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...