Monday, December 29, 2008

Latest Dial A Ride Disaster

I returned today to find Dial a Ride on the front page of the Romford Recorder for all the wrong reasons.

Local pensioner Ernie Forrester booked a Christmas Day lift to visit his relatives in Collier Row back in November. He assumed that everything was agreed until they rang him just a week before Christmas to say they could no longer provide the service because of a shortage of drivers.

Ernie has had problems with the service before and Havering association for people with disabilities have raised concerns about the service which they claim no longer works.

Back in November I visited Dial a Ride HQ in Southwark to see the work they were doing to improve the call centre service following the installation of new software. They claimed that problems were being overcome and I wrote a positive piece on this blog, in the expectation that the service would improve.

However the litany of complaints continues and in December the London assembly passed a motion condemning the service with cross party support. In the New Year the transport committee will be examining the performance of Dial a Ride and, although I am no longer on the committee, I hope that representatives from Havering will be on hand to recount their evidence of the service's shortcomings.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Well, the Havering Park dinner last night was my final engagement - that puts the lid on 2008. It's been quite a year.

The high point had to be the election of Boris in May. We all put a great deal of hard work into that campaign, out in all weathers, sometimes it seemed like it would never end. The 'doughnut' strategy meant that more work was expected from Havering & Redbridge than in previous elections, but our efforts paid off with a whopping majority of over 43,000. Thank you so much to everyone who helped, it was a fantastic result and ours is now the third safest assembly seat in London.

We had a stuttering start, not surprisingly. The GLA was a vehicle designed and built by Ken Livingstone, so anyone else was going to find it like driving a diesel car on petrol, but over time people came to realise that they could work with us. Some notably Livingstonian policies - WEZ, deals with Venezuela, bendy buses - are on the way out and Boris showed his teeth in the removal of Sir Ian Blair. A frozen precept increase is in the pipeline for 2009, for the first time in GLA history.

The Conservative group is now eleven strong - the largest group ever elected to the assembly. Not quite enough to achieve a majority, but we do have two deputy mayors and the chairman of the fire authority. They are an experienced and able team who have bedded in well, and it is a privilege to lead them - thanks guys, for all your hard work this year.

It's resolution time - I need to lose a stone, raise my profile, find a partner (perhaps) and write a sequel to my first book. With a European election and the distinct possibility of a general election, 2009 promises to be a busy year.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Christmas Questions

Question Time with the mayor this morning. The Mayor unveiled his economic package to see London through the recession, led by a council tax freeze. Greens and Labour were unimpressed, depicting the saving for Londoners as only 11p per week. These are the same people who defended Livingstone's increases as only the price a walnut whip per week. It is sometimes hard to believe that they have a clue about money, because over a year these are significant amounts and even more important is the culture change which leads to year on year savings. Over time the difference is clear - everyone expects Wandsworth to charge a lower council tax than Haringey, yet that is down to the political culture of these authorities rather than the quality of the services provided. This freeze signals the direction in which London government is now progressing.

Freedom Pass

The assembly welcomed the introduction of 24 hour Freedom Passes on 2nd January. I sounded a note of caution, highlighting the poor quality of bus driving that leads to falls and injuries amongst passengers. TfL now have a good training programme but the high turnover of staff means that teaching careful driving skills is a constant need. Perhaps the recession will lead to bus drivers remaining in their jobs for longer.

Congestion Charge

The assembly welcomed the decision to end the Western Extension and last week's vote when Mancunians rejected the charge in their city. Victoria Borwick urged the mayor to consider granting Londoners a vote on possible abolition of the charge altogether. Boris refused to go so far, but the idea remains on the table.

Outer London Commission

We noted the establishment of a new Outer London Commission, in a helpful departure from the previous mayor's approach, in which Outer London was largely ignored except when the bills were sent out. Four Buddhas of Suburbia - myself, Richard Tracy, Tony Arbour, Brian Coleman - urged Boris to preserve the character of our boroughs and reject the existing London Plan with its pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap development policies. We await the findings of the new commission.

Turning the Volume Down

I drew the mayor's attention to noise complaints from residents around South Woodford and Grange Hill stations. The Central Line has brought in a new public address system on the platforms, but the volume is so loud that residents can get travel information in their back gardens, along with frequent requests not to smoke and take their litter home...

The situation is under review but how hard can it be to find the volume knob?
The Ghost of Christmas Past
And Ken was back in his usual place - The Ghost of Christmas Past.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Mayor at the Budget Committee

The budget committee heard evidence from the mayor this morning, as he prepares his first financial settlement.

The headline news is that for the first time in history, the GLA precept - the charge to council tax payers - is to be frozen. For future years of the Boris mayoralty the aspiration is to maintain this freeze and possibly to achieve a reduction, if this can be done. This has been achieved so far by avoiding waste and unnecessary expense.

The recession and falling inflation could produce more cost savings, however we were warned that the rate of growth in the number of passengers was slowing - amazingly it is still rising - so the revenue generated from public transport might not be as great as expected. This trend will be partly offset by cracking down on fare dodging, with the removal of bendy buses and increased enforcement sending a clear message to passengers who refuse to buy a ticket.

Ending the spending on projects for which no capital government funding was available, for example the £1.3 billion Cross River Tram, saved money and made for a more honest dialogue with Londoners. The mayor will buy the schemes he can afford and not hold out false promises on the rest of the programme. Money intended for the doomed Thames Gateway Bridge was being reserved to fund a new crossing at Silvertown instead.

TfL was exercising more stringent budget control through its diligent finance committee and Steven Norris - an experienced transport professional and former minister - was conducting a review of bus contracts which many suspect have not been giving Londoners good value for money.

The mayor praised London Travelwatch for their efforts over the last year, but I voiced my concern that their recent statements have been backward looking, for example their obsession with preserving bendy buses for future generations. It is time for the performance, business plan and objectives of Travelwatch to be reviewed, to ensure that they remain an authentic voice for passengers rather than providers.

Best quote of the meeting came from Labour member, Val Shawcross, stating "There is nothing socialist about wasting public money!", as she set out single handedly to rewrite history...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Facebook - Love, Fear, Rejection, Remorse, all in 12 Hours

Yesterday evening was quiet, so I decided to sign up on Facebook. The whole process was easy enough and I was delighted by the love bombing I received immediately - so many people wanting to be friends! Very flattering so I accepted them all, then went on to create a basic profile. I considered several photographs and decided to use the previously unpublished one from this year's London Freewheel, shown above. Seeing this every day will persuade me to eat fewer pies in 2009, and as an added bonus it also features the mayor, but not too prominently.

I had a bath and returned an hour later to discover some 40 emails - clearly this was going to need tight control, as my home address usually gets no more than half a dozen emails in a full day. Logging on, I found lots more new friends, some had posted photographs and one had invited me to his birthday party - looked good, unfortunately I was busy. I enjoyed a brief online chat with Simon Jones, candidate for Dagenham & Rainham, who warned me about privacy issues.

That got me thinking. Did I really know all these people? What if they said something extreme? Or did something embarrassing? And did I want them to know me that well? Didn't feel so good now...

So back to the 'friends' page and off with everyone I haven't known for months and years. This morning I'm feeling some remorse, after all I know that personally I hate rejection, and I wouldn't want to be befriended then defriended in a space of four hours. So I'm sorry, but I'm sticking to my rule - I'd like to know people personally before putting them on my page. Sometimes the old ways are the best.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Progressive Alliance

Following the May election, assembly opponents of the Conservative mayor banded together to form the self styled Progressive Alliance, carving out all the committee chairs amongst themselves and setting out to make common cause against Boris. With 13 members in total they command a wafer thin majority on the 25 strong body. Seven months on, how are they doing?

