Why London's choked transport network is bad for business

London's traffic jams and creaking trains are bad news for UK plc., says Simon Nixon. So why do much-needed transport projects continue to go unbuilt?

The difference between business and politics is that in business you pump money into where you think it can get you the best return, whereas in politics certainly, so far as this Labour government is concerned the object seems to be to hose your cash around just about everywhere except where it might actually do some good. This thought occurs to me every time I find myself stranded in a stationary taxi, or stuck in a tube somewhere between the City and Docklands or the West End. Thanks to London's remarkable boom, I find myself travelling between these three financial centres all the time and it is becoming a serious ordeal.

The door-to-door journey time from my offices near Bank to visit a hedge-fund manager in Mayfair or a private-equity fund in St. James's is about 45 minutes at most times of day, regardless of whether you take the tube or taxi. At least if you take a taxi, you can still make a few phone calls. If you combine that with a nightmare commute as most now do, thanks to soaring house prices it's easy to rack up four or five hours a

day travelling.

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Okay, so this gridlocked transport system is partly a reflection of success. The more business spreads across the capital, the more journeys we need to make. But mostly it just reflects bad policy. Some of Mayor Ken Livingstone's new road layouts seem designed to make the problem worse. Sitting in a taxi on the Embankment the other day on an averagely hellish journey back to the office, the driver pointed out all the side roads up to Fleet Street that had been blocked off over the last few years, forcing all the traffic into the City up a slipway by Blackfriars Bridge. Needless to say, the slip-road had been reduced to one lane to accommodate a bus lane, and a traffic light slapped at the top, causing a tailback all the way to the Savoy.

This kind of officially orchestrated mayhem is being repeated all across the capital, made worse by the fleets of near-empty busses that grind to a halt every few yards, bringing all other traffic to a halt. The congestion charge may have reduced the number of cars on the road, but that's not much use if you cut the amount of road space by even more. Add in the huge disruption to the road system to accommodate London's security concerns most outrageously with the closure of the streets around the US Embassy and the chronic state of London's Victorian underground system, which turns every journey into a lottery, and it's no wonder official figures show growing numbers of Londoners are suffering from stress-related illnesses.

Given that London is the engine of the UK economy and the golden goose which lays the eggs for the rest of Britain, you would think the Government would do whatever was necessary to get London moving again. After all, this transport nightmare is not just a massive drain on productivity. It also has a huge impact on quality of life in the capital. This is now the biggest threat to London's position as the world's top financial centre. What's the point of London boasting of its wonderful restaurants and theatres if people are always too anxious about their journey home to enjoy them? In Europe's other major business centres, such as Geneva and Paris, people can walk or cycle to work. And other countries are competing hard to win our financial services business. Jersey recently cut corporate taxes to zero. And Ireland is already a thriving financial centre on the back of business taxes of just 12%.

Instead, thanks to a quirk in our electoral system, we have a government of Scots and Northerners who prefer to suck money out of London and reinvest it in useless make-work schemes in their own constituencies. Meanwhile, desperately needed transport projects, such as Crossrail the proposed rail line linking Heathrow to Canary Wharf go unbuilt. A report this week suggested the failure to build Crossrail would cost the UK £1.5bn a year in lost revenue. I can well believe it. Crossrail, far more than the Olympic Games, has the potential to bring prosperity to deprived parts of London. Instead, the project has been kicked into the long-grass yet again it's been talked about since the 1980s to accommodate the spiralling cost of the Olympics.

Meanwhile, car-haters like Livingstone may think they are being terribly clever by making our journeys so hellish. Now that we're all eco-friendly, we're not supposed to buzz around having face-to-face meetings, leaving our leather-soled carbon-footprint all over the capital. Why can't people make do with a video conference? The snag is that all business depends on trust. And trust is impossible without personal contact at least, not the kind of trust that paves the way for the buying and selling of companies, the trading of shares, or even the exchange of gossip between journalists and their contacts. If London ceases to be a convivial place where it is easy for people to meet and strike deals, business will be lost and the whole of Britain will lose out. It's not difficult. So why doesn't the Government understand it?

Simon Nixon is executive editor of Breakingviews.com

Simon Nixon

Simon is the chief leader writer and columnist at The Times and previous to that, he was at The Wall Street Journal for 9 years as the chief European commentator. Simon also wrote for Reuters Breakingviews as the Executive Editor earlier in his career. Simon covers personal finance topics such as property, the economy and other areas for example stockmarkets and funds.