Sunday, July 26, 2009

Project Maja

With the final meetings of the Assembly, the Fire Authority and the Police Authority completed last week, members can turn their minds to the opportunities afforded by the summer break. I'm going to Bosnia next week to take part in Project Maja together with a team from the Conservative Social Action Unit.

Project Maja is a follow up to Social Action's efforts in Rwanda. We will be helping the Fund for Refugees to rebuild properties following the tragic civil war in the area around Srebrenica. Project leader, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi says:

As Conservatives we believe that having guiding principles is not enough, rolling up our sleeves and getting stuck in on the ground shows that we don't just believe in tackling poverty and injustice, but through a new type of politics we can make a real, worthwhile difference.

Most of the team are Parliamentarians or candidates for Westminster, so it was a real coup for the London Assembly Group to be involved. We will be blogging our experiences over at Conservative Home. I will provide a fuller report back on my return next week, meanwhile comment moderation will take place when the opportunity arises.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Gallows Corner Re-opens

Transport for London tell me that the Gallows Corner flyover returned to normal two way working from 3:00pm today. They are delighted to have achieved this some five weeks ahead of schedule and I am grateful for their efforts during a particularly trying time.

However this is no time for mutual back slapping. The whole problem only arose because of poor maintenance over a number of years and it has taken an unbelievable length of time to sort out. Replacement steel panels had to be specially made abroad and shipped to London, taking many months, during which drivers were seriously inconvenienced by closures and one way working. The flyover is now good for another ten years but this temporary structure should really be replaced with a permanent solution - this will require money from central government and there is likely to be very little available over the coming years.

Drivers on the A12 can breathe a sigh of relief but shouldn't relax just yet. A 40 week resurfacing project gets under way at Gants Hill roundabout on Friday...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Audit Panel

This morning I chaired the first meeting of the City Hall audit panel, since I took over the gavel, courtesy of the Lib Dems at the Assembly AGM.

I suspect they put me in charge because they felt it would be a sleepy backwater with no media profile (I could be wrong, perhaps they rate my abilities...), however thanks to Ian Clement and Lee Jasper there was rather more attention than usual. The agenda was also about three times its usual length.

Apologies for Absence

Dave Hill at The Guardian had expressed concerns about BNP member Richard Barnbrook's presence on the panel (the Assembly had to put him somewhere) particularly as reports about funding to minority organisations and politicians' expenses provided perfect material for one of his trademark rants. This was probably one of his best opportunities yet to make an impact since he was elected so he SENT HIS APOLOGIES!!!

District Auditor's Report

The main item for consideration was the District Auditor's double report into the distribution of grants under the previous regime. The first report dealt with the allegations of impropriety at the GLA, the second with the handling of an official complaint made by Assembly Members at the time. Allegations around the LDA are still being investigated and will be considered by that body, so they are unlikely to be discussed by our audit panel.

Report one concluded that rather a lot of rules had been broken with respect to declaring interests in a timely manner. The then mayor's advisor on equalities and policing had signed off grants to organisations with which he had personal involvement. The funding agreements by which money was distributed did not enable measurement of value for money, so although the auditor felt some value had been derived, he was unable to satisfy himself that Londoners had received everything that was paid for. A general lack of record keeping made it difficult to find an audit trail for decisions that had been made. There was no evidence of criminal activity, but the procedures for controlling and monitoring the situation fell well short of an acceptable standard.

Report two concluded that a complaint from Brian Coleman - regarding allegations that the advisor had improperly used GLA resources in a conflict with Equalities Commissioner Trevor Phillips - was not effectively investigated under the authority's whistle blowing policy. Indeed the Finance Director informed the committee that officers did not consult the existing policy and the District Auditor added that he was unaware of its existence! The staff who failed to carry out the investigation correctly had - we were told - all left the GLA since then. The panel members were stunned and genuinely angry about this.

Putting it Right

The Panel is not looking for evidence of dishonesty, and we are not conducting a campaign against individuals - rather, we are overseeing a transition from a culture where this situation could occur to one of greater transparency and higher standards. All members of the panel - those who were present - agree that we want to see officers turning stones over to discover what lies beneath and we want GLA probity rules enforced. The good news is that reports were tabled detailing the work being done to improve record keeping, risk management, funding agreements and the register of interests. This is work in progress and we have instructed senior management to provide us with an update at our next meeting in October.

Mayor's Questions

Parts of yesterday's question time became quite heated and perhaps it is just as well that everyone will have the August break to cool off.

Abuse of Process

Five minutes before the meeting started I received the unwelcome news that the Lib/Lab/Green alliance had decided to suspend standing orders so that the usual proportional timings would not apply on the first question which was - predictably - about the Ian Clement episode. There was a heated exchange, which could have been avoided if they had actually discussed their proposal with my team rather than springing it on us at the last moment.

