London transport funding agreed – for now

By Jeff Slee

The government has climbed down, for now, over funding for London’s transport system. On SundayNovember 1st it agreed to provide up toan additional £1.8bn funding to Transport for London (TfL) for the next six months. So a potential conflict between the government and London Transport workers has been deferred until next spring. London Mayor Sadiq Khan and TfL had asked for another £4.9billion to cover them for a further 18 months, to cover TfL’s losses in fares revenue due to the huge fall in public transport use since the Covid outbreak.

The government has demanded cuts of £160m for this funding. TfL boss Andy Byford has assured unions that there will not be cuts in jobs, pay, or conditions for TfL staff as a result of this deal.

And Sadiq Khan has to bring forward long-term funding proposals for TfL by January 11th.

RMT has told its TfL members that we will use the time to continue preparations for a possible fight to defend jobs, pay and conditions, and pensions next year, if the government demands cuts in return for further funding. Sadiq Khan and London Labour should use the time to prepare Londoners for a possible fight against the government to defend public transport in London. This could come at the same time as the elections for London Mayor and the Greater London Assembly, scheduled for May 2021.

London is the only major city in Western Europe whose public transport system gets no funding from central government, after the Tory government cut funding to zero a few years ago.  Until early this year, TfL coped with this thanks to revenue from growing public transport use – nearly 80% of Transport for London’s income comes from fares.

Last month, the government wanted to impose conditions for any funding, including extending the Congestion Charge Zone to the North and South circular roads, thus increasing its size 18-fold; removing travel concessions for under 18s and older people; imposing driverless trains;  and attacks on workers’ pension schemes. When the Mayor refused to accept the government’s conditions, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps threatened to seize control of TfL and run it from Whitehall. The threat remains that these and other cuts will be imposed in the New Year.

The government and right-wing commentators accused Mayor Khan of needing the funding because of “mismanagement” of TfL. Khan, who until now has not made a big issue of government funding, at last came out fighting. He rejected the government’s proposed conditions for extra funding; called Johnson “a liar” over accusations of mismanagement; and threatened to invoke Section 114, a process for public authorities that is the equivalent of a company going bust. That in turn would have meant huge cuts and the withdrawal of many TfL services. Section 114 notices are extremely rare and have only occurred at one public authority — Northamptonshire county council — in the last 20 years.

But the threat remains of conflict in the New Year, when TfL will need further funding. The Tories may want a showdown then, and could use it to try and get Khan defeated in the May 2021 London elections. In that event, we need a co-ordinated fightback by all unions representing TfL workers – RMT, ASLEF, and TSSA on the Tube and Overground Rail, and Unite on the buses. RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said “any threat of cuts will be met by an industrial, political and public campaign of co-ordinated resistance.”

If Khan and London Labour are resolute in standing by TfL workers and public transport in London, then we must stand with them. But given his uninspiring managerial record since being elected Mayor, there is a real possibility that Khan will agree a deal with the government that will include conditions the government wants –attacks on the jobs, pay, and conditions of TfL tube, rail, and bus workers and others. In that case, the unions’ fight will be against the government and against Khan.

Jeff Slee is a  former member of the RMT National Executive Committee

Image: London Routemaster bus. Source: Magnus D, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.