Labour - Looking Back in Angst

The Labour group actually gained a member - Navin Shah - at the election, giving them a total strength of eight. Making up over half of the Progressive Alliance, they were naturally expected to take the lead.

However much of their time has been spent grieving and coming to terms with the May result. Like the crew of a wrecked flagship, they bob around in the water, seeking pieces of wreckage to cling to. They have an unerring instinct for grasping the lead lifebelts - issues that contributed to their demise. So we have seen unattractive campaigns such as:

Preserve the Bendy Bus

Save Sir Ian Blair

Keep the Congestion Charge Western Extension

Their most effective performer is John Biggs, who harries the mayor constantly at question time, but John often appears grouchy and bitter. For non Labour voters he is not a sympathetic figure.

Perhaps the biggest of the lead lifebelts is Ken himself. He has stopped hanging around in the audience at meetings, but in November he launched his online fightback at claiming support from a host of political and non aligned figures. The site was slow to start, with few comments and fewer articles - Prozac London would have been a better title - but it has picked up speed recently, with the resignation of another mayoral advisor and the mayor's remarks on the Damian Green controversy. No comments on the arrest itself and its implications for civil liberties, however - they're not that progressive.

Labour need to find a new candidate and some new ideas.

Liberal Democrats - The Magnificent Three

The Libs lost two members at the election, falling from five to just three, largely because their vote was squeezed by the high profile candidates of the two main parties. They have accepted the limitations placed on them by their numbers and have been careful about the responsibilities they took on.

Whilst supporting Labour on paper, in practice they have sought opportunities to distance themselves, most notably on the Western Extension with Lib Dem transport chairman Caroline Pidgeon demanding its scrapping, even whilst the consultation was in progress. This stands in stark contrast to the Labour / Green attachment to the charge.

Last week the Libs and Conservatives passed an amendment to a motion about the Met's human trafficking unit, condemning the Home Secretary's half baked proposals to control prostitution.

The Libs seem content to be part of the Progressive Alliance but don't want to be too closely identified with some of their policies.

Greens - The Tail Wags the Dog

With only two members, the tiny Green group managed to punch well above their weight in Ken's second term, securing funding for environmental projects as a price for agreeing the mayor's budget. With Ken gone and their votes no longer essential, the future looked grim.

However they have adjusted to the new circumstances remarkably quickly. Green member Darren Johnson, became deputy chair of the assembly and has chaired a couple of sessions in Jennette Arnold's absence. During one meeting he had left wing protestors thrown out of the chamber - surely a first for a Green politician.

Most meetings feature motions proposed by the Greens, which attract support from the other progressives, giving the impression that the Greens are actually leading the progressive agenda. The Greens raised the future of the human trafficking unit when the Home Office cut their funding, and it was the Greens who proposed the amnesty for illegal immigrants which caused such controversy in October.

Green leader Jenny Jones claims that she gets her way by being nice to the Labour group but the truth is that of all three progressive blocks, the Greens are the only ones who are clear about what they stand for as opposed to what they stand against.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Elm Park Makeover

Yesterday the Elm Park councillors, together with local residents and Simon Jones, our candidate for Parliament, spent several hours clearing up a piece of ground next to the station. The area is right in the middle of Elm Park and it regularly becomes littered with bottles and cans thrown over the fence by inconsiderate scumbags. Because nobody claims ownership it is very difficult to get it cleaned up and weeds were also sprouting.

Supported by the CCHQ social action team, we removed several bags of litter and weeds, before laying gravel on the site, greatly improving the look of the town centre. I was with them in the morning, but missed the conclusion of their efforts as I had to be at a coffee morning in Ilford, but full details are available on David Grantham's blog, including pictures.

I have borrowed one of his photographs, as my camera wasn't working too well - think I know what I will be asking Santa to put in my stocking...

Monday, December 01, 2008

Met Police to Face Assembly Questioning

On Wednesday morning the Police Authority will be facing questions from the London Assembly. They will be represented by their chairman, Boris Johnson, and by acting commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, or one of the assistant commissioners if he can't make it.

With the appointment of a replacement for Sir Ian Blair under consideration, and the arrest of Damian Green MP, this will be a crunch meeting, with the potential for awkward questions.

The Home Office decision to scrap funding for the Met police trafficking unit will also come under scrutiny. This looks odd in the light of all the trafficking that the government claims is taking place, and the much trailed proposals to crack down on prostitution. Consistency has never been Labour's strength...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Cllr David Grantham

David is my ward colleague in Elm Park and he has started his own blog, to enable constituents and friends to keep track of his activities. He has also listed himself as a 'follower' of this blog - whatever that means... Hope it's not like stalking.
David is in his thirties and works long hours as a solicitor in the City. I recently featured his marriage to Edwina, complete with wedding photograph.

It's always good to see politicians take up on-line accountability so I hope that visitors will take time to visit and leave some positive messages.

Illuminating Elm Park

Last night the Christmas lights were switched on in Elm Park, the honours being done by the Mayor of Havering, Cllr John Clark, and local MP James Brokenshire.

Rain didn't dampen the festivities, nor did the poor economic forecasts, although there were some worries about the future of Woolworths, the largest shop in Elm Park. Small shopping centres need a large store as an anchor for the other outlets and a draw for shoppers, so the loss of Woolies would be a blow to traders.

But with dressing up, children's rides and food on offer, the mood was upbeat last night.

Pictures show the gnomes' grotto, the Mayor with traders in fancy dress, and the Elm Park councillors with a polar bear (local organiser, Ingrid Brandon). Congratulations to Ingrid on a successful evening.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Western Extension Meets Its Waterloo

The relentless march of the congestion charge came to an end today, with the announcement of the results of the public consultation on the future of the Western Extension.

Imposed in the face of bitter local opposition, Livingstone hoped that people would come to love the extended charging zone. This was a forlorn hope, as demonstrated by the public response, with over 60% in favour of outright abolition and over 80% of local businesses calling for the zone to be scrapped. In the face of these figures anyone sensible would concede the point, but Labour's assembly members have gone into bat, claiming the public are wrong and the extension should be retained. Let's be charitable and assume they are still in shock following the May election.

For retailers in the zone this decision represents a lifeline in current economic conditions. It is a more effective contribution than all Gordon Brown's tinkering. Shops will be counting the days to abolition.

And in Havering & Redbridge we can breathe a sigh of relief. Congestion Tax will not be coming to a road near you.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Low Hanging Fruit

Budget committee today considered the savings that will need to be made to freeze the City Hall budget. Deputy Mayor, Sir Simon Milton commented that in his 20 years of experience in local government this had not been a particularly difficult budget to set, with an abundance of 'low hanging fruit' to pick from.

Highlights include:

£1,056k saved by deleting a large number of vacant posts. Some of these had been unfilled for up to five years, yet they appeared in Livingstone's budget every February.

£1,464 from restructuring the Mayor's Office and Press Office.

£174k saved by reducing free lets of our prestigious venue, London's Living Room.

£40k saved by cutting funding for Peace Week.

£771 saved from mayoral stakeholder programmes. These included such gems as the Venezuela Project £66k, Ethnic Media Monitoring £48k, National Assembly Against Racism £60k, and Voter Participation £20k.

Star question of the meeting came from chairman, Labour's John Biggs - "So, Mr Milton, what are the unforeseen risks?"

