Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Many Questions

This morning saw the February MQT session. With questions about the Mayor's role in the Damian Green affair ruled out of order - our standards committee still has to consider its findings - this was a scrappy meeting without a real core theme. The public gallery was packed as usual, with several school and college parties, a group from Richmond, and my own guests from The Executive Network.

Tim O'Toole

We were sorry to receive the news of Tim's resignation. after six years running London Underground - more than enough for most - he has decided to return to the US. Tim is the last, and best, of the Americans recruited to TfL under Ken and he will be sorely missed. The search for a successor will now begin.

Housing Targets

The Mayor agreed with me that the new London Plan should specify larger space standards for flats in future developments. I met a German architect at the weekend and she expressed shock at the tiny properties that we allow in London, and at the fact that social housing has higher standards than private housing. There is a sore need for some levelling up - London deserves buy to live, not buy to let.

Air Quality

The opposition made much of the decision to suspend implementation of phase three of the low emission zone, and claimed that the Mayor had tried to hide the news amongst the coverage of the snow earlier this month. Actually there is no reason to hide what is a good piece of news for thousands of London businesses and charities that faced bankruptcy as a result of the demand to change their vehicles. Now they will get a further grace period, and considering the surprise that the recession caused, a Labour Mayor may well have taken the same decision.

Meanwhile Boris has written to Dark Lord Mandleson asking for grants to help small businesses upgrade their vehicles. Motorists in London will welcome some carrots after years of Ken's sticks.

Outer London Commission

The Mayor accepted that the new commission - whilst a welcome initiative - was developer heavy, so he agreed to consider appointing some members who would act to preserve the green spaces and heritage of outer London rather than seeking to modernise and build on them.

British Jobs for British Workers

I'm sure Gordon Brown would be delighted at the way BNP member Barnbrook took up his rallying cry, following the recent spate of wildcat strikes. Boris mounted a stout defence of people from other countries who come to London and vowed to reject calls for a more protectionist approach - not least because of the number of Londoners who find work in other countries.

DLR Overcrowding

There's a by election in North Woolwich, which tends to focus attention on a largely forgotten area. Neil Pearce, the Conservative candidate, is calling for an upgrade to the DLR trains following the opening of the new station at Woolwich which in turn created heavy use and overcrowding on the service. The Mayor agreed to look at it, and even John Biggs - the local AM - is on board. Nice to conclude with some cross party agreement.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Peoples' Question Time

It doesn't seems like six months since our visit to Bromley, but PQT rolls around again next week. This time the mayor will be appearing on very different territory, in the heart of Labour's safest assembly seat, City & East - and the session will be chaired by Labour's Inquisitor in Chief, John Biggs, who is also the local AM.

The session takes place on 5th March at 7:00pm in the impressive surroundings of York Hall, Bethnal Green, E2. The last event was packed out and this one promises more of the same. Tickets can be booked by:


Online at

Phoning 020 7983 4762 and leaving your order on the answerphone

By texting - if you really must...

I will also be there, in the front row, so I'm expecting to see lots of friendly faces, after all it isn't all that far from Havering & Redbridge...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Uptown Oil

This morning the environment committee visited Uptown Oil, a small business dedicated to the fight for clean air in the capital.

Based in a railway arch, they supply cooking oil to London's restaurants then recover the used oil which would normally be thrown away or even poured down the drain. This is then filtered and put through a series of chemical separations to produce a usable fuel - biodiesel.

The recovered fuel is sold, mostly to black cab drivers who usually know a good deal when they see it. Not only is it a good example of reuse, but the fuel actually burns cleaner producing fewer of the particulates that dirty our windows and irritate our lungs. A black cab running on biodiesel can pass its emission test without the need for expensive exhaust modifications.

They estimate that the city's restaurants produce enough waste oil to fuel all London's black cabs and the bus fleet too, simultaneously cutting down carbon dioxide production and air pollution. They also employ ten people which is not to be sniffed at in these challenging times.

Monday, February 16, 2009

TfL Deputy Chairman in Committee

This afternoon the assembly met to confirm the appointment of Cllr Daniel Moylan as the statutory deputy chairman of TfL.

