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Road to success

Viewpoint - On the eve of TfL's report into the future of transport in London, Stephen Glaister looks at how the capital can raise the cash

London faces a problem. Average productivity is high, expectations are rising and population and jobs are increasing rapidly. But neither the passenger nor freight transport system is adequate. There are many excellent but unfunded proposals for allowing London to flourish, but without the money the best of schemes is doomed to remain a line on a map.

Add up the outline costs of Thameslink 2000, Crossrail, tram schemes, road bridge replacements, traffic management infrastructure, and expansion of bus services and you easily reach a sum in the region of £50bn. This is enough to be a national problem.

Transport for London's soon-to-be-updated T2025: Transport Challenges for a Growing City maps the attractive new commercial developments already committed to in and around central London.

Meanwhile the new population is expected to settle mainly in outer London and beyond.

Developers are proceeding on the assumption that there will be fast, high-quality facilities to connect homes to jobs and convey the freight to service both. But the commuter railway is full. The Underground is full.

The roads are full. All are hungry for maintenance expenditure.

In addition there is a mediumterm issue to address. The government treated London generously for the five-year period to 2010, including an agreement to 30 year prudential borrowing of £3bn. But if progress is to be maintained, after 2010 there will be a need for further borrowing and the first tranche of debt will have to be serviced.

In the meantime, fares will have increased and a large increase in annual government grant will have passed to the Underground PPP and (separately) private finance initiative providers. All this against a background of 'difficult' public-spending rounds.

English centralism forces London to go cap-in-hand to the Treasury, but New York, Paris and other major cities have the autonomy of a larger local tax base. London could do more for itself. Its annual gross value added is about £160bn; 1% of this over a 10 year period could service £16bn to £24bn of debt.

In his review of local government funding, Sir Michael Lyons may recommend whether and how this might be implemented.

A ring-fenced top-up on the national uniform business rate is an attractive proposition, but would not be enough on its own. Road pricing on the other hand would help deal with congestion in outer London and have the potential to yield net revenue of £2.5bn a year - enough to fund £25bn-£40bn of capital. The Greater London Authority has the legal power and technology to roll it out.

But if London waits to become part of the proposed government-sponsored national scheme then it is likely that, as with the National Non-Domestic Rate, some of London's road pricing revenues would 'leak' to ameliorate the impact elsewhere in the country.

Maybe the London electorate could be persuaded that an adequate transport infrastructure part-funded by road pricing is preferable to the impasse it now faces.

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