Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Big Budget Debate

Today saw arguably the most important meeting in the London assembly diary. Every year the mayor has to present his budget for agreement by the 25 members, and on the first meeting he requires a straight majority to get it approved. The other groups get an opportunity to present amendments and detail their priorities for the coming year.

On this occasion there was much agreement, with everybody except the Greens welcoming a freeze in the budget. Only the Greens produced a fully costed alternative, which is quite an undertaking for a two member group, albeit that Darren Johnson found it easier than the protracted, behind the scenes negotiations with Livingstone's office, which marked the last four years for his group.

The debate was lengthy, with much said but relatively few differences:

Conservatives - More of the Same Please

Obviously we didn't have to draw up an alternative budget, for once. We applaud the Mayor's efforts to control costs and hold down the council tax in these difficult times. However we also hope that he will be able to go much further in future years, with plenty of scope for savings in City Hall, and no doubt buried away in the impenetrable monoliths of TfL and the Metropolitan Police.

Some tough questions were raised about the mayor's decision to retain a presence in some foreign countries and the usefulness of some initiatives, for example, the food strategy. This group are prepared to challenge the mayor when necessary. Virtually all the members contributed to the debate and they spoke well. I'm proud of the team!

Labour - The Dog Ate My Homework

No proposals at all from the eight strong Labour group. To be fair, they never had to produce an alternative budget under Livingstone - and they are still in shock. Eventually, they came up with a piece of paper which criticised Boris for failure to develop a coherent vision and went on to ask for more statistics to help them reach a conclusion. Their proposal then tailed off, having revealed nothing but a sense of irony.

Why are these people here? They might as well have produced a dog ate my homework excuse note...

Lib Dems - Show us Your Figures

The Libs did come up with a list of demands, including:

A youth worker to accompany every police safer neighbourhood team.
One hour bus tickets.
An inner London low emission zone.

To be paid for by measures including:

Reducing fare evasion.
Removing free travel for TfL staff.
Cutting the mayor's programme of public meetings.

Some attractive ideas, but unfortunately not costed properly. Caroline Pidgeon claims to have a version with numbers in - and I believe her - but she wants to show it to the mayor in private rather than opening it to assembly scrutiny. That's not very democratic, even if it does add up.

Greens - Livingstone's True Successors

Only the Green party produced a fully costed alternative budget, and good for them, regardless of content. At least they were taking the process seriously.

They showed how they could provide initiatives including:

Peace Week events for £20,000.
A bigger human rights and equalities programme for £148,000.
Parliament Square pedestrianisation for £6,000,000.
Removing one way systems for £6,000,000.
A 20mph speed limit trial for £3,000,000.
Reduced fare increase for £30,000,000.

With savings including:

Retaining bendy buses £3,000,000
Cancelling traffic light re phasing £11,100,000.
Increasing congestion charge to £10, raising £14,000,000.

And increasing the council tax precept by 1.2% to balance the budget.

Unacceptable in many ways and clearly carrying on the Livingstone legacy. Interestingly, Labour members voted against the very measures that they had been supporting under their own mayor.

BNP - No Comment

Richard Barnbrook treated us to a lengthy and aggressive rant, but failed to promote an amendment or a motion. He seems determined to oppose everything...

Result - Score Draw

All the amendments fell, with two exceptions:

The Conservative motion welcoming the precept freeze was passed, but only after the other parties amended it to criticise Boris for lacking a long term strategy and a clear vision.

A motion supported by the Greens, Labour and Lib Dems, listing initiatives they want to progress, but regrettably failing to provide costings.

The budget is not amended and will return to the assembly for final debate in two weeks. At this meeting only one third of the members will be required to support the budget proposal for it to be finally approved.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Fullwell Ward Supper

We had a good fundraiser in Ilford North last night, with excellent food, mostly prepared by Sonia MacDonald. Our guest speaker was my assembly colleague, Andrew Boff, our group spokesman on sport, culture and the Olympics.

Andrew took the opportunity to explain the workings of the Olympics and described his experiences of dealing with the mayor and Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell. Concerns include the decisions to host the equestrian events at Greenwich Park and the shooting at Woolwich. Plans to reserve a network of roads for Olympic VIPs during the event have also raised some eyebrows.

Andrew has also been very strong on improving the design of the Olympic athlete's village. Current plans look like leaving an uninspiring development, compared by one person to East Germany, and Andrew argues that Londoners deserve better, particularly as they are paying an average of £20 on their council tax.