Under the new Chair - Darren Johnson - we see constant attempts to introduce devices to give the smaller parties a disproportionately large influence, which reflect the problem that bedevils the so called Progressive Alliance - Labour have the numbers (8 members), so they get the larger time allocation, but they lack the ability or inclination to work effectively. Liberals and Greens are better operators but they lack the numbers (3 and 2 members respectively) and therefore the time, to bring their skills to bear. Also any attempt to give more influence to the smaller parties could benefit the BNP. They waste time and effort on attempts to rearrange the deckchairs.

The justification in this case was that Boris refused to attend an Assembly committee to discuss the Clement matter, so the aim was to create a mini version of that meeting within the Question Time. As it was, the Lib/Lab/Greens failed to ask any questions they had not raised before so it is probably just as well that they didn't get the special committee they wanted.

Rape Protest

One thing that Darren does do well is dealing with protests. With Ken out of office - and propped up in the front row of the gallery like El Cid - the London Left are rediscovering the joys of disrupting meetings. It was Tube unions last time. This time feminists set off rape alarms during Richard Barnbrook's contribution. They were swiftly escorted from the building. I support their stand against rape and domestic violence and they made their point in a reasonably dignified way. However I was surprised by how quiet the rape alarms were, and I hope they would make a lot more noise in a real emergency - more like my smoke alarm which went off a few weeks ago and was impossible to ignore.


I took the opportunity to welcome members of the North East London and Essex Group of Advanced Motorists to the gallery - probably a first at City Hall.

I also raised several important local issues with the Mayor.

Gallows Corner - Boris assured me that the disruptive work on the Gallows Corner Flyover would be completed on time in August. We all look forward to traffic returning to normal here.

Gants Hill - Work is due to start at Gants Hill next week. Rumour has it that the foundations beneath the road are in poor condition and this means that the work will take longer and be more disruptive. Traffic on the A12 and A406 can expect long delays as a result. There are also plans to divert a number of bus routes that pass through the roundabout. Access to the Central Line station and pedestrian subways could be impeded too. It's all a bit of an unknown as TfL have omitted to brief me and Redbridge Council also have limited information. Boris promised me a swift update from TfL, so more about this later, no doubt...

Woolwich Ferry - One of the boats has been out of service recently, leading to delays. With the limited number of crossings downstream of Tower Bridge, the ferry remains an important facility, particularly for lorries that are too high to use the tunnels. The boat is now back in service and Boris promised me an update as things return to normal.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

MQT Tomorrow

It's that time again. Tomorrow's question time at City Hall starts at 10:00am and will feature questions on:

- Openness and transparency in City Hall's expenses and benefits framework.
- Government targets for new travellers' sites in the London Plan.
- Transport infrastructure for the Thames Gateway.
- Offering leadership to clamp down on abuse of City Hall's expenses and benefits framework.

Following the Ian Clement episode and publication of a critical audit report on the Lee Jasper affair, we expect the financial controls at the GLA to come under the spotlight.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Waste, Recycling and New Technologies

I've just come up for air after a seemingly endless meeting of the Environment Committee. You know it's going to be rough going when there are more expert witnesses (8) than members (7) - anyway, here goes:

This morning we looked at the development of new methods to extract energy from the waste that can't be recycled. One witness suggested that this technology is at the same stage as the computer industry 25 years ago, on the verge of life changing innovations. The Microsoft of waste management waits in the wings.

Anaerobic Digestion

Known as 'AD' to the waste community, this is the most favoured option and it is already used for sewage, with Thames Water operating 60 plants. The idea is to allow bacteria to digest the organic waste element, producing gas that can be used as fuel. Essentially the same process happens in landfill sites but most of the gas escapes into the atmosphere, whereas AD ensures it is captured for the community.

The gas can then be cleaned up and injected into the national grid of gas pipelines. Alternatively the plant can be connected to a local housing estate so the immediate residents get the benefit, but this is expensive and difficult where existing buildings require a retrofit. Local distribution is more viable for new build or for a single large industrial or public sector customer. Another alternative is to use the gas as fuel for a vehicle fleet, usually operated by the public sector.

Friends of the Earth favour AD and campaign in support of the technology but they acknowledge that the need to transport residues away by road creates some problems in the city.

Planning permission for AD seems to be relatively easy to secure, unlike incineration - the Belvedere incinerator took 16 years to approve...

Other Technologies

Including gasification and pyrolysis are as yet unproven. They burn waste gas in an engine to create electricity but the ultimate aim is to use fuel cells - which work like batteries - to generate power. These have the advantage of no moving parts so they are more efficient but current models don't work well with impure gas.

