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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October 15, 2009

Hey, low earners! Thanks for the subsidy.

Fare change 2010

You can read plenty about Boris Johnson’s rather impressive hikes in TfL’s fares today elsewhere. With many of the increases coming in at more than 18 times the current rate of CPI, describing them as ‘inflation-busting’ would be like calling Richard Littlejohn ‘moderately right-wing’. And, worryingly for our jovial Mayor, for all his attempts to pass the blame for the increases off as being the fault of Ken Livingstone, the quite correct notion that Johnson inherited healthy TfL reserves and has bought this for the most part on himself is gaining traction. As Dave Cole notes, the extra revenue to be raised by the incredible 20% increase in Oyster Pay-as-You-Go fares on buses fits very neatly into the £50-£70m hole left by the removal of the Western Extension of the Congestion Charge.

Combine that with the decision not to proceed with the Gas-guzzler Charge, the end of the Venezuela oil deal, the scrapping of bendy buses and the advent of the neo-Routemaster – all at a time of falling fare-box income thanks to economic circumstances pertaining – and you begin to see where the hole comes from. And that’s why Boris is coming after you with his hat.

And when I say ‘you’, I mean ‘you’ (possibly), not ‘me’. One thing you won’t see much of in the coverage of the new fare regime is a complaint that you aren’t paying enough. Well, here’s one. The 2010 TfL fare settlement is too lenient on me – and on people like me. And it makes me sick. The graph at the top of this post may give you an idea why. (more…)

October 13, 2009

A Fare-ly Sketchy Strategy

boris tubeYesterday ought to have been one of the defining moments of Boris Johnson’s mayoralty. Three draft strategies published, covering housing, planning, economic development and transport (or, in other words, barring policing pretty much everything the Mayor has any meaningful influence over). Somehow, it didn’t quite feel that way, for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, there is Johnson’s sudden ability to hide from public view when matters of substance and detail rear their ugly heads. The contrast with his normal persona is remarkable. After all, the Mayor is normally happy to engage in publicity  stunts for the TV cameras, write expensive rubbish for the Telegraph or inundate us with 13 oh-so-fascinating photos of himself at Conservative Party Conference via his Twitter account. But just as Blair didn’t do God, Johnson doesn’t do detail. So with three hefty documents being published in his name, Macavity wasn’t there. As Ken Livingstone’s former Chief of Staff Simon Fletcher writes on his blog:

Although these strategies are now up for public consultation, the mayor chose to launch them not with a press conference for the media who communicate with millions but with a meeting of City Hall staff.

All we, the great London unwashed,  got from the Mayor is a solitary tweet. (more…)

May 1, 2009

Revealed: £2.75m down the River

boris-johnson-11“One thing we cannot do is spend tens of millions keeping projects alive, for political reasons, when there is simply no government funding to deliver them. The truth is that we don’t have to cash to do everything we would like, and it is better to be honest than continue to play upon false hopes.”

Boris Johnson, “Way to Go“, November 2008

So said the Mayor last year, as a justification for removing any ambition from Transport for London’s infrastructure investment programme. Johnson’s implied criticism of the previous mayoral administration was that it had spent money developing and promoting transport projects that were unlikely to ever come to fruition. The weakness of the argument is palpable: it was investment in the development and promotion of schemes such as Crossrail and the East London Line Extension that paved the way for funding eventually emerging from central government.

However, a few schemes escaped the Johnson Axe, including stage 1 of the Greenwich Waterfront Transit, a partially-segregated bus route linking the Jubilee Line station at North Greenwich with Woolwich and Thamesmead. The principle aim of the route was to improve bus services to Thamesmead, a heavily deprived area on the borders of Greenwich and Bexley with woeful public transport links. Given the opprobium heaped on the Transit scheme by Boris-friendly commentators, in particular Andrew Gilligan, its survival in November was very surprising: all the more so as its proposed future extensions across the river had been rendered impossible through Johnson’s scrapping of the Thames Gateway Bridge. (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…)

December 19, 2008

Bending the facts, not the buses

new-routemasterSo, the day we have all been holding our collective breaths for arrives – at last, and after so many delays, the Mayor has revealed unto us grateful Londoners the design of bus that will might could probably won’t be gracing our streets sometime around the middle of the next decade.

