Monday, February 28, 2011

London Conference

Saturday saw the London Conservative conference, kindly hosted at Hammersmith Town Hall. Left wing bloggers billed it as a 'secret gathering' and promised a large demonstration - but as it started early on a Saturday morning and it was pouring with rain very few people turned up to man the picket lines - I guess the revolution will have to wait.

Inside a packed hall, we were addressed by Boris who outlined his achievements and his plans to seek a second term. He takes his opponent seriously, describing Ken as a 'seasoned campaigner - more than seasoned, marinated perhaps or even embalmed.' He took some good natured questions and our own Cllr Nick Hayes made the best of the opportunity to seek assurances that the overground improvements which form part of Crossrail would still take place. Boris pointed out that Network Rail were responsible for the stations in Redbridge and Havering, and that he would lobby them to ensure the essential improvements were made.

Lynton Crosby spoke to us about the campaign, revealing all the secret details which I won't repeat here. Then we had sessions on the No To AV campaign and the upcoming boundary review which will see London lose several Parliamentary seats.

Then we were addressed by Transport Secretary Philip Hammond, who talked about his support for Crossrail and his commitment to transport in London. Governments always face pressure from Scottish and Northern MPs to cut London's funding so it is reassuring to have the Minister on our side. He acknowledged that he faces a fight over high speed rail but is determined to press ahead with it as the only viable alternative to airport expansion in the south east.

We broke for lunch with our MEPs, providing them with an opportunity to talk about their work and face the tough grilling that this subject always attracts at party meetings.

Then it was on with the afternoon, and a session on local government chaired by Wandsworth Leader Edward Lister and featuring a star panel - including myself. I spoke about how proportional voting had twisted London Assembly politics, giving Lib Dems and Greens far more power than they merited, and talked about the sometimes tense relationship between my team and the Mayor's office. We also had a good discussion about cutting waste, sharing services and improving procurement to get a better deal for taxpayers.

With that session completed it was time to slip away. I had to miss the final session with London's new MPs because I was off to the Havering Mayor's fund raising evening. A very exciting boxing match and dinner hosted at the Prince Regent Hotel in Chigwell. There was just time for me to get home and change for the event.

A productive Saturday with plenty of jabs and crosses hitting the target!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Big Budget Day

Wednesday saw the agreement of 2011/12 budgets both at City Hall and Havering Council.

Greater London Authority

Boris presented his final budget to a full meeting of the assembly. He had noted our concerns about plans to spend £6 million on the 101 single telephone number for public services in London. He assured us that he would be reviewing the project. Having received this assurance, the Conservative Group withdrew that part of its amendment.

Political groups presented amendments that remained largely unchanged from two weeks earlier, with the exception of the Greens who wanted to spend £4 million on the Year of Walking. None of the amendments attracted enough votes to clear the necessary two thirds hurdle required for their adoption.

John Biggs lost his temper with the mayor, calling him a 'lazy liar' and a lot more before the chair proposed a vote to exclude him from debate - which was passed. Biggs is often casually rude but it seems to arise from thoughtlessness and I don't take offence. There is however something about Boris that gets under his skin and sometimes he really loses it. This was one of those occasions and it was the first time in its history that the assembly voted to silence one of its own members - not a very welcome precedent, particularly as the session was going out live on BBC Parliament.

With no amendments, the mayor's budget was approved by default, giving Londoners another year's council tax freeze, the third in a row - contrasting with Livingstone's 154% increase over his term of office.

London Borough of Havering

With riots and the police called to some council meetings, we were on the edge of our seats in the evening. However there were no protests and the meeting was very civilised.

Over the years Havering has become accustomed to being short changed by central government, so the council is used to introducing efficiencies and sharing services to save costs. The difficult budget was masterfully constructed by Cllr Roger Ramsey and his team of finance officers, working with the unions who therefore did not find it necessary to wave placards outside the meeting.

The Labour opposition didn't propose any alterations to the budget, although a couple of them did dedicate their speeches to polishing Gordon Brown's reputation, after young Conservative councillors made references to the dreadful economic legacy he had left.

The Official Residents' Association councillors proposed introducing free parking in their wards and paying for it by cutting special responsibility allowances and consultancy fees. This is pretty much what they do every year.

The Independent Resident's Association Group (yes, it really is like Monty Python's Life Of Brian) proposed spending £5,000 on a legal challenge to force more grant from the government, but this was disallowed by the Mayor because they had failed to identify where the money was coming from and £5k won't get you a cup of tea at the High Court these days.