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fire Authority Meets at City Hall

On Thursday the LFEPA (London Fire & Emergency Planning) board met at City Hall. The change of venue from LFEPA headquarters was made because of fears that protesters would try to disrupt the meeting. In the event few people turned up, including several with Save the Fire Brigade Museum T-shirts, and there was no trouble.

Budget 2008/09

Next year's budget was discussed, and a number of savings - including closure of said museum - were discussed. The authority as a whole voiced its concern and a majority of the members - Labour, Green and Lib Dem - opposed the plans. Unfortunately, despite claiming that there were other ways to save money and balance the budget, Labour members did not propose any alternatives.

They are missing an opportunity to contribute, in my opinion. For the last eight years we were a minority on the authority but our leader, Brian Coleman (pictured), always proposed an alternative budget. Although we lost the vote, we did find that many of our ideas were picked up and implemented the following year! Labour members are in danger of looking negative and devoid of ideas to solve the mess they got the authority into.

Shut in Lifts

One charge that everyone did agree on was levying the cost of rescuing people trapped in lifts. With new blocks of flats - sorry, apartments - sprouting around town, lift maintenance is sometimes not carried out. When the lifts get stuck the brigade is called upon to get people out. In future, after nine free calls, the tenth will be charged to the property owners, hopefully encouraging better maintenance.

Hoax Calls

Recently we debated work done on preventing hoax calls. In the last three years, the brigade has prosecuted six people, four of who were found guilty, with one not guilty and one unfit to stand trial. The penalty is usually a fine, but a short prison sentence can be imposed in serious circumstances.

BNP in the Fire Brigade

Last week's publication of the BNP list led to suggestions that membership be outlawed in the fire service, as it is in the police. Personally, I'm not convinced. Currently BNP members can be elected to bodies that appoint members of fire authorities, creating the illogical prospect of members running the services who would not be allowed to serve in them. That situation would be difficult to explain to our workforce.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A12 Issues

I have just finished a meeting with TfL representatives who came to update me on the projects affecting the A12 in Havering & Redbridge. Progress is being made and we should see some improvements in the coming twelve months.

Gallows Corner

Probably the greatest cause of complaints is the current snarl up at Gallows Corner, caused by the one way operation of the flyover. Earlier this year corrosion was discovered during a refurbishment and this resulted in partial closure.

Unlike most TfL highways structures, the flyover is unique, the only similar bridge being at Hogarth Roundabout on the A3. The new panels and supporting posts need to be designed from scratch and specially fabricated, hence the severe delay.

Detailed design work is scheduled for completion in February 2009 with work starting on site in April. This work will be finished and the site cleared in July, following which two way traffic can resume.

Gants Hill

The drains in the subways have now been cleaned out and the flooding problem which persisted for many years has been largely resolved. Two obstructions have been discovered in the drains and they will need digging up and clearing. This work is scheduled for late December.

A major scheme to improve the surface environment will start in July 2009 and run for a year, during which we can no doubt expect some traffic disruption. TfL are working closely with Redbridge Council and local businesses to keep delays to a minimum.

A proposed piece of public art has been the subject of some controversy between TfL and Redbridge, over who is going to fund the work. Whilst TfL will be paying for highways work where the art will be situated, they will not be paying for the art itself. With a limited budget and major projects being delayed, they do not see public art as a priority, and in the current economic climate I am inclined to agree with them.

Mawney Road Footbridge

The bridge at this junction was removed in 2005 after it was damaged by an overheight vehicle. Last year I presented a petition from local residents, asking for the bridge to be replaced, and since then I have reminded the mayor of their request several times.

TfL state that they will not be replacing the bridge - because of the disability discrimination act! The law now says that footbridges must have ramps, but there is insufficient space to accommodate them at this junction. So because wheelchairs would not be able to cross, nobody is allowed to cross, the law says. In my opinion the law is an ass!

Instead there will be a new crossing at road level with a pedestrian phase introduced at the lights. This will be constructed in spring / summer 2010. Five years without any means of crossing the road here can only be explained by the lack of interest the previous mayor showed in outer London and highways matters in general. I suspect that without the petition - promoted by local councillor Melvin Wallace - a new crossing would still not be a priority.

Barley Lane Footbridge

My thanks to former Redbridge councillor John Coombes, who let me know about the poor state of repairs on this bridge. I raised the issue with TfL who carried out a safety inspection on 6 November.

They identified corrosion of some steps and the surface 'shellgrip' but neither was bad enough to present a trip hazard. Nevertheless repairs are in hand and will take place during March 2009.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Talent From Trash"

No, it's not another Saturday night television show, but an innovative scheme to encourage football fans to recycle their rubbish. This was just one of the advances in recycling that we discussed at today's environment committee.

Londoners have seriously bought into recycling, with the amount of rubbish recycled increasing every year. Demand for plastics recycling is also rising, with very good return rates for plastic bottles. Other packaging presents more of a challenge, because different types of plastic are used, but technology to sort them has been developed. The next stage is to progress from recycling household waste to recycling packaging from food consumed on the go.

Coke is it

Coca Cola told us about their plan for 80 recycling zones, where customers at venues can deposit their plastic drinks bottles. Five such zones are already in place at:

Thorpe Park
Chessington World of Adventures
Festival Place Shopping Centre, Basingstoke
University of Warwick

The London Borough of Bexley - who already have a good record on recycling - are bidding to be one of the 80 zones.

Earls Court & Olympia

These exhibition centres have attained British Standard 8901 for recycling on site. At present their efforts are confined to plastics from shows and exhibition stands, but they are working towards getting restaurants and other outlets on site to provide recyclable packaging.

Marks & Spencer

Representatives told us that their sandwiches are now wrapped in cardboard and they have greatly simplified their use of plastics, now only producing three types of plastic bottles and packaging. Their plastic includes recycled material and they have a contract with the new plastics plant in Dagenham to provide this.

M & S is seen as a leader in this field, with their policy of charging 5p for plastic bags. I often fall foul of this when buying food as, for me, it tends to be an impulse purchase whilst I'm out and about, and I'm not going to carry a shopping bag everywhere on the off chance that I might need it...

London Underground

For LU the big challenge is free newspapers, and this is only too obvious to commuters. 70% of their waste is free sheets and they have introduced newspaper bins at six central London stations. The security threat mitigates against the wide use of bins, but we did hear about a new bomb proof bin that is now available. Unfortunately it costs £25,000 which seems a bit steep for a litter bin, even a large one...

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Boris at the London Area Conference

Today the mayor was the key speaker at the London Conservative conference, hosted by Canary Wharf Group at the East Wintergarden in Docklands.

Boris spent much of his speech on the deteriorating economic situation, promising to use all his powers to help London through the crisis. He repeated his by now familiar theme of protecting the wealth creators who are still contributing so much to the city. Socialist envy and blame must not result in tighter regulation which would strangle a recovery. He called upon the government to relax taxation of businesses and stem the current exodus of companies from Britain to more friendly places.

Economies would be sought in the GLA, hence the bonfire of vanity virtual transport projects last week. Encouraging the GLA group to pay bills within ten working days - rather than the present 30 - would greatly assist the cash flow of small and medium suppliers.

Most impressively, he undertook to freeze the council tax precept at its current level, for the first time since the GLA was formed in 2000.

A number of former Labour party supporters turned up and they weren't shy about saying why they had changed sides...

Can we fix London's ailing economy?


Friday, November 14, 2008

Dial A Ride

This morning I visited Dial A Ride HQ in Southwark. They provide an on demand door to door transport service for disabled people, and are a division of TfL surface transport. The fleet is made up of 350 vehicles, including several new minibuses - designed with input from users -which are being rolled out in London Buses colours. I am pictured standing in front of a new vehicle, each of these costs some £65,000.

