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London

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:13 pm on 28th April 2004.

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Photo of Lord Chalfont Lord Chalfont Crossbench 4:13 pm, 28th April 2004

My Lords, in the course of my long life I have lived in most of the great capital cities of the world: Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Beijing and, of course, New York, which is a capital city in all but name. But for the past 40 years I have lived in the centre of London and I have a strong impression—this is entirely anecdotal, because I have not studied the matter closely in any of the other cities—that the administration, or governance, of London is still the most fragmented and incomprehensible of them all. Involved in the administration of London, in more or less degree, are central government, the Mayor and the Greater London Authority, the Lord Mayor and Corporation in the City, 33 separate boroughs, not to mention the Royal Parks, the Highways Authority and even the Arts Council. That is, of course, a recipe for chaos and, to some extent, chaos is what has emerged.

As London First, whose distinguished president, the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, so authoritatively introduced this debate—I congratulate him not only on introducing the debate but on his leadership of London First—stated in its report, Who is responsible for London?, the main threat to London's status as a great world capital comes from within. It cites:

"failing public services, unaffordable housing and overcrowded and unreliable transport".

Some of that is obvious to anyone who walks, as I do, to the Palace of Westminster every day and sees uncollected rubbish, the litter left by street sleepers, overflowing storm drains and, of course, the unmistakable signature of contemporary culture—chewing-gum on the streets.

It is true that some of that is already being tackled. Although I am not by nature a devolutionist—in fact, I think that we have already gone much too far in that direction in the United Kingdom—a great deal has been achieved, or at least promised, in the first years of an elected Mayor and a London-wide authority. Yet there is still a great deal to be done.

To be brief, I intend to concentrate on the effect of fragmented governance on the transport system in London. Much of that is being addressed in the Moses Room as the Transport Management Bill goes through Grand Committee. It is clear from the debate there that to cope with its unique transport problems, London needs a simpler, clearer and more effective governance.

It is true that, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, the existing congestion charging system has had its impact on the volume of traffic in central London. But that is only in central London. Elsewhere in the capital, congestion has been increasing and journey times lengthening. Much of the solution to all that is in the hands of Transport for London and its commissioner, Robert Kiley. A short while ago, together with other noble Lords, I visited the control centre of Transport for London, not far from here. From that centre, TfL controls much of London's traffic, including the 4,800 sets of traffic lights in the capital.

The current performance of TfL is undoubtedly impressive, as are its plans for the future of London's transport. Yet it is worth remembering that TfL itself forecasts that by 2016, the population of London will have increased by 800,000—the size of another large city. In the past four years, the share of travel by public transport has increased by 4 per cent. But 800,000 more people means an additional 2 million passenger journeys a day. The figures just do not add up.

The Government, it is true, have shown signs of recognising the importance of investment in London's transport system, but neither investment alone nor transfer—that is, the move from private to public transport—will resolve the problem on their own. The present division of responsibility among central government, the mayor and the boroughs is just not capable of delivering the transport system essential to a great, world-class capital—especially the greatest capital in the world.

Where else would you find a situation in which the decision, for obvious environmental reasons, to ban the use of heavy goods vehicles at night is the subject of discussion in a committee of 33 boroughs? Where else would a situation be allowed to arise in which a major road—in this case, the A2—through a capital, collapses and its repair is delayed because the boroughs on the two sides of the highway cannot agree on the working hours for the repair gang? That is not an imaginary scenario; it has actually happened in London.

I do not know the answers to those problems, but they must be solved, especially if there is any prospect of London accommodating with any success the Olympic Games in 2012. Many well-meaning people are proposing incremental solutions, such as the excellent idea of the creation of a London commuter rail service that would integrate suburban rail services with the bus network and the underground railway. Some would increase the power of the Mayor of London; others say, "Over my dead body".

This is not a local problem; it is a national one—in some ways, international. Our capital city, despite its shortcomings, is in some ways the financial and cultural capital of the world. If it is to retain that status, it needs consistency in administration, not only in transport, on which I have concentrated, but in such areas as education of the workforce, public services, policing and forward planning. That is a matter for central government; as the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, said, it is not a party matter. The Government began the process of devolution in London; now they must make it work.