Tube Lines: final cost to be kept from voters until just after the election?

THE final verdict on how much taxpayers should pay Tube Lines for the next seven and a half years of the hugely-controversial public-private partnership could be delayed until after the general election, I can reveal.

The announcement was to have been made on 29 April, the week before the likely polling date and London borough election date of 6 May. The PPP arbiter now wants it to be put back by about two weeks to mid-May.

It’s a hugely important decision, with up to £1.75 billion at stake. That’s the difference between how much Tube Lines wants to charge for upgrading three Underground lines (£5.75 billion) and the amount that Transport for London wants to pay (£4 billion.)

In his initial determination published in December, the arbiter, Chris Bolt, came down closer to TfL than Tube Lines, at £4.4 billion – though even that has led to serious concern in TfL about where the extra £400 million is to come from. The Mayor, Boris Johnson, has called on the Government to provide but been told, essentially, to get lost.

The official reason for the proposed postponement, likely to be announced today, is the volume of representations received. But more than one observer suspects the hand of the Government here, too – not keen to have London voters reminded of one its most serious mistakes a few days before they go to the polls.

Could the postponement also be a hint of further bad news – that the final settlement will be less favourable to TfL, and more favourable to Tube Lines, than before? That’s an even more chilling prospect.

The delay is not yet set in stone, and the PPP arbiter should change his mind. The democratic interest is surely best served by the people of London knowing the true cost of the policies they are voting on, before they have a chance to vote. And if that means Mr Bolt working late a few nights, so be it. I wouldn’t begrudge him the overtime.

Ken Livingstone: another rival emerges?

THE race to take on Boris Johnson has another entrant – James Purnell. At least, that’s according to the Labour peer and former Met Police Authority chair, Toby Harris, on his blog. Harris’s “spies” tell him that the intentions of the former work and pensions secretary, who’s leaving Parliament, “are clear – he wants to be Labour’s candidate for London Mayor in 2012.”

Harris, a former Labour leader on the London Assembly, is reasonably well connected in London Labour circles – though in the same post he doesn’t help his credentials as a political seer by describing a Tory victory at the general election as “unlikely”. If what he says is true, it’s further encouraging evidence that Labour is not sleepwalking into the suicide option of re-selecting the 2008 candidate to re-fight the 2008 election.

Purnell couldn’t be reached for comment last night, but some of his actions since announcing his departure from the Commons aren’t inconsistent with future involvement in mayoral politics. He’s going to do a course in community organising with the excellent London Citizens, potentially useful people to know I’d have thought, and there’s talk (a la Peter Hyman, Tony Blair’s former aide) of doing some teaching in a London school.

However, I get just a faint sense that Harris’s piece is about closing down, not encouraging, any potential Purnell candidacy. He talks about Purnell’s “conspicuous (to him, at least) talents” and snipes that Purnell is “nothing if not ambitious. He can claim to be a Londoner. He was an Islington councillor for nearly two years. What more qualification would he need?”

Already, with more than two years to go till polling day, a series of names other than Ken Livingstone has started to come into the frame – Diane Abbott, Peter Mandelson and so on. You can sense the growing distress of Ken diehards, touchingly determined that their washed-up hero be given one more chance to lose an election. Perhaps Harris’s blog post is no more than another manoeuvre by the forces of King Newt to clear the field for his inevitable 2012 oblivion.

Boris Johnson not seeking publicity? That has to be news

Boris Johnson is keeping an unusually low profile online (Photo: Paul Grover)
Boris Johnson is keeping an unusually low profile online (Photo: Paul Grover)

Could this be the first case in recorded history of Boris Johnson not seeking publicity? The new-look mayoral and GLA website was unveiled yesterday – and one conspicuous absentee is Britain’s most famous blond.

I still remember the golden days when a picture of Ken Livingstone appeared at the top of not just the website’s front page, but every other page too. Where is that bloke now, I wonder? That’s been over for a while, but I’m still surprised that BoJo is being so self-effacing. To look at the front page, you’d hardly know that it was the mayoral site at all.

