London’s cable car scheme could be a first step to greater financial autonomy

The cable car scheme should be run to make a profit. Image: TfL
Reaction to the news that construction is about to start on Boris Jonson’s cable car scheme hasn’t been overwhelmingly positive and I’m afraid to say that, not for the first time, the cause of some complaints is Boris’s own past rhetoric.

Until yesterday’s announcement that Transport for London would be putting up the construction costs, Boris had repeatedly assured Londoners that the scheme wouldn’t require any public funds.

So the news that around £50m will have to be found from a transport budget apparently so stretched he had no option but to shove up bus fares for a third year in a row inevitably leaves him looking a little daft.

It’s also right to be concerned that the cost of the scheme is already significantly higher than the £25m figure the Mayor has previously claimed. As others rightly point out, setting even a ‘soft’ deadline for completion of next year’s Olympics risks costs being pushed up further along the way.

With the public purse committed to the project London’s fare payers could find they’ve been asked to sign a blank cheque for the scheme.

Once money is committed and construction starts there’s a risk TfL will find itself with the weaker hand in sponsorship and funding negotiations with the private sector. Wily business types always manage to come out on top in any deal over high profile public schemes backed by politicians about to face the electorate.

Based on City Hall’s past sponsorship deals, should we fear the prospect of the scheme being named after some dreadful door-to-door ‘debt solutions’ provider?

All valid questions noted and accepted, and despite my usual predisposition to cynicism and doubt, there’s actually something about the cable car which excites me – its potential to help regenerate East London and make money for the taxpayer.

The ‘halo effect’ of a successful cable car will help Boris bring investment to his nearby Enterprise Zone. If both schemes are managed properly the entire area could be as much of a destination as the South Bank and the car as popular as the London Eye.

For this to happen TfL and Boris need to be more open about the fact that the cable car is a tourist attraction, not a genuine part of the capital’s public transport network.

If City Hall can bring itself to be honest about this at an early stage it’ll find it easier to ensure the cable car is priced and operated as such – in turn opening the prospect of it making money for the public purse.

We could of course do as detractors suggest (and Boris promised) and leave it to the private sector to build the scheme, but public ownership of a properly managed and profitable tourist venue could give the Mayor additional funds for genuine public transport schemes.

Last year’s Government spending cuts exposed the true shallowness of London’s devolution settlement and dependence on central Government funding. As a city we need greater control over our finances and we have to look beyond the ‘fare box’ and road penalties for our cash.

An attractive, popular and successful publicly owned tourist destination could be the first step in finding new, exciting and innovative ways to fund London’s future.

Comments

  1. says

    I don’t think the comparison to the London Eye is quite possible. I can’t see tourists traipse all the way to Woolwich just for the (dubious) pleasure to cross the river on a cable car with not much of interest to look at, go to or come from…

    While it is probably useful to have an extra crossing point of the river located in this area, I don’t think that a cable car is the right thing.

    Not only will it look silly (But that’s probably only a matter of opinion), I would imagine it is more expensive to build and run than a normal bridge which would allow for more traffic (including motorised) and would not require payment for people to use. A bridge just seems altogether more effective.

    This is obviously just my gut instinct. I have no figures or studies to back it up…

  2. Uli says

    waste of money, people in the Capital are losing jobs every day and spending money irresponsibly can only aggravate the already negative atmosphere created by the government’s cuts (disability support and so on…). We all are going to sponsor this project with our money…same as the bikes scheme; it might break even in 10 years (who is paying for that in the meantime?). In times of recession like this, our money should be spent more responsibly in order to improve/create trust in people and not bitter feelings…mine are very bitter