With little else on the table the opposition groups congregated around the free parking amendment which fell to the overwhelming Tory majority. However there was some consolation for them in the Leader's announcement that several committees would be scrapped along with the chair's allowances (my own Partnerships Scrutiny Committee included). The Deputy Mayor would also have his allowance ceased, although he would still fulfil his duties.

The administration budget was approved, freezing the council tax at £1,505 for a Band D property.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Save The Accident & Emergency

Following last week's council resolution, there was a meeting of representatives from Havering and Redbridge on Friday, to plan the way forward.

New figures obtained from the plans show that outer London is set to lose out again. With A & E focused on Queen's Hospital for three London boroughs, that overstretched unit will have to serve a population of over 700,000. This compares unfavourable with the North East Inner London hospitals each serving a single borough of just 200,000 people. No doubt the statistics claiming that Inner London has greater 'needs', poverty etc. will be trotted out again but account never seems to be taken of Havering's large elderly population. Older people need more hospital services.

And whilst Waltham Forest Council have decided no to oppose the changes, we noted that there had been no assessment of the additional pressure that will be placed on A & E at Whips Cross Hospital. Residents of Wanstead and Woodford are far more likely to present themselves there rather than travel all the way to Romford.


It was noted that the response to the original consultation had been very low. Of 57,000 questionnaires sent out, only 3,080 (5.4%) had been returned. Of these, 29% were returned by NHS employees who obviously have access to more information about the changes and who view them largely from their position as providers rather than users of the service.

Campaign dates

The main event will be the rally on Friday 8th April, with a march starting from Queen's Hospital at 4pm. The march will conclude - for those who stick with it - at Ilford Town Hall where all the MPs from the two boroughs will address the crowd. There will also be some words of support from former Mayor Ken Livingstone.

The day before - Thursday 7th April - will see a visit to Downing Street by a delegation of six councillors from both boroughs, to deliver a letter making the case for keeping the A& E at King Georges.

And campaigns always need money so we are arranging a fund raising dinner for 11th March, venue to be announced, but somewhere convenient for both boroughs is being sought.

Our next campaign meeting will take place on 4th March.

After the meeting Redbridge Cllr Andy Walker did a short interview with me and it can be seen at

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tube Summit

This afternoon I joined other politicians for a meeting with Kulveer Ranger, the Mayor's transport advisor.

Our main concern was the recent disruption on London Underground, for once not the result of industrial action, but a consequence of equipment failures. Kulveer explained that much of the new equipment needed several weeks to bed in. Making changes to the Tube during running hours was like performing heart surgery on someone running the marathon - well perhaps not quite that challenging, but you get the picture.


The worst problems have centred around the introduction of a new moving block signalling system. This will enable automatic train operation and is being welcomed by train drivers as a massive improvement. More trains can be run and irregularities in the timetable will be corrected automatically. But the new system is having teething troubles and there have been rumblings of discontent at Canary Wharf and Westminster.

Kulveer told us that he had spent two weeks visiting the line on the Mayor's personal instructions to see the problems for himself. He was convinced that they were being resolved and the a good, reliable service would be available soon.


A similar situation, this time arising from the introduction of new trains. Here the sensitivity of the doors had led to failures of service, but again Kulveer assured us that the worst of the problems was behind us now.

The renewal of escalators at Victoria Station was going to cause rush hour congestion and passengers were advised to find alternative routes at busy times. The work would be done quickly, but even so it was expected to take seven months. Interestingly, the Victoria Line escalator at this station is the second busiest in the world - not a lot of people know that...


I have noticed that our own Central Line has been experiencing delays too. In this case the culprit was a faulty signal card, which sets the timetable and operates the signals accordingly. After two breakdowns the fault had been rectified and the line was now operating a good service.

I was very impressed by Kulveer's detailed knowledge and his clear commitment to passengers. He is optimistic about the quality of service in the future, but he knows that I will be back to see him again if things don't improve.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Budget Day (Number One)

Thursday saw the first of two budget debates, with the Mayor presenting his proposals for 2011/12. The Assembly has the power to amend the budget if two thirds of the members can support the change - but that has never happened...

The Budget

Boris led off with his budget speech. Once again he had frozen the council tax precept, a continuing policy which now amounted to a 10% cut in bills over three years, and contrasted with Livingstone's 152% inflation busting increases. Council tax impacts particularly on pensioners and others on fixed incomes, and Boris felt that they would welcome his value for money approach, particularly as so many are struggling in the financial mess that Labour bequeathed them.

