Sunday, December 06, 2009

Barkingside Councillors Go Online

The spread of internet campaigning continues, and the most recent team to go online are the Conservative Action Team for Barkingside. You can catch up with Cllr Keith Prince, Cllr Ashley Kissin and Mrs Tania Solomon at http://www.barkingsideaction.com/ .

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Boris in Ilford

This morning Boris visited Ilford Fire Station to switch on the new solar panels which are set to provide a large part of the power the station needs.


GLA Leads The Way

The station's energy overhaul has enabled it to save over 40% of its carbon emissions. A further nine fire stations, ten police stations and 22 TfL buildings have made changes allowing them to save on average 27% of their carbon emissions - and even more importantly, over one million pounds from the public sector fuel bill. Another 58 buildings are scheduled for modification but unfortunately many of the older fire and police stations do not lend themselves to the programme. Eight percent of London's emissions come from public buildings so there is considerable scope to make further savings. The NHS has expressed an interest in adopting the LDA led project for their buildings.

And of course saving fuel saves money...


Ilford High Road

On the walk back to the station the Mayor was joined by local councillors and Toby Boutle, the Conservative candidate for Ilford South. The reception from locals was overwhelmingly positive, belying Labour claims that 'the honeymoon is over'.

Boris visited several small businesses and was pleased to hear that in their experience, customer numbers were rising despite Labour's recession. The London economy has been more robust than the national position and it is good to see that the effect has spread to outer London as well as the centre.

The Mayor also encountered a group from the Aldborough Hatch Defence Association, protesting about the abandonment of lift works at Newbury Park. TfL have left the Central Line station in a terrible mess and just at a time when passenger numbers are rising due to the regular weekend closures of the main line to Liverpool Street. we have transport questions next week and I will be seeking some answers from Boris...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fire Trends - and Boats

The Fire Authority's Performance Management and Community Safety Panel met yesterday afternoon. Interesting reports concerning trends and risks often get an airing here. There were a couple of 'burning issues' this time:


Weather and Risk

Some of this seems like common sense, but extreme weather conditions do lead to a rise in incidents for the brigade to attend:

Extreme cold causes frozen pipes to burst or overflow, leading to an increase of flooding incidents.

High temperatures can cause lifts to break down, leading to a larger number of calls to people trapped in lifts.

Hot, dry periods lead to an increase in open land fires, particularly a problem in outer London.

Strong winds, most often experienced in the autumn, lead to more calls to make safe damaged buildings and structures.

Storms with heavy rainfall cause unpredictable cases of localised flooding, usually as a result of inadequate drainage.

And of course some occasions and events cause a peak in call outs. The most obvious is bonfire night, and where this falls in the middle of the week - like this year - the incidents occur on adjacent Saturday nights as well.


Fireboats

The Brigade operates two fireboats from a floating fire station at Lambeth. The boats are slower than those used by other emergency services but they have fire fighting pumps and a shallow hull which allows them to operate right up to the river bank. They work closely with the police, RNLI and Port of London Authority rescue boats.

Last year the fireboats attended 49 fires and 53 false alarms but the majority of their work - 164 callouts - was classified as 'special services', in effect rescues which don't involve fires. Special services include sinking or drifting boats, cars in the river, people falling in the river or trapped in the tidal mud, people threatening to jump from bridges and - sadly - the retrieval of bodies from the water.

At one time the fireboats had to deal with industrial and warehouse fires but with the transformation of the river banks and the growth of residential properties, the fire threat has receded. Most of the new properties are accessible by land and fire engines can often reach them more swiftly than the boats.

Nevertheless, the fireboats and their crews still play an essential part in keeping the Thames safe.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ambush at the Academy

Over a thousand people attended last nights Question Time, the third such experience for Boris Johnson and assembly Members elected in 2008.

The venue was the O2 Academy in Brixton, more often the scene of concerts and sell out music performances. The room was so large that it was difficult to see people at the back and the acoustics on stage were truly awful. We were reduced to lip reading colleagues on the large screen as we certainly couldn't hear what they were saying.

Local Member Val Shawcross did a good job of chairing a session that became unruly at times, although it wasn't as disorderly as the last session in Bethnal Green. A large contingent of 'Save the South London Line' protestors turned up, some wearing campaign T shirts, and Val can perhaps be forgiven for squeezing every last drop of publicity out of their attendance, calling transport chairman Caroline Pidgeon to lay into the mayor over his 'lack of action'.

The tenants of Offley Works also made a return, demanding public money to keep their dance studio open. James Cleverly made an effort to explain the LDA's position and the limits on the budget, but the hecklers demonstrated that they weren't really interested in the answer. At Bethnal Green some members thought the Offley people were admirably feisty but their behaviour last night probably did their case more harm than good.


Policing

In response to a question about his recent crime fighting episode, Boris supported Londoners stepping in to prevent crime - using their judgement and proportionate force of course - and he hoped that the police would support public spirited individuals. Policing supremo, Kit Malthouse was nodding during these comments, which is a good sign.

The claim by female MPs that public transport is too dangerous for them to use at night was also given short shrift. Many other female - and male - workers commute late at night and they don't require a second home in town. Public transport is relatively safe but it is the walk home from the station or bus stop where danger is greatest.

The mayor reassured Londoners that recent comparisons with 'The Wire' were groundless. London's murder rate is less than a tenth of the rate in Baltimore where the popular TV series is based.

In response to the question 'Should police take more action against drug dealers?' the audience voted 82% in favour and 18% against. A surprisingly high number turning down a reasonable proposition. The borough commander was present and hopefully he has taken note.


Transport

The South London Line campaigners made their presence felt at this point and there were also complaints about the fare rises. Val obligingly cued up Assembly Members from the three opposition parties to attack the mayor in succession. The myth that the fare gap could be plugged by retaining the congestion charge Western Extension and emissions based vehicle charging had clearly gained traction.

Cyclists also raised questions about safety on the roads. One poor girl had been run over by a dustcart, another had been hit by a bus. Boris encouraged cyclists to stop in front of vehicles at junctions, where they could be seen, rather than tucking themselves away in the left hand gutter. The first girl said she was lucky to be alive and would not be cycling in London again, and I can't blame her.

Val's question concluding this section was 'Do you support the removal of the Western Extension?' to which 66% responded 'no' and 34% said 'yes'. As the WEZ doesn't cover Brixton, all this really demonstrated was that people support taxes as long as someone else is paying them - twelve years of New Labour were based on that premise.


Environment

This section of the meeting was hijacked by the Offley Works protestors so the environment didn't get much of an outing at Brixton. Val concluded with the question 'Should the mayor impose housing targets on London boroughs?' to which 76% said 'yes' and 24% said 'no'. I suspect the answer would have been very different in Havering or Redbridge.


Olympics

Several people suggested that the Olympics was a waste of money and with even Tessa Jowell claiming that the bid looked less attractive once the recession had bitten, this view is gaining ground. Having won the bid it's a bit difficult to renege on it now so we are faced with soldiering on towards the fateful 2012 deadline, whilst trying to rally enthusiasm during tough times. Labour have spotted a potential source of disaffection and Val highlighted it by asking 'Should there be discount tickets for Londoners?' with 79% agreeing and 21% in disagreement.

The meeting tailed off with several general questions but people were already leaving the hall. At the end some of the audience formed a scrum to meet Boris who still retains his media star popularity. The honeymoon is over, particularly amongst public sector opinion formers, but a lot of voters warm to the mayor personally and feel he is doing a good job in trying circumstances.

The Members also got to speak to some of the audience. One smiling man shook me by the hand 'Thank you for all your support, you're doing a great job Mr Biggs.'...

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Spotlight on Heathrow

This morning the Environment Committee took evidence from experts on the controversial Heathrow third runway proposal. In the green corner were Cllr Barbara Reid representing the M2 group of councils and John Stewart from HACAN. In the commercial corner were BAAs directors of corporate responsibility and airport communications.


