Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The single object that sums up Boris Johnson's disastrous mayoralty

Pets look like their owners - and pet projects reveal much about the politicians who create them.

They say that people often keep dogs that look like themselves; certainly they chose pets with a temperament that matches their own. In Boris Johnson’s case it’s his new Routemaster pet project which offers quite a good mirror on its creator’s soul.

After eight years at City Hall I understand the secret hidden depths of Boris Johnson. 

There aren’t any. Stop searching for them.  The man is deeply superficial and is defined solely by his insatiable appetite for profile and publicity.

In September 2007, Boris Johnson announced that if he became Mayor he would scrap his bête noir the bendy buses and would replace them with a new Routemaster- cue a press release and photo op.  After the election a competition to design a New Bus for London was held (another press release) and once the winning design had been selected (glitzy press launch) Wrightbus were given the contract to build the bus (pause for a trip to Northern Ireland for a media tour of the factory). 

In May 2010 the final design of the bus was announced and finally in February 2012, five years after it was first mooted the first of eight prototypes new Routemasters went into service on route 38. All of course accompanied by photoshoots and interviews with Boris on the “Boris bus”.

Since then, TfL have ordered 800 of the new buses  With press launches, announcements and photoshoots firing off like bangers from a sausage machine you’d think the finished product would be a marvel, sadly as with many Boris projects there was far more style than substance.

On the most basic level Boris’ sums just don’t add up. The first 600 new Routemasters cost TfL £212.7m, that’s £354,500 per bus, the next 200 cost £69.9m a slight discount at £349,500 per bus. But look at the cost of an equivalent double decker bus and it all becomes a bit murky. A conventional double-decker costs £190,000 to build, almost half the cost of the New Routemaster.

Of course just because something is expensive it doesn’t mean it’s not value for money. So what do we get?

·         Less space - The capacity of the New Routemaster is 87 people, whereas the capacity of other double decker buses is higher, such as the Volvo B7TL EL DD, has a capacity of 96.

·         Overheated passengers - Having been fitted with an air cooling system, rather than an air conditioning one, the New Routemaster is well known for being unbearably hot during the summer months. Old technology solutions (like openable windows) spoiled the aesthetics of Boris bus - so for years its passengers were denied relief.  After three years of boiling bus journeys the Mayor was forced to announce a refit to add in openable windows, at a cost to the taxpayer of £2m.

·         Rocketing costs – One of the key reasons the new bus was introduced was to bring back a jump-on, jump-off service with constantly open rear doors. To do this he bought back conductors in an attempt to replicate the experience of the old Routemaster buses, and ensure the safety of passengers when the rear door was left open. Each extra member of staff costs TfL £62,000 a year.

So after spending millions on a new bus with a openable rear door, the Mayor is scrapping the staff and closing the rear platform door for good. In fact eight of the 12 routes have already scrapped conductors all together with the remaining four only having them at specific times of day. Unsurprising given that in October 2014, TfL confirmed that all future New Routemaster routes would run “entirely” in One Person Operated (OPO) mode, meaning the rear platform will be closed while the bus is running and only open when the bus pulls up at a stop.

What about the new bus' environmental credentials? The oft repeated but empty claim that the Routemaster is cleaner has helped the Mayor disguise the fact  that London is still running a largely old and ageing bus fleet, while other world cities - and some European provincial ones, are making big strides on cleaner hybrid buses and electric only single-deckers. London’ s polluted air is at crisis levels  and all the photoshoots  in the TfL press portfolio can’t disguise  the heavy unhealthy feeling you experience walking or cycling along London’s major roads.

The Mayor’s proposed Ultra Low Emission Zone should mean that buses which don’t meet emissions targets must pay a daily charge of £100 to enter Central London from 2020. However, in a very Boris Johnson’s like make-a-rule, break-a-rule fashion, he has exempted all of his new Routemasters. Despite knowing about London’s air quality crisis there was little effort made to control the emissions standards of the new buses, which would now cost between £7m and £15m to bring up to standard, a price Boris believes is too high so it will not be done. This means they can go on pumping out more harmful emissions in central London.

Add that to the fact that the failure of the hybrid battery technology has meant dozens of Routemasters  running solely on polluting diesel  and what you’re left with doesn’t look that green at all. 

It costs more than an equivalent hybrid double decker, and because no other City in the world wants to buy them they will always remain at a premium cost, it has less capacity, has problems with the air conditioning, has conductors that are being phased out, a rear platform that is superfluous and is due to be the most polluting TfL bus on our roads in central London in 2020.

Sadly though Boris has ploughed on throughout, focused more on the photo-ops and press releases than the millions of pounds of public money being wasted.  It can be a massively expensive rip off, not work properly, be polluting, uncomfortable and too small for purpose but if you can stand on the back platform with your blond locks blowing heroically in the wind for the cameras then for Boris Johnson, it’s got to be a deal. 

Val Shawcross is transport spokeswoman for the London Assembly Labour Group 

Getty
Show Hide image

There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.