London could lose its independent representation for transport users if London Assembly proposals to abolish TravelWatch go ahead this week.
Under a proposed amendment to the Localism Bill, which is being put forward to the House of Lords, a new clause would result in the abolition of London TravelWatch and the transfer of its existing functions and powers to the London Assembly, a political organisation.
London TravelWatch is the independent watchdog representing passengers who use buses, the Underground, Docklands Light Railway, Tramlink and London’s principal road network, as well as National Rail users in and around London.
The changes would result in the politicisation of certain transport decisions which on the face of it might not mean much. Unless, say, a member of the London Assembly proposes something which will adversely affect passengers while counting on the support of their same-party colleagues who are supposed to be acting on behalf of those very same passengers.
But consider further: transport users would no longer have an independent committee working with TfL and other providers for the sole benefit of passengers. So we might not see reports like this one, which examines the reasons behind the £60m-worth of incomplete Oyster journeys and how they can be addressed. Or someone to complain to when train companies fail (spectacularly in some cases) in their treatment of paying customers. That’s not to say that disgruntled passengers couldn’t approach the London Assembly, but TravelWatch say one of their greatest assets is their impartiality.
Last year, the London Assembly undertook a review of TravelWatch, which proposed the removal of the committee, splitting TfL and National Rail issues between the London Assembly and Passenger Focus, the watchdog for National Rail. This complicates matters for passengers and certainly wouldn’t provide a cohesive overview of transport problems across the capital. The review also sought to limit TravelWatch’s activities on behalf of passengers:
- We propose that, with immediate effect, London TravelWatch cease responding to large-scale transport consultations to which the Assembly is planning to respond.
- We propose that London TravelWatch ceases committing resource to production and publication of its performance monitoring reports with immediate effect.
- We propose that London TravelWatch asks Transport for London to remove its contact details from publicity on buses by the end of 2010. It should ask Transport for London only to provide these details when a complainant has expressed dissatisfaction with the outcome and wants to appeal. The Board should take further immediate measures to redirect and deter inquiries which are not related to appeals.
Just to reinforce the point, they also recommended that half of TravelWatch’s board should not be replaced and the remainder should up sticks and go to City Hall. Given that the TravelWatch board have previously hailed from various areas within the capital, allowing them to provide first-hand experience of transport in those areas, this move severely limits the geographical diversity of the board. There are currently no board members in south London, for example, a part of the city which has long suffered gaps in its public transport infrastructure. That means no voice on TravelWatch for south London. And that’s not great.
The Conservative, Labour, Green and Liberal Democrats on the London Assembly are unusually united on this particular front: the review's working group consisted of Richard Tracey (Cons), John Biggs (Lab), Darren Johnson (Green) and Caroline Pidgeon (Lib). Richard Tracey has made no secret of his disapproval of TravelWatch in the past. Back in 2008, he criticised the sacking of TravelWatch’s then-Chair, Brian Cooke, over his open support of Boris Johnson’s travel policies – support which from an independent representative should not have been in the public arena. Tracey was also one of those Conservative members to walk out before the Blackfriars speed limit debate recently.
But what about the mayor himself? Boris Johnson surely can’t have been that thrilled to see one of his supporters being ousted from an ideally-placed seat in an organisation with an overview of transport policies and a hotline to TfL, not to mention other providers of rail services into London. Minutes from TravelWatch's board meeting in May this year state that Boris Johnson wrote to the Chair to reiterate his belief that the committee should be rolled into the London Assembly.
TravelWatch also questioned the removal of bendy buses, one of Boris’s key election promises.
The London Assembly review focuses heavily on the cost-savings that could be made by abolishing TravelWatch, costs which they believe are unrealistic and don’t take into account the impact on consumers. Tom Edwards, the BBC’s transport correspondent also pointed out that Passenger Focus are not currently set up to deal with Oyster complaints, funding of which would certainly lessen any cost-savings made.
Jo deBank, communications officer for TravelWatch said:
‘An independent, non-party political voice for the passenger is crucial. London has had independent representation for many, many years and this is an important contributory factor as to why we Londoners enjoy better transport than other cities.’
We'd quite like to keep our independent representation but it's looking increasingly as though we won't be allowed to.