Recently they have switched to a central call centre and computerised booking system which has been experiencing teething troubles. Members have received complaints from users all over London. I visited the call centre and saw the work being done to improve response times. The time taken to answer the phone is down to an average 1 min 20 secs, but during peak demand times this rises to 3 mins 42 secs. Low numbers but to frail and elderly people hanging on the line it can still seem like an eternity.

An 0845 number is now used, because BT provide the facility to switch lines if there is a technical failure, but some users are concerned that they have to pay so an alternative 0207 number is being introduced.

The number of trips, measured as the number of people carried has also fallen, partly because the service has moved away from 'mass outings' to focus on journeys for individuals, better tailored to their needs.

With new systems still bedding in, Dial A Ride managers appreciate the need to improve the service they provide. In the New Year they will be giving evidence to the Assembly transport committee and they expect to be able to report better performance.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mayor's Questions

Another monthly question time today, in front of a packed gallery. There were queues to get in this time, although there was no sign of ex mayor Livingstone, for the first time. It felt a bit strange - MQT without Ken was like Hamlet without the skull...

Several residents from Rainham and Hornchurch (pictured above) attended to protest about plans to extend the 372 bus route down their residential roads, and I presented their petition, comprising over 700 signatures. Boris made some supportive noises and I hope the plan - also rejected by Havering Council - is now a dead duck.

There was considerable attention paid to the transport plan and the announcement that a number of high profile 'wish list' projects were to go on the back burner. I'm disappointed to lose the Thames Gateway Bridge, and Labour's John Biggs was incandescent with rage, but south of the river the bridge had few friends and will not be mourned. There was less complaining about the loss of the Cross River Tram, a highly unlikely prospect costing £1.3 billion.

Prodding from Victoria Borwick failed to get a final response on the future of the CC Western Extension. Personally, I hope that the latest consultation has provided a clear rejection of the scheme and that the Mayor has the courage of his convictions, and abolishes the zone extension.

There was unanimous support for a 'dangerous dog action plan', arising from recent attacks. The sad fact is that there are a lot of irresponsible people breeding dogs for fighting or even keeping vicious breeds as fashion accessories. During my walks around London I often encounter dog walkers and in recent years the worst you could expect was an enthusiastic licking from a spaniel or Labrador, but over the last year I have noticed a large number of unpleasant looking mastiffs. The police can take 24 hours to register and process a dog, and the horror hounds remain in kennels for months whilst their fate is decided. We agreed a cross party motion demanding that something be done.

We also agreed cross party on a motion opposing the third runway at Heathrow, even attracting Labour support.

However we could not agree to promote fair trade in all London councils. To my mind, Fairtrade is a great thing, but it should be up to local politicians and their voters to adopt it. The motion was passed by 11 to 10, but only after yet more tiresome moralising from the Greens who seem to be pulling the strings in the so called 'progressive alliance'.

Monday, November 10, 2008

False Alarms

This morning LFEPA's Performance Management & Community Safety Panel received a report on hoax calls.

Amazingly the London Fire Brigade received 9,750 irresponsible hoax calls in 2007/08. Perhaps more surprisingly, we actually have the lowest rate of attendance at hoax calls of any of the UK metropolitan fire and rescue services, since we introduced a procedure involving challenging calls and recording numbers of hoaxers.

Over 1,000 mobile phones have been disconnected by service providers because they were being used for hoax calls.

The problem is particularly bad between 3pm and 5 pm on weekdays and all the time at the weekend. They occur more often during summer months, peaking in August.

The worst borough for hoax calls from 2005 to 2008 was Tower Hamlets with 470, the best being Richmond with 66 (City of London had only 25, but size and a small number of residents makes the City an exception amongst London boroughs). In all boroughs the number of hoax calls has fallen - except for Kingston...

False fire alarms are a particular problem during freshers weeks - indicating that the prank of getting everyone out of bed in the middle of the night is still happening. When I was a student (long ago) the university would make a donation to the Fire Brigade charity whenever they were called out to a false alarm. This was then added to the miscreant's hall fees - might be a good idea today.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Power to the People

Last night saw the first full Peoples' Question Time for Boris. The meeting took place at Bromley Civic Centre in a packed hall, with every one of the 650 seats filled and standing room only. I'm told they had to turn around 200 people away because there was no room for them.

The audience contained large numbers of Boris supporters and there was much cheering and applause when the great man appeared on stage. There were also some whingeing greens who came to complain about the scrapping of the £25 congestion charge and the Venezuela oil deal. At the back were many supporters of Crystal Palace Park, who wanted the mayor to withdraw LDA plans for regenerating the site.

The audience also get to vote on questions at these debates, and the results provide some clues about their motivation. Despite criticisms of PCSOs, the majority of people wanted to see more of them. There was very strong objection (71%) to road charging, probably because cars are essential in large outer London boroughs.

On the Olympics, there was some pessimism, with over 55% believing that 2012 would fail to live up to the standard set by China this year. There was also majority opposition to new supermarkets, which the mayor rightly regarded as hypocrisy - if everyone is so opposed to Tesco, why do they all use the facilities?

For me, the answer is easy. Like many Londoners I'm too busy to spend time buying food in different shops, and I value what spare time I have too highly to spend it standing in queues. I remember my poor mother having to devote whole mornings to shopping when I was young, trudging from shop to shop, encumbered by a pushchair and a pram, weighed down by multiple bags which got heavier in each queue, then the long, long, tiring walk home... Thank goodness we don't have to do that any more.

I was asked how we could improve the performance of the assembly, and suggested a straight 50% majority to approve the budget, rather than the third of members required at present; giving the assembly a vote on the mayor's key strategies; scrapping proportional representation to prevent the election of single issue extremists (Richard Barnbrook did a bit of heckling at this point).

88% of people agreed that local member James Cleverly, did a good job of chairing a sometimes challenging meeting, dealing with hecklers, and a guitar wielding busker who tried to sing a 'song for Boris' before being booed off - how did he smuggle his instrument into the room?

The mayor is planning to do more of these meetings, aiming for six per year rather than the two required by statute. He intends to feature mayoral advisors and commissioners of fire, police and transport, at some of the meetings, rather than just assembly members. Judging by the crowd last night, they will be sell out events.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Communications Revolution

This morning the budget committee questioned mayoral advisors Dan Ritterband and Guto Hari, on the marketing and communications plans. They were well on top of their brief, telling us that:

Within days of the election they had saved £47K by cutting an unnecessary TfL advertising campaign and ending a contract with a PR agency saved City Hall a further £100K per month.

Money had been saved on event promotion. Marketing the RISE music festival cost £45K less but 10,000 more people attended. Marketing the Freewheel cycling event cost £250K less but 15,000 more people took part. All achieved by better targeting of the message.

The website will be improved, providing more non political content including tourist offers which are currently only available on the Visit London site. The aim was to make the homepage of choice for Londoners.

There would be regular scrutiny of the mayor with one question time and three press conferences per month, two of the press conferences to be conducted in venues elsewhere in London, bringing the mayor closer to Londoners.

Instead of two Peoples' Question Times per year there would be six, possibly including opportunities to question mayoral appointees and the commissioners of fire, transport and the police.

More sponsorship would be sought, although following the renaming of the O2 and the Emirates Stadium, there were no plans to rebrand City Hall as the Chavez Testicle!

Witnesses from TfL also revealed that 75% of the marketing budget for low fares for income support claimants had been saved by restricting the formerly national campaign to London only.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Havering Book Festival

This morning I attended the launch of the Havering Book Festival at the new Hornchurch Library.

