes it a nonsense to compare tube driver's £50k pay packet with the £22k starting salary of a nurse or the £18k one for a soldier. That £50k isn't a starting salary at all – it's a reward for seniority.


Driving the tube is bloody horrible

It's also a reward for the fact that it's a pretty miserable job. Not as miserable as being a soldier, admittedly – but certainly more miserable than being, say, a newspaper columnist.

Think about what driving a tube train actually involves. It's shift work, so sometimes you'll start at 5am and others you're working til gone midnight. Whatever time you start, you'll be spending approximately eight hours in a small box on your own, doing a series of mind numbingly repetitive tasks, but unable to lose concentration for even a moment.

In that time, you can't read a newspaper. You can't waste 20 minutes chatting with a colleague. You certainly can't tweet about how bored you are. On certain lines, you'll barely see daylight. And there's a not insignificant chance that, one day, someone will jump in front of your train, and you’ll have to live with the guilt.

Lord knows there are some terrible jobs out there that don't come with £50k pay packets, but... I'm kind of okay with paying people well to do that job. A lot of the people who'll be spending today whining, "Well I don't earn that much" also don't have jobs that are quite that shitty.

They're not the only ones on strike anyway

The last two points are a bit of a red herring, actually, because – it isn't only the tube drivers who are actually striking. Every grade of tube staff voted for industrial action. Their concern is that, by adding to the hours in which the tube is open without significantly increasing staff numbers – by introducing the Night Tube on the cheap – the existing staff will be over-stretched and passenger safety could end up compromised.

Today's strike isn't about that £50k pay packet at all.

All that said, it's about time the tube did offer all night services, and TfL would be negligent if it wasn't trying to make it happen as cost effectively as possible. I'm not saying that the unions are entirely in the right, and management entirely in the wrong on this one. I don't actually think I know.

But my point is – neither do you.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.