Saturday, December 04, 2010

Reselection Meeting

Last night forty people braved the snow and ice to attend my reselection meeting in Romford.

It began with a fifteen minute report back in which I covered my work in the last two years. Highlights included the opening of the new fire station at Gallows Corner - the first new fire station to be built in London for 20 years. I also talked about the success of Fairlop Waters in the Mayor's 'Trees for London' public vote, and the visit from William Torbitt primary school, which saw the children deliver 300 votes to City Hall.

On a policy note, I highlighted our continuing opposition to the proposals for an illegal immigrant amnesty, and our lobbying for legislation to control the turbulent industrial relations on the Tube. I talked about the changes to the London Plan, particularly the move away from large blocks of tiny flats, and the decision to remove arbitrary targets for travellers pitches in each borough.

Then we had thirty minutes of questions from an interested and engaged audience. Business people and charity groups wanted the costly low emission zone timetable delayed again. There were requests for Boris to do yet more to help cyclists, and local councillors demanded greater freedom from TfL dictat. We discussed the phasing out of bendy buses and there was much relief to hear that the infamous number 25 would be 'debendified' over the summer of 2011, and all would be gone by the election.

I left the room during the vote, which was a secret ballot. The numbers were not revealed but I'm told that I was reselected by an overwhelming majority. That means that almost all of the group have successfully completed the reselection process and soon we will be moving on to choosing and ranking the top up list. Only 18 months to the election...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mayor's Question Time - November Fireworks

A solid Question Time yesterday with Boris enjoying his usual friendly reception from a packed public gallery. Present in the front row - shades of El Cid once again - was Ken Livingstone, along with his long time ally Simon Fletcher. Ken was wearing a darker suit than usual, always a sign that he wants to be taken seriously, and Boris responded by swerving to the left as he faced robust questions from all sides - including the Conservative Group.


Taxation

Labour members are enjoying an extended break from all that tedious 'New' stuff that won them power three times in a row. They started by asking what was most harmful to London - tax evasion or benefit fraud. Personally I find both types of law breaking unacceptable but it was clear where Labour's sympathies lie.

It took Deputy Mayor Richard Barnes to point out that the real threat to London's economy was presented by the higher taxes favoured by the previous government and the previous mayor. I piled in on the back of this, asking Boris to freeze the council tax precept for the coming year. He was pretty coy in his response, pointing out that I ask that question every year, and he refuses to commit himself ahead of time, every year. He might have added that has also frozen the precept every year too, but this was left unsaid - an encouraging implication rather than a commitment.


Transport For London

Caroline Pidgeon kicked off a wide ranging debate about safety on the Tube and TfL's management style. Boris pointed out that London Underground was safer than ever with only one accidental fatality every two years, a much better record than even ten years ago. Recent performance has been poor, calling LU's project management into question, but passengers should not be needlessly alarmed about the safety of the network.

I asked for a change of culture at TfL with an end to the secrecy and opaque committee structure. Boris seemed to think things were fine, but I would like to see TfL's transparency conform to the standards we rightly expect of local authorities and the other GLA functional bodies. This is work in progress but I have hopes that the government will address these concerns in their impending legislative programme.


Local Enterprise Partnerships

Boris is keen on promoting a London wide LEP (although the word 'local' seems inappropriate for such a body). Members lined up to make the case for LEPs based on better defined and smaller areas, which the mayor has so far refused to support.

I feel that a Thames Gateway LEP might be one way of holding together the best parts of the work done in East London and the Essex fringe, an area that still needs inward investment. Dick Tracey made a strong case for Nine Elms, and Steve O'Connell introduced us to the 'coast to coast' partnership which has seen Croydon working with neighbouring authorities outside London. This outward looking approach may prove to be the way forward for the 'doughnut boroughs' providing greater synergy than a rather clumsy London wide partnership promises.


Housing Benefit

The debate about the proposed housing benefit cap rumbled on, with Boris coming close to repeating his social cleansing remarks. Tony Arbour waded in on the side of the deserving workers who contributed to the capital's economy as opposed to the recipients of benefits who contributed less - but the argument is more nuanced than that.

Calls to preserve 'mixed communities' are about twenty years too late, because the middle classes and professionals were driven from whole areas of Central London by rising property prices long ago. Streets where millionaires and the very poorest live side by side are no more 'mixed communities' than Downton Abbey. Using the benefit system to preserve this state of affairs represents very poor value for money and it is perverse to expect taxpayers to fund accommodation that they could not afford for themselves. The availability of benefit funded tenants also fuels the market, driving rents higher, beyond the means of most people.

Of course there need to be transitional arrangements to ease the pain, but the plan to cap housing benefit is absolutely right. It should have been done years ago.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Questions at Camden







Tuesday night saw the latest Peoples' Question Time at the rather impressive Camden Centre at Kings Cross. A unique set of circumstances saw controversial local member Brian Coleman chairing a meeting in an inner city borough in the midst of bitter Tube and Fire Brigade strikes. Conflict seemed likely and after the meeting at Brixton, where items were thrown at the platform, security was tight.

There was also a strong turnout from Assembly Members, with only Labour's Nicky Gavron giving her apologies. Protesters with banners and vuvuzelas gathered noisily outside and former BNP Member Richard Barnbrook had a nasty encounter with left wing extremists, fortunately broken up by police before anyone got hurt.

Inside, the hall was far from full but people had travelled from across London, defying the Tube strike which came into effect during the evening. I spotted guests from Brent, Barnet, Croydon, Lewisham and Waltham Forest, and no doubt there were plenty more.

We opened with speeches from the Mayor - denouncing the strike - and Chair, Dee Doocey, which were politely applauded. Then we were into the questions.


Policing

A difficult subject at previous meetings, there was less anger in the debate this time. People voiced their worries over potential cuts in police numbers and Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse was forced to give reassurances that popular neighbourhood teams would be retained. There were questions about the use of 'stop and search' powers and Boris explained that he understood the sensitivities in the capital, and that he would ensure that such measures would be applied with care and courtesy. However, in two years stop and search had recovered over 10,000 knives from young people, no doubt saving lives and contributing to the decline in the murder rate. Some inconvenience was a price worth paying for saving lives.


Transport

This section provoked a wide and passionate debate. RMT official Steve Headley loudly presented his case from the floor, but the applause for his rhetoric was mixed. Other speakers were angered by the repeated strikes. One man said that the strikes were no problem compared to weekend engineering works which were far more effective when it came to shutting the network down - at least in Brent.

A woman from the West end accused Boris of reneging on his promise to abolish the congestion charge Western Extension, whilst another man complained that its abolition would increase pollution. Boris stated clearly that the zone would be shut down on 24 December - a welcome and overdue Christmas present for Londoners.

An older man thanked Boris for protecting the Freedom Pass but another person claimed that it was going to be means tested. The Mayor confirmed that there was no truth to this rumour.

John Biggs was tired of the upbeat atmosphere and he interjected, accusing Boris of achieving little and breaking promises. It was a discordant little contribution which attracted the first booing of the night.


Environment

On to environment and other stuff like housing and planning. Questions covered air pollution, overcrowding and controversial planning decisions.

We had all prepared to discuss the housing benefit cap, but it took Labour AM Navin Shah to raise it and the audience were more intrigued by the Mayor's spat with David Cameron and what that revealed about their relationship. One person leapt to his feet to ask if Boris would be the next Prime Minister, after Cameron's first term. The Mayor made a clear denial but there was some audience support for the idea of PM Boris.