Councillors were invited to donate their favourite book to the book crossing project. These books then go into circulation and we are able to track their progress - using mysterious new technology - and learn what the readers think about them. Naturally, I have put my own book into the project, and I took the opportunity to donate five copies of Gremal Quest to the Havering library service.

Featuring in the picture - left to right - are:
Nikki Dunn, Havering library service.
Cllr Coral Jeffrey
Cllr Andrew Curtin
Cllr Roger Evans
Cllr Georgina Galpin
Cllr John Mylod
Cllr Lynden Thorpe
All with favourite books, which will be available at Fairkytes later this week.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Sir Keith Park

This morning I attended the unveiling of a statue of Battle of Britain hero, Sir Keith Park. This is only a model of the planned artwork but it captures the moment nicely, depicting Park in flying gear as he would have appeared to his fellow fliers whilst directing the defence against the might of the Luftwaffe. Park went on to direct the defence of Malta later in the war. A tribute to this hero is long overdue.

It is hoped that the statue will find a home in Trafalgar Square, on the controversial Fourth Plinth, bringing to an end the parade of embarrassing tat that has defaced the site in recent years.

I'm An Uncle!

For the second time...

Sally, my younger sister, gave birth to a baby girl early this morning. My new niece - Isabel - is in good health, as is her mother. All my good wishes go to them both and to Phil, the proud father.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Car Crash?

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders appeared at an informal meeting of the transport committee this morning. They are predicting dire consequences for their members during the recession.

In 2004 new car registrations peaked at over 2.6 million, but by Summer this year they had declined to around 2.4 million. Projections indicate that this figure will plunge to 1.9 million in 2009, with a slow recovery thereafter - but these are only projections, and they are getting worse as they are revised each month. One manufacturer stated that numbers of new registrations could continue to fall further and for longer.

This poses a problem for plans to improve emissions by introducing new technology, because if new cars are not selling, the new technology is not being used, even though it is now available.

The crash is causing long term problems way beyond the financial markets.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Moving On & Letting Go

After six years on the transport committee I am leaving to join the environment committee. My place will be taken by Andrew Boff.

Transport was always my special interest, no doubt inspired by my parents who bought me The London Game for my 7th birthday. I was the only boy in my school with a map of London Underground on my bedroom wall, and in North Yorkshire that was quite unusual.

I have really enjoyed the transport brief but it's time to move on and let go...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Oysters on Toast at the Budget Committee

Yesterday's budget committee heard from TfL about the future of the Oystercard.

Over the summer, the Oyster IT system crashed three times, enabling passengers to travel for free and losing TfL a large amount of revenue. Transys, the consortium who provide Oyster under a 1998 PFI contract, paid a considerable sum in compensation. This incident just confirmed TfL's decision to retender the contract in 2010, a decision that had already gained momentum before the failures.

In future TfL will seek shorter contracts, to reflect the pace of innovation, and breaking the package up, so as to encourage specialists to take on different parts of the task. They expect to save money by avoiding expensive PFI financing, and by saving money as technology gets cheaper. They think there are around half a dozen contractors with relevant experience of providing similar technology in other cities.

Future development of Oyster also looks exciting, with plans to allow its use on river services and to enable the purchase of small items, for example coffee and newspapers, during the journey. Ultimately Oyster could be loaded onto mobile phones which would be scanned as passengers passed through platform gates.

The Oyster brand is the property of Transys, so a rebranding exercise could be necessary if agreement cannot be reached with TfL, but they do not expect this to be expensive or to disrupt journeys.

The TfL experts were very impressive, which has not always been the case...

Monday, October 20, 2008

Transport Committee

Just catching up on last week's transport committee which agreed the future work programme and examined the thorny issue of train overcrowding.

20 mph Zones

Some boroughs reportedly want to introduce 20mph zones for all their roads - Lewisham is a prime suspect - but TfL won't provide them with the money. To have some boroughs adopt this whilst others make no changes seems crazy to me, actually I can't see why anyone would want to do it, because getting from A to B takes long enough now, but Jenny Jones is going to do an investigation into the possibilities. That is a bit like asking Dracula to investigate vegetarianism, but we await her conclusions with interest...

Cross River Tram

The report on last month's hearing was agreed by majority although the committee did note that the Conservative group think it is an unduly expensive scheme, probably unaffordable in the current financial climate, even if TfL does get its money back from Iceland.

Train Overcrowding

The committee heard from passenger representatives on suggestions to beat overcrowding on main line routes. The problem is particularly bad south of the river in places where the tubes don't go. One suggestion is to stop more of the express trains at inner London stations, which would help to spread the load but would slow the network down. Another idea is to abolish first class for commuter - as opposed to inter city - services. This seems like a good idea to me, as hardly anyone uses the first class sections whilst the rest of the train is like a sardine can. Often the only people in first class seem to be fare dodgers and other anti socials who see it as a way to raise two fingers to the rest of us.

we will be hearing from train operators next month.

Oxford Street

Victoria Borwick has asked to do a piece of work on the 'bus jam' in Oxford Street, looking at ways to free up road space and improve service times. This is not an easy problem to solve, but rerouting some services and turning others at each end of the street should be considered.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


My fellow ward councillor in Elm Park, David Grantham, got married yesterday to Edwina. The service and reception were held at the Elvetham Hotel near Fleet. As a determinedly single person, I have great respect and admiration for people who make such a solemn and open ended commitment to one another.

I wish Mr and Mrs Grantham all the best for their future together.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Mayor's Question Time

Question Time this morning, and my first outing as group leader, although I have acted in the role on past occasions. The Labour people went racing off and used up their allotted time more quickly than usual, with the result that we got through all of our Conservative questions at a leisurely pace towards the end of the session.

The meeting attracted a packed audience for once, but we soon discovered that protesting tube cleaners - well their representatives anyway - had infiltrated. They interrupted twice, calling the mayor a liar and causing suspension of proceedings whilst they were persuaded to leave. Their tactics don't do much credit to their cause.

Bendy Buses

Labour and the Greens seem to be setting up a bendy bus preservation society (same members as the Ian Blair fan club), judging by today's efforts to force the mayor to keep the articulated monsters. I don't think it will catch on - no calls for a 'heritage route' using bendys for tourists, no requests from members of the public to buy a bendy for the back garden. Boris is adamant that we will see the back of these vehicles.

Economy of London

There was a lot of agonising about the future, diversifying beyond financial services, avoiding knee jerk regulation. Boris was quite upbeat, assuring us that the TfL investment programme - most especially Crossrail - would not suffer.

Traffic Lights

Richard Tracey sought a faster rephasing programme, reducing red phases and clearing some of the unnecessary jams. Other members had pleas of their own and the mayor agreed to press TfL for action, even considering the removal of traffic signals completely in some locations. With the lights at Admiralty Arch on green for just 8 seconds - blink and you miss it - a guaranteed minimum green phase somewhat longer than that would be considered for the capital.

Buses in Oxford Street

Victoria Borwick sought measures to reduce the permanent bus jam in Oxford Street. Perhaps some routes can be diverted, others might be terminated at each end of the street, after all this part of the route can't be helping their overall reliability.

Olympic Costs

Revelations that the contingency fund has already been dipped into after the athletes' village ran into credit crunch trouble. Everyone tries to put a brave face on it, especially Livingstone who was back in his customary place in the public gallery.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Audit Panel Reviews the Last Days of Livingstone

Not quite the highly publicised 'forensic audit', but the Assembly's own audit panel met this afternoon. On the agenda was a selection of dispassionate audit reports which gave a snapshot of the situation at City Hall in April, May and June this year. They show some of the chaos that greeted the new administration:

Budgetary Control

A random sample picked up the fact that two out of five budget holding managers could not gain access to vital monitoring information on the accounts database, which didn't seem to be a problem in those plentiful times. In the case of virements from one budget to another, a random sample found that two in ten had not been instigated by the budget holder. The system has now been made more accountable.

