Super cycling in Peckham

In April 2012 I joined 10,000 soggy cyclists in the rain to call for a big change to our streets, so whoever won the imminent Mayoral elections would ensure our streets would be safe and pleasant for cycling.

In response to months of fantastic campaigning, and not wanting all the cycling votes going to the Green Party, Boris Johnson duly signed up, telling cyclists: “I am fully committed to meeting the three key tests of LCC’s ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ campaign”.

Eight months later, TfL began to consult on the plans for Cycle Superhighway 5, from New Cross Gate to Victoria via Peckham, Camberwell and Oval. Here was a golden opportunity for Boris to “make sure all planned developments on are completed to Go Dutch standards, especially junctions”, one of those three key tests he signed up to.

Months of consultation and roadworks later, this is what we got:

Super cycling in Peckham

Does that look fun to you? Does Boris really think lots of people are going to rush to buy a bicycle to enjoy that?

This road has a 30mph speed limit. TfL refused requests from Southwark Cyclists and Southwark Living Streets to reduce it to 20mph, given how many homes, schools and shops front this busy road.

It’s gets worse, though. Here’s a before-and-after photo of a stretch of Peckham High Street:

Super cycling in Peckham

That’s right. TfL removed an advisory lane that ran the whole way across the junction, and replaced it with a couple of blocks to indicate cyclists might be expected.

It’s not as though Boris and TfL were unaware of problems with their designs. Last October, Jenny Jones, with whom I work, brought one example to the Mayor’s attention and asked him to look again:

In that exchange, if you can’t make it through, Boris promises to look at the plans again and to do his “level-headed best to make it as safe as [we] possibly can”.

Here are TfL’s plans for the relevant stretch of the Cycle Superhighway, with a big red arrow pointing to the junction Jenny was talking about . You can see how the route going each way along this stretch of Peckham Road changes from a mandatory lane (dark blue) to an advisory lane (mid blue) then no more than a bit of blue paint as you go past a junction:


Here is what that junction looks like now that the ‘super’ highway has been implemented:


On the left, there is finally some good news, with a nice wide mandatory cycle lane painted onto the road. Before that soggy day in April 2012 I would have described that as a very good bit of provision for cyclists. But the ‘Go Dutch’ campaign the Mayor signed up to raised the bar, and that lane no longer clears it. There is no segregation – no protection from the traffic – and no attempt to route cyclists around the back of the bus stop so they don’t get squashed or held up by buses.

In the middle and right-hand photos we can see the promised unbroken line of blue paint replaced with a couple of squares. There is absolutely no protection here for cyclists against motorists cutting across to head north on the rat-run Southampton Way. Nothing.

And there we have it, folks. Two years after our “cycling Mayor” signed up to “make sure all planned developments on are completed to Go Dutch standards, especially junctions”, we have more millions spent on another bungled Cycle Superhighway that would embarrass any qualified Dutch road engineer.

Green doesn’t need to mean gentrification

Jim Gleeson has an interesting blog entry about the consequences of making a city more liveable. In short, there is a danger that making an area more liveable can price out lower income people. By reducing air pollution and generally improving the local environment in more deprived areas,  richer people will start to move in displacing the people who should have benefitted.

His prescription is more housing supply to accompany environmental improvements. But we need to think a bit more carefully about this to get the medicine right for places like London.

As he points out, the economic benefits of making an area more desirable will largely go to existing home owners and landlords as the value of the land, and therefore the rent they can charge, increases. Lower income people will be forced to move, presumably (according to Jim’s argument) to less liveable areas. Council and housing association tenants who are secure in their homes gain a nicer environment, but they have no direct stake in the increased value of the land their homes sit on.

Building more homes as Jim suggests could help to keep prices down, meaning less of a windfall gain for land owners and possibly more stable rents. But in practice, due to London’s policy of “mixed and balanced communities”, deprived areas tend to see council housing demolished and replaced overwhelmingly with housing for sale in order to “balance out” the social “mix” of people in the area. There’s no way anyone with an average income and average wealth would be able to buy a new flat in most areas of London on the open market.

The flats will be bought by wealthier-than-average people, and probably many then let on the private market, with a good number of those subsidised by housing benefit. So while more supply might dampen the economic consequences of making an area more liveable, and while it might spread the wealth a little more widely, the economic benefits will still mostly go to wealthier people.

You would need to increase house building across London to 50% higher than Boris Johnson’s aspirational target just to stabilise prices. It would be interesting to know whether there is enough spare land and available development finance to raise supply levels high enough in order to gradually reduce prices so that the benefits of new homes would be principally accrued by ordinary Londoners.

But there are other ways in which we can reduce unequal access to nice local environments while maintaining or reducing levels of economic inequality. Housing supply is undoubtedly part of the picture, but policies need to be a bit more sophisticated to achieve this aim.

