Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fire Trends - and Boats

The Fire Authority's Performance Management and Community Safety Panel met yesterday afternoon. Interesting reports concerning trends and risks often get an airing here. There were a couple of 'burning issues' this time:

Weather and Risk

Some of this seems like common sense, but extreme weather conditions do lead to a rise in incidents for the brigade to attend:

Extreme cold causes frozen pipes to burst or overflow, leading to an increase of flooding incidents.

High temperatures can cause lifts to break down, leading to a larger number of calls to people trapped in lifts.

Hot, dry periods lead to an increase in open land fires, particularly a problem in outer London.

Strong winds, most often experienced in the autumn, lead to more calls to make safe damaged buildings and structures.

Storms with heavy rainfall cause unpredictable cases of localised flooding, usually as a result of inadequate drainage.

And of course some occasions and events cause a peak in call outs. The most obvious is bonfire night, and where this falls in the middle of the week - like this year - the incidents occur on adjacent Saturday nights as well.


The Brigade operates two fireboats from a floating fire station at Lambeth. The boats are slower than those used by other emergency services but they have fire fighting pumps and a shallow hull which allows them to operate right up to the river bank. They work closely with the police, RNLI and Port of London Authority rescue boats.

Last year the fireboats attended 49 fires and 53 false alarms but the majority of their work - 164 callouts - was classified as 'special services', in effect rescues which don't involve fires. Special services include sinking or drifting boats, cars in the river, people falling in the river or trapped in the tidal mud, people threatening to jump from bridges and - sadly - the retrieval of bodies from the water.

At one time the fireboats had to deal with industrial and warehouse fires but with the transformation of the river banks and the growth of residential properties, the fire threat has receded. Most of the new properties are accessible by land and fire engines can often reach them more swiftly than the boats.

Nevertheless, the fireboats and their crews still play an essential part in keeping the Thames safe.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ambush at the Academy

Over a thousand people attended last nights Question Time, the third such experience for Boris Johnson and assembly Members elected in 2008.

The venue was the O2 Academy in Brixton, more often the scene of concerts and sell out music performances. The room was so large that it was difficult to see people at the back and the acoustics on stage were truly awful. We were reduced to lip reading colleagues on the large screen as we certainly couldn't hear what they were saying.

Local Member Val Shawcross did a good job of chairing a session that became unruly at times, although it wasn't as disorderly as the last session in Bethnal Green. A large contingent of 'Save the South London Line' protestors turned up, some wearing campaign T shirts, and Val can perhaps be forgiven for squeezing every last drop of publicity out of their attendance, calling transport chairman Caroline Pidgeon to lay into the mayor over his 'lack of action'.

The tenants of Offley Works also made a return, demanding public money to keep their dance studio open. James Cleverly made an effort to explain the LDA's position and the limits on the budget, but the hecklers demonstrated that they weren't really interested in the answer. At Bethnal Green some members thought the Offley people were admirably feisty but their behaviour last night probably did their case more harm than good.


In response to a question about his recent crime fighting episode, Boris supported Londoners stepping in to prevent crime - using their judgement and proportionate force of course - and he hoped that the police would support public spirited individuals. Policing supremo, Kit Malthouse was nodding during these comments, which is a good sign.

The claim by female MPs that public transport is too dangerous for them to use at night was also given short shrift. Many other female - and male - workers commute late at night and they don't require a second home in town. Public transport is relatively safe but it is the walk home from the station or bus stop where danger is greatest.

The mayor reassured Londoners that recent comparisons with 'The Wire' were groundless. London's murder rate is less than a tenth of the rate in Baltimore where the popular TV series is based.

In response to the question 'Should police take more action against drug dealers?' the audience voted 82% in favour and 18% against. A surprisingly high number turning down a reasonable proposition. The borough commander was present and hopefully he has taken note.


The South London Line campaigners made their presence felt at this point and there were also complaints about the fare rises. Val obligingly cued up Assembly Members from the three opposition parties to attack the mayor in succession. The myth that the fare gap could be plugged by retaining the congestion charge Western Extension and emissions based vehicle charging had clearly gained traction.

Cyclists also raised questions about safety on the roads. One poor girl had been run over by a dustcart, another had been hit by a bus. Boris encouraged cyclists to stop in front of vehicles at junctions, where they could be seen, rather than tucking themselves away in the left hand gutter. The first girl said she was lucky to be alive and would not be cycling in London again, and I can't blame her.

Val's question concluding this section was 'Do you support the removal of the Western Extension?' to which 66% responded 'no' and 34% said 'yes'. As the WEZ doesn't cover Brixton, all this really demonstrated was that people support taxes as long as someone else is paying them - twelve years of New Labour were based on that premise.


This section of the meeting was hijacked by the Offley Works protestors so the environment didn't get much of an outing at Brixton. Val concluded with the question 'Should the mayor impose housing targets on London boroughs?' to which 76% said 'yes' and 24% said 'no'. I suspect the answer would have been very different in Havering or Redbridge.


