Friday, October 30, 2009

Cleaning The Air

On Thursday afternoon the Environment Committee took evidence on the mayor's draft Air Quality Strategy. The main witness was Environment Adviser Isabel Dedring who is well liked and respected across the political spectrum at City Hall. Inevitably the discussion focused on the Low Emission Zone and plans to clean up diesel vehicles in the capital.


Although the Low Emission Zone covers the whole of the Greater London Area - give or take some unusual boundary quirks - the main problem is in the centre of town. There are pollution hotspots at major road junctions - Tower Hill, Marble Arch, Euston Road, Trafalgar Square and all along the Victoria Embankment. Heathrow Airport clearly shows up on the pollution map, but strangely there is no corresponding hotspot at London City Airport, although an increase in the number of jets may create one in future.

Against this evidence, I expressed surprise that successive additions to the LEZ restrictions would apply in outer London. Harefield, Enfield, Bromley and Havering all register the lowest levels of air pollution, yet owners of agricultural vehicles, motorised horse boxes and mini buses will all have to make expensive alterations to their vehicles, or even replace them, although those vehicles never go near the polluted areas. This seems unfair and - not surprisingly - I'm getting complaints from residents.


Also known as PM10 emissions, these form a fine micro dust in the air we breathe and can irritate the lungs, particularly affecting asthma sufferers. The top three sources of PM10s in London are:

Black Taxi exhausts

Light goods vehicle exhausts

Tyre and brake wear from private cars

The move from petrol to diesel - encouraged by fuel prices and tax incentives - has led to more particulates whilst reducing carbon dioxide emissions. As particulates are more harmful than CO2 the tax regime looks perverse in large cities like London.

The strategy targets goods vehicles and black cabs but Isabel admitted that the particulate traps fitted to cabs had been less effective than predicted in many cases. I remember this being a hotly contested issue a couple of years ago when I raised cabbies' concerns with Livingstone. The Public Carriage Office did some tests which proved the modifications worked, Livingstone accused me of stirring up trouble and the whole thing was forgotten. It seems that there was a problem after all...

Nitrogen Oxides

The main polluter is nitrogen dioxide, a brown gas which is poisonous and has greater global warming effects than carbon dioxide, but the definition also includes nitrous oxide which is unstable and converts to nitrogen dioxide over time by combining with naturally occurring oxygen.

The three biggest polluters in London are:

Domestic gas boilers

Heavy goods vehicle exhausts

Private car exhausts

The new particulate traps being introduced for buses and HGVs also aim to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions.

The domestic boilers are a different problem, requiring planning law changes and retrofits. Decentralised power generation - meaning small power plants closer to homes - also has the potential to increase nitrogen oxide pollution. It is acknowledged that biomass boilers, which are included in many environmentally friendly developments, are more polluting than gas. When it comes to saving the world and cleaning London's air there are no easy choices and some of the solutions are contradictory.

Friday, October 23, 2009

BNP On Question Time

I watched Nick Griffin on Question Time last night, no doubt along with many others who had tuned in to see what the fuss was about.

Of the other four panellists I was most impressed with Bonnie Greer and Sayeeda Warsi. I hadn't seen Bonnie before and I thought she demonstrated a depth of knowledge and good sense on some historical matters, and she maintained her good humour despite having to sit next to Griffin - I assume the three politicians refused to do so. I was with Sayeeda in Bosnia and she is one tough cookie, as she demonstrated on the show, giving better than she got. Her condemnation of the government for creating the ideal environment for the BNP to grow was particularly telling and I was impressed by her strong defence of moderate Islam. We could do with seeing more Muslims like Sayeeda on television and fewer of the extremists who often attract coverage.

Chris Huhne was also good - worryingly so for Clegg, I imagine - although he was not credible when he was asked what the Lib Dems would do about immigration from within Europe. Jack Straw struggled to defend the government's record on immigration and community cohesion. The government minister is usually the hate figure for the audience, for once this was not the case, but he still came across as strident at times.

