Political Editor WALTER CRONXITE spots the tell-tale signs of a bit of political opportunism – and valuable data-scraping
At a time of global conflicts, humanitarian catastrophe and, here at home, homelessness and cost of living crises, whether a suburban London bus route has six services running each hour, or seven, probably isn’t much of a campaign to get too hot and bothered about.
But that’s what Croydon councillor Claire Bonham has chosen for her first “local issues”, profile-raising effort in her capacity as the Liberal Democrats’ parliamentary candidate for Streatham and Croydon North.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hasn’t thrown the towel in just yet, but Bonham has clearly calculated that as a General Election must be held sometime between now and December 2024, there’s no time like the present for getting a few earnest-looking selfies taken, showing her Looking Very Serious Indeed in front of a 450 bus in Crystal Palace.
It’s a bit like the standard “Politician Pointing At Pile of Unswept Rubbish” photo tweets that start to appear, like the first cuckoos of spring, when an election is actually announced.
And it is certainly one up on the local “campaign” in Waddon that saw a geezer in a man-sized pigeon suit turn up to confront senior Tory councillor Phil Thomas as he emerged from his sports car, and to point out that pigeons shit in a public underpass. Who knew?
But whichever way you look at it, the 450 bus campaign is classic political gaming by the local LibDems, with a petition “to reverse cuts” to a bus service, but which turns out to be little more than a glorified data-scraping exercise so that the party can come knocking on your door asking for volunteers, canvassers and donations.
After all, who’s going to tick a box saying “We want fewer buses on this route”? (Plot spoiler: a dozen people actually did that…)
A little gentle questioning of Bonham, Croydon’s only LibDem councillor in 20 years, reveals that at the end of September, Transport for London quietly changed the schedule for the 450. The changed frequency is Monday to Saturday daytimes. “The new timetable will see buses run every 10 minutes instead of every eight minutes,” TfL told one of Bonham’s party colleagues. “There is no change to the frequency of route 450 at any other time, nor to the times of first and last buses on any day of the week.”
So instead of seven, sometimes eight, 450s trundling past any chosen stop on the route every hour, since the start of October, there’s been only six 450s per hour.
TfL said: “The timetable change follows a review that identified that it is operating with more capacity than is needed to meet current and expected demand at these times.”
New, zero-emission electric buses are to be introduced on the 450 route, replacing the Euro VI diesel buses currently running.
The 450 runs from West Croydon, via Thornton Heath, Beulah Hill and Crystal Palace Parade, past Sydenham Station and on to Bell Green. At one point on the route, it literally does go all around the houses, even doubling back on itself in a little loop. This is not the kind of bus you catch when you’re in a hurry to get somewhere. But if you have to get there, it will take you there, or somewhere very close. Eventually.
It is also fair to say that the difference between waiting eight minutes for a 450, or 10 minutes, as is now the case, is pretty insignificant. This is a political campaign by the LibDems that is not going to radically improve anyone’s lives.
Bonham says that her petition to TfL and London Mayor Sadiq Khan (there’s definitely an election coming up: the London elections next May) attracted “overwhelming support”, based on the responses of “over 200 local residents”. Her own figures suggest it was 207.
“TfL don’t need to announce or consult on changing the frequency of buses,” Councillor Bonham told Inside Croydon. “I only found out as I made a specific enquiry.”
There is a broader point. Mayor Khan made a commitment not to cut bus services in outer London. And this is, however marginal, a cut in a bus service in outer London.
Bonham’s party colleague at City Hall, London Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon, said, “The Mayor is breaking his promise to residents in outer London by cutting services like the 450.
“With the expansion of ULEZ, it doesn’t make sense to be cutting back on this route when we are trying to encourage people to use public transport and leave their cars at home.”
And Bonham described the 450 as “a vital lifeline”, which might be over-stating matters a tad, saying that the bus “helps many older and less mobile residents get out and about in what is a very hilly area”, while also offering an important connection from Crystal Palace to Mayday Hospital.
“The response to my surgery was overwhelming,” Bonham said, “with 95% of respondents opposing reductions in frequency to this busy, well-used service.”
And that means that Councillor Bonham now has more than 200 email addresses at her disposal in the run-up to the General Election, whenever it is called.
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