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.


Mrs Angry said...

Lovely to see your colleague Brian has discovered he is a talented MC: is he available for weddings and barmitzvahs? Please do us all a favour and encourage him to make this career move a permanent one. Otherwise we shall have to see how high his 'approval rating' is at the next GLA elections, I suppose ...

greg tingey said...

Not just the "immediate olymoic area" ...
I live in Walthamstow.
The bloody areana is 4km south of my house.
The Olympics have brought, and will bring NO net benefit to us.
We are having to pay for this fascist bread and circuses.
rTeam games and spots are vile, and a wonderful excuse for thuggery - was when I was a school, and it hasn't changed in 47 years ......
But politicians and journos roll over and play dead when they are mentioned.
It wil STILL take 35 minutes to get to Startford (never mind Canary Wharf) from here .....