Hiatus

Sadly, at the moment it’s not possible for me regularly to update this site. I would strongly recommend that anyone who finds themselves on this page while looking for close scrutiny of the actions of the London Mayor to take a look at the sterling work being done by BorisWatch.co.uk. In the meantime, Boris, even if we’re not writing about you, we’re still watching you.

The first forensic results are in

Boris’ Forensic Audit Panel has released an interim report on effectiveness and value-for-money in the LDA and GLA. I suggested when they were formed that their job would be to find just enough dirt on Ken to make Boris seem like a white knight in comparison, but from this release it seems that they’re taking a slightly more subtle approach. There are two parts to this: the official interim report, and then the panel comments to the press about the report. A quick summary of both:

In the report it is claimed that “the London Development Agency has been historically an organisation where success was measured by money out rather than objectively observed results”, and that the structure and relationship between the GLA and LDA was poorly understood and poorly managed, leading to money being squandered. This of course (and it is acknowledged in the report), all follows on from Andrew Gilligan’s dednunciation of, and subsequent war with, Ken Livingstone over allegations that the former Mayor was diverting LDA funding to his friends. Nicely summarised here. But although this is the sexy scandalous bit, they have to concede in the report that although Ken’s advisers may have pressured the LDA into making decisions about who to give grants to, “it appears that they would have been within their rights to do so. They are employed to help the Mayor achieve his objectives and the LDA is charged with delivering on those objectives.”

Thus the interim report doesn’t really conclude very much of interest. They claim that the LDA wasn’t very well managed and that some money was wasted, but they don’t really come up with anything nasty against the former Mayor.

In the press, however, it’s a different story.

For starters, Patience Wheatcroft, head of the panel, has let it be known that she is “somewhat horrified” by the results of her findings. And the Times is running a story entitled Boris uncovers Ken’s ‘wasted millions’. All this is to be expected – the panel claims to be uncovering an inefficient regime that wasted tax-payers’ money, and although (or perhaps because) they don’t have hard facts and conclusions yet, this being only an interim report, they are spinning what they do have as much as possible. But the really sneaky bit is this: The Sunday Mirror online is running a story entitled ‘Reduce Boris’s powers’. They’ve managed to get a quote from Wheatcroft claiming that “We are looking at things which could be a potential curb on the powers of the Mayor.”

Shock horror! The panel has found that Ken Livingstone expanded then abused his powers by diverting millions to his own terrible ends. They even call the Forensic Audit panel an “anti-corruption panel”.

Now compare this to the report itself, which didn’t find anything inappropriate about the behaviour of the Mayor and his aides. All it did was criticise the efficiency and effectiveness of the LDA and GLA grant-giving process. There was nothing in the report to support the idea that the Mayor’s powers need curbing.

As far as I can tell, this all means that Boris and his chums are still scared of Ken. They want to criticise and damn him, but don’t have any actual dirt. So rather than risk his wrath by insinuating anything too mean in an official document, they keep their interim report bland, and simply use it to express “concern” (the word is used five times in three pages”, but then let slip little digs at him to all any any journalists who care to listen.

It’s rather pathetic really.

As to the extent to which money was wasted by an inefficient and perhaps incompetent LDA, we can’t be sure yet. Ken Livingstone is quoted in the Times as saying “The fact that even a Tory-dominated panel keeps repeatedly coming back to such a small number of projects which allegedly failed and which represents such a tiny fraction of the LDA’s budget actually shows the organisation’s overall success.” Which is one way of looking at it. I fully expect the panel’s final report, which should come in about a month, to have some actual findings based on solid evidence, and I would imagine that it won’t reflect very well on Ken Livingstone’s mayoralty at all. But whether we’ll be able to find the evidence and facts amidst all the bluster in the press is another story, if this interim report is anything to go by.

Boris: Not actually the root of all evil?

Boris Johnson has a powerful enemy, who is beginning to make his presence felt: Bob Crow. Crow is general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, and an ex member of the Communist party. Not the sort of person who would take kindly to Boris Johnson anyway, especially since one of Johnson’s manifesto pledges was to “take the thumbs of the RMT off the windpipe of London commuters”, and he described the “stranglehold of the RMT on the neck of the London commuter” in a speech to the London Business School in January.

