Thursday, May 28, 2009

MPA Chopper Challenge

I stuck my nose into the Police Authority meeting this morning, just in time to hear a question from the public about police helicopters.

The noise is proving unwelcome to some residents, as well as the very powerful searchlights, however anyone who watches police chase programmes will know how effective the choppers are at catching fugitives. When criminals flee by car it is often safer to track them from the air than to pursue them on the road. In Romford we sometimes get the helicopter overhead and it certainly gives me a warm, comfortable feeling to know that miscreants are very likely to be caught once the chopper is on their trail.

Sir Paul Stephenson, the commissioner, reassured the authority that pilots are taught to fly in a manner that minimises noise. There are now three police helicopters and when they were bought in 2005, quieter models were actively sought. However with a greater number of choppers more likely to be used, residents are very likely to experience further disturbance in future.

I just feel reassured they are there.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

BNP Controversy Resolved

The recent furore about Richard Barnbrook's plan to take BNP leader Nick Griffin to the Queen's garden party appears to have been resolved. Boris has just released the following statement:

I am glad that the BNP leader has recognised that his presence at Buckingham Palace would have been a political stunt, which could have embarrassed Her Majesty.

I hope the garden party can now go ahead as intended to honour those who have made an important contribution to their community.

Fight The Flights

Yesterday afternoon I met representatives of Fight The Flights to hear their concerns about the expansion of London City Airport.

They raised a number of legitimate objections, including the incidence of pollution related illness near the airport and noise disturbance which affects people living some distance away as well as the adjacent neighbours. This coincides with a complaint of overflying that I received from a councillor representing Gants Hill.

They also highlighted plans to develop derelict land within or close to the designated crash zone and questioned claims that the airport was creating jobs for local people.

I felt that they made a convincing case on behalf of the residents who live close to the airport who will undoubtedly experience more noise and pollution as the number of flights increases, particularly if these are jet planes rather than the current propeller driven models. I am sympathetic but it is the needs of my own constituents who live further away that I must focus upon - and this is what worries me.

An increase in overflying by noisier aircraft will certainly harm the quality of life in Havering and in Redbridge. Whilst I don't get many complaints, I am getting more than I used to, and of course most constituents will rightly take the matter up with their MP rather than me, as aviation is the responsibility of government.

David Cameron has made his opposition to the expansion of Heathrow very clear but the position on City Airport is less clear. So I'm interested in hearing opinions from my constituents.

And to ensure I get a balanced picture I will be speaking to the airport management soon.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Inside the Olympic Stadium

This morning I had a tour of the new Olympic Stadium. Everything looks better in the sunlight and - in spite of my Olymposcepticism - I had to admit it was impressive. Right now work is progressing ahead of schedule although there is plenty left to do before 2012. The pictures I took give some idea of the sheer scale of this incredible project.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

London's Poverty Profile

Yesterday I attended the launch of a report documenting poverty in London. Produced by the City Parochial Foundation and the New Policy Institute the study provides a high level review right across the capital.

For the many people who claim that inner London has all the problems and outer London has all the money, this report contains a few surprises:

Since the late 1990s outer London has experienced a significant deterioration across a number of indicators including child and working age poverty. More of the capital's low income population now live in outer London than in inner London.

Since the mid 2000s inner London's unemployment rate has been falling but outer London's unemployment rate has been rising.

Havering is one of the worst four boroughs in London for low pay by place of work, the others being Bexley, Merton and Waltham Forest, all in outer London.

Redbridge is one of the worst eight London boroughs for households in temporary accommodation.

There is evidence here that the process of redistribution from outer to inner London which was a feature of the 2000-2008 mayoral terms has gone too far. I hope that Boris draws the same conclusion.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Cycling Stage 2

Back on the bike again yesterday for Stage 2 of my cycle training, this time on the road.

Starting in the busier part of Valentine's Park, we quickly progressed onto the quieter streets of Ilford, practising U-turns and approaching junctions.

On a Friday afternoon in the back streets there wasn't much traffic, but what there was was enough. Cyclists need to approach the road with an attitude that differs from drivers. Being relatively small makes being seen absolutely vital and the lack of any protection means that you always need to consider and anticipate the actions of other vehicles.

