Confessions of a Political Animal

March 28, 2010

Boris and Transport: Easy Words, Broken Promises

Two years and half way through Boris Johnson’s first – and I trust, only – term as London Mayor and the opposition parties on the London Assembly rightly took the opportunity last month to step up scrutiny of the Mayor’s…ahem…interesting approach to his manifesto pledges.

Johnson’s 2008 manifesto was a fascinating mix (rather like the man himself) of the sweeping, the generalised, the populist and occasional flashes of obsession with random bits of minutiae. But what was partially evident at the time of it’s publication, and has become even more so since, is that it was written with very little input from anyone who had the foggiest idea what they were talking about. Nowhere was that more clear than in the transport manifesto, saved from oblivion by The Guardian here. Everyone knows its headline-grabber: the removal of the bendy bus and the introduction of a new Routemaster – a policy which it has since become clear has no significant economic, environmental, safety or public utility case to its name. Sadly, this was not a lone case. And a badly thought-out, media-driven manifesto means a manifesto that gets broken all too easily, with just this week a new entrant to the fast growing list emerging.

“It is not good enough…that the Tube doesn’t run later on Friday and Saturday nights. […] It would be a major benefit to Londoners if the Tube ran one hour later on Friday and Saturday nights, and we want to see this happen.” (p.20)

If it wasn’t good enough when Johnson wrote his 2008 manifesto, he’ll have to say that it still isn’t good enough when/if he writes the 2012 version. This week saw the death of this pledge after TfL announced that it was impossible to implement later running and that this would remain merely ‘an aspiration’. This should have come as no surprise to anyone who has had a passing interest in London’s transport pre-2008 – so we can assume it came as a surprise to the Mayor. In his second term, Ken Livingstone consulted on running a one hour later service on Fridays and Saturdays, with commencement of service at weekends cut back by one hour to ensure the amount of time available for engineering and upgrade works was not curtailed. From the consultation it became evident that the later start would leave the many commuters, particularly shift workers, who relied on an early Underground train at weekends heavily inconvenienced, so in 2006 TfL proposed a compromise: running trains 30 minutes later on both Fridays and Saturdays and cutting back starting time on Saturday mornings by one hour whilst leaving Sundays unaffected (this would have meant that Saturday and Sunday start up times were the same). However, by February 2007 it had become clear that negotiations with unions over changed working hours had ground to a halt, and the proposal was shelved.

Despite all this, Johnson in his manifesto reverted to the original proposal of an hour extra for both Friday and Saturday, strangely neglecting to mention that this would need two hours to be cut from somewhere else. Even if this barely-disguised Thatcherite could have succeeded where Livingstone failed with the RMT and ASLEF, he would either have had to at least partially break his manifesto promise by implementing the 30-minute extension plan or taken a potentially highly unpopular decision to leave early-morning commuters without an Underground service. And we all know Johnson doesn’t like making unpopular decisions. So, this manifesto promise was setting Johnson up for a fail, as anyone with a bit of nouse could have told him. The Mayor is trying to claim that upgrade work is what is preventing him from keeping his pledge, but this is clearly rubbish: whilst upgrade work does take place at night, so too does the day-to-day engineering work necessary to keep the Underground running. Even when the upgrades are complete, it is almost certain that any extension of operating hours in the evening will have to be matched by a curtailment in the morning. (more…)

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December 31, 2009

I’m a London Taxpayer, and I approve this message

Visit London/Ryanair 'Only in London'

Visit London/Ryanair 'Only in London' (Click for full poster)

In November, the Evening Standard‘s City Hall Reporter Katharine Barney (now sadly culled) penned a short piece on a speech by Boris Johnson at the Royal Opera House. It appeared at first glance that this speech was something to celebrate – he was lauding the achievements of Visit London in attracting increased tourism to London despite the recession. Johnson claimed that by spending £2m, he had produced £50m. This sounds like a very welcome conversion to the cause of active, city-government led promotion of tourism on the part of the Mayor: after all, amongst his first acts in the job had been to slash around £6.5m from the promotional budget. But one sentence in Barney’s article stood out:

In a speech at the Royal Opera House, Mr Johnson praised his “Only in London” campaign, which included helping to pay for adverts for Ryanair and easyJet in foreign press.

The Mayor’s campaign helping to pay for budget airlines’ adverts? Really? Aren’t there supposed to be EU state aid rules about these sort of things?

Of course, it rings true because Johnson has form in this field. Transport for London poster sites carry free adverts for BA flights to New York as part of a supposedly reciprocal deal with the Big Apple’s transport authorities.