Discussing policing, Boris was proud to announce the end of the recruitment freeze. Money vired from the Fire Authority budget would help to boost police numbers and the Mayor promised that there would be more police on the streets by next year than there were when he came to office - a proud legacy. Moving to single patrolling in quieter areas had also freed up another 330 officers, and the concerted effort to move them out of desk jobs and onto the streets would continue.

For transport, Boris pleased London's boroughs by announcing that funding from TfL would be held at 2011/12 levels for two more years - this had originally been slated for a cut, but they had found £22 million for environmental and transport improvements at local level. The Mayor emphasised that support from the boroughs was vital to the delivery of his policies - a welcome contrast with Ken who always seemed to be at war with council leaders.

LDA funding was still sketchy as negotiations with central government continued, but Boris hoped to be able to bring us more good news soon.

A short statement from budget committee chairman John Biggs followed, then there were two hours of questions. As these concluded, each group was invited to move its amendments.

Conservative Group

We sought to produce yet more savings and cut the precept.

Firstly, by seeking a 15% cut in the support budget for all political groups. At a time when front line services are under threat, protecting the political support budget cannot be justified. Last year we made the same proposal but the other groups vetoed it, no doubt unsure if it could be achieved. Over 2010/11 we have made considerable savings by sharing some personal assistants and researchers, and removing some of the management. Having proved that it can be done, we would like to see the other groups follow suit.

We also sought to delete a £6 million spend on the 101 telephone number project. Always a questionable investment, improvements in technology and changes in behaviour now make a universal phone number for public services obsolete.

Other than these suggestions, we welcomed the Mayor's budget, especially the council tax freeze and the greater support for boroughs.


Whilst agreeing with the precept freeze, Labour had different priorities.

They would use TfL reserves to hold down bus fares, fund step free station access projects, and guarantee more Tube station staff, in a nod to Ken's rail union supporters. They also proposed ceasing the project to smooth traffic flow by removing unnecessary traffic signals.

At the Met they would provide 200 more police officers and invest more in tackling youth crime, to be paid for by savings in the overtime budget and the police media department.

Interestingly they supported the Fire Authority budget, despite having voted against it at the Authority's earlier budget meeting. A case of Ed Milliband's 'blank page' perhaps?

Liberal Democrats

There were no signs of 'coalitionism' at City Hall, as the Lib Dems promoted their own ideas:

Once again they proposed their One Hour Bus Ticket, a big idea which featured in last year's offering. Another big idea was an Inner London Low Emission Zone. £10 million would be saved by delaying the roll out of cycle superhighway routes 2,5,8 and 12. Route 2 runs from Aldgate to Bow and I am already getting demands from Redbridge to extend it to Ilford. They would save another £15 million by ending free travel for partners of TfL employees.

In policing, they also targeted the directorate of public affairs for a large cut and sought to save £500,000 by cutting our payments to the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). Extra police would be used to bolster neighbourhood teams and to deal with child trafficking at Heathrow and St. Pancras.


As usual, Darren and Jenny came up with the most radical proposals:

Cutting police overtime, cutting back on surveillance and reducing the Territorial Support Group (the controversial unit which polices demonstrations) would provide savings to be spent on supporting safer neighbourhood teams. £3 million would be spent on traffic policing, and £1 million would be invested in training to improve public order policing.

A 'retro' transport budget would save money by retaining bendy buses and reintroducing the congestion charge Western Extension Zone. Scrapping work on river crossings in the Thames Gateway would save a further £1 million. Congestion charge would be whacked up to £16, with a special charge of £30 for highly polluting vehicles. The money raised would be used to introduce a new 'Very Low Emission Zone' and to increase funding for cycle lanes, pedestrian crossings, and 20mph zones.

At the LDA they proposed cutting the academy programme and scrapping the 101 number project, to pay for more home energy efficiency.

Common Ground

Needless to say none of the above alternatives commanded a two thirds majority.

The three opposition groups got together to pass a critical motion which ensures the budget process will continue with a final vote on 23 February.

And finally, seeing the Green's proposal on the 101 number, we set up another motion calling on Boris to scrap the plans. This was supported unanimously by all four groups and was actually the only constructive proposal that we could all agree on!

Now Boris will go away and consider our comments. He will also continue negotiations with central government over the LDA budget, returning with finalised proposals in two weeks.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Councillors United

Last Wednesday saw a rare example of councillors uniting across the political divide to save the local accident and emergency unit. The Health Service proposal to close the unit at King Georges Hospital in Redbridge and to move the service to Romford's new Queen's Hospital has been debated for several years.

