Three weeks after Val Shawcross thought she’d left City Hall for good, the former London Assembly member was back in the building as Sadiq Khan’s deputy mayor for transport, a role which is likely to prove pivotal to the success of his administration.
A year before, she’d disappointed constituents and London’s transport campaigners by announcing she was stepping down as Lambeth and Southwark’s Assembly Member after 16 years of championing their causes.
During that time she’d served as chair of the capital’s fire authority, headed up the Assembly’s transport committee and fought the 2012 Mayoral election as Ken Livingstone’s nominee for Deputy Mayor of London.
When Boris Johnson defeated Livingstone for a second time her ambitions to play a more hands-on role at City Hall were dashed.
The disappointment was obvious and in October 2012 Shawcross started thinking of a career outside City Hall, unsuccessfully standing for selection as Labour’s candidate in the Croydon North parliamentary by-election.
Though she continued to work hard in challenging Johnson during his second term, it wasn’t entirely unexpected when she announced she was quitting City Hall and politics.
“I thought I’d missed my big opportunity,” she tells me as we catch up over coffee in a Waterloo bus garage following the unveiling of London’s new electric single-decker buses.
“I’d worked really, really hard. I’d spent 18 months travelling around London with Ken and knocked on doors on an industrial scale and did a massive amount of public meetings.
“And then I went for my home seat and didn’t get it. I was really gutted actually not to get that.”
“You get to a stage in your career where you have to think ‘is what I’ve done worthwhile?’ And I’m really pleased with what I did on the Assembly and I really was pleased to be chair of the fire authority for eight years.”
With the authority set to be abolished within months, Shawcross will go down as the longest-serving chair in its 17 year history.
Tory successors readily accept her claims to have “completely modernised” the Fire Brigade, one even admiringly pointing out that she ruffled union feathers along the way and suggests transport unions expecting her to be a pushover are in for a nasty shock.
Shawcross says she concluded that her record as an AM, and previously as leader of Croydon Council where she helped deliver the tram, were “pretty good” and that she could move on feeling proud of her achievements.
But to the delight of many London cabbies who believe she’s one of the few politicians to truly understand the challenges facing their trade, transport campaigners and former Assembly colleagues in all parties, London’s new Mayor had other ideas.
During the campaign Khan had pledged to finally end the waste and inefficiencies within Transport for London, with which both of his predecessors had failed to get grips, and use the resulting savings to freeze fares for his full mayoral term.
The intertwined pledges have attracted plenty of sceptical comment but in hiring Shawcross many critics concede Khan has given himself the best possible chance of turning election rhetoric into reality.
Even though she stood in for Khan at a number of campaign hustings, his new transport chief genuinely had no idea a job offer was coming her way.
Months before the election she told me she’d started work on her CV in preparation for job hunting outside the world of politics and says she and her husband had been due to fly off to Germany following the election for a long overdue holiday.
Her ambition of playing any further role in London government was limited to hoping Khan would invite her to join the Transport for London board, instead he rewarded her expertise and passion with a role in which she would have day to day responsibility for delivering his transport reforms.
Her first job was to find new board members to replace the departing Johnson-era appointees. Both she and Khan were determined that their new board should look very different to the former Mayor’s entirely white and mostly male effort.
Shawcross brought in top recruitment specialists Green Park to help assemble a line-up which is 57 per cent female, 29 per cent BAME and on which 13 per cent have a disability.
Inevitably some have questioned whether the board really needs this level of diversity, but Shawcross insists it’s been achieved while still finding “the best, most qualified people” for the job.
“London does have a hugely diverse population of incredibly talented people and we’ve got quite a lot of them signed up.”
She describes reshaping the board as “a bit of labour of love” and says while it took up much of the summer, “it puts us in the driving seat to deliver.”
“We’ve got a huge programme to deliver, it’s about getting it right for the passengers, it’s about getting it right to promote regeneration and housing, it’s about getting it right for the environment, it’s about getting it right financially as well.”
“You do need an army of people who are qualified to help you develop and scrutinise that and I see the TfL board as being a critical part in us delivering the best quality service.”
Shawcross says the successful applicants all view serving on the board “as public service” and, although she doesn’t name any specific Johnson-era appointees, points out that the team she’s built doesn’t include any “old muckers” or “friends owed favours”.
“From the quality of people that applied, I could have filled the board twice over. There are a lot of people we had to disappoint who it breaks my heart to say ‘no’ to.”
Asked whether the new board was less likely to simply say ‘yes’ to the Mayor, a regular criticism made of its Johnson-era counterpart which often seemed to rubber stamp schemes and failed to hold managers publicly accountable for failures, she diplomatically suggests it would “unfair’ to say that was true of all past members but adds “there were too many people there who I didn’t think were adding value”.
