PoliticsHome | Only the latest five entries on the PhiWire are visible to non-subscribers
- Sign up to see last 24 hours
Dont have an account?Sign up here
Words: Paul Waugh
Pictures: Paul Heartfield
Greg Clark is clutching a birthday present from his wife, with the glow of a man whose spouse knows exactly what he wants. The item he describes as ‘one of my proudest possessions’ is not a shiny new e-tablet or similarly modern bit of gadgetry.It’s a Victorian medal, struck to celebrate the achievements of an historic politician in his home town of Middlesbrough. The bronze disc (a gift bought by a shrewd Mrs Clark on eBay) depicts Henry Bolckow, an industrialist who brought coal and ironworks to Middlesbrough and was elected as its first mayor and MP. Cast in 1881, it was issued to everyone who participated in the unveiling of a statue to Bolckow after he died.
But it isn’t just the connection to his own birthplace that attracted Clark to the medal. For the Minister for the Cities, it captures perfectly the point he’s been making in speeches on how our urban centres can restore their civic pride, and financial fortunes, though strong local leadership.
“Henry was an industrialist, he was the connection between the industrial life of a city and the civic life of the city,” Clark explains. “And it was absolutely commonplace that the major employer should be elected as the first Member of Parliament, the first Mayor of Middlesbrough. And that so far from this being an elite thing, that statue was raised by popular subscription, he was elected unopposed by acclamation.”
The town’s strong local pride was matched by its strong local power. “Middlesbrough was like other cities that either grew or were founded during the Victorian times,” he goes on. “Often they were driven forward by local individuals who didn’t seek permission from London, they got on with it.
“From heyday of Middlesbrough’s power, where all the decisions about Middlesbrough’s future were made on the banks of the Tees, now they are made on the banks of the Thames. And the prominence of a town like Middlesbrough for 100 years has declined in terms of the power it is able to exercise, as that power has come south.”
Rolling back power northwards (and eastwards, southwards and westwards for that matter) from London is Clark’s passion in Government. Previously the devolution minister at the DCLG before a brief stint at the Treasury, he is the undisputed ‘Mr Cities’ of the Coalition. Now at the Cabinet Office as Minister for Cities and Constitution, he has a cross-government brief from George Osborne and David Cameron to help our urban centres, many of them founded in the Victorian age, to power our economy into the mid-21st century.
An unlikely Medallion Man, Clark is a former policy expert and adviser whose experience of Government stretches back to the Major era. He’s dug out of the Commons library a copy of Asa Briggs’ ‘Victorian Cities’ and found a striking story about Henry Bolckow. It describes how the Prince of Wales, at the unveiling of the new town hall in Middlesbrough, couldn’t resist saying that he had expected to see a ‘smoky town’.
“As Asa Briggs has it, this remark provoked a characteristically candid comment from the Mayor which captures the spirit of late Victorian Middlesbrough far more than the heavy rhetoric.
“Bolckow said: ‘His Royal Highness opened that he expected to see a smoky town. It is one. And if there is one thing more than another that Middlesbrough could be said to be proud of, it is the smoke.’ Cheers and laughter followed. ‘The smoke is an indication of plenty of work (applause), an indication of prosperous times (cheers), an indication that all classes of work people are being employed, that there is little necessity for charity (cheers) and that even those in the humblest station are free from want (cheers). Therefore we are proud of our smoke (cheers).’”
Clark can’t help smiling at the chutzpah of the speech. “The idea that the Mayor of a town would sort of upbraid the Prince of Wales for having the temerity to comment with a slightly snide remark about the smoke, and saying we should be proud of our smoke, does capture that spirit.”
Bolckow founded not just civic buildings but various colleges, parkland and housing.
Like Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham, he had a comprehensive vision and confidence that didn’t rely on London.
“When the big cities and towns outside London created the wealth and generated income, there was a different attitude that came with it. There was a sense that they came to London to tell government how it should be, not to beg and plead. They weren’t supplicants.”
Clark is an evangelist for regenerating cities so they can once again rival the capital. Crucially, he rejects the idea that modern technology will somehow make urban life less important.
“This is one of the most fascinating features of the times that we are in,” he says. The dawn of the digital age has seen a ‘live test’ of predictions that hi-tech interaction will somehow dissolve geography.
“Some people said that this means that everyone who can live in the countryside will choose to live in the countryside. That people don’t need to live in these smoky cities as Middlesbrough once was, and have to have dense housing and all the rest of it. That they can be liberated from the need to live in a city.
“But actually what you found is the opposite. As people have had the availability of these digital possibilities, this virtual communication, the attraction of cities has increased. People have wanted to interact more, to specialise more and the physical interaction, the meeting people, the social aspect of that trumped the, if I can put it this way, the availability of isolation.
“And you see it not just in this country, but all around the world. There were predictions that this means that everyone is just going to sit miles from everyone else and communicate by Skype. Obviously it’s available and it’s a good thing, but actually people do want and do need to get together to collaborate.”
That need to meet in person, to physically collaborate, is one of the unsung reasons for HS2, Clark says. “I think that is one of the big advantages. This has been under-emphasised, it’s one of the main reasons for High Speed 2. What you have in London is a city at a critical mass that you can function whether socially or professionally and find that anything is available to you. What we’ve got in the other cities is that if you’re below that scale then you may not have the choices.
