A year and a half on from the General Election – now lost in a pre-Covid19, pre-Brexit world – we are about to be immersed in the biggest electoral splurge in living memory. On 6 May there are elections for London and other city mayors, for Scotland and Wales, for much of local government (though not London boroughs) and even a Parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool.
So, here’s a quick Party Political Broadcast before getting back to the perennial subject of vaccines and Thames crossings.
I have a rare if not unique insight to the two possible winners of the London Mayor election, having been shadowed by Tory candidate Shaun Bailey for three years when he was my opponent in the 2010 general election and then acted as deputy to Sadiq Khan for five years when he was shadow Lord Chancellor.
You could not have two more different candidates. Sadiq is a serious-minded politician, focused, hard-working and competent. He has a good record to stand on and an exciting programme for a second term.
Shaun has none of the above, and I’m shocked he appears to have learnt nothing in the past ten years, despite being gifted a range of high-profile jobs Downing Street and the London Assembly.
Either there is not much to know, or he allows himself to be packaged and sold by his Party in an unconvincing way. The insights into his actual views are unedifying and out of tune with what most Londoners think, and it looks like even the Tory Party has got fed up with him and is pulling support.
Perhaps this is why Priti Patel (more of her later) has said the voting system in London will be changed for the next Mayor Election to advantage the Tories. But for now, I urge everyone to vote and give Sadiq your first (or if that is already promised to another non-Tory candidate, second) preference vote.
Personally, I think this election should have been all postal ballot given the continuing Coivd19 risk, so advise everyone to sign up for a postal vote now. Again, I suspect this is a bit of voter suppression by the Tories who think they do better on a low poll.
As well as voting for the Mayor, you get two other votes – for a Party (I suggest…Labour) in the Assembly election and for our local Assembly member for the three boroughs of H&F, K&C and Westminster aka West Central. I very strongly endorse Rita Begum, a Westminster councillor who I know well to be a hard worker and champion for our part of London and its residents.
News last week that a contract had been awarded to run a ferry alongside Hammersmith Bridge from later this year was a step forward, but it felt like a leap back in time.
The ferry will start to run from ‘the end of the summer’, operate between 6am and 10pm weekdays, take eight hundred passengers an hour, including cyclists, and use the hopper/oyster card system to collect fares. Further details are awaited of the works that need to be done to allow safe boarding and disembarking, and how much it will cost to set up and run.
As the Standard observed, if you put eight ferry boats in a line we could walk across. A little black humour is allowable as on Saturday we enter the third year since the initial closure to motor traffic with no sign of substantive works to the Bridge itself. The first Bridge opened in 1827 because the ferry from Chiswick Mall was considered antiquated. What a farce that two centuries later so much time and effort is going into…a new ferry.
I know there is a lot of sniping and political gameplaying on this issue to the despair of Bridge users across London and beyond, but it really is pretty clear now who is playing politics and where the buck stops.
I am convinced, having followed every twist and turn over the past two years, that LBHF and TfL have sincerely tried to find, promote and fund a way of repairing the Bridge. And let’s face it, why wouldn’t they? What is in it for the Mayor or the council not to have the Bridge fully functioning. LBHF paid or committed almost £10 million and TfL £50 million before the Covid crash deprived it of its income stream. Over £20 million has actually been spent.
You would think the government would share these objectives, and without Covid19 and the postponement of the election maybe they would have come up with the balance of the cost, say £100 million, last year. Yes, it is a lot of money, but billions are being spent on major engineering projects in the borough (HS2, Crossrail, the Thames Tunnel), hundreds of millions on road and bridge schemes around the country with far less local contribution than is demanded in Hammersmith, and Johnson endlessly tells us we can afford vanity projects like the estuary airport, the garden bridge or the England-Scotland-Ireland tunnels.
Not a penny has been given by the government to repair the Bridge, and the Taskforce exists solely to delay the project, presumably (but with extraordinary contempt for all of us) because they think this somehow benefits the Conservative Party. Well, judging by my inbox, that ferry has sailed. But just as a reminder, here are three ways the government could have got the Bridge open to foot/cycle traffic as quickly as it is taking to get the ferry moving.
This time last year TfL was ready to apply for planning permission for a temporary footbridge to provide access and allow works to the main Bridge to proceed unhindered (this incidentally was what happened when the first Bridge was taken down and the current one built in the 1880s). But to get consent from the river authorities, TfL had to show it had the funds to complete the whole project (so they could be sure it was a genuinely temporary solution) and the government would not underwrite these.