Griffin was clearly revelling in his most hated man in Britain status, playing up to some of the BNP stereotypes. He had difficulty justifying his previous quotes - not surprisingly - and went off into loopy conspiracy theory territory on a couple of occasions.

Many of the audience also came out of this well. They were decent people with real questions, not the shouty counter demonstration that they could easily have been. I was particularly taken with an articulate asian man who defended his love for Britain and asked where the BNP proposed to deport him to. Our country - and particularly our city - needs good, committed people like this and the colour of their skin or their religious beliefs should be irrelevant.

I was very disappointed that most of the session focused on the BNP, with Griffin's personal history debated repeatedly as if it was the most important news of the day. Outside the bubble of the studio we have a postal strike, a conflict in Afghanistan and an expenses scandal, yet the only non BNP discussion related to Anne Moir's article about Stephen Gately and the panellists swiftly drifted back to the subject of.... the BNP.

BBC News stated that, as the beneficiary of a significant vote - Griffin was entitled to occasional appearances on Question Time, which suggests that they might invite him back. If this does happen, I hope the debate will range more widely than it did this time. The BNP are comfortable talking about themselves but when they are asked to comment on the big political issues their inadequacy shines through...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Redbridge Transport Liaison Committee

The committee met last night at Ilford Town Hall. Cllr Ashley Kissin was elected chairman and ran an efficient meeting, helped on this occasion by a lack of public contributions.

Forest Road

Aldborough Cllrs Loraine Sladden and Vanessa Cole turned up to make the case for a new bus route along Forest Road. The Central Line bridge precludes the use of double deckers so the choice of services that could be diverted or extended is limited. Representatives from London Buses doubt that there is sufficient demand on the basis of the low number of residents in Forest Road, but this is not the full story.

Forest Road has seen an increase in the number and quality of attractions along its length. Most notably, Boris Johnson recently opened the new cycling track at Hog Hill. Obviously most users will be able to cycle to this venue but the track is quite demanding - I can attest to this personally - with steep gradients, so visitors need to conserve their energy. The Mayor also allocated £400,000 to improve Fairlop Waters earlier this year and the facilities at Hainault Forest have also been upgraded. Add to those the desire to reduce car use by workers at the Hainault industrial estate and there might well be sufficient demand for a low frequency service.

King Georges Hospital

Concerns were expressed about the adequacy of bus services to Redbridge's main hospital. In particular the 365 which runs from Ilford via Gants Hill is often overcrowded in the morning, a situation made worse by demand for travel to Redbridge College. Councillors were very worried that the NHS proposal to focus GP services on just four polyclinics would increase the load on the hospital yet further. London Buses assured us that they are now talking to the NHS about the routes they will need to introduce - better late than never...

462 Bus

I raised concerns about this route running early. London Buses state that their services may run up to two minutes early and up to five minutes late and still be considered on time. The vehicles are tracked using ibus technology and held at stops to regulate the service. They can't wait too long because a bus occupying a stop for more than three minutes is deemed to have parked and can be issues with a ticket - you learn something new at every meeting. Early running had exceeded two minutes on several occasions and Arrive had disciplined two drivers for this.

Gants Hill

The good news is that following an agreement enabling the water companies to work alongside TfL's contractors, the project is back on target and due to complete according to the original timetable in late 2010. In November 2009 the work on the island will be complete and two lanes will be reinstated on the roundabout. Restrictions will then apply at each exit in turn as the contractors work their way clockwise, installing crossings and signals.

I met with local businesses on Wednesday night and it is clear that the disruption is threatening the existence of some shops. TfL undertook to do everything they could to minimise the impact.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


They are back!

Several months ago my computer caught a virus from Facebook which wiped out all the hard disk, including my photo library. Today I spent some time retrieving the best pictures and retrospectively illustrating some of the recent pieces.


Friday, October 16, 2009

End of the Road?

Rumours have been kicking around for several days concerning supposed secret conservative plans to abolish the London Assembly and replace it with a committee of London borough leaders. The proposal originated with Conservative Thinkers - although you don't need to be much of a thinker to recycle a policy that was first mooted a decade ago - and has been 'exposed' by Tribune magazine. The Evening Standard covers it today and it is being debated over at Tory Troll and on Conservative Home, with fairly predictable comments in both places.