Having described the challenges, Andrew praised the Mayor's optimism in the face of a promise to host the games that cannot be reneged upon - You can either rail against the darkness or light a candle - as he put it really well. This is going to happen under a Conservative Mayor and probably a Conservative government, so we must make sure it is outstanding.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Fire Authority Meeting

The London Fire & Emergency Planning Authority held their monthly meeting yesterday.


The budget is coming together after Labour and Lib Dem members signed up to the majority of a package of proposed savings. The agreed steps now include:

Introduction of mobile technology and electronic fire safety case files, saving £692,550.

Removing the central team of operational photographers, saving £188,224.

Restructuring the planning, risk and programme support office, saving £95,864.

Merging the interagency liaison group manager, saving £76,511.

Reducing call volumes in the home fire safety visit call centre, saving £66,804.

Increasing the Brigade's vacancy margin, saving £300,000.

National Fire Control Project

We heard the depressing news that yet another government IT project has fallen behind time and over budget. This time it is the project to introduce new fire and rescue service control rooms nationally.

The original business case envisaged a saving of £21 million nationally, but increased costs now mean that the savings have dwindled to £8 million, and this at a time when costs are falling, or rising more slowly, in relation to most capital projects. Liberal Democrat, Cllr Butcher, referred to this as a huge black hole in the finances, and for once he was not overstating his case.

More concerning is the revelation that the opening of the new London control centre has been put back to February 2011. With less than 18 months until the Olympics the timescale has suddenly become very tight. The best new technology needs time to bed in and the one thing we don't want during 2012 is a fire control centre hampered by bugs and gremlins.

The Blue Light Museum

Controversy over the future of the under used fire museum has led the Mayor to open an investigation into making the collection of memorabilia more accessible for Londoners. The idea is to combine several existing collections in one Blue Light Museum for the emergency services in London. This would comprise the London Ambulance Museum, currently at Ilford, a collection of vehicles held by the Metropolitan Police, and of course the famous Black Museum in the basement of Scotland Yard. Now that would be a museum worth visiting!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Capital Budgets

This afternoon the budget committee took evidence from the the MPA, LDA, TfL and LFEPA on their capital budgets. They tell us that the financial crisis is forcing them to tighten their purse strings. TfL are considering the possibility of declining income as passenger numbers fall, although as yet there is no sign of this happening.

On the positive side, falling construction costs and property prices mean that we can do more with less money - but there is one snag.

Remember the previous Mayor, you know, the one who told us that we would pay off the Olympic costs by selling all the property at a huge profit? Doesn't look so good now... The LDA are going to revise their spreadsheet to reflect falling values.

And there was bad news for TfL too. When Bob Kiley arrived, they bought a house in Belgravia for him to stay in. Ken claimed that when they sold the property, the profit would more than cover Mr Kiley's salary. Today TfL admitted that years after Bob's return to The States they still own the house. It is currently being rented out as the market is deemed unsuitable to sell it at present...

Ken has gone but the costs linger on.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Rub My Lamp...

I have just returned from the special performance of Aladdin at the Kenneth More Theatre, in support of the Mayor of Redbridge, Lorraine Sladden, and her appeal. All the London mayors - and some provincials - are invited to this annual event and they can bring young guests along to enjoy the show.

This year's production was particularly good, with some great foot tapping, sing along melodies, and fantastic glitzy costumes. Congratulations to theatre director Vivyan Ellacott and his team of excellent artistes.

Information about this and future productions is available at .

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Bexley By Election

Mutual aid, canvassing and delivering for a council by election in Welling. The weather stayed good, prompting an awesome turn out - only about a quarter of the volunteers fitted into this picture.

I was joined by fellow assembly members James Cleverly (on home ground), Gareth Bacon (it's his local council) and Steve O'Connell who came all the way from Croydon. Also present was MEP Syed Kamall, who faces his own re-election challenge later this year. On the right is James Brokenshire, currently the MP for Hornchurch, but moving to this constituency at the next election following boundary reviews.

A lot of people were out, enjoying the sunny morning, but we got a positive reception from those who we met.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Box Ticked - Job Done

The assembly Audit Panel met this morning:

Saved in Translation

Dan Ritterband, the new director of marketing, advised us that savings were being made in the City Hall translation budget, not least because the end of The Londoner has also ended the need to provide specialist copies in multiple languages and formats. In other areas the marketing budget for translation was now devolved to individual project teams who could choose how they spent it. A new website was being designed, with disability access included, and it would be up and running in June.

