Gordon Brown has been largely silent on transport and therefore it is very difficult to assess what he is likely to do once the shortest house move in history has been completed.
Brown’s main achievement – if that’s what you can call it – was to encourage his special adviser, Shriti Vadera, to push through the hugely expensive and cumbersome Public Private Partnership for the London Underground. In return, he did a deal with John Prescott in the early days of the first Blair government to allow the receipts from road pricing to be hypothecated, a measure that has cost the Treasury little since only London has so far introduced a major scheme.
Otherwise, all the signs are that Brown has little interest in transport, especially in big expensive schemes. The Ten Year transport plan published in 2000, for example, promised that by 2010 there would be ‘up to 25 new light rail schemes in major cities and conurbations’ (there will have been just one, in Nottingham and a couple of extensions to the Docklands Light Railway), ‘completion of Thameslink 2000’ (still no firm go-ahead) and ‘a major East-West rail link, such as Crossrail’ (ditto). Many of those schemes have been kept on the drawing board by the Treasury’s ever rigid interpretation of its rules, its requirement for massive contingency funds and its apparent favouring of road projects, as witnessed by the apparently unpunished overspending in the road budget highlighted by the recent National Audit Office report.
Brown, too, put a stop to the extra investment that the late Sir Alistair Morton, wanted to channel through train operators when he was head of the Strategic Rail Authority, because the Treasury realised most of the investment would come from the public sector. Indeed, recently the policy has been completely reversed putting a block on investment by operators. Franchise negotiations with the train operators have been so tight that billion pound surpluses are now routinely agreed (although the economics of the industry are distorted by the direct payments made to Network Rail).
On the other hand, aviation, where the money largely comes from the private sector – albeit through a regulatory system – has been encouraged to continue its expansion without restraint, despite the all too obvious environmental effects.
So why, as a betting man, would I put a considerable sum on Brown giving the go-ahead for Crossrail as one of the highlights of his attempt to stamp an early mark on his premiership despite the fact that much of the funding will have to come from government coffers? Well, the scheme pushes all the right buttons: it is strongly supported by Brown’s pals in the City, it will be seen as a decisive move following all the dithering over the scheme (it would be churlish to remind him that much of the delay has been as a result of Treasury obduracy) and he will be able to point to innovative forms of funding that will reduce the burden on central government, such as a special business rate for London businesses.
Largely, though, the funding will be conventional because most of the risk will stay in the public sector and the lessons of the PPP cannot have been missed in No 11 because they have been so obvious. To say that Brown’s approval of Crossrail will be replete with ironies is, therefore, a gross understatement, but that will not make it any less welcome for Londoners suffering the overcrowding on the Tube system that the scheme is largely designed to alleviate.