“But actually…we have got the good fortune to have cities quite close to each other: Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham. Under High Speed 2 the journey from Birmingham to Manchester goes to about 38 minutes…to turn them not even into a suburb of each other, it’s almost a virtual city. If you think in London, you would regard 38 minutes as being part of the same thing.
“If you want a quick meeting, if you want to look at a potential supplier, you just hop on the train…it’s creating for these other great cities of the north and the midlands a rival to London. And this hasn’t really come out.”
Clark also rejects the idea that HS2 will somehow ‘suck’ money and jobs from the northto London. “That is a bonkers argument. It is so insane. At the moment it takes about two hours to go from London to Manchester, under High Speed 2 it will take just over an hour. So the argument runs – and I’ve heard serious people put this argument – that everyone in Manchester will work in London and Manchester will be impoverished as a result.
“If we believe that, it is entirely within our gift to double the times of a journey to Manchester. We could put a speed limit on the current line and require it to take 4 hours to get to Manchester. Now does anyone seriously think that if we made the journey to Manchester take four hours rather than two Manchester would be more prosperous or less prosperous? It just exposes how fallacious that argument is.”
Clark works alongside Michael Heseltine in the Cabinet Office (itself now housed partly in the Treasury) and it’s clear they share an enthusiasm for directly-elected mayors. London aside, he says that Tony Blair failed to introduce the idea to “the areas which can most benefit from it, which is the big cities”.
“Just as a nation can be well led or poorly led….the idea that leadership is irrelevant for a city is for the birds. A visionary leader of a city can make an enormous difference.
“And we know that. It’s not some eccentric thought that this might be possible. I’ve got the medallion to prove it! Middlesbrough would not exist in its present form without it. You just need to walk around Birmingham to see the legacy over a century later of Joseph Chamberlain. Right across the country we know what a difference leadership makes. And internationally, we have a case in point in America where the Chief of Staff to the President thinks it’s a better job to be the Mayor of Chicago.”
He admits that there are differences with the Liberal Democrats over the issue, and that the Coalition has gone for a mayoral referendum model with mixed results. Clark points out that Liverpool got its Mayor in response to a report by Lord Heseltine and former Tesco chief Terry Leahy. As part of a ‘City Deal’ to get cash provided by Clark, the council passed a resolution to convert to a mayoral model without any referendum at all. It’s clear the minister would like to see more of this.
“The view that I’ve always taken is not to force people into doing something they don’t want to do, that’s never a recipe for success. But if we can facilitate, help give expression to any desire to do things differently that places have then I think we will do that,” he says.
As for those cities which rejected the mayoral idea in referendums, he’s not giving up. “I think in the future what may be the case is that cities see the advantage of this and want to come back to it voluntarily, not necessarily on the boundaries they had,” he says.
“One of the features we have of British cities is the administrative boundaries often don’t describe the reality of a city. So the City of Manchester is a very small part of Greater Manchester. Now it could be just as London has had a Mayor in effect of Greater London, it could be that the people of Greater Manchester might think such a figure could be beneficial in the future. And similarly on Merseyside.”
Despite Lord Heseltine’s long-established work in helping cities like Liverpool, the payback for the Tory party still seems distant in electoral terms. Clark points to the Conservative campaigning of Guy Opperman in Hexham and his own PPS David Mowat in Warrington, but has a wider warning.
“We need to show as Conservatives that we are an urban party as well as a rural party, that we know we are as interested in urban Britain as we are in rural Britain, and we really are. It’s taken a Conservative government to be devolving power to cities, doing what 13 years of Labour government with the majority they had, didn’t. The City Deal we struck with Manchester was transformational.”
He also believes that devolution, as well as elected mayors, can deliver more Tory leadership in the north. “Having grown up in the North East, it’s been one of the things that’s always motivated me in politics: a resentment of the centralisation of power away from local people,” he says.
“One of the things that brought me into politics was the complacency and the torpor of Labour in its heartlands. All the time I was growing up on Teesside, the place was totally dominated by Labour and it was associated with a lack of vision, a lack of ambition, a lack of dynamism that made me form a view from a very early age I wanted nothing to do with that, I wanted to oppose that and to have an alternative.
“If you look at the North East, under 13 years of Labour sometimes it seemed half the Cabinet was from the North East. Did they transform the economic prospects of the North East, did they use their familiarity and power there for the good? Not a bit of it. If anything the North East went backwards during that time, compared to the rest of the country…”
If Greg Clark gets his way, our Victorian cities will once again become economic powerhouses. He’s convinced there may even be some political payback for the Conservatives. But either way, one thing is clear: you can take the boy out of Middlesbrough, but you can’t take Middlesbrough out of the boy – nor his medallion.
CLARK ON...DEVOLVING POWER
“I think a world in which everything is decided in London by through big government decisions is not good for Conservatives in places outside London.”
CLARK ON...MICHAEL HESELTINE
"They made Michael a Freeman of the City of Liverpool, earlier this year. And he was incredibly touched by it. It was by acclamation, he is seen as a heroic figure there."
CLARK ON...TORY URBAN VOTES
"We do need to work hard and do need to constantly show that we love cities, we are comfortable in cities.”
