Friday, 30 July 2010

Is today the high point of Boris Johnson's term?

The Cycle Superhighways had a mixed reception and Cycle Fridays was an almost comical failure but has Boris Johnson finally struck gold with his cycle hire scheme?

After repeated failed attempts to register online, I finally managed to sign up via the call centre, and I'm looking forward to getting my key and having a go.

There are lots of problems with the scheme, the biggest of which are the overly complex registration process, and the severe shortage of stations in South London and outside zone one.

But grumbling aside I think there's little doubt that we will look back at this as the high point of Boris's mayoralty, as the day where he finally got round to *doing something.*

The bikes look good (Barclays logos aside) and they're attracting media interest in a way that none of Boris's other half-baked schemes have managed.

So no it wasn't his idea and at £140 million it hasn't been provided "at no cost to the taxpayer" but I have little doubt that this will transform how many people see Boris as Mayor.

The likes of Simon Jenkins won't be happy about it and no doubt stories of vandalism and tragedy will plague the scheme for years to come.

But if TfL can get the scheme to work well then this could be a start of something great for Londoners.

And with little else to boast about after two years, could this finally be the start of something great for Boris as well?

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Why cabbies shouldn't worry about Boris's cycle hire scheme

I've picked up some disquiet amongst tweeting and blogging cabbies about Boris's cycle hire scheme.

Why is Boris (who so many cabbies supported in 2008) spending £140 million on something that will clog up the roads and take cash from their cabs?

I think that these worries are misplaced and here's why:

  1. The number of people using the scheme will be relatively low. Bike rides currently make up just 1% of journeys in London. Even the most optimistic predictions have that growing to just 5% by 2025
  2. Of those using cycle hire schemes elsewhere, the vast majority have shifted from either walking or other forms of public transport.
  3. TfL's market research found that just 1-3% of cycle hire users would otherwise have used cabs.
  4. The scheme is not designed for commuters. Bikes have been deliberately placed away from railway stations. Taxis will still be the easiest way to get from the station to the office.
  5. The bike scheme should attract more tourists and visitors into central London and more visitors equals more business for cabbies.

For a full breakdown of the figures see TfL's feasibility study.

The Guardian also have a good piece comparing Paris's experience with London.

Of course there will inevitably be problems with the scheme.

More inexperienced cyclists on the road could well mean more accidents and no doubt there will be plenty of complaints from drivers generally.

But overall it should pose no significant threat to cabbies and may in some ways actually benefit the trade.

Now if that happens cabbies really will start to worry.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Ban protests to save money says Tory AM

A Conservative London Assembly Member has called for bans on protests in the capital, in order to save money.

Steve O'Connell, one of the highest paid councillors in the country, said yesterday that we could no longer afford the "luxury" of demonstrations:

"The point I'm making here is in the new era of very difficult financial choices are we able to continue with the luxury of demonstrations going forward in a very liberal manner with a small 'l' and commit the costs that we have in the past? I don't believe we can afford to go forward in that way."

Speaking to the Metropolitan Police Authority, O'Connell said that policing protests would no longer be seen as a "priority" by residents:

"Should we not actually be considering whether we can continue offering the [policing] service to these demonstrations? Should we not have a situation where we get to the stage where if the funding isn't there to provide the service, we should be having a conversation with the organisers where we say "you cannot have your event because we do not have the resources to fund it"?

The huge costs of the Tamil protests were widely objected to last year and the cost of managing the Parliament Square protests were also used as a justification for a ban.

And with 25%- 40% cuts on their way the Met Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson said yesterday that it would be "absurd" to suggest that the force would not shrink.

Yet O'Connell's comments come as the government anticipates widespread protests and civil unrest against these cuts.

As Labour MPA member Toby Harris wrote on his blog yesterday:

"The Coalition Government knows how problematic some of their policies are going to be, particularly as the massive cuts in public services start to take effect.

They also know how convenient it will be if dissent can be suppressed in the name of cost saving.

