Ken Livingstone's mission is to preside over the biggest expansion of the capital since Victoria and Cubitt. To do that he has to get CrossRail built, and preferably though Royal Docks. We tracked him down at MIPIM and got a dramatic progress report …
The MIPIM property fair in Cannes on the French Riviera is the industry event of the year, attracting more than 15,000 developers, investors, lawyers, architects and surveyors, all touting for business. So, it was no surprise that the less-than-reserved London mayor Ken Livingstone chose this event to announce the keenly anticipated final route for the west–east London CrossRail scheme – the key transport link for the government's massive Thames Gateway development.

The big question was whether one of its eastern branches was to be routed through the Royal Docks – which would cost an extra £400m but create denser development – or through Charlton. And for once, prudence seems to have ceded place to practicality. "The Treasury has gone for the high-cost route into the Thames Gateway," Livingstone told Building. "There will be two branches. The line will run from Liverpool Street to Whitechapel, then split with one branch going to Stratford and Shenfield, and the other to Canary Wharf, the Royal Docks, Custom House, Woolwich and Ebbsfleet, where it will connect with the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. And there will be Docklands Light Railway extensions from Custom House to Barking, Dagenham and Rainham."

On top of all this, Livingstone revealed that the government was to push a CrossRail bill through the House of Commons next month – and we could expect trains to be running along the whole route by 2010. "We are living through the most dramatic expansion of London since Victorian times," he told a crowd of investors. "There are development opportunities and profits not available since the time of our great-grandfathers."

However, others involved in the project suggest that Livingstone's grand rhetoric is just that. A CrossRail spokesperson told Building that no decision had been made on the CrossRail route. "The decision rests with the secretary of state for transport, and an announcement will be made after full consideration of the business and economic case," the spokesperson said. "Any comments on the future of the scheme and likely routes in the interim are speculation."

Livingstone is understandably eager – the development of the 4000 ha Thames Gateway region will provide 200,000 homes and 300,000 jobs, in effect creating a new city spreading east towards the Thames estuary, mirroring London's westward sprawl along the M4. It is a huge undertaking, requiring ambition, guts, vision – and a big political gamble. If it fails, Livingstone's star, currently in the ascendant with the success of his congestion charge, will fall again. If it succeeds, London will be forever changed.

"This is the first large mixed-use site in London for decades," Livingstone announced. "London's growth is locked in for a decade and a half. We will see the whole axis of the city shifting eastwards." And he was keen to emphasise that the transport network is vital if the scheme's unity is not to collapse: "We are avoiding the mistake of seeing this as a series of separate developments. By putting in the transport links, we are treating it as one district, not breaking it down into rival areas."

The cost will be massive – £7bn, the biggest infrastructure project on the government's books by far. But Livingstone is confident that the money will be there. "They [the government] are very committed to it," he said. "It will add more to productivity than any other project. I'm very optimistic that we won't just get CrossRail, we'll get the East London Line extension, and the whole range of DLR extensions into the east."

Livingstone's ambitions and his upbeat delivery prove that his confidence has not been dented by a pretty horrible 2002, when he lost an expensive and vitriolic legal campaign against the Tube PPP, and faced media scrutiny after being accused of becoming embroiled in a row at a party.

In fact, it looks like 2003 could prove to be Livingstone's annus mirabilis: the congestion charge, only introduced a month ago, has already had such an impact on traffic levels that he is now hoping to extend the charge area westwards to Kensington and Chelsea. This means he has little sympathy for Building's Chop the Charge campaign: "The construction industry can write the cost off against tax, so essentially they are paying £3 per day, not £5. I really think they can manage. I'm not going to be allowing any business exemptions."

The only remaining cloud on the mayor's horizon is the Tube – despite losing his case against the PPP, he still fears that privatisation could make the network less safe. "We came within a few moments of serious loss of life at Chancery Lane," he said. "I have no confidence that the senior management of the Underground has the dynamism or drive or ambition to make it safe. At the moment the management is a safety risk to us all. It will be damaging to the infracos if we end up moving in just as they're taking the bodybags out of the Underground."

In an attempt to rectify the situation, he is calling on the privatised companies to work with London transport commissioner Bob Kiley on the part-privatised network. "They should show willing by helping to arrange a rapid transfer of powers [from current management] to Kiley," said Livingstone. "It's still not what I would have chosen but if it can be made to work, we'll do it."

And if anybody can do it, Ken can. London government sources are confident that he will win a second term as London mayor next year.

As one said: "London needs a mayor who is a personality rather than a party politician. A mayor has to be credible and have some element of independence. Ken's keeping the pressure up on the government – and he's a brave guy."