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Livingstone: it's time to deliver

Comment Andrew Bolton

London mayor Ken Livingstone's popularity has taken a bit of a drubbing over the last few weeks. First he lost a high profile attempt to get the government's privately funded Underground upgrade blocked, incurring £4M of costs to voters in the capital.

Then he won his battle to impose a £5 congestion charge on motorists using central London's busy streets, much to the chagrin of the city's procar lobby and some of its boroughs.

But was all this action necessary?

Well, yes and no is probably the answer.

On congestion charging, Livingstone had a voters' mandate to bring it in, as it was part of his election manifesto. Recalcitrant London boroughs like Westminster might have opposed it on the questionable grounds that consultation had not been wide enough. But Livingstone is acting for the city as a whole, possibly even for the nation, in trying something which could, if done properly, go some way to easing London's growing transport crisis.

Which brings me to the Tube.

It is perhaps true to say that Livingstone's battle with the government over the legality of its £13bn privately financed upgrade had the backing of voters. After all, this and congestion charging were key parts of his manifesto.

But if Westminster could be accused of thinking of its own local interests in fighting congestion charging, Livingstone faces the same charge over his attempts to block the public private partnership (PPP) for the Tube.

Arguably prime minister Tony Blair deliberately took the PPP negotiations out of the mayor's hands because of his belief that upgrading the Underground was important for Britain as well as for Londoners - think of all the people from outside London who use the system every day as tourists and commuters.

In retrospect, this battle was high risk from Livingstone's point of view and looks to have backfired badly. He has now lost two separate attempts to get the PPP blocked, the first launched last year. In the process the upgrade has been delayed for a year - which have cost the capital money in the delays and growing chaos on and below London's streets.

Money and power are undoubtedly at the root of the evil which is delaying the Tube PPP. For Livingstone, the prospect of winning the Tube battle brought with it the chance of having complete control over another £13bn of spending in the capital.

Livingstone also fears that by the time contracts are fully negotiated the PPP will cost more than originally predicted by the government. This could result in other parts of his London budget being squeezed.

Although much is being done to improve other aspects of London's transport network, those who use the capital's transport system have still to feel tangible benefits. But as the next mayoral election campaign approaches, Livingstone is a man in danger of having little to show for his four years in high profile public office.

Andrew Bolton is NCE's news editor

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