One simple policy would be to try to build lots more council housing in wealthier areas that already enjoy high environmental quality. That would require a government to reinstate an adequate housing capital budget; the new budget for London in 2011-15 is two-thirds lower than than the budget for 2008-11!

Another would be to ensure all the new housing is put into the control of a Community Land Trust, which owns the land and so can keep homes permanently affordable. Members of the Trust, usually a co-operative, use any rise in land values to benefit the local community and not private individuals. To date, there is only one example of this in London – Coin Street. Despite valiant efforts and credible plans from various other communities, the HCA, GLA and government have done little to make this concept happen.

A third more radical solution – radical as in dealing with the root of the problem (from radix, Latin for ‘root’) – would be to bring back taxation on land. Winston Churchill and Lloyd George both tried, and failed, to do this at the turn of the 20th century. They were blocked by wealthy landowners in the Lords, whose ancestors got rid of them as the power of the Crown diminished.

We have a tax system that raises income off hard work and consumer goods, and that leaves people to rake in huge gains from increases in land values and capital gains with comparatively little or no tax. If we brought back “schedule A” taxes, land values wouldn’t rise so much, the benefits could be clawed back for investment in affordable housing, all local residents could therefore benefit including council tenants, and people might be encouraged to invest their savings in productive stocks and shares rather than dead bricks and mortar.

These solutions have all been applied in the not-too-distant past. But as with the debate over the National Planning Policy Framework, they seem to get overlooked in simplistic debates over false choices like “housing supply vs. conservation”.

Jim’s post is much more sophisticated, looking at the relationship between environmental improvements and the housing market. But his prescription – more supply – needs to be equally sophisticated to ensure that we deliver environmental and social justice side by side.

Never mind Wonga, use a credit union

Payday loans have been in the news today, with industry figureheads trying to persuade the public that they’re offering the punters a good service. Well, if you’re seriously stuck for cash you need or have loans you’re struggling to service, a much better place to start would be a credit union.

London Mutual Credit Union, for example, is a not for profit organisation that provides ethical financial services to Southwark and Lambeth boroughs. These services include savings accounts, current accounts and loans to people who find themselves financially excluded from high street banks. They have no shareholders, and all their profits are returned to members.

Unlike Wonga & co they are genuinely providing useful services without looking to make a very sizeable profit off the backs of the idiots and the vulnerable.

Anyone struggling financially would also be best off seeking help from the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and checking out the many handy tips on web sites like Money Saving Expert (a personal favourite).

Thankfully we won’t have Wonga sponsoring our public transport network this New Year’s eve. Apparently Boris has gone for a booze company instead, who promise to promote responsible drinking. Cheers!

Are the new new Right in this together?

February feels a distant memory. Back then, the Conservative Party released a report called Labour’s Two Nations, attacking Labour’s 13 year record on inequality. Britain had become (they suggested) a society of low taxation on the rich and high marginal rates on the poor; under Labour, risky personal lending inflating a housing fantasy replaced prudent saving and improving housing affordability.

So do the Conservatives now care deeply about inequality? Darren Johnson put the London Assembly Conservatives to the test this week, proposing that the Mayor of London implement Cameron’s policy of a maximum 20:1 pay ratio in the Greater London Authority group.

Here’s the response of the Conservatives:

In case you’re fooled into thinking that Darren and the Greens are ignoring the low paid, read Darren’s arguments in The Guardian. If we’re all in this together, shouldn’t government bodies ensure that the lowest paid receive a living wage whilst preventing spiralling pay at the top of the scale?

Priced out of buying a home?

Jenny Jones has produced a new report and this accompanying video, explaining why the Government and Mayor of London’s approach to affordable housing is fundamentally broken.

It’s something that a growing number of people know, whether you’ve been priced out or you know someone who has by decades of massive house price rises. It is most severe in London and fancy rural communities, but is a growing problem across the country.

I’m pretty proud of the work Jenny and I did on it!

Boris the culture commie?

Are free photos evil? I’m going to stick my neck out and defend the Greater London Authority for setting up a Flickr group where Londoners can submit photos to be used on the GLA web site. A few photographers are upset that anyone can now get decent photos for free from citizens who donate them. Shocker. These photographers want the GLA to use our taxes to pay them for their hard work.

I’m sorry, but that’s just plain ridiculous. Should we condemn the GLA for using free software for their web site, instead of paying for a proprietary content management system? Dearie me. Look, the web has changed many creative industries and bust the business models of those few who were charging for stuff that lots of us will happily share quite freely. Get over it.

