Please note this post is from my previous blog. To read my posts during the 2017 General Election campaign click here.
An interesting idea for investing in London’s infrastructure has been greeted with a chorus of cynicism this month – and in so doing has exposed a deep contradiction in attitudes towards the private sector’s obligations to the rest of us.
Untapped Resource, a report published by the GLA Conservative Group, makes a compelling case for private sponsorship of London Underground stations and lines. No doubt with his eye on securing for this idea the media attention it deserves, the report’s author Gareth Bacon even came up with an eye-catching example of what it might mean for our treasured tube map. Step forward, Burberry by Bond Street and Virgin Euston;
This is an idea I have supported for a long time. Gareth Bacon’s report finds that £136million of the sponsorship that could be secured in this way could freeze fares for a year, and £204million could cap rises at inflation for the next three years. With household budgets under pressure across the capital, this could make a real difference. For London’s hard-pressed taxpayers, it’s some welcome relief as someone else foots the bill. For the companies stumping up the cash, it’s a chance to give something back and, yes, to advertise and therefore gain a (modest) competitive advantage in the market place. To me – as long as there is a level of judgment over which companies can become sponsors, and as long as these decisions take into account public opinion – this is a win-win.
The cynics, however, were quick to line up on the opposite side of the turnstile. The Londonist warns of the future McNorthern Line attracting protestors and presenting a “McWhopper of unintended consequences”. The Guardian’s Dave Hill rejects the idea instinctively, doubting whether “the financial gains would be worth the desecration”. Desecration!? Seriously? Labour’s Val Shawcross told MayorWatch there was “massive reputational risk” if a sponsoring company “failed to pay their tax or employed people in unsafe and degrading conditions”.
And it is in part of Shawcross’ remarks that there lies a hint of the contradiction at work. On the one hand, we line up as a society to pour scorn on companies that minimise the taxes they pay, accusing them of ignoring their responsibility to society. On the other, schemes that allow companies to do the exact opposite by using their CSR and advertising budgets in part to contribute to the public good receive equal suspicion. We can’t have it both ways. We should of course be clamping down on tax avoidance and ensuring that all companies pay their far share in tax – but we should also acknowledge the extra contributions that large chunks of the private sector make by other means. Using some of their advertising budgets to help reduce Londoners’ transport fares would certainly qualify.
As for Dave Hill’s ‘desecration’ argument, can we honestly say that we are worse off a society for having Barclays’ blue adorning Boris bikes or Emirates’ red on the side of the UK’s first urban cable car? I don’t think we can.
If having to make room for the private sector on the tube map is the only price we have to pay to keep Londoners’ fares lower for longer, it’s a price well worth paying.