Most of the drivers we met were considerate road users, but some were not and even some pedestrians demonstrated little thought for others. Bikes are quiet and people can easily step into the road without realising you are there. Space always needs to be left in case someone opens their car door directly in your path.

And there are buses in side roads too, huge intimidating things that leave little room for anyone else. Typically, we encountered none in a couple of hours, then two came along at once! Luckily they were the 'small' single deckers and we stayed well away from the route of the number 25, the only bendy in Ilford.

Thanks to the help of Redbridge Cycling Campaign, I now feel a lot more confident on the road and I'm considering getting a bike, if only because it seems a much better way of exercising than going to the gym. The big event is on June 6th at Hog Hill, where all the newcomers to cycling - and some veterans - will meet for a few circuits of the track. It should be fun...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Boris in Romford

On Friday afternoon Boris Johnson returned to Romford. Starting at the station, he joined Ian Johnstone, chief constable of the British Transport Police, to launch the police team who will patrol the main line trains between Shenfield and Liverpool Street. He also met the station staff and their manager, and was shown the new ticket gates which can now accept Oyster cards. Then we took the mayor for a walkabout in the market place. Sometimes it is easy to get out of touch with public opinion when you work in City Hall's curving corridors of power, so this was a refreshing opportunity for local people to meet Boris. Friday afternoon is relatively quiet, but a considerable crowd soon formed. The response was over 90% positive, and one comment I heard over and over again was 'it's good to see a politician who actually delivers on his promises'. Perhaps less flattering were those who said 'at least he's not Ken!' In the current climate elected representatives are not often greeted with such affection. I'm hoping to get Boris to visit Redbridge next...

Monday, May 11, 2009

On My Bike

On Friday morning I met Gill James and keen cyclists from Redbridge for some timely cycling instruction from trainer Jim Dalton.

The Redbridge Group of the London Cycling Campaign are launching Movers and Shakers, an initiative to encourage people of influence in the community to act as role models, demonstrating that cycling can be for everyone. They have several councillors, including council leader Keith Prince, Lee Scott MP and Guardian journalist Hugh Muir signed up already, so I was delighted to join such a distinguished field.

With 25 years having passed since I rode a bike, there was more shaking than moving as I set out around Valentines Park on a wet and windy morning. I was amazed how quickly it all came flooding back and with Jim's help I was soon able to whizz about unassisted - although signalling whilst maintaining balance is presently beyond my skills.

Part two training takes place this Friday on the road! And the good news is that the mayor's Ambassador for Young People, James Cleverly, is also keen to join the field. As he cycles into the office each day, James is good at this and has his own Lycra, so I hope he won't show the rest of us up.

More details of the Movers and Shakers initiative can be found at

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Redbridge College

On Thursday I visited Redbridge College to meet the staff and students. The college offers excellent vocational training in construction, media, music production, beauty therapy, hairdressing and catering. The catering students operate an on site restaurant which is open to members of the public.

I did two question and answer sessions with the students and took away some new insights myself. Prize question had to be "Why do you make Oyster cards so easy to lose?" And one student suggested we do away with the card and implant the chip into commuters' hands - that should reduce loss, theft and impersonation. Let's hope Jacqui Smith doesn't hear about this idea...

Many thanks to director of studies, Suzanne Levy who arranged the visit. I hope to work with the college in future, acting as an interview 'guinea pig' for the media course and arranging a return visit for them to enjoy Mayor's Question Time.

The picture shows me meeting the business studies students. Information about the college can be found at

Saturday, May 09, 2009

London Assembly AGM

The Annual General Meeting of the London Assembly took place on Wednesday. The meeting saw the self styled Progressive Alliance of Labour, Greens and Lib Dems holding together for a second year, although the Libs in particular are beginning to look worried about the pressure this is placing on their small team.

The election for the chair of the assembly saw Darren Johnson defeat my Conservative colleague Andrew Boff. Darren is the first Green politician to hold the post and his success demonstrates the strong grip that the two Greens continue to exercise over their eleven non Conservative colleagues. Disproportionate power exercised by a few individuals is always a consequence of so called proportional representation.