CLARK ON...SWITCHING FROM THE SDP
"I most motivated by a free market economy, strong defence, a certain Euroscepticism – the natural home for these was the Conservative party so it seemed a very natural transition."
Words: Paul Waugh and Jess Bowie
Pictures: Paul Heartfield
When the Prime Minister was reshuffling his Government recently, Susan Kramer was nowhere to be found. Far from waiting by the phone, the Liberal Democrat peer was busy taking American friends on a tour of the Houses of Parliament.
“I got back to my office to work on the Electoral Services Bill and noticed all these damned phonecalls, so I said ‘what is this?’” she explains. “It was a complete surprise.”
But Baroness Kramer’s elevation to Minister of State for Transport came as no surprise to those who know her best. A former infrastructure financier, London mayoral candidate and Lib Dem Shadow Transport Secretary, in many ways she had the perfect CV for the post vacated by Simon Burns.
Her wide-ranging brief includes not just the hot potato of HS2, but other rail services, buses, trams, low carbon vehicles, city regeneration, biofuels and even helping small business.
HS2 is so big that ministerial responsibilities have been split to cope with it. While Robert Goodwill deals with ‘Phase 1’ of Euston-Birmingham, fellow new minister Kramer has to oversee ‘Phase 2’ north of Birmingham. The second section is expected to take its first passengers in 2033. And as someone who spent years as a banker on complex financing of infrastructure projects (she worked for Citibank before setting up a specialist company with her late husband), it’s safe to say the minister is happy focusing on the long term.
“If you step back and look at our infrastructure, we are relying heavily on what the Victorians did. And there’s a point at which that gets exhausted. You can do all the patch-and-mend you like but all you end up with is coming back with another patch-and-mend and then another. It’s a pattern that we’ve unfortunately adopted rather than putting in place new infrastructure. HS2 should have gone in 15 years ago.”
Given the long timescales of HS2, the DfT is acutely aware that the project sounds like an expensive, distant prospect. Kramer points out that as well as keeping costs under control, Patrick McLoughlin and incoming HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins are keen not to hang around.
“The Secretary of State has actually asked HS2 to deliver the first phase at £17.16bn which would be well below the contingency for Phase 1. David Higgins believes that he can do that. So there is a lot of pressure to deliver below the cap but it’s also very realistic to make sure that you’re setting the cap with a contingency recognising the size of the project,” she says.
“For the first shovel in the ground, the goal is 2017 for Phase 1. The question is couldDavid Higgins speed up the start of Phase 2? He has said he wants to look at that. He comes on board in the New Year and we will have his focus.
“He obviously has a lot of experience, both with rail from Network Rail and with projects, we’ve seen that in the Olympics. And if he can bring this in sooner, then that is excellent, both in terms of cost but also in terms of the benefits that it delivers: partly capacity for Phase 2, but even more the economic benefits for Phase 2.”
As the transport minister who also has a remit for devolution and cities, Kramer stresses that the project will unlock regeneration for the north and midlands.
“Probably, had this been done 10 years ago, we’d have talked about the project almost in isolation. Now there’s a recognition that the benefits it brings are because it is part of a network and because it is part of a local focus on regeneration and growth. I’m absolutely fascinated at the way the cities of the north and the midlands have taken this forward and are planning not just around stations but how that renews cities more broadly, how they will connect with each other.”
The Government is putting money into making sure the connections are in place well before HS2, from electrifying the trans-Pennine route to Northern Hub projects to connect Manchester’s main stations with a new link.
“That kind of integration will give us a much bigger benefit than when we’ve just done isolated projects. If you look back in London at the way we did Canary Wharf. We did the Jubilee Line and people didn’t look at how it could help the areas around Canary Wharf. All of that has been brought in after the fact and I suspect you would have done it differently had you looked at the project from the beginning to see what its wider economic benefits could be.”
As a former businesswoman herself, she also realises the way the private sector can contribute. “Around many of the stations on the Jubilee Line, quite frankly a number of developers made a killing. We’d much rather that the taxpayer got that benefit coming back in to help fund the project,” she says.
In January this year, Kramer told a Lords debate that the UK was often too obsessed with “looking at the large – the large business, the grand projects, the big banks”. She warned of the “long lead-in times” of things like HS2 and said it was “madness” that the Coalition was failing to give councils enough time to keep business rates that stem from building new industrial parks or housing that accompany a transport scheme.
When asked if she still thinks that, the minister replies that the new Local Growth Fund (which stemmed from the Lord Heseltine report on devolution) is part of the answer. This will lever in cash from councils and local businesses in return for devolving spending power.
“What I’m hoping in a sense is that the Local Growth Fund becomes an answer to the argument that I was making. Because I think it is valid. There is this tendency always to ‘grand projet’ and forget the small. And I would hope very much that Local Enterprise Partnerships will see the opportunity to do these little projects. Projects that might be quite small in and of themselves but they unlock some real economic potential and once you start to stack them up, they have a very big impact.
“Within these fairly big areas there’s an obvious opportunity sometimes around big urban clusters, but in more suburban communities, more scattered communities, they need to share in the benefit as well. I want them in the picture.” She smiles: “And unless I’ve been reshuffled out of the job, hopefully I will have some input.”