A Labour councillor raised the 'superlab' research centre planned for Kings Cross. The Mayor's planning responsibilities meant he was not allowed to comment but Members were able to air their views. Brian Coleman was against, claiming that the proposal was out of character for the area and more housing was what was really needed. Jennette Arnold was in favour - a sticky wicket with the local protesters - but she raised the debate to talk about the medical advances that the laboratory would provide, and at the end of a passionate speech she received widespread applause.


Olympics and Any Other Business

The people of Camden were not convinced that 2012 would provide them with any benefit, a view which is widely held outside the immediate Olympic area. But the games won't be cancelled so an upbeat response is really the only option and Boris does this well. I had my moment of fame - you usually only get one contribution at these meetings - talking about Olympic transport plans which are comprehensive for public transport (as long as strikes can be avoided) but not so good for road travel with large swathes of lanes cordoned off for 'The Olympic Family'.

There was no mention of the Fire Strike and the mood was calm throughout the evening, with nobody getting thrown out, unlike previous meetings. There was the traditional rush to the platform by people wanting to meet Boris as the meeting ended.

Meanwhile someone approached me to ask who the 'MC' was, because he had handled the meeting so well. Brian Coleman will be pleased with the way this went and I suspect that his approval rating from the audience will be quite high when the end of meeting survey is broken down. The best score so far was achieved by James Cleverly in Bromley (88%) with Navin Shah getting the wooden spoon (36%) from the Harrow audience.

And despite the difficulties of mid term, government cuts and industrial strife, Boris still has 'what it takes' to win. Next year Question Time will be coming to Havering, providing an interesting 'doughnut test' in the final months before the 2012 election.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Hainault War Memorial











This afternoon I attended the dedication of a new war memorial in Hainault. The memorial is situated in Manford Way, opposite the shops. Also there were Lee Scott MP, the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Redbridge, the leader of the council and a number of local councillors.








For long serving Hainault Cllr Ted Griffin, this was a particularly proud moment because he has been campaigning for a memorial for several years. Following the dedication, there were two minutes of silence and wreaths were laid. The rain did not dampen spirits and the event attracted quite a large crowd.

Monday, October 25, 2010

City Hall Austerity

On Thursday the budget committee received an update from Nicholas Griffin, the Mayor's budget advisor, who was appointed earlier this year and has embarked on a raft of projects designed to get better value from the administration.

Since July there has been much progress:

Working with Westminster City Council, who pioneered this approach, we are seeking to reduce the number of IT hardware and software suppliers contracted across the GLA family. This can be quite challenging as each functional body has evolved its own systems over time, but streamlining suppliers will make it easier for departments to work together as well as allowing economies of scale. A similar approach is being pursued by Croydon and Waltham Forest councils.

Internal audit functions will be combined for the different bodies, reducing the number of auditors and allowing more economies of scale. One beneficial consequence will be to create a standard approach to audit reports across the Greater London Authority, with more transparency and democratic oversight.

The real possibility of sharing buildings to reduce estates costs is also being pursued. Space created by staff cuts at City Hall will be used to house staff currently working in other buildings which will then become surplus. The emergency services are looking at sharing new buildings, a forerunner being the site at Harold Hill where a new fire station and police base coexist. Combined fire and ambulance stations are also being considered. A new GLA wide buildings database will enable better use of space.

A 20% savings target has been set for procurement of services and supplies. There will also be more sharing of payroll services and committee support across the GLA.

Political Groups are not immune in the Age of Austerity and a paper was presented to declare savings achieved in each group's administrative support during the year. We have made a substantial contribution, with the Conservative Group underspending the budget by £189,000, roughly £17,000 for each of our eleven members.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Policing Budget - The Investigation Continues

This morning the budget committee took evidence from Bob Quick, the former chief constable of Surrey and assistant commissioner at the Met. A while ago Bob had problems when his confidential papers were photographed by journalists in Downing Street, so it was good to see that he had obtained an opaque file holder for today's session, and his evidence was also detailed and useful.


Years of Plenty

Questioned about the period of growth which has led to the Met having the largest workforce in its history, Mr Quick acknowledged that in addition to the demands of neighbourhood policing there had also been growth in homicide investigators and counter terrorism officers. These were needed to respond to the new challenges and threats facing London. There were also more officers supporting partnership working with local authorities, which produced varying results in different areas.

With this growth came an increase in monitoring, management and inspection, which Mr Quick viewed as less welcome. Figures supplied by Professor Marian FitzGerald - who gave robust evidence at our last meeting - demonstrated that a 28% increase in police constables had been accompanied by a 49% increase in police sergeants and a 34% increase in inspectors and higher ranks, so the growth in managers appeared disproportionate. Mr Quick agreed and he predicted that a retreat from the previous target driven culture would lead to less demand for managers. He also agreed that it was worth considering combining specialist teams and reducing the number of borough command units to achieve savings in management and bureaucracy.

A move away from geographically based management to specialist functions had been shown to achieve savings in Norfolk, Surrey and Warwickshire, however the effect on customer satisfaction had not yet been measured. The committee also felt that these county forces were not comparable to London.


Civilianisation

Mr Quick became the latest expert witness to request a move away from simple police officer numbers as a measurement of effectiveness. Measurement of the work undertaken by officers showed that it could be classified as:

60% routine tasks - which is not to say unimportant, including custody processing and taking witness statements. Much of this work could be done by civilians, but public confidence could suffer.

28% bureaucracy - completing paperwork, providing statistics. A single support office assigned to a squad of police could free up a great deal of police time by doing this work for the whole squad.

12% Policing - which must be done by a warranted officer, for example attending court and interviewing suspects. This is where police resources should be focused.

But wide ranging changes to working practices faced formidable obstacles, including legislative barriers and public concerns. These could only be overcome by a consensual approach, securing agreement from the officers and the community they are there to protect.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Conference Day Two


Monday was a day of London and transport debates, appropriate on the day of the second in Bob Crow's series of Autumn Tube strikes.



Boris at the Conference


The morning kicked off with a debate on transport and skills in the main hall. Two years ago a smaller chamber was used for most of the conference but this year there is increased demand so the larger Symphony Hall with its four tiers of seating is being used. Philip Hammond and Theresa Villiers announced transport policies including an extended commitment to build the new high speed railway beyond Birmingham, eventually aiming to connect Manchester and Leeds with London. The ministerial panel were also noticeably supportive when an audience member asked for measures to curb the power of the transport unions.


A session with Boris followed and the hall was predictably packed. Hordes of photographers descended on the front of the stage and I had to make do with my own pictures of Boris on the big screen above the stage, rather than the real thing. The great man began his speech with a condemnation of the politically motivated strikes which struck a chord with his audience. He then went on to make his case for defending spending on London's infrastructure, and it is to be hoped that George Osborne was listening from backstage.


No doubt mindful of the commuters struggling into work then returning home to watch his performance on the late news, Boris provided less of the usual humour in what was a hard hitting speech.



Motor Manufacturers and Traders Lunch


I don't usually do conference lunches, wishing to avoid the wrath of my personal trainer when I return to London, but I made this one exception this week. I found myself seated with representatives from Toyota, Honda and London Taxis International. The conversation focused on the development of electric cars and hybrid vehicles which they hoped would maintain our love affair with the car into the future, whilst hugely reducing the carbon footprint of motoring.


The development of plug in points for electric cars is likely to be a restraint on use in much the same way as a lack of filling stations limits the take up of alternative fuels. I suggested that electric cars could be charged at home, using the mains supply and it turns out that this solution is being considered. Range remains a problem for battery powered cars, but in London most journeys are over short distances, making them a good option for the capital.


The man from LTI told me that their vehicles are now being manufactured in China for use in their own cities. You can get a traditional black cab on the streets of Beijing.



