Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Transport Planning

Today's Transport Committee heard from Peter Hendy and TfL Board member Christopher Garnett. The main subject was TfL's business plan which was unveiled yesterday, but there was a chance to catch up on other matters too.


Hammersmith Flyover

Peter Hendy criticised a BBC story as 'mendacious rubbish'! The Inside Out programme claimed that TfL ignored reports of structural weaknesses in the Hammersmith Flyover and that they should have closed the road to traffic earlier. Peter told us that the story was based on a report which envisaged possible risks and responses, rather than identifying a specific danger. He had written to the local MP, outlining his concerns but was reluctant to pursue the BBC over their flawed story, as they already had other problems to deal with...


Financial Settlement

TfL's settlement from Government is good for two and a half years. The committee were concerned that such a short term might jeopardise TfL's plans. Peter stated that the plans are secure but continuing short timescales would make it difficult to agree terms with suppliers and would prevent major commitments. Long timescales also allow negotiation of procurement rates which are more competitive.

TfL are continuing to work well with DfT despite the recent reshuffle which saw the departure of London based ministers Justine Greening and Theresa Villiers. Peter noted that the train builders are located close to the new Secretary of State's Derbyshire constituency, so he was optimistic that the minister would be positive about capital investment in London's transport.

We discussed other ways that TfL might raise revenue. They have the largest advertising contract in Britain which brings in much needed cash. They are also looking at sponsorship opportunities as well as ways to develop land profitably. Crossrail stations will include space for retail outlets which will allow for some rental income. Boris had suggested exporting TfL expertise during his visit to India. With growing cities planning to introduce mass transit, Peter Hendy could see a lucrative market for these skills, but not at a price of denuding London of its own experts.


TfL Board

Christopher Garnett is retiring after six years on the board. He explained how Livingstone's 'rubber stamp' has evolved into a much more hands on board, with members taking more detailed interest in the decisions and workings of the organisation. We wished him well for the future.


Industrial Action

Tony Arbour provoked heckling from the Labour members when he suggested introducing a participation limit on votes for industrial action. Peter Hendy said he shares our frustration at the large numbers of ballots for action, usually characterised by low participation, and leading to stories about strikes which then don't materialise. He praised the enthusiastic work of TfL employees but criticised their union leadership for failing to represent their members. However he noted that the Government are not keen on promoting industrial relations legislation so things are unlikely to change any time soon.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Riots Rematch

This morning's Budget Committee saw the return of the insurers for a rematch over their response to the 2011 Summer Riots. The committee recently produced a set of recommendations intended to improve the response to such incidents, and the Association of British Insurers disagreed with some of them.

First we heard from Stephen Webb of the Home Office. They had identified shortcomings in the ancient Riot (Damages) Act, and are planning a medium term review of this legislation. In particular the failure to include motor vehicles - which didn't exist when the Act was passed - and consequential losses for business, would be reviewed. The application forms will also be improved and tested for Plain English.

Then the insurers arrived for what promised to be a scrap but turned out to be a damp squib.

The ABI welcomed a call for clearer guidance for claimants and plan to produce a document based on their successful flooding guidance. They will be working with local councils and some of the claimants, but it is unlikely that the Riot Damages Act will be overhauled in time for their publication, so the guidance will have to be reviewed and updated in future.

Disappointingly, there will be no advice on suitable insurance products. A shocking number of claimants from 2011 found themselves uninsured so some clarity about products is needed. Claire Kober, the rather impressive leader of Haringey Council, pointed to some businesses which were difficult to value. A local jeweller experienced fluctuating stock value as the price of precious metals changed. Gold prices had soared, leaving the stock significantly under insured when the riots took place.

In producing the new guidelines, the insurers would also consult the Cabinet Office.

The last word went to Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse. He told us that disasters would continue to affect London but that it was difficult to predict their nature - be it floods, terrorist acts, or riots. A degree of flexibility and a willingness to work with the private sector and local communities will always be essential in such a large and diverse city.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Cleaning Up Elm Park



On Sunday I joined volunteers along with local councillors Barry Oddy and John Wood, for a litter picking session in Elm Park. The morning was supervised by Cllr Barry Tebbutt, cabinet member for highways, and the Leader of the council Michael White also came along to lend a hand.

We planted new flower beds outside the station and cleared up a huge pile of beer cans and bottles which people had thoughtlessly thrown over a fence onto waste land.

The day was a great success and built on the volunteering spirit fostered by the Olympics. This is a version of the Big Society that everyone can get behind. The exercise will be repeated in other town centres in Havering.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Olympic Transport

This morning's transport committee  heard evidence from TfL and the railway companies. The subject was the transport legacy resulting from the Olympics. Obviously a £7 billion capital spend has left valuable infrastructure but we were even more interested to hear if lessons had been learned and procedures improved.

The Javelin Service from St Pancras to Stratford was still running, without the distinctive name and incorporated into commuter routes serving Kent and the South East. Six trains per hour stop at Stratford International and the demand will be kept under review as Olympic venues reopen and residential sites are developed.

Eurostar is more of a disappointment, with the trains flying through the station without stopping. Furthermore there are no plans to introduce a Eurostar service. Darren Johnson felt that the name 'Stratford International' was fraudulent as no international services were available. Perhaps the station should change its name - 'Stratford Westfield' would create a sponsorship opportunity...

Maintenance had also improved, with Network Rail using a helicopter to identify faults along the main line. This has proved so successful that a second helicopter is on order and engineering work is being targeted to reduce disruption.

Opportunities to move goods trains outside the capital are also being sought. A surprising 28% of goods traffic passes through Stratford on route from the East Coast ports. More of this is being sent via Felixstowe and Nuneaton, leaving spare slots to run more commuter trains into Liverpool Street.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Remembering

On Sunday I joined Cllr Ted Griffin and a group of residents for their service at Hainault. The memorial here is only a couple of years old but it is respected and kept in good condition. The crowd of around thirty included veterans of the Second World War and teenagers - all generations were represented at a touching service which had all the meaning of the larger services elsewhere in the constituency.



In the afternoon I returned to Romford for the service at the synagogue. The small building was packed with guests including the Leader of the Council and the MPs for Romford and Hornchurch & Upminster. With the hostilities in Afghanistan continuing, these services have struck a chord with many people who have friends or relatives serving there. My cousin's son, Joseph, has been there with the RAF. We remember those who will not return and pray for the safety of our forces around the world.  

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

OIympic Legacy



This morning the London Legacy Development Corporation appeared before the budget committee to lay out their plans for the Olympic site. This is currently closed to the public to enable removal of some venues and reconstruction of others. We were told that the reopening timetable is as follows:

December 2012 - the Greenway will reopen providing a walking corridor through the site, linking Hackney Wick and Stratford.

July 2013 - the North Park will reopen along with the 'Copper Box' venue which will host indoor sporting facilities.

Christmas 2013 - the iconic Velodrome will reopen.

April 2014 - the swimming pool will reopen minus the two wings of temporary seating installed for the games.

At that point only the Stadium will remain closed to the public.

Away from the venues, five large sites are to be developed for housing, creating an estimated 7,000 new homes. Expected receipts from sales will be around £1.1 billion, and the first plans for the Chobham Manor site are now under way. The athletes' village will provide another 2,800 homes when refitting is complete. The LLDC expect high demand to drive property values up, allowing them to provide high quality homes.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Deputy Mayor Visits St Francis Hospice



Last week I joined Deputy Mayor Victoria Borwick on a visit to St Francis Hospice to thank volunteers and staff for their hard work and the great contribution they make to Essex and North East London.

