Mark Leftly: Public transport should be an asset, not a penalty, for developers

  • @MLeftly

Westminster Outlook In 1897, a golden key was used to unlock the northern gates for the opening of what, at 6,200 feet, was then the world's longest underwater tunnel.

A house that once belonged to Sir Walter Raleigh was knocked down to make way for the Blackwall Tunnel, such was its potential commercial importance to the East End of London.

In the name of Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales said that the tunnel would last "forever", which rather coincidentally is just the length of time that many drivers now feel it takes to get through the heavily congested tunnel.

For all that history, the thing really isn't impressive in the manner of other great infrastructure works of the 1800s, such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge, which spans the Avon Gorge, or St Pancras rail station, with its Grade 1-listed, red-brick Gothic front facade.

Yet here's Andrew Adonis, a Lord no less, struggling to keep his balance on a number 108 bus, stumbling to his right, as he tries to take an unblurry photo of the tunnel's unimpressive entrance – a narrow grey road disappearing into a black hole. Eventually he captures a snap good enough for his researcher to publish on Twitter.

This journey on Wednesday was part of the former Transport Secretary 's preparations for a tilt at becoming Labour's London mayoral candidate in 2016. Glamour politics it ain't.

Certainly, it's hard to imagine the seemingly permanently perma-tanned former prime minister whom Lord Adonis so closely advised, Tony Blair, roughing it on 150 bus routes so as to develop his thinking on the capital's infrastructure and housing.

Lord Adonis has spent the week on single and double-deckers working their way through impoverished housing estates in order to better understand London's public transport and its impact on the city's economy.

The capital is his main focus, but Labour's shadow infrastructure minister is also gathering the forensic information necessary to develop broader regeneration policies that could work across the country.

For example, Lord Adonis was astonished to learn that the consortium behind a 2,500-home development in what could most kindly be described as an "up-and-coming" part of the capital was being charged around £6.5m by authorities for the privilege of two bus routes needed to support new residents.

"Pretty steep," he huffs, pointing out that a new rail station could be built for a similar amount. "It's striking how many communities are entirely bus dependent."

Public-transport links are an absolute prerequisite for building new swathes of housing. Yet what Lord Adonis sees here is authorities putting up a cost – a barrier – to developers building the tens of thousands of houses the country needs every year just to keep pace with demographic trends. The cost imposed on developers can make their plans uneconomic, or a lack of decent public-transport links can render the new houses uninhabitable to potential residents who need to get to work fairly quickly. Public transport fosters growth; developments should not be risked by using buses or trains as an economic penalty on those companies risking shareholder money on regenerating poor parts of the country.

Similarly, Lord Adonis' now staunch belief that London must introduce a new wave of small "hopper" buses to get residents of areas with next to no transport links into work could be applied to nearly any town or city.

For example, I was in Bournemouth in Dorset earlier this week and from an area near the Christchurch border known as Littledown it can take more than 30 minutes to reach the town centre by bus. However, Littledown is next to a dual carriageway and a car can get to the heart of Bournemouth in six or seven minutes.

Main routes to the centre should be more direct, while a hopper bus could pick up residents in the many less well-served parts of a spread-out town that is so car reliant. People could get to work or go shopping more quickly and those without a car would be less isolated.

Even if that hopper needs to be subsidised, proper assessments of the likely economic impact of the service should be made in areas across the country.

If Lord Adonis' shaky photos of tunnel entrances aren't sufficiently eye-catching to win over the London public, then at least his practical study of life on the buses, poor estates and housing developments won't go to waste. Hopefully, he will bring regeneration back to the forefront of politics at a time when we so need better housing across the country.