I’ve got more serious concerns, too. Whenever websites are revamped, you always have to watch for valuable content being taken off. True to form, the new site no longer includes any links to thousands of dull but important and often revealing pages, such as committee agendas, past spending commitments and mayoral decisions which are more than about 6-12 months old. You can still find them by searching, but I’ve had quite a few stories by browsing too.

After a certain amount of fiddling I am happy to be able to tell you that the old london.gov.uk site, which does still have those pages on, is still available to browse, at least for the moment. That must continue indefinitely if it is not to be another of the growing number of black marks against the Johnson regime’s record of disclosure.

I must admit to not caring very much that Boris has stopped doing weekly press conferences. Unless every journalist present is determined to ask the same thing, press conferences are poor ways of eliciting information. Any halfway competent politician can easily dodge a tricky question by giving a non-answer, then moving straight on to another reporter with a completely different topic.

But I do care that genuinely informative documents are no longer being published – such as the annual congestion charge monitoring report, which has not appeared since July 2008. It was that report which allowed me to prove, for instance, that “Transport for Livingstone” was lying in its campaign to keep the western extension of the C-charge. That, in turn, may have been a factor in Boris confirming his election commitment to get rid of it.

It is true that the new regime has gone into more detail on advisers’ interests and somewhat more detail on GLA and LDA spending. And they are doing some promising work on bringing together statistical detail in the “London Datastore.” But the fate of the information on the london.gov.uk website will be an important barometer of their commitment to openness.

FirstGroup and Tube Lines: you simply will not believe this

IF this were a just society, the executives of FirstGroup would be paraded in chains on the concourse at St Pancras. Because it is modern Britain, however, they get to go to the Rail Business Awards.

And what a big night it was, down at the London Hilton! First was named Rail Business of the Year. First Great Western was awarded Train Operator of the Year. A man named Daniel Williams got Young Professional of the Year.

Daniel Williams is the customer service delivery manager for First Capital Connect, which has inflicted three months of misery on the people using its services. First Capital Connect’s customer service delivery is described as “substandard” and “a matter of acute concern” by no less a person than the Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis.

First Great Western is responsible for making more people stand in conditions of extreme discomfort than the Stasi.

And First Group is Britain’s worst company, an organisation which specialises in taking functioning transport services and reducing them to chaos. No wonder the award ceremony had to be hosted by a comedian, Phil Hammond.

If you want a good vomit, here’s a quote from the chairman of the judges, Steve Agg: “The judging panel were almost overwhelmed with the strength of the entries from FirstGroup this year. To have achieved such a high level of performance, across so many disciplines, makes them worthy winners of this award.”

The Rail Business Awards didn’t overlook other privatised transport disasters, either. Lee Jones, director of operations at Tube Lines, was named rail business manager of the year – the year that Tube Lines’ upgrade of the Jubilee Line turned into a fiasco and their relationship with their only customer, TfL, collapsed.

Of course, if the rail industry was obliged to recognise only true excellence, its award ceremonies would be pretty short. But does anyone on Planet Rail have even a shred of self-awareness? Do they have even an atom of humility? Can’t they understand how extraordinarily offensive it is to sit around in hotel ballrooms, drinking good wine at our expense (everything on the railways, one way or another, is at our expense) and handing out awards to the most discredited companies they can find?

The clue to these insufferable awards is in the second word of their title, not the first. First Group, Tube Lines and the rest may be atrocious railways. But they are brilliant businesses. They have worked out the optimum way of screwing the maximum cash out of taxpayers and farepayers while spending the absolute minimum they can possibly get away with on service and upgrades. One of the award judges is actually called Mr Profit.

