Monday, March 30, 2009

The Trouble With Boris...

I've just watched Antony Barnett's 'documentary' on the first year of the Boris mayoralty. To those of us who have lived the year there was nothing new. Last year's Dispatches on Ken Livingstone featured various old lefties complaining about the mayor - so did this programme.

We had the usual complaints about bendy buses, suspension of the LEZ phase 3, resignation of Sir Ian Blair and scrapping of the congestion charge western extension. Clearly some political opponents are still pining for the old Ken days, and I guess that is understandable, but they need to develop a fresh, attractive narrative and this wasn't it.

Then in part two the tape of Boris and Darius Guppy was played 'for the first time on television'. Well maybe, but there was nothing I hadn't heard before. The conversation was turned over in detail during the election campaign - along with some quotes from the Boris column which we mercifully didn't have to sit through again -so it was an old story.

Part three criticised Boris for approving planning applications for tall buildings after promising not to preserve London's views. Superficially the reporter has a point but those of us who are involved in planning decisions understand that the law, previous precedents, and strategic plans all need to be considered and the results are far from straightforward. Perhaps Mr Barnett needs to spend some time with a council planning committee.

Notably, whilst the programme featured the members of the Labour, Lib Dem and Green groups on the Assembly, the Conservative group were not asked to participate. Indeed the only mayoral advisor who got to contribute was food ambassador, Rosie Boycott - with a disparaging reminder that she once campaigned to legalise cannabis.

So it was a wasted opportunity. Following an election defeat there is bound to be a grieving process but it's going on a bit. Time to move on guys...

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Romford Conservatives

I spoke at the Romford Conservatives AGM last night. It was a very upbeat evening with no signs of disunity and a shared determination to rid the country of Brown and NuLab at the earliest opportunity.

Part of the meeting involved awarding trophies to individuals who have contributed to the association in the last year. The evenings Oscar winners were:

The Margaret Thatcher Trophy - for outstanding contribution to the association: Cllr Eric Munday.

The Winston Churchill Shield - for the branch that has made the most progress: Pettits Ward

The Norman Tebbit Cup - for outstanding electoral success: Cllr Roger Evans AM.

Yes, that last one was me, following the 2008 election where I almost trebled my majority. Actually, I think half the cup belongs to Boris Johnson, who energised the whole campaign and raised turnout all over London. The local resident's association also deserve some recognition for deciding not to field a candidate this time. And I'd like to thank my parents...

The association also took delivery of an outstanding picture of Lady Thatcher, donated by the Misir family. It is pictured above and will hang in pride of place at the association HQ.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Question Time

Yesterday marked the final mayor's questions of the financial year. This was Jennette's swan song in the chair. In May Darren Johnson takes over as the first Green politician to chair the assembly.

The session was scrappy, with master inquisitor John Biggs absent and a gap in the public gallery where Ken normally sits. Boris still draws a crowd of - mostly - well wishers, but the numbers are dwindling as time goes on.


Plenty of people would disagree with Murad Qureshi's view that pedicabs provide a welcome and colourful, albeit minor, addition to the streetscape of the West End and as legislation to licence these vehicles is currently going through Parliament I took the opportunity to ask the mayor to toughen up the regulations.

Safety is a legitimate concern as any incident will spill the - usually inebriated - passengers onto the road. I believe that pedicabs should undergo the same strict safety checks that are required for black cabs and that the standards expected should be demanding. If they are licenced that effectively implies that the public sector is taking on responsibility for their safety.

I got a laugh when I speculated that Boris probably visits the West End more often than I do - I have Romford on my doorstep after all - so he would be familiar with pedicabs that ignore traffic regulations and park illegally. Licencing provides an opportunity to crack down on traffic infringements and there will be no excuse for misbehaviour in future.

Boris was sympathetic whilst not wanting to regulate the trade out of existence. He was also rightly keen to avoid the thin end of the wedge which might lead to him not being able to carry passengers on his own bike. Of course in the case of the mayor's passengers, I assume they don't have to pay...

Great Spaces

Labour accused the mayor of plagiarising Ken's 100 Public Spaces programme with his own Great Spaces initiative. What was the difference between the two, they wanted to know. Of course one major difference is that the old scheme over promised and under delivered - like so much in those years - with only five projects delivered in six years. At that rate it would have taken Ken over a century to produce the 100 spaces he promised. It won't be hard for Boris to beat that record.

