Confessions of a Political Animal

September 20, 2010

Cross with care: Evidence-less policy making

Filed under: London Politics,Transport — Political Animal @ 7:11 pm
Tags: , , ,

Back in July, Transport for London announced it was consulting on the removal of 145 sets of traffic lights across the capital, half of which included lights with pedestrian facilities. All part of the Mayor’s obsession with his mythical goal of ‘smoothing traffic flow’, which increasingly seems to take priority over the needs of every other road user. The outcry from residents, the London Assembly and borough councils is well documented elsewhere. I was alerted to the remarkable nature of some of the proposed removals by the fact that several were within spitting distance of my then central London workplace, involving pedestrian crossings on a busy road popular with tourists, shoppers and school groups. Removing the crossings in question would have led to around 300m between crossing facilities, encouraging pedestrians to dice with often fast moving traffic.

Many of the other proposals looked equally ill-thought through, so I stuck in a Freedom of Information Act request to TfL, asking for their evidence base in choosing the pedestrian crossings earmarked for removal. Specifically I asked for what, to me, seemed a sensible data set that ought to be part of any judgement as to the continued need for a pedestrian crossing – and which would not be particularly onerous to collect:

– the number of times each crossing was used by pedestrians on an average day;

– the distance from the nearest alternative pedestrian crossing;

– average traffic speeds at the crossing location;

– data relating to traffic congestion caused by existence of the crossing.

After it took two months for TfL to respond, I was expecting a pretty hefty evidence base. Alas no.

“I can confirm that we do not hold the information you require.”

So, what were the selections based on?

“These signals were selected following a review of traffic flows and historical accident data and, where the sites include pedestrian facilities, observed pedestrian demand levels.”

Oddly, this last point sounds remarkably like what I asked for, but never mind. You have to question how useful historic accident data is – in many cases the crossings will have been in place for decades and the nature/levels of pedestrian or traffic uses will have been completely altered in that timescale. Nor does it appear that there was any quantitative approach to considering which crossings actually had any serious effect on traffic flows. The lack of an evidence base certainly increases the perception that these crossings have been picked almost at random, hence examples outside schools or tourist attractions being amongst their number. Evidence-less policy making towards an evidence-less policy.

One small bit of good news, however. Apparently, further analysis

“may include the collection of some of the data you have requested.”

Good. But who knows if a completely different – and somewhat more sensible – list of traffic lights for removal would have been drawn up if some of that data had been used in the first place?

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June 21, 2010

Time for the street-fighting council

On May 6th 2010, Labour won by a small landslide.

Yes, you did read that correctly. Because as the party fell to defeat in parliamentary seats across the country, it swept to power in London borough after London borough. Before the elections, of 32 London boroughs, Labour had majority control of just 7, running a further one in a coalition and one more as a result of having the elected mayor. By the evening of Friday 7th May, Labour had overall control of 17 boroughs, running one more as a minority administration. In 9 of the remaining 14 boroughs, Labour increased its number of seats. Eighteen months before the elections, I suggested that if the general and local elections were to coincide, this might prove to be to Labour’s benefit. So it turned out, but the results were far beyond what I predicted in that post. There is something more than just an increased turnout behind these very good results; and I believe that it has a direct bearing on how Labour councils in London, both newly-elected and returned, should conduct themselves over the next four years.

The easy answer to ‘Why did Labour do so well in London’ is that the party’s core vote turned out. But the core vote cannot deliver 18 boroughs – in reality (as was tested in 2006), it can be guaranteed to deliver about 5 boroughs. What turned out across London on May 6th was what I will describe as the ‘Core+’, a coalition of broadly progressive forces more akin to that which delivered two Livingstone victories than to that behind the 1997 landslide. With a Conservative victory nationally seen as certain, voters with personal or political reasons to fear the onset of Osbornomics (the radical, ideology-driven downsizing of the state using deficit reduction as a pretext) turned out, only partially in hope of preventing this, but equally to try to ensure that savage cuts would be opposed at a local level. For better or worse, this coalition of forces overwhelmingly saw Labour as the party best placed to deliver that opposition.  (more…)

May 28, 2010

Oona: a history and ambition mismatch

Being young-ish and dull, I have a Salieri-like disposition to beat up on those who appear to be young and bright. This colours my view of the world in a rather unpleasant way, so what I’m about to write needs to be viewed in that context.

Learning that Oona King was indeed running for the Labour nomination for the London mayoralty is rather like getting confirmation that Lord Lucan is dead: something that most people have accepted for some time. This meant I had a partially formed opinion already of what I felt about her candidacy, but the past week has crystallised that for me. I am now more convinced than ever that if the Labour electoral college was to nominate King, then Boris Johnson might as well start writing his speech for the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.

