Londoners could decide they want to live in a city run wholly for its people, with all their skills, talents and inventiveness...
By 3 February 2014 three of the mighty tunnel-boring machines excavating the first of two Crossrail links had broken through at stations under central London. A press fanfare marked completion of the western section of the biggest civil engineering project in Europe, connecting London's outer suburbs and Heathrow airport to the West End and London’s two financial centres, the City and Canary Wharf. At the same time, the flagship Bond Street ticket hall was completed five storeys under the ground – an irony since the Mayor seems intent on extinguishing ticket offices throughout the rest of the underground network.
A now-familiar sight to Londoners: the Tottenham Court Road Crossrail works, with Centre Point in the background.
No doubt when Crossrail 1 is up and running by 2019 (date deferred, so not exactly on time and on budget) it will be hailed as a magnificent feat of British engineering. It certainly is that. Whether by accident or design, it will be the length of a marathon, 26 miles. Up to 14,000 construction workers will have been involved in that marathon at any one time, plus 7,000 more ancillary staff, working round the clock.
With a typically British sense of history and achievement, they named the boring machines Ada (after Ada Lovelace, one of the earliest computer scientists), Phyllis (Pearsall, creator of the London A-Z), Mary and Sophia (wives of Isambard and Marc Brunel), Jessica and Ellie (Olympian and Paralympian athletes) and Victoria and Elizabeth (queens).
Over half way
Engineers have passed the halfway mark and during 2014 will progress from the basic civil engineering tasks to the fitting out of stations and tunnels in central London, while work continues on the rest of the line going east. In total, 9 new stations are envisaged and 29 existing ones improved.
Work on the western section has challenged the skills of engineers who have had to navigate a complex web of Tube lines in order to lay foundation piles and infrastructure up to 30 metres deep and 6 metres wide (for comparison, the Victoria Line is 3.81 metres wide), uncovering in the process a Black Death burial ground and an old Crosse & Blackwell pickle factory. The excavated soil would fill Wembley Stadium three times. (It won’t be wasted – some of it has gone to Wallasea Island to create a nature reserve.)
At Tottenham Court Road this involved tunnelling less than a metre above the Northern Line. The safety implications were obvious, but it is thanks to construction workers, not the construction consortium BAM Ferrovial Kier (BFK), that this phase has been completed relatively safely, with one fatal incident at Holborn on 7 March.
Kier is a ruthless transnational conglomerate with tentacles in Romania, South-East Asia, Saudi Arabia, and the Caribbean. Members of the union Unite were threatened and blacklisted for pointing out inadequacies of safety equipment on boring machines and scaffolding thrown on top of 11,000-volt cabling. BFK even bullied its own unionised British sub-contractor, Electrical Installations Services into sacking staff who wished to join the union and replacing them with agency workers, before terminating its contract (which sent the company into liquidation).
The government was quick to reassure a sceptical public that the £14.8 billion project, ostensibly funded through a so-called public-private partnership (PPP), is “value for money”. But two reports suggest otherwise – that the enterprise is neither privately funded nor a partnership to any substantial extent. In reality, the third P stands for the People of London, who have no alternative but to foot the bill.
Edgware Road Crossrail site, July 2013. Unite demonstration against blacklisting.
The National Audit Office (NAO) reports that the private sector contribution, which is needed to finance Greater London Authority (GLA) borrowing repayments over between 24 and 31 years through a levy on business rates, will be far less than the £4.1 billion promised by mayor Boris Johnson. It now transpires that over 80 per cent of businesses were exempt from the business rate supplement all along. Put another way, fewer than 20 per cent of commercial properties in London met the criteria of a rateable value of over £55,000 per annum. Johnson must have known this when he made fewer than one in five liable.
This evaluation by the NAO takes into account the mayoral Community Investment Levy, a hoped-for £300 million revenue from local business developers passed on to Transport for London by local authorities. The justification for this is that all 33 boroughs stand to benefit from developments generated by Crossrail, especially in the West End, the Isle of Dogs and Thames Gateway areas. Not all agree.
Heathrow has defaulted on its pledge of £230 million. And the Civil Aviation Authority has decided that there is no net benefit from Crossrail to the airport and has reduced its contribution to £70 million. In addition, the reluctance of private capital to invest means that Londoners now have to meet the extra £1 billion cost of new Crossrail rolling stock (albeit competitively priced) from Bombardier.
Reading further into the NAO report, it is evident that the Department of Transport never expected the private contribution to materialise and had set aside £5.2 billion of public money precisely to cover this eventuality. In other words, the PPP was a government-endorsed con-trick.