Events for London

An audit of the events management function carried out at the start of 2008 / 09 found that risks were not adequately managed and some contracts had been approved by officers who lacked the correct authority. New procedures had been put into place under the new mayor.

Older Peoples' Strategy

Under the previous mayor an advisory group had been set up to develop this strategy under advisor Mark Watts, but it had failed to meet. A new action plan was being drawn up and the advisory body would now be chaired by deputy mayor Richard Barnes, with membership from older peoples' organisations around London. With strong political leadership the advisory group would be more prominent and more productive in future.

Internal Audit Performance

I was surprised to learn that the auditors measure their success on the basis of the number of days they work. This is the sort of target that they would call an input measure if they saw it used in any other field. We should - the auditors tell us - measure outputs, i.e. the result of activities. We measure exam results, mortality rates, crime clear up rates and train frequency, to give a few examples. The auditors would be better measured by the number of reports they agree and the number of their recommendations that are implemented - or even by the amount of money they save... Looks like a case of do as I say, not as I do from the Audit Commission.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

372 Bus Route Changes Rejected by Mayor

Following a sustained campaign from residents and opposition from all parties at Havering Council, the proposed route changes to the 372 bus have been rejected. In November a petition objecting to the plans was presented to the Mayor. Today I received his response:

This proposal was developed in response to Havering Council's long standing support for investigation of ways to serve areas of the borough which are relatively remote from the network. TfL has continued to discuss the proposal with the council as it developed. In this instance TfL has decided not to proceed, a decision which is supported by the council. TfL will write to stakeholders shortly to confirm this decision.

A rare victory for local people and one that would not have happened under the previous mayor.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fairlop Waters

Last week I visited Fairlop Waters to see Redbridge council's plans to rejuvenate this fantastic area of green space. The first thing that struck me was the size of the park, over 145 hectares of wetland, scrub and grassland, including a golf course and a lake used for sailing. Much of this is presently underused because visitors get no further than the driving range and restaurant near the entrance.

Ambitious plans include improving the eighties style entrance and the rather poor quality access road, restoring habitats; including a gravel island, to provide better biodiversity; relocating the sailing club to more suitable buildings; a boulder park and adventure play area. The project also aims to open up access to land south of the park, including a silted lagoon which is currently hard to reach.

The good news is that this worthwhile proposal has been shortlisted in the mayor's competition for £2m regeneration funding. It is also in with a shout in the 'Help a London Park' public vote for £400k, although obviously it cannot win both these sums. The new park would be a great asset for the whole of north east London and the nearer parts of Essex so I hope the bid is successful.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Redbridge Public Transport Liaison Group

This is where I spent yesterday evening. The meeting was efficiently chaired by Cllr Ashley Kissin and took presentations from two members of the public. First up were residents of Coventry Road in Ilford who requested a diversion of the 364 bus away from their street. Since the council installed speed tables there have been complaints of excessive noise and vibration along the route. Second was a resident of Wanstead who told us that the help points at the Central Line station were not working. Obviously this is not the sort of high minded strategic stuff that we deal with at City Hall, but it is vital to constituents and they expect TfL to get it right.

Bus Matters

Concerns were expressed about unruly behaviour of school children on the 275 and 167 routes - an unwelcome legacy of Ken's ill considered free travel giveaway. More police were travelling on buses now, but they could not be everywhere.

A request to extend route 247 to Queens Hospital was being considered. With services moving there from King Georges there was a growing need for a direct link between Ilford and the hospital which is not convenient for Romford Station, where the buses terminate at present.

TfL and Cllr Sue Nolan had worked together to agree a new bus route serving New Wanstead and people along the proposed route were being consulted. Hopefully the service would be running by the Summer.

Central Line

The Western exit from Snaresbrook station was closed outside peak times, owing to very low demand. I suggested that London Underground consider allowing elderly or disabled people to use the help point to request access rather than having to cross over the bridge. They agreed to consider this.

Pigeon nets on the bridge at Hainault station had been removed during repainting, resulting in a subsequent flying rat infestation. Work to replace the nets was being tendered, but why were they not replaced as part of the painting contract? Indeed, why does a relatively small job require complex and time consuming tendering? Here is one way that Metronet could save our money.