Older Peoples' Strategy

This Livingstone creation was managed by an 'advisory group' which had not met since April 2007! Auditors felt there was no clear view as to the role of the group, perhaps not surprisingly as no terms of reference could be found. Their 'action plan' had not been updated since September 2006. Nobody at the audit panel knew who the Chairman of the panel was, or the names of its members. This looks like a candidate for the current mayor's savings drive - after all, we won't miss what we've never had...

Accessible Communications

Weren't accessible, not clear on the website, or at the front desk. The 'Accessible Communications Working Group' had no terms of reference and had not reviewed the policy, but at least they had met, albeit 'irregularly'.

If you are going to boast that you provide translations into different languages and braille, it is inexcusable to fail to do so. Improvements have been promised and we will be reviewing progress in January.

Mobile Phones and Electronic Devices

Keeping track of these had been difficult, particularly in the days following the election. We were assured that all the ex advisors and members had now returned the GLA's equipment, after prompting in a few cases.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Bloomberg in London

Last night I was in the audience to hear the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. Much of his speech and the questions, was dominated by the financial crisis currently engulfing both cities. Bloomberg;'s view is that there is no point trying to apportion blame when we should be working to solve the problem, however he did identify some practices which should not have been allowed to happen.

The selling on of debt, so that a creditor would eventually find they were owed by an organisation with no means to pay, was identified as a key problem. Likewise the practice of credit referencing agencies also providing consultancy on how to improve ratings to the same customers, was seen as a clash of interest. It's all too obvious in hindsight and I find it amazing that financial experts and supposedly bright - and well rewarded - professionals failed to spot these weaknesses developing.

Sack the managers, let the shareholders fall, but protect the customers, was Bloomberg's view.

The question of policing was also raised. Bloomberg has the power to hire and fire the police commissioner in New York and he was clear that London's Mayor should have the same power. There has been a lot of griping about 'politicising the police' lately, but of course it is the same people who want to bring 'democratic accountability' to the Met, and the two positions conflict because democracy cannot exist without politics.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Birmingham Experience

Just back from the Conservative Party Conference, hosted by Birmingham for the first time in 75 years. No doubt different views will be expressed but I thought the venue was a huge improvement on previous seaside experiences. I had the best hotel room ever at a party conference (admittedly the standard is usually poor), which is important when you are speaking at meetings and networking. Being fresh and alert is vital and a clean, comfortable room is a big help.

The conference centre and hotel were confusing, but this is to be expected at a new venue. I got lost around the Bournemouth ICC at my first conference and the Blackpool Winter Gardens were always a maze. The hall was too small for many of the debates, so I hope we can use the larger Symphony Hall when we return in two years (this room was used for Cameron's address).

London Assembly Conservatives' Fringe Meeting

We hosted a lunchtime 'meet London Influentials' event which was very well attended, with two full sessions and a queue out of the door. The 'influentials' were mostly AMs but we also had blogger Guido Fawkes as a special guest. The format was based on speed dating where - I'm told - small groups get four minutes to question their guest before a whistle blows and the guests move to new groups. The atmosphere was lively and exciting, so expect to see this format used more widely in future. It really made a difference from all the 'sit, listen to speeches, and ask questions' meetings taking place elsewhere. Many thanks to Canary Wharf who sponsored our event.

Thames Gateway

I spoke at a lunchtime session on the Thames Gateway, alongside shadow minister Stewart Jackson MP, Lorraine Baldry and Theo Steel. Stewart caused some alarm when he said that spending on gateway projects needed to be audited for value by an incoming Conservative government, but in the current financial straits he is absolutely right. Every penny will need to be accounted for to ensure a return, and what a shame that it takes a financial crisis to restore what should be basic fiscal discipline.

I got a hard time over the 'Boris Island' airport study, which is attracting opposition from Kent and Essex authorities even before it is off the drawing board. Clearly the views of local people will need to figure strongly in any research which is done on this project.

Resilience and Flooding

I also appeared, alongside shadow resilience minister, Pauline Neville Jones, at a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) fringe meeting where designing buildings to resist attack was debated. Pauline is an expert on security issues so I stayed away from that topic and discussed the flood threat to London, which I do know a bit about.

The audience were quite technical and there were speakers from the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) and RIBA as well. RIBA are hosting a competition to design a flood resistant home and I'm looking forward to seeing the result of this exercise.

So now it's back to City Hall, with the words of David and Boris ringing in our ears. This party is looking more and more like a government in waiting.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Olympic Flag Flies at City Hall

Fantastic weather yesterday morning for the official flag raising on the Potter's Field. The two Olympic flags and the Union Flag were raised by our successful athletes after introductory speeches from Seb Coe, Tessa Jowell and Boris.

The Mayor was particularly keen to emphasise the limited nature of the Olympic budget. Not a penny more than the £9.3 billion already earmarked for the project, would be spent. As the flags rose, so did Tower Bridge - a nice touch.

With me in the picture is my excellent deputy, James Cleverly AM. Interesting that we are the two Conservative AMs who blog regularly.

Friday, September 26, 2008

New Sub Surface Trains

This morning I viewed a mock up of the new rolling stock which will run on the Metropolitan Line from 2010. The trains have lower floors to improve wheelchair access and more space for expected passenger growth.

Coaches are equipped with CCTV as standard as well as large indicators to provide passenger information. These will be particularly useful on the Metropolitan and District lines where trains serve several different destinations - and as someone who went to Shenfield after boarding the wrong train from Liverpool Street yesterday, I feel you can't provide too much detail for passengers...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

New Conservative Group Officers at City Hall

Following today's group meeting, the new officer team are:

Leader: Roger Evans AM

Deputy Leader: James Cleverly AM

Whip: Dick Tracey AM

The group recorded its thanks to outgoing leader, Richard Barnes, who took us through the successful election in the Spring and has now moved on to devote his time to the duties of Deputy Mayor.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Freewheel 2008

Here is another example of how the tone of London government has changed for the better.

Today saw Freewheel 2008, the cycling festival, take to the streets of the capital. Under Ken the event was originally branded as 'Car Free Day' and its prime purpose seemed to be to bring disruption and discord to the streets. There was much anti motorist propaganda, as well as an anti globalisation 'reclaim the streets' undertone and no self respecting Conservative would be seen there.

Now it has morphed into a positive celebration of cycling. The Mall was full of all kinds of bikes being ridden by all kinds of people. Families enjoyed the sun and it looked like the best attended of these events so far. Like the recent Rise Festival, nobody seemed to be missing the left wing moralising that we came to expect.

I attended to show my support, along with prospective Church End councillor, Iseult Roche, pictured above with the bicycling Mayor.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Mayors Visit Havering

Today the Mayor of Havering, Cllr John Clark, hosted a visit to the borough and tour for other civic dignitaries. The Mayor of Waltham Forest attended, as well as the Civic Ambassadors for Lewisham and Newham, and several Mayors from boroughs in Kent.

We often praise the attractions to be found in the centre of town, but it is good to be able to show off our own local gems, all of which were open to the public as part of London Open House weekend.