Noise

Noise was the main concern for members. The government use 2002 as the baseline year for measuring trends but as this was the last year of Concorde's operation there is concern that successive years do not compare fairly. Concorde was a very noisy aircraft, with an effect equal to 120 Boeing 757s, so measuring against 2002 leaves room for more flights without compromising the headline downward trend.

Use of the 57 decibel contour was also challenged as this defined an area which didn't include Putney and Fulham - places where aircraft noise levels generate many complaints. Less than 300,000 people fall within the contour but HACAN estimate that more than twice that number are affected.

BAA highlighted the phasing out of noisy, polluting planes, including Concorde, which would ensure less noise pollution in future.


Air Quality

Witnesses from the Environment Agency admitted that the 2010 air quality targets for the UK would be failed, resulting in large fines for the Government. BAA explained the measures they were taking to reduce pollution.

At Heathrow much of the pollution comes from vehicles taking passengers and workers to the airport. BAA were working to encourage green vehicles within the airport perimeter and had measures in place to encourage public transport use. 41% of journeys to the airport used public transport and this was one of the highest figures in Europe. The committee were still concerned that more could be done and suggested lowering the Heathrow Express fares to encourage more passengers. BAA were also investing in Crossrail and funding the Heathrow Express.

Pollution from aircraft would reduce with the arrival of cleaner and more efficient engines.


Global Impact

John Stewart reassured us that he was not opposed to the airport but that he wanted to see short haul flights phased out and replaced by high speed rail. This would create capacity for the existing runways to accommodate more long haul flights without expanding overall capacity.

However two thirds of emissions come from long haul flights and an increase in these might actually create more pollution. Furthermore, reducing capacity at the Heathrow hub might just encourage passengers to use the airports at Paris or Amsterdam instead. This would harm London's economy without mitigating damage to the environment.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Peoples' Question Time


The next PQT featuring the Mayor and Assembly Members will take place in Brixton on Monday evening. The venue is the O2 Academy, 211 Stockwell Road, SW9 9SL. This meeting gives the public an opportunity to put questions to Boris Johnson and members of the Assembly.

The session will start at 7.00pm (doors open 6.00pm) and end at 9.00pm. It will be chaired by Val Shawcross, the Labour Assembly Member for Lambeth and Southwark.

Full details are available online at http://www.london.gov.uk/ or alternatively the event can be heard on LBC - http://www.lbc.co.uk/ .

This promises to be a lively night, if it is anything like the Bethnal Green meeting earlier this year. I will provide a write up from my own perspective after the event...

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Justice Seen to be Done

Filling in at the budget monitoring sub committee this morning. We took evidence from the police and fire services, reviewing their first quarter financial management.

The police were represented by Paul James from their finance team who told us that there had been two events that proved to be an unexpected drain on the police budget. The first was the Tamil demonstration outside Parliament which would be funded from reserves. The second was the G20 demonstration in the City of London. Reimbursement of over £3 million was being sought from the Home Office to cover the cost of diplomatic protection and security for the summit.

Savings were also anticipated, in particular from the introduction of virtual courts.

The pilot scheme sees 15 police stations across South London connected to Camberwell Green Magistrate's Court so that hearings can take place remotely, saving the cost of ferrying the suspects to court in a police van. Whilst most cases could be dealt with this way the pilot is focussed on the initial hearings that precede full trials. Potentially the time from charging a suspect to a court appearance can be reduced to three hours, cutting through the backlog of cases and saving court time.

Justice is done and seen to be done. There is even the theoretical possibility of making the on line exchanges publicly available although this would require primary legislation and the Met wisely refused to be drawn into this debate.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Cleaning The Air


On Thursday afternoon the Environment Committee took evidence on the mayor's draft Air Quality Strategy. The main witness was Environment Adviser Isabel Dedring who is well liked and respected across the political spectrum at City Hall. Inevitably the discussion focused on the Low Emission Zone and plans to clean up diesel vehicles in the capital.



Where?


Although the Low Emission Zone covers the whole of the Greater London Area - give or take some unusual boundary quirks - the main problem is in the centre of town. There are pollution hotspots at major road junctions - Tower Hill, Marble Arch, Euston Road, Trafalgar Square and all along the Victoria Embankment. Heathrow Airport clearly shows up on the pollution map, but strangely there is no corresponding hotspot at London City Airport, although an increase in the number of jets may create one in future.


Against this evidence, I expressed surprise that successive additions to the LEZ restrictions would apply in outer London. Harefield, Enfield, Bromley and Havering all register the lowest levels of air pollution, yet owners of agricultural vehicles, motorised horse boxes and mini buses will all have to make expensive alterations to their vehicles, or even replace them, although those vehicles never go near the polluted areas. This seems unfair and - not surprisingly - I'm getting complaints from residents.



Particulates


Also known as PM10 emissions, these form a fine micro dust in the air we breathe and can irritate the lungs, particularly affecting asthma sufferers. The top three sources of PM10s in London are:


Black Taxi exhausts

Light goods vehicle exhausts

Tyre and brake wear from private cars


The move from petrol to diesel - encouraged by fuel prices and tax incentives - has led to more particulates whilst reducing carbon dioxide emissions. As particulates are more harmful than CO2 the tax regime looks perverse in large cities like London.


The strategy targets goods vehicles and black cabs but Isabel admitted that the particulate traps fitted to cabs had been less effective than predicted in many cases. I remember this being a hotly contested issue a couple of years ago when I raised cabbies' concerns with Livingstone. The Public Carriage Office did some tests which proved the modifications worked, Livingstone accused me of stirring up trouble and the whole thing was forgotten. It seems that there was a problem after all...



Nitrogen Oxides


The main polluter is nitrogen dioxide, a brown gas which is poisonous and has greater global warming effects than carbon dioxide, but the definition also includes nitrous oxide which is unstable and converts to nitrogen dioxide over time by combining with naturally occurring oxygen.


The three biggest polluters in London are:


Domestic gas boilers

Heavy goods vehicle exhausts

Private car exhausts


The new particulate traps being introduced for buses and HGVs also aim to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions.


The domestic boilers are a different problem, requiring planning law changes and retrofits. Decentralised power generation - meaning small power plants closer to homes - also has the potential to increase nitrogen oxide pollution. It is acknowledged that biomass boilers, which are included in many environmentally friendly developments, are more polluting than gas. When it comes to saving the world and cleaning London's air there are no easy choices and some of the solutions are contradictory.

Friday, October 23, 2009

BNP On Question Time

I watched Nick Griffin on Question Time last night, no doubt along with many others who had tuned in to see what the fuss was about.

Of the other four panellists I was most impressed with Bonnie Greer and Sayeeda Warsi. I hadn't seen Bonnie before and I thought she demonstrated a depth of knowledge and good sense on some historical matters, and she maintained her good humour despite having to sit next to Griffin - I assume the three politicians refused to do so. I was with Sayeeda in Bosnia and she is one tough cookie, as she demonstrated on the show, giving better than she got. Her condemnation of the government for creating the ideal environment for the BNP to grow was particularly telling and I was impressed by her strong defence of moderate Islam. We could do with seeing more Muslims like Sayeeda on television and fewer of the extremists who often attract coverage.

Chris Huhne was also good - worryingly so for Clegg, I imagine - although he was not credible when he was asked what the Lib Dems would do about immigration from within Europe. Jack Straw struggled to defend the government's record on immigration and community cohesion. The government minister is usually the hate figure for the audience, for once this was not the case, but he still came across as strident at times.

Griffin was clearly revelling in his most hated man in Britain status, playing up to some of the BNP stereotypes. He had difficulty justifying his previous quotes - not surprisingly - and went off into loopy conspiracy theory territory on a couple of occasions.

Many of the audience also came out of this well. They were decent people with real questions, not the shouty counter demonstration that they could easily have been. I was particularly taken with an articulate asian man who defended his love for Britain and asked where the BNP proposed to deport him to. Our country - and particularly our city - needs good, committed people like this and the colour of their skin or their religious beliefs should be irrelevant.

