A 24-hour Tube service is a great idea - but more can be done to improve London's infrastructure

Improvements to Tube are badly needed. Official projections show London’s population is growing by 2,000 every eight days. Getting more out of our existing infrastructure is essential to keeping London competitive and keeping its economy thriving.

In an open letter to passengers, the mayor and Transport for London have committed themselves to a 24-hour Tube service. It’s an exciting announcement, and will undoubtedly deliver a boost to London’s £8bn a year dining and entertainment industry. But there are wider implications for the capital.

For decades, the Underground has run New Year’s Eve “all-nighters”, but the plan almost certainly means that regular all-night running will happen for the first time ever. Initially limited to five lines, and beginning in 2015, Friday and Saturday operations could grow to cover more of the network and eventually Thursday nights.

The changes would do more than make life easier for revellers, however. They would mark a dramatic achievement for City Hall and Tube bosses. For decades, central government and then the first mayor wrestled with unions, engineers and complex public-private partnership contracts to get all-night running on the network. A host of reasons were lined up to say why this was not possible or unaffordable. Then came the Olympics.

London’s transport system worked efficiently to deliver record volumes of passengers, and the Tube ran longer and started earlier. Londoners seized on these achievements. What if the energy of the Olympics could be harnessed for delivering public services for London on a regular basis?

Improvements to Tube service are certainly pressing. Official projections show London’s population is growing by 2,000 every eight days. Over the next ten years or so, the city’s headcount will grow by a number equivalent to the population of Birmingham. Getting more out of our existing infrastructure is essential to keeping London competitive and keeping its economy thriving. It will help us compete in a global race with cities like Berlin, Paris and New York.

But to keep up with demand, city leaders should go further. Mayoral control over suburban rail, quiet out-of-hours deliveries, improved shopping streets, diesel-free taxis and further improvements for cyclists are a few ideas that come to mind. Running bus and Tube services on Christmas Day is another. No other multicultural world city shuts its transport system down the way London does.

Delivering these initiatives will require investment and control by local politicians. Permitting the mayor and London’s councils to keep a greater proportion of the capital’s taxes would allow more projects to be funded and services to be improved. Londoners would be able to enjoy the benefits that growth brings, and authorities would have the resources to deal with more of the pressures.

Alongside congestion charges, the cycle hire scheme and delivering the Olympics, a 24-hour Tube is a testament to London devolution. Ministers should now go further and be bold with city finance reform. As the London Finance Commission recommended, Whitehall should let Londoners and their leaders have more financial freedom to improve the capital's fabric. We may then see more of the improvements vital for a thriving city, that increasingly doesn’t want to sleep.

London's population is growing by 2,000 people every 8 days. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alexander Jan is a consultant at Arup.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt