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.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Everytime I go Away...

I've just returned from a week in North Yorkshire which was great because I got to see my family, including Joe, my 2 year old nephew who is growing up very fast. The other good thing is that mobile phone reception is a bit patchy up there, so I was blissfully incommunicado for a few days. The message that Tim Parker had stood down as TfL chairman and first deputy mayor did get through - rendering my last post out of date literally overnight.

Funny thing - last time I went away, to Sorrento, I was 'enjoying' an English newspaper over lunch on the terrace high above the harbour, and I was equally surprised to read of Ray Lewis's resignation as deputy mayor.

We've only got four deputy mayor's left now, so I'm going to spend the rest of the year resolutely in London, just in case I'm jinxing them. I might just risk going to Birmingham for the party conference...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Board of TfL Named

The Mayor has announced the board of transport for London:

Chairman Tim Parker, about whom much has already been written. The mayor sees Parker as 'Agrippa to his Octavian'.

Deputy Chairman Christopher Garnett, formerly chief executive of GNER and a member of the previous TfL board. Good to see someone with practical experience of running a railway occupying this position.


Kulveer Ranger, the mayor's director of transport policy.

Stephen Norris, who needs no introduction amongst Londoners.

Tony West, former assistant general secretary of ASLEF. The board is clearly going to be a 'big tent'.

Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, yes the Paralympic medal winner joins the board and will be able to raise mobility issues. Her appointment is likely to be the big news story here.

Bob Oddy, representing the LTDA. About time that black cab drivers got a voice on the board.

Steve Wright, representing the private hire taxi trade.

Eva Lindholm, previously on the board, a director of JP Morgan, giving the City a stake in the board.

Keith Williams, chief finance officer for British Airways. Should make for an interesting discussion when the third runway is raised.

Patrick O'Keeffe, deputy regional secretary for Unite, another 'big tent' appointment, on the TfL board since 2004.

Peter Anderson, director of finance for Canary Wharf Group plc.

Judith Hunt, another member of the previous board, a consultant in leadership, equality, race and diversity issues.

Sir Mike Hodgkinson, formerly chairman of the Post Office.

Charles Belcher, formerly Chairman of National Rail Enquiries Ltd.

Daniel Moylan, deputy leader of Kensington and Chelsea. This is a welcome affirmation of the mayor's promise to work more closely with the boroughs.

All in all, an interesting and diverse group. Some of the industry expertise is very welcome, as are the voices for black cab drivers, private hire and the London boroughs. Did we need to keep on quite so many of Livingstone's old appointees? I suppose that some measure of continuity is wise.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Oyster Cards at Romford Station

I've had a go at National Express in the Romford Recorder this week. The story, at concerns the lack of facilities for pre paid oyster card users at Romford station. This is an ongoing disgrace which discriminates against Romford residents by denying them access to cheaper oyster 'pay as you go' fares. There are two issues:

First, the main line rail companies refuse to accept oyster pre paid tickets - as opposed to oyster travelcards which are accepted - because they don't want to incur the costs of installing oyster readers at every station. This would require the introduction of ticket barriers at many places, Gidea Park and Harold Wood being good examples, and they are resisting the extra expense. They seem not to realise that the barriers will be a benefit in themselves, restricting access to the platform and improving safety in many places. Livingstone did his best to get a deal and Boris seems to be making progress with some operators, but their foot dragging has to stop.

Second, the ticket barriers at Romford cannot read oyster cards of any type including travelcards. This means that oyster holders have to queue on the stairs to exit the station via a tiny gap where the station staff check the tickets with hand held machines. The staff are great, and long suffering, but the same can't be said of the inspectors who are sometimes drafted in. New barriers have been promised for months but again no progress from National Express.

We all want to stop ticket evasion, but a lot of people who are fined genuinely believe that their oyster pre paid ticket is valid, and after all they have paid their fare so the injustice of a fine is pretty obvious. Better information for travellers at Liverpool Street and Stratford stations would be a good start.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Motor Show Heads East

This year the Motor Show is taking place at Excel in Docklands, and it is well worth a visit. I was there on Thursday, along with my fellow assembly member, Victoria Borwick. there is a strong focus on alternative fuels this year, with electricity, hydrogen cells and hybrid engines all featuring strongly. There is also much satisfaction that the new London regime is more car friendly and recognises that many people need their cars. But it's not just about selling vehicles - TfL and the Department for Transport also have stands providing information about fuel efficiancy and safe driving.

Despite the credit crunch, oil price hikes and fears of climate change, there were plenty of visitors, and some of the exhibits were quite crowded.