Strike or no strike, the Mayor of London needs more power

Greater fiscal freedom would allow the mayor to champion properly the interests of hard-pressed commuters and be held accountable for delivery.

This week, hundreds of thousands of Londoners and commuters in the rest of the South East battled strikes and main line signal failures to get to work. With considerable grit and determination many of them succeeded. It’s fair to say that George Osborne’s Christmas gift to restrict regulated fare rises is already no more than a distant memory. But on a day when the mayor could be seen to be standing up for Londoners, it is worth reflecting how limited his powers really are. Take the chancellor’s announcement as an example. TfL bosses were understandably caught off-side by the treasury’s surprise decision to limit fare rises to RPI. This forced the mayor to rework his fares in order to balance the books. The late announcement, combined with the labyrinthine system of revenue settlement, meant that new prices were delayed by weeks.  This gave some season ticket holders a rare windfall but may have cost millions at the farebox.

The stifling complexity and lack of flexibility in the system goes back to regulations put in place at the time of rail privatisation. This included a requirement in law to have a fare structure shackled to many separate train companies taking revenue risk. For certain ticket types, such as the ever-popular London Travelcard, this means that TfL and private rail operators in the south east are financially tied at the ankle – by the Chancellor of the Exchequer no less.

There is nothing wrong in regulating fares where users have limited choice. Many suburban passengers will have welcomed George Osborne’s announcement with open arms and wish that he’d gone further. But surely it would make more sense and be far better if Londoners and their home county neighbours determined how commuter rail services are provided and what they cost to use.

The present system is a reflection of over-centralised control of London’s public services and undoubtedly those of England’s other city regions. As the independent London Finance Commission pointed out last year, the present Mayor for London (and his predecessor Ken Livingstone) has just a fraction of the revenue-raising powers that his opposite numbers in other world cities enjoy. Remarkably, only seven per cent of London’s tax base is determined by the representatives elected to spend it. New York’s figure is about seven times higher than this. Other world cities enjoy much greater fiscal freedom than London, which in turn leads to greater accountability and creates a real incentive for growth and public investment.

The success London has seen in getting London Overground, DLR extensions and Crossrail underway is testament to the effectiveness of city politicians. Across the political spectrum, the mayor and boroughs have demonstrated consistently that they are capable of delivering tangible improvements to our urban infrastructure. A natural next step is handing over greater fiscal power and control for large chunks of the commuter railway. Doing so would boost city government. It would allow the mayor to champion properly the interests of hard-pressed commuters and be held accountable for delivery. Even on a no-strike day.

London mayor Boris Johnson on a visit to Hong Kong in 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alexander Jan is a consultant at Arup.

Photo: Getty Images
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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.