Another area where Kramer is already having an ‘input’ is on smart ticketing. Last week London Underground quietly began trials of contactless payment using bank cards – technology that’s already up and running on London buses – seemingly with a view to eventually phasing out the Oyster card. Given that the Government is trying to roll out smart cards beyond the capital, is there a danger that places like Manchester will still be devising their smart card systems while London is already one step ahead? Shouldn’t we forget about smart cards and fast-track the rest of the country to the bank card system?
Kramer admits it’s a policy area where she “needs to spend a lot of time”.
Many parts of the country, she believes, will choose to move directly to payment via bank card rather than individual smart cards – but only “when they are sure the technological barrier is cracked”.
“I mean there is a serious will, finally, from the train operating companies to get this to work, [although] there are issues about inter-operability between different train companies. What we are being held back by are the complexities of a system which has many different providers.”
She also goes a step further than bank card ticketing, mentioning the potential for people to pay for transport with smart cards in their phones. While admitting this is “clearly the next generation”, she thinks “it is quite possible that many [train operators] will choose to lead directly onto phone technology”.
Kramer says it has taken a long time for train operators to realise that if you make ticketing easy, you get happier customers – a change in attitude which she believes can be linked to the privatisation of the railways.
But some argue the successes of the East Coast Mainline – including record levels of passenger satisfaction and an impressive £208m return to the taxpayer last year – prove that state-run services can produce happy passengers too. With a movement gathering pace to keep the East Coast line – currently run by the state-owned Directly Operated Railways [DOR] – in public hands, does Kramer agree with TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady that re-privatising it “defies all logic”?
“Absolutely not,” she says. “I mean I have great respect for the DOR. They have done a fantastic job of stabilising the East Coast Mainline, but if you look at what Lord Adonis said when he brought the East Coast Mainline into the DOR, it was intended as an interim step and the logic is to put it back out to the private sector because we actually need very significant investment and that is going to have to have private sector co-operation.
“To be honest, part of the reason why it returned such high profits is because it wasn’t focused on investment – it was focused on stabilising. We now have to establish a long term future, so going out with private partners and franchising is the logical way in which to do it. It’s important we have the DOR capability and it’s in no way a slur on them to say that that’s their role – to be able to deal with these situations when we need the Government to step in. But then, when the situation is stabilised, to transfer it back out to the private sector which has been much better at things like passenger focus, innovation, and improvement in customer service.”
There are of course rail companies which blur the lines between public and private. Last year the DfT came under fire from the Public Accounts Committee for its part in the “fiction” that Network Rail operates outside the public sector. Rumour has it that this may soon be corrected and the company’s finances will be added onto the public balance sheet.
As a former banker, Kramer presumably agrees that this would be a more transparent way of doing things? She remains diplomatic. The ONS is looking at whether to reclassify Network Rail, she says, and she “doesn’t have the courage to try and gainsay the ONS”.
“In a sense it is more of an issue for the Treasury and where the debt sits, because Network Rail is an effective operating organisation,” she adds, with a careful eye on not upsetting the Chancellor.
But if Network Rail does come onto the public sector balance sheet, ministers such as Kramer might have a say in areas like bonuses. Would she welcome that, or would bonuses remain something for the company to decide?
“It is a private company. And it has worked really well, it seems to me, in terms of delivering the improvements in infrastructure that we want. My absolute priority would be to make sure that that is not disrupted in any way,” she says.
The Transport Minister’s brief also takes in ‘local connectivity’, which includes buses, trams and light rail. When asked about the contrast between London, where massive investment in the bus network has seen ridership soar, and other parts of the country, where fares are rising but investment and ridership are falling, Kramer admits it is something that “needs some really serious thought”.
“Buses are the workhorse of the public transport world and play such an important role within the community outside of London, as well as inside London, so now that I have some role with buses I am very interested in trying to see how we can be really effective in delivering bus services. We’ve seen London become extremely successful and there are other places too where there’s excellent service. But there clearly are areas where it probably is not achieving what we need it to achieve.”
Kramer’s meetings with the industry started this week and she wants to “begin to understand from [operators] where they can see this going, in order to try and achieve the goals that I hope we all have”.
As for trams, she rejects the idea that they are merely vanity projects on the part of council chiefs, and also the argument that for the price of a few tram services, many more buses could be laid on. “The general logic with trams is that there is a point where you just can’t run the relevant number of buses without totally paralysing the streets that you’re on. Sometimes it’s a distance issue as well – it’s too far to run a bus at any kind of significant speed,” she says, before adding: “I don’t dismiss light rail; it should stay on the agenda.”
What’s off the agenda for the Coalition is a third runway at Heathrow, at least for this Parliament. But with the Davies Commission currently examining airport capacity, it’s very much still a live issue. During Kramer’s five years as Lib Dem MP for Richmond Park she was a vocal critic of Heathrow expansion.
There is a possibility that Davies, having weighed up all the evidence, will conclude that a third runway is the most logical option. Kramer’s colleague Vince Cable has spoken of having ‘red lines’ that might prompt him to quit Government – would Heathrow expansion be one of hers?
“We have been very clear that there will be no third runway in this Parliament,” she says. “The Davies Commission is looking at these issues and I’m never one to deny people the opportunity to go and do work and provide information. We won’t have their answer until the other side of the general election, so I will take a view on it when there is something to take a view on.”