I was very disappointed that most of the session focused on the BNP, with Griffin's personal history debated repeatedly as if it was the most important news of the day. Outside the bubble of the studio we have a postal strike, a conflict in Afghanistan and an expenses scandal, yet the only non BNP discussion related to Anne Moir's article about Stephen Gately and the panellists swiftly drifted back to the subject of.... the BNP.

BBC News stated that, as the beneficiary of a significant vote - Griffin was entitled to occasional appearances on Question Time, which suggests that they might invite him back. If this does happen, I hope the debate will range more widely than it did this time. The BNP are comfortable talking about themselves but when they are asked to comment on the big political issues their inadequacy shines through...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Redbridge Transport Liaison Committee


The committee met last night at Ilford Town Hall. Cllr Ashley Kissin was elected chairman and ran an efficient meeting, helped on this occasion by a lack of public contributions.


Forest Road

Aldborough Cllrs Loraine Sladden and Vanessa Cole turned up to make the case for a new bus route along Forest Road. The Central Line bridge precludes the use of double deckers so the choice of services that could be diverted or extended is limited. Representatives from London Buses doubt that there is sufficient demand on the basis of the low number of residents in Forest Road, but this is not the full story.

Forest Road has seen an increase in the number and quality of attractions along its length. Most notably, Boris Johnson recently opened the new cycling track at Hog Hill. Obviously most users will be able to cycle to this venue but the track is quite demanding - I can attest to this personally - with steep gradients, so visitors need to conserve their energy. The Mayor also allocated £400,000 to improve Fairlop Waters earlier this year and the facilities at Hainault Forest have also been upgraded. Add to those the desire to reduce car use by workers at the Hainault industrial estate and there might well be sufficient demand for a low frequency service.


King Georges Hospital

Concerns were expressed about the adequacy of bus services to Redbridge's main hospital. In particular the 365 which runs from Ilford via Gants Hill is often overcrowded in the morning, a situation made worse by demand for travel to Redbridge College. Councillors were very worried that the NHS proposal to focus GP services on just four polyclinics would increase the load on the hospital yet further. London Buses assured us that they are now talking to the NHS about the routes they will need to introduce - better late than never...


462 Bus

I raised concerns about this route running early. London Buses state that their services may run up to two minutes early and up to five minutes late and still be considered on time. The vehicles are tracked using ibus technology and held at stops to regulate the service. They can't wait too long because a bus occupying a stop for more than three minutes is deemed to have parked and can be issues with a ticket - you learn something new at every meeting. Early running had exceeded two minutes on several occasions and Arrive had disciplined two drivers for this.


Gants Hill

The good news is that following an agreement enabling the water companies to work alongside TfL's contractors, the project is back on target and due to complete according to the original timetable in late 2010. In November 2009 the work on the island will be complete and two lanes will be reinstated on the roundabout. Restrictions will then apply at each exit in turn as the contractors work their way clockwise, installing crossings and signals.

I met with local businesses on Wednesday night and it is clear that the disruption is threatening the existence of some shops. TfL undertook to do everything they could to minimise the impact.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pictures!


They are back!


Several months ago my computer caught a virus from Facebook which wiped out all the hard disk, including my photo library. Today I spent some time retrieving the best pictures and retrospectively illustrating some of the recent pieces.


Enjoy!

Friday, October 16, 2009

End of the Road?


Rumours have been kicking around for several days concerning supposed secret conservative plans to abolish the London Assembly and replace it with a committee of London borough leaders. The proposal originated with Conservative Thinkers - although you don't need to be much of a thinker to recycle a policy that was first mooted a decade ago - and has been 'exposed' by Tribune magazine. The Evening Standard covers it today and it is being debated over at Tory Troll and on Conservative Home, with fairly predictable comments in both places.

Support has been expressed by Hammersmith & Fulham leader Stephen Greenhalgh, who I suspect would do a fine job of scrutiny as part of a leaders' committee. Other council leaders may not have the time, indeed some struggle to control and reform their own backyards.

My colleague Andrew Boff has also expressed some support for the idea. This may seem strange but it is understandable in the light of the strategy of the Labour, Liberal and Green parties to deny the eleven strong Conservative group a proportional share of committee chairs. I can well understand some members seeing little point in an organisation that limits their participation.

I don't support abolition but I do think reform is essential in a number of areas:


Powers

The Act that set up London government created a strong mayor and a relatively weak assembly. Subsequently, the mayor's powers have been increased but the assembly remains the same, so here are three suggestions:

1. At present the budget can be passed by only a third of the assembly voting in favour. Not surprisingly, it has never been rejected or amended in nine years. Raise the bar by requiring an absolute majority.

2. There is currently no democratic check on the mayor's strategies. The London Plan, Transport Plan and Economic Development Strategy should all require approval by a majority of the assembly.

3. Members are required to sit on the police and fire authority boards, may take part in the LDA board and are prohibited from serving on the board of TfL. This confusing fudge should be swept away with members appointed to all the functional body boards in proportion to the size of their political groups.


Democratic Deficit

The combined first past the post and party list election ensures that the assembly is always hung. As a practical result the third party Liberal Democrats get to decide who chairs the committees, treating the public vote as merely a consultation. This leads to weak 'me too' government.

The list element should be discarded and the existing large constituencies halved in size. The result would be a 28 member body with enough members to serve on the functional bodies and clear political control.

Presently the assembly is elected on the same day as the mayor, making it very likely that the mayor's party will dominate the assembly. The elections should be staggered to allow for a mid term assembly vote which could potentially give the opposition a much stronger hand.


Managerialism

Over the last twelve years politicians at all levels have lost a lot of their power, and the current expenses scandal threatens to dilute their influence still further. Constituents wonder why MPs can't prevent hospital closures, councillors can't vote on bus lanes and assembly members can't make the buses run on time. The reason is that many of these powers have been devolved to professional officers - well meaning people who act in line with standards set by their national bodies and strategic plans that bury proposals in turgid detail. Often we are told we can't do things because of health and safety or judicial constraints. Expression of opinions is confined by the threat of the standards regime.

Across the board these restrictions need to be rolled back. The people should be in charge and their elected representatives need to be empowered, not controlled and restricted.


The Record

Notwithstanding its relative impotence, the assembly has produced some good work over the years, but it has been like playing Scrabble without the vowels. The 7/7 review chaired by Richard Barnes provided the only opportunity for a public examination of that terrorist atrocity, given the government's reluctance to hold an inquiry.

The transport committee reports on the collapse of Metronet and the value of bus contracts must have been high quality because Commons select committees incorporated them into their own findings. We were questioning Boris about the heavy snow disruption weeks before his spat with the Commons. My own flooding review from 2002 is still quoted whenever there is heavy rainfall.

But we missed some opportunities too. The failure to scrutinise PPP during the first term left the assembly scrambling to catch up as the complicated structure collapsed under its own weight several years later.

There have been high and low points but with proper reform the assembly could be so much better.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Manchester Conference

Back in the office, I have a few moments to reflect on last week's Conservative Party Conference. I first attended conference in 1989 at Blackpool. Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister and I was a candidate for the local council, selected for a winnable seat at the age of 25 and despite having only joined the party three months earlier. A gang of us from Chingford stayed in a friendly but basic guest house and across the road was a property where scantily clad ladies leaned out of the windows beckoning to us when we returned in the evenings. I didn't have a clue what they were offering...

I spent every day in the conference hall and we all applauded dutifully during each speech. I recall my palms throbbing red raw after a session featuring John Gummer talking about agriculture.

Fast forward to 2009...


Manchester

After Birmingham last year - which was fantastic - I was looking forward to Manchester. I prefer big city conferences with smart hotels and restaurants. You need to walk with confidence, to be noticed, and this is much easier if you know you have a decent base to operate from. You can also decline the rip off breakfast charges and go to Starbucks instead.