Steve O’Connell was clearly flying a kite on behalf of the Coalition. He certainly hasn’t been slapped down by more senior members of his Party."

Now Harris may be getting slightly ahead of himself here.

But with police cuts already coming could government austerity increasingly be used as a justification for restricting personal liberty?

Ken and Boris versus the cuts

My latest column for Snipe is about Boris Johnson's attempts to save London (and himself) from the cuts coming our way:

"Last week Liberal Democrat Transport minister Norman Baker warned that “there is a feeling, justified or otherwise, that London gets a very good deal. If we are all going to have to take difficult decisions they have to be fair and not be seen to advantage one part of the country over another....

Boris can see the danger of this and is trying his hardest to pose as the man who will fight off disaster. Yet for all the headlines it still isn’t clear what the Mayor is actually doing to prevent it."

The mayor's comments follows Ken Livingstone's own campaign to reclaim London by promising to "fight the cuts like I thought Thatcher."

I wrote more about Ken's chances and the capital's growing indifference to the current Mayor in my previous column for Snipe:

"Asked how he was doing in the job, just 26% said they were satisfied with [Boris], down from 44% for Ken three years ago. More telling was the huge amount of people who have little or no opinion of Boris’s performance at all, up to 63%.

"So while Boris is clearly a less divisive figure than his predecessor, he is also making far less of an impact on Londoners. And with the government cuts set to hit London hard in 2012, Londoners may well decide it is in their interests to turn to Ken."

Which is why Boris will work hard to disassociate himself from the current government.

How well he succeeds with that, and how well Ken succeeds in stopping him could yet determine which of them wins in 2012.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Boris Johnson's Cycle Friday scheme scrapped

Boris Johnson's Cycle Friday scheme has been scrapped after the total number of Londoners taking place dropped to just five.

At one meeting place just one Londoner turned up and at five others the rides were cancelled due to no Londoners turning up at all.

After a second week of no-shows, the Cycle Friday project was scrapped with Boris admitting that turnout had been "far lower than planned."

The scheme whereby Boris and a team of "marshals" guide novice cyclists to work ran for a limited period last year.

The mass of publicity that accompanied the scheme included television coverage, a celebrity prize and "twitter cards."

This resulted in less than a hundred Londoners taking part each week, with City Hall even resorting to massaging the figures.

Despite this, the scheme was resurrected this year, but this time with the bright idea of paying for no dedicated publicity at all.

Here's the result:

Cycle Fridays will now be replaced with a new scheme whereby riders register their interest in advance with rides only taking place "in response to sufficient levels of demand."

With "sufficient levels of demand" presumably meaning "more than none."

Liberal Democrat Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon said today:

"After last year's flop of Cycle Fridays and the dismal figures for this year's events it should be obvious to the Mayor and Transport for London that guided cycle events simply aren't working.

"Insetad of flogging an idea that isn't working Transport for London should concentrate on making the roads safer for cyclists and ensuring that cycle superhighways and cycle routes are kept clear."

Earlier this week the Mayor launched the first two of his "Cycle Superhighways."

When completed the lanes will cost London an estimated £168 million.

Let's hope they work a bit better than Cycle Fridays did.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Parliament Square traffic island cleared of protestors

Conservative lover-of-freedom Boris Johnson rejoiced today as Parliament Square was restored to its historic role as an unloved and inaccessible traffic island.

Bailiffs and police moved in overnight to secure the square for all those who risk their lives crossing three lanes of traffic on route to a featureless patch of grass.

Pedestrian crossings to the island have long been absent and plans to pedestrianise the square were scrapped by Boris two years ago.

However the Mayor said today that he was overjoyed that the island could once again be enjoyed by the millions of "responsible protestors" and jaywalkers who visit it every year.

Westminster Council chief Colin Barrow said he was pleased that "vociferous minorities" had been turfed out of a "World Heritage Site"

Irritating pedants once again pointed out that Parliament Square has *never* been part of any World Heritage Site.