 Over the past 5 days, there has been a concerted effort in sections of the Labour-leaning blogosphere and Twit-osphere to convince nay-sayers such as myself that King has ‘changed’; that to attach too much credence to her past as a committed Blairite is in some way unfair. Now, I’ll accept that people change. I even accept that some politicians change, although that list is mainly limited to Napoleon Bonaparte and Tony Benn.

This narrative is at least honest – it accepts that Old Oona, the undissenting New Labour MP simply does not fit the settled London view of what its Mayor should be like – basically, it wants independent-minded mavericks. It also accepts that the Old Oona, unbending in her support for a morally questionable invasion of Iraq, who achieved the unthinkable of losing a super-safe inner London seat on a swing of 26%, does not have the kind of electoral record that would appeal to the party and affiliate members who will select the candidate. (more…)

February 5, 2010

Living in an Alternative (Vote) London

But who? And how?

The Prime Minister’s proposals for electoral reform are too limited and too late. But despite that I support them.

Not only because I believe the introduction of Alternative Vote is a key step on the way towards the introduction of a genuinely proportion (and more psephologically interesting) electoral system but also because the rabid response of the right has convinced me that Brown must be on to something. This has ranged from Cameron’s none-too-subtle barbs about rigging the electoral system at PMQs, through to the ill-advised playing of the Mugabe card by Reading East Tory Rob Wilson MP*.

As I like to give all politicians the benefit of the doubt (stop sniggering at the back, there) I’m prepared to be convinced that if we weren’t 100 days from a general election then the response would be a bit more considered. Because if this is an attempt to rig the electoral system, it would be an astoundingly cack-handed way of doing it. Alternative Vote makes no significant amendment to the UK’s constitutional settlement, it is highly unlikely to break the dominance of the two major parties and will leave the vast majority of seats in the same hands as currently, albeit with a little more legitimacy for the sitting MP.

Whether the AV transition is likely to happen this time round or not is a moot point. But I remain convinced in some degree of historical inevitability of electoral reform in the UK, and AV seems a very likely first step whenever it comes around. So what would it mean? I don’t have the time or inclination to go through each of the UK’s 650 constituencies, but I thought I’d have a run through the London region: not only because it’s my home, but also because we have some experience of this sort of system. The Supplementary Vote system used for electing the Mayor is a hybridised form of AV, in which the voter is limited to expressing two preferences, rather than being able to number all the way down the ballot paper. So there is a bit of evidence, albeit somewhat unwieldy, as to how voters might react to a preferential system. (more…)

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…)

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…)

September 4, 2009

What a difference 12 months doesn’t make

Summer's over, Mr Mayor

Summer's over, Mr Mayor

Last autumn I wrote a couple of posts examining the effectiveness of the London Assembly’s questioning of the Mayor – and in particular the interesting (that’s to say hands off) approach adopted by the Conservative Group.

So, with a year passed and the summer recess over, I thought it might be apposite to see if anything much had changed. After all, the Mayoralty has certainly moved on in those twelve months (in many cases in ways the Mayor would probably rather forget), so shouldn’t the Assembly have moved with the times too?

With the usual caveat of  quantity not being everything, let’s take a quick look at just how many questions the political groups are now tabling, using the forthcoming Mayor’s Question Time on 9th September (questions publ;ished here) and comparing it with that held on 10th September 2008. (more…)

July 29, 2009

What a load of Phibbs

conservative-homeIn many ways I admire ConservativeHome. It’s an attractive, reasonably open and user-friendly site that does genuinely appear to seek to engage with the Party’s grass-roots activists and supporters.

It has a problem though – serving as it does as a bit of a shop window for the Tories, it does with some regularity highlight to the outside world the more, ahem, interesting points of view and personalities within the Party. You know, the sort any party would want to keep a little under wraps – it’s not a partisan thing, every party has them. However, ConservativeHome sometimes seems to go out of its way to highlight them. Take, for example, the innocuous sounding statement ‘Cllr Harry Phibbs edits ConservativeHome’s Local Government page‘. I don’t know a huge amount about said Cllr Phibbs, but I’m learning – largely through his own teachings. And the more I learn, the more I feel that an equivalent statement would be ‘Margaret Moran MP edits LabourHome’s Probity in Public Life page’.

Cllr Phibbs represents the Ravenscourt Park ward in the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, flagship council of the Tory right since they took control in 2006 – tax-cutting, service-slashing, employee-bullying, homeless-bashing. The council’s most recent brush with the media spotlight has surrounded the intriguing views of Leader Stephen Greenhalgh about exactly for whom and where social housing should be provided. Some have intimated that his policies are almost Porter-esque. The Animal is saying nothing for fear of the libel courts. (more…)

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