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10 July 2020

Why it’s wrong to cast public transport as a London issue

To do so ignores the crucial economic importance of buses and trains – and the capital itself.

By Stephen Bush

The United Kingdom’s reopening continues. Scots are able to meet indoors with people from two other households from today, while in England a host of further reopenings, including indoor gyms and outdoor theatres, are to be allowed from next week, while in Wales restrictions on travel within the country are set to be eased from Monday (13 July).

But two major restrictions remain in place across the United Kingdom – the stipulations that people avoid public transport, and continue to work from home where able.

The Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden airily dismissed the concerns over public transport as a London issue at the government press conference yesterday, claiming that “the vast majority of people use cars” for transport across the UK. But of course, it isn’t solely a London issue – just ask the former employees of the John Lewis stores in Birmingham, Tamworth, Swindon and Newbury that were closed yesterday, or the people who work in Boots, Burger King and other retail chains that are closing premises in towns and cities across the country. Research in 2013 found that 40 per cent of journeys to high streets are by bus, while 30 per cent are by car.

Dowden’s response also ignored the fact that London is responsible for a quarter to a third of the United Kingdom’s GDP (depending on whether you count London as the built-up urban area or merely the political unit over which Sadiq Khan has mastery), while cities in general are the engines of our economic growth.

[see also: Transport for London is in crisis but the Conservatives have no right to blame Sadiq Khan]

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You can think that it is unhealthy for our economy to be so dependent on London, and that it is unhealthy for growth in this country to depend so heavily on consumption. As it happens, I agree with both those opinions. But this does not change the fact that our economy is at present heavily reliant on both of those things, and if your recovery plan doesn’t include boosting either then it has a few holes in it.

[see also: Why Rishi Sunak’s stimulus package is unlikely to prove a cure for the UK’s economic woes]

There are good medical reasons to discourage a return to pre-crisis methods of working, and some companies have found home working works sufficiently well that they may never return to office life and working.

That underlines two truths of the present moment: that you can’t have an economic recovery without people having faith that the health crisis has been solved, and that some of the economic changes caused by this crisis will be permanent. Both of these truths demand serious, detailed responses, and neither can be dismissed as simply a London issue.

[see also: Britons are still staying at home because they don’t trust the government over Covid-19]