Sorry, northerners, but London’s tube strike is national news

Lol, good luck. Image: Getty.

Okay, there’s something that’s bugging me today. By even mentioning it I’m sticking my head on the block very slightly, and I’m sure the social media response to this post is going to be a treat. But I’m going to say it anyway, because it’s really, really winding me up:

Yes, there is a very good reason the tube strike is national news today. And no, it isn’t comparable to a problem with the buses in Huddersfield.

The idea that the strike is just a little local difficulty is a superficially truth-y one. London, after all, is just one city, where the vast majority of the country do not, in fact, live. What’s more, as the political, business and cultural capital of our ludicrously over-centralised state, unnecessary attention paid to London is likely to annoy people in the way a sudden focus on, say, Bradford probably won’t.

What’s more, by any reasonable definition, the British media is too London-centric. It’s an unfortunate but inevitable side-effect of the fact that most of us live here, and CityMetric is very definitely not immune to this problem. (I’m always keen to correct this where possible, so if you happen to be in charge of another British city and would like me to come up and see you, do get in touch.)

Nonetheless, it’s entirely reasonable that the tube strike should be leading today’s national news, for at least two reasons.

One is that London is not just another city. It isn’t simply that all the journalists and politicians live here (though, that no doubt helps, when it comes to garnering coverage). It’s that a whole lot of other people do.

Exactly how many is quite hard to say, because the city has been growing pretty fast, but it can’t be far off 9m by now – roughly one in seven of the national population. If you consider the entire metropolitan area, which includes the commuter belt – as good a proxy for the number of people affected, directly or indirectly, by the tube strike as we’re likely to get – it’s closer to 14m.

I sort of suspect that any other political issue that affected 1 in 5 of the British population would be leading the news today, too.

Population estimates for 30 June 2015.

It’s easy to forget quite how big London is: because it’s just a city there’s a tendency to assume it’s on a level with other British cities. But it isn’t: it’s at least three times bigger than any of its rivals, and at least 40 times bigger than Huddersfield. It’s probably slightly bigger than Scotland and Wales combined, too – on which measure, Sadiq Khan is a significantly more important politician than Nicola Sturgeon.

The other reason why the tube strike is a national matter is related to this, but exacerbated by our old friend, the north-south divide: London represents a disproportionately big share of the national GDP. Estimates vary, but tend to be somewhere between 17 and 22 percent.

In other words, every fifth pound that the British economy is meant to be generating today may never materialise because people couldn’t get onto the Piccadilly line this morning.

None of this means the media isn’t too London-centric: it definitely is. Nor does it mean that it’s ludicrous the economy is so dependent on one giant city: that’s definitely true, too.

But the reality is that it’s genuinely difficult to think of anything else that could be happening in Britain today that would be directly affecting so many people or businesses. With apologies to the “not everyone lives in London” brigade, that’s why it’s leading the news today.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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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.