Daniel was elected to Kensington & Chelsea Council in 1990, where he rose to become deputy leader. The council appointed him to the London wide Transport & Environment Committee (TEC) which he has chaired for many years. Daniel therefore had a lot of experience to draw upon when he took questions from assembly members.

Role and Responsibilities

TfL will now have two deputy chairman (the other being Christopher Garnett, and the chairman being the mayor). As the Statutory Deputy Daniel will chair board meetings when the mayor cannot be present. He also sees his role as improving relationships, particularly between TfL and assembly members, and TfL and the boroughs. He will use his experience to provide leadership on surface transport and street scene issues, complementing Chris Garnett's rail experience. Finace Chairman, Peter Anderson, will lead on budget formation and the increasingly vigilant hunt for savings.

Daniel will also be reviewing the structure of committees reporting to the board, including the delegation of financial responsibilities, and making recommendations to strengthen the structure.


Daniel allayed the committee's concerns about conflicts of interest, pointing out that he has now resigned not just as chairman of the TEC, but from the committee itself. His portfolio at Kensington & Chelsea has been reduced, removing transport and placing TfL related planning matters at arm's length.

Daniel is keen not to become a TfL glove puppet, retaining his right to criticise services when necessary. As an example, he referred to the Circle Line as being like the railway service in Harry Potter - sometimes you see it, sometimes you don't. As I recall the Hogwarts Express was more punctual and actually left without Harry on one occasion.


The assembly concluded - cross party - that this is a good appointment we were happy to support. We are however asking Boris to clarify the exact responsibilities of the role.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Valentine's Tryst at LBC

Tomorrow morning, from 10:00, I'm taking part in the Ken Livingstone show on LBC. We will be reviewing stories from the days papers and discussing the week's events, no doubt including the first Boris Budget, and the wisdom of swearing at Keith Vaz...

But we won't be alone. Our chaperons will be Lib Dem AM, Caroline Pidgeon and Tory Troll blogger, Adam Bienkov, who drops in here to comment now and then.

Clearly a half hour not to be missed...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Making History

Budget debate restarts at 10:00 this morning. This time only one third of members need to support the budget for it to pass, so it must be almost certain that Boris will get his way.

The first GLA budget ever to freeze the council tax precept hopefully paves the way for further savings over the next three years.

UPDATE - the budget was approved, with only the Greens promoting an alternative. The Lib Dems produced a wish list with some original and interesting ideas, but not costings. Labour came up with a shorter list but no figures. They gave the impression of wanting to spend much more but welcoming the council tax freeze.

History has been made!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Help A London Park

This morning I hosted a delegation from William Torbitt Primary School in Redbridge, who came to deliver around 300 postcards from their pupils, supporting the case for £2 million funding for Fairlop Waters.

Proposals for this large site include rehabilitating wildlife habitats, providing a play area, reinstating paths and providing better access throughout, including to a lagoon in the south of the park.

With the mayor due to decide on the recipient of this funding, as well as the winner of the £400,000 allocated by public vote, this was a timely intervention which could tip the scales in our favour.

I will be boxing up the cards and carrying them up to the mayor's office this afternoon - I hope that Boris considers the very sound case and chooses to award the money to Fairlop Waters.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Adventures at Hainault

I have just returned from a wet morning in Hainault Forest Country Park, which was more fun than it sounds...

I joined Mayor of Redbridge, Cllr Lorraine Sladden, and children from local schools for the opening of three adventure playgrounds. Funded by the Big Lottery Fund, to support the concept of play, these three new areas will provide the country park with an exciting new attraction.

Even in the pouring rain, the children found the enthusiasm to enjoy the swings and rope walks. Us adults were a bit more circumspect - but some of us might sneak back for a go, when the sun comes out and the press have gone.

We often complain that we don't get much from the Lottery in Redbridge, so it is good to celebrate when some benefits come our way...

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Environment Committee - Conflicting Priorities

The Environment Committee met on Wednesday morning. Following my return to this body, I'm still finding my feet and coming to terms with the often rather scientific evidence we receive.

This meeting was no exception, with witnesses from King's College London and the AEA, giving us their take on the problems of air pollution.