Chief Executive Pam Court gave us a tour of the facilities and Victoria met some of the day patients and saw the results of their painting and other craft activities. We visited the hospice wards and talked to the nurses and doctors, although there were fewer patients than I met on my last visit in the summer.

We rounded off with a visit to the education centre and a discussion about ways in which we could help the hospice. There are plans to recognise a number of volunteers at Mayor's Question Time in City Hall later this month.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Assembly Meeting

This morning's meeting heard evidence from Professor Tony Travers about possible changes to the tax regime in London.

Jenny Jones proposed a land value tax, to shift taxation from income to wealth, and to encourage the use of derelict land. I pointed out that this would lead to pressure for denser, more profitable housing and commercial projects, with less amenity space - not a very green proposal. It would also in effect be a tax on London, as land values are so much higher in the capital, shifting more money out of the city to the rest of the UK. Professor Travers also noted that the tax would hit people living in fashionable areas whose properties had hugely increased in value. Those who were earning low wages would be forced to sell up and move.

Gareth Bacon suggested giving stamp duty receipts to the Mayor, to be used on new affordable housing - a sum of around £1.3 billion. We were told that the current approach to tax competition meant that around the world devolved taxes were often cut and this could lead to growth in the market, and an increase in the overall recepts.

An interesting session and we look forward to seeing the recommendations of the London Finance Commission which Professor Travers is chairing.


Policing Petition

I took the opportunity to submit the petition to keep Wanstead Police Station. The lead petitioners are Cllr Chris Cummings and Helen Zammett, both local residents who have gathered over 3,500 signatures. The Assembly unanimously agreed to pass the petition to the Mayors Office for Policing and Crime. This is the first petition against a police station closure to be presented at City Hall and I'm sure it won't be the last.



Planning Policy

The Assembly also unanimously approved a Liberal Democrat motion objecting to government plans to temporarily relax permitted development restrictions. In outer London we already face huge pressure on our back gardens and green spaces, so any relaxation of the planning regime would be most unwelcome. The new Planning Minister is Nick Boles MP, a man who spent some time supporting Boris at City Hall - so I hope he will take notice of the Capital's opposition to this plan.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Havering Business Awards

Friday night saw the annual Havering Business Awards dinner, hosted by Maylands Golf Club - a packed night with plenty of opportunities for local business people to network and mingle with the star studded guest list. The after dinner awards were presided over by comedian and celebrity Tim Vine.

From a long list of excellent winners, several stood out for me:



The Queen's Theatre won the best hospitality award, on the basis of a public vote. I visited them over the Summer to see the first night of Return to the Forbidden Planet, and in my opinion the award is well deserved.



The award for best marketing was won by Romford's very own Brewery Centre, which also happens to be where I live! In recent years new restaurants and a Costa Coffee have been added to the already stunning retail opportunities available here.



And there were two special awards for long term support of the awards over several years. They went to Christine Smith of Molly's Florists and Martin Bumpus from our local Lloyds TSB. Special awards were presented by Mayor Cllr Lynden Thorpe.

It was a late night with disco and live entertainers ensuring that we danced into the early hours of Saturday...

Wanstead Police Station Petition



On Friday lunch time the petition against closure of Wanstead Police Station was delivered to City Hall. I took possession of over 2,000 signatures from local councillor Chris Cummins and leading campaigner Neil Zammett.

The petition will be verified by the secretariat with the aim of presenting it to the full Assembly meeting on 24th October.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Conference 2012



I have just got back from the Conservative Conference in Birmingham. An opportunity for Boris to shine, for Dave to set out his stall and possibly our last visit to this great city.


Big Boris

On Monday evening the Mayor arrived to speak at a meeting hosted by Conservative Home in Hall 1 of the International Conference Centre. With an audience of around 1,000, Boris was on form and virtually all of his material was brand new. He particularly took pains to emphasise his loyalty to David Cameron, pointing out that a Conservative victory in London could be mirrored by a Conservative victory in government.


On Tuesday it was time for the Big Performance, with the large Symphony Hall reserved for the London Mayor. Boris acolytes arrived early, hanging around the conference hotel bar. The bridge that links the hotel to the conference centre was the setting for a media ambush, with hordes of photographers and TV cameras lined up to snap Boris as he passed. A great queue formed outside the symphony hall - a needless effort as there was plenty of room inside.

I ensconced myself in a great seat in the wings, almost on the stage - it must have been a good position because half way through the speech I was joined by several newspaper photographers trying to get a close shot of Boris. David Cameron arrived and sat half way back in the centre of the auditorium.


Boris proceeded to produce what in my opinion was his best speech ever. It was a peak performance for a politician who many members would like to see leading the government. Boris referred to David Cameron as 'a broom sweeping up after Labour' and he paid tribute to 'George Osborne the dustpan, Michael Gove the J cloth and William Hague the sponge' - something of a double edged compliment.

He returned to his theme of manufacturing in London, our products including cake from Walthamstow, mosquito repellent and every chocolate hobnob in the world. He paid tribute to the efforts of young people in the Soho film industry - a line that provoked some unscripted titters, but Boris recovered smoothly and moved on from what could have been a Carry on City Hall moment.

He asked what great advantages the city had - 'YOU!!' shouted some enthusiasts in the crowd. No, No, Boris shook his head - he meant the Conservative Government, of course...



Coffee With Cameron

In a conference which has become more corporate in recent years, coffee lounges have sprung up to serve the needs of select thirsty delegates. The initiative was pioneered by Jo Tanner's In House Communications who provided a London Lounge in conjunction with Starbucks last year. They were back for Birmingham and Total Politics magazine had set up a similar operation nearby.

On Monday morning I was one of the first into the London Lounge, having evaded a first night hangover unlike many other delegates. The barrista set out to make a Nicaraguan brew for me - a lengthy undertaking involving watching the coffee percolating through a filter, slowly filling up a giant mug.

I glanced at my watch (again), then glanced up to find the Prime Minister who had arrived with only a couple of advisors in tow. David Cameron spoke to the Starbucks staff and paused for a photograph with them. After some minutes he departed - having drunk my coffee...



Women To Win

Also on Monday, I joined Women to Win for a packed out meeting to discuss the selection process and provide tips for candidates. The impending police commissioner elections have thrown the timetable for candidate selection off course, although the new party chairman has now decreed that the most marginal target seats will be filled as a priority. Assessment boards for European Parliament candidates are currently working their way through the long list of applicants.

It was heartening to see such a large number of ambitious women who want to become MPs despite the recent expenses scandal and the difficulty of securing a seat. Many were in for the long term haul, seeing themselves winning in later elections than 2015. They are right and it is never too early to embark on a political career - likely to be a lengthy undertaking with many ups and downs on the way.



Is This the Last Time?

I like Birmingham. The city is welcoming, the facilities are good (unlike Bournemouth), it doesn't rain all the time (unlike Manchester) and it is not too far from London (unlike Blackpool), and I look forward to the Birmingham conferences. So I was disappointed to hear a rumour that we might not be returning. The cost of security - it was said - is now too high for the city compared to the business benefits, so they will be discouraging party conferences in future. Let's hope it isn't true as they did a great job hosting us for 2012!


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Police and Crime Committee



Today I attended my first meeting of the relatively new police and crime committee. Initially I had agreed to stand in for Victoria Borwick who was at a funeral but on Tuesday I had a surprise visit from the group leader - he asked me to take the committee place permanently as Conservative spokesman on policing, following Steve O'Connell's appointment as an advisor to the Deputy Mayor.

