Tony Devenish: Conservatives can be pro-cyclist and pro-motorist

8 Dec

Tony Devenish is a member of the London Assembly for West Central.

Why have we Conservatives got ourselves in such a mess over cycle lanes, both in London and right across the country?

There is near unanimity amongst the various left-wing parties and, more importantly, a unanimity of purpose across the unelected, ostensibly impartial, notionally apolitical, public sector leaders that there is a transport ‘modal’ hierarchy and motorists are last in line. They are pressing for more cycling and walking (which, we should be clear, is a good thing) but their primary objective is more sinister. It is to drive the private motor car and most road traffic – goodbye, white van man – off our roads and tax putatively what remains.

Many actively call cars “the new tobacco”. Londoners who are unfortunate enough to be living in Labour-controlled Boroughs, wonder why they are being ignored in fighting against new LTNs or Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. I’m surprised that the “Nanny in Chief”, Labour’s Sir Kier Starmer has yet to make a speech on this. Perhaps, if he hadn’t knocked a cyclist off his bicycle the other week in his gas guzzler, he would have done.

The excuse offered for these LTNs is that they will improve air quality. This is undermined when air quality fails to improve in London – even during Covid and lockdown – despite Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, exercising every tool at his disposal as if he were trying to hurt motorists, businesses, and tourism. When his policies fail, we are told we must be “more radical”. Why can’t they be smarter instead? I fully support, for example, freight consolidation centres, which were pioneered during the 2012 Olympics and are being trialled in the West End. Or more electric buses. But far too many of the measures being pushed are anti-choice and anti-Conservative.

While the talk is often about discouraging “unnecessary journeys”, who decides which journeys are unnecessary? I have spent plenty of time since Covid struck listening to devastated grandparents who, having been isolated from their grandchildren during Lockdown One, have been shocked to discover that they are being actively discouraged from driving their loved ones to a favourite High Street over the summer months. Most 80-year-olds and the disabled will struggle without a car. I have spent even more time reassuring businesses trying to recover from Covid as authorities actively block motorist customers from visiting struggling shops and offices.

To be clear, retrofitting cycle lanes onto existing road layouts, which in many of our towns and cities haven’t changed since the horse and cart gave way to the car a hundred years ago, is not easy. Many cycle paths have been – the vast majority agree – ill-considered and implemented at counterproductive speed. My own local road surface has had to be dug up and re-laid four or five times in the last four years in order to ensure both traffic and cyclists can coexist. Transport flow is an art not a science.

None of this is new. The final two years of Boris Johnson’s Mayoralty saw an unprecedented growth in cycling provision in London and the numbers of daily journeys by bike was 49 per cent higher when he left City Hall in 2016 than it had been when he arrived in 2008. I had hoped we would have learnt lessons such as that bedding-in cycle schemes needs to be done with great care, taking the time to take the public with us.

If there is one golden rule in politics, it is surely this: to take the public with you. This means that if radical change is necessary or desirable, it needs phasing in incredibly carefully. Many cyclists openly admit it will take 20 years to truly expand cycling demand. In the meantime, the case for building more and more Cycle Superhighways is questionable. When these double-width cycle lanes, which take so much road surface, are imposed in the wrong place (such as the Embankment) it is hard to escape the view that the primary aim under Khan has become to push motorists off the road to accelerate so called “modal shift”. Cycle Quietways are far more in keeping with cycling demand in London.

Public consultation is far too often used as a “tick box” exercise by those such as the Mayor of London, who only accepts real consultation if it delivers the answer he wants. It is shameful that, much to Khan’s gleeful delight, it was this Conservative Government that in July – as a Covid measure – suspended the need for public consultation for up to 18 months. An unprecedented and truly chilling decision. Technology like Zoom shows consultation is actually easier with the nation stuck at home. Please think again, Grant Shapps.

A lack of consultation allowed Khan to increase the Congestion Charge to £15 a day and to expand its hours of operation from 7am-6pm weekdays-only to operating seven days a week until 10pm. Another kick in the teeth for wealth creators. Khan who knows how to tell a blatant lie then blamed the Government.

It took Alexandra Shulman, the former Editor of Vogue, to ask the question “when did being a motorist make you Public Enemy Number One?” I hope we Conservatives will pause, look in the rear-view mirror at the great British public and decide the Nanny State vote is sown up by Labour and the other statist political parties. We Conservatives must U-turn and support choice. We must recognise that for some people and for some journeys it makes sense to drive a motor car – and stop penalising those who make that choice. The PM’s speech on the environment shows the future can embrace electric cars. We should, in parallel, support the sensible expansion of cycling and walking. As the PM is so fond of saying, we can have our cake and eat it.