However, thanks to Boris and Colin it will remain an unloved and unreachable patch of grass surrounded by three lanes of gridlocked traffic.

And anyone wishing to protest about this state of affairs would be advised to stay off the lawn.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Could anyone rid cronyism from City Hall?

The Mirror are leading on a story about "Bonking Boris" and his relationship with somebody called Helen Macintyre.

They don't quite come out and accuse them of an affair, but the implication is pretty clear to anyone picking up a copy.

My first thought upon seeing this was 'who cares?' Londoners knew that Boris Johnson was a cheat and a liar when they elected him. Why should it matter now?

But buried within the story is the claim that Boris gave Helen a job connected to the Olympics which she used to extract a donation from her husband.

Now I don't know exactly what Helen did for London because there was never any announcement of her appointment nor is there any mention of her on the website.

So how many other friends of Boris, paid or unpaid has he given jobs to since he was elected? Is anyone keeping a record?

And what exactly is the recruitment process these days at City Hall?

The subject of cronyism came up at yesterday's Mayor's Question Time where Boris was pressed once again on the re-appointment of his friend Ray Lewis.

Why had Boris given Ray another job, after he resigned in disgrace and after he was reported to have made a series of homophobic, sexist and racist comments?

Boris had little new to say on this, other than to repeat that Ray is a decent guy and besides those comments were reported in the Guardian, and who trusts them anyway? Etc, etc.

After Mayor's Question Time, the City Hall press pack retired to the corridor outside to question Oona King about her own pledge to rid City Hall of cronyism.

Remember that one Boris supporters?

As part of her pitch Oona announced the donors to her campaign as being Simon Schama, Peter Kellner, and Lord Waheed Alli. No cronies there then.

Oona said that if she was elected she would reinstate Mayoral press conferences and set up an "entirely independent" panel to scrutinise and veto Mayoral appointments.

So who would appoint people to this entirely independent panel asked Martin from Mayorwatch?

Well that would be the Mayor replied Oona. Ah...

Cronyism and City Hall

Anyone who followed the last Mayoral elections would have seen the series of stories about Ken Livingstone and his close friends and associates working in City Hall.

Boris came in promising to "sweep cronyism out of City Hall", but so far he has proven himself to be just as subject to it as his predecessor if not more so.

As the only fresh face in the contest Oona King is trying to resurrect it as an issue, but the truth is that whoever is elected, friends and associates of that person will end up with jobs inside City Hall.

Ditto Downing Street, ditto every Town Hall in the country.

Promises to rid cronyism from politics are as trustworthy as the "end to the era of spin" pledges that every spin doctor spins out upon entering office.

Politics is not a meritocracy. Politicians help and rely upon their friends.

It's not right and we should always seek to scrutinise and expose them for it, but it's a fact of life. It's a given.

All we can hope for is that they make life better for the rest of us while they're at it.

Has Boris? Has Ken? Would Oona?

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Tory EasyCouncil to get austerity-busting pay rises

Grant Shapps on the new Conservative Age of Austerity in local government:

"It is not justifiable for hikes in councillor allowances when public sector workers are facing a two-year pay freeze", Shapps said. "We're all in this together, and those who hold public office need to lead by example"

Which is news that has not been passed to the Tory leader of Barnet's "low-spending EasyCouncil" who is set to get a 55% pay rise:

EasyCouncil Leader allowance pre-austerity: £34,909

EasyCouncil Leader allowance post-austerity: £54,227

Under the proposals, Lynne Hillan would ditch allowance levels recommended by the "local independent remuneration panel."

She would instead accept the higher level recommended by the then Tory-run London Councils organisation.

Their "independent report" has also given cover for rises in Conservative-run Croydon council, although these were quickly ditched when the BBC turned up.

The Labour Mayor of Newham has also used the report to justify increasing his own pay by 2%.

Meanwhile the pay of Boris Johnson went up by a less-bang-for-your-buck 5% last year to £143,911.

