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, .

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 .

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.


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.


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.


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.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Budget Committee Work Programme

This morning we met to discuss the activities of the budget and performance committee in the coming year. In March we will be hearing from witnesses about the indistinct Olympic legacy - will East London benefit from new housing, a massive urban park and a glittering new economic settlement, or will we be saddled with a debt mountain and a collection of white elephants?

Subjects for consideration at later meetings were discussed but no final conclusion was reached. There was enthusiasm for digging into a number of matters:

Fare increases - would the rise in bus fares lead to a reduction in passenger numbers? If passengers were discouraged, how would they travel instead?

Policing - with the obvious shortcomings of using staff numbers as an indicator, how would we judge the performance of the Met in future?

Organising For Delivery - had the reduction in staff numbers at City Hall impaired the function of the core GLA?

Low income Londoners - how would services for the most needy be preserved in the newly cost conscious culture?

London Travelwatch - is London's transport watchdog providing value for money?

It is an interesting list, but very focused on the activities of the Mayor. Not unexpected, as the Assembly is responsible for scrutinising the executive arm, but our experience of Mayor led scrutiny during the 2000 - 2004 term was mixed. The 2004 - 2008 Assembly programme examined issues of wider interest to Londoners, and the Assembly was given greater credit for its effectiveness during that period.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010


At the weekend I received an email from a friend who coaches senior managers. He claims that the vast majority of New Year resolutions are forgotten before the end of January - the 21st being the average date - and he suggests that we should reaffirm them at the start of February.

This year my own resolutions were quite basic:

Save money - in January I lost money.

Lose weight - in January I put weight on.

Clean up my flat - I'm not ready to welcome visitors just yet.

Resume regular blogging - the lack of progress is all too obvious. Rog T even suggests I have been gagged by CCHQ...

So I'm turning over a new leaf in February. It's salads for lunch and back to the gym, which is already looking less crowded than earlier in the year. Less eating out, less gratuitous spending, and more blogging of course. The charm offensive begins tomorrow morning when Dave Hill interviews me for one of his podcasts.

Meanwhile, does anyone know a good cleaner?