At Gants Hill, there was good news for once. The steps which were demolished by a lorry last year had now been replaced, allowing easy access to the subways from Cranbrook Road.

Major Projects

Despite the recent hysteria about cancelled projects there is still plenty happening. Crossrail will begin tunnelling in July and work is due to start at Tottenham Court Road station. In Redbridge, Ilford Lane is soon to be reconfigured in preparation for the East London Transit scheme. Concerns about parking were expressed but Redbridge officers assured us there would be enough spaces to allow businesses to operate.

An interesting meeting, and useful to get opinions from the sharp end.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

New Year at the Budget Committee

This morning the committee received a budget update from the four functional bodies. A common theme was the impact of the downturn on finances. Falling land values have resulted in reduced capital receipts and this in turn means that new projects have slowed down and been postponed in some cases. Falling interest rates have led to low returns on deposits and a more cautious approach to investments - no more Icelandic banks for us...

Metropolitan Police Authority

Deputy mayor, Kit Malthouse, and assistant commissioner Tim Godwin told us about their plans to move more police officers into the front line. Presently only 65% of police time is spent on policing duties and this number would be improved by moving 550 officers out of custody suites and back onto the beat. Meanwhile introducing qualified nurses will be introduced in police stations to improve care for prisoners and lower the probability of deaths in custody. The number of special constables has grown from 600 to 2,600, providing a valuable resource to police town centres at night.

Money would also be saved by cutting roles duplicated by the Crown Prosecution Service and by reducing spending on IT, training and central services. The MPS were also lobbying the Home Office to allow them to keep the proceeds of crime seized by the asset recovery unit.

London Development Agency

The agency - a confusing morass under the previous mayor - had improved performance and transparency by focusing on fewer and larger projects, with more chance of delivering benefits. LDA priorities are now young people, environment and skills. Chief executive Peter Rogers told us of his plans to concentrate help on the retail, manufacturing and construction industries, in an effort to mitigate the impact of the recession.

Questioned about the closure of the London Climate Change Agency, formerly an arms length agency of the LDA, witnesses stated that it had failed to live up to early promises and was not particularly effective, with only 2 out of 9 funding partners feeling it represented value for money.

Transport for London

Despite the economic gloom and rising fares, TfL reported that passenger numbers were still rising', so the main revenue stream remained intact. Advertising income had taken a hit as companies scaled back their promotion budgets. The possibility of a shortfall of up to £1bn existed as a result of PPP cost disputes with Tubelines.

Money would be saved by cutting a number of budgets including highway maintenance. TfL believe that the quality of their roads is good but this was not borne out by the experience of constituency members on the committee.

London Fire & Emergency Planning Authority

Popular Chairman Brian Coleman made a reappearance alongside commissioner Ron Dobson. Brian was upbeat about his chances of saving more from the budget than required by the mayor. This would amount to at least £8.2m, without impacting on front line services.

Intervention by the mayor had led to investigation of the possibility of providing a new Emergency Services Museum for London, combining the contents of the Fire Brigade Museum, the Ambulance Service Museum, a collection of historic police vehicles, and the intriguing exhibits from Scotland Yard's infamous Black Museum. If the funding and a suitable venue could be found, this would provide an attractive alternative to the limited access these collections currently provide.

Progress on budget setting continues with the mayor's sights set firmly on a 0% increase this year. The budget will be set at an assembly meeting in February.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year!

A message from Boris Johnson:

There are those who say we should look ahead to 2009 with foreboding. I want to quote Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now when he says "Someday captain, this war is going to end", and someday, this recession is going to end.

We can speed the demise of this recession if we all help the poorest in our community and if we make the vital investment that we need in our mass transit system and in fighting crime, so that London emerges at the end better placed to compete and entrenched in its position as the greatest city on earth.

We are going to be working flat out at City Hall to achieve that. Let's go forward into 2009 with enthusiasm and purpose. I wish you a very happy New Year.

Boris then went on to take the Gloomadon Poppers to task for suggesting that we halt the fireworks because they sent the wrong message in a time of austerity. Not being much of a gloomadon popper myself, I feel he was exactly right. The firework display is a showpiece for London, sending a positive message around the world that this is The Place to do business, visit on holiday, and of course, live.

I join the Mayor in wishing you all a very happy, and prosperous, 2009.