Intrigued by whether the Standard had got it right, and if bits of the GLA precept from my council tax bill were lubricating the marketing budgets of a couple of airlines, I fired off an FOI request to City Hall, who referred it over to the London Development Agency. Firstly, I asked whether the Standard quote above and its paraphrase of the Mayor represented accurate reportage. No, said the LDA, they would not be

accepting that the passages you quote are accurate reportage. (more…)

November 13, 2009

A Waste of a Post

waste_barge

London waste being transported to landfill

I’m aware that waste management is not the sexiest topic around (that’s what I call a Cillit Bang opening sentence – BANG! And half your readership’s gone). I doubt anyone but the local party hacks even read my mild criticisms of Greenwich moving to a weekly bin collection. But like it or not, with decreasing levels of landfill available, and tougher central government recycling targets, this is going to remain a political hot potato for some time to come. And as there seems to be a bit of a market out there for blog posts with graphs, here’s a blog post with graphs. About rubbish. In London.

Last week, DEFRA released waste statistics for England for 2008/09, which can be accessed here. The overall story is at least moderately positive. Total quantities of household waste being produced in England have fallen below 25m tonnes for the first time this century. Indeed, the drop of just under 1m tonnes compared to 2007/08 is remarkable, and may indicate an unintended impact of the recession. The key question is whether this decline can be sustained as a recovery kicks in. The figures for 2008/09 represent a drop of 3.8% from the previous 12 months, and 3.0% down from 2000/01. The up-front figure for tonnage being recycled has continued to grow, although more slowly this year than in most previous years. 37.6% of England’s household waste is now being recycled, compared to 11.2% in 2000/01. The government has a target of 40% recycling by 2010 (I’m unclear if that’s 2009/10 or 2010/11), so isn’t a million miles from achieving that. (more…)

March 31, 2009

A Week Decision

recyclingThe Animal tries not to be too parochial around here, but occasionally something comes up locally that illustrates a broader issue. So it was last week, when the London Borough of Greenwich put a leaflet through the door outlining amended waste collection arrangements.

I don’t tend to be overly critical of Greenwich Council, partially because that seems to be a bit of a crowded market online, partially because it is run by my Party, but mainly because from The Animal’s point of view there is little enough to complain about. Certainly, Greenwich isn’t the most exciting, or go-ahead local authority on the face of the planet, but it does seem to trundle along happily enough on a day-to-day basis, delivering key services competently enough most of the time.

However, on recycling, I do feel they are a *bit* special. Having moved from one (otherwise pretty good) local authority a year ago, being employed by another and having previously worked in London-wide government, I can pretty safely say that Greenwich is streets ahead of pretty much any other comparable borough in the capital: it may not have the highest recycling rate in London – see p.17 of this GLA report – but it is amongst the highest for inner London boroughs/outer London boroughs with inner London characteristics (take your pick), which tend to be the hardest to (more…)

February 4, 2009

A letter to the Mayor

boris-letter2

For all the Animal’s claims to socialistic purity, at heart I remain a money-grabbing little so-and-so and will happily jump at the chance to obtain some free cash. Even if it is only £3.11. But particularly if it’s from Boris Johnson. Below is the text of a letter dispatched to the Mayor this afternoon.

Dear Boris,

As you are well aware, London was subject to very heavy snowfall on the night of Sunday 1st February, which led to severe disruption of public transport across all modes on the following day. This included the withdrawal of almost all buses and severe disruption to rail, Underground and DLR services.

My journey from East Greenwich to xxxxxxx normally uses a combination of rail and DLR, with a bus alternative as a backup in case of disruption. On 2nd February, neither of these routes was available to me. Fortunately, I was able to reach my place of work via functioning sections of the Underground, with lengthy walks in difficult conditions at either end. My return journey used a combination of one of the bus routes re-instated later in the day, the Underground, a boat and another lengthy walk. However, I have no particular complaint about this. I fully understand that Monday’s weather conditions were exceptional and that is not financially or politically sensible to proof the city’s infrastructure against such a rare occurrence. I should also add that all members (more…)

February 2, 2009

The wrong sort of information

Filed under: Environment,Greenwich,Market failures,Transport — Political Animal @ 11:24 am
Tags: , , ,

setrains

Above: The front page of the Animal’s local train operator’s website, as of 11am this morning. I’m awfullygrateful for advance warning of what looks like rather severe disruption to some unspecified services on an as yet undecided Thursday in May, but I was hoping for some information on whether I’d be able to get home from work this evening. Southeastern’s website has somehow managed to be even less useful than the information on the electronic displays at Westcombe Park station, which simply read ‘Due to severe weather conditions, we are unable to provide you with any information at this time’.

Now, I realise that this is once-in-a-decade weather down here in the balmy south east and the trains and buses are going to cease up. It just isn’t worth paying for the infrastructure resilience that will stand up to the severe conditions experience on one day in about 4,000. But I can’t quite understand how snow prevents electronic information systems from functioning correctly.