I really wanted to like Manchester, not least because I was born in Rochdale so this was something of a home coming. The architecture is really impressive, with a lot of big old buildings dating from the age of industrial prosperity. The Town Hall is something else, an exotic fairytale castle planted right in the heart of the city. They directed the nineties drama 'GBH' here and the building also featured as the House of Commons before filming inside Parliament was permitted. In the seventies the big projects continued, with Piccadilly Square and the Arndale Centre making a questionable impression. Most recently there has been a glut of shiny residential blocks and hotels with the Beetham Tower most prominent.

A wander around town on Sunday evening revealed a young and fun loving population. It wasn't as cosmopolitan as London and some of the rowdy behaviour around the clubs reminded me of Romford on a Friday night. And I had forgotten the rain - it came down in sheets throughout Tuesday, imprisoning me in the hotel bar. I must take an umbrella next time.


The Greatest Show on Earth

Well, the greatest political show for some time at any rate. This year a lot more people attended. The exhibition hall was packed with stands and there was a food market featuring Tesco, Asda and M&S all actually selling things and expecting - shock, horror - to make a profit. Harvey Nicks made an appearance, operating a cocktail bar just outside the conference hall, although champagne was - according to the press - forbidden.

Many more companies, charities and pressure groups were represented, all wanting to meet the people they think could be running the country soon. The Midland Hotel has a large lobby but the seating proved inadequate to support all the impromptu meetings and more tables had to be drafted in on Monday morning. I arrived too late to reserve a place and conducted my own meeting with the chairman of Crossrail standing up in a remote corner. Later I encountered the 2012 gang who stuck an Olympic logo pin in my lapel.

But I was relatively undisturbed. Some candidates for winnable seats reported meeting requests from 200 or more lobbyists, often completely unrelated to their interests or expertise. The assembly had this to a lesser extent a few years ago so now I always ask the lobbyist to prepare an agenda before we meet - this request for a small piece of work ensures that ninety percent take their business elsewhere and I only see relevant people.

It was all a far cry from recent conferences which were shunned by business interests and saw members talking to themselves. I'm in two minds about the situation, really. Yes, we are being taken seriously, but it also feels like the activists have lost something. In 1997 we were in mourning at Blackpool, but we also felt closer to the leadership and the audience were even invited onto the stage on the last day. Not much chance of that now.


The Fringe

We ran our own fringe meeting on Wednesday evening, kindly sponsored by Canary Wharf. It took place outside the security cordon in the Lord Mayor's Parlour, which was something else - a huge room in which you could lose the City Hall chamber, hung with full length portraits of the early Lord Mayors. I doubt we will ever see similar pictures of our own Ken and Boris, displayed for future generations. It took eight years for the GLA to get a portrait of the Queen...

Following last year's successful speed dating event, when 200 people queued out of the door to meet AMs, we decided to follow the same format. Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home was our special guest and MEP Syed Kamall made a surprise appearance. Six Assembly Members made it to the event and activists were delighted to meet James Cleverly, Richard Tracey, Victoria Borwick, Andrew Boff and Tony Arbour. Shadow minister Andrew Rosindell also dropped in.

The discussion was lively and wide ranging, including bendy bus replacement, police station closures, cost cutting at City Hall, and of course members' pay. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of positive initiatives that were suggested and the interest shown by people not just from London, but from across the country. We will repeat the speed dating format next year so book early...

Friday, October 02, 2009

'Speed Dating' at Conference


Following the success of our Speed Dating reception at Birmingham last year, where over 200 people queued up to meet London assembly personalities and the blogger Guido Fawkes, I am pleased to announce that we will be hosting another session next week in Manchester.

This time our special guest is Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home, and of course members of the London assembly will also be present.

We are meeting in the Mayor's Parlour at Manchester Town Hall - moving up in the world this year - at 5:30pm on Wednesday 7th October. No need to reserve places, but the event was busy last year, so please turn up on time.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Havering Business Awards

On Friday night I attended the Havering Business Awards dinner with guests from the Fire Authority. We had been nominated for one of the prizes but it was far from a done deal - two years ago we reached the final but did not win.

However this time the efforts of the team were rewarded. The Fire authority won the Sustainable Design and Construction Award for the new fire station currently under construction at Harold Hill. This is the first fire station to be built in London for twelve years, which is in itself a cause for celebration. The building is designed to minimise its carbon footprint, making efficient use of energy and water. It can also be adapted to house more fire engines if necessary or altered for other uses. So congratulations to Barbara Riddell and her LFEPA team.

But that wasn't the end as the contractor who is building the station, Lakehouse Contracts Ltd, walked away with the Business and Education Partnership Award for its work with the further education college. More of their projects can be seen at www.lakehouse.uk.com .They then topped off the evening by winning the overall Havering Business of the Year Award.

A great night for a great team...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Congestion Charge Extension Will Be Scrapped


Today the Evening Standard carries a story claiming that Boris will renege on his election promise to scrap the Western Extension of the Congestion Charge Zone. The piece looks to be based on rumours that have been circulating in the blogosphere for a few days and a rather selective take on a quote from Transport Advisor, Kulveer Ranger.

The phones and emails are buzzing over this, and Boris has issued the following statement:

You may have heard the scurrilous rumour that I have reneged on my promise to remove the Western Extension of the Congestion Charge Zone. I am writing now to tell you that is emphatically not true.

When I was elected, I promised to give Londoners the consultation they never got. Londoners expressed the overwhelming view that it should be removed, and I promised to honour that judgement. I maintain that promise today, and to make it absolutely crystal clear: we will be removing the Western Extension next year.

We have to jump through a number of tedious bureaucratic hoops before the axe can fall, but fall it will. The extended zone will be no more. It will be an ex-zone, the area formally known as. It will be a dead zone!

So there we have it, from the Mayor's own mouth and in his own - unique - words.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Zil Lanes Criticised

A memorable feature of the Soviet Union was the exclusive 'Zil Lane', reserved for communist VIPs to be swept past the traffic jams in their limousines. London will have its own version of Zil lanes in 2012 thanks to the Olympic Route Network, providing a fast link between the five star hotels of the West End and the main venues at Stratford and Greenwich. Roads which will have reserved lanes include the Embankment and the Blackwall Tunnel.

We have raised concerns about the proposed network of exclusive lanes in the past, but today news of more criticisms emerged - courtesy of the BBC. It appears that the police and the ambulance service have both expressed concerns about the effect on response times, indeed I recall the last time the proposal was discussed there was some doubt if even the emergency services will be allowed to use the reserved lanes.

The exclusive network was one of the conditions imposed on London before the games were awarded to us. Lanes will be available for competitors naturally and Olympic officials, but other VIPs and journalists will also benefit - no squeezing onto public transport for them...

The Olympics organisers are due to appear before the Assembly for questions in a few weeks and it's a sure bet that the Olympic Route Network will feature high on the agenda.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

London Isn't Burning

Yesterday the Fire Authority received a document reviewing the long term fire trends for Greater London. Bringing together data from the creation of Greater London in 1965 to the present day, the report paints a fascinating picture of how the capital has changed over almost half a century.


Population

In 1966 Greater London's population was around 7.8 million, having declined from some 8.6 million in 1939, at the outbreak of the war. Numbers continued to decline, reaching 6.7 million in 1988 - a year after I moved here - but then started to climb, achieving 7.5 million in 2007. The idea that London is more populous than at any time in its history is therefore incorrect, however there are other social trends which arguably have a greater impact.

The number of households - unlike the population - has steadily increased over the same period from 2.2 million in 1966 to 3.1 million in 2008, driving the demand for development and urbanisation. Behind these figures are large numbers of single parent families and people who live alone. I have always thought there was scope for someone to lobby on behalf of single Londoners, and these figures demonstrate the growth of this important group.


Fires

In 1976 the number of fires peaked at 63,524, declining to just 29,735 at the end of 2008 - the lowest total since 1965. The number of fires per year has fallen steadily since 2003. Fire deaths in 2008 (46) were less than a quarter of the numbers suffered in 1980 (196), which is very good news although of course the numbers don't yet include the recent Lakanal House tragedy.