The committee has been fractious in the past, with confrontation between the members and Stephen Greenhalgh, the combative Deputy Mayor for Policing. Today Stephen was accompanied by Deputy Commissioner Craig Mackey and the tone was more positive.


Management Reorganisation

With £500 million savings required from the budget, senior management was being reduced, also allowing more investment in the front line. The witnesses refused to rule out the possibility that some boroughs would be combined under single management and the borough commanders would have to share some of their back office functions. At present borough commanders hold the rank of chief superintendent (except in Lambeth and Westminster where they are full commanders), but in future this might not be the case.

I urged the Deputy Mayor to preserve geographical structures below the borough commanders rather than opt for functional 'silos' which would endanger the excellent partnership work being shared by councils and other public services at borough level. By all means we should seek to save money but take care to preserve the strengths which flow from local links.


Estates Strategy

The property review was expected to cut the MPS estate by around a third, saving at least £50 million and providing an opportunity to relocate services to better sites. However confused messages are raising fears in communities around the city.

I told the witnesses that the closure of Wanstead police station in 2001 had to be reversed because crime spiked by over 20%. Surely they wanted to avoid such costly reversals of decisions this time. They refused to comment on Wanstead in particular but the Deputy Mayor said that no front counters would be closed without his agreement - and he hadn't signed any off. The Estates Strategy would be published and would be subject to consultation, which should be very welcome news for campaigners.

The witnesses agreed with me that response times and the distance between front counters would be key criteria in the review - not just the number of people currently visiting. Counters which were closed would be replaced like for like - a key commitment which had been in some doubt. And the possibility of using volunteers to staff front counters would be considered, particularly in the light of the great volunteering spirit engendered by the 2012 Games.

As part of the review MOPAC HQ in Westminster will be closed with 65 staff transferring to City Hall and reporting to the Deputy Mayor.


Vetting and Supervision

The recent cases involving PC Simon Harwood who assaulted Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests, and an officer in the specialist Sapphire rape unit who had falsified police records, raised concerns about vetting of police officers and their supervision.

The Deputy Commissioner assured us that systems had been improved and lessons learned. An officer with Harwood's record of complaints of violence would now be spotted more swiftly with appropriate action taken. Management changes at Sapphire should reassure victims that their cases would be effectively investigated.

Jenny Jones raised the question of supervising undercover officers who often had to make tough decisions in life threatening circumstances. The witnesses said it would not be acceptable for an undercover officer to commit or participate in a crime. Also, they should seek permission before taking part in sexual relationships with suspects or others in their undercover role. Jenny wondered if children from such liaisons would become the police's responsibility - the Deputy Commissioner considered this highly unlikely.


Gang Strategy

The anti - gangs strategy had targeted 1,500 gang members, severely hampering their activity and reducing the number of stabbings and shootings. The witnesses appealed for more diversionary initiatives to steer young people away from gang culture along with better employment opportunities. Although out of the headlines recently, gangs remained a high priority for Scotland Yard.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Wanstead Police Protest

On Friday evening I attended a special meeting of Redbridge Council's Area 1 Committee which covers the wards of Wanstead and Snaresbrook in the West part of the borough. Chaired by Cllr Chris Cummins, the meeting was called to discuss plans to close Wanstead Police Station which had featured on the front page of the Wanstead and Woodford Guardian.

The deputy borough police commander assured a packed room that no decisions had been taken, however with a £500 million gap in their budget the Met Police had to consider all options and amongst these was a review of their property requirements.

There was widespread local concern, not least because this is not the first threat to the police station. The building was closed in late 2001 but reopened in 2003 after a successful campaign led by local councillor Allan Burgess. During the closure period residents endured a 23% increase in crime in the area.

This time residents are better prepared and there are two petitions opposing the closure, each with over 1,000 signatures. Local councillors and MP John Cryer are united in their opposition and the future of police stations in the borough is due to be debated at a Redbridge Council meeting on 20th October. I have agreed to present the petitions to the Mayor who is ultimately responsible for any decision.

Because closure will lead to poorer response times, loss of public access and removal of a deterrent to crime in the area, I hope that local people and politicians of all parties will be able to speak with one voice against this ill judged plan.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Elm Park - The Future

This morning I dropped into the Town Hall to look at the plans to improve traffic flow in Elm Park. The Broadway north of the station is particularly prone to congestion caused by unloading retail goods and buses picking up passengers. A grant of £60,000 from TfL is to be used to eliminate these problems.

Most contentious will be the introduction of parking bays with pay and display machines. The pricing regime is designed to keep parking turning over and prevent commuters taking up the space. One hour's parking will be a very inexpensive 20p, but this will rise to £1.40 for up to ninety minutes and £2.00 for the maximum allowed time of two hours. The restrictions will be in force from 8:30am to 6:30pm Mondays to Saturday with free parking on a Sunday.

There will also be designated free loading spaces where no charge will apply in the first 20 minutes, as well as a 'kiss and ride' bay south of the station for drivers to drop off and collect rail passengers with very limited free waiting time.

Existing disc parking places outside 33 to 42 The Broadway will be removed.

Three or four new cycle parking racks will be added. The lay bys will be set further back from the road, reducing interference with the flow of traffic.

The plans are open to consultation and can be viewed at Mercury House in Romford with all representations requested before 12th October. Final decision will be made by the Highways Committee later in October.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

ESEL Launch



On Tuesday afternoon I attended the House of Commons for the launch of the East and South East London Transport Partnership. Providing a forum for London Boroughs and the business community, the group will agree priorities and lobby for transport funding in our area.

Parliament has more than its share of MPs who believe that London gets too much support and funding should be diverted to Scotland and The North, so the capital needs well informed people to make its case. This is made all the more necessary by the departure of London based ministers from the DfT with key transport infrastucture such as Crossrail 2 still not funded. With most of London's population growth expected in the East, investment in transport infrastructure is a priority for all political parties.

The launch was chaired by Lee Scott MP - newly promoted PPS to Chris Grayling at Justice - and speakers included Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick, Howard Dawber from the Canary Wharf Group and of course myself, representing the Mayor and Assembly.

Transport Committee



Yesterday saw the Transport Committee reconvene at City Hall after a summer which has seriously tested the city's transport network.

THE  GAMES

Peter Hendy updated us on performance during the Games. Many records for passenger numbers had been broken. On 7th August the Tube carried a record 4.57 million passengers. On 3rd August the DLR carried over 500,000 passengers for the first time. The Cable Car has now lifted more than a million people across the river, providing stunning views of London on the way.

In contrast, road traffic was down by 15% during the Games. 23,000 warning notices were issued to motorists who strayed into the Olympic Route Network lanes but they weren't fined, however fines were issued where direction signs and parking restrictions were deliberately flouted and there were 6,473 such cases.

3,000 IPADs had been issued to staff on station platforms to give them real time information when dealing with questions from passengers. At 16 stations portable ramps were in use to enable wheelchair access and these would be retained subject to the availability of staff to operate them.

Committee members congratulated Peter Hendy on TfL's gold medal performance.


AIRPORT  CAPACITY

With the expansion of Heathrow back on the table, the chair announced an Assembly led review of airport capacity which would be run by the transport committee with input from the environment and economy committees. Along with government and mayoral investigations, reviews are landing thick and fast...


CYCLING

The committee continued its investigation into cycling in London, taking some interesting evidence from Dutch and Swedish experts. Cycling rates are much higher in their cities and we are looking at solutions which can transfer easily to London's busier and narrower streets. The Freight Transport Association gave us their take on measures to improve HGV safety standards, including mirrors, detection devices and training for drivers.

