Monday, January 18, 2010

Gordo in Panto

Last night saw the annual Redbridge Mayor's charity pantomime at the Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford. The cast put on a stunning performance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs complete with wonderful costumes, colourful sets and polished dance routines.

The company have a history of including gentle political digs during the evening and this was no exception. There were disparaging references to Arsenal Football Club and the town of Dagenham which I will not repeat here. Romford was also immortalised in popular song (to the tune of Barry Manilow's Copecobana)

At Romford, Romford Market,
If you take your car you can park it...

Then there was the obligatory ghost scene. Three men in a large, spooky bed and the Dame urges the audience to shout if they see anything Really Horrible. Cue the cries of IT'S BEHIND YOU !!

On this occasion the ghost appeared from a cupboard wearing a Gordon Brown mask. The audience all laughed, except for Labour members who looked as if they really had seen something frightening.

Once you are lampooned in panto there is no way back. This sort of humour is usually reserved for low grade celebrities, precisely because the audience is non political. The last time I saw it happen to a politician the target was David Blunkett, and he was gone in days...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

LDA Question Time

Today it was the turn of the troubled London Development Agency to face questions from the whole Assembly. Chairman Harvey McGrath and Chief Executive Peter Rogers faced a gruelling session which began with my colleague Andrew Boff asking What difference would Londoners notice if the LDA did not exist? A blunt question but the organisation was set up by New Labour in 2000, and it's absence was not remarked upon before then...

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Harvey McGrath admitted that the LDA could surrender many of its functions to other bodies - with consequent cost savings. Grant giving could be taken on by the London Councils grant committee, skills training could be taken on by the new London Skills Council, land ownership and administration could be carried out by the GLA itself from City Hall.

However the witnesses pointed to progress being made in reforming the organisation with a demanding new board - who are certainly not slaves to the mayor - and plans to outsource elements of financial management. These would be lost if the LDA was broken up.

Business Support

Support for business had been somewhat haphazard and the recession meant this could no longer continue. The LDA were focusing their efforts on programmes with a record of success and discarding the less effective initiatives. The witnesses were keen to point out that many government sponsored programmes were also not targeted effectively.

In meetings with small businesses over the last year I have heard complaints about the current Business Link service in London - too bureaucratic, impractical, hard to access and generally not relevant to much of the sector. Peter Rogers accepts that the service could be much better and the LDA intend to relet the contract. However the size of the contract and uncertainty over the future direction of policy had led them to postpone the tendering process until after the General Election - yet another reason why London needs an election as soon as possible.

Banker Exodus

Harvey McGrath - himself a leading figure in the finance sector - was keenly questioned by Labour members seeking to dispel rumours that the industry was leaving London to avoid the government's populist banker tax. He admitted that he knew of no institutions who were planning to leave, although many of their more highly paid employees were packing their bags. As one of London's main attractions is its expertise in financial services he hoped that large numbers of professionals would choose to stay, or their employers would eventually be forced to follow them - let's hope they like snow.

And Finally...

The meeting concluded with the usual knockabout debates around motions - we criticise the government, Labour criticise the mayor with support from their Lib Dem and Green Mini Me's.

However the final motion received cross party support, calling upon the planning and housing committee to investigate fire safety in timber framed tall buildings. This follows two recent fires which devastated partly built blocks in Southwark and a similar fire in Colindale some years ago. As a former planning committee chairman at Havering, I was often concerned about granting permission for large timber framed blocks of flats, but planning law and government policies - pile 'em high, sell 'em expensive - prevented consideration of fire safety issues. I look forward to the findings of this investigation.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Budget Consultation Begins

This morning Boris appeared at the Budget and Performance Committee to take questions about his 2010/11 budget proposals. Chaired by John Biggs, the meeting was good natured, perhaps reflecting optimism at the start of what promises to be an eventful year.

Precept Frozen Again

The headline is that the council tax precept is to be frozen at zero for the second year running. It's not just about money - as Lib Dem leader Mike Tuffrey admitted there is an equality aspect too, because council tax places a disproportionate burden on some Londoners. Pensioners on fixed incomes are particularly affected.

Boris was pleased to announce a saving of £55 million, with band D council tax now £18 less than it would have been under the previous mayor's spending plans. City Hall staffing had been reduced by around 180 posts following the Organising For Delivery review conducted in his first year.

Last year the Assembly passed a motion welcoming the council tax freeze, with Labour support. They also supported Ken Livingstone who raised the precept by over 150% during his two terms, so their overall position is unclear. John Biggs was keeping his powder dry this morning, giving no sign of Labour's plans for this year.

The Case For London

Boris was characteristically robust in his support for Crossrail. He pointed out that cancelling the project would send a very negative signal about London's recovery and would save a relatively small amount of cash. With the election approaching and large spending cuts inevitable, the Mayor will be lobbying both the main parties to secure support for Crossrail. Dealing with a Parliament where many Northern MPs feel that London gets a disproportionate share of investment can be challenging - as I recall from my own appearance at the Transport Select Committee following the Metronet collapse.

On the troubled PPP front history is repeating itself, with Tubelines now in conflict with London Underground over payments. The PPP arbiter has ruled that LU should pay £400 million more than they estimated but this sum still falls well short of Tubelines' demands. Potentially the passengers could find themselves picking up the extra costs of Gordon Brown's imposed scheme. Boris will be trying to secure the money from government funds.

Despite subsidy reductions, Boris was keen not to cut the bus network. He referred to his decision last year to save the bus route serving Havering-Atte-Bower, a lifeline particularly in the current snowy weather, however not all the bus routes introduced under Ken Livingstone's reign have proved popular and there may be an opportunity to review some of these routes if the network needs to be pruned.

The Process

The Committee will now draw up its response to the budget consultation. As this has to be agreed by all parties it is likely to contain requests for more detailed information rather than political fireworks.

The proposals will then be debated at a meeting of the full Assembly, with Boris answering questions. Alternative proposals may be tabled - only the Lib Dems and the Greens did this last year - and voted on. The budget itself only requires the support of a third of the Assembly's 25 members to pass unamended,

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Boris Comes To Ilford

Happy New Year everyone - I hope that 2010 brings you all you desire (in the case of political opponents almost all you desire).

And we are starting with some excitement as Boris is visiting Redbridge for one of his popular public meetings. This time the debate will focus on improving the environment both locally and globally. With the Mayor's environment strategies under review there should be plenty to talk about.

Joining Boris on the panel will be:

Isabel Dedring, the Mayor's environment advisor.
Cllr Keith Prince, leader of Redbridge Council.
Nick Crane, CPRE.
Lucy Siegle, environment correspondent at The Observer.

And I will be chairing the event.

The meeting takes place on Monday 18th January, at the Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford. Proceedings commence at 7pm and conclude at 8:30pm.

Tickets are free from the theatre box office on 020 8553 4466 and further details can be obtained at . There is room for 500 people in the venue so this promises to be a lively and informative session.