Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Boris' Tour de France 'no brainer'

Fans of Boris Johnson like to claim that behind that bumbling, buffoonish, Bertie Wooster-esque, fa├žade there is a clever, conscientious politician.

But it has become increasingly hard to be convinced by this argument and with his rejection of London hosting the Grand Depart of the Tour de France, he has acted with staggering unprofessionalism and short-sightedness, damaging any prospect of the race returning to Britain for many years to come.

London went through the whole process of bidding for this stage of the Tour triumphing over places such as Edinburgh, Manchester and cities in Germany. And then, the day before contracts were due to be signed, Transport for London pulled out claiming that it wouldn’t provide value for money.
Boris Johnson has now said pulling out was his call, describing it as a ‘no-brainer’.

‘I had to take a very tough decision, obviously painful. In an ideal world, you know me, my policy is to have your cake and eat it. The difficulty was we had to make a choice. £35million is an awful lot to spend on a one off when you could put that money in to long term projects. What people really want is safer cycling lanes.’

It’s certainly true that people want safe cycle lanes – something which Boris himself has been pretty reluctant to invest in until recently – but if it was such a ‘no-brainer’ why on earth wasn’t this realised at an earlier stage? What is the point of going through the whole charade of bidding for such a prestigious event when the mayor can so glibly withdraw at the last minute? 

TfL claim that the process didn't cost a penny as it was all done internally; perhaps true, but all the work done on the bid by members of staff has been completely wasted. Whatever else has gone on, there has been a massive failure of process at TfL and within the mayor’s office.

And we must look at this claim that it wouldn’t have proved to be value for money. Spending £35m on anything is certainly a hefty bill but Yorkshire, which hosted the opening stage last year, estimates it has generated £150m worth of wider benefits. There, the event attracted 4.8m spectators; it is hard to imagine it wouldn’t have attracted an even bigger crowd if the peloton had been wheeling their way through London's highways and byways next year.

In TfL’s defence, a spending review is looming and it does face cuts but Boris isn’t exactly averse to wasting money. Christian Wolmar, the transport journalist who recently tried to become Labour’s prospective candidate at the next mayoral election, put together a good little article looking at the money wasted by Boris during his tenure.

Amongst the highlights were:

£300million spent on the New Bus for London, a poorly conceived, terribly designed monster that will lumber around our streets for the next few years. Boris has also spent £10m pursuing his fantasy of an estuary airport, something which was never likely to happen in the first place

£24m on a cable car across the Thames that promised to be a great way for commuters to travel but in fact carries precisely zero commuters. Boris pledged no public money to this, but of course TfL has contributed.

Boris pursued another vanity project to rebuild the Crystal Palace; it involved handing much of a public park over to a Chinese business, apparently ignoring the conventional tendering process and hoping locals would simply be wowed. Unsurprisingly, Bromley Council ultimately walked away after fruitless talks – wasting £150,000 in the process – and Crystal Palace Park was in the sadly all too familiar position of missing out of millions of pounds from the Heritage Lottery Funding as a consequence of Boris’ misadventure.

TfL has also pledged £30m to build the Thames Garden Bridge (along with another £30m from the government) despite promises, again, that public money would not be used. Again, the whole project appears not to have gone through proper tendering processes.

In comparison to the above, therefore, spending £35m, with the likelihood of greater, and wider, benefits down the line, doesn’t seem such a bad idea.

But what makes the decision all the more inexplicable is that one of Boris’ genuine achievements as mayor has been his ability to sell London around the world. Yet this tangible success – one which has the capacity to provide a legacy for the future – has been foolishly set back by cancelling the event in such a last minute, casual fashion.

It is clear that the Tour de France owners, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), are angry at the withdrawal – the bidding process would undoubtedly have cost them time, money and effort – and they are hardly likely to look at future bids from London, or elsewhere in the UK, with much sympathy. And other sporting organisations too will look at London with sceptical eyes, wondering whether it’s worth dealing with the city if there is a chance it might pull out at the last minute.