After the full closure last August, it was estimated to cost £46m to stabilise the Bridge and allow it to reopen to foot/river traffic and for repair works to proceed over the next five years. No estimate puts the government share of costs below this figure and had they agreed to it then the Bridge could have been stabilised and reopened this summer.
LBHF have worked with architects Foster and Co and engineers COWI to design a temporary bridge that sits inside the current towers. This is estimated to take a year to allow pedestrian use and only a few months more to permit motor traffic. The existing Bridge would then be disassembled and repaired offsite. Fosters presented to the Taskforce last autumn. They are still waiting to hear.
A year ago, I and other affected MPs from Barnes, Putney and Chiswick debated the Bridge in the Commons. Next week we will be doing so again. We have little choice but to raise the issues with ministers in this way as they have refused to meet us. I hope we will not be calling the same debate next year. And I hope we will not still be catching the ferry to Barnes in 10 years’ time.
Vaccination is continuing in the borough at three GP centres, one pharmacy and the Novotel, though still not at the levels I had hoped given March was supposed to be a time of glut between two shortage periods. Over-50s, the vulnerable and second-dosers are the targets, with under-50s put on hold for the time being. Some stats look very good: over 96% of care home residents have been vaccinated, one of the highest figures anywhere, and a further tribute to LBHF social care services.
Looking at ethnicity, some groups are almost at 80%, others below 50%. Rates for the various age groups over 50 are in the mid-80%s, which is better than it was but still a good 10% below national averages. There is about a 10% gap between the best off and worst off 10%.
The next three months are going to be crucial in determining whether we are beating the virus. It looks like testing is finally going to get the prominence it deserves, and the council-run service here is excellent. But unless the government is prepared to help those who test positive with income and isolating we will be throwing good money after bad – and not controlling the spread.
The ‘vaccine passport’ – showing proof of vaccination, a negative test or having has the disease – sounds like a work-in-progress to be polite. Civil liberty concerns have been raised – though there are some more direct attacks on those from the Home Secretary and others – and the risk of creating haves and have nots when accessing services. But the killer questions are how would it work and where would you need to use it? Not needed, I assume, where distancing can be observed – in shops for example, but necessary for major events and crowded spaces?
So, does that mean no passport for pubs while there is outside drinking and table service, but introducing it once we are back to crowding at the bar? And how long would it last? With all adult supposed to be vaccinated by the autumn will we still need to show we’ve been jabbed?
However, the big issue for now is: will the roadmap work? Can we keep the R below 1 as more and more of the country opens up? As a blueprint it could work. Has the government done what it said it did last year, but didn’t, and listened to the science? Opinion on that is divided.
And will they continue to listen? Johnson’s return to populist gibberish in his roadmap announcement this week makes me doubt that. He should be explaining clearly what will happen, when, and how it can turn to dust if we don’t continue to follow the remaining rules. Instead we get: ‘on Monday 12, I will be going to the pub myself and cautiously but irreversibly raising a pint of beer to my lips’. Then he adds: ‘But – and you know I’m going to say this – we can’t be complacent’.
Tone is important. Every previous Prime Minister would have understood this. If they don’t take it seriously, why should we? Instead we get the equivalent of a ‘free bet’ ad with a ‘gamble safely’ message hidden in the small print.
This also suggests, if it starts going wrong, he won’t react in time once again. It was clear by the end of August last year that the infection rates were moving in the wrong direction – slowly at first but enough to indicate further lockdown steps were needed. Johnson did nothing effective for months. He buffed his libertarian credentials with the Tory right, and thousands of people died needlessly. He has inverted the previous relations politicians had with the media and the public. Instead of him setting out policy and the listeners responding to it, he gives a running infantile commentary and we are supposed to work out what it means and what we are supposed to do.
Over the easter weekend bookings for vaccines were down almost 40% and nearly 20% of those booked were no shows. With the ‘course change’ on use of the AZ vaccine, fears about lack of border controls and new variants, and the inevitable increase in infection rates as lockdown ends, it is vital that the messaging on and the response to the pandemic remains robust.
Infection rates and hospitalisation have dropped dramatically in recent weeks but have now levelled off. Hospitals are far being back to normal and although outpatient appointments are at 75% of usual levels that still means a huge and growing backlog of treatments and elective procedures.
There are many dangers still on the road out of Covid19 and we can all do our bit by getting vaccinated when called and continuing to follow the lockdown rules even as they relax.
It is proving difficult for those wishing to peacefully protest, it is doubly so for the police. Firstly, they have to get the ever-changing law right. I don’t think they did at Clapham – they had the option of agreeing and jointly stewarding a gathering with the organisers, which may well have avoided some of the worst confrontations.
