In politics, facts are often an early casualty, and one of the claims being advanced a lot at the moment is that TfL’s current financial crisis predates the Covid lockdown.
That TfL’s finances were decimated due to the lockdown and slow recovery is obvious, but it has been said that had the finances been in a better shape before this year’s trauma, then TfL would be better able to cope today.
Generally, I tend to avoid politics these days, it’s far too partisan and far uglier than it used to be — but when statements are made, I like them to be supported by facts, and get a bit irritated when they are not – and that applies to politicians on all sides of the debate.
So has TfL’s debt soared under the current Mayor?
TfL came into existence in 2000, with minimal debt, and a much smaller operation compared to the size that TfL is today.
The early years of TfL’s operations were dominated by the PPP dispute, when the government was keen for private companies to take on the cost of long-overdue network upgrades, and to provide the upgrade as well. PPP had the advantage of keeping debt costs off the national debt figure — by hiding them within private contracts, but was fatally flawed by how expensive and poorly managed the system was in the long term.
When PPP started to fall apart, TfL was finally given permission from the government to start investing directly in the network, and borrowing under its own account. As an organisation created under Local Authority legislation, there are also legal limits on TfL’s borrowing, so none of the Mayors can get carried away.
The political debate ongoing at the moment is who is responsible for TfL’s current financial situation.
One side blames a previous Mayor’s agreement with the government to reduce the direct grant in exchange for more of London’s business rates, while the other blames the current Mayor’s fares freeze and actions as Mayor.
Undeniably, the national government subsidy for public transport in London is today much lower than in comparable cities across the world. Subsidising public transport from general taxation is generally seen as necessary to make transport affordable in large cities where living close to work is rarely possible, and where the downsides of private transport are so great that people need to be compelled to use public transport. They come from general as opposed to local taxation as high-density cities generally create more GDP per person for an economy than regional populations — so the cost of the subsidy is less than the GDP benefit — in essence, the government makes a profit on the deal.
What level of general taxation subsidy is appropriate is not for me to suggest.
The counter-argument is that the fares freeze has damaged TfL’s finances, and when the vote-winning proposal was made, it was pointed out by many commentators at the time that it would hurt TfL’s ability to invest in capital upgrades. However, the cost, while not insignificant, was modest in comparison to TfL’s total revenues – estimated to be around £160 million in 2019 on revenues of £5.7 billion.
The total forgone revenue of the fares freeze over the past four years being equivalent to roughly one-year’s worth of forgone government grant.
Although the fares freeze is coming to an end due to the terms of the recent TfL bailout, back in 2019 TfL already expected to end in 2021 anyway.
The claim being made though is that the fares freeze and other management issues over the past four years has sent TfL’s debt soaring.
Fortunately, TfL has to publish financial accounts, so you can go through the years and work out what the debt levels were year after year.
However, it’s not as easy as you might think to work out if and when like-for-like debt rose, as the financials include TfL’s share of Crossrail debt. It’s therefore unsurprising that debt will go up during the capital investment phase, and will decline when increased revenues start to pay down the investment costs.
One potential way to compare the years is to look at the difference between revenue and costs — and notwithstanding the impact of Crossrail, they’ve averaged around £2 billion a year, for every single mayor. So costs and revenues have kept fairly consistently in step with each other for every Mayor that London has had — and if one or more had splurged on spending, or cut fares too far, then that would show up clearly in a variance.
There isn’t one.
Looking at TfL’s debt over the tenure of the three London Mayors.
2000-2008 – Ken Livingston
Debt rose by £1.95 billion
2008-2016 – Boris Johnson
Debt rose by £7.2 billion
2016-2020 – Sadiq Khan
Debt rose by £2.6 billion
If the three tenures are to be broken down, then it’s likely that Ken Livingstone piled up less debt partly because TfL was smaller, but also because of the PPP induced delays in investing in the network.
Boris Johnson’s tenure saw debt soar, as you would expect due to the Crossrail project and the spending commitments signed by the previous Mayor
Sadiq Khan’s initial tenure saw debt continue to rise due to further investments in streets and London Underground signalling, and although Crossrail costs were expected to decline, they’ve risen to complete the project.
Looking back over the financials, the first few years are missing from the TfL website archive (and Wayback machine), and have some variances in how they are reported, as is normal for large organisations over 20 years.
Some of the numbers below may differ from some documents as they are often revised the following year, and generally I’ve gone with the revised numbers, but they are rarely out by more than a few millions here and there.
The grant numbers sometimes seem to include, and sometimes exclude DfT funding for Crossrail, so to avoid doubt I have not tried to break that out – but note that as of July 2019, DfT grants for Crossrail totalled £5.4 billion – the rest of the cost £17.8 billion (at July 2019) cost comes from TfL, local taxes/levies, and debt.
In general, don’t look at the absolute numbers, but look at the trends.
Financials are in millions, as per standard financial reporting methods.
|Year||Revenue||Grants||Debt||Cash Reserves (crossrail)||Capex (crossrail)||Gross expenditure|
* 2003 financials state £1,024, but the 2004 financials say it had been £1,791
**Metronet falls into administration, TfL receives £1.7 billion grant to settle obligations.