London Reception


With Boris and his team returning to the city, I was left to speak to the London fringe meeting sponsored by Four Communications. I don't often get to step out of the 'shadow of Boris', and I took the opportunity to update delegates on the results of the strike which union leaders predicted would 'paralyse London':


40% of services ran as planned.


Only the Circle Line had no services.


The Hammersmith & City, Victoria, Waterloo & City and Northern Lines ran a full service.


DLR - with driverless trains - and buses were unaffected.


Boris Bike usage was up by 25%.


We were grateful to the volunteers who helped to run the underground and to the workers who defied their union bosses and turned up for work in greater numbers than during the previous strike, and we hoped the Mayor could find some way of rewarding their loyalty to London.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Conference Day One




Sunday at the Conservative Conference here in Birmingham saw me address the Thames Gateway fringe meeting, then attend a reception hosted by Women 2 Win.


Thames Gateway

I shared a platform with Thames Gateway Minister (and old Assembly colleague) Bob Neill and Adam Marshall who represented the British Cambers of Commerce.

There was concern that the impending cuts might damage plans to regenerate the Gateway, and I put in a strong plug for Crossrail, the DLR extension to Dagenham Dock and 12 car trains on the C2C Fenchurch Street line. I also pointed out that the current decision not to stop Eurostar services at Stratford meant that the station hardly merited the title 'Stratford International'. It is inevitable that some projects will be delayed or scaled down in the current climate.

On a more positive note, there is now an opportunity to streamline the confusing hierarchy of public bodies currently administering the area. Bob suggested that the current situation looks rather like the wiring diagram for an Exocet missile when put on paper - with the difference that a missile is designed to go somewhere swiftly... Streamlining would make it easier for businesses to invest.

We also wanted an end to restrictive planning regulations that mitigate in favour of large blocks of tiny flats. I told Bob that we need 'buy to live, not buy to let'. For his part the minister was keen to involve local councillors more in planning decisions and he announced a welcome initiative to repeal the laws of predetermination that currently prevent councillors deciding on an application that they have campaigned on in the past.


Women 2 Win

Hosted by Theresa May this reception provided a welcome opportunity for me to catch up with some of the candidates I coached before the election. These included Karen Bradley, now the MP for Staffordshire Moorlands, and Louise Bagshawe, the MP for Corby, as well as Norsheen Bhatti who fought a difficult seat in Stoke and found the experience really motivating.

There were lots of women who are still looking for seats and with the decision to reopen the candidates' list again, there is plenty of potential for newcomers. W2W are also keen to help women with public appointments to boards and quangos, so there are still many opportunities for members to follow in the footsteps of Amanda Sater who was recently appointed to the MPA.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Boris Visits Gants Hill







Friday saw the long awaited opening of the new Gants Hill Roundabout. Work at the site has disrupted traffic flow for over a year and there have been some frustrating delays for businesses and residents. Boris turned out in the rain to declare the roundabout open. He was welcomed by Deputy Mayor Cllr Ruth Clark and chairman of the local business forum, John Clark.






A crowd of onlookers turned out to see the mayor and one person quipped that it had taken longer to rework the roundabout than to build the Colosseum in Rome. Boris predicted that the roundabout would be safer than the Colosseum...






Then it was on to Fairlop Waters where money from the Mayor's tree fund has been used to improve the park, providing not only trees but climbing boulders as well. Boris was photographed with the boulders and with local schoolchildren. He also took a moment to be interviewed by LBC, condemning the totally unnecessary tube strikes planned for Sunday and Monday.






Finally, Boris was joined by Seb Coe and Kate Hoey at Redbridge Sports Centre where he met more local children and handed over a contribution from the Olympic fund to enable more sporting activities for young people in Redbridge. The media became very excited when Boris and Seb took part in an impromptu badminton game, but Boris acquitted himself well and didn't drop any shuttles.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Austerity Policing

With the Met facing a period of belt tightening, Thursday's budget committee convened to take evidence from academics and former senior officers. Providing their take on policing in the age of austerity were professors Betsy Stanko and Marion Fitzgerald, Dr Tim Brain who was formerly chief constable of Gloucestershire and Bernard Hogan-Howe, a former chief constable of Merseyside and now Her Majesty's Inspector of Policing for London. A strong line up with strong opinions.

At 33,000 warranted officers plus 5,000 PCSOs, the Met is now a larger force than at any time in its history. The period from 2000 has seen unprecedented growth from a base of 26,000 officers, built on an injection of cash that is just not sustainable any longer. The key question is how to reduce resources without allowing crime to rise.


Policing Priorities

The introduction of neighbourhood policing has created a visible presence with PCs and PCSOs patrolling even the smaller shopping centres and residential areas. They rarely encounter crimes in progress but there is a deterrent effect and the sight of uniformed officers reduces the fear of crime. Fear of Crime is significant because it discourages people, particularly women and older people, from venturing out of their homes and in the worst cases effectively imprisons them behind closed doors.

However the attachment of teams to council wards led to some inefficient allocation of resources. Some wards are very quiet, with low crime, but they still get a - not very busy - neighbourhood team. And many ward boundaries run down high streets, creating an impractical division between the policing teams on each side of the street.

An alternative is being explored in Manchester. There crime mapping - which we have in London - is used to identify 'hot spots' and teams of officers are focused on these locations. Clearly this is better use of resources but it runs the danger of displacing crime to other locations. Possible 'hot spots' include town centres, problem estates and transport nodes.

Bernard Hogan-Howe made the obvious point that policing should follow the people, targeting stations during commuting time and town centres in the evening, particularly on Fridays and Saturdays.

During his time at Merseyside Mr Hogan-Howe identified his key priorities as improving detection rates, reducing anti social behaviour, and improving the telephone interface with the public. The last of these, providing a quick response to emergency calls and a swift answer to non emergency calls, meant that the provision of police stations could be reviewed. Having an effective switchboard was a cost effective alternative to providing staffed front desks which saw less use as technology improved.

He also felt that there should be more single patrolling by officers in low risk areas, stating "If a PC can't walk alone in a area then who can?". The practice of PCSOs patrolling in groups of up to eight also needed to end.


Priorities for Savings

The obvious areas were suggested - overtime is too high in London, the MPA reserves are higher than necessary, back office functions have also grown since 2000 and need to be streamlined.

Economies of scale were also possible. At present every London borough has its own commander and HQ, but is that necessary? Councils are looking at sharing services across boundaries and the police could do the same. There are also a large number of specialist units, for example the wildlife crime unit, the antiques crime unit, etc. These are important but they could be combined to some extent, making savings on support services.

Bureaucracy had also ballooned since 1997, with demands for statistics and targets to achieve. Forms have to be completed when tasers, CS spray and even breathalysers are used - are these all still necessary? And what about the infamous stop and search forms that officers are required to complete? It was acknowledged that the Met had made good progress in reducing costs in its finance and IT departments but other parts of the organisation had room to be more efficient.

One thing the witnesses did agree on was that it is all but impossible to produce a credible measurement of front line policing effectiveness. Crime levels are affected by many other factors and lower level measurements may be accurate but lack relevance. The committee's search for a simple way of measuring policing is starting to look like the quest for the Holy Grail.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Yes He Will !

Boris has finally announced that he will contest the 2012 Mayoral Elections.

He states that his priorities are cutting crime, protecting our valuable green space, improving public transport and building more affordable housing.

Personally, I am delighted that he has chosen to stand again. Much has been achieved since his election in 2008 but much remains to be done, with long term challenges including bringing London safely through the recession, securing Crossrail and successfully hosting the 2012 Olympics. These simply cannot be achieved in a single four year term.