Tony Devenish: Opponents of planning reform ignore the big changes in the sort of buildings we need

29 Sep

Tony Devenish is a member of the London Assembly for West Central.

The Government’s White Paper “Planning for the Future” is 80 pages long, but essential reading – and not just for ” built environment nerds”. Nicholas Boys-Smith, of Create Streets, has made an excellent case for it. As someone who has served as a Planning Chairman on Westminster City Council for much of the last 15 years’ and more recently served as the London Assembly’s Planning Chairman (2016-17) and Regeneration Chairman (2018-20) I commend his work.

While Boys-Smith covered the planning specifics, it’s the politics I wish to cover here. A recent Financial Times report should be a “wake up call” for those who think we still live in an analogue age – including some voices at the Local Government Association, London Councils, and “Sadiq Can’t” – as the Prime Minister calls the deeply disappointing Mayor of London.

The FT declares that “Apple passes markets’ milestone as shares take valuation to $2 trillion.” A doubling in just two years. The White Paper spells out these realities – with proposed solutions. To be clear, Covid has accelerated trends as great as those that followed the changes to society within decades of the invention of trains, motor cars, and jet engines. The internet is here to stay. The public has chosen to do nearly half of shopping online. They exercise choice – which is a Conservative word. That means the mix of buildings we will need in the future will be very different.

When I read some of the ill-informed coverage of the White Paper it makes me think of the mob which protested outside Wapping Print Works and Orgreave mines in the 1980s. Luddites are as old as history. My London constituency contained (at least pre-covid) the biggest cluster of wealth-creating businessmen and women globally with the possible exception of New York.

One canny self-made Sunday Times Rich List constituent put it much better than I can:

“Whenever someone says they have made their money in X, it almost always came from either food, the rag trade, land and property. That’s where the tax comes from to pay for our public services. Which the Left forget”.

When I first sat on a Council Planning Committee in 2006, I was astonished by the almost artisan 19th Century approach of much of planning. But, as the White Paper states “notices (of planning applications) on lampposts are changing to an interactive map based online system”. Since March 2020, many Councils have seen greater political engagement, with Covid encouraging residents’ to use existing online tools to register their views. Hundreds, not dozens, of people are having their say.

The White Paper will be modified before becoming law. It is not perfect, nor does it pretend to be. But it is right to focus on two outcomes:

  1. Reform equals more homes and more jobs. We hear a great deal about Europe from the media. I have yet to see many quote page 14 of the White Paper: “In Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, you can get twice as much housing space for your money compared to the UK”. We can make the necessary reforms here and learn the lessons which underpin the White Paper from the late great Sir Roger Scruton’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. Does anyone seriously believe we don’t need more homes or jobs?
  2. Reform equals proper (not tickbox) engagement of the entire community. From MP’s expenses – to the Brexit referendum – has shown we all need to do more to win back the publics’ trust. At present I am receiving dozens of emails a week from upset constituents in Hammersmith and Fulham who feel a planning application was rushed through just before Covid with little or no communication changing the entire feel of their locality. The current system is not fit for purpose. Only those who work full time in the planning world fully comprehend how to “work the system”. Reform of a 1947 system is urgently required. Please note it does not mean conservation areas are under threat – something I would fight against with all my power. Design must be improved for many buildings.

So do read and respond to the White Paper with its 26 questions. To all my colleagues in local government, please help make this long overdue reform work. Something we can be proud of.

My grandfather was a housebuilder in the 1920s and 1930s. When I read that in the last 30 years, the number of small builder businesses have dropped by 40 per cent I applaud Robert Jenrick, the Housing, Communities and Local Government, for taking on noisy special interests. He may follow Ken Baker, Iain Duncan-Smith, and Michael Gove, and be one of the few Cabinet Ministers to actually achieve something.

Tony Devenish: The Greater London Authority is undermining localism

14 Jul

Tony Devenish is a member of the London Assembly for West Central.

Older ConservativeHome readers will remember when Neil Kinnock used his Party Conference speech to attacking the dysfunctional Liverpool City Council. In recent years, a handful of other councils have failed to protect vulnerable children or to manage their budget prudently. On each occasion, the Government of the day “calls in the inspectors”. Usually parachuting in former senior local government officers.

There appears to be less precedent for what to do with failure from a regional devolved administration. As a proud localist I welcomed the reforms from Blair/ Brown to Cameron/Osborne. Long overdue attempts to stop running the entire United Kingdom from one square mile in SW1. I am delighted to see many devolved authorities flourishing under dynamic leadership, regardless of party political label. Supported by their teams of local government staff. Andrew Street in the West Midlands, Ben Houchen in Teesside, and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, are just three positive examples.

It is profoundly painful for me to conclude that the Greater London Authority is in very real danger of undermining localism. More importantly, it is in danger of letting down Londoners at a time of a global health and economic emergency.