Crow described Boris’ new Deputy Mayor, Tim Parker, as the “Prince of Darkness”, as I mentioned in an earlier post, and was quick to criticise Boris’ proposed ban on booze on the tube, claiming it was “has been poorly thought through, is being implemented in haste and could put our members in greater danger”. He argued that enforcement of the ban would force underground staff to confront drinkers on the tube, which would do nothing but lead to greater levels of violence against staff. He also claimed that it took three weeks after the ban was announced for the Mayor’s office to meet with union safety representatives to discuss it.

Crow has a point, but remember that it is his job first and foremost to represent the interests of union members. Were the ban fundamentally a good thing (and I’ve previously argued that it isn’t), the mere fact the enforcing it will potentially lead to violence isn’t necessarily a killer argument.

The events of last night, however, gave Crow more ammunition for his big angry anti-Boris gun. A bunch of people organised a party on the circle line to celebrate the last night of legal drinking on the tube, and a bunch of idiots got angry and spoiled it by getting violent, assaulting and spitting on staff, vomiting and damaging the trains, leading to 17 arrests.

From Bob Crow’s perspective, all of this is Boris Johnson’s fault. In an official statement he said “We warned that [the ban] could put out members at greater risk of assault, but there is no comfort in being proved right when Tube workers have been injured and abused.” Furthermore, according to Crow, “Johnson should apologise personally to all those who were assaulted and abused last night.”

In this Crow has gone too far. Yes, the ban is a bad idea, poorly thought through, and seemingly done without consulting the RMT, which was a mistake. Yes, it will probably lead to greater levels of violence against staff when it comes into effect, while people adjust to the idea of not being allowed to drink, and it’s not obvious that people will ever fully adjust. But what happened last night, while it occurred as a result of Boris Johnson’s actions, was not Boris Johnson’s fault. The stated aim of the party was: “Enjoy one last blowout party while it’s still legal!” This wasn’t supposed to be a riot or a demonstration, but rather a celebration. In fact, the plan suggested by the organisers was that revellers stick to the last carriage of each train, in an attempt to “minimize the impact we might have on those who aren’t in a fun mood.”

Where it went wrong is that the British are incapable of having fun with alcohol without it going wrong. According to the Tube Party facebook group, the original partygoers weren’t to blame. This morning the group was updated with the message: “FUN ALL ROUND, NO SCENES OF VANDALISM OR ANTI SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR UNTIL THE REST OF LONDON JOINED AT NIGHT”. While I’ll take this with a pinch of salt, it’s clear that the original intention of the vast majority of party-goers was not to cause trouble. But then they got drunk, and trouble happened by itself.

So: while it’s because of Boris’s ill-thought-out ban that large numbers of people ended up drinking on the tube last night, it’s not his fault that it turned ugly. For that you have to blame our terrible, terrible drinking culture. Bob Crow is wrong to point the finger, but you can bet he’ll keep pointing it. Crow is definitely one to watch as Boris’ Mayorship unfolds (or unravels).

Recycling

Just a quick note on Boris’ announcement that he is going to chair the London Waste and Recycling Board. It should be pointed out that the £60m they’re shouting about is to be spread over the course of 3 years, so we’re only talking £20m a year. Not a huge point, but worth being aware of.

Also, in the press release they claim that “The former Mayor refused an offer to Chair this Board.” Two points about this, gleaned from lwarb.co.uk (you have to give them an email address to access the whole site). First, the role requires 4 days a month of work. Given that Boris seems keen to spend at large parts of his mayorship on holiday (see previous post), losing another 4 days would cut his time spent actually mayoring to dangerously low levels. Second, since the job description of Chair of the Board includes the requirement to  maintain “open dialogue” with the Mayor anyway, having the Mayor actually chair the thingdoesn’t necessarily add all that much value. So there’s no real reason to chide Ken for refusing to run it.

And I’d like clarification on the following sentence from the press release:

In addition, the Mayor now aims to direct up to £24 million of London Development Agency funds, being used to improve waste management in the capital, to complement the work of the Board.

It seems to me like the natural reading of this is that £24m which is currently being used to improve waste management is going to be directed to complement the work of the Board. That work is, largely, to improve waste management. In that case, the £24m isn’t going to be spent any differently. An alternative reading is that £24m will be redirected to being used to improve waste management, and this will complement the Board’s work. But if that’s the case, where is the money coming from?

Can someone clarify?