In 1966 the London Fire Brigade responded to more than 10 chimney fires but by 2008 clean air legislation and the decline of coal as an energy source meant that only one such fire occurred every three to four days.

In 1966 50% of all the incidents attended by the Brigade were fires. In 2008 only 20% of callouts relate to fires. Much more time is spent responding to road accidents, flooding and people trapped in lifts.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Gants Hill Delays


Depressing news reaches me from TfL. During the work on the roundabout at Gants Hill, they have unearthed 'unidentified utilities', and this now means that the project is going to be delayed considerably. The pipes and cables need to be traced and then diverted to allow for the road works.

The original completion date of October 2010 has now been put back to April 2011 !! The carriageway will be returned to its previous capacity, with temporary traffic management measures in place.

TfL have undertaken to brief me regularly and to keep Redbridge Council and local stakeholders informed as the work progresses.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Choppy Water at MQT


Boris and the Conservative Group don't agree on everything - the mayor appealed beyond traditional party loyalties to secure his election so some dissent is to be expected. The other groups have commented on the somewhat independent approach of some Conservative members. "Ken would never have tolerated this from Labour." is a commonly expressed sentiment.

Past meetings have seen clashes over a proposed amnesty for illegal immigrants and the powers that TfL exercise in deciding the location of bus stops. Today things got rougher than usual.

With the coming year's budget in prospect, members lined up to make the case for a repeat of last year's precept freeze. Trenchant colleague Brian Coleman pushed a bit further, calling for significant cuts particularly in the Transport for London monolith. It probably got a bit more heated than envisaged but Boris was left in no doubt that we will be seeking to protect council tax payers during the budget consultation.

Andrew Boff then raised concerns about the LDA's funding of new academies. The worry - shared by other members - is that the mayor is extending his powers onto territory that is firmly under borough control. Andrew even suggested that the effect would be to recreate a smaller version of the ILEA, along with an 'Outer London Education Authority' - OLEA!

Some constructive criticism of the administration is, in my opinion, a good thing, and anyway it is our job. Visitors in the gallery told me how refreshing they find this after the toadying that is all too evident at Prime Minister's Questions. But perhaps things went too far this time...

I raised concerns - originally highlighted by Morris Hickey - about the standard of service on the 462 bus route, which often runs early at Fulwell Cross, 14 minutes early on one occasion documented by Morris. The Mayor promised further sanctions against Arriva if the service did not improve and told us that two drivers had been disciplined for failing to observe the timetable. Hopefully things will get better but I'm sure we will soon know if they don't.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Back to it...


Wednesday sees the first Mayor's Question Time of the autumn session.

My colleague Richard Tracey leads off the bowling with a question about the overflow of raw sewage into the Thames. It's the first chance to discuss the incident that occurred in July and with autumn storms in prospect it remains a live issue. Plans for a new storm sewer should ultimately prevent further discharges but the project remains many years and billions of pounds away.

The Greens and Labour are both raising the future of bus services, in the likely event that subsidies are cut by the government. Jenny Jones provides the more detailed question, offering a slew of potentially unpopular alternatives including fare increases and network cuts. Detail is likely to be sketchy as the government's intentions are unclear but the issue is likely to resurface in the coming months.

For the Lib Dems Caroline Pidgeon is asking a wider question about the coming annual fare package. Traditionally this is announced in September and implemented in the New Year. Will Boris use Caroline's question as an opportunity to make a statement?

Richard Barnbrook questions the Mayor's support for regularisation of London's illegal immigrants. Boris has stuck his neck out over this issue, disagreeing with national Conservative - and Labour - policy, and also with the views of our own group, so his current take on the situation will be interesting.

I have several guests attending from local accountancy firm Haslers ( http://www.haslers.co.uk/ ) and those who manage to sit through the full two and a half hours of questions will get a guided tour of City Hall from me as a reward for their dedication...

Sunday, August 09, 2009

A Week In Bosnia

We returned last Friday but I deliberately waited before posting this. Bosnia is a hugely complex place with great contrasts, not least in the emotions it brings out in visitors, and bringing the country to life in print is challenging. Well, here goes, and this may take some time.

First the disclaimer - which is unfortunately necessary in the current political climate. This was a working visit, not a Parliamentary style fact finding mission. We did it in our own time and paid for our own flights and basic accommodation. All the material we used was donated by well wishers. No tax payers were harmed in the course of this event.


First Impressions

Bosnia was a part of the greater Yugoslavia which fell apart during the nineties. Sandwiched between Orthodox Serbia and Catholic Croatia, the moderate Muslim state soon became the target of a territorial 'carve up' orchestrated by its more powerful neighbours. Now enjoying a fragile peace, Bosnia is divided into Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian territories largely according to where the front lines ran when hostilities were suspended. The country has a three man presidency, one from each ethnic group and each taking turns to lead.

The capital, Sarajevo looks to be about the size of Reading. The city sits in a valley and was besieged by Serb forces during the war. We passed through on our arrival and spent some time there on our last day and the healing process looks to be going well. Prosperity has returned, new building is under way, crowded trams and trolley buses run in the streets, the airport is functioning.

Outside the city the story is different. Homes, mosques and churches are being rebuilt but there is still great poverty. Whole villages were destroyed during the ethnic cleansing and many ruined buildings remain - forlorn skeletons against the clear sky or just patches of rubble.

The countryside is attractive but sombre, rolling hills and mountains, all cloaked in dark forests. The roads are winding and poorly maintained in many places. The climate is warm and humid, but in winter heavy snow falls and whole areas are isolated.


The Tragedy of Srebrenica

Srebrenica is a three hour drive from Sarajevo. We arrived as dusk was falling on the first night. Here, in 1995, Bosnian Serbs led by General Ratko Mladic attacked the town, clearing its Muslim inhabitants. Supposedly a UN protected enclave, in reality the Dutch peacekeeping troops were powerless to prevent the murder of some 8,000 civilians by the heavily armed Serbs. There is a genocide memorial here, constructed with the help of London's Imperial War Museum, and it is a deeply moving place. I remember seeing the awful events unfold on television at the time, but nothing can prepare you for actually being here.

At home, we commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day and we send visitors to Auschwitz so that the grim lessons of history are not forgotten, yet here in Srebrenica another ethnically inspired massacre took place just fourteen short years ago. Many of the bodies were never recovered and the forests around the town conceal numerous mass graves. It takes a lot to silence a group of politicians yet we were left unable to speak.

The town itself has a haunted, watchful, atmosphere. Not content with cleansing the population, Mladic also destroyed the homes of non Serbs so they could not return. Many of the houses and blocks of flats stand derelict and empty. Most of the inhabitants, the town officials and the police are Serbs and there is an air of sullen hostility, a wariness of outsiders.


Getting Our Hands Dirty

The Fund For Refugees had requested our help with three projects. With the help of Microsoft, computers were to be installed in Srebrenica's school. There was work to be done painting and finishing off new houses for the villagers up in the hills. Finally, a team led by Tobias Ellwood MP would help to create a football pitch for the local youngsters and we hoped to play a match against them before we left.

I got to work on the house and it soon became clear that my painting skills weren't up to Bosnian standards. The local builders and the old lady who owned the place soon took the roller off me and gave me a cloth to clean up after my more expert colleagues. Deborah Dunleavy - our candidate for Bolton - had clearly missed her vocation and her painting efforts were rewarded with cries of 'Super! Super!' from the admiring locals.

For the rest of the day I was banished outside to help break up a stone outhouse and cart away the huge lumps of slate. Pushing a wheelbarrow around over the following three days was not the most skilled of tasks, but at least I kept up my exercise regime. There were vicious scorpions amongst the debris and we were plagued by blood sucking flies, but the spirit of the team - led by my old Assembly colleague, Eric Ollerenshaw - now the candidate for Lancaster and Fleetwood - remained high and on the last day we hosted a picnic under the trees and were joined by the old lady and her neighbours.


Why?