Ben Plowden from TfL updated us on their latest ideas and I was pleased when he promised that Cycle Superhighway 2 would be extended from Stratford to Ilford in the coming 12 months, thus bringing safer cycle commuting to Ilford. Newham Council had opposed the extension because of interference with the Games, but with the Olympics out of the way their opposition will be dropped and nothing will stand in the way of CS2.

UPDATE - Ben Plowden has been in touch to say that CS2 will only be extended as far as Stratford this year. Looks like Redbridge will have to continue to wait...

Monday, September 10, 2012

Buster Challenge Quiz



On Friday I joined Romford Young Conservatives for their Buster Challenge Quiz Night. Named after Buster, Andrew Rosindell's dog and election mascot, the contest usually attracts stiff competition and this time was no exception.

I was the guest quiz master for the night, which included a two course meal, wine and as always, a raffle. The close race was won by the Terriers who narrowly beat the Chairman's Table. They are pictured with the trophy which they get to keep for a year, and YC chairman Josh Chapman.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Transport Reshuffle

On the whole I am pleased with the reshuffle so far. It is good to see talented individuals like Chris Grayling and Maria Miller rewarded with seats around the Cabinet table, however the news coming out of DfT is worrying - at least so far...

Boris has already seized upon the removal of Transport Secretary Justine Greening and her Minister of State Theresa Villiers as evidence that the government is about to U-turn on its commitment to oppose a third runway at Heathrow. They were both strongly opposed to the project as is the Mayor, but nobody in London can have missed the recent public lobbying in favour by business and the aviation industry. The new ministers represent seats outside London so their stance on Heathrow may be more flexible and less affected by constituency concerns. Boris is promising to make a robust stand against 'mad' plans to resurrect the Third Runway.

At Westminster transport is not seen as a big deal. Traditionally the Secretaries of State are young ministers on their way up and they don't expect to stay long - under Labour their tenures were also short. But in London government, transport is one of our greatest challenges, along with policing. Having ministers with constituencies in London gives the Mayor a great advantage, not just when dealing with Heathrow, but when arguing for any transport improvements. When Boris makes the case for Crossrail and the Tube renewal programme, he knows that he is making it to informed and receptive politicians with half an eye on their voters.

Some years ago I gave evidence to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee. We were talking about the collapse of Metronet, but it quickly became clear that some of the MPs from Scotland and The North were more keen on proving that London was getting more than its share of transport investment. There was clearly some prejudice against the Capital and I fear that it still persists in Parliament.

We have yet to see the most junior appointments to the Department for Transport and I hope that Londoners will be included at some point, otherwise fighting our corner could prove more difficult in future.

UPDATE: Whilst I was out at the gym Stephen Hammond, MP for Wimbledon has been appointed to transport as a junior minister, so London still has a voice, albeit much reduced...

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Brooklands Action Day



September is with us and it's back to campaigning. On Saturday I joined Romford MP Andrew Rosindell and local activists for an action day delivering newsletters and meeting residents in Brooklands Ward. The weather was fine and people we met were positive, whilst understanding the difficulties facing the government and the necessity of unpopular decisions.

This was the first in a series of Romford campaign days which will cover the whole of the constituency, so a busy autumn lies ahead...

Return to the Forbidden Planet



On Thursday evening I joined a packed out audience for the opening night of Return to the Forbidden Planet at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch.

Written by artistic director Bob Carlton, Forbidden Planet presents an eighties take on the classic fifties sci-fi film. Now thirty years old, the play toured nationally in 1989 and was last at the Queen's in 2001. It features many well known - and some obscure - lines from Shakespeare, combined with sixties music hits including 'Teenager in Love' and 'Great Balls of Fire'. The audience joined in enthusiastically with many of the most famous hits.

this play really challenges its star performers, requiring them to play music as well as act. Thus the ship's cook - played by Queen's newcomer Mark Newnham - is transformed into a rock guitarist in one scene and everyone displays multiple talents as the show develops. Playing a saxophone is challenging enough but doing so whilst carrying an attractive young lady, balancing on roller skates and pretending to be a robot is well beyond standard expectations - so hats off to Frederick "Frido" Ruth who plays Ariel.

There is even an on screen appearance from Richard O'Brien who starred in Flash Gordon and fronted up the Crystal Maze TV show, although his dark glasses initially make him familiar but difficult to recognise.

It is well worth spending an evening with Captain Tempest and the crew of  the Intergalactic Starship Albatross. Tickets are available from www.Queens-Theatre.co.uk .

Friday, August 03, 2012

Saint Francis Hospice

Last week I visited St Francis Hospice to meet Pam Court and her team for a tour of their facilities.

The hospice is in a lovely location just off the village green at Havering-atte-Bower. Their motto is 'Living with dignity' and they provide a valuable service to residents of Havering, Redbridge, Barking & Dagenham and Brentwood. However whilst the location is restful and pleasant, there are access problems with an infrequent bus service which doesn't run at all on Sundays - and even this service was in danger until Boris intervened with TfL four years ago.

My visit started with the day hospice which provides facilities for outpatients to receive treatment and to socialise with various activities. They have a nice line in scarf painting and customising Christmas decorations which are kindly donated by B & Q. Lunch is also provided. There is space for up to sixteen patients per day.

The Inpatient Unit was recently redecorated and has both single and shared rooms, offering families the option of staying for longer with loved ones. The rooms have patio doors which were opened to take full advantage of the warm weather when I visited. I spoke to several of the patients and they all had high praise for the care they were receiving. If anything some felt that they received more attention than they needed and the high ratio of nurses to patients was something they had not encountered elsewhere.

The visit was rounded off with the new Pepperell Education Centre, a facility that provides training and experience for doctors and nurses including communication training for GPs. Dealing with death is uncomfortable for many people - myself included - and the centre provides information that is difficult to get elsewhere.

I was very impressed by the dedication of the Hospice staff and the way that the patients clearly valued the service. The majority of staff are in fact volunteers - students getting experience, drivers, workers in the network of fund raising shops, even the photographer who took over 60 pictures during my visit. Boris and the Government are keen to encourage volunteering and I have never seen a better example than this.




Last year's Havering Mayor Melvin Wallace, made the Hospice one of his appeal charities and he raised enough to pay for a new mini bus which bears his name. A few years ago I decided to make a regular donation to the hospice to support their activities and I urge everyone to contribute. Details of the work they do and the support they need can be found on their website, www.sfh.org.uk .

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Hanging by a Thread

This morning I took a trip on London's newest form of public transport - the cable car. Fine weather afforded some great views of East London and the river, so I took plenty of pictures:







The cars are smaller than I expected, each with room for up to eight passengers - no on board trolley service here. The initial climb to 295ft is steep on the Greenwich side and it does feel very high up. The cars seem to be travelling slowly though they approach quite fast from the opposite direction so the speed is deceptive. An on board voice orders you to remain seated and informs you that your actions are being filmed by CCTV - any misbehaviour would need to be completed quickly as the whole crossing takes no more than ten minutes.

At the North side the descent is gentler with views of water skiers in the dock. Shadows passing overhead and the roar of engines are a reminder that real airlines take off quite close by at City Airport. This Emirates Air Line is well worth the price of a visit although cloudy conditions or high winds might spoil the fun.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

You Must Read This!

I have just finished Underground Overground, an informative and easy to read history of the Tube. The author Andrew Martin, sets out to describe the growth of the network from its beginning as a cut and cover steam service to the City and he also shows how the development of new lines led to changes in the capital itself. On the way he finds time to visit the London Transport Museum and the Lost Property Office at Baker Street. The evolution of the Tube map culminating in Harry Beck's iconic design is discussed too.