It does not stop there. The NAO goes on to criticise the business case for a levy on the City, saying “the rationale for agreeing the amount the City of London Corporation would contribute is not clear”. It looks as though this is another fish that will get off the hook.
The Arup Report
A second report, by civil engineering firm Ove Arup for TfL, which runs London Transport, looked at the impact of Crossrail 1 relative to London’s population – rising by 2,000 every eight days. By 2030 the population of the Greater London area is set to rise to 10 million.
Arup finds the new network already has inadequate capacity. It says that in the area around three central stations in particular – Tottenham Court Road, Bond Street and Farringdon – growth has already outstripped the original 2004 estimates.
By 2026, Arup now says, 65 million more people than first thought will be using these three Crossrail stations alone (including for tube travel) each year – a total of half a million a day more than used them in 2013. And once Crossrail opens there will be more pressure on the likes of Marble Arch, Holborn and Oxford Circus. Yet still the mayor wants to get rid of ticket staff!
Who are all these people and where are they going? The clue is in the route. Crossrail 1 is intended as a magnet for international business, with quick and easy access to relaxation and nightlife. Others will be London commuters. Many will be visitors, for work, business or leisure.
The GLA London Plan designates the West End and Knightsbridge as almost exclusively international quarters. London estate agents working out of Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong report an Asian boom in 2013, especially Chinese investors, both private billionaires and state holdings, buying up £1.2 billion of property.
They bought up Richard Rogers’ iconic Lloyd’s building in the City. This year Bromley council agreed the ZhongRong Group should develop the old Crystal Palace site. The Bank of China moved to be next to the Bank of England in 2009. The Chinese Embassy is to move to Battersea to shadow the new US Embassy being built there by 2017. Large parts of Wandsworth, including blocks of new flats, are now owned by the Chinese state. A Malaysian developer has taken over the Battersea Power Station site. Boris Johnson declared himself “thrilled”.
A third of London jobs are in international and financial business, with Canary Wharf the focus for growth. The GLA has forecast 750,000 more jobs by 2031 bringing the total to 5.45 million, but growth in financial services is so rapid that the City Corporation has since upped its own figure and brought its target date forward by ten years. Available office space is at an all-time low (a mere 7 per cent) with record high rents. Londoners continue to be priced out to the margins of their city.
Not all finance
Away from Crossrail, we see that it is not all about finance and retail. A large proportion of jobs in the centre are found around Parliament, the courts, and Whitehall departments, while valuable media, telecommunications and technology cluster around the fringe. There has been a 75 per cent increase in British film-making, much of it in London, helped by tax breaks for the industry.
London is Europe’s digital technology capital (48,000 jobs in the area around Shoreditch and Clerkenwell alone), with the largest concentration of computing and software firms in Europe. US firms Google and Facebook are expanding into London.
Biotechnology and other companies based on life sciences form a rapidly emerging industry – some 1,000 companies – requiring more laboratory space and stimulating more research investment, such as the Crick Institute being built near St Pancras International Station.
Clustered nearby are hospitals and centres of learning providing research facilities which are the envy of Europe.
The tourist industry also employs thousands of Londoners, admittedly for the most part in low-paid hotel and catering jobs attracting migrants, but also in high-end professional, educational and managerial jobs requiring degree-level qualifications. Heathrow – the gateway for many – accounts directly for some 84,000 workers.
Add to these the workers in education, health, culture and retail, and we see that railway asset that should benefit Londoners by cutting travel time to work and relieving congestion on other parts of the transport system now looks uncomfortably over-subscribed even before it has opened. It will also be expensive.
Without a nationwide strategy for rail and air linking Crossrail to the rest of the country, a picture emerges of Britain’s capital city increasingly disconnected from the country as a whole. While links to France and Belgium via the Tunnel seem to fulfil the EU dream of a north-east Europe region, Britain as a nation in itself is airbrushed out. The GLA now measures area in continental hectares. Southeast England is cast in the role of European finance capital’s dormitory. In Johnson’s book, capitalist competition is the name of the game.
So what conclusions can Londoners draw from the Crossrail story so far? First, engineering is not dead, even if finance capital has skewed the economy. But industry and innovation is something trade unions in particular must step up the fight for.
Second, as with Crossrail, everything is paid for by the working class one way or another, by the power of labour, wages, prices, taxes...
Once we grasp that, we can take ownership of our city. We can decide who comes in, and how many. We could decide we want to live in a city run wholly for its people, with all their skills, talents and inventiveness. We could drive out the rich parasites. We could restore London's status as the headquarters of a nation run in the interests of its working people. ■