Clearly people were surprised to find politicians who were willing to roll their sleeves up and join in, but why do it? The contribution we made was meaningful but given a few more days the Bosnians could have done the job themselves. For me, the opportunity to talk to the people at the sharp end, unsupervised by local political figures, was the most valuable part of the exercise. Politicians visiting trouble spots are usually fed an official message, toured around a local showpiece, given a slap up meal then put back on the plane, so this was refreshing.

Over three days we were able to communicate, even though the old lady and her neighbours knew very little English, and we knew no Bosnian. They were cheerful and stoic people but beneath the surface was great tragedy. Everyone we met had lost relatives in the war and many had been displaced. They had some truly harrowing personal stories. Grief was never far away.

There are no easy solutions to the world's problems and intervention cannot always be the answer. There is however no excuse for lack of preparation or a confused response. At Srebrenica peacekeepers were deployed but could not be used effectively, leading to a disastrous loss of confidence in the UN.

Enjoying a farewell barbecue on the last evening, we raised our gaze to look across the valley at the towering cliffs and mountains, as close to us as Canary Wharf is to The City. 'That's Serbia. They shoot at us from over there.' we were told.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Project Maja

With the final meetings of the Assembly, the Fire Authority and the Police Authority completed last week, members can turn their minds to the opportunities afforded by the summer break. I'm going to Bosnia next week to take part in Project Maja together with a team from the Conservative Social Action Unit.

Project Maja is a follow up to Social Action's efforts in Rwanda. We will be helping the Fund for Refugees to rebuild properties following the tragic civil war in the area around Srebrenica. Project leader, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi says:

As Conservatives we believe that having guiding principles is not enough, rolling up our sleeves and getting stuck in on the ground shows that we don't just believe in tackling poverty and injustice, but through a new type of politics we can make a real, worthwhile difference.

Most of the team are Parliamentarians or candidates for Westminster, so it was a real coup for the London Assembly Group to be involved. We will be blogging our experiences over at Conservative Home. I will provide a fuller report back on my return next week, meanwhile comment moderation will take place when the opportunity arises.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Gallows Corner Re-opens

Transport for London tell me that the Gallows Corner flyover returned to normal two way working from 3:00pm today. They are delighted to have achieved this some five weeks ahead of schedule and I am grateful for their efforts during a particularly trying time.

However this is no time for mutual back slapping. The whole problem only arose because of poor maintenance over a number of years and it has taken an unbelievable length of time to sort out. Replacement steel panels had to be specially made abroad and shipped to London, taking many months, during which drivers were seriously inconvenienced by closures and one way working. The flyover is now good for another ten years but this temporary structure should really be replaced with a permanent solution - this will require money from central government and there is likely to be very little available over the coming years.

Drivers on the A12 can breathe a sigh of relief but shouldn't relax just yet. A 40 week resurfacing project gets under way at Gants Hill roundabout on Friday...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Audit Panel


This morning I chaired the first meeting of the City Hall audit panel, since I took over the gavel, courtesy of the Lib Dems at the Assembly AGM.

I suspect they put me in charge because they felt it would be a sleepy backwater with no media profile (I could be wrong, perhaps they rate my abilities...), however thanks to Ian Clement and Lee Jasper there was rather more attention than usual. The agenda was also about three times its usual length.


Apologies for Absence

Dave Hill at The Guardian had expressed concerns about BNP member Richard Barnbrook's presence on the panel (the Assembly had to put him somewhere) particularly as reports about funding to minority organisations and politicians' expenses provided perfect material for one of his trademark rants. This was probably one of his best opportunities yet to make an impact since he was elected so he SENT HIS APOLOGIES!!!


District Auditor's Report

The main item for consideration was the District Auditor's double report into the distribution of grants under the previous regime. The first report dealt with the allegations of impropriety at the GLA, the second with the handling of an official complaint made by Assembly Members at the time. Allegations around the LDA are still being investigated and will be considered by that body, so they are unlikely to be discussed by our audit panel.

Report one concluded that rather a lot of rules had been broken with respect to declaring interests in a timely manner. The then mayor's advisor on equalities and policing had signed off grants to organisations with which he had personal involvement. The funding agreements by which money was distributed did not enable measurement of value for money, so although the auditor felt some value had been derived, he was unable to satisfy himself that Londoners had received everything that was paid for. A general lack of record keeping made it difficult to find an audit trail for decisions that had been made. There was no evidence of criminal activity, but the procedures for controlling and monitoring the situation fell well short of an acceptable standard.

Report two concluded that a complaint from Brian Coleman - regarding allegations that the advisor had improperly used GLA resources in a conflict with Equalities Commissioner Trevor Phillips - was not effectively investigated under the authority's whistle blowing policy. Indeed the Finance Director informed the committee that officers did not consult the existing policy and the District Auditor added that he was unaware of its existence! The staff who failed to carry out the investigation correctly had - we were told - all left the GLA since then. The panel members were stunned and genuinely angry about this.


Putting it Right

The Panel is not looking for evidence of dishonesty, and we are not conducting a campaign against individuals - rather, we are overseeing a transition from a culture where this situation could occur to one of greater transparency and higher standards. All members of the panel - those who were present - agree that we want to see officers turning stones over to discover what lies beneath and we want GLA probity rules enforced. The good news is that reports were tabled detailing the work being done to improve record keeping, risk management, funding agreements and the register of interests. This is work in progress and we have instructed senior management to provide us with an update at our next meeting in October.

Mayor's Questions


Parts of yesterday's question time became quite heated and perhaps it is just as well that everyone will have the August break to cool off.


Abuse of Process

Five minutes before the meeting started I received the unwelcome news that the Lib/Lab/Green alliance had decided to suspend standing orders so that the usual proportional timings would not apply on the first question which was - predictably - about the Ian Clement episode. There was a heated exchange, which could have been avoided if they had actually discussed their proposal with my team rather than springing it on us at the last moment.

Under the new Chair - Darren Johnson - we see constant attempts to introduce devices to give the smaller parties a disproportionately large influence, which reflect the problem that bedevils the so called Progressive Alliance - Labour have the numbers (8 members), so they get the larger time allocation, but they lack the ability or inclination to work effectively. Liberals and Greens are better operators but they lack the numbers (3 and 2 members respectively) and therefore the time, to bring their skills to bear. Also any attempt to give more influence to the smaller parties could benefit the BNP. They waste time and effort on attempts to rearrange the deckchairs.

The justification in this case was that Boris refused to attend an Assembly committee to discuss the Clement matter, so the aim was to create a mini version of that meeting within the Question Time. As it was, the Lib/Lab/Greens failed to ask any questions they had not raised before so it is probably just as well that they didn't get the special committee they wanted.


Rape Protest

One thing that Darren does do well is dealing with protests. With Ken out of office - and propped up in the front row of the gallery like El Cid - the London Left are rediscovering the joys of disrupting meetings. It was Tube unions last time. This time feminists set off rape alarms during Richard Barnbrook's contribution. They were swiftly escorted from the building. I support their stand against rape and domestic violence and they made their point in a reasonably dignified way. However I was surprised by how quiet the rape alarms were, and I hope they would make a lot more noise in a real emergency - more like my smoke alarm which went off a few weeks ago and was impossible to ignore.


Issues

I took the opportunity to welcome members of the North East London and Essex Group of Advanced Motorists to the gallery - probably a first at City Hall.

I also raised several important local issues with the Mayor.

Gallows Corner - Boris assured me that the disruptive work on the Gallows Corner Flyover would be completed on time in August. We all look forward to traffic returning to normal here.

Gants Hill - Work is due to start at Gants Hill next week. Rumour has it that the foundations beneath the road are in poor condition and this means that the work will take longer and be more disruptive. Traffic on the A12 and A406 can expect long delays as a result. There are also plans to divert a number of bus routes that pass through the roundabout. Access to the Central Line station and pedestrian subways could be impeded too. It's all a bit of an unknown as TfL have omitted to brief me and Redbridge Council also have limited information. Boris promised me a swift update from TfL, so more about this later, no doubt...