Does this mean she will have an open mind up until that point, or indeed afterwards?
“You know where I come from from a personal basis...” – she pauses, and then says with a laugh – “and I have history of being consistent!”
When asked whether she and her former rival Zac Goldsmith are now as one on this issue, Kramer simply says: “It’s always seemed to me that most people who live in the area are as one on this issue.”
The one person Kramer no longer has at her side is her late husband John, who died of cancer in 2006. Although a Californian, he was a passionate believer in public transport who became Transportation Secretary of Illinois state at the tender age of 28. The couple, who had met at Oxford, later started their own consulting firm and advised Eastern European states on road and rail projects.
“I suppose I sometimes feel that it’s the most extraordinary fate, that we shared a passion for the potential for public transport and a passion for infrastructure,” she explains. “But I suppose for many years I thought he was the one that would be implementing it and it turns out I’m the one that’s getting a chance to drive it forward.
So there is a strange sense of irony there. And sometimes in a way I’m glad I’m able to realise something that was a joint venture for us, even though he’s long gone.”
When there’s a tricky transport policy problem, does he provide that spark of inspiration to keep going? “I’m not a religious person, but there is always the sudden thought that if I don’t get this right I’ll be told off,” she says, pointing upwards, with a smile.
As for Kramer’s own transport arrangements, she has openly said in the past that she is “too afraid to cycle in London”. But how does she get to and from work?
Typically on the tube, she says, but sometimes it’s a combination of tube and bus. On Mondays, however, she “knows of no other way to bring my red box in than to drive”, so she comes to work by car – not the ministerial car, but her own. “I’m allowed to put my red box in my car,” she says, laughing, “although I probably can’t even tell you which part of the car I’m allowed to put it in!”
There was a time when Kramer’s mode of transport around London was altogether different: Doc Martins. A party political broadcast made during her mayoral run in 2000 shows the Lib Dem walking – and occasionally skipping – around the capital, sporting an unlikely combination of sharp suit and bright yellow Doc Martin boots.
“I love my yellow boots, I will never part from them,” Kramer says when reminded of the video. The footage (available on YouTube) is a reminder of how far Kramer has come since that decision to stand for mayor 13 years ago.
The minister herself certainly finds it surreal: “You know, I didn’t join a political party until I was in my mid-40s. I loved the London Mayor campaign – every minute of it. I had the incredible privilege of being an MP for five years. I end up in the House of Lords and then – utter shock – end up as a Minister of State in the Department for Transport. I mean, who would think?
Still, one former university associate in particular can’t have been shocked by her elevation. Recalling her days at Oxford, when one Sue Richards was president of the student union, Ann Widdecombe – in her autobiography – gives her own take on Kramer’s future prospects. “At Oxford,” Widdecombe writes, “Sue consistently claimed not to be ambitious and that she would be content with ‘a couple of kids’, but nobody becomes president of the Union by accident…”
What does Kramer make of this assessment? “I mean, the happiest thing in my life have been the ‘couple of kids’ and now the three grandchildren,” she begins, before demonstrating that her self-effacing tendency still prevails: “I constantly look at my life and I’m just astonished because I don’t think I consciously... you know, I enjoyed debating at the Oxford Union and then someone said ‘well, why don’t you stand for president’”. (Unlike the young Boris Johnson, Kramer “doesn’t remember running any major campaign”.)
“Politics is cruel to a lot of people,” Kramer says. “I see a lot of people who work very hard, they’re brilliant, they achieve so much, but they don’t actually get a lot of reward. I’m someone who has been treated so well by politics and I can’t account for it.”
Many of her colleagues – from both the business world and Parliament – would surely disagree. Kramer is resolutely modest: “I obviously drank the right glass of water on the right day. That’s the best I can do for you, because there’s been no plot, no scheme, no plan.”
That may be the case. As she plots a path to implement her lifelong interest in transport, that glass of water is clearly half full.
And now that she’s very much part of the Coalition’s plans, Susan Kramer may be returning the Prime Minister’s calls just a bit quicker these days.
KRAMER ON....RE-USING WATERLOO'S EUROSTAR PLATFORMS
"Longer trains, longer platforms are absolutely crucial. I’m not going to pretend that people will feel they have a glorious system. But they will be able at least to get on the damned train."
KRAMER ON...ENDING SEWAGE DUMPING FROM TRAINS
“This is just one of the most disgusting things. I do want to hear from the industry…because it is just unacceptable”
KRAMER ON...ZAC GOLDSMITH AND HEATHROW
“It's always seemed to me that most people who live in the area are as one on this issue.”
Words: Jon Stone
Cycling is on the agenda in London: banker-blue rows of hire bikes spring up overnight on street corners, while the Mayor zooms around the city on two wheels with characteristic abandon. More and more Londoners are turning to pedal-power to get around, saving themselves money on both tube fares and gym membership in the process. In Parliament, things are no different: in September, around 100 MPs held a strikingly well-attended backbench debate on the way forward for cycling, marking the launch of a report by the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group that made a series of recommendations on the same subject.
