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.