Boris will be a champion for our city and a critical friend for the new coalition government, ready to promote London's needs without resorting to damaging confrontation.

Boris also has a unique appeal that applies both to conservative minded suburban voters and to the trendy residents of Inner London. This broad coalition of support is a complete contrast to the divisive and harmful politics of his predecessor.

Supporters can join the campaign at www.Backboris2012.com .

Friday, September 03, 2010

Sign of the Times at Havering-atte-Bower











Boris was on good form when he visited Havering-atte-Bower to unveil the village sign on the green. He was greeted by members of the village conservation society as well as staff and patients from the nearby St Francis Hospice.








After a short introduction from local MP Andrew Rosindell, the Mayor tugged the cord to reveal the new sign which was designed and purchased by the local society. As a token of thanks the villagers presented him with a painting of the royal palace which once stood here.








There followed a swift walkabout in nearby Collier Row to meet local residents and shopkeepers, who as always were delighted to welcome our celebrity Mayor.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Havering Show




The annual Havering Show is running today and tomorrow. This afternoon I paid a visit along with the Mayor, Cllr Pam Light.




Entry is free and large numbers of visitors enjoyed the local food and the somewhat changeable weather. There is a large funfair with exciting rides and an arena featuring shows of horsemanship and - unusually - camel racing.




The show also incorporates our environment fair, Planet Havering, which provides advice on recycling and saving energy, and features presentations from council departments. Incorporating this event into the main show has saved money of course, but it has also widened its influence beyond the 'converted' who used to attend Planet Havering, exposing a wider audience to advice on living a greener lifestyle.




Finally, there are many local charities including the new Havering Museum, the Upminster Windmill preservation society, and the St Francis Hospice. They were offering a slim chance to win a car by rolling seven 6s on seven dice. Nobody had won when we arrived but the Mayor was optimistic and had a go...




The Hospice also signed me up to their excellent 'Sponsor a Nurse' scheme, which they are currently promoting. For just £3 a month supporters can sign up to keep this valuable local facility working for people in Havering, Redbridge, Brentwood and Barking & Dagenham. I visited the hospice a couple of years ago and was most impressed with the standard of care they offer. Details of the 'Sponsor a Nurse' initiative are available at http://www.sfh.org.uk/ .

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Redbridge Skyride


The weather was excellent for today's Skyride, which provided a car free circuit linking the new cycle track to Barkingside High Street, passing the Dick Turpin and Fairlop Waters Country Park. Over 5,000 cyclists from around London came together to explore the more rural parts of Redbridge at the Sky sponsored event. Participants included Olympic competition level riders, families, participants in fancy dress and even a few local politicians.


The event was led off by Kulveer Ranger, representing the Mayor, and he was followed by local MP - and transport PPS - Lee Scott, Council Leader Keith Prince, with his Lib Dem deputy Ian Bond. Dressed as I was in an unsuitable jacket and unusual blue socks, I soon found myself trailing behind on a bike which the organisers kindly loaned to me for the day. My personal training finally carried the day as I dug deep into my reserves and struggled back up the hill to the cycle track for a welcome bottle of water and sausage in a roll.


Also present was the mayor of Redbridge, Jim O'Shea, with his team of volunteers collecting for his charity. I made sure they got my loose change before I set off, thus lightening the load for the journey ahead.


This was the second of three Skyride events to be held over the summer months. The final event will take place on 5th September in Central London. Details can be found at http://www.goskyride.com/ .

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Minister's Question Time

Last week we made history at the Assembly. Ten years after the GLA was created, a government minister finally presented himself before the Assembly to answer questions about London matters.


Before the Election

The previous administration always refused to appear. When the Assembly invited New Labour's Lord Falconer to take questions about his London responsibilities, we were airily dismissed on the grounds that it was unconstitutional for ministers to appear in their official capacity. We were told that unnamed officials had insisted on the convention which then became the norm. Ministers would answer to select committees in Parliament, not the London Assembly - a body which they had created.

Not that they never visited us - that would have been impractical. Ministers and senior civil servants were happy to visit City Hall to brief members, usually over a working lunch. But no minutes were taken and the meetings were not recorded.

Towards the end of Labour's term, the government admitted that there was a democratic deficit, but their solution was misguided. They set up a London Select Committee for MPs, along with select committees for all the other regions, thus failing to recognise the unique governance arrangements for the capital - arrangements that they had put in place themselves. Liberal and Conservative MPs joined together to oppose the new committee system, perhaps sending a signal for the greater cooperation that was to follow.


After The Election

Two former Assembly Members became ministers in May - Lynne Featherstone went to the Home Office to take on the equalities brief, and Bob Neill became the junior minister for local government. Bob always argued that Ministers should be answerable to the Assembly on London matters, so I was optimistic about our chances of securing an appearance. After David Cameron addressed the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, a new and welcome precedent appeared to be being set.

We invited Bob to take questions about devolution of powers to London and he accepted, appearing on Wednesday morning.


Localism in Action

Early in the session Bob stressed the government's support for the Mayor and the Assembly to continue. This welcome assurance should remove one of the tough questions that I faced when I first stood for election. Could the Conservatives be entrusted with London Government after they abolished the GLC in the eighties? The question was raised repeatedly at hustings around Havering & Redbridge and after the election it was cited as a rather dubious justification for the Labour and Liberal groups getting together to shut Conservative members out of major Assembly roles - thus setting an unfortunate precedent which endures to this day.

Bob also spoke of his desire to simplify the London Plan, making it a less prescriptive document and devolving decisions to the boroughs and to local people. I suggested that he might consider shortening the consultation period - the current document has the gestation period of two elephants - and he agreed that would be a good thing.


Precedent

Bob was confident and clearly on top of his brief. The Assembly Members were constructive and sent him away in one piece. I hope the very positive session will reassure those 'unnamed officials' who discouraged Labour Ministers from attending, because there are other politicians who we would like to question.

Rail Minister Theresa Villiers, Housing Minster Grant Shapps, and Ministers with environment and policing briefs could all be invited in future. I hope they will come because we don't bite and I would venture to suggest that we are more constructive and better informed on London matters than some of Parliament's Select Committees. Perhaps we could even see an appearance from another former AM - Lynne Featherstone.

Monday, July 19, 2010

MQT


Last Wednesday's question time was the last until September and a holiday mood might have been expected. Instead Boris found himself under pressure from all sides - including his own. The Conservative Group are quite an independent minded bunch and colleagues often raise matters of fundamental disagreement during questions. On occasions several difficult subjects coincide on the agenda and the Mayor gets a difficult time - this was one of those occasions.



Financial Matters


With cost cutting now on the agenda throughout the country, tough budgetary decisions loom ahead and they featured in the initial questions from all three groups.


First off was Labour's John Biggs, demanding to know if Boris supported George Osborne's budget. Of course he does, generally - but what about the parts the threaten London's public services. Here Boris made his promise to fight a robust defence, particularly of Crossrail and Tube renewal. John found this circle hard to square, but really it's not that much of a struggle - not to anyone who watched Ken fighting London's corner against New Labour (then campaigning for their re-election). London needs a Mayor who will stand up to - and a little way apart from - governments of their own political hue. Westminster, with its hordes of MPs from the provinces, is always suspicious of the capital. Ken managed the balancing act and so does Boris, a Mayor not known for always agreeing with David Cameron.


Mike Tuffrey's turn next, and he sought to get some early indicators of the fares decisions that are traditionally made over the Summer. Boris wasn't being drawn, so I shouldn't have been optimistic when I pressed him on council tax. Would there be an unprecedented freezing of the precept for the third year running? Again the Mayor refused to make any commitments, so we will have to wait until next year's budget round for an answer.