“I used to cycle in London as a student in the 1980s, and you were very much on your own,” says Conservative MP Dr Sarah Wollaston. “There were much fewer cyclists around and there was no cycling provision whatsoever. Now you feel like you’re traveling in a peloton some mornings. There are a lot of cyclists on the road.” The evidence isn’t just anecdotal: Transport for London’s 2013 survey of traffic in central London found nearly one in four vehicles on key routes during the morning rush hour are now bicycles; they make up one in six vehicles across the entire day.
The numbers may be up, but there are still big barriers to people who work in Westminster opting for two wheels. The burgeoning number of cyclists on the capital’s roads has brought out the network’s flaws, with fatal accidents featuring all-too-often in the capital’s evening news. Injuries dealt out to cyclists within sight of Parliament over the last few years include broken backs; even more seriously, on Victoria Street, two riders, both women, have been killed in separate incidents. 14 people were killed on bikes in London in 2012, out of 122 nationally – a five year high. In one particularly awful period in November this year, six London cyclists were killed in less than a fortnight.
Boris Johnson’s first term as Mayor saw the construction of a number of ‘Cycle Superhighways’, which he said were designed to ensure people on bikes would “no longer have to have to dance and dodge around petrol power”, making riders safer. But in an inquest into two deaths on the routes, which offer little physical protection for cyclists, Coroner Mary Hassel described aspects of their design as “an accident waiting to happen” and sent Transport for London back to the drawing board.
“What a lot of colleagues say to me is that they just wouldn’t be confident to cycle, they don’t feel safe,” explains Wollaston. “If we look at the barriers for new cyclists coming in, then that’s still the biggest.” But the problem of safety hits people working in Parliament particularly hard: “They often don’t feel safe because literally the most unsafe part of their journey is when you first step out of the gates of Parliament: Parliament Square.”
Dr Julian Huppert, who co-chairs the cycling APPG, agrees: “Parliament Square is really problematic, there’s no doubt about that,” he says. Even the Liberal Democrat MP, who describes himself as a “keen cyclist”, says he tends to get off and walk the last bit of his journey to work, on account of it being “very, very unpleasant”.
The London Cycling Campaign’s Mike Cavenett is less diplomatic about the square’s shortcomings: “I think Parliament Square is an embarrassment,” he tells The House. “As a Londoner, when I cycle around there, especially when I see all the hoards of tourists all crowded onto the pavement, I think it’s disgusting. It’s an absolute waste of space. In Paris or Berlin or New York, one of our competing major cities, they would have turned it into a beautiful public space.”
“I don’t see many kids cycling through there, but I know there’s schools in every direction. I don’t see many elderly people going through there. I don’t actually see many female cyclists through there; in rush hour it tends to be men, youngish men: people who are willing to jockey for position with the motor traffic coming around like that.”
Wollaston’s experience corroborates this; she says the demographics of the typical London cyclist are a symptom of the fact the capital doesn’t properly cater to mass bike use. “Most of those cyclists are men, most of them are in Lycra. We should push to have more women on bikes. I make a point: I cycle into work in my working clothes, in my heels, and I cycle a little Brompton.”
“We’ve got to look at facilities for people so that we are a bike-friendly city, and we’re absolutely not there yet,” she explains. “Yes, it’s great that there are more people cycling; yes, I can see dramatic change; but we need far more provision: let’s attract people who aren’t cycling at all at the moment. This shouldn’t be a campaign for making life easier for really keen cyclists, because they’re going to cycle anyway. It’s about the people who are currently too afraid to cycle, and making them feel welcome.”
There are good reasons for London’s authorities to want to promote cycling: in a city where space is hard to come by, fitting more people on the roads using bikes is increasingly being seen as a serious and cost-effective transport solution. The Mayor’s Cycling Commissioner Andrew Gilligan has been justifying a proposed new east-west route on the basis of it having the capacity of four London Underground District Line trains per hour.
“Gilligan quite cleverly pulled that figure out,” Cavenett explains. “How expensive would it have been to increase the tube capacity by 20%? You’re talking billions, and years of works. Whereas for a relatively small amount you can increase the capacity above ground on the streets by the same amount.”
One place that does seem to be getting cycling broadly right is the Parliamentary Estate itself. “I know when Sir George Young used to cycle here it was a rare and perhaps slightly eccentric thing to do, whereas now it’s just a normal thing that people do,” Huppert says. As a result of the gradual shift in attitudes, cyclists can expect a competent welcome at the Palace of Westminster.
Wollaston is particularly impressed: “The bike provision on the parliamentary estate is fantastic: there are many places you can park, I love the fact that at work if I need to pump up my tyres there’s a great big foot pump that I can use. I like the fact that we have Doctor Bike coming in regularly.” But Huppert says small things can spoil the experience for cyclists, like the new requirement to use a keycard to leave the building rather than the old button – inconvenient when you’re pushing a bike.
The distinct lack of ‘Boris bikes’ on the Parliamentary Estate does cause some disquiet: the nearest rank is located on Abingdon Green, quite a walk from the main entrance. Labour MP Ian Austin, who co-chairs APPG Cycling, says adding a rank closer to Parliament could allow more visitors to arrive by bike: “The nearest Boris bike stand is miles away. Why can’t we have a Boris bike stand outside Portcullis House or Boris bike stands coming through the gate into Parliament itself?” he says. “If we had our own Boris bike stand, people who are visiting Parliament could cycle.”