At Redbridge there is great concern about the loss of the borough's accident and emergency unit. Ambulances will take longer to get to Queen's Hospital and where accident victims are involved, time is vital. Visitors will also struggle if they don't have access to a car, as public transport to Queen's is poor in some parts of Redbridge. In some cases a two stage bus journey via Romford town centre will be unavoidable.

There is cross party opposition at Redbridge Council and on Wednesday two councillors, Bellwood and Walker, made up a delegation to Havering, urging the council to join them.

In Havering there will also be problems, because the new hospital is struggling to manage the number of patients it already serves. Lack of capacity has been an ongoing problem and there is also a shortage of visitor parking, despite the council's insistence that more places be provided when the hospital was built. Havering has many elderly people who need to use the already stretched hospital.

Furthermore, other health services have also been moved to Queen's creating more pressure on the hospital. I was surprised when my own doctor's surgery stopped taking blood samples and referred me to the hospital - being a busy person, I haven't had time to attend, and I wonder how many other patients have missed out on care in similar circumstances.

The Redbridge delegation were delighted when Havering councillors lined up to support them. I denounced the proposal as a diabolical plan that will harm the residents of both boroughs and more widely in East London and Essex. Labour leader Cllr Keith Darvill worried that the plan was risky in current circumstances. Independent Residents Association councillor Jeff Tucker pledged to leaflet his Rainham ward in support of the campaign and to bring his megaphone to any protests. Conservative Cabinet Member Cllr Robert Benham had already attended one protest march and he commended the cross party support he witnessed. Streetcare Boss Cllr Barry Tebbutt voiced his concern that the Queen's site would need substantial extra building to accommodate parking and services. Opposition Leader Cllr Clarence Barrett pledged the support of his Residents association Group.

After a passionate debate - which featured several members discussing their own experiences with the health service - the council unanimously approved the following motion:

This council agrees to oppose the withdrawal of services from King Georges Hospital to the detriment of health care for the residents of Havering, to protect and improve services at the Queen's Hospital, and requests cabinet to examine the implications of these proposals and to send a delegation of members of the council consisting of at least one representative of each political group to meet with the all party group of councillors of the London Borough of Redbridge to work with them.

A protest rally is planned for 8th April when many political leaders from both boroughs will line up to voice their opposition.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Business Management Committee

This morning the committee of senior members who oversee the scrutiny function met. The main business was to take evidence from Deputy Mayor Richard Barnes, who presented the annual equality report.


In an era when much needed front line services are under threat, it may seem strange that the equality agenda is still such a high priority. At City Hall we have been seeking to mainstream equalities practices within existing management structures, thereby dispensing with much of the specialist equalities team that grew up during the Livingstone years. In 2008 there were 22 diversity officers and this number was rapidly halved to 11 after Boris came to power. Subsequently staff turnover has reduced this number to five. At LFEPA Brian Coleman has removed all the diversity officers.

Yet there has been much useful work. Richard Barnes is particularly proud of 'Diversity Works', a scheme to help businesses harness the benefits of a diverse workforce and supplier base. The innovative scheme is being taken on by the devolved Welsh and Scottish governments and plans are in train to apply it at a national level, possibly culminating in an industry standard similar to the respected 'Investors in People'.


As Chairman of the Audit Panel, I supported a proposal to use MPA auditors at City Hall in future. This would provide an annual saving of £24k from the current contract and is a good example of sharing services across the GLA to make savings. The MPA audit team currently do a good job on the police service and have qualified staff who work to CIPFA best practice.

An audit plan will now be agreed by the audit panel on 8th March, providing 350 days of cover, and this will be reviewed in the middle of next year.

Civil Contingency Arrangements

With the mayor taking on responsibility for resilience and civil contingency, it was agreed that our committee would take on the responsibility of scrutinising this aspect of his work, on a temporary basis. The impending abolition of the MPA will lead to a reorganisation of Assembly functions and at this point the resilience work will be allocated permanently to a more appropriate committee.

GLA Staffing Changes

In 2008 GLA staff levels stood at 701. Under Boris, the number fell to 582 by September 2009, but it has drifted back up to 623 since then. Although the reorganisation has achieved significant savings, the committee agreed to carry out a review of this downsizing to get a clear picture of the organisation before the effects of the impending localism legislation.

With staff turnover down to 8%, City Hall is clearly a much more attractive place to work.