A question criticising the recent Help a London Park vote, which saw thousands of Londoners phoning in to participate, was quietly dropped by Labour. They are coming to terms with one central tenet of British politics - the voter is always right. And even when they are wrong, there is no point criticising them.

Organising For Delivery

With a raft of job cuts announced at City Hall on Tuesday, the mayor faced a potentially awkward gauntlet of detailed questions which failed to materialise.

The Greens questioned the wisdom of reducing the environment team from 39 to 20, particularly with the number of strategies the government requires us to produce. My colleague Richard Tracey on the other hand, praised the mayor for delivering on his manifesto commitment to cut bureaucracy and pressed Boris for more savings in future. With some 700 posts still in place at City Hall there must be scope to do more next year...

Monday, March 23, 2009

Devastation at Hainault

Residents of Walden Way were shocked last week when Metronet arrived to clear the railway embankment behind their houses of vegetation. Local councillors Joyce Ryan, Brian Lambert and Glen Corfield, sprang into action, demanding that the work be stopped to allow consultation with householders. After several days the workmen departed leaving an unsightly mess reminiscent of a cleared Amazonian rain forest.

Mrs Partridge lives in the house that backs onto the line. Without the trees the noise from passing trains has become unbearable. as the trains rumble slowly past, complete strangers enjoy a birds eye view of her back garden and tantalising glimpses into the neighbours' private rooms. "It's like being naked." she explained when I met her this morning.


London Underground claim they needed to do the work for safety reasons and, not being an engineer, who am I to contradict them? Clearly if the Central Line loop was unable to run, that would be a huge inconvenience for thousands of local people. Equally, if a train did come off the line here, the consequences could be catastrophic.

The engineers plan to build the embankment up, reducing the gradient of the slopes. The whole thing will then be shored up by a concrete platform at the base and landscaping work will help to remediate the site.


By any standard this could have been done better. Mrs Partridge received a letter dated 12th March, advising her that work would begin on 9th March, three days earlier! Evidently, London Underground were not prepared to discuss the project or explain it's significance to local people.

Next steps

Well, it's done now, and weeks of heavy engineering work lie ahead. This must be conducted sensitively, to minimise disruption for residents.

Upon completion, the embankment should be replanted with trees as well as the promised shrubs, although it will take decades to return to its former state.

And finally, London Underground should provide an opaque screen along the line, to reduce noise and to preserve the privacy of the houses next to the track.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Barriers Are Down - Rejoice!

When I arrived at Romford Station this morning I noticed a certain spring in commuters' steps, a cheerful gleam in their eyes. It is Friday and the long weekend stretches ahead, but much more importantly:

The horrendous 'Berlin Wall' ticket barriers had gone!

Yes, after years of congestion and campaigning National Express have finally taken action and cleared them away.

These barriers were the only ones on the Liverpool Street line - with the exception of Chelmsford - that could not take Oyster cards of any kind. At Romford anyone with a travel pass had the unique and unwelcome experience of queueing back up the platform stairs to get out during rush hour, because every ticket had to be scanned manually by the long suffering and heroic station staff.

When Freedom Passes were converted to Oyster the problem became much worse, as Havering has the oldest population of any London borough. Pensioners had to line up to get in and out of the station, whilst the barriers were used less and less as the number of paper tickets declined.

On occasions inexperienced staff struggled with the hand held scanners and I'm sure some passengers were wrongly fined - it certainly happened to me.

So thank you National Express, better late than never, as they say on the network. Boris visited the station during the election and I'm sure he will be pleased with this development too.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Concern Over 'Zil Lane' Proposals

The Conservative group has responded to plans for an Olympic Route Network following a presentation from the ODA yesterday afternoon. We are concerned that the proposals, which will affect some roads in 26 of the 32 London boroughs, will disadvantage Londoners.

The designated roads will be priority routes for traffic carrying members of the Olympic Family to and from venues and training sites. Olympic traffic will be given priority, in some cases requiring designated lanes and temporary junction alterations. The scheme will operate for three months over the Summer of 2012. For eighteen months leading up to the games non emergency road works will also be prohibited on these routes.

The route map includes some of the busiest roads between the West End and Stratford, parts of the North Circular, and the Blackwall Tunnel.

The priority users, forming the somewhat extended Olympic family will be made up of:

10,500 athletes and competitors.
22,000 IOC officials.
22,500 journalists.