Huppert says hire bikes would be “nice to have”, but aren’t crucial. “If you’re going to do a route regularly it’s more sensible to have your own bike,” he explains; the general feeling around Parliament seems to be that the cycling facilities for people bringing their own bikes are at least decent.
Outside Parliament, though, Westminster City Council’s offering to people on bikes gets more mixed reviews. LCC’s Mike Cavenett is particularly critical of the council: “Westminster is not doing a brilliant job. I think if there was a league table of councils, Westminster would be worried about relegation. They’re right at the bottom,” he says.
Danny Williams, a member of the Mayor’s roads taskforce who runs the popular Cyclists in the City blog, isn’t keen either: “Westminster is by far the most regressive borough in inner London when it comes to cycling. There is not a single safe bike route through central London: all the bike route maps come to a halt when you enter central Westminster,” he says.
Austin notes that “there’s a Cycle Superhighway that comes along the Embankment and then just stops when it gets past Milbank tower and Lambeth Bridge… it just stops.” Boroughs control about 90% of London’s roads, with TfL only in charge of certain main routes, so cooperation is essential for a city-wide policy.
Indeed, neighbouring local authority the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea complained in April 2012 that Westminster’s car-focused city management policy ”would inevitably produce additional traffic congestion within Central London including the Royal Borough”. Cavenett summaries concerns about the council, which controls the largest chunk of central London of any local authority: “Westminster doesn’t just affect Westminster, it affects people from all over Greater London; people from all over the country, all over the world cycle in Westminster.”
Westminster’s poor provision for bikes shows why consistent cycle infrastructure standards are needed across London, says Williams: “At the moment, each borough makes up its own standards. You cycle on a really busy, safe and segregated bike path through Camden. As soon as you enter Westminster, the bike path turns into spaces for car parking and you’re on your own.”
APPG Cycling’s ‘Get Britain Cycling’ report is clear on what those standards need to be to keep people on bikes safe: busy roads need cycle lanes protected from motor traffic by physical kerbs or barriers – so called ‘Dutch style’ because of their prevalence in the Netherlands – while quieter roads should have 20mph speed limits and traffic calming measures.
The kind of segregated lanes being proposed also benefit people travelling in cars, says Sarah Wollaston, because they get cyclists out of drivers’ hair and allow the two modes of transport to “live with each other much more comfortably”. On paper, the Mayor’s ‘Vision for Cycling’ document, released this year, commits to introduce more of this kind of provision.
Westminster’s City Commissioner for Transportation, Martin Low, argues that the city presents unique challenges when it comes to cycling. “It’s extremely difficult in Westminster to try and cater for the needs of all road users, so a balance has to be struck,” he tells The House. Low cites “a huge amount of kerbside activity” – in particular hotel taxis and business deliveries – as one of the main things standing in the way of widespread cycle lane provision.
Low does seem to think changes need to be made to the way Westminster provides for cyclists. The council is welcoming the Mayor’s proposed new east-west route – sold as ‘Crossrail for bikes’ – which runs down Victoria Embankment and right past the Palace of Westminster, through Parliament Square, and up Constitution Hill. It has also used its new cycling strategy to lay out its initial thoughts on how it might make a contribution to the Mayor’s 300km central London ‘bike grid’, another pillar of his ‘Vision for Cycling’ plan.
Low also tells The House that the council is in the early stages of working with TfL to re-vamp Parliament Square, and says the council may create more bike lanes, feeding off the Mayor’s new east-west route (see map). Segregating the lanes with kerbs would be possible, he says, because Parliament Square has plenty of space – but whether it makes it onto the final designs is yet to be determined. “There are peers and MPs who need to get quickly to the House to vote; not all of them are cycling or walking there, some of them are driving there,” he explains – aspects of the plan for new lanes could require removing a general traffic lane and thus possibly inconvenience people traveling in cars.
Low says he would welcome feedback from MPs and peers on the plan for the square, as well as wider suggestions about where the central London bike grid should go, and which parts of Westminster could do with more cycle parking.
At least on paper, the Council seems to making some effort to comply with the Mayor’s ‘Vision for Cycling’: If that plan were fully implemented, London would be a “significantly better place to cycle”, says Mike Cavenett. “That’s not happened: we recognise it’s going to take time. But that vision, from a policy point of view is a very strong document.” Julian Huppert shows a similar cautious optimism: “I think the Mayor’s vision is very good, we need to make sure it’s delivered and actually becomes reality. There’s more to do, and there will always be more to do, but it’s good to see that there is some real drive.”
Ultimately, only the coming months and years will tell whether planned improvements make the jump from blueprints to concrete. Until that happens, Westminster’s cyclists would do well to follow Boris Johnson’s advice on riding around some of the capital’s nastier roads: “Keep your wits about you”.
Two and half years ago when I started researching and writing a book on the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland, certain friends advised against it. By the time it was published wouldn’t the RBS disaster have been resolved? Surely the bank’s reprivatisation would have begun and the Government would be getting ready to spend the proceeds on a pre-election tax cut or on reducing the deficit? By now RBS was supposed to be well and truly sorted.
Five years on from the financial crisis – and a couple of months after my book appeared in the autumn – RBS is still anything but sorted. In recent weeks the state-owned institution has been in further serious trouble.