Woolwich Ferry - One of the boats has been out of service recently, leading to delays. With the limited number of crossings downstream of Tower Bridge, the ferry remains an important facility, particularly for lorries that are too high to use the tunnels. The boat is now back in service and Boris promised me an update as things return to normal.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

MQT Tomorrow

It's that time again. Tomorrow's question time at City Hall starts at 10:00am and will feature questions on:

- Openness and transparency in City Hall's expenses and benefits framework.
- Government targets for new travellers' sites in the London Plan.
- Transport infrastructure for the Thames Gateway.
- Offering leadership to clamp down on abuse of City Hall's expenses and benefits framework.

Following the Ian Clement episode and publication of a critical audit report on the Lee Jasper affair, we expect the financial controls at the GLA to come under the spotlight.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Waste, Recycling and New Technologies

I've just come up for air after a seemingly endless meeting of the Environment Committee. You know it's going to be rough going when there are more expert witnesses (8) than members (7) - anyway, here goes:

This morning we looked at the development of new methods to extract energy from the waste that can't be recycled. One witness suggested that this technology is at the same stage as the computer industry 25 years ago, on the verge of life changing innovations. The Microsoft of waste management waits in the wings.


Anaerobic Digestion

Known as 'AD' to the waste community, this is the most favoured option and it is already used for sewage, with Thames Water operating 60 plants. The idea is to allow bacteria to digest the organic waste element, producing gas that can be used as fuel. Essentially the same process happens in landfill sites but most of the gas escapes into the atmosphere, whereas AD ensures it is captured for the community.

The gas can then be cleaned up and injected into the national grid of gas pipelines. Alternatively the plant can be connected to a local housing estate so the immediate residents get the benefit, but this is expensive and difficult where existing buildings require a retrofit. Local distribution is more viable for new build or for a single large industrial or public sector customer. Another alternative is to use the gas as fuel for a vehicle fleet, usually operated by the public sector.

Friends of the Earth favour AD and campaign in support of the technology but they acknowledge that the need to transport residues away by road creates some problems in the city.

Planning permission for AD seems to be relatively easy to secure, unlike incineration - the Belvedere incinerator took 16 years to approve...


Other Technologies

Including gasification and pyrolysis are as yet unproven. They burn waste gas in an engine to create electricity but the ultimate aim is to use fuel cells - which work like batteries - to generate power. These have the advantage of no moving parts so they are more efficient but current models don't work well with impure gas.

Developing solutions face problems obtaining funding, particularly in the current economic climate. Financial institutions prefer to see at least one pilot plant working, preferably in this country, before risking their money.

Friends of the Earth were less impressed, describing some of the technologies as no better than landfill or incineration.


Large vs Small

Operators prefer larger applications because one big site can achieve economies of scale and can attract the sort of large waste contracts that make investing significant sums a viable prospect. However large sites tend to attract greater public opposition so they take longer to pass through the planning process. In addition, a plant handling more than 50,000 tonnes of waste requires approval by the Mayor, so large applications will face delays and paperwork.

Commercial considerations favour large sites but public opinion and planning law tends towards smaller installations.


Waste Map

All this means that the plan to locate waste disposal sites around London is likely to change, with fewer sites designated. The current map identifies many potential sites particularly in East London. In my own patch, Hainault, Harold Hill and Rainham are identified as suitable locations for such facilities.

With the recession the volume of waste has actually started to fall so less capacity is going to be needed in the short term, however not everywhere is well served. One witness pointed out that Hackney residents seeking to dispose of objects like fluorescent light tubes are instructed to take them to Islington's civic amenity site at Hornsey - it seems unlikely that everyone will take the trouble to embark on such a journey.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Deja Vu at the Transport Committee


This morning I filled in at the transport committee for an absent colleague. Now chaired by capable Lib Dem, Caroline Pidgeon, the session focused on Tube overcrowding and the effect of PPP related line closures.


Overcrowding Psychology

Dr Glenn Williams, a senior lecturer in psychology, gave us his take on modern day tube travel. Crowding can cause stress, ill health and poor productivity. Introverts suffer the effects more than extroverts, who are happier to meet new people and get close to them. Crowding encourages passengers to shut themselves off, falling silent, averting their gaze, playing ipods and all the rest, which is ultimately dehumanising - and that is why so few people come to one another's aid on public transport.

Crowding can be positive where the shared experience is enjoyable such as concerts and sporting events, but this does not apply to commuting.


Crowding at it's Worst

Morning peak measurements revealed that the greatest crowding occurs on the Central Line between Liverpool Street and Bank, and on the Northern Line between King's Cross and Angel. Here you are likely to find three other people sharing your personal square metre of space.

In our patch things are more bearable, however parts of the Central Line loop can get busy, with up to two people per square metre between South Woodford, Leytonstone and Gants Hill. In Havering the District Line is a veritable haven of peace with less than half the seats occupied from Upminster to Elm Park, where the remainder start to fill up. Conditions get more intimate at Upney.


Jubilee Line Closures

Work to replace signalling on the Jubilee has resulted in weekend closures over recent months. Witnesses from the Excel Centre and the O2 shared their experiences.

Closure of the line posed a big challenge to the O2 venue, who have arranged extra river services - through Thames Clippers -, replacement bus services, and a boat service linking to the DLR in Docklands. The Clippers carry up to 3,000 people for a major concert and the introduction of Oyster in November will be a further help. O2 were pleased with the relationship they had with TfL but were looking forward to the end of engineering as they felt nothing could really replace the Jubilee Line.

At Excel, closure of the Jubilee Line and the DLR had contributed to the cancellation of seven events and the loss of revenue totalling £1.8 million. Obviously they were not happy although they did feel the DLR managers had been more helpful than London Underground. Most seriously, the closures had disrupted exams being held at the centre, with students struggling to turn up on time.


Piccadilly Planned Closures

Alexander Nichol, representing Covent Garden landowners, gave evidence about the impending Piccadilly Line works. Busy months in Covent Garden are July, August, December and April, so he hoped that disruption could be arranged for other months. He felt there was an opportunity to encourage more walking between stations in the area during closures. Clearer signposts at street level could make a significant contribution to informing travellers' choices.

For example, travelling by tube from Leicester Square to Covent Garden requires a longer walk - up and down stairs and through tunnels - than doing the journey on foot on the surface. The walk is also much more interesting and less crowded - better for introverts and extroverts.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Assembly Expenses Go Online


This morning you can see the expense claims of London Assembly Members for the last year on line at the GLA website. They are itemised in some detail.

My own relate solely to travelling costs and are as follows:

Zone 1-6 Travelcard £1,784.00

Taxi journey, Bromley Civic Centre to Romford Town Centre, 6.11.08, following Peoples' Question Time £71.83


And that's the lot.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Daily Politics

I'm on The Daily Politics this morning at around 11:30. We will be discussing the mayor's first year in office, covering the high points and the lows. My fellow guest will be the novelist and commentator, Will Self.

I haven't posted much recently because my home PC picked up a virus - from Facebook, I think - and it is taking some time to resume normal service...

Friday, June 19, 2009

Budget Committee Examines Fares

Thursday's budget committee took evidence from TfL witnesses and Kulveer Ranger - the mayor's director of transport policy - on the contentious subject of fare rises.

Setting the fares is a power exercised by the mayor, with reference to the TfL budget and professional advice. TfL forecasts its requirements annually in the October business plan and these are firmed up in the March budget. A number of factors are making predictions unusually challenging this year.


Current Position

Recent months have seen London Underground ridership - and therefore revenue - falling. The number of Underground passengers correlates closely to the number of people commuting to jobs in the capital, so the recession is having an effect, although the impact is less damaging in London than in other parts of the country.

However bus ridership remains unchanged, partly because a different demographic group uses buses and partly because inability to afford Tube fares pushes passengers onto buses as an alternative.

And the good news is that the number of tourists is up, responding to the favourable exchange rate. This particularly affects passenger numbers in zone one.

So given the turbulent position, TfL were reluctant to hazard a long term forecast at this time.


