Remember the “living bridge?” The “island airport?” The Olympic sculpture? At least none of those mayoral gimmicks involved significant amounts of public money. Today, it was announced that Boris Johnson will spend £50.5 million of taxpayers’ cash on constructing a new cable car across the Thames from the Dome to Custom House.
This is a project born largely of a gag. In the Mayor’s public speeches, he can usually rely on a big laugh when he jokes that it is a tribute to Vince Cable. Today, however, the joke is on us.
It was supposed to be privately funded. But the private sector has been understandably reluctant to pony up. So, in the middle of a public spending crisis, Boris is spending tens of millions of the transport budget on what is essentially a tourist attraction for out-of-towners.
Attempts to give it some sort of public transport rationale are threadbare – the Jubilee Line already provides an almost exactly parallel service. When it’s working, of course. How is that resignalling project going, by the way?
The cable car has already doubled in cost from the initial estimates. The rush to build it in a year – in time for that other great sinkhole of vaguely justified public money, the Olympics – will almost certainly mean that costs escalate even further. Every contractor involved will take it as a green light to scalp the taxpayer with “unforseen” urgency charges. The timetable is also incredibly ambitious.
The whole thing could quite easily become a running sore at the exact moment when Boris does not need it – in the months immediately before his bid for re-election.
In the meantime, of course, passengers on the transport network that actual Londoners actually use continue to suffer substandard performance. And passengers on the transport service along the river (that actual Londoners actually use, and whose expansion would be a worthy monument for Boris) have seen their boats cut for want of a subsidy about one-hundredth of that now being blown on the cable car. (And yes, I know they hope to get commercial sponsorship – but realistically, that will come nothing close to recouping the construction cost.)
The charge against Boris is that he has been a do-little mayor who lacks seriousness. It’s not actually true – he has done a couple of very important things, such as getting rid of Ian Blair and the Tube PPP. But this decision reinforces all the doubts about him. It will also undermine his claim with Whitehall that his budget (the vast majority of which comes from the Treasury) is necessary and justified. It is a strategic mistake.