Walk this way sign in Herne Hill
Walk this way sign in Herne Hill

Cllr Claire Holland is the Deputy Leader of Lambeth Council (Sustainable Transport, Environment and Clean Air), and a councillor in Oval ward. 

Over the next six months we have a plan to make sure that Lambeth keeps moving, whilst making our streets safer and reducing the risk of Covid-19 transmission. Whilst we are being asked not to use public transport to help combat the virus, a car-led recovery is not an option for us in Lambeth. We need to clean up our air, reduce carbon emissions, and create healthier, safer neighbourhoods for the people that live and work in Lambeth – because we cannot replace one health crisis- that disproportionately impacts our more disadvantaged – with another.

Our Lambeth Labour values are what drove us to become the first council in the country to publish an emergency transport strategy in response to Covid-19 and we have continued to lead the policy agenda, whilst moving quickly to deliver on the ground. Car ownership is lower in our more disadvantaged communities and a car-led recovery would see our streets -which during Covid-19 have been transformed into gardens, playgrounds and exercise arenas – dominated by vehicles polluting the air we breathe.

Financial landscape

Transport for London’s (TfL) funding to all London councils was frozen due to the dire financial situation Covid-19 inflicted on them and initially we had no word from government. We had to take bold action to protect our communities not knowing whether we would receive funding or government backing. A £45 million emergency funding package from TfL to London boroughs was then announced, which we are bidding into, along with the rest of London. But we don’t yet know how much we will receive.

Government then released their own statutory guidance and plans, with the measures they say they will consider funding, matching what was already in our plan – pavement widening, low traffic neighbourhoods, and temporary cycle lanes. They announced a national emergency fund that covered everywhere except London. They then said London would be included but subsequently rowed back on the amount in the national pot.

Following this, a tweet by Merton Conservative Party announced funding allocations for walking and cycling had been made to all councils nationally. But subsequently, the Dept of Transport has advised different amounts are allocated – different meaning dramatically reduced for London boroughs.

I am sorry if I am losing you, but this is the financial and political landscape we are having to deal with. Big headline announcements that strike a chord and raise residents’ and our expectations followed by a lack of certainty and detail, accompanied by conflicting messages, reneging on pledges and then delay. This all leaves local authorities yet again to have to step up and be the grown-ups in the room so we can get on with delivering for our communities. Despite our own dire Covid finances. And we still haven’t actually received a penny.

The TfL settlement

And what about TfL? Well, 2 weeks ago a settlement was reached only a matter of hours before TfL would have been forced to issue a section 114 notice, indicating that they were almost out of cash. It’s important to remember that TfL no longer receives an operating grant from the government to run its services – the only major city in western Europe not to receive subsidy. This was ended in a deal that was struck by Prime Minister Johnson, in his then role as London Mayor, with his Eton contemporary the then Prime Minister David Cameron.

The government has reached emergency settlements with transport authorities throughout the country, but TfL is reported to be the only one that the government has chosen to saddle with more debt as part of a settlement. Given TfL has been losing hundreds of millions a month during Covid-19, continuing to run virtually a full service despite usage hitting rock bottom (down 85% on buses and 95% on the tube) TfL advised they needed £1.9bn to stay afloat until September 2020.

But instead of providing the funding to secure TfL’s future to make sure Londoners are still able to move around our city in the longer term, the government instead offered a settlement of only £1.1 billion and has insisted on imposing harsh conditions.

The draconian conditions, openly admitted by them that government are imposing on Londoners include the suspension of free travel for under 18’s; older Londoners and those with a disability not allowed to use their passes to travel for free at peak hours; fares to increase above inflation; various conditions around the congestion charge and the government is to sit on TfL’s board.

Protecting our communities and getting Lambeth moving again

Whilst the government may use social distancing as cover, it is clear that there is a lot of politics going on here. And when, yet again, our more disadvantaged communities and residents most at risk pay a disproportionate price.

Our roads are already congested, and if only a small fraction of journeys usually taken on public transport are, in our Covid world, taken by car, our streets will be gridlocked with all the negative health consequences consuming our city and our residents.

But over the coming months we also need to get London moving again. We need to rebuild and to recover. But safely. In a way that does not expose our residents to yet more danger and health inequalities. And that is why in Lambeth through our emergency transport programme, and working with colleagues throughout London, we are taking action to protect our communities and build a safe, clean and greener recovery. Local government leading the way.

Cllr Claire Holland

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