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Sunday, 23 October 2011

Lancaster city of surprises

I helped organize a stag weekend for one of my closest friends earlier this year. We went to Lancaster. Why Lancaster? You may well wonder. Everybody else did. While it was an honour to serve as best man, the fact that there were two of us sharing this duty meant that there was always a danger of being led down the path of compromise. And so we went to Lancaster. It was far enough away from where everybody lived, so the potential for mischief was greater. Unfortunately, the potential for mischief in Lancaster was negligible. Don't be drawn into thinking that because its a university town there's a lot of naughtiness. That's why everybody goes to Blackpool!

What it does have going for it, apart from mini cab drivers with a seemingly endless stream of homophobic jokes, is some exceedingly beautiful streets and lanes and old buildings made from the kind of pleasing stone that you only find the further north you go. Lancaster Castle is almost next door to the station, sitting on a hill which overlooks the town. Tours may be a problem as these days it functions as a prison.

A little reported fact about Lancaster is the fact that it is also a hotbed for environmental activism. Downstairs from the Single Step Wholefood Shop on Penny Street, you will find the Lancaster Resource Centre, which is home to a wide array of eco-activist groups. Since 2000 Lancaster has been home to Seeds for Change, a non profit training and support network which helps people organize for action and social change.

That's not something they put on the tourist information brochure.

Friday, 14 October 2011

What Has Boris Ever Done for Us?

Boris Johnson is a conservative journalist and politician whose appearances on the satirical TV news show Have I Got News For You and comments in the press can sometimes be very witty and amusing, while at other times being outright insensitive and even a bit racist (such as the time when, on the campaign trail, he cringingly described a young black child as a “picaninnie”). But, putting aside the casual racism, let’s take a look at what he has done for London since being elected Mayor?

His Staff at City Hall
His administration did not get off to the best of starts, being dogged by scandal from the beginning. First, there is the case of his first Deputy Mayor for Young People, Ray Lewis, who was appointed by Johnson on May 6 2008, two days after assuming control of City Hall.
Lewis had been embraced by senior Tories for his work with disadvantaged youngsters at the Eastside Young Leaders Academy in east London. Understandably if you consider that his approach to London’s problem teenagers was one of tough love and strict discipline. However, before he could damage these youngsters further, Lewis was forced into the position of having to resign only two months after being appointed to his role, following allegations of financial misconduct during his previous career as a Church of England priest [1]. Johnson claimed he was “misled” by Lewis [2], whose resignation came within days of the resignation of one of Johnson’s senior advisors, James McGrath, over racist comments he was alleged to have made about African-Caribbean migrants.

Early Initiatives
One of Johnson’s first moves as mayor of London was to ban the consumption of alcohol on public transport, which TfL’s director of transport policing and enforcement described as “reasonable”, and to halt the westward expansion of the Congestion Charging zone introduced by previous Mayor Ken Livingstone (primarily, it seems, to satisfy the residents of Kensington & Chelsea), which annoyed motorists no end but resulted in a noticeable improvement in air quality in central London.
He also set up the Forensic Audit Panel, tasked with monitoring and investigating financial management at the London Development Agency and the Greater London Authority, which had previously investigated allegations of financial mismanagement itself. However, questions were raised about the “politicization” of this nominally independent panel. It is headed by Patience Wheatcroft, a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and wife of a Conservative councilor, and three of the four other panel members also enjoy close links with the Conservative Party.

Wasting Money
In 2009, at the height of the MP’s expenses scandal, it was revealed that Mayoral expenditure on taxi fares had risen significantly under Johnson’s administration, and that “out of a total of £8,169 in personal expenses incurred since he took office, taxi costs were by far the biggest item as he ran up a bill for £4,698 to be ferried across the capital” [3].

Green Credentials?
A keen cyclist, in July 2010 Johnson launched a new bike hire scheme in London, popularly known as the “Boris bike”. The scheme, which was sponsored by Barclays Bank with the stated aim of turning London into a “city of cyclists”, was subsequently undermined by his decision to cut £10m off the budget for new cycle lanes in London [4]. An unintended bonus of the scheme, though perhaps one not appreciated by Johnson or his sponsor, was that the bikes provided anti-arms trade activists with a wonderful means of drawing attention to the fact that the scheme’s sponsor, Barclays, also invests heavily in the international arms trade. This was done by pasting info stickers across the large Barclays logo which the bikes were originally emblazoned with.

Charitable Projects
To his credit, Boris Johnson supports a number of charitable causes, including The Iris Project, an educational charity which promotes the teaching of classics, ancient languages and culture in inner city schools.

Courting the Gay Vote
He has also made a serious attempt to distance himself from his support for the homophobic Section 28 which he supported back in 1988. This nasty piece of legislation, which prevented teachers from “promoting homosexuality” by talking about it in the course of regular sex education classes, and hampering their ability to tackle homophobic bullying in schools, was only repealed in 2004. Like most Tories, Johnson voted in favour of the legislation at the time, although he now thinks, like the rest of his party, that it was a “bad idea.” Quite when his views altered is not clear, as he was still making comments like this one, in his book Friends, Voters, Countrymen, as recently as 2001:
“If gay marriage was OK – and I was uncertain on the issue – then I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men; or indeed three men and a dog.”
I hope this was intended as a joke, and that the “libertarian” stance he has adopted towards LGBT rights subsequently, especially in interviews given to the gay media [5], is sincere. He has, it must be acknowledged, voted in favour of civil partnerships in recent years.

Law and Order
One of the things which undoubtedly played a part in Johnson winning the 2008 mayoral election was his decision to halt the planned westward expansion of the congestion charge, especially into the wealthy boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea. This certainly mobilized the owners of expensive 4x4’s against previous mayor Ken Livingstone, and his power mad crusade to improve the air quality for people who live or work in central London.
Given his previous track record of abolishing funding for bike lanes and protecting the freedom of rich people to drive high polluting vehicles, it is easy to see that Johnson is a mayor who takes no serious interest in environmental issues. But his electoral base tend to care more about law and order and the economy than “wooly” issues like environmental health, so as long as he’s tough on crime it should be all plain sailing, right? Could anything really work against him at the next election?
In February 2011 Mayor Johnson announced that he would be slashing 300 police sergeants from London’s 630 teams (in June the Met Police figures revealed that the number of officers in London would be cut by 1,800 over the next two to three years). This would seem to be an inevitable consequence of the cuts to public services demanded by the government, except that somehow the number of City Hall staff on 6 figure salaries has increased from 16 to 28 [6].
Will Londoners be taken in a second time, or will Johnson return to what he does best, peddling his unique brand of wittiness and bigotry on satirical quiz shows?

Notes:
1 http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2008/jul/05/boris.london
2 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/7491084.stm
3 http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23711920-boris-johnson-dents-cycling-image-with-4698-taxi-bill.do
4 http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2008/nov/21/london-cycling-boris-johnson
5 http://www.pinknews.co.uk/news/articles/2005-5535.html
6 ‘Police cuts in spotlight as 2012 ballot draws nearer’ Morning Star, Thursday July 14 2011