SEBRA column for Autumn 2020 (100th edition)

As we enter a second lockdown in the capital, it is crucial that we all closely follow the new and stricter rules, so we can contain the virus as swiftly as possible.

Frustratingly, we have lost our grip on the pandemic in recent months and this has been underpinned by the Government’s hesitation to implement an early circuit breaker and their generally shambolic handing of the Test and Trace system. 

It is abundantly clear that Ministers must now hand over some parts of the system for local authorities to run, as they know their communities a lot better than largely unaccountable private contractors ever could.

Let us not forget what the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been advising since the beginning of the year, ‘test, test and test’. 

TfL finances 

During the first lockdown, TfL lost 90% of it fares revenue and as we go into another lockdown period, it continues to face a financial cliff-edge. 

Compared to other transport authorities across the world, TfL is unique in that it mostly reliant on fares income. This is because in 2018, the Government took away the £700 million annual operating grant that it gave to TfL.

Despite this, before the pandemic struck, Mayor Sadiq Khan managed to reduce TfL’s £1.5 billion operating deficit by 71%. TfL’s cash balances also saw an increase of 13%.

Londoners did the right thing during lockdown and stayed away from public transport where possible. There is no doubt they will do the same in the weeks ahead.

In light of this, TfL have been clear with Ministers on the need for the Government to step in and provide a long-term and sustainable emergency funding package to make up for their lost revenue.

It was positive to see the Government drop the worst of the proposals they put forward during the latest round of negotiations. This is down to the campaigning efforts of City Hall, charities, business leaders and ordinary Londoners.

However, ahead of the current emergency funding settlement running dry again in March, we must continue keep the pressure on Ministers, so they do not put punitive conditions back on the table, such as the extension of the congestion charge zone and the removal of free travel for under-18s and older Londoners.

A key question to ask is why is the Government treating TfL differently from the failing private train operators it gave an 18-month blank cheque to?

After all, London’s economic recovery relies on stable and well-funded public transport. The country’s recovery depends on London’s. 

Crossrail & Bakerloo line 

I have been hearing about Crossrail since my school days in Paddington in the early eighties and l can well remember when Cecil Parkinson MP made the announcement for its launch. So, it is frustrating to hear it is not going to be operational until 2022.  This could have implications for the opening date of the new Bakerloo Line entrance into Paddington station being led by the developers of Paddington Square. 

As for the Bakerloo Line itself, it has been disappointing to hear that is extension into South London has been delayed due to the financial difficulties TfL is facing at the hands of the pandemic. 

This is why TfL and the Mayor have been forthright about the need for a long-term funding deal from the Government. Otherwise, key transport infrastructure projects, crucial to job creation and London’s economic recovery, will be put at risk.

In the meantime, we do need the carriages on the line replaced. Many of them are almost as old as l am and do not have modern facilities like air conditioning. l will continue to raise this with TfL, making sure the issue is not forgotten. 

Who knows whether the new Paddington tube station for the Bakerloo line will be open before Crossrail?

Cladding Scandal & Rough Sleeping

Whilst the victims’ families seek justice at the Grenfell Inquiry on Bishop Bridge Rd, W2, we are also in the midst of a wider cladding scandal across London. This is causing a significant amount of stress and discomfort to many Londoners as many can’t move or re-mortgage their properties, with annual insurance bills hitting the roof.

A case in point in Paddington is the M&M Buildings on Hermitage St, where the residents discovered they had ACM panelling and were landed with full liability for the remedial works by their freeholder. This will cost residents £40,000 per flat, leading to huge annual building insurance premiums.

Whilst they will now receive some remediation grants from the Government, the whole sorry saga does shed light on the nature of the relationship between leaseholders and freeholders in England. This all makes a very argument for common hold like they have in Scotland. 

The latest figures show that there was a slight decrease in rough sleeping in Westminster during the summer months, when compared to the previous year. This could be largely attributed to the ‘Everyone In’ campaign, which was backed by Government funding, in which City Hall worked with local authorities and homelessness charities to bring almost 1,700 rough sleepers into hotels and other safe accommodation to self-isolate.

We can’t afford to be complacent and now need to see Ministers agree to urgently put in more funding to support another round of this campaign to last beyond Christmas.

With winter coming and the arrival of the second lockdown, we also need to be aware of the facilities available to homeless people, particularly when communal sleeping areas might be unsafe. It is in this context, that l have suggested that whilst Paddington Green Police station lies empty, it could be converted into a temporary hostel before it gets knocked down to make way for a residential development. 

The West End economy 

You will all have heard and seen first-hand the dramatic impact the first lockdown had on the West End and particularly the hospitality industry. I have been keeping in touch with small and medium-sized enterprises like Normah’s Malaysian restaurant in Queensway Market to hear about the challenges they are facing. 

It is apparent that a number of firms have missed out on Government funding and support in Central London, due to conditions surrounding rateable value thresholds. Normah’s have also told me about the confusion they have experienced with the Government’s grant systems. 

In recent months, I have implored the Government to find a way to support the small businesses who are still falling through the gaps. 

It has been positive to see the Chancellor recently refine components of his Winter Economic Plan and extend the furlough scheme until March, responding to some of the concerns raised by the business community. 

However, while these changes are welcome, we have already seen a large number of jobs unnecessarily lost in the capital due to the Government’s previous missteps and failure to act early on.

In addition to the measures recently announced, we need to see the Government boosting sick pay, raising the cap on UC, increasing housing benefit and getting self-isolation payments to low income Londoners.