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.
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.