St Andrew's Church

Also known as the 'horned church', after a carved bull's head which adorns the gable, this was our first stop. Unusual features include a fine oak beamed roof and a stained glass window unveiled in 1991 to mark the 600th anniversary of the church. The window depicts modern icons including the Spitfire and the Ford Fiesta, which both have links with the area.

Queen's Theatre

Situated in the centre of Hornchurch, this was our next stop and the picture was taken at the front door. The theatre is supported by the local council. Backstage the preparations for this year's panto, Dick Wittington, were well under way.

Upminster Windmill

This is one of only three surviving windmills in Greater London, and the only one north of the river. The smock mill is being lovingly restored by the Friends of Upminster Windmill and the sails actually turn (they tell me). The four floors are well preserved although 'elf n' safety' is making an unwelcome intrusion.

Bedfords Park

The tour finished up with a visit to Bedfords Park, which has won a prestigious Green Flag award. Covering several hundred acres in the north of the borough, the park includes a deer enclosure with some very fine specimens.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Fire Authority - Initial Budget Skirmishes

The Fire Authority met today. Together with the Mayor's two nominees, we are one short of a majority and - as everywhere - the other three parties have ganged up, although what they plan to do with their barely held power is not yet clear.

The Chairman, Brian Coleman, made it very clear that he will be seeking a 0% increase in the authority's budget next year. Given the financial pressures on Londoners, this has to be the correct approach, but it will involve making administrative cuts and some areas e.g. the Fire Brigade Museum at Southwark, are under threat. Interestingly the Lib Dems agreed that there should be savings, so Nick Clegg's message from the seaside is being heard loud and clear.

The main grumbles from the other groups were about lack of consultation, rather than concrete alternative proposals. A long budget setting process lies ahead.

Reversing Policy

The Brigade reported an increase in traffic accidents involving fire engines. The bumps and scrapes were happening not when racing to the scene of fires, as you might expect, but when reversing! It can't be easy, reversing a large vehicle in tight spaces, but a reversing policy is being introduced to ensure good practice is followed.

New Control Centre

As part of the government's plan to modernise emergency control centres around the country, London is to get a new state of the art centre. Unfortunately the government haven't come up with the money - sounds familiar - so we need to find £10 million over the next four years. This is a serious challenge to an authority with a relatively small budget, particularly as the current control centre dates from 2003 and is not yet obsolete.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mayor's Answers

The answers to the written questions from last week are out today:

Gants Hill Station

Roger Evans: There are still major problems with flooding at Gants Hill Station. With reference to his answer to question 0885/2008, can the Mayor update the Assembly on what progress is being made by TfL in solving this long term problem?

Boris Johnson: TfL has been investigating this issue further as water has been observed running into the subway rather than backing up through the internal drainage system. Investigative works were undertaken and TfL will update you once the causes of the flooding are known and the timetable for resolution can be determined.

Meanwhile, TfL's contractor continues to check and clear the drainage channels within the subway monthly and emergency call out arrangements have been put in place.

A12 Footbridge

Roger Evans: Will the Mayor instruct TfL to re-examine the case for the replacement of the footbridge over the A12 as my constituents find the current situation completely unacceptable?

Boris Johnson: The Mawney Road footbridge over the A12 Eastern Avenue was removed in June 2006 following a vehicle strike. Providing a modern, compliant footbridge in the same location was considered.

However, a new structure that would be compliant with current accessibility legislation cannot be physically accommodated. The requirements of footbridges to meet the needs of the mobility impaired have changed since the construction of the original bridge and now require considerably more space for ramps. A new footbridge would require compulsory purchase orders to be served on a number of properties. The preferred solution remains to provide pedestrian and cycle crossing facilities on the eastern arm of the A12 / Mawney Road signalled junction.

The surface level crossing is currently scheduled for detailed design and implementation works commencing in 2009/10 with a likely completion in 2010/11, although works to deliver the 2012 Olympic Games may mean that these dates are subject to change.

372 Bus Route

Roger Evans: What call was there for TfL to re-route the 372 bus route down residential streets and streets with no history of regular heavy vehicle traffic?

Boris Johnson: TfL has proposed that the 372 be rerouted between Hornchurch and Elm Park. However no decisions have yet been made.

TfL is aware of the concerns that some people have raised about the 372 proposal. The next step is to undertake a full public consultation and TfL is discussing this with council officers.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Mayor's Questions

First question session of the new term yesterday. I took the opportunity to raise some pressing local matters:

Gallows Corner

The Mayor undertook to ensure the fastest possible repair work on the temporary flyover, however this is not expected to be completed until Summer 2009 - an imprecise deadline, and too long in any case. I raised concerns about the inspection regime which had allowed the structure to deteriorate to such an extent, and the mayor stated that TfL are reviewing their procedures - let's hope so, as there are several other temporary flyovers elsewhere in London.

Local business organisations have recently suggested that tolls from the Dartford Crossing could be used to pay for a more robust viaduct, and the mayor was happy to support such a proposal, assuming the money could be used at Gallows Corner.

Gants Hill

During a session on climate change and over population, I took the opportunity to discuss flooding in the subways at Gants Hill - on the basis that climate change was partly responsible and would only aggravate matters. The mayor has promised to get TfL to sort out the drains - which in my opinion are a more immediate problem than climate change, and should be easier to put right (although so far that has not been the case).


I urged the mayor to focus the London plan on providing quality homes rather than high quantity, dense, blocks of tiny flats. In Havering and Redbridge we want buy to live, not buy to let.


I congratulated the mayor on his return from Beijing and urged him to keep the cost of 2012 under control. He pledged that the bill would not rise above the £9 billion (!) agreed by the previous mayor and the government.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Tram on the Edge

Transport committee considered the arguments around the proposed Cross River Tram this morning. The debate took the form of a seminar with invited guests, and an audience of around 80 people - no mean feat considering the committee meets during working hours and the holidays are over.

Amongst those present there was clearly support for the scheme, which would see Brixton and Peckham linked by separate lines to Waterloo Bridge, the tram then crossing the river and passing through Bloomsbury to Camden. However there was a vocal minority who opposed the tram, largely because of its effects on Somers Town and Bloomsbury.

Professor Stephen Glaister, lately of the TfL board, sounded a timely warning about funding the scheme in difficult times, pointing out the need to prioritise the many projects on TfL's drawing board. Going ahead with the tram means sacrificing something else, so TfL need to be clear about the costs and benefits. Considered against other projects, the tram is looking more like the sick wildebeest lagging at the back of the herd, as another London blogger recently commented.

Following the financial problems of Croydon Tramlink, involving the private sector in a finance deal is likely to prove difficult without paying them more to shoulder the risk.

Furthermore, raising the money from public sources would also be challenging. To borrow £1 billion for instance, would incur and interest payment of £140,000 per day. To raise £1 billion from fares would entail a fare increase of 10%, on top of the increases announced last week. And the £1 billion figure is no longer academic - because TfL predict the cost of Cross River Tram to be in the region of £1.3 billion, almost double what they predicted two years ago.

With the need to tighten belts and face the recession, Cross River Tram could be a goner.

Railway Overcrowding

The committee also undertook to carry out a review of overcrowding on main line railways in London. This is a hot topic and will prove interesting, particularly as the industry cannot even agree on a definition of overcrowding.

Dial A Ride

Complaints continue to pour in about the operation of dial a ride. There are plans to open a new depot and make changes to the system in October, so the committee agreed to carry out a review in March next year - a bit late in my opinion, but better late than not at all.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Budget Committee

The Mayor appeared before Thursday's budget committee and used the opportunity to announce his fares package for the coming year. This naturally overshadowed the rest of the business which covered budget plans for the Fire Authority and the London Development Agency.