A quick flick through the entries submitted for the design competition here reveals firstly that – surprise, surprise – all the entries appear remarkably similar looking: could that have anything to do with it being made patently clear that what was wanted was a Routemaster pastiche rather than an innovative new design (despite the fact that the latter would be more in keeping with the Routemaster tradition than simply ripping off an existing model)? Apparently the ‘quality’ of entries was such that they couldn’t decide on a single winner, so the first prize was split between this stunningly ugly Aston Martin/Lord Foster design and this rather traditional design from Capoco.

Hang on a moment though – doesn’t the Capoco design look rather familiar? Could it have any links to the design floated by the self-same design company through Autocar magazine in December 2007 as part of the ‘Routemasters are great, bendy buses are evil’ disinformation campaign (more…)

September 25, 2008

In favour of feudal roads

I’ll freely admit to being pretty slow on the uptake on this – and indeed it has been touched on elsewhere already, but given the apparently inexorable march of the right (sorry Gordon, ‘the novices’) towards power across Britain, it probably makes sense to take a critical look at the underlying ideologies that inform Tory policies.

Living in London, which despite denials, is clearly at least a sounding chamber – if not a petri dish – for future national Conservative policies, we have the dubious honour of seeing policy development in the raw. And every now and again, the Cameronite mask slips ever so slightly to reveal something of what lies beneath.

The July (told you I was late with this) edition of Transport Times (currently available via the Latest Edition link here, see page 4) carries a worrying article about the Mayor’s Transport Adviser, Kulveer Ranger’s stated opinions. Ranger (who would almost certainly fit anyone’s description of a novice being left in charge of a vital portfolio) told the London Assembly Transport Committee in his first appearance before them on 25th June (full transcript) that:

Bearing in mind that no mode should be seen above any other as well, so we have to keep in with a view that there are still a need to understand that the motorist is not at the foot of all traffic modes, right at the base of it, there is no hierarchy here.  We need to ensure that those people who need to travel by car and travel by car get a fair crack at the whip (more…)

September 24, 2008

Whose vanity is fairest?

Probably classifiable as a vanity project

Probably classifiable as a vanity project

‘Vanity project’ is a widely thrown around phrase, much favoured by right wing commentators to describe the schemes introduced or championed by left-leaning politicians. The implication is clear: this is a project that will involve spending your hard-earned money on a scheme with no better purpose than to inflate an already engorged political ego.

Hence why I have seen, in the past few weeks, projects as diverse as the extension of free nursery places to two year olds, the 2012 Olympics, Housing Information Packs, the nationalisation of Northern Rock and the upgrade of the West Coast Mainline all described as ‘vanity projects’. You get the feeling that 1900’s answer to Andrew Gilligan probably described the Labour Party as a ‘Keir Hardie vanity project’, and that Ye Olde Dailie Maile carried an editorial in 1215 denouncing Magna Carta as a ‘shameful vanity project dreamt up by lefty-liberal barons’.

Inevitably, the truth is normally a little more complex than that suggested by the glib phrase. But what we can quite easily work out is the rationale under which it may be deployed by some of our more reactionary columnists and leader writers.

Step 1) Is this a scheme being proposed by a politician who would probably have voted for the Great Reform Act?

Step 2) Do I suspect that this scheme will not benefit me as (more…)

September 9, 2008

What has Andrew Gilligan got against his own borough?

The Evening Standard’s star columnist isn’t happy. As a well-known expert on everything from policing to athletics and from Sinology to HR, Mr Gilligan was obviously quite entitled to expect that once his mate Boris was safely installed at City Hall that the Mayor would be taking his advice on a regular basis, but particularly on transport. He appears to be more than a little miffed that Mr Johnson for some unaccountable reason has chosen to listen to the advice of transport professionals, of all people, instead.

But four months in, marvels one senior TfL figure, “Boris’s arrival has made no difference whatever. It’s all going on exactly as before.” No programmes have (yet) been cancelled. No personnel changes have been made. Indeed, one senior TfL person has just been appointed, of all things, Boris’s environmental adviser.

An environmental adviser, of all things! The evil TfL bureaucrat in question, Isabel Dedring, had her qualifications scrutinised by the, er, Evening Standard, which found that:

Ms Dedring wrote the Climate Change Action Plan for the former mayor Ken Livingstone. (more…)

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