Olympics


Andrew Boff piled in on the Olympic stadium. He is concerned that the site will prove to be a white elephant when the games are over. The problem is that nobody wants a stadium which has a running track separating the crowd from the on pitch action - well nobody who isn't called Seb... Boris reassured us that the games would be fantastic and all the venues would subsequently be put to good use.


Andrew came back on the vexed matter of the Olympic Village. Current plans are likely to result in rich block and poor block housing after the games - a phenomenon that Andrew refers to as Social Apartheid. Again we were reassured that housing would be available for people from different backgrounds to form a mixed community.


Then Victoria Borwick raised the contentious matter of Oxford Street and its bus jam. Boris tells us that some services have been moved, clearing space in the street, but Victoria believes that more can be done. The opinion of traders in the street is hotly contested and there was a robust exchange of views. On Sunday the east end of the street was moving freely but road works mean that some buses are currently diverted so my own observations may not be typical.



Photography


I flagged up the Romford incident and asked for clear guidance to be issued to police officers. The public should be free to take photographs of events in London without fear that they are breaking the law. Unfortunately Boris was not in the mood to make many concessions by now, and an earlier question had flagged up some of the more basic guidance given to officers as a waste of time. The Mayor was sure that matters could be left to the discretion of individual officers. At one time I would have agreed with him, but having seen the evidence of heavy handed policing of photographers I'm not convinced.


I tried a new tack - perhaps the sections of law making it an offence to photograph police officers should be repealed as part of the government's welcome review of civil liberties. Boris brushed this suggestion aside, preferring to rely on the common sense of police officers.


I was disappointed because I suspect it is only a matter of time before another Jules Mattsson type episode occurs. I will be writing to the Home Secretary making the case for a change in the Law.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Questions to the Mayor

Tomorrow sees the last question time before the August break. Following recent events in Romford I will be asking about the police approach to photography in London:

What are the current police guidelines on photography by members of the public? How are these communicated to front line police within the Met and are there any plans to review them?

This fairly open ended approach will allow follow up questions about the Romford incident as well as the Home Secretary's recent announcement that stop and search guidelines are to be tightened.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Pride 2010







A first for me on Saturday - I took part in the Gay Pride parade. The route starts at Baker Street, running down to Oxford Street then along to Oxford Circus. It then follows Regent Street to Piccadilly Circus before concluding in Trafalgar Square. Not a short walk, and it seemed longer under a blazing sun, with plenty of stopping and starting.






Everyone was in a party mood and we received a good reception, despite the presence of Socialist Worker activists. The Conservative contingent was around 40 strong and included a couple of MPs and my Assembly colleague Andrew Boff, pictured along with myself and Graham Archer who contributes some superb material to Conservative Home.






It is important for the Party to be seen here and I hope we can persuade more people to join us next year - we may even hire an open topped bus.

Reception for New Councillors


On Thursday evening the Assembly hosted a reception for new councillors at City Hall. Many of those elected in May took advantage of this opportunity to meet members and officers, and to find out more about the GLA. The meeting was addressed by Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles and Mayor of Hackney, Jules Pipe, with Assembly Chair Dee Doocey, extending a welcome to the guests.


Of course most of those present were Labour, reflecting the mixed result in May, but there were plenty of Conservatives and Liberals too. Pictured are:


Cllr Damian White (Hylands Ward, Havering)

Cllr Bernadette Mill (Larkswood Ward, Waltham Forest)

Cllr Osman dervish (Mawneys Ward, Havering)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Armed Forces Day











The sun shone for Armed Forces Day in Romford on Saturday. Troops marched down South street, through the market place, finishing at the Town Hall where they were welcomed by the Mayor, Cllr Pam Light. Councillors staged a collection for Help The Heroes - pictured are Cllr Rebecca Bennet, Cllr Linda Trew, and Cllr Lynden Thorpe.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Election Review

The London Assembly is to carry out a review of the recent elections in London.

Turnout was high in the Capital for a day which combined the general election with votes for London's local authorities. Results were mixed and most parties - except the BNP - had something to celebrate. However it appeared that not every borough was prepared for the large voter demand, especially at the end of the day.

There were stories around London of voters lining up to form queues and some of these people were too late to cast their ballot.

There are also some cases of alleged voting fraud, with police called in to investigate the accuracy of the electoral register in some wards.

The Assembly review will focus on the administration of the process rather than the politics. Details will be worked out by the business management committee but we intend to ensure that London is fully prepared for a high turnout in 2012, when Boris Johnson will face a challenge from Labour's candidate against a backdrop of potential protest voting against a Liberal Conservative government wrestling with difficult choices.

I proposed the review at the Assembly Meeting on Wednesday morning and I was delighted that it received unanimous cross party support.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Elm Park Swingers


Not the best weather today, but the show must go on. Cllr Pam Light, the newly elected Mayor of Havering was on a tour of the borough, opening new play areas and publicising the good work done by our parks department.


Her stops included Hacton Parkway, St Andrew's Park, Hornchurch Country Park,Brookway Park, Lawns Park and of course Harrow Lodge Park on the edge of my own ward. I was there to greet her and give her a hand on the new play equipment along with Cllr Andrew Curtin, our cabinet member for leisure and culture.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Olympic Legacy


Today's Assembly questioned witnesses from the Olympic Park Legacy Company - Baroness Ford, the chair, formerly of English Partnerships, and chief executive Andrew Altman, formerly deputy mayor of Philadelphia. They are a class act but running the company that will take on responsibility for the site after 2010, they will need to be.

They identified two primary challenges facing their organisation. First, ensuring that the project continued to be a government priority even after the games are over and the excitement has faded. Second, managing land deals with competitive partners in an uncertain property market.

Baroness Ford confirmed that they have priced the post Olympic work at £450 million, including letting out a media centre that covers a larger area than Canary Wharf. Kit Malthouse warned that a not for profit venture should not become a we need more money project.


Olympic Stadium

Murad Qureshi told us that the Moscow Olympic Stadium had stood unused for 28 years after the games. The inclusion of an athletics track potentially made the facility unattractive for other users, particularly football clubs who want fans to be seated as close to the pitch as possible. The witnesses confirmed that following the games, 55,000 seats would be removed at a cost of £36 million, to create a smaller, more viable venue. The athletics element would remain however, as this was a commitment entered into when the games were awarded to London.


Debt

The witnesses said that they did not expect any additional debt to be transferred to their company. They would be applying for outline planning permission to develop the site in the coming twelve months, after which they would seek bids from development partners.


Remediation

The entire site has been decontaminated to a depth of 31 inches. Much of the area was home to some pretty noxious industries so a lot of nasties were taken away. Jenny Jones wondered if the ground would be safe for growing vegetables. This is potentially a problem for fruit trees with deep roots but smaller plants will be safe. Radioactive carrots will not be bathing the stadium in a luminous glow - unless they grow longer than 31 inches...

Monday, March 08, 2010

Appreciation at Elm Park


Last night I attended a meeting of the Arise Metropolitan Assembly at the Elm Park assembly hall. They had gathered to thank their MP, James Brokenshire, for his work with the community in the area.


James was elected in 2005 to represent Hornchurch and he immediately went to work, building up a reputation as a strong advocate for constituents. His predecessors, Labour's John Cryer, and the Conservative Robin Squire, both had good links in the area, so they were not an easy act to follow. Nevertheless, James is highly thought of as this meeting demonstrated.


A year after his election, James was promoted to the front bench, becoming shadow minister for crime reduction. He also finds time to spend with Cathy, his wife, and their three children. James was one of a very few MPs who didn't claim second home expenses and chose instead to commute to work.