The Tube originated as a dream of social reformer Charles Pearson who started work on the first cut and cover branch of the Metropolitan Line. Tunneling using shields enabled Brunel to build the first railway tunnel under the river at Wapping, then the smaller Greathead Shield  (Greathead's statue stands outside the Bank of England) led to the many deep level lines, largely funded by American investors who never saw their money back. Frank Pick presided over the network in the early twentieth century, creating the Piccadilly Line and the monster that we know as the Northern Line - which has the longest continuous rail tunnel in the country! Pick also commissioned Charles Holden to design some of the Tube's finest suburban stations. After the war a period of austerity eventually came to an end with the opening of the unambitious Victoria Line, then the even less ambitious Jubilee Line, finally extended at the turn of the century.

The book was a birthday present from my excellent PA Maura. She clearly knows me well because I share some spooky similarities with Andrew Martin. we are both immigrants, Martin having grown up in York and myself in Cleveland, a short distance away. We are both children of the sixties and arrived in London at a similar time, both starting our adventures in Leytonstone. We were both educated at the Inns of Court School of Law, although neither of us practise as barristers.

You must read this book - it will tell you so much you didn't know about a system that we take for granted because we use it every day.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Number Crunching



Tuesday was very busy with the Budget Committee meeting in the morning, a brief break for lunch, then the Audit Panel meeting in the afternoon. Lots of numbers with everything presided over by Labour Chairman John Biggs.


BUDGET  LATEST

Chief of Staff Sir Edward Lister, appeared at the committee to update us on the challenges faced by the GLA. He agreed that 2012/13 would be a very difficult year with diminishing resources whilst demands continued to grow. He also predicted that the coming four years would be equally, if not more, challenging. All parts of the GLA needed to make savings:

Transport for London £24 million
Metropolitan Police £148 million
London Fire Brigade £29.5 million
GLA HQ £3.7 million

Members felt that TfL could provide greater savings, but these would be retained within the organisation to protect the essential transport upgrades.

I urged Sir Edward to fast track the shared service programme and unlock more of the economies of scale that come with combining functions under the GLA umbrella. I also suggested that we look outside the GLA, seeking opportunities to share administrative functions with local authorities - even reaching out beyond the old GLC boundary which has proved to be an 'Iron Curtain' preventing cross border cooperation in the past.

Sir Edward confirmed that he was concentrating on property rationalisation, facilities management and procurement where the greatest savings were likely to be made. The process of contracting for the required services would focus managers' minds and eliminate bureaucracy and waste.


AFTER  THE  RIOTS

Last month the committee heard from Tottenham MP David Lammy and local traders who told of their problems finding support after the 2011 riots. This time the insurance companies appeared to give their side of the story. David Williams from AXA stated that they had handled 300 claims of which only two had been refused. Whilst they were alert to fraud, the biggest problem was under insurance. For example, one shop had been holding a large quantity of tobacco which was not covered by their policy. Another business sought to claim over £300k on a policy covering £25k.

Representatives from Haringey and Croydon councils claimed that some insurers and loss adjusters had been less helpful. Often they were dealing with people who did not speak English well, so interpreters were required. The complexity of insurance terminology made this situation worse.

They also claimed that loss adjusters had demanded receipts and records from businesses where everything had been burned out. In one case a loss adjuster mislaid the receipts they were given and the claimant had - unwisely perhaps - failed to keep copies.

The insurers stated that premiums would not increase for the affected areas as the level of risk was not seen to have changed. However the under insurance experienced by many businesses did mean that their costs would go up, steeply in some cases. A new version of the Riot Damages Act was required, but some state involvement was essential as otherwise the risk would be uninsurable.

Given this state of affairs, I asked if insurance products were really suitable for these communities. Costs and risk levels have already led to credit unions providing alternative banking services in some parts of the capital. I suggested it was time for credit unions to consider providing tailored insurance products as well.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Mayor's Questions

Last Wednesday saw the July edition of Mayor's Question Time. With a lot happening in the last couple of weeks, the first hour was taken up with emergency updates so we didn't start the agenda proper until 11:10am, a state of affairs which left my guests mystified as the meeting went seriously off piste...


UPDATES

We started with London Pride. The iconic gay event has run into financial trouble and although Boris has found £100,000 to support it, the march and associated activities will be much curtailed this year. Andrew Boff made a very good point when he said that similar events attracted sponsors to cover their costs in other cities and Boris promised that this approach would be followed in future.

There was anger amongst members over the retirement of the Chief Executive of MOPaC (as we must now call it) and the resignation of her deputy. Opposition members have got their teeth into new deputy mayor for policing Stephen Greenhalgh, and to them this episode was further evidence that he is taking action without considering the consequences. And this time there were consequences, as the Assembly rejected a proposal to allow MOPaC to share the GLA's chief executive until the posts can be filled.

The Barclays rate fixing scandal found its way into questions with other worldly Lib Dem Stephen Knight demanding that their logo be removed from the bike hire scheme. How this over the top action would be paid for or who would make up the sponsorship costs he didn't say, but presumably the long suffering taxpayer would foot the bill. Boris turned the request down flat and urged us not to indulge in an orgy of 'banker bashing'. Steve O'Connell restored some calm by referring to the great number of Londoners employed by Barclays, the vast majority of them blameless in this case. To suggest that Barclays was an unfit sponsor was an insult to those hard working employees.


CABLE CAR

The cable car is now open and Boris commended it to members, some of whom were concerned that it was a tourist attraction rather than a serious transport mode. I remembered my first ride on the DLR in the eighties. The tiny two car train actually stopped on the viaduct where Canary Wharf was to be built whilst a man in blue uniform gave a 'tour guide' over the speakers. From such unpromising beginnings the current railway grew and flourished. In twenty years we might well see the cable car extended to serve other destinations around Docklands and East London.


A12 CLEAN UP

Following my visit to Gants Hill I asked Boris about measures to clean up the TfL roads in the area before the Olympic Torch passes through later this month. He gave me a comprehensive list of measures being taken and promised to provide Olympic bunting for the town centre. As we were speaking the TfL weeders were hard at work and by the evening I'm told the roundabout and central reservations were all neatly trimmed - another job done!


RIOT ROUND UP

With the anniversary of the riots approaching (it seems longer than a year), Steve O'Connell asked Boris to describe the measures put in place by the Met to deal with any further disorder. Boris told us about the extra public order training and the 645 prison sentences imposed by the courts who for once have applied an appropriate degree of severity in sentencing.

I suggested that police elsewhere might learn from Havering where searches at the station and ANPR on approach roads target trouble makers as they enter Romford and make it much easier to track and identify offenders.


Also present in the audience were members of Havering's well regarded Fabian Society, an unusually active and well informed left wing group. Whatever their politics, visitors are always welcome at Question Time.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Good News For Gants Hill




A quick update on the Gants Hill situation.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Send for the Strimmers






This afternoon I visited Gants Hill. The roundabout and central reservations are looking shoddy and overgrown - not a good background for the Olympic Torch which is due to pass through here in July, or for visitors from abroad. Luckily I have a question tabled for Boris at next week's Question Time about the general condition of the A12 during the Games. Meanwhile TfL need to get down here with their strimmers before lions and boa constrictors take up residence in the sprouting jungle...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Armed Forces Day

Yesterday we gathered outside City Hall for a ceremony to sign the Armed Forces Community Covenant and to raise the Armed Forces Day Flag. With music provided by the Band of the Lifeguards, the crowd was addressed by Jennette Arnold, Boris and Brigadier Matthew Lowe the Deputy Commander of London District.