This storm-in-a-lens-pouch has been picked up by the venerable Boris Watch and the Telegraph, who both seem to sympathise with the photographers. They echo the photographers and conflate this issue with the way that the police and the More London security guards act stupidly towards photographers, as though this has anything to do with the GLA (a different organisation) inviting its 7.56 million citizens to contribute their lovely photos to the GLA web site.

The great collection of photos in the group – including a few of mine – suggest that most people are quite happy donating their work.

The cost of housing doubles in London

Halifax have published a great little fact sheet on some key housing trends over the last 50 years. The most dramatic is that the cost of buying a home has risen 273% above incomes over that period, with the sharpest rise during the 2000s when they rose by 63%.

This is the increasing cost of housing adjusted for increases in income; or adjusting for inflation to state rises in real terms, for economists. Imagine if food or heating bills rose that quickly compared to incomes!

Whilst the property-owning journalists hail this rise in house prices, more and more people are squeezed out of the market, or forced to sacrifice huge chunks of their salary to repay mortgages.

Jenny Jones published a report on the housing crisis in London recently. She shows that over the past decade the cost of buying a home doubled in London, well above the national rise of 63%. This makes the misleading boasts of our Tory Mayor – as he fails to even meet his own modest housing targets – all the more sickening.

Unless we double the number of homes we build, which is pretty unlikely, or we make a radical shift away from home ownership, this trend is set to continue for another decade. But our Labour government and this Tory Mayor are both  committed to mostly building homes we have to buy, with a very small minority available for affordable rent, almost no land being held by communities to keep it affordable, and pretty much no support for alternative models like co-operatives.

Should we laugh at the BNP?

Jim Jepps praises Peter Cranie for not taking up the BBC’s airtime offer to debate climate change with Nick Griffin. Quite right too. After watching this excellent explanation of the UAE “climategate” emails, well trailed as a “controversy” in the media, I was beginning to wonder if the BBC wasn’t about to go back to it’s old damaging balance position. It hasn’t exactly won the public’s affection over its stance on giving the BNP disproportionate time on news bulletins and Question Time.

But what do you do if you must share a platform with the BNP?

The London Assembly gives me regular access to the BNP’s “mr chips” Assembly member Richard Barnbrook. Word is, by the way, that he only ever eats plates of chips in the cafeteria, which might explain a few things. This week he tried to deny climate change by helpfully pointing out that there aren’t any cows on Mars. He can barely get through a question without confusing himself; statistics are his favourite form of masochism. A quick search for his name on the GLA web site is good for at least half an hour of entertainment, if you’re bored.

Of course this all means he’s also very bad at getting anything done. If you can’t formulate a really cutting question, or trick the Mayor into giving a commitment, you’re not going to get anywhere. And that’s not all. Aside from overt racism and xenophobia, Barnbrook purports to defend the working class. This would be why he denounced 10:10 as a “stealth tax on the poor”.

But if you really care about elderly people not being able to heat their homes, wouldn’t you support a campaign that wants better insulation? If you want families on low incomes to have access to cheap, quality food wouldn’t you worry about climate change pushing up food costs? Isn’t low cost public transport pretty handy for people on low incomes?

The consensus seems to be that if you must share a platform with the BNP, you either try to ignore them (as Boris Johnson affects to do), or your laugh at them (as most London Assembly members seem to do).

All jolly fun, but I wonder if any of those potential BNP voters – the type who aren’t particularly racist but just feel let down on housing or crime by Labour – if they ever see this. What would they think? What does it achieve? How can we make clear that Richard Barnbrook is (a) completely useless at pushing his agenda and (b) not very good at standing up for the people who vote for him? How can politicians who must share a platform get this message out effectively?

Boris scuppers the South London Line

One of the London Mayor’s favourite tactics is to totally confuse an issue, joking around to avoid anything sticking. With an issue like the South London Line he’s in his element. Except that residents of south London might prefer if he used his wit to help save public transport services, rather than trying to deny any responsibility.

Jenny Jones and me by a SLL train

To recap very quickly, the excellent train service (which I use daily) is due to be axed in 2012. Boris has tried to claim it’s the government’s responsibility; that it is purely a technical decision which he can’t reverse; and that he is fighting our corner (only when his hand is forced, of course). In fact, we can be pretty sure that it all comes down to money, and that Boris won’t stump up the measly £2.4m per year for two years out of a massive central Government grant to save the line because he came up short on the East London Line extension.

OK, this is getting a bit nerdy. But today Southwark Councillor and London Assembly Member Jenny Jones stuck it to him again, asking if he would set-up a meeting between Transport for London and Network Rail to discuss the technical issues with London Bridge station. His answer? No.

He can fluster and wheeze about his commitment to public transport all he likes, but campaigners in south London know a Mayor who doesn’t give two f**cks about our services when we see one!