New analysis by IPPR North, released today, suggests that London is set to receive almost three times as much transport infrastructure investment per person as the North of England. But there is much more to this debate than first meets the eye.
Firstly, the figures themselves are in dispute. The government firmly rejects IPPR North’s conclusions. In the government’s own analysis, the North West is the region set to receive the most spend per head over the coming years, receiving almost twice as much per head as the capital. They rank London sixth of nine English regions in terms of the amount of central government investment each is set to receive; IPPR North rank it first, and by a sizeable margin.
Both sets of analysis are open to debate. The huge difference between the two is a result of subjective decisions over what timeframe to look at, whether or not to include non-central government investment (such as that made by the private sector, or by Transport for London, which no longer receives central government grant), and decisions over where to physically allocate spending on certain projects. And is a project like Crossrail really for Londoners alone, when it will be used by commuters from across the Wider South East?
The numbers are far from straightforward to interpret. But are they really the point?
It is certainly true that many outside the capital feel that London gets more than its ‘fair share’. Polling by YouGov for Centre for London and Queen Mary, University of London last year found that 70 per cent of Brits living outside of the capital feel that London has better public transport provision than where they live. This should come as no surprise.
And yet there is also a curious and important disconnect at the heart of this debate. Despite the apparent contradiction, Londoners themselves feel that they still have more difficult commutes than their counterparts elsewhere in the county: 45 per cent of Londoners feel they have harder commutes than Brits living elsewhere, with just 24 per cent feeling they have it easier.
But perhaps more surprising is that those living outside of the capital tend to agree that this is the case. Whilst 32 per cent of non-Londoners believe that Londoners have easier commutes than they do, a slightly larger 36 per cent believe that Londoners actually have it harder. So whilst a large majority of those living outside the capital believe that London has a better transport network than that where they live, few seem to envy Londoners when it comes to the experience of actually using it.
Perhaps this is due to scale. Whilst transport infrastructure outside the capital is often dated, slow and unreliable, London’s modern and effective transport system heaves daily under the strain of sheer demand. And the capital’s population continues to grow.
When asked to choose from a list of words to describe the capital, the top two words chosen by non-Londoners were ‘expensive’ and ‘crowded’ – and by some margin. This might go some way to explaining why the British public hold these two seemingly contradictory notions. London’s transport system may feel shiny and new, but it is struggling just as much as its counterparts elsewhere in the nation, albeit for different reasons. Its needs are simply different to those of much of the rest of the country.
Many commentators have observed a sizeable disparity between public transport provision in the capital and that found elsewhere in the country. There is certainly truth in this. But Londoners have the longest average commute times in the country, and trains into the capital are amongst the most overcrowded.
So whilst debates will continue to rage over whether or not London gets more than its fair share of transport investment, it seems that the British people would be sympathetic to the idea that transport provision needs to be improved everywhere – including the capital. Across the country, people’s lived experience tells them that London has a transport system that is simultaneously world class and in need of constant improvement. This does not need to become an ‘either/or’ debate, pitting London against the rest of the nation – we must, as a nation, invest in both.
About the Data
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample sizes were 1218 in London and 1883 in the rest of GB. Fieldwork was undertaken between 3-6 September 2018. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of London adults and GB adults outside London (aged 18+) respectively. YouGov are a member of the British Polling Council and abide by their rules.