Would Boris Johnson rather be attacked by a dozen duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?

The London Mayor's Twitter Q&A showed the perils of engaging with voters on digital platforms without really understanding them.

"Ask Boris is the latest in our series of Talk London events, your chance to talk to the Mayor about what matters most to you," suggested one of Boris's marketing whiz kids at City Hall. "Join us on Twitter to talk about what makes London the best big city in the world."
 
And so they did. In their thousands, tweeters took to the network to ask Johnson such vital questions as "Does it annoy you that Custard Creams from Tesco are normally all broken?" and: "Which would you prefer? To be attacked by a dozen duck sized horses or attacked by one horse sized duck?"
 
The Mayor might have expected abuse, but instead he faced a series of increasingly surreal questions: "Time flies like an arrow, whereas fruit flies like a banana - discuss/comment?" asked one concerned follower. "Did Bono finally find what he was looking for?" asked another.
 
The session quickly got out of hand. "Boris Johnson is doing a Twitter Q&A under #askboris and naturally some people aren't taking it seriously. Have a look," suggested one user. And before Boris could properly get to grips with the important topic of  "how many chucks can a woodchuck chuck" or decide between Curly Wurly bars and fudge fingers, #askBoris was one of the top trending topics in the world.
 
Whilst previous sessions had lasted a whole hour, the Mayor made a swift exit at half time citing previously unmentioned "diary commitments". Meanwhile most of the genuine and difficult questions posed by Londoners remained unanswered. Many users were left feeling that it was them, rather than the mayor, who had been taken for a ride.
 
"So @mayoroflondon chooses to answer questions about duck sized horses, but not about his 9 point plan for London," complained one follower. "So the #askboris session seemed to RT a whole bunch of questions and provide no answers...how very like a politician" complained another.
 
Boris later declared the session a resounding success with City Hall compiling an official mayoral report claiming that 553,076 users had been reached by the Twitter trend.
 
Whether any of those 500,000 were even remotely better informed about London issues is another matter, but in terms of promoting the Boris brand #askboris undoubtedly served its purpose.
 
Other politicians' Twitter question and answer sessions have not been quite as benign. Last year Ed Miliband was the target of particularly barbed questions on the site.
 
"If you give a speech, but nobody cares, do you make a sound?' asked one typically dismissive user on the site. "Do you feel bad about stabbing your brother in the back? asked many others.
 
What both examples show however is that so many politicians have completely failed to understand how social media works. For most users, conversations on Twitter and Facebook do not happen by prior appointment, but are part of their everyday lives.

Of course there are some politicians who understand this, and who actually use Twitter as a major part of their daily work.
 
But by setting up occasional brief Q+A sessions, Johnson and Miliband are almost asking for people to exploit and ridicule them. Not only are they sticking their heads in the public stocks, they are actually handing out sponges and cream pies for people to throw at them as well.

Of course being the Mayor of London or the leader of the opposition might not leave much time to spend answering endless questions on Twitter. 

But if they haven't got the time to properly to get to grips with social media then perhaps they shouldn't bother trying at all.

Boris Johnson is pretty much the definition of "in touch with the electorate". Photo: Getty Images

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the Mayoralty. He blogs mostly at AdamBienkov.com

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.