Budget Objectives

Obviously TfL is required to balance its budget, but key objectives in the coming year include:

Protecting the capital programme, most importantly Crossrail. Lower inflation rates in the construction sector may actually lead to savings against this budget heading.

Progressing with the introduction of Oyster pay as you go on main line rail services.

Continuing migration from cash payment to Oysters - interestingly, only 1.4% of bus revenue is now generated by 'on bus' ticket sales. And the figure is probably lower for bendies.


Bus Miles

The committee briefly considered an idea for TfL 'loyalty cards' floated by Lib Dem Caroline Pidgeon. The idea would be to reward passengers for travelling during off peak periods. It is an intriguing suggestion which the committee may well return to in detail on another occasion.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mayor's Question Time


It's MQT this morning and the first three questions all concern London Underground. We can expect some robust discussion around last week's RMT strike and I also plan to use the opportunity to raise concerns about the modernisation of Wanstead Station.

Wanstead is due to close for refurbishment next week with passengers expected to use nearby Snaresbrook Station instead. Unfortunately the capacity of Snaresbrook is limited and the station may become overcrowded. A lot of the older residents worry that the extra 15 minute walk will be too much for them.

Jenny Jones has a question about violence against women - something that we all (I hope) want to tackle. Expect some debate around the new approach to this problem being pioneered by Boris.

James Cleverly is going to ask the Mayor about rising rates of tuberculosis in some boroughs. He wants Boris to promote vaccination in boroughs with high TB rates.

John Biggs is raising questions around City Hall expenses. Our regime is rather limited and very transparent compared to goings on at Parliament and the matter was raised briefly by Richard Barnbrook last month, without much success. John refers to expense accounts as the troughs of the professional classes - how revolutionary...

And we have demonstrators opposing the removal of kerbs on main roads. They raise a real worry that blind or partially sighted people might stray into the path of oncoming traffic.

The Paris to Dakkar of question times will begin at 10:00am.

Friday, June 12, 2009

LBC Saturday Morning

I'm off to do the morning paper review with Ken Livingstone on LBC tomorrow. Now what shall we talk about???

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Assembly Condemns The RMT

This morning saw the monthly plenary meeting of the Assembly and most members struggled in despite the Tube strike. We took the opportunity to comment on the unwarranted industrial action in the following terms:

We condemn the RMT's irresponsible strike action, which will cause huge disruption to over three million Londoners and cost the London economy £100 million.

This motion was approved by all the members, although Labour did seek to make the following amendment:

This Assembly also condemns Mayor Johnson's failure to work towards improved industrial relations within TfL and his lack of leadership on this issue.

For a change they were left on their own, with the Greens abstaining and the Lib Dems opposing their amendment.

We also took the opportunity to thank the other unions, including ASLEF, who turned up to work, along with a considerable number of RMT members who braved the picket lines to keep services running. By lunch time London Underground were running trains on nine of the eleven lines.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Labour Comes Unstuck


This somewhat shaky picture of Labour's Romford HQ was taken from the top deck of a passing 252 on my return from St George's Hospital (see previous post). Although blurred, the sense of desolation is palpable. It wasn't only their posters that came unstuck over the weekend...

National Falls Awareness Day


After visiting the library I went on to St George's Hospital in Hornchurch. 23rd June is National Falls Awareness Day (and also my birthday), so the NHS trust are running a campaign to reduce injuries suffered by elderly bus users.


When I chaired the transport committee, we produced reports on bus driving standards which highlighted the risks to older and disabled passengers, so I was very pleased to help to launch this campaign. The leaflet I am holding in the picture advises bus drivers and operators on good practice to prevent injuries.


Most drivers are very professional and considerate but the high turnover of staff means that not everybody keeps abreast of the latest guidelines. Bus drivers can really help by:


Allowing passengers enough time to sit down before pulling off.


Pulling up as close to the kerb as possible.


Avoiding sudden acceleration and braking.


Using ramps when appropriate.


In Havering we have an elderly population so it is also important for operators to allow time in bus schedules for pensioners to board and alight.


The team will be setting up a stall to provide advice in Romford town centre on 23rd June.

Elm Park Library




Today I attended the opening of the new Elm Park library. For many years the residents had to make do with a nissan hut to house the collection of books and Labour floated a proposal to redevelop the site for flats a few years ago.




The new building is the latest in a series of Havering Council projects which have seen new libraries sprouting up across the borough. This flagship building has a green roof which helps to insulate in winter and keeps out the heat in summer. It is also supposed to change colour with the seasons, giving the neighbours something to look forward to. Inside, the library is light and airy, with mobile book shelves to enable different uses of the space. A pleasant garden provides an outdoor reading area for children.




Pictured in front of the library with me are fellow councillors Jeff Brace (Hylands) and Barry Oddy (Elm Park).

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Movers & Shakers




Yesterday morning saw the Redbridge Movers & Shakers cycling event hosted at the new Hog Hill cycling centre. A gaggle of local celebrities gathered for a couple of circuits of the track, to promote cycling.




Those present included Ilforn North MP Lee Scott, London assembly Member James Cleverly and members of the new Redbridge Council cabinet with their leader, Keith Prince. Also there were journalists, including Guardian diarist Hugh Muir, although there was no sign of the bloggers who usually follow events in the capital. Lord Victor Adebowale was a strong contender from the second chamber.




My training paid off and I survived two circuits of the track, although I didn't follow the hardiest performers down a long hill - reasoning that I would need to cycle back up it again. The whole event was compered by former councillor and local historian, Peter Lawrence.




Over a buffet lunch the guest speakers voiced a common hope that cycling would become more mainstream. in the last eight years the number of cyclists in London has more than doubled and Boris - declaring himself a cycling fanatic - is determined to press on with policies to encourage more bike use in the capital.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Bank Holiday - East London Cut Off


On Thursday I met the mayor, along with John Biggs who represents the City & East constituency. On the agenda was the disruption caused by railway engineering work over the three recent bank holidays. Richard Parry from London Underground joined us and he told us they view bank holidays as a valuable opportunity. Well, so do my constituents, and they lose some of that opportunity when the rail engineers seemingly conspire to make reaching Central London almost impossible.


Recently the main line into Liverpool Street has been closed over long weekends, presumably for Olympic related work at Stratford. The inconvenience is compounded because the District Line to Upminster is also closed - for rail replacement - and so is the JubileeLine to Stratford - for the ongoing resignalling - and the Docklands Light Railway - for train lengthening. John described how residents in the Isle of Dogs felt completely marooned.


Because the Central Line has remained open residents of Redbridge have an alternative option for getting into town, as do residents of Havering to some extent. Network Rail have taken advantage of this situation by running their replacement bus service to Newbury Park rather than Stratford. Using this service from Ilford leaves the suspicion that you are being taken even further out of your way and a Central Line breakdown would leave no way to get into London at all.


The Mayor assured us that the worst is over on the Jubilee and DLR at least. Work will increase capacity on the Jubilee by 25% and on the DLR by 50% so the view is that a degree of pain now will be worthwhile in future. Unfortunately the work on the District Line is more open ended and nobody knew about Network Rail's activities. London Underground did reassure us that they would seek to coordinate their work more sensitively in future.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

MPA Chopper Challenge


I stuck my nose into the Police Authority meeting this morning, just in time to hear a question from the public about police helicopters.

The noise is proving unwelcome to some residents, as well as the very powerful searchlights, however anyone who watches police chase programmes will know how effective the choppers are at catching fugitives. When criminals flee by car it is often safer to track them from the air than to pursue them on the road. In Romford we sometimes get the helicopter overhead and it certainly gives me a warm, comfortable feeling to know that miscreants are very likely to be caught once the chopper is on their trail.

Sir Paul Stephenson, the commissioner, reassured the authority that pilots are taught to fly in a manner that minimises noise. There are now three police helicopters and when they were bought in 2005, quieter models were actively sought. However with a greater number of choppers more likely to be used, residents are very likely to experience further disturbance in future.

I just feel reassured they are there.