The other Olympics

Moving London during the games.

The Olympic and Paralympic legacy may largely be about venues and medals.  But there will be a transport legacy that could change the way we run our infrastructure for years to come says Alexander Jan of Arup.

Day six of the Thirtieth Olympiad. The newspapers were at last able to report Team GB winning some well deserved gold medals. The biggest upset has been an outbreak of shuttlecock shenanigans.   Sporting venues have won much acclaim from competitors and spectators.  It is gratifying for engineers, planners, designers (and the odd economist) when athletes start smashing world records in the buildings they have helped to make happen.   Transport setbacks have largely failed to materialise.  The debate over the games’ legacy has taken a back seat to the event itself.  But in the heat of the competition, the transformation to transport in and around the capital and longer term implications is perhaps worthy of some consideration.

An unscientific analysis suggests there have been at least a dozen changes to the way London works and moves.   Priority lanes have been painted on miles of the busiest roads.  Traffic flows have been reversed.  Pedestrian crossings have been closed off and others have sprung up. Parking restrictions have been radically changed.  Variable messaging has been used to allow cars to use bus lanes and – even more pragmatically - Olympic lanes when they’re not busy. London’s traffic lights have been reprogrammed to create ‘green waves’ to and from games venues.  Buses in the West End have been radically rerouted. Swathes of central London deliveries and refuse services are now confined to the small hours of the morning.  The DLR has a new timetable uploaded.  Home working has taken off.  Perhaps most remarkably, the tube is running a whole hour later into the night, throughout the games.

These changes are breathtaking. Policy makers and politicians have been talking about making them happen for decades.  Now they have actually been delivered and not just for an evening or weekend.  Some will run for nearly fifty days.  They’ve been put in place en masse by dozens of authorities, operators and regulators in Europe’s biggest city.  There has been the odd go slow protest and (largely successful) campaigns for Olympic bonuses. But the metropolis is not in the grip of gridlock, strikes or lockdowns.  The demands of special interests have been tackled.  

How has this been achieved?  There are probably three principal reasons.  Firstly, money.  Transport projects account for the best part of a billion pounds of the ODA’s costs.  Another £120-150m sits in the LOCOG operating budget. These sums are equivalent to around a third of TfL’s annual capital expenditure (including Crossrail).   Secondly, there is an immovable deadline for an event in full public gaze coupled to the political fortunes of a mayor and prime minister.  With the world watching, it has been imperative to do all things possible to deliver participants, presidents and spectators on time.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, has been the power and force of the state (an Act of Parliament no less),and a contract that has bound numerous players to an all-powerful Olympic Delivery Authority.

Together, these have transformed how London moves.  If later tubes and smoother traffic can be delivered for the Games, why not for Londoners?   After the closing ceremony, we should expect renewed appetite for taking on inefficient practices and ‘sacred cows’ on the network.   No doubt there a few scores will be settled.  Let us hope our politicians are as determined as Team GB is at winning medals, to delivering an attractive transport legacy for the capital’s commuters.

Alexander Jan is a consultant at Arup.

London Underground. Photograph: Getty Images

Alexander Jan is a consultant at Arup.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.