Support has been expressed by Hammersmith & Fulham leader Stephen Greenhalgh, who I suspect would do a fine job of scrutiny as part of a leaders' committee. Other council leaders may not have the time, indeed some struggle to control and reform their own backyards.

My colleague Andrew Boff has also expressed some support for the idea. This may seem strange but it is understandable in the light of the strategy of the Labour, Liberal and Green parties to deny the eleven strong Conservative group a proportional share of committee chairs. I can well understand some members seeing little point in an organisation that limits their participation.

I don't support abolition but I do think reform is essential in a number of areas:


The Act that set up London government created a strong mayor and a relatively weak assembly. Subsequently, the mayor's powers have been increased but the assembly remains the same, so here are three suggestions:

1. At present the budget can be passed by only a third of the assembly voting in favour. Not surprisingly, it has never been rejected or amended in nine years. Raise the bar by requiring an absolute majority.

2. There is currently no democratic check on the mayor's strategies. The London Plan, Transport Plan and Economic Development Strategy should all require approval by a majority of the assembly.

3. Members are required to sit on the police and fire authority boards, may take part in the LDA board and are prohibited from serving on the board of TfL. This confusing fudge should be swept away with members appointed to all the functional body boards in proportion to the size of their political groups.

Democratic Deficit

The combined first past the post and party list election ensures that the assembly is always hung. As a practical result the third party Liberal Democrats get to decide who chairs the committees, treating the public vote as merely a consultation. This leads to weak 'me too' government.

The list element should be discarded and the existing large constituencies halved in size. The result would be a 28 member body with enough members to serve on the functional bodies and clear political control.

Presently the assembly is elected on the same day as the mayor, making it very likely that the mayor's party will dominate the assembly. The elections should be staggered to allow for a mid term assembly vote which could potentially give the opposition a much stronger hand.


Over the last twelve years politicians at all levels have lost a lot of their power, and the current expenses scandal threatens to dilute their influence still further. Constituents wonder why MPs can't prevent hospital closures, councillors can't vote on bus lanes and assembly members can't make the buses run on time. The reason is that many of these powers have been devolved to professional officers - well meaning people who act in line with standards set by their national bodies and strategic plans that bury proposals in turgid detail. Often we are told we can't do things because of health and safety or judicial constraints. Expression of opinions is confined by the threat of the standards regime.

Across the board these restrictions need to be rolled back. The people should be in charge and their elected representatives need to be empowered, not controlled and restricted.

The Record

Notwithstanding its relative impotence, the assembly has produced some good work over the years, but it has been like playing Scrabble without the vowels. The 7/7 review chaired by Richard Barnes provided the only opportunity for a public examination of that terrorist atrocity, given the government's reluctance to hold an inquiry.

The transport committee reports on the collapse of Metronet and the value of bus contracts must have been high quality because Commons select committees incorporated them into their own findings. We were questioning Boris about the heavy snow disruption weeks before his spat with the Commons. My own flooding review from 2002 is still quoted whenever there is heavy rainfall.

But we missed some opportunities too. The failure to scrutinise PPP during the first term left the assembly scrambling to catch up as the complicated structure collapsed under its own weight several years later.

There have been high and low points but with proper reform the assembly could be so much better.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Manchester Conference

Back in the office, I have a few moments to reflect on last week's Conservative Party Conference. I first attended conference in 1989 at Blackpool. Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister and I was a candidate for the local council, selected for a winnable seat at the age of 25 and despite having only joined the party three months earlier. A gang of us from Chingford stayed in a friendly but basic guest house and across the road was a property where scantily clad ladies leaned out of the windows beckoning to us when we returned in the evenings. I didn't have a clue what they were offering...

I spent every day in the conference hall and we all applauded dutifully during each speech. I recall my palms throbbing red raw after a session featuring John Gummer talking about agriculture.

Fast forward to 2009...


