The Crossrail Project

London’s public transport system is unacceptably poor. For such an important economic, political and cultural global city the continuous problems with its transport infrastructure undermine the capacity of all Londoners, and especially its businesses, to go about their everyday lives with any sort of enthusiasm.

My constituency, sitting as it does in the very centre of London, is affected by virtually all developments in the Capital’s transportation infrastructure. More than 700,000 people travel around the West End and the City of London every day whether to work, rest or play. Yet the huge number of folk relying on public transport is woefully ill-served.

On the table we currently have the prospect of Crossrail, a major development for London, its suburbs and beyond, which would improve links from East to West. Unfortunately in a recent debate here in the House of Commons it became clear that there is much talking still to be done before the prospect of this new state-of-the-art rail system linking towns outside the capital with central London reaches the drawing board let alone implementation.

My great concern is that in 15 years time politicians, financiers and representatives from business will still be debating this issue while London’s enviable position as a global financial and tourist centre stagnates beside other more progressive cities.

Notwithstanding the potential catalogue of disasters suggested by residents from Essex in the east to Hertfordshire and Berkshire, north and west of the Capital, I believe that there has not been enough information about potential disruption and the ongoing blight that would affect many local folk on the route.

For instance in my own constituency many residents around Hanover Square and in the Paddington Station area have expressed grave concerns about the lack of proper consultation on the current Crossrail proposal, which would lead to great disruption to their lives.

In the recent parliamentary debate on the future of the Crossrail project the spectre of the Olympic bid was raised. A commitment to Crossrail investment will, in practical terms, be of key importance to any sensible and successful Olympic bid and clearly, time is running out if the Olympic bid is to be made by July 2005.

The Government has said that Crossrail "needs to be feasible from both operational and engineering points of view, environmentally acceptable and value for money" but the key consideration is how Crossrail will be funded.

It now seems clear that the Treasury will not be willing to provide funding up front and once again Londoners seem to receive a poor return for its continually massive contribution to the public purse. My fear is that we will see negative economic results in the coming decade from this lack of investment.

Now that central government has announced that it will not put up the necessary money, partly as a result of its ruinously expensive botched re-nationalisation of Railtrack (Network Rail), it is clear that a private sector consortium for Crossrail is the only realistic game in town.

Several consortia, comprising for the most part property and construction businesses, have discussed the matter and put forward innovative plans, but there are two key flaws. First, they anticipate that the Government will ultimately be the financial guarantors of last resort. Secondly, there is no proper risk-transfer for this public-private partnership project which makes it less attractive in the future.

I believe one of the potential ways forward on funding is to examine the notion of value capture. There have already been suggestions that a two per cent addition to the business rate could be levied in the vicinity of any new line over the next (say) 20 years enabling the guaranteed flow of future fare income to be used to build the project now.

I have been interested in the ideas presented in the book "Taken for a Ride" by author Don Riley, who also happens to be a Pimlico-based constituent. His simple thesis is that when taxpayers invest in a new transport system many landowners are given accidental windfall fortunes. His argument is therefore that this leakage of publicly created income into private hands explains why railways have not been self-financing. This theory is fairly – if not entirely – persuasive.

Such a thoughtful and innovative solution is needed to be developed and quickly otherwise, whilst politicians argue about public or private funding mechanisms for vital new infrastructure, London’s future prosperity will be severely limited.