Anyway, the short answer is that South Eastern weren’t managing to run any trains into London today, but finding that out was a process of guess work from the undisturbed snow on the railway lines themselves. Still, the walk through the ecology park to North Greenwich station for the skeletal Jubilee line service was very scenic.

Keep warm, readers.

January 27, 2009

A lighter shade of green?

third-runwayThe past week has seen a lot of column inches devoted to the increasingly infamous Boris Island Islands airport plan, with puff pieces in the Sunday Times and the Evening Standard following the Mayor’s day out in a boat with a handful of carefully selected journalists. The whole ludicrous scheme has been carefully taken to pieces by Tom at Boris Watch, whose posts someone at City Hall would do well to read.

What is fast becoming apparent is that this is the purest greenwash, designed to at once allow Boris to maintain an opposition to Heathrow’s third runway, whilst not losing ground with the Tory petrol-heads(or should that be kerosene-heads?) who consider Cameron’s opposition to Heathrow expansion to be an unforgivable concession to unwashed tree-huggers, or something.

Now, I come from the starting point of opposing all airport expansion, pretty much anywhere, but particularly in the South East. I’m invariably drawn to the position, therefore, of considering both the Third Runway and Boris Island to be two evils of pretty much equal magnitude – and therefore, on this issue, to consider Johnson and Brown to be at the same level of ecological villany. The question is, should I? Let us assume, for one rather improbable moment, that the argument in favour of increased airport capacity for London had been won. From an environmental prospect, which is the worse option of a bad choice? (more…)

January 20, 2009

Liberal with the spin

Norman Baker MP

Norman Baker MP

Skimming through Guardian Online yesterday, I came across this doom-and-gloom article about rail franchise holders going cap-in-hand to Geoff Hoon, waving the threat of service cuts if the Department for Transport (DfT) doesn’t show some ‘flexibility’ (for which read slashing) in the premium payments that it will be demanding from many of them in the next financial year. This has come about as a result of falling growth in passenger numbers – note falling growth, not falling numbers – due to economic circumstances pertaining.

No-one is expecting the franchises  in question to cease to be profitable (only the most lucrative routes have to pay premiums – others receive subsidies): simply that the profit margins will be a bit less comfortable than their holders bargained for. Given this, my advice to Hoon would be to wave an offer back at the franchisees – if you don’t want to pay up, hand in the keys and a new National Rail will run the services, keeping all the profit for re-investment in the railways.

But this is all as an aside. What really caught my eye was the footnote to the article, headed:

Go further in Serbia

What could this possibly have to do with the UK’s railways, wondered the Animal? Well, reading on… (more…)

January 9, 2009

Ice cold logic

Filed under: Environment,Media — Political Animal @ 1:34 pm
Tags: , , , ,
London, yesterday.

London, yesterday.

Been a bit parky this week, hasn’t it? Obviously, my lack of posting has been entirely due to the need to defrost my fingers, rather than general post-festive season malaise.

The cold weather has not, of course, gone unnoticed by the media: there can be little that will gladden a churnalist’s heart than a story which a) literally bites them the moment they get out of bed, b) can be accompanied with a good old whinge about the failure of Britain’s public service to cope with exceptional weather conditions and c) allows the phrase ‘so what happened to global warming, then?’ to be smugly bandied about.

So it should have come as no great surprise that Wednesday’s Evening Standard led with the banner headline:

Minus 10 – it’s colder than the Antarctic

Last night, I suddenly felt rather shamed by the fact it had taken me the best part of 36 hours to realise what was wrong with that headline. And then, like some kind of vision sent by the Lord (Lord Rothermere, perhaps?) I had a sudden recollection of a photograph in The Child’s Wonder Picture Book of World Wonders (recollection of book title may not be 100% accurate) of people in Santa (more…)

November 27, 2008

A Western Democracy?

cc-signIt probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that Boris Johnson has today announced that he will be scrapping the Western Extension of the Congestion Charge. We noted before that there had been straws in the wind in the opposite direction and that Johnson had been modifying his language and moving towards the ‘third option’ of the modification of the charge – and indeed even as late as yesterday the Evening Standard, normally a good barometer of the mayoral climate, was bigging up the compromise option. But despite this, and blue Boris trying to present himself as green Boris as recently as Tuesday, the candidate’s hyperbole over the western extension had simply been too great for any kind of credible u-turn to be executed with any kind of credibility.

The Animal’s previous posts on this subject have pointed out that Johnson had been trying to play the great democrat on this issue, whilst sticking to a very limited definition of democracy. We quoted Johnson previously as having said

“The previous Mayor made the decision to introduce the western extension in the face of overwhelming opposition. Unlike my predecessor, I am going into this with an open mind and this will be a genuine consultation. It is high time that politicians listened to the people whom they represent and I am proud to keep the pledge made during my election (more…)

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