So that is why the Rail Business Awards are, perversely, to be welcomed. At some point, as the public spending squeeze bites, the people in charge of spending our taxes must surely cotton on. And the more the robber barons of rail celebrate their own cleverness, the likelier it is that we, the victims, will rise up and demand their destruction.

Cutty Sark restoration tragedy: yet another delay

In Sunday’s newspaper, I wrote about the heartbreaking disaster that is the restoration of the Cutty Sark. As you can read, the chief engineer, Professor Peter Mason, has resigned – saying that the restoration will “damage the fabric of the ship.”

The problem is the Cutty Sark Trust’s absurd wish to turn this heritage artefact into an “iconic” and contemporary installation – held eleven feet off the ground by new legs, floating on a bed of glass and with a lucrative function space (the real point of the exercise, of course) underneath. Everyone I talked to in the world of classic ship restoration agrees with Mason – this scheme is at best naff  (one man called it like a “fairground attraction”), at worst a serious risk to the ship. I could not find a single person who thinks that the plan is anything other than a tragic mistake.

The scheme is already running years late and massively overbudget; the trust has made a series of misleading public statements about progress; the main backers, the Heritage Lottery Fund, cut off payments for most of last year, so worried were they about the trust’s mismanagement. Last week, however, it was trumpeted that the Cutty Sark had been “rescued” with a further £11million of taxpayers’ money which would see it open “in time for the Olympics.”

That date represented a further delay of up to 18 months, by the way. But in the just six days since then, we have learned that the opening appears to be shifting even further to the right. This week’s issue of Greenwich Time, the propaganda organ of Greenwich Council, one of the gap funders, now states merely that the ship “could” be restored in time for the 2012 Games.

As I say in my column for the hyperlocal website greenwich.co.uk, the council and the others paying the £11 million have not “rescued” the Cutty Sark. They have just propped up a fundamentally flawed scheme and risked throwing good money after bad. I love the Cutty Sark, and dearly want to see it restored. But if they want it open for the Olympics, the funders should make their bailout conditional on a clearout of the Cutty Sark Trust, and the scrapping of the risible “iconic” scheme in favour of a straightforward restoration.

The Guardian becomes more London-centric

This could be a watershed day for the Guardian. Its sale of the Manchester Evening News breaks its last link with its solid Northern roots and delivers the MEN into the less-than-liberal hands of Trinity Mirror (which is already, we learn, planning to move the reporters of the “Manchester” Evening News to Oldham, ten miles away.)

And it threatens to make the Guardian itself, whose sale has long been disproportionately London-centric, even more of a newspaper for the London metropolitan classes than it already is. Is that a problem? I think it could be.

The British Left has always been a coalition between the metropolitan and the working class. Part of Labour’s problem is that the metropolitan element has come too much to the fore and the working class vote has sheared away.

The Guardian, of course, did not have an enormous working class readership, but it did and does have a substantial chunk of non-metropolitan, non-trendy (and often Non-Conformist) readers, many in the north. Nor, of course, is the Guardian the same thing as the Labour Party – but it is perhaps the single most important part of the broader Left.

Maybe I’m making too much of the distinctions between these groups. Maybe, in a more fluid age, they’re outdated. But all the evidence suggests that the market for London-style metropolitan leftism is pretty limited – even in London – and the Left only prospers when it embraces a broader, more diverse base.

Then there’s the question of whether this is a good deal. The Guardian Media Group is in bad financial difficulties, but the price it has got for the MEN won’t help much – only £7.4 million is cash and the other £37.4 million is Trinity Mirror releasing the Guardian from a contract to print the very papers it has just sold. GMG insists the £37.4 million is a “real saving” to it, an amount it was contracted to pay whatever happened to the newspapers. Well, up to a point: of course, sales and ad revenue from the papers would have covered, or largely covered, the cost of printing them.

Maybe, with the MEN now barely profitable, the real idea is to prevent GMG having to bear any losses that may be made in the future by the Manchester operation. But this deal could still leave a less tangible price to pay.