The foundation of the problem is the Greater London Authority Act (1999) which, like much of the “soundbite” agenda of Tony Blair, failed to adequately think through the consequences. The GLA which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary has prospered despite “cracks in the foundations”. Papered over by the professionalism of its local government staff; its Assembly Members, most of whom are steeped in London Borough public service. And especially by the “larger than life” personalities of the two senior politicians who each served London for eight years’ as Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, supported by first-rate Deputy Mayors. Most of whom were the calibre of a Cabinet Minister.

Success, let us be clear must have clear outcomes: Livingstone, Mayor from 2000 to 2008, successfully improved the bus services, built council homes, clamped down on pigeons (this may appear a niche point but these “flying rats” were a real health and tourism nuisance). He trod the “fine line” of opposing the Government when necessary and working in a grown-up partnership to win the 2012 Olympics.

Johnson, Mayor from 2008 to 2012, successfully cracked down on violent crime, helped make London the global epicentre for housing; delivered the Olympics, and championed business and wealth creation. This was when London faced the health, economic, and social consequences of potential increased unemployment. Like Livingstone, Johnson “batted for London” with No 11 Downing Street. Both Mayor’s began the task of placing our Environment at the centre of successive national Government’s priorities. So today it is very clear that the GLA is responsible for four key areas of public policy in London: crime, housing, transport, and our environment. Much of grassroots delivery remains with the London Boroughs.

Since 2016, something serious has gone wrong. Khan’s major culpability is his failure to build a collegiate team in over four years. City Hall is not a happy place. In fact, many call it “toxic”. Many people loathe Khan’s attitude that he simply is never wrong. That is the private view of many London borough leaders – Labour as much as Conservative and Lib Dem. It’s a view shared widely across local government staff and across a wide spectrum of other public and private stakeholders.

I have worked with the public sector for 31 years. I have been an elected London Borough councillor for 15 years. Many public sector staff do tend to change jobs with alarming frequency. But I have never seen the “revolving door” spin so fast as it has done since 2016 at the GLA. Khan has lost numerous Deputy Mayors and advisers, including his first Deputy Mayors for both Housing and Transport plus his Commissioner for Transport. The loss of dozens of senior staff is telling.

Khan’s outcomes can also be measured.

  • Violent crime : before the lockdown crime figure dip – major crimes were at a ten year peak. Khan is all but invisible when it comes to keeping Londoners safe.
  • House building has collapsed in London pre-Coronavirus. One of the most transparent outcomes of the revolving door of GLA staff is over half of the nearly £5 billion of taxpayers money allocated to the GLA over three years’ ago to build affordable housing has not been spent. Rob Jenrick’s Ministerial letter on the London Plan, 13 March 2020 was so damning on Khan’s performance that for once even Khan was nearly apologetic in his response.
  • Transport is beyond doubt Khan’s biggest failure. Khan blames Coronavirus for Transport for London requiring a £1.6 billion bailout. More will probably be required in October. The reality is the four year record of mismanagement. Crossrail is two years’ behind schedule or is it three? Khan cannot say. Our economy is the loser.
  • On the Environment, the third Mayor of London has prioritised expensive tax-raising anti-car projects over fast tracking electric buses. The latter is one of the few imaginative policies to come out of City Hall since 2016, thanks to Shaun Bailey AM , the Conservative Mayor of London candidate.

During our current health crisis, Khan as Mayor failed to show the leadership that Londoners took for granted under Livingstone or Johnson. Khan avoided the London Assembly for six weeks earning the label “the missing Mayor”. To quote one London Borough Leader (not a Tory) “Sadiq Khan added little at the Gold Command London Emergency meetings. He sat there, mostly silently, like a work placement intern”.

London Councils in partnership with Government have performed well since 23rd March. My thanks to London NHS and all our public services and our key workers. But this shows why the failures of the GLA can no longer be tolerated.

Khan calls for social distancing yet rams through increases to the Congestion Charge which will make the tube and bus network crowded as people return to work. He appeases the transport unions – which adds to the cost of running the oldest and most expensive underground rail network in the world. Few believe Transport for London is an economic going concern. Union “absenteeism” during Coronavirus has been proportionately three times greater than any other public sector workforce just like their pre-Christmas near annual strikes. Never a squeak out of Khan.

London needs a fully functioning transport network (the arteries of our economy) as we ease our way out of coronavirus so London remains the engine of the UK and global economy as we all get back to work. Jobs, jobs, jobs has to be our mantra. Faith groups, pensioners, residents, and businesses are contacting me in record numbers because City Hall simply does not “get it”. If the Mayor and the Greater London Authority cannot do their job, the Government and London Councils will have to call in the inspectors and wave goodbye to a superfluous City Hall.