The Covenant commits civil authorities to work with the armed forces to ensure that their members are not disadvantaged when it comes to accessing services. It was signed by the guests and by representatives of the MPS, LFB and TfL, as well as representatives from the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Transport Questions


This morning Boris and TfL Commissioner Peter Hendy, appeared before the whole Assembly in a plenary session which dealt with transport issues.


LONDON UNDERGROUND

Caroline Pidgeon asked if Boris was concerned about London Underground's recent performance. He replied that new measures being taken to respond to breakdowns would hugely reduce delays. Most disruption was within London Underground's control but recently the Central Line was put out of action by a burst water main which flooded the tunnel near Stratford. He had met Thames Water and presented a bill for £250,000, this being the sum which was paid to compensate the passengers.

I asked about disruption around Upminster Depot. Work is under way to expand the site in preparation for new, longer trains but noise is disturbing residents. Peter Hendy agreed to arrange a meeting on site within a week.


BUS STRIKES

Val Shawcross asked about Friday's planned strike over Olympic pay. Boris stated that it was a matter for negotiation between the unions and bus operators, however he was making £8.3 million available from the Olympic Development Authority underspend to make some reward possible. This sum would be withdrawn if strikes took place.

Boris felt that incessant strike ballots were damaging the reputation of the capital. Introducing a law to require greater member participation in strike ballots would eliminate much of the vexatious claims and he was in favour of government action to alter legislation accordingly. London's record was better than Paris, with 17 unions on the network, but worse than New York, where striking is outlawed.

Jennette urged Peter Hendy to get tough on sexual harassment on public transport. She wanted him to consider a public information campaign similar to that used in New York. If it was successful we should consider copying the initiative in London.

Cycling was discussed and Boris agreed that TfL should focus on the large tipper trucks and skip lorries that seemed to be involved in so many accidents - with cyclists coming off worst. He asked which of us cycled to work and got a very tepid response - understandably, as we don't all live in Islington and it's a long way from Romford on a bike.

Finally I asked Boris to intervene to reduce the tolls at the Dartford Crossing - specifically to introduce discounts for my residents to match those enjoyed in Thurrock and Dartford. He said he would raise the proposal at his next meeting with transport ministers...

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Ready for the Games






On Monday I joined a group of members for a tour of the Olympic Park. The venues are almost ready for what will be a Summer Like No Other in London. Pictures show the Stadium and inside the Aquatics Centre.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Budget Committee

Tuesday's budget committee considered the handling of compensation for the August riot victims and took evidence from TfL about future fares settlemtnts.


AFTER THE RIOTS

The star witness was Tottenham MP David Lammy. David was briefly a list member of the London Assembly, before taking advantage of his list status to go on to greater things without leaving a by election in his wake. He has evolved into a passionate and articulate advocate for his constituents who are some of the poorest in London.

David was joined by Sir William Castell who chairs the High Street Fund trustees and Moaz Nanjuwany from the Tottenham Traders Partnership. The Assembly Members included the representatives of hard hit Tottenham, Croydon and Clapham.

MPA witnesses explained the limitations of the Riot Damages Act, a piece of legislation dating from 1886 which does not include compensation for vehicles or loss of business.  Confusion over this role meant that many people applied for compensation when they had little chance of qualifying.

Insurance provided a wider degree of compensation but in Tottenham 25% of traders were not insured. Even those who had bought insurance sometimes found it was not adequate in the face of such terrible damage. Furthermore those who claimed were now facing an increase in premiums of up to 20%, making insurance unaffordable in many cases. We were told of cases where insurers had been unhelpful and lossadjusters had made unreasonable demands - for example asking for receipts from businesses which had been burned to the ground. David Lammy cited Zurich as an example of an insurer who was difficult to deal with - this struck a chord as Zurich were my insurers when I was burgled in 1999, and they were great, until their loss adjusters turned up...

Sir William's High Street Fund had stepped in to fill the gap. Run by private businesses, they had targeted small concerns with 12 or fewer employees. With 623 applicants, 575 had qualified for initial stop gap payments of up to £2,000. Further grants of up to £8,000 had been made later, bringing the total number of payments up to 911. Most beneficiaries were businesses in Tottenham and Croydon. Sir William was critical of working relationships with some local authorities but he praised the commitment and support of Boris and the GLA.

David Lammy warned that further unrest was likely because of high unemployment in his constituency. He urged the government to take more steps to provide opportunities in London, in the same way that the relocation of the DVLA and other government agencies had boosted depressed areas outside London.


FARES FAIR?

TfL's Stephen Critchley made his last appearance before his impending retirement. He confirmed that the business plan predicted a fares rise of RPI plus 2%, although this was subject to Mayoral approval and compared favourably with National Rail rises of RPI plus 3%.

Stephen Knight suggested borrowing to hold fares down. TfL replied that borrowing was limited by government agreement and was also subject to changes in their credit rating. Excessive borrowing would harm a good rating, leading to increased borrowing costs as well as reputational damage, higher supplier bills and harm to the pension fund - not much leeway there...

A better idea was to seek other income streams to subsidise fares. These included advertising, sponsorship, property, retail and technology - a new source of income manifested in the recent wifi deals. One possibility was to enlarge station car parks to generate more parking income and to facilitate more 'park and ride' opportunities.

I suggested that retail should be built into more stations, allowing for income generation as well as creating a buzz inside stations. Travelling on the Jubilee and East London line extensions reveals a preference for blank concrete walls over retail units. The cavernous ticket hall at Canary Wharf must surely provide for some retail income - certainly the privately run underground shopping complexes on either side of the hall are thriving. And Crossrail plans for new stations at Ilford and Romford have sacrificed commercial space in favour of blank walls and offices for station staff - don't get me started on that...

Mayor's Question Time

Wednesday's Question Time followed hard on the heels of May's rather scrappy and political episode. Labour asked Boris to provide an update on the 'Close Protection' operation which saw Diamond Jubilee volunteers allegedly sleeping under a bridge in damp and cold conditions. John Biggs stated this was unacceptable, whilst accepting himself that further investigation was required and we shouldn't jump to conclusions based on media coverage. Boris agreed that the situation needed to be properly understood and any necessary lessons learned before the Games which will see much more volunteering.

Jenny Jones asked for GLA policies on the employment of volunteers and appeared to be suggesting a minimum wage. When Boris pointed out that this was effectively a ban on unpaid work she backed off a bit. Ensuring volunteers are well treated is vital but thoughtless bureaucracy must be avoided.

Kit Malthouse told us that the company involved was run by a woman and condemned some of the media coverage for its misogynism.

The Conservatives asked Boris to state his position on High Speed 2. The Mayor felt that the business case needed to improve and that protection for West London was essential. The rebuilding of Euston Station to provide for the larger passenger volume highlighted the need for Crossrail 2 which should be a condition of HS2 going ahead.


AIR  QUALITY

Lib Dem Stephen Knight asked about air quality during the Games and Boris replied that the TfL projections and an independent report showed that it was likely to improve. Knight then broadened the scope of the question, demanding more restrictions on black cab emissions and complaining that Boris had delayed the third phase of the Low Emission Zone. These measures may well clean the air in Central London but they penalise residents in Outer London and it is no surprise that the Lib Dem candidate came ninth in the Havering element of the Assembly election with policies like that.


