JONNY BROGDALE reports on an unsatisfactory exercise organised by City Hall that was more about justification than any real accountability
The People’s Question Time session with London Mayor Sadiq Khan, staged in Carshalton on Thursday night, offered a couple of quick lessons in geography, history and economics. But sadly, nothing enlightening on the environment.
Tony Arbour, a Tory London Assembly Member, could do with getting up to date with a little local political geography, after he declared to the packed audience in the Westcroft Leisure Centre, in front of the London Mayor (the clue’s in the title, Tony), how delighted he was to see PQT coming to… Surrey.
“As far as I’m concerned, Sutton is in London,” Khan offered helpfully, and showing excellent self-control in not giving himself a theatrical face-palm.
As Khan, if not Arbour, knows, Sutton, like neighbouring Croydon, hasn’t been in Surrey for more than half a century. If it was, then there would be no place at City Hall for Arbour’s Conservative colleague, Steve O’Connell, the AM for London boroughs Sutton and Croydon. So perhaps Arbour has inadvertently hit upon something…
This pretty much set the tone for much of what followed.
Also unintentionally, one of Khan’s deputy mayors, Jules Pipe, offered a lesson in economics by spending two hours sitting alongside Ruth Dombey, the leader of Sutton Council. In doing so, Pipe unwittingly demonstrated that there is no real need for the LibDem-run council to squander £30,000 (albeit of money generously donated by builders and developers) to send a trio of Sutton Council employees to the South of France later this month for an event with… Jules Pipe.
Twice a year the Mayor and a selection of London Assembly members pitch up in a borough to stage such a People’s Question Time. These rather slick events are loosely based on the BBC’s Question Time format, with the David Dimbleby role taken by the local Assembly member. So O’Connell was question-master.
Even more so than the TV version, the event is highly “produced”, carefully sanitised to avoid much in the way of follow-up to any of the questions posed of the Mayor and members.
The range of questions revealed that the audience was a broad mix of people from other London boroughs – one of the first questions asked being about Seven Sisters market.
But the strength of applause when Beddington North councillor Nick Mattey asked Khan how Sutton and Viridor’s development of the Beddington incinerator fitted with the Mayor’s commitment to clean air for Londoners showed the true and growing extent of concern within the audience.
Khan’s disappointing response to Mattey’s question set the tone for many of his responses throughout the two-hour event. Although he expressed regret that former Mayor Boris Johnson had given the go-ahead for this “too-big” incinerator, the Labour Mayor just brushed aside the matter as a “done deal” over which he had no power or control.
This failure to address the local anger prompted Sian Berry, the Green Party Assembly Member, to say that, as in-coming Mayor, Khan could have reviewed Johnson’s decision, as he has done with the Garden Bridge debacle. But Khan chose not to do this with Viridor’s £1billion incinerator project. Khan’s response to this point? He smiled serenely and moved on to the next question.
This was People’s Questions, alright, but without much in the way of Mayor’s Answers.
Labour GLA member Nicky Gavron saw the issue of the incinerator as an opportunity to patronise Sutton residents by telling them to recycle as much as they can, and to “monitor” the number of juggernauts bringing refuse to the incinerator.
Gavron’s “understanding” of how Viridor will operate the incinerator betrayed the misinformation and superficial understanding around the matter: for Gavron, it is a good thing that waste sent for recycling will be sorted; Gavron didn’t seem to be aware that Viridor will be saving itself millions of pounds by doing very little, if any, on-site sorting of recyclables, and instead relying on residents to sort their waste.
The section of the evening devoted to transport questions sought the Mayor’s response to the woeful SouthernFail, as well as Sutton’s public transport “desert” and extension of the tram and Overground network to the borough. Khan’s responses again seemed to revolve around an examination of the limits of the Mayor’s remit, in this case often blaming the party political dogma of Tory Transport Secretary Chris Grayling.
On the specific issue of funding for the Sutton tram extension, the Mayor appeared to find it difficult to explain why he would not commit London money to the scheme and emphasised how Sutton and Merton needed to contribute a far greater chunk of the £200million “shortfall”.
Demonstrating uncannily good eyesight, MC O’Connell managed to pick out Tim Crowley, the leader of Sutton’s Tory group, during this batch of questions. Unfortunately, Khan chose not to address Crowley’s suggestion that the Mayor consider extending the London Overground service to Belmont, providing a service to the Royal Marsden’s new London Cancer Hub.
Throughout the rather muted event, the Mayor gave his usual calm, composed performance as a very accomplished political communicator and received warm applause for remarks about his TfL fares freeze, the “Bus-hopper” ticket, his pride in the success of multicultural London and his rejection of Theresa May’s offer of a state visit to Donald Trump.
The PQT audience posed some really good questions to the Mayor and the Assembly Members about living costs, the housing crisis, key-worker housing, mental heath, green spaces, unfair transport fare zones and policing, not all of which got the answers they deserved. The audience was treated to the spectacle of Khan saying that Tory Assembly Member Andrew Boff was lying about his budget stats, but even that claim was retracted when O’Connell invited the Mayor to reconsider.
This disappointing climb-down on the only visible point of political contention during the somewhat “vanilla” evening was a kind of leitmotif. Just like the BBC’s tired, lame format, these exercises in political engagement feel more like justification than any opportunity for accountability.
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