And despite Shapps' call for a "‘sunlight’ of openness" for some reason the Mayor's salary is no longer easily accessible on the website:

So much for austerity and openness.

-Update- Barnet Labour Group leader Cllr Alison Moore said today:
"It is absolutely obscene that at a time of savage service cuts, public sector pay freezes and anticipated job losses through the easyCouncil programme that top Barnet Tories are proposing to award themselves a pay increase of up to 50%. What's more this scheme will cost Barnet council tax-payers more money. Contrast this with our proposals - voted down by the Barnet Tories - in each of the last three years to cap councillors' allowances, which would have saved Barnet council tax-payers money"
Barnet TUC will be demonstrating against the rises outside Hendon Town Hall tonight.

*Wednesday Update*

Barnet Tories forced throught the rises last night against Labour and Lib Dem opposition. One Tory Councillor Kate Salinger abstained as a "matter of conscience."

She was then stripped of all her committee roles as a result. Councillor Brian Coleman said that residents would be "delighted" by the rises.

Grant Shapps told the BBC that Barnet should "For goodness sake show some leadership"

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Two Kensington Councillors resign over emails

Two Councillors in Kensington and Chelsea have resigned after they exchanged "sexually suggestive" emails about children.

Former Conservative Mayor of Kensington Cllr Barry Phelps distributed a series of black and white images of young boys with "lewd" captions written underneath.

Councillor Mark Daley was one of the recipients of these emails and failed to challenge Phelps about them.

In one email a boy is pictured standing in front of a priest with "prey" as the subject line.

Others portray young boys bent over and in sailor outfits with similarly suggestive captions underneath.

Leader of the Residents First campaign group Justin Downes reported the emails to the Council after being alerted to them by a resident.

In a statement Downes said that:

"These were innocent images and Councillor Phelps has created sexual overtones to them. I think it's absolutely right for them to go when the council proclaims itself as a council which is absolutely intolerant of child abuse."

When first confronted Phelps is alleged to have claimed that the emails were "witty" and accused the complainant of being a closet homosexual.

A spokesman for the Council said that the matter was subsequently referred to the Police.

In a statement today Council Leader Merrick Cockell said:

"Both have been dedicated and effective ward councillors. However, once it was established that unacceptable emails had been sent out on the Council’s system by one Councillor and had gone unchallenged by the other, both decided that they should resign."

There will now be a byelection held later this month

Two byelections will now be called.

Scrap these NON-JOBS now!

The government is declaring war on public sector "NON-JOBS" with "meaningless titles."

Now I'm all for this. There's too many people getting paid for pointless jobs with ludicrous names and we just can't afford it any more.

So considering that we're all in this together, I'd like to give Eric Pickles a few suggestions of my own:

1. So how about Baroness Anelay "Chief Whip Captain of the Honourable Corps of the Gentlemen-at-Arms"? - that's got to be a NON-JOB.

2. Or Alistair Carmichael "Comptroller of Her Majesty’s Household"? - Blatant NON-JOBBER.

3. Or Lord Shutt of Greetland "the Lord Captain of the Queen’s Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard" - NON-JOB again.

4. Or Greg Clark MP installed as "Minister for Decentralisation" after his promised post was taken by a Lib Dem - Complete NON-JOBBER.

5. Or Baroness Warsi who was made the government's "Minister without Portfolio"? - They even admit it's a NON-JOB in the title!

Of course I haven't actually bothered to check what any of these people actually do.

But then why should I? Just look at their titles. Their ridiculous, ridiculous titles.

Boris Johnson to ban 'undemocratic' strikes

After failing to bring in his promised "no strike deal" with the unions, Boris Johnson now wants to ban certain strikes instead.

"between 30 and 40 per cent of a union's entire membership would be required to support industrial action, as well as a majority of those actually voting, to make a strike legal."

They argue that strike ballots with low "turnouts" have no legitimacy and that thresholds would ensure that all strikes have a democratic mandate.

But why stop there? Why not apply the principle elsewhere?

