Category Archives: Blog

BORIS – BUSY FOOL ON AIR QUALITY IN LONDON

boris-puzzledAt Mayor’s Question Time at City Hall yesterday I questioned Boris Johnson on the issue of air quality and its impact on public health, which is a major issue for Londoners and one that the Mayor has a clear responsibility to consider in his decision making.

Due to poor air quality in the capital we have more than 1,000 accelerated deaths annually – almost five times the number of fatalities resulting from road accidents in London – and 1,000 extra respiratory hospital admissions. At the last meeting of the London Assembly’s Environment Committee we heard from Dr Frank Kelly of King’s College that poor air quality may also be responsible for a reduction of 17 per cent in some children’s lung growth by the time they hit their teens.

In reply to my question, Boris listed his discussions with central government and the PM about the development of an electric car infrastructure in London and with Mandy at BERR about subsidy schemes for replacing the oldest and most polluting light goods vehicles – which in all likelihood will take him beyond even the extended deadline for compliance with the EU air quality directive. While Boris busies himself with grand schemes like these, which will have an impact only in the longer term, he fails to address the immediate problem that London has the worst air pollution in the UK and among the worst in Europe.

In the here and now, Boris’s decision to halt the further rollout of the Low Emission Zone to cover light goods vehicles tells us all we need to know about his concerns about air quality and its implications for Londoners’ health. It was hardly surprising that he announced this shameful decision on the day that the chaos caused by the heaviest snowstorm for many years dominated the media, in an evident attempt to bury the news in the snow.

MONEY TRANSFERS MAKE THE WORLD GO ROUND

money-transferA hobby horse of mine in international development matters has been the lack of focus on or coverage of remittance flows to the developing world – that is, the money transfers from migrants working in the developed world to their countries of origin. For example, in a normal London high street the newsagent offering money transfer services probably provides a bigger flow of cash to the developing world than your local Oxfam shop does. And up to a fifth of GDP in countries like Jamaica, Lebanon and Jordan is made up of remittances from their ex-pats.

So l am glad to see that the World Bank has begun to do regular research into this unsexy area of the world economy and that the Economist in its 19 February edition (‘Trickle-down economics’) has taken notice of this, in the context of the slump in the world economy. The Economist notes that flows from remittances are themselves likely to fall, maybe up to 6 per cent globally, but that private-capital flows such as equity and lending by foreign banks have already dropped by 50 per cent. With official development assistance also likely at best to be capped by developed countries cutting their public expenditure, this clearly suggests that remittances are a much more reliable source of cash for the developing world.

In the meantime, the main transmitters of these critically important cash flows, the money transfer agents, find themselves facing over-regulation by the Financial Services Authority, if the presentations and discussions at the annual conference of the UK Money Transmitters Association that I attended today are anything to go by. It’s a real pity that the FSA did not keep a better eye on our banking friends in the City over the past decade or so, and then just maybe we would not be where we are with the economy at this moment. Surprise, surprise, instead of going for the big players in the money markets the FSA has gone for small players instead – the money transfer agents who have played such a crucial role in providing cash to the developing world.

WILDERS AND PHELPS – KEEP OUT THE PREACHERS OF HATE

It is rare that l find myself in agreement with my fellow London Assembly Member, Brian Coleman. However, on the general approach to hate preachers from abroad peddling their vile views on UK soil, we find common ground. In my case I supported a ban on Geert Wilders, the far-right racist from Holland, while Brian Coleman backed the exclusion of the homophobic US pastor Fred Phelps. Moreover, both of us congratulated the home secretary on her decision to prevent these individuals from entering the country.

Freedom of expression is not absolute. We are rightly governed by laws and conventions when we speak. As the mayor has recently learnt when abusing an MP on the phone, the public don’t like us using foul language. And we are not free to slander anyone as we please, since they can have legal recourse. So it is right and proper that incitement to hatred, and by those from abroad in particular, is treated as unacceptable in our society.

FROM LONDINIUM TO REYKJAVIK-ON-THAMES

london-on-thames

London in recent times has been given various names by admirers and critics.

Both the New York Times and the Economist have recently referred to London as Reykjavik-on-Thames, since like the Icelandic capital London is home to a stricken financial industry which once underpinned the economy. But this is only one of many names that London has been given by commentators both here and aboard. In the late 1990s, as New Labour’s pact with the City with its light touch on regulation took effect, London become known as Manhattan-on-Thames to financiers and architects. For others, like the French anti-terrorist police who were angry at the alleged relaxed manner of dealing with Islamist extremists, it became known as Londonistan. Another name, Londongrad, was adopted in response to the influx of flamboyant Russians and the servicing of their extravagant lifestyles.

Yet, for all these pseudonyms, which reflect the many aspects of life in central London, Londoners should regard the metropolis as simply London-on-Thames. If anything, the issue to hand is that not enough Londoners identify with London, particularly those in the suburbs, where people talk about going “into” or “up to” London to work or shop, and do not think of themselves as actually living in London – when in truth these areas have long been captured by the great metropolis that London-on-Thames has become. The “doughnut effect”, with the inhabitants of predominantly white suburbia seeing themselves as separate and apart from multi-ethnic, multicultural areas of inner London, was successfully exploited by Boris Johnson in last year’s mayoral election.

This division between inner and outer London is strangely reflected in the postal codes for Greater London, which in the suburbs are still the old county codes for Kent, Surrey, Middlesex and Essex. Even one of Boris Johnson’s deputies, Ian Clement, has been apologetic about having a Kent postcode while representing London. So is it not time to put an end to this historical anomaly and change these postal codes to London ones? Well, that would be a change and a half and something developers would no doubt be keen on, as they are the agents of redefining areas as part of London more often then anyone else. It could perhaps make a symbolic contribution to undermining the mentality behind the doughnut effect.

That said, let’s be grateful that after their invasion in AD 43 the Romans moved the provincial administration from Camulodunum to Londinium, otherwise the capital might still be in Colchester, Essex, and almost certainly not the global centre we are today.

RESIGNATION FROM BBC APPEALS ADVISORY COMMITTEE OVER GAZA APPEAL

gaza-crisis-appeal2Last night I received news of a friend’s resignation from the BBC Appeals Advisory Committee after he had seen the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Gaza crisis appeal, which was rejected by the BBC as compromising its political neutrality, broadcast on Channel 4. (Resignation letter here.)

He argues persuasively that the DEC is itself a non-political body that provides an objective and transparent mechanism for international charities to debate and collectively decide on national media appeals, and that this external governance structure provides the BBC with more than enough protection of its political independence.
 
He notes that the BBC has in the past broadcast humanitarian appeals that have been potentially politically controversial. Live Aid appeals for aid to Ethiopia were broadcast in the 1980s despite concerns about the Mengistu regime, as was the 1982 DEC appeal by Sue Lawley for Palestinian and Lebanese victims of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the stated purpose of which was to drive out the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
 
I find it worrying that the BBC is unable to make the distinction between political bias and statements of fact, as pointed out by the Times editorial on Monday the 26th of January: “The death and suffering in Gaza is entirely the fault of Israel. That is a biased statement. The death and suffering in Gaza is entirely the fault of Hamas. That is a biased statement. There has been death and there is suffering in Gaza. That is a simple statement of fact.”
 
So, as you can imagine, l’ll be sending a letter of complaint to the BBC.