Wednesday 27 April 2011

Newham's priorities

I am now the proud owner of a MUVI camera. Well, not particularly proud as the reason I bought it was to somewhat mitigate the lawless and car dominated roads that I sometimes have to cycle upon - especially those in Newham. 

I have now managed to upload a section of the footage, which is my cycle-ride along the A11 from the Olympic park to Stratford Centre. It isn't particularly interesting, and the image stabilisation isn't what it could be - so those who are prone to sea-sickness may want to take their pills before watching...

This is the stretch of road that Newham Council (or the ODA, or TfL or the Mayor depending upon who you talk to) have decided doesn't need a cycle-superhighway. Or that the colour would detract from the pleasant ambiance of the road. Or that they are really quite busy re-organising the road at the moment. Or their dog ate the plans.

My video was taken yesterday in quite light traffic as many people aren't working this week. So things are a lot busier at rush hour on a normal week.

Even so, I think that it can be safely said that the road isn't exactly for beginners. Bear in mind that the road has recently been "improved" and this is the end result. It would appear that even extending the bus-lane to be continuous on this stretch wasn't deemed appropriate, yet would have afforded some measure of protection for the cyclists using the road.

It would appear no-one is really taking responsibility for shelving the Cycle Superhighway along this section, but fingers all point in one direction - Newham Council, and Mayor Sir Robin Wales.

Sir Robin Wales was knighted for services to local government (presumably this doesn't include cycling) but seems to court a certain amount of controversy.

To start, the first directly elected mayor has seen his salary increase by 34% since his election in 2002. Including a 4% payrise last year, when the borough is cutting £28M from the budget and staff have a two year pay freeze. This shows an admirable chutzpah if nothing else. Who on earth decides to award the payrise at this time? The local councillors - all of whom are in the same party as the mayor. Apparently half of these councillors have been awarded part-time jobs earning a very reasonable salary. Not that these two facts should be ever connected - it is clearly complete co-incidence.

Putting the question of personal renumeration aside, clearly Newham have better things to spend their money on than some cycle facilities. After all this is one of the poorest boroughs in the nation. So imagine my surprise when I stumble upon a BBC article concerning the council's new offices.

To summarise Newham managed to spend £111M on one office block for themselves. This included items such as five designer lights at £1,853 each. The refurbishment cost £18.7M with another £92M going on buying the office and stamp duty. The BBC article states that the £18.7M is around two thirds the money spent by every other London council combined on headquarter refurbishment over three years.

The article also mentions, almost in passing, that Newham have a council run newspaper costing around half a million pounds a year (the costliest in London) and that the Newham town festival costs more than the Westminster festival which attracts five times as many people. Although tight-lipped over costs, the BBC managed to get information that the show had cost around £160k in 2004, but was then rebranded as the Mayor's Newham Show and spending increased to £362k. The idea to name the show after the mayor was the mayor's. So one cannot accuse him of being completely bereft of good ideas..

In defence of the council, they are saying the move to new premises will save money - they expect to save £140M by 2014. Which is an impressive amount of money. Although the more cynical may say that words like expect when used in relation to future council cost savings are possibly code for might or hope. Indeed, I haven't seen a clear breakdown of how these savings will manifest themselves. I also struggle to understand why designer lights would aid these cost savings.

All of this adds up to my impression of a Mayor who runs Newham with compliant councillors and very little criticism. If the Mayor doesn't like cycling (and I assume he doesn't) then cycling measures are blocked. If earnest youth groups like the Woodcraft Folk want to challenge decisions such as the cycling superhighway then Sir Robin Wales simply refuses them entry to the meeting.

All of this would be laughable in a rich borough, but Newham is one of the most deprived. Whilst services to desperately vulnerable people are cut, the fact that the council thinks a pay-rise for the mayor and fancy chandeliers are acceptable shows a local government very deeply out of touch, and indeed a council that believes they are untouchable. The cost of the pay-rises and lights wouldn't save services, but the signal it gives out shows deeply complacent local government who aren't being held to account.

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