Mr Johnson goes on holiday

I realise I’m not the first to point this one out, and it’s a somewhat easy target, but come on:

I will work flat out to repay and to justify your confidence.

– Boris Johnson, after winning the election less than a month ago, as quoted here.

The man is now on holiday.

It gets worse. Monday was Africa Day. Boris seemingly approved:

The Africa Day celebrations in Trafalgar Square are an excellent opportunity to get a taste of Africa and its many cultures. Let’s make this event one to remember.

– Boris Johnson, as quoted here.

And yet, because he was off in Turkey with his family, he didn’t turn up. Apparently “Let’s” in this context means “I’ll let someone else…”.

Please let there be other people who find this as dispiriting as I do.

Boris flies the flag

This week Boris Johnson has clearly been keen to show his true blue Conservatism, with two announcements that shove his Tory credentials into the faces on London. From a party-neutral perspective there should be nothing wrong with this. He is, after all, a conservative, and it is only to be expected that he should act like one. The problem is that they are both bad decisions.

First up was his appointment of a First Deputy Mayor and Chief Executive of the GLA Group, Tim Parker. Parker is a hard-headed businessman, a capitalist’s capitalist. The Times calls him a “slash-and-burn” chief executive, and hes quoted in the Telegraph as  professing himself to be “quite a strong believer in free markets and…. quite against centralism.” He has turned around Clarks, Kwik-Fit, the AA and several more businesses. Exactly the dynamic, forward-facing type the modern Conservative party wants to get things done.

But Parker takes it several steps too far. In his first 100 days overseeing the AA he had 3,500 people fired, and he turned up at the Clarks plant to announce job cuts in a Porsche 911. Small wonder that Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union  refers to him as the “Prince of Darkness”.

What’s most disturbing is his apparent condescension towards the GLA. In the mayoral press release he said “I relish this opportunity to bring out the best in the GLA Group. I’ve spent my career taking over struggling companies and making them strong.” Of course Boris wants to publicly brand the Ken era GLA as “struggling”, so that he can then claim to be improving it, but for Parker to call it such right at the beginning suggests he’s already seeing himself as the saviour of London, the man who’ll turn this two-bit town around. If I worked at the GLA I wouldn’t be looking forward to this man’s arrival at all.

Boris’ second announcement (although he announced it very quietly – over the bank holiday weekend, and without putting it up on his website) was that he’s ending the oil deal Ken Livingstone made with Venezuela. When the original deal was announced the idea was to provide Londoners on income support with subsidised bus travel by doing a deal with Petróleos for cheaper oil in exchange for London’s expertise in urban and infrastructure planning. It was also a way of flying Ken Livingstone’s socialist colours high, by aligning himself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Small wonder that Boris would want to phase it out.

It is frustrating, though, that Boris couldn’t seemingly think of a single good reason to do away with the deal. While the deal was originally criticised by London’s Tories and Lib Dems, Boris claims that “many Londoners felt uncomfortable about the bus operation of one of the world’s financial powerhouses being funded by the people of a country where many people live in extreme poverty”. I wonder if he’ll use the same logic to shut down the sale of fair trade foods next. Perhaps we fat, affluent Westerners should be uncomfortable with our bananas being provided by people who live in extreme poverty? It’s a silly argument – the point of the deal was to help Venezuela improve its living conditions, in exchange for something that would improve living conditions for the poorest Londoners. Why should we feel uncomfortable about this? As Ken Livingstone says, “The suggestion that Johnson is motivated by any concern about the people of Venezuela is just a lie shown by the fact that he is withdrawing all technical support and advice provided by London under this agreement.”

I’m thoroughly unconvinced by both of these moves. Appointing someone who likes to axe jobs and piss off unions and axing a mutually beneficial deal with a South American republic show Boris Johnson to be two distinct things: A Tory (which is what he wants these moves to show) and a fool (which was presumably less of an intended effect).

Environment

Boris was always the straggler in the election race when it came to green politics. He was widely ridiculed for seemingly missing the point about Heathrow, and rightly so. He opposed expansion of it under the heading of “Make Transport More Sustainable” in his manifesto, but then came out in favour of a whole new airport. It may well be preferable to put a new airport in the east rather than expand Heathrow further, but neither option has anything to do with sustainability.

