Boris gets off the bus

As a bold act of redistribution it is hard to beat. Oh, hang on . . .

Boris Johnson will see out New Year's Eve 2009 convinced that he has made it as cheap as possible. London's official fireworks display, which under the "profligate" Ken Livingstone regime lasted ten whole minutes, will be reduced to a mere seven and a half minutes.

Free rail travel will be scrapped, and Boris will enter 2010 having scrimped several hundred thousand pounds off the mayor's budget.

This is all part of Boris's drive to "ease the burden" of City Hall on taxpayers. However, as Boris counts his pennies, the rest of the capital will wake to the largest set of multimillion-pound fare rises brought in by a London mayor.

Boris will increase single bus fares by 20 per cent, with "hard-pressed families" paying hundreds of pounds more a year. And while the average household has saved just 11p a week from Boris's tax freeze, Boris will take hundreds of millions of pounds extra in fare revenue during his term.

These rises will help close the financial black hole created by the removal of the western extension of the congestion charge, but will also go towards much-needed improvements to the Underground. They will also help fund initiatives such as his bike hire scheme.

But while some of the extra burden may be necessary, it is how Boris has chosen to share the burden that is most revealing.

Boris will protect those Londoners most able to pay by freezing the price of almost all season tickets for the year. Meanwhile, he will raise single bus fares by a third from the level he inherited. Overall, bus users will be hit hardest by the rises.

As a bold act of redistribution, it is hard to beat, with Boris asking those least able to pay to subsidise those most able to pay.

This is reportedly a worry for the Conservative leadership: David Cameron's aides are quoted as saying that Boris is "making us look bad". But although Cameron is keen not to scare off voters before an election, Boris is merely doing what most Conservatives would have expected him to do once in power.

Ken Livingstone famously had a policy of shifting people out of their own vehicles and on to public transport. For a self-proclaimed cycle- and car-loving libertarian, this was always going to be anathema.

To shift the balance, Boris plans to raise fares, halve the size of the congestion charge zone, reduce the level of bus subsidy and pour millions into making London the "electric car capital of the world".

Whether masses of Londoners will ever follow Boris's electric dreams remains to be seen.

But while the mayor can easily afford to take part in his "electric car revolution", for most Londoners the real revolution will be an ever-increasing burden from Boris in fares.

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the mayoralty.

 

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

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.