We are concerned that this list of users is far too large and the effect will be to worsen congestion for Londoners seeking to go about their business. Running a successful games is vital but the essential day to day activities of our capital must not be put at risk. The network might reverse some of the journey time improvements we are expecting Boris to deliver with his new hierarchy free transport strategy.

We are also keen to ensure that traffic restrictions brought in for the duration of the games are actually reversed and do not linger after everything is packed up and the circus leaves town. That would be a very unwelcome legacy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

LDA Under New Management

Signs of the recession (see above) are all around us but there was better news this morning. LDA chairman - Harvey McGrath - and chief executive - Peter Rogers - appeared before the assembly to update us on changes at the body formerly known as Ken's piggy bank.


Interference by the mayor's advisers was a big problem in the old days, leading to damaging stories in the run up to last year's election. A new and more open regime has now been put into place.

The mayor may still issue instructions to the board of the LDA and in fact he has done so on two occasions. These take the form of an official direction which is recorded in the minutes and available for perusal, whereas the old approach involved figures at City Hall making informal contact and no official record was kept.


The old LDA funded some 800 projects around the capital and struggled to keep track of what they were all doing. The problem was evident last year when the assembly requested the files on several projects and was told that no such files existed. Following legal pressure, the LDA relented and sent over some relevant documents - jumbled up in over 40 crates!

The new settlement requires a focus on many fewer projects, each with a better chance of success and each properly monitored for results and value for money. The aim is to provide seed funding for projects which can then support themselves, so that in future years the money can be invested elsewhere. Basket case dependency is actively discouraged.

And the same approach applies to jobs. The agency seeks to create jobs for the long term rather than sending clients on six month training courses.


With unemployment worsening around the country, it is heartening to see London bucking the trend. Today's statistics showed only a 0.1% improvement in the capital but at least the figures are going the right way, unlike the rest of the UK. Testament to the mayor's economic measures and the unique nature of London's economy.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Iain Dale's Dinner

On Saturday night we had leading blogger Iain Dale as our guest speaker at Leyton & Wanstead. Iain shared some of the secrets of his on line success and also revealed that he stood for Waltham Forest council in 1990. I was first elected to represent Chingford's Valley ward that year, so we must have been at the same count - small world! I must dig the results out...

Iain has a link to one of those 'how conservative are you?' quizzes on his site. It is American so some of the questions feel a bit unnatural (the focus on abortion and religion seems odd) but I gave it my best shot and got 142 out of 200. The higher your score the more progressive you are - it rated me as Very Conservative.

I wonder how Boris would do...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

North Woolwich By Election

Out again this morning on the endless trail of London by elections. This time it was North Woolwich - which I last visited on my Capital Ring walk two years ago - where a council seat is being defended by Labour.

We had a very large group of volunteers, Labour were in evidence and so were the Christian Peoples' Alliance who have the only non Labour seat on Newham Council, virtually a one party state. On the face of it, this is not promising territory, but demographic change and an evident weariness with Labour's unbroken reign have opened up an opportunity for enthusiastic candidate Neil Pearce. The election takes place a week on Thursday.

Birmingham University Seminar

On Thursday I addressed a group of international students working with Birmingham University on the subject of London government. Every year they run a programme of visits to the UK for hopeful politicians, civil servants and journalists from other countries, to help them understand our brand of democracy.

Most of my time was taken up with questions and they were wide ranging - what did I think of congestion charging? Why were rail fares so high? How were we going to address recent violence in Northern Ireland?

The issue of police and political corruption came up and I gave them a couple of examples of recent scandals we had dealt with. No, one man persisted, What about Real Corruption? The sort where police and politicians colluded to maintain power?

Whilst we should always be on guard against wrongdoers, an encounter like that reminded me that in a lot of places things are a lot worse than in the UK.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Transport Skills For London

Last night I was the keynote speaker at the Transport Skills For London conference. Held at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, the event brought together 120 training providers and transport operators to discuss the development needs of drivers and other transport professionals.

I opened proceedings by highlighting the changes in this field over recent years. We have come a long way from the days when transport was a Cinderella service, of interest only to trainspotters and enthusiasts like myself - I was probably the only child in North Yorkshire to have the complete Tube map on my bedroom wall. Now passengers have high expectations and staff also have a role ensuring the safety of users. Training in soft skills - customer care, conflict handling, providing information - is vital for front line staff including bus drivers, platform supervisors and cab drivers.

