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.


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.


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.


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.


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.