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.


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.


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...


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.


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.


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!


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.