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.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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