At the coming election the Hornchurch constituency is being abolished. The new boundary runs through the middle of Elm Park, splitting the community between Hornchurch & Upminster, which should be retained by Conservative MP Angela Watkinson, and Dagenham & Rainham, which is shaping up to be an interesting fight between Labour MP Jon Cruddas and energetic Conservative challenger, Simon Jones. Jon has let it be known that if he loses his seat he would like to be Labour's candidate for Mayor - we're hoping to make at least part of his dream come true...


James was left without a seat and had to tour the country looking for a new place to represent. Being a shadow minister made him look like an establishment choice, which didn't help his chances with independent minded party members at selection committees. After several rejections he was adopted by Old Bexley & Sidcup, Ted Heath's former seat. Our loss is their gain and we wish him well.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Questions at Harrow


Last night Boris and the Assembly visited Harrow for the six monthly official Peoples' Question Time. The Assembly Hall at Harrow School is probably the poshest venue that we have visited in ten years - this was the twentieth of these events. Many of the audience were young and this group tends to respond more positively to the unique Boris mixture of humour, politics and celebrity, although they look a bit nonplussed to see the rest of us there. Even so, there was no remote voting this time, following the rather rowdy question time at Brixton where the voting pads were thrown at the stage.

Local Assembly Member Navin Shah struggled to control an exuberant audience at times, allowing more contributions than usual from members at the expense of the Mayor and public questions. Harrow MP and former Labour minister Tony McNulty was present in the audience allowing Boris to crack a joke about second homes.


Policing

A fixed format has developed over time, with policing questions dealt with first. There was still concern about knife crime although the number of deaths has halved since last year. Whether a stabbing results in a tragic death can depend on a lot of factors beyond police control - the weapon used, speed and quality of medical attention, stamina of the victim, luck - and some of the injured have to live with awful consequences, so in my opinion the total number of stabbings, fatal or otherwise, is the key statistic to focus on.

There was general welcome for the police teams working on public transport and the consequent reduction in the crimes they target, but one woman recounted her experience of having bottles thrown at her, so there are still too many incidents. As always the local borough commanders were present to take note of public experience. The new Police Authority chairman, Kit Malthouse, dealt with questions sympathetically and in detail - a good first outing for him.


Transport

This always produces a catalogue of complaints, and I suppose it always will. Top of the list was the decision to cancel the lift project at Harrow-On-The-Hill Station. This is one of six capital projects halted in mid progress - Newbury Park is another - and the decision continues to draw criticism. The need to control spending at TfL is making really tough decisions the order of the day and this may be a harbinger of national policies following the impending election.

There was justifiable anger about the fiasco of the Jubilee Line signal upgrade which has affected Harrow and Brent particularly badly. The blame lies squarely with Tubelines and the structure of Gordon Brown's PPP but that's not much consolation for residents. Boris even stated that some of the line closures had been completely unnecessary as no work was being done - a result of delays in producing the signalling software. Signals have been a problem on the Jubilee since the Extension opened in 1999, with incompatible systems operating on the two sections, leading to delays around Green Park where the old and new lines meet. The new system will cover the whole line and lead to a considerable increase in capacity - eventually...

Problems with Dial A Ride were also raised, with one user very critical of the new vehicles, which he stated were unable to negotiate width restrictions. The transport committee is reviewing the continuing poor performance and took evidence from users on Tuesday. I await their conclusions with interest.


Environment

Much of the concern was about planning issues, with opposition to more blocks of flats and development of the green belt. The new London Plan, restricting back garden development and stipulating larger sizes for flats, is a positive contribution, but it is taking time to get through the legal consultation hoops much beloved of this government.

In some cases residents worried that devolution of more power to local councils could lead to unpopular decisions. One lady was particularly vociferous in condemnation of development plans for Brent Cross which include dense development and waste disposal facilities.

Harrow Council have chosen to freeze their council tax this year - Havering have agreed a 0.5% cut - and Boris has frozen the precept for the second year running, but one brave woman wanted council tax to rise to pay for better services. This proposal did not attract much support from the audience, which perhaps indicates a change of priorities for voters in this very marginal area. The Evening Standard poll yesterday predicts that Labour will lose both the Parliamentary seats they hold in Harrow.


Olympics

By this time some of the audience had drifted away and the usual concerns about value for money were rehearsed. Boris promised that the £9.3 billion budget would not be breached other than "over my dead body!" Young people were keen to be involved and the issue of free tickets reared its head again. Andrew Boff - who has been critical in the past - produced a ringing endorsement of the games, emphasising the benefits for East London and the knock on effects for the whole city. Harrow won't be losing out, as the Bangladeshi Team have decided to base themselves here...


The meeting ended too soon for many people who wanted to ask questions and Navin faced some angry comments. Boris lingered to sign autographs and pose for pictures with an audience which was friendlier than those we encountered at Brixton and Bethnal Green. One young girl displayed her handwritten I Love You Boris poster - it was community politics meets Big Brother. Only Davina McCall was missing - perhaps we could persuade her to chair the next event...

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Mayor's Questions


The last but one Mayor's Questions took place on Wednesday morning. With only one more to before the election, the content was strongly political and some of the exchanges were quite heated. Interestingly, there was a whole crop of motions discussed at the end of the meeting.



London Travelwatch


With ten years since the creation of Travelwatch - under its more cumbersome title, The London Transport Users' Committee - I moved a motion seeking to set up a cross party review of their performance. This received support from the whole chamber and was also welcomed by the chair of Travelwatch in a letter sent to all Assembly Members.


The review will be set up by our Business Management Committee and will examine the relationship between Travelwatch and the Assembly, particularly the respective roles of our Transport Committee and Travelwatch, which have tended to overlap in the past. The cost of running Travelwatch and the split between its statutory and discretionary activities will also be considered.


Meanwhile, Travelwatch are coming to Romford where they will be hosting a local transport surgery on Friday 5th March. More details are available from their website, http://www.londontravelwatch.com/ .



London City Airport


Labour Member Murad Qureshi, moved a motion which was critical of Newham's Council and the Mayor for their decision to allow the expansion of London City Airport, and requested a review of the decision at Mayoral level. I have suggested that Murad's Environment Committee conducts a scrutiny of London City Airport and this is going to take place in the coming year.


Speakers from all sides weighed in to support the motion and I made the point that complaints of overflying are increasing in my own constituency. Elm Park, South Hornchurch and Wanstead are particularly affected by aircraft noise and this is only going to get worse. I fear that, left unchecked, a Heathrow situation could develop in North East London and it will be very hard to reverse.


The motion was also approved with cross party support.



Peoples' Question Time


It hardly seems any time at all since we visited Brixton with Boris and had items thrown at the stage. Hopefully the next public meeting will be more even tempered. It takes place at Harrow School next Wednesday evening. Full details at http://www.london.gov.uk/ .

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Another Confirmation Hearing


In the recent reshuffle, Kit Malthouse was appointed Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, replacing Boris. This afternoon he spent almost two hours being grilled by the Assembly's cross party hearings committee.

It was an accomplished performance. Since we first interviewed him almost two years ago Kit has really grown into the policing role. He has also become calmer under fire and at no stage did he give the impression of being even slightly rattled.


Priorities

Kit listed his policing priorities as:

Dealing with violence, including knife crime, disorder and domestic violence. He felt that violent crime was the greatest cause of fear in the city and was determined to clamp down on offenders.

Tackling burglary, which had increased over the year, particularly in suburban boroughs. He was confident that the crime wave had peaked and was declining following the arrest of several prolific offenders.

Cutting 'social crime' including hate crimes perpetrated against elements of our community. Whilst the police could deal with the criminals, Kit felt that a wider response across other agencies was important.