HOUSING

Darren Johnson asked a broad question about 'housing scandals' in London. Boris used the opportunity to highlight his good record of building new social housing.

Supplementaries about 'housing scandals' can go almost anywhere and Darren chose to raise 'beds in sheds', effectively hijacking a Labour question from further down the agenda. The Chair initially disallowed the question, then decided to bring the Labour question forward. Labour objected and some off stage discussion took place, with ALL the Labour housing questions eventually brought forward to this section - in effect returning to the 'theming' of questions which was an unsuccessful feature of the 2000 - 2004 Assembly before it was knocked into shape by Brian Coleman.

'Beds in Sheds' are a problem in several London boroughs including Redbridge. Householders use their sheds, garages and outhouses to accommodate paying tenants often in sub standard conditions. Tony Arbour referred to a garage in his constituency which included a washing machine and kitchen, neither strictly necessary to its purpose. He stated that the length of the planning enforcement process made this abuse a profitable proposition for unscrupulous landlords. Boris agreed and pledged to focus the attention of the London Fire Brigade on the issue - closing down overcrowded and dangerous accommodation.

I asked about measures to tacle squatting - also a problem in Redbridge. Boris said that he supported government measures to speed up eviction processes and impose tougher sanctions on squatters, who he described as 'a blight and a curse'.


U TURNS

I raised my long awaited question about illegal U turns at Newbury Park. A couple of weeks ago I visited the junction with local councillors and witnessed some very dangerous behaviour by drivers (and pedestrians). Boris stated that TfL would be altering the junction to prevent illegal manoeuvres and that the changes would be made in October 2013. Meanwhile I called for tougher enforcement by the police and TfL not just at Newbury Park but all along the A12 where U turns are a problem.


OLYMPIC  BRANDING

Andrew Boff returned to the subject of Olympic copyrights. LOCOG are allegedly cracking down on people who upload pictures and videos to social media sites. Boris stated that he takes a much more relaxed view and he urged LOCOG to relax their activities - though how much effect this urging will have remains to be seen, with LOCOG very much a law unto themselves as the Games approach.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

A Jubilee Greeting



Several people have sent me this today - it seems quite appropriate:


On this Jubilee Sunday may we offer our thoughts, prayers and gratitude to Her Royal Majesty Elizabeth II for 60 years of service that she has offered our nation as well as every nation that she leads. I hope that you will join me in saying "God Save The Queen". I hope that your Jubilee Weekend is full of happiness.




The picture is of the largest Union Jack ever, in pride of place at the top of Romford Market.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Budget Committee

This morning the Budget Committee met for the first time under its long standing Chairman John Biggs. We heard from the finance directors of the GLA, TfL, Met Police and LFEPA. Being a broad bruush meeting, debate was expected to cover a lot of ground in not much depth - but in the event there was even less depth than we had anticipated.


BUSINESS  RATES  RETENTION

We heard about government proposals to allow local authorities to retain half the business rates collected in their areas. Currently they collect the money but it all goes to the treasury. The new proposal is intended to encourage councils to find innovative ways to help business growth.

Where two tier authorities exist there needs to be a way to divide the proceeds of business growth. In the counties the district councils will keep 80% of the revenue and the counties will get 20%. However in London the GLA has greater responsibility for infrastructure than any county so a different split is being negotiated with London Councils. We felt that 60% to the boroughs and 40% to the GLA would be a fairer division of the new income stream.

Furthermore, some councils with large business bases will do disproportionately well - these include The City of London, Westminster and Hillingdon which hosts Heathrow Airport. So some redistribution would be necessary from these to 'top up' other councils' budgets - for example Lewisham and Bromley who have comparitively little business property in their boroughs.

For many years councils have been encouraged to develop employment sites for housing because they got to keep the council tax receipts. This modest reform will redress the balance somewhat, encouraging the development of more business facilities.


FUNCTIONAL  BODY  BUDGETS

It was too early for much in depth comment to be made on these, with the financial year barely begun and appointments to the new governing boards incomplete.

The police told us they had a budget 'gap of £148m, which was awaiting the appointment of the new Deputy Mayor Policing, due for confirmation on Thursday. Then there would be a pause during the Olympics before cuts could be made. The need for some closed police stations was questionned by new member Andrew Dismore. PCSO recruitment was expected to be completed in the autumn.

The Fire Authority had vired £30m to support the police budget in 2011/12, and they expected the money to be returned in the coming year. With the Board of LFEPA not yet appointed, the director would not be drawn on possible cuts.

Transport For London was in better shape owing to bouyant fares income. However this could all change if the economy declined - just a 1% drop in Tube ridership would cost £40m. Savings of £7.6 billion were being made with two thirds of these already implemented. New Deputy Chairman Stephen Knight suggested increasing prudential borrowing in order to reduce the revenue contribution to capital spend, and thus providing room to cut fares. Sephen Critchley from TfL was worried that this might damage TfL's credit rating.

So it was a wide roundup but with a lot of 'wait and see'. With the scene set, a challenging financial year stretches ahead...

Sunday, May 27, 2012

No U Turns Here


A lovely sunny afternoon in Redbridge, ideal conditions for meeting local councillors to see first hand the problems of U turns on the A12. There have been several serious accidents outside Newbury Park Station where foolish drivers ignore the warning signs and use the gap in the central reservation to turn 180 degrees into the opposite lane. I met Cllr Vanessa Cole and Cllr Ruth Clark, along with a photographer from the Ilford Recorder, and we caught pictures of several cars breaking the law in the ten minutes or so that we were present.

The most obvious solution is to close the gap but this would inconvenience law abiding drivers and prevent access to the station forecourt. It would also move the U turn problem down the road to the next junction. So some serious enforcement is required with heavy fines and licences revoked. This will require a police presence or permanent CCTV. I have already raised the issue with TfL and posed a question to the Mayor himself.

And motorists aren't the only ones running risks here. I photographed a group of three pedestrians running across the road - there's a well used and well lit subway right under their feet.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Transport Committee

This morning's Transport Committee featured a rather broad brush session with Peter Hendy and Isobel Dedring, now secure in her role of Deputy Mayor and Deputy Chairman of TfL, following a confident performance at yesterday's confirmation hearing.


LONDON  UNDERGROUND

With Tube problems once more in the headlines, the committee were anxious to test London Underground's readiness for the Olympics. The most important line will be the Jubilee and last night one of its trains failed in the Western section of the line. This was the result of a freak breakdown of its power unit and the backup as well. Attempts to use a second train to tow the first one clear came to nothing as that train became stuck as well! LU made the difficult decision to walk over 750 passengers along the tunnels to daylight.

Peter assured us that the passengers involved would receive refunds and that a repetition of this event was most unlikely during the Games. TfL has signed up to a 14 point plan aimed at reducing Tube delays by 30%. As well as better maintenance and investment the plan features innovative elements such as the blue light emergency response vehicles now driven by LU engineers. In future when passengers are taken ill on trains they will be moved more quickly so that the service can resume.

Despite continuing poor industrial relations it was some years since the Tube had suffered a complete shutdown. The recent Tubelines strikes had very little effect on passengers and staff had now returned to the negotiating table.


THE  BUDGET

Labour members were keen to prove the existence of the mythical 'surplus' that Ken planned to use to cut fares. Peter admitted that there were underspends on the capital projects but these were deferred costs rather than savings. For example Crossrail had experienced delays in aquiring some property, but it still needed to be bought so the underspend was temporary and couldn't be used to cut fares.

Darren Johnson suggested increasing the congestion charge to provide an income stream but other members were not enthusiastic.