Developing solutions face problems obtaining funding, particularly in the current economic climate. Financial institutions prefer to see at least one pilot plant working, preferably in this country, before risking their money.

Friends of the Earth were less impressed, describing some of the technologies as no better than landfill or incineration.

Large vs Small

Operators prefer larger applications because one big site can achieve economies of scale and can attract the sort of large waste contracts that make investing significant sums a viable prospect. However large sites tend to attract greater public opposition so they take longer to pass through the planning process. In addition, a plant handling more than 50,000 tonnes of waste requires approval by the Mayor, so large applications will face delays and paperwork.

Commercial considerations favour large sites but public opinion and planning law tends towards smaller installations.

Waste Map

All this means that the plan to locate waste disposal sites around London is likely to change, with fewer sites designated. The current map identifies many potential sites particularly in East London. In my own patch, Hainault, Harold Hill and Rainham are identified as suitable locations for such facilities.

With the recession the volume of waste has actually started to fall so less capacity is going to be needed in the short term, however not everywhere is well served. One witness pointed out that Hackney residents seeking to dispose of objects like fluorescent light tubes are instructed to take them to Islington's civic amenity site at Hornsey - it seems unlikely that everyone will take the trouble to embark on such a journey.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Deja Vu at the Transport Committee

This morning I filled in at the transport committee for an absent colleague. Now chaired by capable Lib Dem, Caroline Pidgeon, the session focused on Tube overcrowding and the effect of PPP related line closures.

Overcrowding Psychology

Dr Glenn Williams, a senior lecturer in psychology, gave us his take on modern day tube travel. Crowding can cause stress, ill health and poor productivity. Introverts suffer the effects more than extroverts, who are happier to meet new people and get close to them. Crowding encourages passengers to shut themselves off, falling silent, averting their gaze, playing ipods and all the rest, which is ultimately dehumanising - and that is why so few people come to one another's aid on public transport.

Crowding can be positive where the shared experience is enjoyable such as concerts and sporting events, but this does not apply to commuting.

Crowding at it's Worst

Morning peak measurements revealed that the greatest crowding occurs on the Central Line between Liverpool Street and Bank, and on the Northern Line between King's Cross and Angel. Here you are likely to find three other people sharing your personal square metre of space.

In our patch things are more bearable, however parts of the Central Line loop can get busy, with up to two people per square metre between South Woodford, Leytonstone and Gants Hill. In Havering the District Line is a veritable haven of peace with less than half the seats occupied from Upminster to Elm Park, where the remainder start to fill up. Conditions get more intimate at Upney.

Jubilee Line Closures

Work to replace signalling on the Jubilee has resulted in weekend closures over recent months. Witnesses from the Excel Centre and the O2 shared their experiences.

Closure of the line posed a big challenge to the O2 venue, who have arranged extra river services - through Thames Clippers -, replacement bus services, and a boat service linking to the DLR in Docklands. The Clippers carry up to 3,000 people for a major concert and the introduction of Oyster in November will be a further help. O2 were pleased with the relationship they had with TfL but were looking forward to the end of engineering as they felt nothing could really replace the Jubilee Line.

At Excel, closure of the Jubilee Line and the DLR had contributed to the cancellation of seven events and the loss of revenue totalling £1.8 million. Obviously they were not happy although they did feel the DLR managers had been more helpful than London Underground. Most seriously, the closures had disrupted exams being held at the centre, with students struggling to turn up on time.

Piccadilly Planned Closures

Alexander Nichol, representing Covent Garden landowners, gave evidence about the impending Piccadilly Line works. Busy months in Covent Garden are July, August, December and April, so he hoped that disruption could be arranged for other months. He felt there was an opportunity to encourage more walking between stations in the area during closures. Clearer signposts at street level could make a significant contribution to informing travellers' choices.

For example, travelling by tube from Leicester Square to Covent Garden requires a longer walk - up and down stairs and through tunnels - than doing the journey on foot on the surface. The walk is also much more interesting and less crowded - better for introverts and extroverts.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Assembly Expenses Go Online

This morning you can see the expense claims of London Assembly Members for the last year on line at the GLA website. They are itemised in some detail.

My own relate solely to travelling costs and are as follows:

Zone 1-6 Travelcard £1,784.00

Taxi journey, Bromley Civic Centre to Romford Town Centre, 6.11.08, following Peoples' Question Time £71.83

And that's the lot.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Daily Politics

I'm on The Daily Politics this morning at around 11:30. We will be discussing the mayor's first year in office, covering the high points and the lows. My fellow guest will be the novelist and commentator, Will Self.

I haven't posted much recently because my home PC picked up a virus - from Facebook, I think - and it is taking some time to resume normal service...