After Birmingham last year - which was fantastic - I was looking forward to Manchester. I prefer big city conferences with smart hotels and restaurants. You need to walk with confidence, to be noticed, and this is much easier if you know you have a decent base to operate from. You can also decline the rip off breakfast charges and go to Starbucks instead.

I really wanted to like Manchester, not least because I was born in Rochdale so this was something of a home coming. The architecture is really impressive, with a lot of big old buildings dating from the age of industrial prosperity. The Town Hall is something else, an exotic fairytale castle planted right in the heart of the city. They directed the nineties drama 'GBH' here and the building also featured as the House of Commons before filming inside Parliament was permitted. In the seventies the big projects continued, with Piccadilly Square and the Arndale Centre making a questionable impression. Most recently there has been a glut of shiny residential blocks and hotels with the Beetham Tower most prominent.

A wander around town on Sunday evening revealed a young and fun loving population. It wasn't as cosmopolitan as London and some of the rowdy behaviour around the clubs reminded me of Romford on a Friday night. And I had forgotten the rain - it came down in sheets throughout Tuesday, imprisoning me in the hotel bar. I must take an umbrella next time.

The Greatest Show on Earth

Well, the greatest political show for some time at any rate. This year a lot more people attended. The exhibition hall was packed with stands and there was a food market featuring Tesco, Asda and M&S all actually selling things and expecting - shock, horror - to make a profit. Harvey Nicks made an appearance, operating a cocktail bar just outside the conference hall, although champagne was - according to the press - forbidden.

Many more companies, charities and pressure groups were represented, all wanting to meet the people they think could be running the country soon. The Midland Hotel has a large lobby but the seating proved inadequate to support all the impromptu meetings and more tables had to be drafted in on Monday morning. I arrived too late to reserve a place and conducted my own meeting with the chairman of Crossrail standing up in a remote corner. Later I encountered the 2012 gang who stuck an Olympic logo pin in my lapel.

But I was relatively undisturbed. Some candidates for winnable seats reported meeting requests from 200 or more lobbyists, often completely unrelated to their interests or expertise. The assembly had this to a lesser extent a few years ago so now I always ask the lobbyist to prepare an agenda before we meet - this request for a small piece of work ensures that ninety percent take their business elsewhere and I only see relevant people.

It was all a far cry from recent conferences which were shunned by business interests and saw members talking to themselves. I'm in two minds about the situation, really. Yes, we are being taken seriously, but it also feels like the activists have lost something. In 1997 we were in mourning at Blackpool, but we also felt closer to the leadership and the audience were even invited onto the stage on the last day. Not much chance of that now.

The Fringe

We ran our own fringe meeting on Wednesday evening, kindly sponsored by Canary Wharf. It took place outside the security cordon in the Lord Mayor's Parlour, which was something else - a huge room in which you could lose the City Hall chamber, hung with full length portraits of the early Lord Mayors. I doubt we will ever see similar pictures of our own Ken and Boris, displayed for future generations. It took eight years for the GLA to get a portrait of the Queen...

Following last year's successful speed dating event, when 200 people queued out of the door to meet AMs, we decided to follow the same format. Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home was our special guest and MEP Syed Kamall made a surprise appearance. Six Assembly Members made it to the event and activists were delighted to meet James Cleverly, Richard Tracey, Victoria Borwick, Andrew Boff and Tony Arbour. Shadow minister Andrew Rosindell also dropped in.

The discussion was lively and wide ranging, including bendy bus replacement, police station closures, cost cutting at City Hall, and of course members' pay. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of positive initiatives that were suggested and the interest shown by people not just from London, but from across the country. We will repeat the speed dating format next year so book early...

Friday, October 02, 2009

'Speed Dating' at Conference

Following the success of our Speed Dating reception at Birmingham last year, where over 200 people queued up to meet London assembly personalities and the blogger Guido Fawkes, I am pleased to announce that we will be hosting another session next week in Manchester.

This time our special guest is Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home, and of course members of the London assembly will also be present.

We are meeting in the Mayor's Parlour at Manchester Town Hall - moving up in the world this year - at 5:30pm on Wednesday 7th October. No need to reserve places, but the event was busy last year, so please turn up on time.