Bus operators and minicab providers also addressed the conference, highlighting the importance of training and a recognised career path in motivating their employees. Traditionally there has been a high turnover of staff in these industries, reaching 30% amongst bus drivers. Minicab driving had been seen to often as stop gap employment for people seeking to become Black Cab drivers or filling time between 'real' jobs.

Trainers, including our own Havering College, talked about the courses they could provide and the help available to employers. The drive to professionalise the transport industry is under way and likely to produce great improvements in the next decade.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Questions at Bethnal Green

Last night saw the second official Peoples' Question Time, when the Mayor and Assembly appear before a self selected audience to take questions, abuse and adulation. We are placed in two rows on stage - rather like University Challenge without the ringers - and, as a group leader, I get to sit in the front row along with the Mayor, the Chair and other leaders.

This time the venue was York Hall, a larger room with a capacity of over 1,000, which filled up at the start but cleared during the evening as people drifted away.

The session was chaired by local member, John Biggs, pictured above, who started well by throwing out a noisy protestor. This happened last time too, in that case the self publicist had a guitar and offered to sing the mayor a song, this time the man left waving a diving flipper - we can only speculate why? Having shown his teeth, John went on to chair a sometimes excitable meeting firmly, and without too much political bias.

Offley Works

This LDA owned building housed the controversial Brixton Base project during Ken's reign, and it is now being quietly emptied by the new regime. A number of vocal protestors had turned up from south of the river and they made their concerns known from the front row. Boris promised to meet a delegation from the group to discuss new premises.

Airport Protests

We were promised a flash mob objecting to plans to increase flights in and out of City Airport, but in the event there were about a dozen campaigners in red shirts who oppose all airport expansion. Boris pointed out that Newham Council had given their approval so clearly there was local support for a project that would create jobs during the recession.

A campaign against the airport has struggled to get off the ground in Havering, with Labour proposing motions and arguing against their own government and Newham councillors. So far they haven't mustered much support. Darren Johnson got some audience support for his plan to close the airport and build housing on the site.

One brave soul even stood up to defend the Heathrow plans, but he was obviously in the minority.

Low Emission Zone

A small group from Wanstead turned up to object to the inclusion of motorised horse boxes in the charging category for the LEZ. This really is a barmy feature of the scheme - the pollution problems are in the city centre, not around the green boundaries where the air is wonderfully fresh, and of course that is where the horse boxes are driven. These days there isn't much call to take your horses into town. I hope Boris will exempt these vehicles from the charge.


This was the eighteenth PQT and I have been at all but one of them, so patterns begin to emerge. In outer London we face irate commuters complaining about the train service and residents objecting to building on the Green Belt. Inner London is characterised - unfortunately - by a parade of groups asking for grants and freebies. It all feels a bit like an audience with Caesar, the Emperor giving the thumbs up, or down, to queues of petitioners. Boris doesn't like to say no which makes these situations a bit tricky.

Last night we had a youth centre, a knife crime project, an arts project, and a slavery memorial, all competing for public funding, and those are just the ones I remember. One girl even demanded free travel on the main line trains because young people get everything else free!

Lucky I'm not the mayor, because I'd be telling them to get down to Liverpool Street Station with a collecting tin...

Audience Poll

As always, PQT provided the opportunity to seek the views of the audience on topical matters. The results from The Bethnal Green jury are as follows:

Are you in favour of operation Blunt 2 (stop and search for knives) - yes 62% no 33%. Might have been less support south of the river.

Do you support scrapping bendy buses - yes 56% no 39%. This is a good measure of the number of political opponents in the room, after all nobody really wants to keep them.

Do you want a third runway at Heathrow - yes 33% no 64%. Although the third in favour kept very quiet during the debate...

Will London benefit from the Olympics - yes 70% no 28%. Well, if you can't get a positive vote round here you might as well pack up now.

Is Boris taking London in the right direction - yes 53% no 39%. Which is a stunning result in the heart of Labour's safest assembly seat.

The next official PQT will take place in the autumn but meanwhile plans are being laid for a Womens' Question Time in Croydon. I suspect my company won't be required for that one.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Environment Committee

The investigation into air quality continued this morning with witnesses from TfL, the government and local councils.