Boris’ legacy has been looking flimsy for some time but a future major will not thank him for this genuine damage to London’s reputation as a city which can stage major international events with competence, confidence, success and flair.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Until Syria is rebuilt, what choice is left?

The ultimate goal, as Europe deals with the migration crisis that is suddenly sweeping the continent, must be to restore peace in Syria and help make it a country to which people feel safe enough to return.

Tragically, this country, which was so recently functional, civilised and well developed – albeit one ruled by an hereditary dictator – has disintegrated. Both ISIL and President Bashar Al-Assad are unleashing unspeakable terrors upon the people, four million of whom have fled the country and a further 10million are displaced within its borders.

And, as these refugees flee, into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond, they join other refugees fleeing other places of conflict in Libya, Eritrea and South Sudan, as well as economic migrants; a massive movement of people mostly desperate for, as Stella Creasy said in the emergency debate yesterday, ‘the chance to stay alive’.

This is the situation that David Cameron and Europe face. While Angela Merkel and others have started welcoming refugees for humanitarian and other more prosaic reasons, it’s hard not to conclude that the prime minister’s response has been directed by a contradictory mess of politics.

It can only be a good thing that Cameron’s government wants to take in 20,000 vulnerable people who have fled to refugee camps from Syria by 2020, but at 4,000 a year this is a pitifully small number, especially compared with Germany which is contemplating 800,000 migrants this year and a further 500,000 in subsequent years. Germany welcomed 18,000 refugees last weekend alone.

There seems little doubt that the prime minister and his government were caught flat-footed by the outpouring of anger and grief triggered by the decision of several newspapers – including my own – to publish the photograph of the dead Aylan Kurdi on their front pages; yet, hopes that the 20,000 pledge would be enough to see off his critics already seem misplaced. And Cameron’s stance does nothing to deal with the situation facing Europe now.

In many ways, the prime minister is in an unenviable position. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to be seen to be doing anything which might smack of co-operation with our European partners in case it provides any ammunition for those in his own party who want to leave the European Union - many of whom are also prominent campaigners against high immigration. On the other, Mr Cameron will be only too well aware that his EU partners are urging Britain to do more to alleviate the refugee disaster within Europe’s borders and he must fear that his determination to exclude this country from any shared willingness to offer a safe harbour to refugees threatens the progress of any future EU negotiations.

But, as the circumstances change, our response must change. Cameron is right when he says a solution cannot simply be achieved by taking in more refugees. And he is clearly aware that any solution has to be multi-faceted. 

The prime minister may feel sore about his failure in the last parliament to command support for attacking Assad after he used chemical weapons in the conflict in Syria. But, without parliamentary approval, we now learn that action has been taken in Syria anyway, with a fatal drone strike on British terrorists there. International co-operation is essential and enlarged military action of one sort or another – against both Assad and ISIL – now seems increasingly inevitable.

But simultaneously, Cameron might be better to try and rise above the messy political complexities, take a lead in parliament, and respond to the imperative need for human kindness closer to home now.

Those who argue against allowing more refugees into the country, have a favourite question to which they often return, 'well, how many should we take?’ It is an impossible question to answer. The British government has done much to support refugees in the Middle East, spending more there than any other European country. But the crisis has developed and moved. Ignoring the situation in Europe is not part of a solution.

Britain cannot keep on claiming to be an honourable place of refuge on account of the Huguenots who flocked here in the 16th and 17th centuries . It cannot even do that on account of the Kenyan Asians who arrived here from the late 1960s. As Robert Peston has noted, Germany’s motivation to taking so many migrants is not wholly humanitarian; their population is ageing and falling, a boost in younger workers is just what Germany needs.

Similarly, we need to take heart from the very significant benefits this country has accrued from our own, historic refugee influxes and recognise that being properly generous, now, could bring its own reward in the future. But ultimately, the demand to act, to work with our European counterparts to tackle this wretched situation on our doorstep, is a simple one; the humanitarian need is here and now.