By contrast the board Khan unveiled last week “has been crafted to provide scrutiny and challenge on lots of specific areas.”
“We’ve been looking for those questions that we ought to be asking about what we’re trying to do in London, they are the double-check and safety mechanism and also, I hope, a creative force in helping us think through some of the bigger challenges for the future.”
There remains one seat as yet unfilled on the board which has been reserved by the Mayor for a union representative, a move criticised by Conservatives on the Assembly.
Shawcross says the eventual appointee will be a “general representative of the trade union movement, so that there isn’t a conflict of interest, i.e. it isn’t somebody who is representing a particular bit of the workforce.”
“It’s about saying yes, we’re here to serve the passengers and the public and the whole of London but we remember that there are issues around the workforce as well and we want to make sure TfL becomes an exemplary employer as well as an exemplary public transport service.”
She looks sceptical when I ask if the board might engage more directly with Londoners, perhaps by following the example of the BBC Trust which holds its own public consultations to check and confirm the findings of the Executive’s research into big schemes, but does express unhappiness with how the agency engages with fare-payers.
“I think there’s a job to be done scrutinising Transport for London’s stakeholder engagement. I’ve always felt as an Assembly Member that they needed to have more passenger awareness and that their customer services were not always as good as they could be.
“You might get the best technology, but just in terms of the human organisation of what you do and how you do it, whether or not customers are given the runaround or you’re accessible to talk to, how many phone numbers are there?
“All of those simple, thoughtful things you can do to make your work with the passengers and customers better, like around the Night Tube for example, how did they deal with people who have complaints and fears about noise along the track?
“So there’s a job for the board to do challenging TfL to raise its game on all that, not to be a separate identity, not to be a separate organisation but to make sure that the administration itself raises its game”.
Under the former Mayor TfL’s relations with transport unions deteriorated to an all-time low and passengers found themselves disrupted by successive rounds of industrial unrest.
But what’s often not understood is that the proposals Mayors sign off on tend to originate from within City Hall’s various agencies, specifically in TfL’s case the push to axe ticket offices and staffing arrangements for the Night Tube which were presented to Johnson rather than being drawn-up by his political team.
Some union members believe the management are at least as bad as the politicians in failing to understand and consider the impact of their initiatives on workers.
Asked if she believes frontline staff feel sufficiently valued or whether there’s a disconnect between them and head office, she says: “One of the things I notice is there’s an unusually dense layer of management in TfL, there’s about 12 layers between the guy at the top and the most junior person in the organisation.”
“It’s probably more than most public organisations I can think of, and you also notice that the span of control for some of the managers is quite narrow.
“So I think some of the structural stuff, and the senior managers there kind of know this and agree with this, does need modernising a bit.
“And part of that will be about empowering people do their jobs wherever they are within it, because if you’re over managed it’s disempowering.
“You start to think ‘I don’t have to worry too much because there’s going to be 6 people above me checking this’.
“Actually what you want in this day and age is everybody to do their job to maximum responsibility and skill and sense of agency and empowerment and control. In this modern age people are fantastically well educated, we’ve got great technologies, we should be about empowering people.
“So there’s some cultural and structural changes to make over time that will make it a better place to work.”
I ask whether we might see the first signs of this reorganisation in TfL’s upcoming new business plan, “We’ve had to get on quite quickly with looking at middle management, because this is an imperative for the business plan to make sure we are an efficiently run organisation.
“There are a few people who are going on voluntary severance, but that’s not unusual in the public sector. You do need to shape the organisation.”
Whether Shawcross and Khan ultimately close the funding gap on the Mayor’s fares freeze remains to be seen but, no matter if they end up being happy or disappointed with the cost of their daily commute, it’s clear Londoners are finally going to benefit from a much more efficient TfL.
Shawcross is obviously enjoying her new role and the opportunity it presents to deliver changes she called for while in opposition.
In addition to reshaping the board and preparing to scale down the agency, she’s also spent the summer working behind the scenes to address one of her pet peeves while on the Assembly – the lack of transparency in how TfL presents key information.
She tells me the organisation’s constant restating of its baseline between reports, a habit which makes scrutinising its operational and financial performance much harder, has been ended and that data will in future be presented more clearly and consistently.
At a national level Labour is currently giving the impression that attaining power is fairly low down its list of priorities, but my time with Shawcross is a welcome reminder that there remain plenty of grownups within the party who understand being in office is ultimately the only way it can deliver for voters.