European Standards

At the last meeting we were assured that London was the most polluted city in Europe and we could expect a big fine from the commission as punishment. Martin Williams, representing DEFRA, provided a different view, suggesting that many European cities were as polluted or worse but - unlike the masochistic Brits - they place their pollution monitors away from the busiest roads, thus giving a better impression, and avoiding the fine.

He questioned the targets for nitrogen dioxide and particulates, stating that in hindsight - with the benefit of recent scientific investigations - these would not have been set so high.

London Takes Action

Isabel Dedring, the mayor's energetic environment advisor, listed the projects being undertaken to improve air quality including:

New buses with cleaner engines
Hybrid buses, using less fuel.
Work on an electric vehicle hire scheme.
Smoothing traffic flow by altering traffic signals, thus reducing pollution.

Particulate traps fitted to buses would help to cut particulate emissions. The first generation of these devices harmed engine performance, particularly in the slow London traffic, and caused protests from black cab drivers who had been forced to fit them. The new generation direct the particles back to the engine, burning them up. Environmentally friendly disposal of the filters remains a problem.

Suspension of Low Emission Zone phase three excited a lot of criticism from Labour and the Greens. We know that the Greens want to return the capital to a cottage economy, but Labour are usually complaining that more needs to be done to bail out failing businesses. LEZ 3 would have required the scrapping of 90,000 commercial vehicles, mostly owned by small businesses and charities. They are now saved the unnecessary cost of replacements. Meanwhile, the mayor is to meet Lord Mandelson tomorrow to press his case for government grants to help businesses clean up their fleets - I hope he sees this as a priority.

Disjointed Thinking

Professor Whitelegg from York University offered us a trenchant appraisal of public sector efforts to improve air quality. In his view there was insufficient cooperative working between agencies and an over reliance on strategy documents that gathered dust after production. Box ticking bureaucracy, without realistic targets or milestones and devoid of any follow up action was his verdict - The level of stupidity is so widespread that it is difficult to see where it emanates from, was the professor's verdict. Ouch!

Monday, March 02, 2009

Taxi Purge

Recently I met a delegation of black cab drivers at City Hall. Amongst other matters, they drew my attention to illegal minicabs operating in parts of Redbridge and asked for action to deal with the problem. It is difficult to put a stop to this scourge but regular police operations disrupt the touts and encourage them to take their business elsewhere. Having been robbed by an unlicensed driver some years ago I am aware of the menace and I decided to bring it to the attention of the Mayor:

Roger Evans: Will you ensure that more is done by the police and the Public Carriage Office to crack down on illegal minicabs operating at Gants Hill / Wanstead High Street / South Woodford?

Boris Johnson: TfL works very closely with the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) and City of London Police to tackle taxi touting and illegal cabs across London

The MPS Transport Operational Command Unit (TOCU), funded by TfL, has a dedicated pan London Cab Enforcement Unit (CEU), responsible for enforcing the law relating to taxis and private hire vehicles in London. The police use a broad menu of tactical options to tackle illegal cab issues including covert and highly visible activities deploying to priority areas across London.

Gants Hill

The TOCU regularly deploy in the Gants hill area, working in partnership with local policing teams to carry out routine patrols and enquiries in response to intelligence received. In addition to these patrols, the CEU has undertaken three plain clothes operations working alongside the Gants Hill safer neighbourhood team focussing on the Faces nightclub. These activities have led to a number of arrests.

Wanstead High Street

An operation working with the local safer neighbourhood team targeting Wanstead High Street was planned in 2008 but ultimately relocated to Gants Hill due to more specific intelligence received. Touting issues at this location are kept under review and will be considered as part of their future tasking decisions.

South Woodford

The TOCU regularly deploy to South Woodford, carrying out patrols and enquiries in response to intelligence received. In addition to these patrols, the CEU has undertaken a number of joint plain clothes operations with local policing teams including the Churchfields safer neighbourhood team - two of these operations have focussed on Mojo's nightclub and led to a number of arrests.

TfL has also introduced tougher penalties for any licensed driver convicted of taxi touting to send out a clear message that this will not be tolerated. From 1 August 2008, licensed drivers convicted of taxi touting will lose their license for a maximum of one year. Over 50 PHV licenses have already been revoked since this date.

So now the Mayor is aware of the problem. I would like to know about other touting hotspots in Havering or Redbridge so that I can bring them to his attention.