The palace coup at Transport for London which resulted in the angry departure of Bob Kiley threw a light on the internal workings of that mammoth organisation and raises important questions about its future.
In many respects, Kiley had outlived his usefulness. There is no doubt he has served Ken Livingstone, and indeed London, well, Melding together the disparate parts of London’s transport ranging from the Underground and buses to taxis and traffic lights, could have defeated a lesser man. The fact that Transport for London attracts so little criticism, despite areas of controversy like the congestion charge and the massive spending on buses, is testimony to Kiley’s skills. Massive projects IT projects such as the implementation of the congestion charge and the introduction of Oyster card have proceeded without any of the chaos that has attended similar projects at national level.
Kiley may have lost the battle over the Public Private Partnership for the Underground but in essence he won the war since TfL is being allowed to raise the staggering sum of £2.9bn to fund a whole series of transport projects such as the East London line and the new bridge over the Thames, precisely the kind of freedom Ken and Kiley had wanted over Tube.
Above all, Kiley was the consummate political animal who taught Ken how to be mayor. Kiley had been deputy mayor of Boston and showed Livingstone how to be both a figurehead and get things done. Livingstone’s relative easy re-election last year was testimony to Kiley’s ability to pass on his skills at what was a unique and novel job in the British political context..
However, Kiley has come at a price. His near £600,000 salary and bonus added to free board in the modest £2m town house near Sloane Square may have been required to attract his man from New York. Moreover, did Livingstone really need to raise his salary further and add a few perks after his re-election? It would have been easy for the Mayor to let Kiley go, especially as he was not in the best of heath. Instead, Livingstone, ever ready to spend Londoners’ cash, repaid Kiley who loves the London highlife, as does, even more, his wife, gratitude with extra dosh and goodies.
Livingstone has shown his loyalty to the end. Alllowing Kiley to remain in the house for a further three years, and guaranteeing him an income from ‘consultancy’ is generous to a fault with our money and, rightly, will lead to tough questioning by the London Assembly whose main role is to scrutinise the Mayor’s activities.
All the baubles were supposedly necessary to bring Kiley over to London but Livingstone may have overpaid his man from the start. Kiley’s critics – and there are quite a few – suggest that he was 65 and in a minor job with a regeneration project when he was brought to London by Livingstone. They argue that he was already past his best by the time he crossed the Atlantic having peaked when he ran the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority in the 1980s.
Kiley’s least attractive feature was his habit of playing hardball which frequently failed to win friends and influence people. He got through communication chiefs as quickly as Gordon Ramsay dismisses a dud chef, and other senior staff were all too often at the wrong end of the ex CIA man’s temper. ‘He was never easy,’ said one, ‘and he rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way. And woe betide anyone who crossed him.’
That was to be his undoing. It was to Kiley’s credit that he built up a very strong team around him, but the trouble with good people is that they are ambitious. Talented princes always aspire to the throne. The most disruptive was the finance chief, Jay Walder, a fellow American whose sober and serious demeanour was in marked contrast to the character of the urbane high living and sometimes short-tempered Kiley. Walder started making it clear to all and sundry that he wanted the top job and he appeared to be systematically undermining his boss through a series of clashes with Kiley over a range of policy and personnel matters. In the past few months, the scale of the rows escalated to the extent that Kiley went to Livingstone and said: ‘Either he goes or I do’. He got the wrong answer.
It was a sign, perhaps, that the American’s political antennae were no longer so finely attuned. If he had paused a moment, he might have been realised that Livingstone’s choice was hardly surprising. Kiley had used up much of his political capital through his increasing truculence and Walder’s position was rather stronger than Kiley realised. Livingstone baulked at losing the finance chief who had convinced Gordon Brown to allow TfL to borrow nearly £3bn while Kiley’s job appeared to be done. Moreover, as one key insider put it, ‘It was a no brainer, since it was a choice between a seventy year old and a fifty year old. Ken is looking to the future.’ Kiley promptly went off for a week’s Thanksgiving holiday in the US, allowing Livingstone to announce the departure in his absence.
Now two of the others brought in by Kiley to run key parts of TfL are also contenders for the top job: Peter Hendy who is in charge of streets and buses, and has recently been made chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport by Alistair Darling, and Tim O’Toole, the American railwayman who was greatly admired for his leadership in the wake of the July 7 bombings.
The task facing Kiley’s successor is very different, which is why Livingstone will not be too happy at his Commissioner’s demise. TfL’s future, in an echo of national government priorities, is about delivery, and no longer about working out policy and lobbying central government.
The Olympics, too, is all about delivery. Again, Kiley did well to allay fears during the bidding process that transport would be a big problem but now his successor will have to show that this was not mere bravado.
Nor will there be any new money available. TfL managed to win over Brown to its big spending plans and to create a new source of revenue with the congestion charge. Now Brown has made clear that the Spending Review is to be tough and transport is nowhere near the top of his priorities. Even if the controversial plan to extend the congestion charge to Kensington & Chelsea goes ahead, it will bring in very little extra cash. Moreover, TfL has frequently looked rather profligate employing too many middle ranking executives at salaries of six figures and been ready to throw money at problems in the way that councils did in the ‘bad old days’ of the 1980s.
Therefore, more financial discipline is called for, not something about which Kiley bothered about much. Kiley’s departure may have been smoothed with lots of lolly for so-called ‘consultancy’ services, but it is unlikely that his successor will call upon them.
Christian Wolmar is the author of On the Wrong Line, how ideology and incompetence wrecked Britain’s railways, published by Aurum.