Several people suggested that the Olympics was a waste of money and with even Tessa Jowell claiming that the bid looked less attractive once the recession had bitten, this view is gaining ground. Having won the bid it's a bit difficult to renege on it now so we are faced with soldiering on towards the fateful 2012 deadline, whilst trying to rally enthusiasm during tough times. Labour have spotted a potential source of disaffection and Val highlighted it by asking 'Should there be discount tickets for Londoners?' with 79% agreeing and 21% in disagreement.

The meeting tailed off with several general questions but people were already leaving the hall. At the end some of the audience formed a scrum to meet Boris who still retains his media star popularity. The honeymoon is over, particularly amongst public sector opinion formers, but a lot of voters warm to the mayor personally and feel he is doing a good job in trying circumstances.

The Members also got to speak to some of the audience. One smiling man shook me by the hand 'Thank you for all your support, you're doing a great job Mr Biggs.'...

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Spotlight on Heathrow

This morning the Environment Committee took evidence from experts on the controversial Heathrow third runway proposal. In the green corner were Cllr Barbara Reid representing the M2 group of councils and John Stewart from HACAN. In the commercial corner were BAAs directors of corporate responsibility and airport communications.


Noise was the main concern for members. The government use 2002 as the baseline year for measuring trends but as this was the last year of Concorde's operation there is concern that successive years do not compare fairly. Concorde was a very noisy aircraft, with an effect equal to 120 Boeing 757s, so measuring against 2002 leaves room for more flights without compromising the headline downward trend.

Use of the 57 decibel contour was also challenged as this defined an area which didn't include Putney and Fulham - places where aircraft noise levels generate many complaints. Less than 300,000 people fall within the contour but HACAN estimate that more than twice that number are affected.

BAA highlighted the phasing out of noisy, polluting planes, including Concorde, which would ensure less noise pollution in future.

Air Quality

Witnesses from the Environment Agency admitted that the 2010 air quality targets for the UK would be failed, resulting in large fines for the Government. BAA explained the measures they were taking to reduce pollution.

At Heathrow much of the pollution comes from vehicles taking passengers and workers to the airport. BAA were working to encourage green vehicles within the airport perimeter and had measures in place to encourage public transport use. 41% of journeys to the airport used public transport and this was one of the highest figures in Europe. The committee were still concerned that more could be done and suggested lowering the Heathrow Express fares to encourage more passengers. BAA were also investing in Crossrail and funding the Heathrow Express.

Pollution from aircraft would reduce with the arrival of cleaner and more efficient engines.

Global Impact

John Stewart reassured us that he was not opposed to the airport but that he wanted to see short haul flights phased out and replaced by high speed rail. This would create capacity for the existing runways to accommodate more long haul flights without expanding overall capacity.

However two thirds of emissions come from long haul flights and an increase in these might actually create more pollution. Furthermore, reducing capacity at the Heathrow hub might just encourage passengers to use the airports at Paris or Amsterdam instead. This would harm London's economy without mitigating damage to the environment.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Peoples' Question Time

The next PQT featuring the Mayor and Assembly Members will take place in Brixton on Monday evening. The venue is the O2 Academy, 211 Stockwell Road, SW9 9SL. This meeting gives the public an opportunity to put questions to Boris Johnson and members of the Assembly.

The session will start at 7.00pm (doors open 6.00pm) and end at 9.00pm. It will be chaired by Val Shawcross, the Labour Assembly Member for Lambeth and Southwark.

Full details are available online at http://www.london.gov.uk/ or alternatively the event can be heard on LBC - http://www.lbc.co.uk/ .

This promises to be a lively night, if it is anything like the Bethnal Green meeting earlier this year. I will provide a write up from my own perspective after the event...

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Justice Seen to be Done

Filling in at the budget monitoring sub committee this morning. We took evidence from the police and fire services, reviewing their first quarter financial management.

The police were represented by Paul James from their finance team who told us that there had been two events that proved to be an unexpected drain on the police budget. The first was the Tamil demonstration outside Parliament which would be funded from reserves. The second was the G20 demonstration in the City of London. Reimbursement of over £3 million was being sought from the Home Office to cover the cost of diplomatic protection and security for the summit.

Savings were also anticipated, in particular from the introduction of virtual courts.

The pilot scheme sees 15 police stations across South London connected to Camberwell Green Magistrate's Court so that hearings can take place remotely, saving the cost of ferrying the suspects to court in a police van. Whilst most cases could be dealt with this way the pilot is focussed on the initial hearings that precede full trials. Potentially the time from charging a suspect to a court appearance can be reduced to three hours, cutting through the backlog of cases and saving court time.

Justice is done and seen to be done. There is even the theoretical possibility of making the on line exchanges publicly available although this would require primary legislation and the Met wisely refused to be drawn into this debate.