It was approaching midnight on the 5 May 2016, and inside London’s City Hall, Mayor Paxman had just been elected to run the city for the next four years. But during his victory speech, the unthinkable happened: the new mayor ripped off his “One Nation Tory” mask, and revealed he was planning some sweeping changes that had gone strangely unmentioned in his manifesto.
And with the stroke of a pen, he issued his first decree. As of that night, all London Underground stations in the central Zone 1 were to be closed. Permanently.
The London Assembly and the national government were shocked – but nobody dared to overrule him. (They didn’t even dare to threaten to overrule him.) And so the barriers went up. And, to ensure that his successors could not reverse the plan, the Mayor insisted that the escalator shafts be filled in with cement.
At first, the world thought he was mad – but his plan was actually rather crafty. The Mayor could see London’s housing crisis, both in terms of the lack of places to live, and the cost of getting one of them. He knew this needed a radical solution.
Closing the Zone 1 tube stations, so that the lines merely passed through without stopping, would surely do more for property prices than any other sort of intervention. As everyone knows, the closer to a tube station you are, the higher the cost of housing.
Central London wouldn’t become a desert – there would still be buses (Mayor Paxman wasn’t a monster). But there would be a new and powerful incentive for companies to relocate to the outer parts of London. Stratford, Battersea Power Station and the much talked about Old Oak Common development could become the new centres of commerce; whilst normal people, and not just the super rich could conceivably move back to Zone 1.
It wasn’t like something – the Luftwaffe, an earthquake, climate change – had simply done away with central London: it was all still standing, and would surely be able to maintain much of its civilisation. But it would finally put an end to the completely disproportionate dominance of the super rich.
The reason such a radical solution was needed, reasoned the Mayor, was because the previous strategy of simply building more transport links was demonstrably failing. Railways don’t increase capacity, they merely generate more demand. Look back to 1920s to the growth of “Metroland”, the name given to the suburban development that followed the growth of the Metropolitan line from Baker Street out into Middlesex countryside. When the line was built, it was all fields; once the trains started running, the masses descended.
Or consider Crossrail, which was due to be fully operational in 2018. Despite the huge expense, technical challenges and disruption, even London Transport commissioner Sir Peter Hendy had admitted that it would be operating at pretty much full capacity from day one.
Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us: London has a long and proud history of building railways to relieve other railways. The Victoria line was built in the 1970s to relieve congestion on the Piccadilly. Now Crossrail 2, another North East-to-South-West line, is planned, to relieve the both of them.
Meanwhile tubeless South East London never got a tube line in the first place, and so no other tube lines have arrived to rebuild it. Consequently, it’s not as densely populated, and remains one of the more affordable parts of the capital.
Rather than try to fight the inevitable by building more infrastructure, and thus putting further pressures on property prices in the centre, closing Zone 1 to trains would instead help to mitigate the biggest problem facing London today.
The policy didn’t just mean that new affordable housing appeared in buildings from the Euston Tower to the Shard. It generated other benefits, too. A capital less focused on the centre would mean that there could be less pollution. And the new inaccessibility of Zone One encouraged more people to take up cycling, with benefits for both the environment and public health. Transport for London, seeing how a spike in demand would transform the streets of London into a larger Amsterdam, pedestrianised more public spaces. All in all, the policy made London into a much nicer city to be in – even if we all had to walk a bit further to catch a train.
At first, it seemed like Mayor Paxman was taking a rather hard line. But soon it was clear that the shock treatment was just what London needed. He had pulled London out of its a housing crisis, and transformed the centre of the city into a place for all people once rather, rather than a place just for millionaires.
This piece was inspired by this story of how Berlin's U-bahn network was divided into two until the fall of the Berlin Wall.
CityMetric would like to make clear that it has no reason to believe that Jeremy Paxman harbours a secret longing to pour huge quantities of concrete into anything.