London - the city that never moves

The Tube is falling to pieces, the roads are clogged and crawling, pedestrians live in fear and the air is a soup of pollution. And what is being done about it? Nothing
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The Independent Online
"...and Roadtrack has closed all clockwise exits on the M25. Motorists are advised to close car windows this afternoon as pollution is expected to reach 'abnormally dangerous' levels... Only upper-class passengers on the Pepsi Piccadilly line will be allowed to board Heathrow trains, and buses in Islington are restricted to 'socially necessary' stops... "

No one has heard this particular traffic bulletin. But if you live in or travel through any of London's 33 boroughs it is unlikely to surprise you.

The nation's capital may be swinging, but it is certainly not moving. Gridlock has become a regular blot on the landscape. Earlier this month, more than 30,000 motorists clogged west London after Hammersmith Bridge was closed at short notice for at least two years for repairs to its 110- year-old frame.

More congestion has meant more pollution. The Government's own health limits for particulates - deadly tiny particles of dust produced mainly by cars - were exceeded at least once every week last year.

Worse things are happening underground. The Tube, which millions of Londoners and commuters rely on every day, is slowly falling apart. Twice last year the system was brought to a standstill after electrical failures, trapping tens of thousands of passengers underground for hours.

"Parts of the network are just waiting for the coffin lid to be closed. They are just life-expired and we are fighting to make sure that sudden closures do not become a regular feature. The fact is we need more money for the whole system," said one Tube manager.

The Government is unconcerned. It sounded the death knell last year for the public service after announcing in the Budget that Tube managers would lose pounds 430m from their Treasury grant over three years.

Just to add to their troubles, ministers will announce in the next few weeks that the Underground is to be sold off - a move which has been expected ever since the Conservatives won the last general election.

Labour knows that the dilapidated network needs pounds 350m a year simply to keep going but is too frightened to produce a spending pledge - opting instead to fudge the issue with a pledge for more "public and private" sector involvement.

While politicians posture, passengers suffer. An emergency board meeting of London Underground's directors was held earlier this week to decide which services to cut in order to keep the trains running.

Despite the gloom, however, the capital has seen a rash of new rail projects. This year should see a new high-speed train service, the Heathrow Express, running from Paddington to the airport. The Jubilee Line extension, a pounds 2.6bn underground connection set to open next year, will link Stratford in east London to Westminster with a loop of track that runs south of the river with stops at Waterloo, London Bridge and a new station - planned to be the largest underground station in the world - at the site of the Millennium dome in Greenwich.

"Along with the improvements on the Thameslink and the Docklands Light Railway, it is the biggest rail expansion in London since the 1930s," according to Irving Yass, director of transport and planning at London First, which represents business in the capital.

Local authorities are also trying to tackle vehicle problems. In the flagship Tory borough of Wandsworth, councillors have proposed a scheme - enforced by police - where drivers of cars that belch noxious fumes could face fines or penalty points on their licences. Tory councillors in the borough talk with the zeal of the newly converted. "We could all cut down on air pollution in the capital by limiting the number of car journeys we make," said Guy Senior, the chairman of the borough's technical services committee.

Westminster is also considering pedestrianising Parliament Square, Trafalgar Square and even Park Lane, in order to restrict the number of cars in the city centre.

Councils use meters and parking fines as major generators of revenue. Camden - where council tenants may be banned from owning cars under new proposals - made a healthy pounds 5m surplus from its parking restrictions last year and has now said it wants an extra pounds 1m this year.

Not everyone is happy. Measures introduced by Westminster last year made it harder to park in busy West End streets. London theatres complained that the new restrictions were damaging business.

Other cities are closely following events in London. Because rest of the country has elected bodies, many are attempting to gently restrict car use through local initiatives. In Edinburgh, councillors have asked residents to hand in their car keys and instead join a "motoring club" where home-owners rent vehicles when they need them.

But most innovative schemes in London fall flat through a lack of funding. The Riverbus, which took commuters along the Thames from Greenwich to Westminster and Chelsea, sank in the early 1990s after London Transport refused to extend bus and rail travelcards for the service.

Motor cars remain the capital's biggest headache. Although more than 80 per cent of commuters travel into the capital on public transport and only 14 per cent drive, it is enough to ensure that drivers in the rush hour crawl through the city at a little over 4mph.

It is an issue on which both motoring organisations and environmentalists agree. A recent report by green groups claimed that traffic in London could be cut by a third over the next decade by encouraging more walking and cycling as well as coaxing businesses to promote public transport and car-sharing.

The RAC agreed and published an astonishingly frank critique of the motor car when it produced its own charter to "get London moving" earlier this month.The motoring organisation advocated pedestrianising Trafalgar Square, prioritising investment in public transport and told its members: "If any future government is to aim to get people out of their cars there is simply no alternative to massive investment in buses, trains, walking and cycling." "We champion mobility, rather than the motorist" said the RAC's chief executive, Neil Johnson.

So, if there is so much consensus, why does nothing get done? The simple answer is that there is nobody to do it. The abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986 left no single authority able to take a strategic overview of London's transport problems.

Instead there is a minister for transport in London, an advisory and planning committee (LPAC), 33 local authorities - often with competing interests - and a Cabinet sub-committee chaired by John Gummer, the self- styled minister for London.

Hence planning tends to be either shambolic, as with the Docklands - where poor transport links are only just being improved - or non-existent, which has left the Government's bus-lane program in the hands of local councillors unwilling to carry out unpopular policies.

Even former members of the Government can see the present system has its failings. "It is clear many transport issues in London have to be taken on a strategic basis and it would be clearly advantageous to be able to roll out a coherent program to tackle them," said Steven Norris, a former minister for transport in London.

Until London gets a voice, it will remain the only capital city in the Western world unable to champion a transport policy of its own. As Tony Banks, the Labour MP for Newham North West and the last chairman of the GLC, points out: "You can ask the mayors in New York, Paris or Tokyo what they have and they will say: a voice. Without one, London's case will not be heard."