TfL were making a strong case for Government funding for Crossrail 2, based on the need to boost the economy with vital infrastructure projects. High Speed 2 would - after its extension to Leeds - ultimately double the number of passengers at Euston Station and with the Northern and Victoria Lines already crowded, Crossrail 2 and a new Euston Station would be the only way to accommodate demand. It was envisaged that Crossrail 2 and High Speed 2 north of Birmingham would be under construction at the same time but Crossrail 1 would be complete by then so the capital could bear the disruption.


TICKETS  PLEASE

The delay to the introduction of wave and pay contactless ticketing had been caused by problems on the buses. The project would be paused for the Games then work would restart with the aim of introducing wave and pay before the end of the year.

I asked about extending the successful Oyster Card to cover rail services outside London. The Department for Transport are not keen, preferring to develop their own ITSO card. ITSO has been in development for years now and it is still more of a concept than a reality. It is used solely for Freedom Passes on Scottish bus services, which isn't much use for London commuters...

The committee were very supportive of TfL's bid to take control of suburban main line services. The improvements to London Overground demonstrated what TfL could achieve by prioritising inner city metro services, with manned stations, improved environments and new rolling stock. However politicians outside London were not convinced and worried that their constituents would suffer worse services as more trains were made to stop for stations within Greater London.


BUSES

Peter said that the Mayor's pledge to bring in 600 of the new buses by 2016 was achievable. The pilot running on route 38 had proved to be very popular with almost every passenger. The exception was Jennette Arnold who hated it and no doubt missed her favourite bendy bus.

She made a good point however about the role of the conductor. Obviously he was needed to secure the open rear platform but Jennette also felt he should intervene to ensure that passengers folded buggies and left space for wheelchairs and older users. Peter agreed, indeed there is a role for bus drivers here too - performed brilliantly  by some but not at all by others.


ROADS

With 80% of journeys using the road network, TfL were implementing a much needed 'congestion busting' plan. The committee awaits the results eagerly...

We also plan to review the operation of the new 'Cabbie Cabinet' as well as progress on the East London river crossings, particularly the new Greenwich to Silvertown Tunnel. More detailed sessions will be held with expert witnesses but this was a good broad brush start to the new term.

Mayor's Question Time

Yesterday saw the first MQT since the elections. Labour now dominate the Assembly with twelve members but the Conservative group remains a respectable size at nine - the election was far from the rout that some commentators expected. The real losers were the small parties who were once again squeezed between the two big players and there are only two Lib Dems now along with two Greens. The growth of the Labour Group has forced the remaining Libs around the horseshoe onto the Conservative side and they look distinctly uncomfortable - no coalitionism here.


GO  DUTCH

Questions started where they left off, on cycle safety. Both the Libs and the Greens are pushing a campaign called 'Go Dutch' which seeks to replicate Holland in London with respect to cycle safety. It is a noble cause but fails to allow for the conditions in our capital city - one might as well promote a 'Go Vegas' campaign to increase tourism or a 'Go Littlehampton' campaign to cut crime and pollution. For the Greens in particular this is their way of opposing plans to smooth traffic flow and cut congestion, which they consider to be incompatible with cycle safety.

Boris assured us that he was working to improve safety at key junctions. Keen cyclist and new Conservative Group Leader Andrew Boff risked opprobrium by suggesting that if cyclists obeyed the Highway Code there would be many fewer accidents. On his ride to work he feels that he is the only cyclist to stop at the red lights. Some tougher enforcement action would improve safety and save lives.


CROSSRAIL

Val Shawcross, who narrowly missed becoming Ken's Deputy Mayor, is back at transport and she asked a good open question about TfL's business plan. The good thing about open questions is that they allow supplementaries to range quite widely. I took advantage of the opportunity to seek a meeting with Boris to review Crossrail's plans in Havering & Redbridge.

During the promotional phase of Crossrail we were treated to artist's impressions of glittering new stations - a cornucopia of Tie Racks and Sock Shops. The reality is different, and a sad let down. At Romford disabled access is being improved but the new station looks very cramped, as Network Rail have increased the back office space at the expense of the ticket hall and existing retail units. At the start of the month passengers queue out of the entrance and down South Street to purchase tickets and whilst developments with Oyster will reduce demand for tickets to London, they will do nothing for travellers heading out of town who will still have to join the line.

Furthermore there are no plans to link the station to the nearby bus terminus on the south side of the station. Instead a new entrance will debouch on the north side into an alleyway known as The Battis, an area currently dominated by recycling bins and parked vans. An opportunity to regenerate this run down part of Romford is in danger of being lost because of Network Rail's penny pinching.

Boris agreed to a meeting, so that was 'mission accomplished' and we moved on.


NEW  BUSES

I asked Boris about plans to roll out the new look 'Routemaster' and he stated that the budget exists to bring 600 of these fine vehicles into service. New technology will make this the cleanest bus yet, improving air quality and cutting CO2 emissions - air quality in London has been getting better, although you would never know it from the hot air that has been issuing from the Labour and Green Groups.

The bus would also save money by cutting fuel consumption and of course, reducing fare evasion. Boris couldn't confirm which route would be the first to run the new buses in my constituency, but they will be getting an enthusiastic reception when they arrive - unlike the defunct bendy bus who's fan club maintained a sullen silence across the horseshoe...


HEATHROW

In a response to a question from Tony Arbour, Boris maintained his opposition to plans for a Third Runway at Heathrow. He was surprised to learn that the Lib Dems in Richmond have been claiming that we support such plans. Tony urged the Mayor to resist the temptation to 'Love Bomb' the Assembly Lib Dems - given their dwindling size precision bombing would be required...


MUNICH

New Member Andrew Dismore pressed the case for a memorial to the Israeli athletes and coaching staff who were murdered by Palestinian terrorists 40 years ago.

The cross party campaign for recognition of this tragic episode has involved Cllr Linda Kelly of Hackney who promoted a plaque to be unveiled in the borough in July. There will also be a commemoration hosted by The Guildhall. However the IOC - with characteristic small mindedness - have rejected the call for a minute's silence during the games themselves.

Andrew and I hope the IOC will change their minds and allow a commemoration of a tragedy that is uniquely a part of their history.


NEW  MEMBERS

There are five new Members following the election. Andrew Dismore, Onkar Sahota, Tom Copley and Stephen Knight all asked their maiden questions at this meeting leaving only Labour's Fiona Twycross to make her mark. They all looked quite promising so it will be interesting to see how the new Assembly develops over its term of office. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tamil Remembrance Vigil

On Saturday evening I joined local MP Lee Scott and Deputy Mayor Victoria Borwick in Trafalgar Square for a gathering to remember the Tamil people who were the victims of ethnic cleansing in northern Sri Lanka. I attended last year and there was a large crowd despite the rain - yesterday the crowd was if anything even larger.

The Tamils pledged to return to the square every year and to campaign for an independent international investigation of the atrocities perpetrated against civilians by Sri Lankan government forces. Without that independent element any investigation will inevitably be seen as a whitewash.

Sharing a stage with Simon Hughes and human rights lawyers is an unusual experience for me but my visit to Srebrenica in 2009 - which I blogged about at the time - left me convinced that it is vital to uphold international law and bring war criminals to justice, wherever they are and however long it takes. Just last week former General Ratko Mladic went on trial for the massacre committed at Srebrenica.

Victoria delivered a message of support from Boris Johnson which also thanked the Tamils for their contribution to London's culture and economy.

We all hope that those responsible for flagrantly abusing human rights in Sri Lanka will soon be brought to justice.