The Dirty Man of Europe

London is often criticised for its air quality, and there is a very real threat of a fine from the European Union if things don't improve. I find the finger pointing a little surprising - back in July I spent two weeks in Sorrento and when I got off the plane at Naples, I can't say that I was struck by the cleanliness of the air... So I asked if other European cities were going to face fines too.

The experts told us that Paris, Berlin, Rome and most other European cities also have poor air quality and it is getting worse. However London is top of the pollution league because it is so much larger. So is the proposed fine in effect a tax on the size of our city rather than its air quality? Have those cunning Europeans put one over our hapless government and created another way to redistribute our wealth?

I'm never happy to see public sector organisations fined punitively, because of course the punishment isn't real - except for the taxpayer who has to foot the bill.

Poisons in the Air

There are two forms of pollution that we measure to determine air quality:

Nitrogen Dioxide is a waste product of vehicle engines and industrial processes. In high concentrations it is highly poisonous and at lower levels it has harmful effects. Over 90% of the residents of Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea are exposed to dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide. In Camden and Islington this figure is over 50%.

Particulates, known as PM10s, form a very fine dust, and are produced by vehicle engines. If - like me - you live near a main road or a busy car park, you can see particulates in the greasy film of dirt on your windows. Breathing that in can't be very healthy, and PM10s are known to irritate the lungs, aggravating existing conditions.

Ozone, a third pollutant, is not measured but the experts think it should be. Made up of three oxygen molecules, ozone is produced naturally when pollution combines with bright sunlight. Unlike ordinary oxygen, ozone is poisonous.

And here is an interesting fact - Diesel engines produce nearly twice as much nitrogen dioxide as petrol engines. They produce 17 times more particulates!

Professor Frank Kelly of King's College was critical of recent policies that have encouraged a switch from petrol to diesel fuelled vehicles. Of course petrol engines produce more carbon dioxide, which causes global warming, hence the move away from them.

Whilst Saving the World, we have been poisoning ourselves!

The verdict - diesel vehicles should be encouraged in the country but in London petrol is less harmful and alternative fuels, even electric vehicles, should be the ultimate aim.

Speed v Health

We also heard that slow moving traffic pollutes more than a free flow of vehicles. Of course we don't need science to tell us that - just stand close to any queue of cars and watch the smoke pour out whilst they go nowhere.

But science has produced an interesting figure. Vehicles travelling at speeds over 20mph produce half as much pollution.

So road humps harm air quality, as do excessive numbers of traffic lights and other artificial delaying measures so beloved of local councils. The longer the hold up, the worse the air quality. The trade off between road safety and air quality is not as straightforward as was thought at one time.

With Green members promoting 20mph zones for the whole city, this fact was clearly an inconvenient truth.


With the contentious detail dealt with, the committee welcomed Kulveer Ranger, Richmond Cllr Stephen Knight and veteran campaigner John Stewart, to update us on the Heathrow proposal. With opposition now everyone's policy - even Labour disagree with Gordon Brown - a healthy degree of consensus broke out.

The councils are planning unspecified legal action, with support from the mayor's office, but with detailed plans expected in two years, this one will be decided by a new government. we will hear a lot more about Heathrow as the general election approaches...

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

This Week the Snow - Next Week the Investigation

With transport services returning to normal, questions are being asked about London's resilience in the face of extreme conditions.

The Transport Committee are to hold a special session on Thursday 12th February, with witnesses from TfL. Their agenda has not yet been published but questions they should be asking include:

How exceptional was the level of snowfall?

How much warning was given and how did TfL prepare?

Was it really necessary to suspend the entire bus fleet, or was that an overreaction?

Why do the overground sections of the Tube always suffer when there is snow?

What is an appropriate level of resource to devote to rare but highly disruptive weather?

How can London avoid disruption when deep snow falls in future?

The Thursday session should be interesting, but I do wonder if just one meeting will get to the bottom of this complex problem.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Winter Wonderland

Well, Romford actually. This is the scene that greeted me when I opened the curtains this morning. The view across the Brewery car park to the cinema is transformed by several inches of snow that fell overnight.

Later on I will be taking the huskies and sledge over to Sainsburys for supplies and dodging polar bears when I visit the bottle bank with the weekend's empties. Then I will challenge transport for London and One Great Eastern to get me to the office.

And it's still snowing...