Managing the budget, in the face of tightening resources. Kit felt that the MPA board could do with a few more accountants, whilst accepting that financial prudence would not make meetings 'exciting'. A falling budget coupled with falling crime was the combination he was aiming for, but an increase in either would be bad news.

Preparing for the 2012 Olympic Games which present a unique policing challenge although fewer officers might be needed than originally envisaged.


For the MPA, Kit had three priorities:

It needed to be more relevant to Londoners.

The relationship with the Met Police was 'semi detached' and should be improved.

The organisation could do with a higher profile to improve its accountability.


The terrorist threat was still very real but Kit said that dealing with it should not distract police from the day to day work of cutting crime - a subtle but welcome change of emphasis.


New Structures

A lot of time was taken up discussing possible new structures for managing the police. With the Conservatives examining alternatives, a change of government would lead to changes across the country as well as in London. Kit favoured separating executive control from scrutiny, with the former carried out by a police board appointed by the Mayor and the latter becoming a key responsibility of the London Assembly. In this situation the Assembly would constitute a policing committee to take responsibility for the work.

He valued the expertise of the independent MPA members but worried that a lack of democratic accountability created a division between them and the Assembly Members currently on the board. Generally boards should comprise all elected or all appointed members.


Operation Herald

There were questions about plans to civilianise work in custody suites. The operation expected to release some 900 officers from current duties, with around half of those going back on patrol. Civilianisation would also reduce the custody suite reception time from four to just one hour, allowing patrols to return to duty more swiftly.

Kit also wanted to see a growth in the number of special constables - fully warranted officers who would be used on patrol and provide a vital link with their own communities. He undertook to maintain neighbourhood teams and street patrols, reassuring Londoners in the face of claims that they would be cut.


Time Commitment

Members had some questions about the pressure on Kit's time. In addition to this role he is a deputy mayor, Assembly Member for West Central, and he chairs the Mayor's Hydrogen Partnership, as well as having private business interests and promoting the case for the 'Boris Island' estuary airport. Kit is a genuine workaholic and the committee were satisfied that he could take on the extra commitment.

We were pleased to recommend his appointment on a cross party basis.

Monday, February 22, 2010

More Burning Issues


This morning the Fire Authority's performance management and community safety panel met to review how the Brigade are doing against their key targets.



Fire Fatalities


The long trend downward in the number of fatalities was ended in 2009 with the tragic Southwark fire. This incident prompted a one off review of deaths in accidental dwelling fires over the last decade.


52% of victims were over 60 years old and 75% were white, with an equal male / female split. In half the cases there was no working smoke alarm which indicates that there is still work to be done in getting the message across that smoke alarms save lives and they should be checked regularly to ensure they work. I have personal experience of this:


At the end of a stressful day in London Government, I like to relax in a warm bath with scented candles flickering on the window sill. One evening last year I blew them out before retiring to bed but some smouldering sparks must have remained. At two in the morning I was woken by a loud bang from the bathroom followed by my smoke alarm creating a racket that could not be ignored. I discovered a small pot of candles well alight which had cracked in the heat - hence the bang. Controlling my panic I soaked a towel and threw it over the flames, then filled the bath with cold water and dumped the whole bundle in it, opened the window to let the smoke out and returned to bed. The smoke alarm did its job, not just for me but for the neighbouring flats too.


Well I digress, but note that 9.5% of fatal fires are started by candles and matches, although very few start in the bathroom...


The most common cause of fatal fires is smoking - responsible for 38.9% of deaths. Much of the problem is caused by smoking in bed, and alcohol can play a part too. Fatal fires are more likely to start at night and 32% start in the bedroom, which is usually where the victim is. During the day fires usually start in the kitchen - with cooking the main cause - but these are less often fatal. Smoking in bed should always be avoided.


Over the decade the boroughs with the highest number of fatalities per 100,000 population were Camden (0.93), Lewisham (0.91) and Hackney (0.91). Our local boroughs were both in the lowest five with Redbridge (0.4) and Havering (0.39) only outperformed by Barking & Dagenham with (0.27) - not that all is rosy in that borough as we discovered later.



Automatic Fire Alarms


The Brigade has a particular problem with automated alarm systems that malfunction, leading to repeat false alarms. The new policy is to seek confirmation that there is a real fire before dispatching fire crews to the scene, usually by speaking to the occupants or managers of the building. If there is no sign of a fire an investigator is sent initially to establish the cause of the alarm, followed up by fire crews if necessary.


The Brigade is agreeing a memorandum of good practice with the Hilton Hotel group in London but work is still needed on other sites, with the NHS posing a particular challenge because of the size and complexity of the capital's hospitals.


The aim is to save time and money, allowing firefighters to be sent to incidents where their skills are actually needed.



Stuck in Lifts


Another unnecessary drain on Brigade resources is caused by calls from people who have become stuck in lifts. Last year the Fire Brigade decided to adopt a policy of checking by phone before attending. In the first instance the responsibility for getting people out of lifts now rests with the maintenance engineers and managing agents of residential blocks.


The new policy met with some criticism at the time, but it is applied sensitively and urgent cases, including those involving people who are seriously unwell or in imminent danger, still get an emergency response. If the maintenance engineers cannot be contacted the Brigade will attend but will not treat the incident as an emergency.


From November 2009 a charging policy was introduced. In cases where there have been ten attendances within twelve months the building's owners will now be charged £260 plus VAT for each subsequent call out. Quite an incentive to properly maintain the lifts, or so one would think...


However, since November four locations have already used up their ten 'free calls' and are into charging territory. Standing out from the list is Barking & Dagenham's very own 'tower of shame', Hawkwell House. They have been charged for an amazing seven call outs in addition to their 'free ten' since November!


By my calculation that's £260 X 7 = £1,820 plus VAT that the council has shelled out in less than three months. Someone should tell the voters.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Confirmation Hearings


This afternoon saw the confirmation hearings for two of the Mayor's most recent appointees. Assembly Members posed questions to the candidates and made recommendations about their suitability for their respective roles.


James Cleverly

First in the Big Chair was AM for Bexley & Bromley, James Cleverly. Elected to the Assembly by over 100,000 of his constituents, it would be a brave Member who questioned their judgement.

James is due to take up his new role as Chairman of the London Waste and Recycling Board, and he has spent the last couple of weeks reading up on an area of policy in which he had no previous experience. With both Bexley and Bromley in the top five London Boroughs for recycling, he could do worse than learn from the examples on his own doorstep.

It was an impressive performance. James urged a new focus on reducing waste at source and on viewing the waste that was produced as valuable material. To achieve this work needed to be done to further stimulate the market for recycled metals, plastics and paper, so that these could be effectively reused, not shipped abroad or surreptitiously returned to landfill.

For non recyclable waste, incineration would remain the dominant method of disposal, with major plants at Edmonton, Lewisham and Belvedere able to process large volumes. At these locations energy was already being generated as a by product, but James also saw the possibility of distributing heat in local networks.

In the longer term new technologies such as anaerobic digestion, pyrolysis and gasification would come on stream but he wanted to avoid committing to any one of these in a field where technology was advancing swiftly.

James has strong views "I'm a Conservative, so I want to cut waste!" and he defended his lack of expertise by pointing out that there hasn't been a defence minister with military experience for many years - although I'm not sure he was presenting Bob Ainsworth as a shining example...

James has got a background in the army, and it shows in his approach to achieving objectives. As the Mayor's youth ambassador he delivered concrete results and he promises the same here. He is good at motivating people and his consensual approach will help him in a field which is crowded with competing stakeholders. The committee was pleased to approve his appointment.


