This is the second post reporting on key sessions from Saturday's ProLodon Conference (previously: future of aviation). Note that the meeting addressed London's issues from a left-wing and largely pro-Livingstone position, and this should be borne in mind when reading what follows. We welcome comments and criticism from the other side of the debate in the comment section below.
Ken Livingstone (Chair)
Steve Hart, Unite the Union
Richard Hebditch, Campaign for Better Transport
Caroline Pidgeon, London Assembly Member (Liberal Democrats)
Val Shawcross, London Assembly Member (Labour)
Catherine West, Leader of Islington Council
Kicking off the session, Ken Livingstone didn't miss the opportunity to accuse Boris Johnson of imposing a fare-rise 'stealth tax', before handing over to Steve Hart, who picked up the Boris bashing and ran with it.
Speaking of cuts to services, the mayor is not, claimed Hart, “some reluctant partner in crime with David Cameron, but an early outrider”. Upon taking office, the Mayor very quickly cut bus subsidies and curtailed the Dagenham DLR link. Hart also pointed out that, while fare increases will bring in £60 million a year, scrapping the western congestion zone and extensions to the low-emission zone will lose City Hall coffers a similar amount, effectively taking more from the poor and aiding the rich.
The floor then passed to Richard Hebditch, a man of more positive tones. He reminded the room that facets of London's transport system are often held as a shining examples overseas, and that investment and development continue through Crossrail, Thameslink, Tube upgrades and other schemes. However, bus fare increases are likely to lead to political trouble for the Mayor. The hikes will cut deepest in the poorer outer boroughs, which offered key support to Boris at the last election. He also noted that TfL's budget is largely protected until the Olympics, after which it is due to take a dive. Whoever wins the next mayoral election (here a glance at Ken Livingstone), will have a 'fun job'. Key challenges for that person will include improving transport options in outer boroughs and pursuing clean air policies.
Caroline Pigeon AM was then introduced as the person with the task of pinning down Boris each month at Mayor's question time. “Pinning down Boris is like pinning down jelly,” she chuckled. Like many at the conference, she believes Boris' main problem, and it's a biggie, is his lack of long-term vision. While he's quite happy to cut ribbons at projects initiated by his predecessor, there's precious little on the horizon in terms of new transport initiatives. Unlike most other speakers, however, she did offer a few ideas to help Londoners get around (although all have been aired before):
- Initiate an hourly travel card for PAYG bus users, who currently pay multiple times as they switch buses.
- Clamp down on Oyster overcharging at stations without barriers and poorly signed Oyster readers.
- Sort out the problems with rail operators such as Southeastern and Southwestern, using the highly successful Overground network as an exemplar.
- Force embassies to cough up for congestion charge back-payments (reckoned at £50 million).
- Sort out the problems of step-free access to certain Tube stations.
- Electrify the Barking to Gospel Oak branch of the London Overground to remove polluting diesel engines.
Val Shawcross, running for deputy mayor at the upcoming elections was then introduced by Ken. “I think you'll agree she's fit and ready to be mayor if I was incapacitated or shot or something,” he quipped. Val had her own (oxymoronic) soundbite, that Boris is a 'deeply shallow' Mayor. His election pledges were all so many 'dog whistles', such as removing bendy buses. When he got into power, he initiated a 'bonfire of projects', which were weeks from implementation. His published transport policy is full of gaps (e.g. he notes that car use is set to grow, but gives no measures to ease it). She then strayed into pot-kettle-black territory with her own 'dog whistle' idea of starting the Twitter hashtag #I'veSpottedBorisOnABus, to coax the Mayor into riding on the public transport he represents.
The session was rounded off by Islington Council leader Catherine West, who repeated the mayoral 'lack of vision' mantra, but this time from a jobs perspective. She lamented that although we're in a 'golden age' of local engineering (Crossrail, Thames super sewer, Tube upgrades, etc.), we're not making enough efforts to train and retain local talent. She also criticised the current administration's lack of support for initiatives like the Freedom Pass and Taxicard, which were supported with money from City Hall under Livingstone, but are now the responsibility of local councils.
The Q&A session ranged widely from Cycle Hire (no one here was calling them Boris Bikes) to the Overground network (variously hated and adored by audience members).
Ken revealed that, if re-elected, he'd be looking into reviving the old Cross-river Tram idea, another project cancelled by Johnson (although looking shaky even during the last days of Ken's tenure).
Finally, the Mayor's recent decision to drop plans for 2011 to be branded 'Year of Walking' were lampooned by Shawcross. "The Mayor suddenly realised he's got 132 pedestrian crossings he wants to remove, and it would look a bit odd."