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...
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.
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?
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.
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.