Richard Elliott on a seemingly unnoticed but revolutionary proposal
Last week a report from the Conservative Group at the London Assembly was released, urging radical changes to the public face of the London Underground system. In the suggestions made by the report, a proposal for Transport For London to have Tube stations of the Underground network sponsored by large corporations was encouraged, in emulation of pre-existing systems already in effect on the public transport systems of cities such as New York, Madrid and Dubai. Justifications to this project were made by the report in terms of the large financial benefits that may be reaped from partnerships being made between TFL and the large companies offering sponsorship, with profit projections of up to £136 million. The Standard quoted Gareth Bacon, a Conservative Assembly member, as blaming TFL of being “well behind the curve on this one”, and urging a catch-up with competing cities on this economic venture.
Much to my surprise, all was quiet on Fleet Street and on the online press about this seemingly important and indeed revolutionary topic: it was only when trawling back through last week’s papers this Sunday did I find a small column on it in last Monday’s edition of the Evening Standard (which can be read here: see further coverage on Reuters and Marketing Week). Pondering this potentially huge development of the image of one of the largest transport systems on Earth, I realized that the very idea of being asked directions for, for example, ‘Vodafone Bayswater’ or ‘Maccy D’s Euston Square’ would make all of my orifices tighten in disgust. I had a similar reaction when considering that the suggestions made by the report would almost certainly be seriously entertained as a viable venture by the current Mayor of London, Conservative Boris Johnson.
We must consider what it means to be a Conservative. It doesn’t necessarily entail knowing Oakeshott inside and out or anything like that. But there are three characteristics that have always been associated with conservatism: respect for culture, appreciation for traditional heritage, and treating the best parts of these former two in a dignified way. This decision being suggested by members of the Conservative Assembly would almost certainly undermine these characteristics that Conservatism has always claimed to embody. London is a jewel in the world’s crown, and one of the reasons for this is surely the Tube. I know that it might be hard to remember how precious a commodity it is when you’re crammed between the bosoms of that sweaty whale-man in the cheap suit listening to Enya on the Northern Line, but it is. Whoring out the greatest transport system in the world and would be an incredible betrayal of so-called Conservative values. Plus, I shudder to think of the future repercussions of this monolithic decision to rob the Tube of a big part of its identity: an irreversibly slippery slope into a branding nightmare would not be an altogether unthinkable consequence of it.
Although most modern Tories both accept and respect the free market (they owe that one to the libertarians!), I doubt many people rejoice at seeing a Wetherspoon’s on every London street, a Starbucks crammed into every last rented outlet, a Tesco stuffed into every crevice in every road across the city: corporatism gone mad, in other words. While the markets change in accordance with desire and supply, the character of a city such as London shouldn’t be threatened by purely financial matters.
I understand that a large demographic of the readership will, having read this far, reject my concerns as inherently bad for the culture of London. I would respond by challenging them to imagine what the Tube will look like in a generation’s time, when the money raised from this venture is long gone, and the tube is a gargantuan underground billboard. It was Edmund Burke who pointed out in his great work on aesthetics, the Enquiry, that it is custom which reconciles us to everything (Part IV, Section XVII). If custom is thought so little of now, how will it be salvaged in the future?
I will add, however, that if this plan does indeed become a reality, and the public will have to deal with getting the Central line to “Holborn, Home of at least Three Gregg’s Bakeries”, all profit made by any such sponsorships should go back directly to the taxpayer. TFL receives a considerable government grant each year which is funded by the taxes paid by the general public (it is in this report that the figures are tallied; you do the maths for yourself).
I personally take the view that it is unfair for the taxpayer to be funding a service such as the Tube which they may not necessarily use in the first place, but that is food for thought aside from this debate. The point here is that if the taxpayer were not to reap the financial benefits of such a deal (were it to go through), it would be a great breach of the reciprocal relationship between taxpayers and those who are supposed to be collecting that and tax spending it wisely. In which case, the ‘Conservatives’ who have been suggesting this plan would fail according to both a conservative and a libertarian criteria.