For most of its history, London didn’t really exist. The city out-grew its ancient walls many centuries ago; yet right up until the creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855, the resulting conurbation was run not by the City of London Corporation, but by a patchwork of different parish councils. Margaret Thatcher’s decision to scrap the Greater London Council, 131 years later, has gone down in history as a politically-motivated act of short termism, and it was – but it was also, in some ways, a reversion to tradition.
The capital got its legal identity back in 2000, with the creation of the Greater London Authority. But Sadiq Khan still has fewer levers to pull than, say, Anne Hidalgo in Paris or Bill de Blasio in New York. Being mayor of London is less like being a chief executive than being a feudal lord: getting stuff done tends to involve marshalling forces who have their own priorities, and who are very aware of the fact they don’t answer to you.
Which is why a single borough council has been able to effectively veto one of Khan’s highest profile plans.
Oxford Street is Europe’s busiest shopping street. It’s also horrible: a dirty, smoggy canyon, where the pavements are too narrow and the space between is rammed with buses and the pollutants they spew out. So the idea of pedestrianising it – turning the street into a place it might actually be pleasant to visit – has been talked about for years.
Under Sadiq Khan, it seemed like it might actually happen. The Labour mayor campaigned on the issue and, once elected, instructed Transport for London (TfL) to start quietly restructuring the bus network to make pedestrianisation possible. Last November, TfL unveiled plans to start closing it to traffic from this December, along with the inevitable concept images showing how lovely the new, motor-free Oxford Street would be.
But all this, it turns out, has been a colossal waste of everybody’s time, because Westminster City Council has changed its mind. Last week, its leader Nickie Aiken said in a statement that, following public consultations and council elections, “It was clear… that local people do not support the pedestrianisation proposals.” That may well be correct: over at OnLondon, Dave Hill makes a compelling case that it’s electoral concerns that put the council off.
The thing is, though, that the locals who object to the plan aren’t necessary right. They may have good and sensible reasons for opposing pedestrianisation – perhaps it’ll mean an increase in traffic on their own street, for example. But just because it’ll be bad for them, that doesn’t mean it’ll be bad for those who shop on Oxford Street, or for London as a whole.
TfL’s road network, in red, and the motorways, in blue. Every other road in London is run by the local council. Image: TfL.
But it isn’t London as a whole that gets to decide this one. London’s streets are the domain of its councils – and councils are answerable to their voters. And so, a project that could have benefited all Londoners has been stymied by the objections of a few.
This sort of thing happens with depressing frequency. There are many reasons why TfL has failed to produce a London-wide network of cycling routes (cost, inertia, black cabbies being a pain in the arse). But a big one is that doing so would involve altering streets controlled by the boroughs.
And not all the boroughs will play ball. Some – Camden, Southwark, Tower Hamlets – are quite enthusiastic. But Hackney, despite housing one of the highest concentrations of cyclists in the entire country, could not be persuaded that a Cycling Superhighway needed segregated space, and instead sent CS1 down a series of back roads.
Quietway 1 is split into two routes, north and south, each of which stops suspiciously close to the Westminster borough boundary. And not a single scheme has penetrated the borders of Kensington & Chelsea: the borough remains an impenetrable barrier to any route between west and central London.
Neither the mayor nor TfL are empowered to fix any of this. They can persuade. They can cajole. But they can’t command, and if the boroughs don’t want something, then there’s no way of forcing it upon them.
What might have been: the ringways. Image: David Cane/Wikimedia Commons.
This has not always been a bad thing: not all grand-projets are a good idea. Back in the 1960s, it was big road schemes that were all the rage, and it was only the intransigence of the boroughs that prevented an urban motorway from being driven through Hampstead and Highbury Fields.
Nonetheless, the fragmented nature of London’s local government means that plans to solve the capital’s problems will always be at the mercy of small groups of highly motivated NIMBYs. Unless TfL is granted more powers, at the expense of the boroughs, Oxford Street won’t be the last.