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.