Likewise, his policy on vehicle emissions seemed confused. Although he opposed Ken’s £25 Congestion Charge for gas-guzzling, emission-heavy vehicles, describing it as “a stick with which to beat motorists” that would hit families and small businesses, he also supported the Low Emission Zone, which targets…gas-guzzling, emission-heavy vehicles. The discrepancy was, as you might expect, screamed about by the pro-Ken camp. Again, rightly so. Of the two policies Boris supported the one with the catchier name that didn’t involve penalizing the Kensington & Chelsea 4×4 brigade who, traditionally, are core Conservative voters.

Time, then, to look at the rest of his environmental policy. He says he will:

  • Use the Mayor’s powers to protect the green belt and protect against development on gardens.

For those not in the know, the green belt’s history and purpose is summed up nicely here.

  • Invest £6 million in making our open spaces cleaner and safer.

This would be nice, except that once again Boris is letting his security obsession get in the way. I’m prepared to bet that more of the £6m goes towards ‘safer’ than ‘cleaner’, so this isn’t necessarily much of an environmental pledge.

  • Invest in 10,000 street trees to improve the local neighbourhoods that need them most.

He’s already started on this one, which I mentioned a couple of posts ago. The problem I had was in finding out why it is that local neighbourhoods actually need these trees. Well, since then I’ve found this site, on which Boris claims that “Not only do trees improve the street environment, they absorb CO2 and traffic noise, provide habitats for wildlife and help cool streets when temperatures rise.”

They do improve the street environment, yes – they have aesthetic appeal. But a tree absorbs only a tiny amount of carbon dioxide (about 30 grams a day ), not enough to make an impact (bear in mind that even the most efficient hybrid cars produce about 4 times that much per mile). Especially since the carbon they absorb will be offset by the CO2 produced by the respiration of all that wildlife sheltered by them (what exactly does Boris have in mind here? Pigeons?). And, unless I’m missing something, this cooling mechanism Boris talks about is…shade. Also provided by…buildings. So we still haven’t found much to make planting trees a world-changing strategy. Moving on.

  • Promote innovative new schemes that pay Londoners to recycle.

This annoys me. Recycling is expensive but important. So we shouldn’t make it more expensive for councils by making them pay people to do it, we should make it harder to avoid by penalising people for not doing it.

  • Work closely with boroughs to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill, and support a ban on plastic bags.

I have my own crazy theories on land-fill which don’t deserve airing here. For the time being let’s assume this is a good thing, and watch carefully for actual progress on this. Does he actually mean to ban all plastic bags (which would be great!) or just to ban the practice of giving them out for free? Time will tell.

  • Oppose the third runway at Heathrow and mixed mode operation.

We’ve already discussed this above. Opposing Heathrow expansion counts for nothing in environmental grounds if instead you open up a new airport elsewhere.

  • Promote hybrid buses and get traffic moving more smoothly to reduce congestion and so reduce emissions.

I was initially sceptical of this – I didn’t believe that reducing congestion could have a significant effect on emissions, but according to this research from the US I’m wrong. So far Boris’ methods of getting traffic moving are plans to re-phase traffic lights and to get Thames Water to reduce time spent doing roadworks. He might actually be doing some good here.

  • Make London a genuinely cycle-friendly city to promote modal shift.

I had to look it up, but in the context of transport, modal shift is generally used to mean a change in the zeitgeist towards embracing healthy transport. Let’s see it happen, Boris.

  • Work to help cut London’s carbon emissions by 60% from their 1990 levels by 2025, through promoting greater energy efficiency and cutting
    congestion.

Yes. I was actually very surprised to see this one; it didn’t have the feel of a Boris environmental policy. But I support it all the way. Even if it’s not attainable, setting it as a target has to be A Good Thing.

  • Work with the boroughs to encourage Londoners to install insulation in return for Council Tax rebates.

In this case, I think the carrot rather than the stick approach is the right way to go about it. Since insulation provides long-term financial benefits to home-owners anyway, a rebate to give people enough of a short-term incentive seems like the right thing to do.

    • Champion innovation through an annual Mayor’s prize of £20,000 for the best new ideas for low carbon technology from London’s students.

    A little bit gimmicky, this one, but still, seems like a good idea.

    All in all, then, Boris’ environmental policy, at the outset, doesn’t seem as much of a train-wreck as I expected. There are some genuinely positive initiatives among the airport-, tree-, and emission zone-related fiascos. However, I still don’t trust Boris to be green. Anyone who can write as facetious and childish an article as this still needs to be watched.