Boris Johnson: getting a grip?

Edward Lister
Edward Lister

For all his advancing years, Ken Livingstone still likes to keep abreast of the news. He discovered something terrible yesterday: Boris Johnson is a Conservative! Ken’s spokesman stormed that the appointment of Eddie Lister, leader of Wandsworth council, as Boris’s new chief of staff, “shows that his administration is deepest Tory Thatcherite blue”.

Lister’s appointment is highly significant: under him and his predecessors, Wandsworth became both highly efficient and a Tory fortress, not things you can yet say about Boris’s City Hall. Sir Simon Milton, Lister’s predecessor as chief of staff, always struck me as someone who was good at sailing the ship, but didn’t greatly mind what direction it sailed in. Lister might well do better at banishing the more-than-residual Livingstonism which lingers in the Thames-side testicle.

Lister’s most important job is at transport, the alpha and omega of the mayoralty and Boris’s greatest weakness. It is fair, as Livingstone also says, to see the second-tier adviser reshuffle announced today as Boris’s attempt to get a so far elusive grip on the bloated behemoth that is Transport for London.

Daniel Moylan, TfL’s deputy chair, is stepping up to more of a full-time role in the post – dropping his deputy leadership of Kensington and Chelsea council. Moylan is a main architect of perhaps Boris’s single greatest achievement – the end of the Tube PPP. He is another one of those politicians who wants to “do” things rather than just “be” things.

I don’t know Isabel Dedring, the new deputy mayor for transport, at all, so I reserve judgment. She was, however, until 2008 a senior figure in TfL (indeed she came to City Hall on secondment from it) and was chief of staff to its former commissioner, Bob Kiley. These were the formative years in which the failed culture of TfL was set.

Only yesterday Ben Rogers, of the independent Centre for London think-tank, part of Demos, tweeted: “Meeting at TfL. Interesting how ‘socialist’ they are even under Boris – little future for cars, it’s all public transport.” Alas, TfL, as any Tube user can testify, isn’t much good at public transport either.

Boris’s number one priority must be to improve service on the Underground. This should actually be quite possible – the Jubilee line can surely only improve and surely at some point over the next twelve months the signalling will start to work a bit better. He ought to be able to show a rising curve of service by election day.

Yet he also needs to remember that hundreds of thousands of people voted for him because they quite like their cars.  TfL has successfully frustrated all Boris’s manifesto promises to make traffic flow more freely, despite growing evidence that this is actually better for the environment (and for public transport users, ie bus passengers) than constant starting and stopping at red lights. There is discontent among his core vote about this.

TfL also remains stuck in an old-fashioned heavy-metal mindset where the answer to every transport problem is a new, lumbering, carbon-generating bus or train. Unlike more advanced transport administrations elsewhere in Europe and Japan, they are not putting at their heart non-carbon solutions such as cycling, walking and reducing the demand to travel. Indeed they still boast, Soviet-style, of the ever-increasing hordes rammed, in ever-greater discomfort, into their ever-more-crowded buses and trains.

So there is plenty of work for the new team.

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