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Covid-19: Transport for London

Volume 807: debated on Thursday 29 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with Transport for London about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on its revenue and funding.

My Lords, we are currently in discussions with TfL and the mayor on a further extraordinary funding agreement. My noble friend will agree that the mayor has choices to make to balance the books of TfL. When he has made those choices, they will become conditions attached to support from the UK taxpayer. My noble friend will understand that it would be inappropriate to discuss the details of ongoing discussions at this time.

I am grateful to my noble friend. With the other place in recess and government support for Transport for London running out tomorrow, this is Parliament’s last opportunity to find out what is going on. Does my noble friend agree that, if giving more powers to mayors and metro mayors is to work, both sides should moderate their language during negotiations and avoid wild accusations; that any support for Transport for London should take us beyond next May’s mayoral elections; and that any government support for Transport for London should be fair to the national taxpayer and proportionate to other parts of the country while leaving the decisions as to how it should be funded to the Mayor of London?

I agree with my noble friend that negotiations between the Government and the Mayor of London—indeed, all mayors—should be based on mutual respect and professionalism. I am pleased to report that, for example, our conversations with the mayor and his team yesterday were very cordial and constructive. The details of the current settlement are still under discussion and we are making good progress. I am pleased to confirm that the Government are committed to the principle that any government funding must be fair to UK taxpayers.

My Lords, it is obvious that TfL needs some immediate investment, along the lines of the sort that the Government have given to the train operating companies, but also needs time to work out some long-term resilience. An 18-month deal is probably best for it. One way of financing it would be to put in smart road pricing. This idea has been around for decades, but have the Government thought about it or even worked up an idea for it?

The noble Baroness will know that transport in London is devolved to the Mayor of London. Therefore, any considerations of smart road pricing would be for him to take forward.

Can my noble friend indicate whether these discussions should consider how far the overall health risk to front-line workers in mass transportation systems could be reduced by the spread of automation?

The health of our key workers and transport workers is at the forefront of everything we are doing at the moment, which is why the Government support running full services across public transport to enable social distancing. Automation, for example contactless payment, is one of the things that can reduce the spread of the virus. Automation of driverless trains, for example, would again be a matter for the mayor but we would support looking into it.

My Lords, before Covid struck, Crossrail’s full operation had been delayed by four years until 2022 and estimated costs increased by almost a third from the 2009 figure. What further delay and cost increases, due to Covid working restrictions, have been calculated and reported so far? Will all these additional costs have to be financed by TfL and the London authority?

The noble and gallant Lord will be pleased to hear that there was an update from Crossrail recently about the schedule and total costs. The project is now completely under the control of TfL. It is its responsibility to finish it. We are in discussions with TfL about further financial support for Crossrail, but we are very clear that Londoners must also foot the bill.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness not agree that the UK taxpayer would be harmed if Transport for London became dysfunctional? It would affect the London economy, as well as the health of London’s citizens. Would it not be better to take the larger interest into account and give Transport for London the help that it badly needs?

I assure the noble Lord that we want—as much as anybody else wants—London to have a safe, sustainable and reliable network. Obviously, there are issues to consider. In the short term, London’s revenues have been significantly impacted by the decline in passenger numbers. We have to make sure that, as we look to longer-term financial sustainability, not just UK taxpayers but Londoners support TfL.

The Government continue to warn the public to avoid public transport and work from home. Tube journeys, for instance, are down to about a third of their usual numbers. When the train operating companies were bailed out to the tune of £3.5 billion, similar terms to those that have been imposed on Londoners were not imposed on them. Can the Minister explain why Londoners, whether travelling by car or public transport, are subject to financial penalties not imposed elsewhere?

My Lords, train operating companies are not the same as TfL and a devolved public transport authority. Equivalent conditions or discussions cannot therefore be made because the two are not comparable. However, I assure the noble Baroness that the Government’s messaging has been to use public transport safely and has been that for quite some time.

My Lords, is it not the case that the primary responsibility for this funding crisis rests with the utterly incompetent Mayor of London and the monolithic Transport for London? Does my noble friend agree that, whatever the solution to this crisis is, it is not to clobber London’s much-beleaguered road users, many of them small businesses, with more taxes, such as increases in or extensions of the congestion charge?

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the Major of London had reduced the TfL operating deficit by 70% and increased its cash balance by 13%, while maintaining fares income over the past four years—a much healthier situation than that left by his predecessor. It is also worth bearing in mind, in the light of what has been said, that London’s net contribution to the Treasury last year was £38.8 billion.

I return to the question raised by noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, which did not get much of an answer. Why are the Government playing awkward over funding for publicly owned TfL? They are providing all the money private train operators in London require through 18-month funding deals with a surplus element built in and few questions asked. Meanwhile, they are seeking to force the Mayor of London to make punitive policy changes affecting Londoners—who have done and continue to do the right thing on Covid-19—as the price for their necessary further financial support. It is not sufficient to say they are different cases; they are very similar.

The noble Lord mischaracterises the discussions under way concerning the train operating companies and TfL. Various conditions apply to the new train operating company deals—ERMAs—relating to punctuality, management fees and all sorts of things. Of course, that is just one step on the way to further reform. The Government will step in and support TfL to address the decrease in revenues resulting from the pandemic. However, there are elements available to people in London and to TfL staff that are simply not available to the rest of the country. It is not up to the UK taxpayer to pay for those things.

[Inaudible]—indeed, spent a fortune on cycle lanes. This is of course very welcome, but it has without question created new risks. During recent times, I have been driving to the House and have witnessed the most extraordinarily dangerous behaviour by cyclists, veering across lines of traffic and so on. Will the Government consider assessing a policy of requiring every bicycle to have a name plate? Will they at least try to introduce some discipline and respect for the Highway Code?

I recognise that on occasion, cyclists do not pay full regard to the rules. As we encourage more people to cycle—we have put in place cycle lanes, which are very welcome—we must ensure that cyclists behave according to the written law and the spirit of it.

Sitting suspended.