The police must facilitate the right of free assembly, as allowed under the Human Rights Act, including when it is being used to denounce restrictions on those very freedoms shortly to be made law by an intolerant government, which the police will then have to enforce.
If demonstrations start to cross a line, they need to react proportionately.
They don’t always. But often they are put in an impossible position by politicians who should know better. The Belfast rioters are responsible for bringing terror to the streets, but the rising tension in Northern Ireland is the result of the terrible Brexit deal Johnson inflicted on the whole of the UK which undermines the Good Friday Agreement.
A responsible government doesn’t provoke or constrain its citizens, nor does it put police officers trained to police by consent into unnecessary confrontations. This is not a responsible government, nor is this the only way it is picking off important civil liberties and targeting groups it thinks are easy to pillory.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the target of some demonstrations, allows the Home Secretary to determine what constitutes an illegal demo, and allows police to close one down if it is noisy or takes a route they don’t like.
When I spoke in the first Commons debate on the Bill I also highlighted that it criminalises trespass for the first time. This is worrying ramblers, campers, and other lovers of the countryside, but it is mainly targeted at Gypsies and Travellers, the most disadvantaged ethic groups in the UK.
There are already sweeping powers for the police, landowners and councils to remove unauthorised encampments, but the Home Secretary wants an instant power of arrest without discretion backed by hefty fines, imprisonment and confiscation of cars and caravans, in other words people’s homes.
The following week she attacked asylum seekers – making their right to claim asylum dependent on how they apply (which may well be unlawful in itself).
When their own appointed panel, chaired by a Tory peer, refused to say judges had too much discretion to rule government decisions unlawful, the government ignored the findings and are pressing on anyway. The Human Rights Act itself – one of the most successful pieces of legislation on the Blair/Brown years – is under ‘review’ and another – the Freedom of Information Act – is honoured more in the breach than the execution.
I voted for the extension of the Coronavirus Act as the lesser of two evils – without it furlough and other necessary provisions could end prematurely – but it was not necessary to extend its most restrictive measures beyond June.
However, if I had to choose which of the many recent acts of government that have attacked or undermined its own citizens would have the worst and longest-lasting effects, I would point to the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Where to start with a poisonous document that seeks to deny, and in some cases ridicule, the racism experienced by many UK citizens.
The Commission wilfully undermined the positives of the Black Lives Matter movement and the attempts to address racial inequalities that persist 22 years after the MacPherson report called out institutional racism. Instead it declares: nothing to see hear. Move on.
This is a typical piece of Johnsonite mischief, stirring up division, increasing disadvantage, denying the discrimination that he not only seeks to benefit from but actively participate in.
Never in peacetime has there been more need to pull together with the aim of mutual support and equal treatment, yet we have a government that wants to go to war parts of its own population already subject to discrimination.
Some local news
I was out with the Doorsteppers to mark their first anniversary collecting tonnes of food from generous H&F residents to supply the H&F Food Bank. Doorsteppers has been built from scratch by Margaret Blankson, using her own contacts, huge energy and often her own money. Watch out for their collection leaflets and please give generously. Even better if you can make a donation to help with the costs of keeping the show on the road.
And don’t forget all the other wonderful charitable groups supporting people through the pandemic.
The Upper Room is continuing its virtual spring lectures with playwright and novelist Michael Frayn on 21 April and journalist Jeremy Paxman on 19 May.
Another bank closure
Santander, as part of a national branch closure programme, intends to leave Shepherds Bush. A crazy move in my judgment when it is practically the only bank left on the Green and the area is expanding with more not less businesses and residents moving in.
We now have five ‘temporary’ post office closures in Hammersmith, including the main office due to return to King’s Mall. I am in weekly touch with PO Ltd in an attempt to hurry this along.
While HS2 have been clearing the area on the north west border of Wormwood Scrubs in preparation for their works relocating a main sewer and other utilities, the Friends of the Scrubs have been building natural barriers to offer protection for the displaced wildlife in the meadow area on the western side.
The complex battle of the residents and the council to push all the works including access routes to the northern boundary has been a success in limiting the damage, and we must hope humans, machines and nature can find a way to co-exist for the next year so the Scrubs can return to its untamed habitat status as soon possible.
Freddie the Seal
Even the lively online wrangles over Hammersmith Bridge were tempered by a welcome visitor to the neighbouring towpath. A seal cub, named Freddie (Mercury) for his star quality, cheered us up mid-lockdown but was then cruelly attacked by an out of control dog and suffered so badly he had to be put to sleep.
Another example of how we need to show more respect to each other and the natural world around us, even in the heart of the city. The last few weeks have shown up the best and worst of human nature. It would be good if those with a public voice emphasised the former over the latter.