A recent report by an advisor to the Business Secretary contained allegations that the bank has been pushing healthy business customers into bankruptcy so that it could then swallow up their assets at bargain basement prices. (These claims are denied by RBS). But then the bank’s computer system froze – again – leaving many customers unable to access their accounts. Within 48 hours of that IT meltdown, news broke that RBS was one of a group of banks being hit with giant fines for rate-rigging.
To the horror of the Treasury, RBS is the story that simply keeps on going. The Chancellor had hoped that the appointment in August of Ross McEwan, the new chief executive, would mean a fresh start at the bank. George Osborne elbowed aside the previous CEO, Stephen Hester.
For MPs who take an interest, the continuing difficulties at RBS are of deep concern. In the light of the latest problems, several MPs have asked me whether it is too late to push for a public inquiry into the causes of the collapse of the bank and the difficulties since then. Indeed, it seems quite incredible that there was no such inquiry in the immediate aftermath of what was Britain’s biggest ever corporate disaster. How are lessons to be learnt if there is not a proper examination of what went wrong?
In part it was that omission which prompted me to write a book on the subject, along with wanting to explore an incredible human story of hubris with Fred Goodwin at its heart.
By 2008 RBS under Goodwin had grown to be the biggest bank in the world. When it collapsed in October 2008 the government had to spend a fortune rescuing it on behalf of the taxpayer. That cost us £45.2bn alone to recapitalise RBS, leaving us with 82% of the shares. Hundreds of billions more were needed in emergency lending designed to keep the rest of the banking system alive.
Following these traumatic events, the government at the time was keen to avoid a public inquiry, perhaps because it would lead to awkward questions about its complicity in the banking boom. There was a report by the now defunct Financial Services Authority. While it contained interesting information it was not the whole story.
But actually, more broadly, there is some good news. Although there was no public inquiry into the British-end of the financial crisis, MPs and peers have tried to fill the vacuum. In particular, the work done under Andrew Tyrie, both in the Parliamentary Banking Commission and in the Treasury Select Committee, has been very impressive.
Perhaps we have become needlessly addicted in this country to the idea that everything must eventually have its own judge-led inquiry, with expensive teams of lawyers, when the select committee system properly run can do as good a job if not better.
Of course, there are some MPs who cannot resist ridiculous showboating when they have a big name banker in front of them and the television cameras are there. But others have clearly worked hard at understanding the complexities and have developed the skills required to cross examine financiers summoned to explain themselves to Parliament.
With British banking far from fixed, those are skills MPs are going to need a lot in the years ahead.
As the deadline for lifting temporary restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian workers in the United Kingdom approaches, pressure from some MPs and sections of the popular press is mounting on David Cameron to defy EU legislation and extend the restrictions beyond January 2014.
The scare stories which accompany this debate are depressingly familiar and the rhetoric is typically hostile; ‘gangsters’ will ‘flood’ into Britain, apparently, as part of the ‘Romanian invasion’.
So what of this impending Romanian invasion? The scaremongering sections of the British media claim that ‘loopholes’ in the current restrictions have already allowed Romanians to live and work in the UK with relative ease. In other words, the ‘floodgates’ (to reference another attempt to link migration with disaster and catastrophe) are already open. But the real invasion, we are told, is yet to come.
In reality of course, many Romanians have already chosen to settle elsewhere – alongside their British counterparts in Spain, for example – and recent polls show that only a very small proportion of the Romanians who declare an intention to migrate in 2014 plan to go to the UK – they would much rather choose Germany, Italy or France.
Unsubstantiated fears of an invasion are matched by misconceptions about what immigrants do when they arrive. Far from draining state budgets by claiming benefits and using the health service, the vast majority of migrants of working age are employed in their country of residence.
Moreover, those who migrate to the UK from Romania are not travelling far from home to fill up doctors’ waiting rooms in a foreign country – most of them are young, healthy people who contribute to a social security system they may never even use.
The real threat in 2014 comes not from employed Romanian migrants who pay taxes and don’t need the health service, but from the hatred stirred up by certain parts of the popular press which prefer to play on peoples’ fears rather than encourage rational debate. Apparently, prejudice about foreigners helps sells newspapers, and reinforcing this prejudice is the modus operandi favoured by certain publications – some of which are, ironically, foreign-owned themselves.
The fuelling of xenophobic fear, spiced up with apocalyptic terminology that conflates migration with conflict and disaster, isn’t just factually inaccurate, it is irresponsible and dangerous. It fosters a deeply divisive, and, at times, hysterical debate which risks handing a victory to the extremist political parties which embody such rhetoric in their policies.
These parties defend their own narrow definitions of national identity and an intolerance of anything or anyone who doesn’t fit into those conceptions, and a European parliament ‘invaded’ by such parties in 2014 could signal a return to a kind of politics in Europe which most of us would surely prefer to leave in the past. Romania’s national day is 1 December.
The most welcome congratulatory message from London would be a firm governmental appeal to British politicians and the press to cease xenophobic attacks and respect Romanians, as well as EU laws.
This article first appeared in the December 2 edition of The Parliament Magazine
Daciana Sârbu is a Romanian MEP and sits on the European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee