Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Mayor's Questions - Opposition Get Their Act Together

This morning saw the first Mayor's Question Time of 2011. For once the three left wing groups had decided to work together on a common theme - 'the Mayor has misled Londoners'. Perhaps we will see more of this cooperation as the year progresses. The public gallery was also much thinner than usual.

Airport Capacity

The 'progressives' led off with the mayor's recent declaration that London needed more air capacity because there were more flights to China from Paris and Frankfurt. Labour accused Boris of providing misleading figures and a slightly torrid argument about the number of planes between China and London ensued - the crux seemed to be whether Hong Kong was included in the total.

There was broad agreement that Heathrow expansion was beyond the pale, but nods of approval were given to using Manston or building a new Thames Estuary airport, with Stansted, Gatwick and Luton getting mentioned too. Wherever is designated, there will be much local opposition which I suspect means that expansion won't be happening.

Conservative, Andrew Boff spelt out his worries about expansion at City Airport, following the unfavourable court decision earlier this month. Residents are concerned about the increase in flights and consequent noise and pollution in East London.


Green, Jenny Jones, had another go about cycling. Given the almost religious zeal which animates Boris on this topic, it is perhaps not the best point to attack - this time she was accusing him of underspending the budget. Andrew Boff made the point that after cycling to work almost on his own for many years, he was now accompanied by many new bike users of all shapes, sizes and ages. So more cyclists, lower spending, sounds good to me. Clearly Jenny knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, as they say...


With pay for AMs and senior staff frozen this year, Labour's Len Duvall asked if Boris was satisfied with pay rates at City Hall. This gave the Mayor a good opportunity to highlight the decrease in the payroll from Livingstone's £27 million to the new slimline £19 million. In the bad old days 52 people were earning over £80k per year and now this was reduced to just 32 people.

Main Line Railways

Lib Dem Caroline Pidgeon set out to blame Boris for problems on the main line railways, which seems a bit unfair as they are the only part of London's transport network that he doesn't control. She felt there should be more staffed stations and urged the mayor to demand control of the network, within the boundaries of Greater London.

Boris said he was seeking greater involvement in the award of franchises to operators and lauded his success in getting them to accept Oyster pay as you go

Conservative James Cleverly warned of so called 'railheading' during the Olympics, as travellers from outside London parked up in the suburbs to use the transport network. Cheaper tickets for travel to the games would alleviate the problem. Dick Tracey suggested park and ride schemes based on brown field development sites for the duration of the Olympics.


Labour's John Biggs attacked the mayor for suggesting that banks might leave the country - after all, they hadn't gone had they? Had Boris been excessively alarmist? John tried at one point to draw a distinction between moral and immoral banks - a very grey and subjective area. For someone who represents the Square Mile and Canary Wharf, John doesn't exactly ooze enthusiasm about their main businesses.

I pointed out that these institutions (moral or immoral) employ many more people than just the highly paid experts we always hear about. Furthermore, they provide essential custom for small businesses that spring up in the shadow of their gleaming towers. Apart from some vague talk about manufacturing, the progressives had failed to articulate an alternative business model to sustain the capital if the financial sector did decamp to Zurich.


Boris was on the receiving end of a lecture from Lib Dem Mike Tuffrey about reducing the CO2 output at City Hall. The figures were still being calculated but the Mayor expected to have come close to reducing emissions by 10% during 2010. James Cleverly suggested that staff could help by turning off their computer terminals at night - on the 6th floor, which houses the Conservative Group 95% of computers were turned off. On the 7th floor, the home of Labour, Lib Dems, Greens and the Climate Change Fan Club, only 93% were turned off - another case of the progressives preaching rather than practising.

Tube Strikes

Chairman Dee Doocey followed the example of transport chair Val Shawcross, clamping down on Conservative attempts to raise the strike issue again. They seem very keen not to discuss union militancy, possibly because Livingstone is supported by the unions. Unfortunately for travelling Londoners, the matter just won't go away...
And this afternoon we saw the results of the 'progressives' efforts in a brief Evening Standard piece, evidently based on a joint press release which gave credit to Labour, Lib Dems and Greens, without naming any individual member. The article mentioned several matters which were not even raised during debate, indicating that the release had been drafted and sent out before the meeting took place. The intended message was 'Boris misleads Londoners' but the real message is 'Vote Labour, Green or Lib Dem if you want Livingstone back'.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Upminster Depot

2009 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the London Underground depot at Upminster. Situated at the most Eastern extremity of the network, this is where the District Line trains are stabled overnight. There are also workshops for routine maintenance and more complicated repair jobs.

On Friday morning I joined local councillor Clarence Barrett and local residents for a visit to the depot, to hear about their plans for the next 50 years.

S Stock Trains and the District Line Upgrade

The new trains are already in operation on the Metropolitan Line, and will be introduced on the District Line in the run up to 2014. The 191 trains will have better CCTV coverage, more standing space and a lower floor to reduce the step up from the platform and make boarding easier. Most importantly they will all be seven cars long, reducing overcrowding. A new signalling system will enable more trains to run, improving the frequency and reliability of the service.

More and bigger trains mean that the depot will have to be enlarged. At Upminster this can be achieved within the existing site, with extra sidings being added on the north side of the site. Work will begin in the summer and should be completed by March 2012.

For the homes backing on to this part of the depot, there will be disturbance whilst the work is taking place and the clearance of an overgrown area will leave them with uninterrupted views of trains and the maintenance shed at the bottom of their gardens. Whilst the residents accept that the project will benefit the whole of London, so it must go ahead, we all want to mitigate the impact and preserve this pleasant middle class neighbourhood.

So the visit focused on ways to preserve some of the more mature trees that have grown up along the boundary, whilst planting new trees which will - in time - grow to fill up any gaps.


Unfortunately the railway are engaged in what could be described as a war with idiots who try to break in and daub graffiti on the trains. Not only does this cost London Underground thousands of pounds every year to clean up, it also places the graffiti morons themselves at risk. Moving trains and live rails are dangerous and tragedies do happen.

So a 2.8m steel fence with narrow mesh that cannot be climbed and a roll of razor wire along the top is now needed along the boundary of the depot. This needs to be set back from any trees and needs to be still higher where sheds and outbuildings in the gardens could be used to climb over. The fence will be a further intrusion on the scene and the best that can be done is to paint it green so that it doesn't stand out too much.


The overgrown area has become a have for wildlife, including nesting birds, squirrels and even a couple of urban foxes. Adders are reputed to live there - I wore strong boots and knee length socks, just in case - and a survey is being carried out to ascertain numbers. An adjacent area will be left overgrown and the animals encouraged to move there before work begins.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

This House Believes...

Yesterday's Assembly meeting did not conclude when transport questions finished. Often motions are placed on the agenda for debate and this time there were five of them:

Dangerous Dogs

Conservative Steve O'Connell proposed a motion calling for more action to tackle the growing problem of dangerous dogs, particularly legislation outlawing so called 'weapon dogs' in the same way that guns and knives are controlled. The proliferation of unpleasant mastiffs is noticeable across London and Steve's constituency saw a very nasty death with a dog involved recently. This dog, whilst clearly dangerous, was not one of the breeds currently prohibited. The motion was approved unanimously.

GLA Pay Freeze

In accordance with government policy and reflecting the current economic challenges, pay is to be frozen for members and staff. The Green's Darren Johnson proposed exempting the small number of staff on Grade 3 or below from the freeze, again in line with government policy. He was supported by the Liberal Democrats and given that the total cost would be only £50,000 the rest of the Assembly agreed. Nobody wants to disadvantage the poorest employees during these difficult times.

So far, so consensual - but things were about to get more interesting.

Olympic Legacy

Lib Dem, Dee Doocey vacated that chair so that she could propose a motion demanding public sector funding for new developments in the Olympic Park, to encourage a more mixed community. The Conservatives opposed this motion, with Olympic spokesman Andrew Boff explaining that the existing £9.3 billion should be sufficient to lift anywhere off its knees. As a resident of Hackney he wanted the East End to be dynamic and self sufficient, rather than continuing to need public subsidies once the games left town. The motion was approved with support from Greens, Labour and Independent Richard Barnbrook.

Although nobody could say where the money would come from...

New Year Sponsorship

This year the free travel home was provided courtesy of consumer credit firm . There has been a lot of controversy about this sponsorship deal, although the complainers weren't rushing to stump up the money themselves. Labour's Jennette Arnold proposed a motion attacking the mayor and calling for a code of ethics to be applied to advertising and sponsorship deals.

Attacking Boris is par for the course and naturally we opposed them, but the suggested 'code of ethics' is potentially more worrying. For who is to judge what is acceptable? I know that lots of Labour and Green politicians think they are uniquely equipped to provide such guidance - indeed in some cases it's what lights their candle and motivates them to seek election - but do we really want politicians as arbiters of good taste?

I gave my team a free vote - and three members, Gareth Bacon, Victoria Borwick and Brian Coleman, chose to abstain. Conservative James Cleverly used his background in financial services to pick the flawed motion to pieces, but it was approved in the end by the Labour, Green and Lib Dem members.

Tube Strikes

Conservative Dick Tracey tabled an urgent motion condemning ASLEF for their threat to strike on the day of the Royal Wedding. To debate this at such short notice we needed the Assembly's agreement, but this was not forthcoming. Labour, Green and Lib Dem members voted not to accept the motion for debate.

At this point the meeting ended.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Transport Questions

This morning Boris and transport commissioner Peter Hendy appeared before the full Assembly to take questions. Each of the groups had one lead question and this time my team went first:


We led off by asking what was being done to increase transparency at TfL, an organisation that has historically been more of a closed book than most public authorities. Boris vowed that every invoice over £500 would be published on line by the end of January. He also claimed that TfL dealt with over 2,000 questions and 2,500 pieces of correspondence from Assembly Members every year. With only 25 members this sounds like a lot, but over a year it is only two queries per week and I am sure that my office is responsible for its share. I asked how many of these were reminders because TfL had failed to respond adequately and Mr Hendy undertook to provide a breakdown by subject area.

Peter felt that TfL provided a very good service compared to his time running a private bus operator in Northampton where letters from politicians had not been treated as a priority, indeed had not been responded to at all quite often.

We highlighted the lack of political representation on the board of TfL and suggested that the Mayor appoint some Assembly Members to create greater accountability. He promised to consider this wise advice...


Next came the Greens, praising cycle superhighways and the cycle hire scheme, but claiming that Ken should get the credit. Jenny Jones claims to be standing for the mayoralty herself but all her efforts go into boosting the Livingstone campaign - hardly surprising as she was Ken's deputy mayor for a year.

I asked why cycle superhighway number 2, originally intended to run out to Ilford, was now being terminated at the Bow Flyover. Newham Council have objected to running the highway through their borough, thus preventing it reaching Redbridge. Boris promised to review the decision with TfL and committed himself to encouraging cycling in outer London boroughs like Redbridge.

Value For Money

The Labour Group - managing their time effectively for once - used a broad question about value to raise public transport performance issues.

Their first concern was the recent safety scare on Metroline buses, reported in the Evening Standard. Peter Hendy reassured the Assembly that the story was exaggerated and the worrying statistics were the result of over zealous inspections by one individual.

Next Val Shawcross complained about ongoing maintenance work and the delays and line closures on the Underground. Peter Hendy placed a lot of the blame on Gordon Brown's PPP, claiming that the new Victoria Line trains had not been run in properly before they started service, resulting in delays when the doors jammed open in some cases. On the Jubilee Line resignalling work had fallen behind schedule, leading to the current poor service. More bad news was expected on the sub surface network as the tracks would need to be reconfigured to run longer trains. All this work will improve reliability and capacity but the disruption continues to be considerable.

For a bit of light relief we asked Peter about Livingstone's record, and he confirmed that he had advised against a fares freeze before the election. Subsequent large increases were necessary to make up the budget shortfall.

Boris Buses

The Lib Dems were less than enthusiastic about the new buses, which are due to take to London's streets later this year. Green Member Darren Johnson went further, saying that he was pleased the Routemaster had gone, and that he didn't see why the capital needed a special bus design.

Boris promised that we would all welcome the new 'Routemaster for the 21st Century' with its disabled access, clean engine and iconic design. I was pleased to hear that the trend to remove seats to create space for buggies and wheelchairs had stopped - with TfL admitting that most mobility impaired passengers needed seats. Jennette Arnold made a telling point about the existing wheelchair ramps not working, citing one case where 23 buses on one route had failed to provide access. The mayor promised to review the case and ensure the ramps were available in future.

The session was both entertaining and informative, Boris was very confident and sure of himself throughout, with Peter Hendy providing detailed responses when needed. They took performance concerns seriously and promised improvements - within the constraints of operating a complex network in a large metropolis. This was a reassuring session.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Evening Standard Poll

It turns out that the prospect of trains without drivers has not left passengers "filled with dread" as one comment on the last thread suggested.

Tonight we have the result of a poll in the Evening Standard. The question was:

Would you be comfortable using automated Tubes with no driver?

The response:

YES 67%

NO 33%

So, approval of the Mayor's comments by more than two to one.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Boris at the Mansion House

Last night saw the annual dinner for London Government, hosted by the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House. Boris was the main speaker and he treated the star studded audience to an entertaining and informative progress report. Gone are the days when Ken used to turn up and drone his way through an economics lecture prepared by his staff - Boris appears far more relaxed in this environment.

In amongst the anecdotes and plugs for the City, his comments on London Underground caught my attention:

When the Jubilee works are complete there will be three lines in London, the Jubilee, Victoria and Central which will operate on an automated system and it is a fact - though not a widely known fact - that as we speak most of the Jubilee Line currently operates under automatic train operation, from Stratford to Neasden.

In other words the driving of the train is done by computer rather than manually. Of course there will still need to be someone aboard the train, just as every DLR train is staffed but thanks to the advanced signalling being installed it is also a fact that anyone in this room could in a matter of weeks acquire the qualifications necessary to supervise an underground train and the huge potential implications of that change will be obvious to everyone.

So I say to our colleagues in the trade union leadership that I respect and understand the vital role of unions in a free society to secure the best terms and conditions for their members but I hope they will recognise that the patience of Londoners is not endless and that they should abandon the recent pattern of pointless strikes and work with us to use this settlement to improve the Tube, to modernise the service and the best way to achieve a happy and contented workforce on the Tube is not just to have excellent pay and conditions but above all the satisfaction of providing an ever better service and that is what we are going to achieve with 33 per cent increase in capacity.

Last year my colleague Dick Tracey presented a report which concluded that London could introduce driverless trains in much the same way that other cities around the world have. The Mayor's team were not exactly supportive of the idea, but we plugged away, seeking to persuade them. Far more effective than our efforts has been the behaviour of the Tube unions. TfL know what to expect from the RMT under Bob Crow and prepared to grit their teeth and run the best service possible in difficult circumstances, but I think it was ASLEF's Boxing Day strike and their threat to disrupt the Royal Wedding that finally convinced Boris to look again at the proposals. Londoners are sick of the disruption and they will welcome the Mayor's words.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Releafing Redbridge

This morning I was with Boris, planting trees in the Roding Valley. We were welcomed by the Mayor of Redbridge, deputy leader Cllr Ian Bond (lib dem), and around a hundred volunteers as well as assorted journalists.

RE:LEAF London is the Mayor's new campaign which aims to encourage businesses and individuals to plant more trees across the capital, 'bringing the village to the city', as Boris puts it. This week 10,000 new trees are being planted in East London, many by volunteers from News International.

Experts from Trees For Cities made sure we were safely kitted out with gloves - wouldn't want to get a splinter or a nasty prick - before issuing spades and demonstrating how to plant a sapling. For apartment dwellers like myself this was a new experience but Boris went for it like an experienced pro.

I paused for breath to be photographed with local Conservative councillors Paul Canal and Robin Turbefield, behind the Trees for Cities banner.

The new trees will greatly enhance this part of the borough and will help to soak up ground water in an area that suffered badly from flooding just a few years ago.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Budget Latest

This morning Boris gave evidence to the budget committee in a follow up from last weeks excellent session. Like Simon Milton he began by pointing out that for once, under the new government, London had received a better settlement than many other parts of the country. Against a background of cross the board reductions London had shouldered a 16% cut whereas the national average was 17%. The Mayor also expected further announcements in the coming days which would herald more money from government.

As usual, I pressed him to freeze the council tax precept not just this year, but in 2012/13 as well, leaving a 0% increase over his full term of office. Like Simon Milton, Boris refused to be drawn but he did point out that the freeze so far equated overall to a 6% cut, a welcome contrast to his predecessor who raised the precept by 153% during his term of office!

The Banks

As demonstrated on the last thread, whilst irrelevant to the detailed budget process, The Banks are very important to The Left, who try to use them as cover for their own fiscal irresponsibility. Len Duval suggested the Boris was wrong to defend bankers who could have been taxed more to fund London's budget. Leaving aside the very real possibility that London wouldn't even have seen a lot of the money, Boris emphasised the importance of the financial sector to the capital. Until an alternative source of employment and revenue is created, he is keen to protect what we do have.


Boris is particularly proud that tough lobbying has secured all the money needed for Crossrail, the Tube upgrades, and to protect concessionary fares including the vital 24hr Freedom Pass. The fare increases are unpopular but he reminded us that fares had risen by more than inflation under the previous Mayor too. He stated that the fares package would eliminate the black hole left in TfL's budget by Livingstone's decision to delay his fares package until after the election. The abolition of the zone 2-6 travelcard had been controversial but only 6,000 journeys - of a total 3.5 million - were made using these cards and in most cases Oyster pay as you go would provide a cost effective alternative.

I asked if upgrades to the main line stations in Havering and Redbridge were included in the Crossrail budget. Making the stations safer and more accessible is essential, but Boris pointed out that Network Rail were funding this part of the project. It is to be hoped that they won't be penny pinching here.

And John Biggs revealed that, despite living close to the centre of town, he hadn't ridden a bike in years. What a missed opportunity - we could all have been riding 'Biggs Bikes'...


The Mayor was pleased that crime continued to fall, despite the recession, and particularly on public transport. He was committed to driving down crime even further and to increasing police visibility on the beat. The recruitment freeze has led to a fall in police numbers but even so, Boris was confident that there would still be between 32 and 33 thousand fully warranted officers in the force in 2012 - more than the number he inherited from Ken. Again, some further announcements - he referred to them as 'sleek rabbits out of hats' - would be made during the budget process, and he intended also to protect PCSO numbers.

Asked about police overtime, the Mayor stated that the unpredictability of demonstrations and other disorder made it difficult to commit to a lower figure. Darren Johnson reported that only 7% of overtime was incurred policing public order situations, so there should be other ways it can be controlled. Boris promised to investigate further. I told the Mayor that abstraction of police officers from outer London to cover these events should be done as sparingly as possible.

Next Stages

The budget - and associated sleek rabbits - will now go on to be debated by the Assembly in February. A two thirds majority is needed to amend the proposals so changes will need to command cross party support. The next budget committee meeting takes place on 3rd March.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Budget Scrutiny

Today the budget committee took evidence from all the functional bodies and deputy mayor, Sir Simon Milton, in preparation for the impending budget settlement. This year the budget is set against the backdrop of essential cuts introduced by the government to recover the parlous financial situation left by the outgoing Labour government. For once, London fared better than many other parts of the country, having suffered the worst settlement for three successive years under the previous administration.

Overall Picture

Sir Simon confirmed that the council tax precept would be frozen once again, and spoke of his aspiration to achieve a freeze again in 2012/13.

For this year LFEPA had achieved particularly good savings enabling the transfer of £20 million from their budget to provide extra cash for the MPA where government grant had been less generous.

£23 million from government - council tax freeze specific grant - will be used to preserve some of the LDA's functions following abolition. Of this, £14 million will be supporting a new body - Promote London - which brings together the work of three existing bodies - Visit London, Think London and Study London. Together with economies of scale, Promote London will also seek private sponsorship to fund much of its work.

The London Skills and Employment Board is losing its powers to government and is unlikely to continue in such a vacuum.

Metropolitan Police Authority

The MPA is seeking to make further savings in what Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse described as 'inanimate objects', whilst preserving its front line capacity.

By March 2011 they expect that 1,181 officers will have left the police service but these losses will be offset by deploying 550 officers currently in administrative roles - Operation Herald - and increased single patrolling. In London 800 officers are now on single patrol every day and there must be scope to continue to roll out this practice in all but the most challenging urban environments. Safer Neighbourhood Teams would be preserved although the supervision structure was being reviewed.

The disposal of properties would continue, particularly of old police stations which were no longer suitable for purpose. More services would be delivered from town centre and shopping parade locations, providing a more welcoming environment for victims and witnesses, whilst basing officers in the most populated areas.

Kit declared that he was more concerned by the cuts being implemented by local authorities. He stressed the importance of effective child protection and community safety services without which the police will struggle.

Deputy Commissioner Tim Godwin reassured the committee that the Metropolitan Police would be able to handle demonstrations and consequent public disorder, if necessary by abstracting officers from boroughs to police these events.

London Fire And Emergency Planning Authority

The committee congratulated Fire Commissioner Ron Dobson on his recognition in the New Year Honours List - he has been made a CBE. He assured us that whilst 121 administrative posts would be cut, there would be no cut in front line services.

The London Fire Brigade had received a good grant settlement, doing better than many rural brigades - Warwickshire was facing the closure of eight fire stations. Chairman Brian Coleman put this down to assiduous lobbying of government by himself and senior officers, and also to the previous experience of Fire Minister Bob Neill as chairman of the old LFCDA. It is good to have a minister who actually understands the needs of the capital.

Transport For London

Commissioner Peter Hendy was the only witness to turn up without other officers to support him. Peter is usually well briefed and doesn't need people whispering answers to him.

TfL's four year grant settlement fell short of previous expectations, leaving a funding gap of £2.17 billion, but Peter was confident that this could be bridged. Firstly there would be further efficiency savings, including 'Project Horizon', a wholesale restructuring of the organisation to strip out inefficiencies and over management - this was expected to achieve savings of up to 20% of the admin budget.

Peter also expected to over achieve on income from fares, following the latest increases. Numbers using the Tube particularly have boomed as the London economy recovers, to the point that once again there is no effective peak hour on London Underground. Peter was not being drawn on the level of this surplus, only saying that he expected it to reach several hundreds of millions.

TfL staff were awarded a 4.2% pay increase in 2010/11 as part of a package designed to cover two to three years. Peter was keen to honour the deal - notwithstanding the disagreement with ASLEF which caused the strike on Boxing Day - but after this period he could not rule out a pay freeze, already experienced by many elsewhere in the public sector.

Round Up

All in all this was an informative meeting which covered a good deal of ground. The committee reconvenes on Tuesday when we will be questioning the Mayor about his political priorities.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

New Year in London

This morning I decided to go into town to watch the New Year Parade. The journey proved to be more epic than usual, with the main line terminating at Seven Kings, so it was the 86 bus to Stratford, then the Jubilee Line to Westminster.

This year the parade started in Piccadilly, and progressed via Trafalgar Square and Whitehall to its conclusion in the shadow of Big Ben. There were the usual American marching bands and smiling cheerleaders - a welcome sign of the special relationship - and floating inflatable figures were back, by public demand. London boroughs provided floats and I managed to get a snap of the Havering entry, as well as catching the Mayor of Redbridge leaning from the top deck of a red bus. The biggest cheer was reserved for standard bearers from the Royal British Legion.

A wonderful way to start 2011, it got me thinking of the challenges that lie ahead. This is the year when David Cameron promises most of the 'heavy lifting' will be done, and no doubt the capital will see more protests and strikes in reaction to essential measures to bring the national debt back under control. Continuing work on London Underground will disrupt services, and we all hope for a more reliable network when the engineers move on. The referendum on AV will prove a political headache for both sides I suspect - I will be voting No.

But there will be high points too. In 2011 London will be leading the country out of recession, buoyed in the short term by the excitement of a Royal Wedding, and looking forward to the 2012 Olympics, as the huge site in the Lea Valley nears completion. More trees will be planted around town, the popular bike hire scheme will be extended and the final bendy bus will meander off to the dustbin of history. There is much to look forward too...