Take Boris's consultation on removing the Western Extension which received the impressive backing of around 0.3% of Londoners.

Or his comrade David Davis, who withdrew his labour at public cost and received the backing of just 24% of his electorate.

Or Boris himself who was elected as Mayor with the first preferences of just 19% of his electorate.

Where was the democratic mandate there Boris? Is it time for another ban?

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Boris Johnson backs cable car across the Thames

Boris Johnson has come out in support of a cable car across the Thames at North Greenwich.

The possibility of a crossing between the O2 and Canary Wharf was discounted by TfL last year as impractical and a privacy risk.

However, the possibility of a privately funded crossing between the O2 and the Excel Centre was left open:

Boris told the Press Association today:

"A cable car spanning the majestic Thames would not only provide a unique and pioneering addition to London's skyline, but also offer a serene and joyful journey across the river.

Passengers would be able to drink in the truly spectacular views of the Olympic Park and iconic London landmarks whilst shaving valuable minutes from their travelling time. It would also provide a much needed enhancement of cross river options to the east of the city."

Boris has made it repeatedly clear that he backs the Silvertown road crossing at North Greenwich as outlined here.

However, with the coalition government set to slash TfL funding, a privately funded cable car is now seen as a good and cheap 'interim' measure.

Indeed a similar 'interim' crossing was installed in New York in advance of a Subway route but has been kept ever since.

Singapore also has a similar crossing although it has not had quite as smooth a history.

The appeal of a cable car was first pointed out to Boris by Green Assembly Member Darren Johnson two years ago, although I think Boris was more keen on the catapult!

Darren Johnson (Deputy Chair): If you are not pursuing [the Thames Gateway Bridge] are you going to be looking at the independent report which is one of the last things that the Greens managed to squeeze out of the previous Mayor in the final days of his administration? It puts some wonderful ideas forward as alternatives to the current proposals for a six lane road bridge. Are you going to look at that?

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): I will certainly look at your alternatives. What are they? Do you envisage a kind of catapult!

Darren Johnson (Deputy Chair): They are not from me; they are from independent transport experts. There is a range of options: a public transport only bridge; not having cars on but allowing some commercial vehicles and public transport; a cable car, which is an exciting idea. There are lots of ideas there.

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): I do think that everybody in London has got to accept that we do need another crossing east of Tower Bridge. Yes?

Darren Johnson (Deputy Chair): Look at a cable car!

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): A cable car? Well, we will look at a cable car.

And so he has. But will it actually happen?

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Pedestrian Crossings to be removed across London

Transport for London have targeted 145 sets of traffic lights and pedestrian crossings that could be removed across the capital.

The locations released to the London Assembly are described as an "initial list" of lights that are no longer considered "useful" by TfL.

Now, I'm all for removing traffic lights at junctions where they cause unnecessary congestion and there are plenty on the list that fall into that category.

But around half of the lights targeted are pedestrian crossings, and are often located by small parades of shops like this one in Avery Hill:

Who benefits from taking these down? How much congestion can an occasionally used traffic light create?

-Update- Via @BorisWatch comes this truly mad example outside Primary school gates in Kensington:

Whose bright idea was that one?

Labour Assembly member, Val Shawcross who obtained the list said today:

"The Mayor should be extremely cautious about taking out pedestrian crossings and reducing crossing times from London's roads. Pelican crossings are there for the safety and convenience of people on foot but they make up half of the lights proposed for removal. If anything we need more safe places to cross busy roads; not less. Pensioners, those with disabilities and parents of young children might not shout as loud as car drivers but they're ones who stand to lose out under these plans."

Boris Johnson has also announced plans to change crossing times and is trialing "countdown timers" across London.

However, pedestrian casualties have fallen dramatically in London in recent years and TfL need to be careful not to reverse that trend.

  • I have uploaded the full list of traffic lights under consideration for removal here.
  • BorisWatch are also compiling a GoogleMap here.
  • More local reaction from SE1 and 853