It was kind of Mark Wild, the Elizabeth line chief executive, to finally open it this week on my birthday. It’s a project first conceived over half a century ago and that I promoted as a minister, but was nearly killed by the Treasury in 1994.
Ken Livingstone fought for it and won against stern opposition from his sworn enemy Gordon Brown. The project has finally arrived at a cost of £19bn, albeit dogged by late delivery, and is at last a wonderful reality.
I say wonderful because when you use it you’ll be struck by the exceptional design of the stations, the length and quietness of the trains and the speed with which, when the final phase opens later this year, it can get you from Heathrow to Canary Wharf – in under an hour. It will do wonders for residential values in Reading, Slough, Bexley and beyond.
But the real significance of this new line is that after all that effort – the delays and the blood, sweat and tears – it may be the last of the great metropolitan megaprojects. When Boris Johnson was London mayor he gave Lord Andrew Adonis, a former transport secretary under Blair, the job of reviving the other great transport project also conceived in the 1950s, called the Chelsea-Hackney line, or Crossrail Two.
Transport use in London is falling and indeed was beginning to fall before Covid
But while the essential value of more east-west connectivity had stood the test of time, the same was not true of a line originally planned to go from north east to south west. After more than £115m of abortive costs, the project has been shelved and is effectively abandoned.
The reality is that transport use in London, as in many other capital cities, is falling and indeed was beginning to fall before the pandemic. Back in 2019, we first noticed tube and bus volumes down in London as, even before it became mandatory, the impact of working from home, albeit limited normally to one day a week, was beginning to bite.
Once the practice became the law, during lockdown, the effect was dramatic and government stepped in to protect our rail and bus systems from what would have been a catastrophic failure.
And as we now know, the long-term impacts are only just emerging. Investors in offices talk up the new vision of truly serviced accommodation to attract companies that are infinitely more agile than new businesses would have been even a decade ago. Long gone are the days when landlords could agree a 20-year lease with a decent covenanted tenant and throw them the keys.
But the truth is the world of work is changing even faster. Leading law firm Stephenson Harwood made headlines by offering its staff the opportunity to work from home permanently on condition they took a 20% pay cut. Some will no doubt do so, although I’d worry that if my employer didn’t need to see me it wouldn’t be long before they decided they could get even better value outsourcing my job to India or South Africa.
Most major world cities are seeing the impact of flexible working and are promoting public transport use alongside more active travel, such as cycling, more use of ride-hailing and the emergence of policies actively designed to curtail the use of the car.
This does not mean that the Elizabeth line is redundant before it opens. Far from it. In terms of our climate change challenge, the less we use road transport, which accounts for 30% of carbon emissions, the better. Urban congestion and related air quality remain a huge issue and more fast underground travel will help alleviate that.
But what everyone in the property business, especially in the nation’s capital, now surely knows is that the world we knew before 2019 and the world we face as the pandemic disappears are very different. Not necessarily better nor worse. But fundamentally different.
Steve Norris is chairman of Soho Estates and Future-Built