Fares Package

Boris announced a fares increase of inflation plus 1% on average, although this will vary with some ticket types rising by less. He claims that this rise is needed to fix a 'black hole' left in the budget by the previous incumbent, although there were claims from other members that some of his new policies were adding the extra costs. I'm inclined to give the Mayor the benefit of the doubt for several reasons:

1. Changing this organisation is like turning a super tanker. Boris has only just started to bring in his policies so any costs incurred will be minimal. The TfL representative confirmed that new policies had not been considered when planning this fares package.

2. Livingstone had previous form. Four years ago he promised fare cuts before the election then put them up several months after he had won. History is repeating itself.

3. During the election correspondence from TfL emerged, showing that officials were concerned about the gap they had identified in the Livingstone's budget.

4. Livingstone in fact agreed the inflation plus 1% increase at a TfL board meeting which he chaired before the election. He then changed his decision as the election approached, causing consternation at TfL.

There are a lot of claims and counter claims being made, so I was pleased that the Mayor responded positively to my request that TfL's advice to his predecessor be released to committee members so we can see exactly who decided what, and when.

Meanwhile, there was good news on the 24 hour Freedom Pass, now due to go live with the new fares package in January. The cut price fares for claimants on income support have also been maintained, despite speculation that they would be abolished along with the Venezuela oil deal.

Fire Authority

Chairman Brian Coleman provided a typically assertive performance, telling the committee that he was aiming for zero growth in his budget. It will be challenging to turn around a settlement which has relied on raiding the reserves in recent years, but he had some interesting ideas, including the sharing of corporate functions with other GLA functional bodies - always possible since the creation of the GLA, but never before seen as a priority -, a review of training services, and plans to move the Fire Brigade Museum to a more accessible location.

Brian undertook to maintain the number of front line fire fighters and appliances, indeed there are plans to open a new fire station in Havering, the first new fire station in many years.

The authority will also fund resilience costs - equipping us to respond to terrorist attacks - if the government refuse to provide the money, as they have in the past.

London Development Agency

The previously troubled LDA quickly came under new management and chief executive, Peter Rogers, made his first appearance before the committee. He is rightly keen to establish new priorities with his board before speculating in a public forum, but he did indicate that future funding would be focused on larger projects where the returns would be more reliable and the burden of monitoring would be eased.

We were pleased to hear that board meetings would be held in public, and that a standing public item would allow discussion of the Mayor's directions to the authority. This level of transparency was one of the key recommendations from Patience Wheatcroft's forensic audit which followed the new Mayor's election.

So, a lot of ground was covered in a couple of hours. The committee plans to monitor future activities of the functional bodies and also plans to do some stand alone reviews, including an informative look at the true costs of transport policing. It promises to be a full and interesting year.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Western Extension Consultation Starts Today

This morning the mayor launches his consultation on the future of the congestion charge Western Extension. The extended zone has been controversial since it was introduced by the last mayor and has attracted opposition from local residents and traders groups. The zone was a contributory factor in Kit Malthouse's stunning London election victory.

I don't know what the result will be, but in my opinion Boris would do well to abolish the extension which has harmed local business, failed to raise much revenue and serves as a perverse incentive for all the residents who receive a discount to drive their cars more often.

There was always a sniff of class warfare in Livingstone's decision. The planned Eastern Extension (covering largely Labour supporting areas) was never progressed and the proposal for a charge at Heathrow never got off the drawing board.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Playing Scrabble Without the Vowels

We were all pretty cheerful on May 2nd. Not only had Boris defeated Ken, against all the odds, we also had a larger Conservative group - now numbering eleven, over two fifths of the 25 strong London Assembly. But at the count one Labour member sounded a note of caution - 'You are about to discover that Assembly Members are lower than dirt on the mayor's shoes.' he predicted.

Well, thanks to a less dictatorial approach from Boris, that particular prediction has not come to pass, but members who spent the last eight years in opposition have had to adjust to a new role - opposing the opposition, as it were. The powers of the Assembly are severely limited in any case, and I used to describe the role as 'Playing Scrabble without the vowels', yet this is even more the case for a group supporting the mayor, with opportunities for scrutiny severely curtailed. In eight years Labour never really got the hang of it, hence the dirt on shoes analogy.

So as the GLA prepares to return to work in September, it is timely to ask the question 'What is the purpose of the Conservative group?'

Safeguarding the Budget

The only opportunity the Assembly has to restrict the mayor's activities comes with the budget vote, for he needs our approval for his plans. However he only requires the support of a third of the members and some quick arithmetic shows that 11 Conservatives can block the proposals of the other 14 members, assuming the other four parties can get their act together and agree on what they want.

But I believe the role should be greater than just protecting the mayor's budget. We need to actively promote his proposals, across our constituencies, from Havering to Hillingdon, from Barnet to Bromley. There is a great opportunity for AMs to sell London Conservative policy, but it will require detailed liaison between the group and the mayor's team, well in advance of the budget debate in the New Year.

Question Time

Every month AMs enjoy the privilege of questioning the mayor at a Wednesday morning session screened on the Parliament Channel. Labour always struggled with this under Ken, with some members pushing too far and arousing his anger, whilst others asked toady questions placed by the mayor's team or even tried to provide answers instead of the mayor. The performance of sycophantic Labour backbenchers at PMQs provides a textbook example of behaviour to avoid.

So how do we help the mayor and Londoners, without toadying? I believe that the answer lies in constituency based questions. I know that my caseload has exploded since the election. There was a huge turnout in May and those voters now reasonably expect Boris and his AMs to solve their problems. The functional bodies that make up the GLA can be infuriatingly slow at resolving constituency matters, so what better way to create urgency - and publicity - than to raise them at question time? Concerns about bus routes and police response times may appear tediously parochial, but our constituents expect us to be able to address them.

Functional Bodies

The law requires the mayor to appoint some members in executive or semi executive roles. A statutory deputy mayor must be appointed from the assembly - a role admirably filled by my colleague Richard Barnes. AMs have to be appointed to the Police Authority and the Fire Authority, ensuring that most members end up with some executive role. Boris has also appointed an AM - James Cleverly - to the London Development Agency board.

Beyond this, Boris has appointed outsiders to major roles, often because the complex legislation leaves him with little alternative, but also to bring in the specialist skills and experience that he requires. Unfortunately there have been several high profile casualties, but a glance at Labour's Government of All The Talents (GOAT), demonstrates that appointing non politicians can be risky.

With a mayor's office that is worked off its feet, there is certainly an opportunity to exploit AMs' experience to a greater extent in the coming four years.


The bread and butter work of the Assembly is scrutiny of the mayor, and we have learned enough in eight years to do it well, within the constraints imposed by the GLA act. The initial response of the other parties to their defeat was to gang up and exclude the Conservative members from every influential scrutiny chair. This leaves them attempting to run the Assembly with just 13 AMs (having also excluded the BNP member), a considerable challenge for four years.

We can expect the committees to keep up a constant barrage of complaints, some justified but many insignificant, indeed we have already seen this during the appointment of mayoral advisors - a process which would have benefited from constructive scrutiny rather than the constant carping which actually took place.

I see Conservative AMs having a role in applying some realism to the scrutiny process, highlighting genuine findings amongst the morass of unfounded grumbling which could easily be the result of one sided scrutiny.

We are aware of the need to meet voters' expectations and to make a difference to our capital over the next four years - and the time will fly. Boris will be judged most stringently on his performance in the job, but the Assembly elections take place at the same time and a reaction against the mayor is certain to drag down many of the Conservative AMs in its wake. We are all in this together - as David Cameron would say.