Interview: Sir Edward Lister, London deputy mayor for policy and planning

Publication of the London 2025 infrastructure plan signals the capital’s commitment to investing for the future. Sir Edward Lister explains the plan.

Sir Edward Lister, London deputy mayor for policy and planning

Sir Edward Lister, London deputy mayor for policy and planning used the recent London Infrastructure Summit organised by business lobby group London First to set out the capital’s plans for boosting investment in infrastructure. 

Interview by Antony Oliver.

Why is the 2050 Infrastructure Plan so important for London?

We have a population growth of 80-100,000 a year and that kind of growth rate will be with us for the next few years. The direction of travel is forever upwards. We are 23% of the country’s GDP and if London catches a cold then so does the rest of the country so we cannot afford to let that happen.

Can London – can the UK – afford to keep investing in London?

This plan is not a shopping list; it is a series of programmed parts and we have to make each part stack up financially – there has to be a really solid business case for it. Treasury will expect that from us so we have got to pick up the issue of where the money going to come from. 

Funding the ambition

What have we learnt about funding infrastructure over the last few decades?

We started on this journey pre-Crossrail when every scheme was publicly funded. With Crossrail we showed to Treasury that we could raise a substantial part of the money ourselves and we created the London Mayoral Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and we created a business rate and got various sums of money from elsewhere. That was our first slightly crude attempt at trying to capture the value uplift that takes place around railway stations. Then for the Olympic Park there was a charge on every Londoner on the Council Tax of £25 and that was another model. For the Northern Line Extension we created a really different model. We again did a CIL but then we also created an enterprise zone around north Battersea and used it as a mechanism to raise tax. We took the business rate uplift and created a Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) scheme and raised £1bn. So you can see that journey – now we have to refine it as we go along. 

Given the political uncertainty predicted after the forthcoming General Election, should London be worried about infrastructure spending commitments? 

As Londoners we should also ways feel worried because unfortunately it is too easy for politicians elsewhere in the country to peddle the message that London gets more than its share. I am not saying that [the UK] shouldn’t invest in other places but I am saying that you cannot expect the goose that is laying the golden egg – London - not to be investing.

How does London keep politicians interested in investing in the capital?

It is about constant lobbying. I don’t think that there is any fundamental political difference between any of the parties around the infrastructure plans. So London has to continue to get out the unshakable message that we have to keep investing.

The 2050 infrastructure plan says the method of assessing business cases is too narrow, not fit for purpose and needs to be more holistic – what is the solution?

We can’t just look, as we used to do, at employment numbers or GDP. We now have to look at the impact on housing numbers and many other things – it is a much bigger picture. You have to bring everything together. Take Crossrail 2 [for example] – that is as much more a housing case than an economic case. It is more complex.

Does London more need control over its tax revenue?

Absolutely. At the moment we get various grants from government for housing, for transport etc and if you total them up they come roughly to the sum of all the property taxes. So there is a case. But more important is that we need continuity of funding. What is crippling us is the fact that governments come and governments go – funding comes in three or four year chunks if you are lucky. What we need is that continuity so that we can plan for the long term. 

The Aviation debate

How can you prepare a plan without knowing where future airport expansion will take place?

It is a glaring hole but everyone knows where the Mayor stands on this – he believes that fundamentally we should be building a new airport in the Estuary. He believes it should be a 24 hour a day seven day a week airport and that it should be a proper hub. That is not a view that is shared by others who want, in our opinion at City Hall, to put a sticking plaster on Gatwick and Heathrow to keep them going for another 10-15 years before we have this debate all over again. It is political suicide to turn Heathrow into a 24/7 airport. It is not deliverable. The people who live around there will never agree to it. So you are stuck with what you have got. We think that this is just a blip in the system and we want to campaign for a proper airport .

Does Boris Johnson’s insistence on an Estuary airport hinder your case for investment infrastructure?

No I don’t think so. It would be awful if we had Mayors who weren’t prepared to stand up for what they believed was right for the city. I know that there is a division of view on this matter but the fact is that there is a vision and we are pushing forward on it.  You cannot go on putting decisions off and that is all that [the Davies Commission] is about. You have got to make decisions and move forward. 

Boris as an MP

Tony Travers of LSE felt that Boris MP would be good for London – and that Boris PM [Prime Minister] would be even better. Do you agree?

My role is to support Boris as London Mayor and what he has made absolutely clear is that his number one priority is to be mayor. The difference with him standing as an MP is that at the tail end of a mayoral term his ability to influence policy does wain. This will help that. He is a big beast in politics so he does have influence. 

What are the challenges for the new mayor?

To continue to deliver and develop this infrastructure plan to argue and fight for it and devise new funding and financing methods and to get the kind of housing numbers that we need as a city.

Housing challenges

Is it possible to deliver the scale of house building required in London?

I think it is but we have got to do things to the model. There has never been a golden age of house building in London. It is a myth. The models have changed but the numbers haven’t – in a good year we built 25,000 houses, in a bad year it is down to 18–20,000. So getting to 60,000 I don’t see. But getting to 50,000 I do see as a possibility. Already this year we have seen more starts and we will get to 30-40,000 completions but that is just one year – you have got to do this every year for the next 15 or 20 years. 

Should the public sector have a stronger role in delivering social housing.

All social housing today is effectively delivered by the private sector coming through the planning system and we have probably pushed it as far as we can. There are all sort fiscal mechanisms that we should look at. But we have also been very supportive of the boroughs themselves getting on and developing some of their own plans. We cannot leave that underutilised land it has got to come through to the market.

Transport challenges

Crossrail 2 has been granted its route safeguarding - is the project unstoppable?

I think it is. If you don’t build Crossrail 2 we will very soon bring to a halt Waterloo station, stop Clapham Junction and if you live in the South West of London don’t assume that you will be able to get into work. It is a problem today and when HS2 arrives at Euston the Victoria Line will not be able to take it. So we need it.

Is London going to benefit enough from HS2

It will bring a lot of pain in Euston but it will bring great opportunities – to redevelop Euston station and develop at Old Oak Common where we are talking 25,000 homes and 50-90,000 jobs as we build a Canary Wharf to the west 10 -15 minutes from Heathrow and the City. 

Is London doing enough to ensure it has the skills in the capital to deliver this infrasdtructure plan?

This is something that does worry us enormously. It is quite clear that far too many of the jobs being created are going to people coming into London to live and work either from other parts of the UK of from abroad. That raises the question of what is wrong with Londoners and immediately identifies the skills gap which is severe. Our current model is broken to deliver the skills we need as a city. People don’t understand that the industry is changing and the models at the moment are not creating the kids with the skills we need. 

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