I suspect that Darren will be more disciplined in the chair than his predecessor, indeed we got a taste of his style some months ago when he stood in at a question time and had noisy protesters thrown out of the gallery - a first for a Green politician in the UK.

Jennette Arnold defeated Conservative Victoria Borwick in the contest for deputy chair.

Chairs of assembly committees were then elected and the ruling coalition have generously permitted us to chair two committees:

James Cleverly returns to chair the Health Committee, where he has been leading some good work on alcohol abuse amongst teenagers.

And I have agreed to take on the Audit Panel...

An Undemocratic Stitch Up

During the debate some of my colleagues referred to the latest deal as an undemocratic stitch up. The position was defended by Labour members who claimed that the mayor's own party would not be sufficiently robust in scrutinising his actions and policies, yet it was acknowledged that many Conservative members have actually been very tough on the mayor and his advisers over the last year, in contrast to Labour's approach from 2004 to 2008.

Liberal leader, Mike Tuffrey who always ends up on the right side of any deal, is fond of pointing out that the present situation is no different from the deal he did with us from 2000 to 2008. He is wrong and it is worth examining what actually happened on previous occasions:

2000 to 2004

The deal was actually done between Labour and the Lib Dems and saw Labour's Trevor Phillips chair the assembly, alternating with Lib Dem Sally Hamwee and briefly Samantha Heath. this despite the fact that the mayor was also Labour and the Conservative and Labour groups both had 9 members. Mike wasn't present when this deal was drawn up, so he can be forgiven for trying to distance himself from a situation where one party occupied the mayoralty and the assembly chair - but it did happen.

2004 to 2008

This time the Labour group lost two members, shrinking to 7, whilst the Conservatives retained 9, whilst UKIP enjoyed a brief period of representation. The deal was done between Conservatives and the Lib Dems, leading to Brian Coleman's memorable period as chairman and a return for Sally Hamwee. On this occasion different parties occupied the mayoralty and the chair.

2008 to ????

Most recently, Labour recovered, gaining 8 members and the Conservative group grew to 11 - the largest ever elected to the assembly. A three way deal between Labour, Greens and Lib Dems was necessary for the opposition to retain control and the presence of one BNP member introduced another unpredictable variable. The mayor and the assembly chair will be from different parties.

On the face of it, the doctrine that the two organisations should be in different political hands looks attractive, but it fails to consider other important factors:

Boris Johnson has not excluded other parties in the way that Ken Livingstone did. Mayoral advisers include Labour figures Neale Coleman and Kate Hoey MP. Saturday's State of London Debate included contributions from Assembly Members of all parties - for the first time. Boris has a naturally more collegiate approach than his predecessor.

And the numbers create a challenge for the assembly. Trying to run an elected body of 25 members with only 13 leads to a considerable workload for those individuals, and particularly for the smaller partners. Recent plans to reduce the size of committees were intended to reduce some of this load but were vetoed when the smaller groups realised they would lose representation entirely on some of the committees.

An assembly elected on the same day as the mayor will usually have the mayor's party forming the largest group, so it seems unlikely that the voters, or the government, intended them to automatically be placed in opposition as Tuffrey claims.

Possible Solutions

Scrap Proportional Representation - it leads to disproportionate power.

Stagger the assembly elections to take place every five or every three years. Most of the time they would then be independent of the influence of the mayoral election, and would provide a useful mid term test of the mayor's popularity.

Conservative Group AGM

On Tuesday we held the Annual General Meeting for the London Assembly Conservative Group. The good news is that the officers remain the same as the team elected in September when Richard Barnes stepped down to devote more time to the role of Deputy Mayor:

Group Leader - Roger Evans AM (Havering & Redbridge)

Deputy Leader - James Cleverly AM (Bexley & Bromley)

Whp & Group Secretary - Richard Tracey AM (Merton & Wandsworth)

After only seven months, I have decided to run with largely the same team as previously. All the Conservative members keep their current responsibilities, with just three changes:

Gareth Bacon joins the Budget & Performance Committee

Andrew Boff joins the Budget & Performance Committee

Steve O'Connell joins the Transport Committee