Reshard Auladin

Next up was the newly appointed MPA Vice Chairman, Reshard Auladin. Reshard has been a magistrate in Enfield for over 20 years and was first appointed to the Metropolitan Police Authority on its formation back in 2000. His MPA role survived the change of Mayors in 2008.

Reshard saw the main challenges facing the organisation as improving the management of resources and helping the MPA board to become more coherent and consensual. He currently leads on professional standards and performance management and he sees his new role as remaining focused on those areas.

Professional standards includes the vital task of weeding out corrupt officers and Reshard felt that recent headlines had demonstrated that there was still plenty to be done, although Londoners could be assured that the MPA takes corruption seriously.

He was concerned about the influence exerted by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the Association of Police Authorities (APA), feeling that the decisions made by these national bodies did not always consider the unique factors at play in the capital.

Suggestions that the MPA could be abolished worried him, he said, because abolition could herald a greater degree of political interference, and would threaten the specialist contribution provided by independent members.

Reshard is a calm and impressive performer who has survived changes in administrations and can build consensus across the political spectrum. The committee was pleased to recommend his appointment.

An Admirer...


I was given this with my coffee in Pret this morning. Their excellent customer service has hit a new high...

Thursday, February 11, 2010

New Fire Station







This morning Boris visited Harold Hill to open the new fire station - the first built in London since the GLA was created in 2000.






This opening marks the culmination of years of campaigning from local residents. Back in 2000 reorganisation of the Fire Brigade led to the removal of a fire appliance from Hornchurch Fire Station. There was bitter opposition in Havering and I presented a petition to the Fire Authority in early 2001. Five years later the new London Safety Plan was published, providing statistics on attendance times. Havering was performing much worse than the other London boroughs.






The case for replacing the fire engine was clearly made, but there was a problem. In the intervening years a new vehicle had been stationed at Hornchurch, providing specialist services to deal with road traffic accidents. With sections of the A12, A13 and even the M25 in Havering, the new vehicle was very busy saving lives and could not be moved.






The solution - build a brand new fire station in a location with easy access to the road network.






Harold Hill Fire Station shares a site with the local police base, paving the way for London's emergency services to work more closely together. The building is equipped with rainwater collection tanks and other modifications that will ensure energy and water efficiency. It provides 28 new fire fighting jobs and there have been plenty of applications from staff who want to work at the site.






Boris threw caution to the wind, sliding down the station's pole before unveiling the plaque and declaring the station open.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mayor's Budget Approved

I've just come out of this morning's meeting of the Assembly which saw the mayor take questions on his budget for an hour, followed by a debate around the alternatives proposed by the four parties. To amend the budget a majority of two thirds of the members is required.


Conservative Amendment

We support the mayor's budget which achieves an unprecedented council tax freeze for the second year running. However we suggested that in a year when many councils are cutting their costs, a similar gesture from the Assembly would be timely - in this case a 10% reduction in each group's political support budget. Unfortunately no support from the other groups, particularly the Greens who overspent this year...


Labour Amendment

In ten years this is the first time that Labour have moved a budget amendment. Highlights included:

£85,000 for an 'Uprise' anti racist music festival.
£40,000 for a London Rail Board.
£2,800,000 for speed cameras.

Funded by a raid on the Fire Brigade reserves and £15,000,000 income from retaining the Western Extension to the Congestion Charge Zone.

Labour support and Green abstention was insufficient to get this proposal adopted.


Lib Dem Amendment

The Lib Dems took an unusual tack by proposing to cut the council tax, largely by raiding the Fire Brigade reserves and saving £18,000,000 by retaining bendy buses on routes 18 and 149.

Spending proposals included £450,000 to embroider numerals and name badges on police officers' uniforms and £300,000 to develop a recycling scheme for bicycles.

Lib Dem support and Green abstention was also insufficient to get this approved.


Green Amendment

The small Green group proposed a more familiar budget:

£2,800,000 for speed cameras.
£3,000,000 for 20mph zones.
£4,000,000 for low carbon zones.

With savings achieved by retaining bendy buses, keeping the Congestion Charge Western Extension, cancelling work to improve traffic flow and cutting police overtime.

Nobody but the Greens supported this alternative.


BNP

For the most important vote of the year, the one occasion when the Assembly can actually wield its power, Richard Barnbrook was..........................................................ABSENT.


So the second 'Boris Budget' passes unamended and council tax is frozen for another year. We are urging the Mayor to commit to freezes for the rest of his term of office - or better still, reductions.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Waste Strategy Unwrapped

This morning the environment committee turned its attention to the mayor's draft strategy for managing London's waste.

Environment policy advisor Isabel Dedring was - as usual - well briefed and committed to cleaning up a city which presents big future challenges. Industrial decline will lead to less waste being produced but the volume of municipal waste will continue to grow. A major target in the new strategy is to reduce the amount of household waste by 10% by 2020, an ambitious aspiration which is to be achieved by providing better information to householders and co-operating with large retailers to cut packaging.


A Varied City

London trails behind other regions in managing its municipal waste, with 49% still going to landfill. Whilst the challenge is greater as no other region is as urbanised as London, the witnesses also felt that some of the boroughs could have done more to encourage recycling. A beacon performer is the London Borough of Bexley - my colleague Gareth Bacon AM is the responsible cabinet member - where officers regard recyclates as valuable materials rather than waste.

In Bexley markets for paper, plastics, tins and glass are exploited to produce a revenue stream for the authority. They believe that they cannot afford not to offer recycling facilities.


Tiny Flats

Elsewhere more densely populated boroughs face the difficulty of encouraging recycling in blocks of flats. Bexley offer their suburban residents two wheelie bins and three different boxes to segregate their waste, but cramped apartments do not provide sufficient space for such luxuries. Residents wouldn't welcome five separate trips down the stairs with their bins when one black bag will suffice. Also the lack of gardens means there is no green waste, so the potential for recycling is lower. The good news is that flat owners tend to create less waste than large households.


Bury?

For waste that cannot be recycled the traditional options have been landfill or incineration.

Landfill takes place outside London - the one exception being the site at Rainham - and the counties are unhappy about this continuing. A proscriptive landfill tax is going to make itself felt in coming years, providing a financial incentive for boroughs to reduce that 49% figure.


Or Burn?

Incineration has traditionally played a significant role in London's waste disposal. Major incinerators at Edmonton and Lewisham have now been joined by the new plant at Belvedere which was held up by local opposition for many years. Outer London boroughs are no keener on disposing of Inner London's waste than the counties.

Incinerators carry a large capital cost so they need to be large if they are to pay for themselves. This in turn creates a demand that must be fed and perversely discourages attempts to recycle elements of their waste stream. Often the most easily recycled plastics and paper also provide the most calorific energy if incinerated, generating electricity and heat as useful by-products.

The London plants produce electricity but the heat currently goes to waste and the experts wanted to see pipe networks put in place to provide heating for nearby communities. Ultimately the most efficient option was to site incinerators close to major energy users - for example prisons or data centres - to minimise losses incurred in the transmission of heat and power over distances.


Or Something Else?

Much of the new technology for waste disposal is now proven and available. Options such as pyrolysis, gasification and anaerobic digestion take longer than incineration but are more carbon efficient. The time factor means that the plants require higher levels of staffing and labour costs present more of a problem than capital - so high waste streams are not required and recycling is not discouraged.

Isabel explained that the profusion of disposal sites envisaged in the old plan had been reduced and there was no longer an attempt to 'pick winners' from a suite of options that were still evolving. The intention was to use existing waste disposal or transfer sites for new plants rather than seeking permission for new sites. This is good news for householders who are never keen to have their waste handled on their own doorsteps.