Thursday, 2 June 2016

Perhaps CCTV isn't that useful after all

A curious tale of cost-cutting has emerged in the last few days as it seems Westminster City Council is planning to scrap its network of more than 100 CCTV cameras in the West End of London on the basis that it can no longer afford their upkeep due to government cuts.

This will come as a surprise to those who remember times at City Hall under the then unknighted Simon Milton when, along with Wandsworth, it prized itself as a wealthy (ahem, their reserves have recently been valued at over £22billion so they'll get through the week), successful council; a proud Conservative flag-bearer in a time when Labour ruled the roost nationally with ease. I remember, back in 2004, Kit Malthouse, now an MP but then a Westminster councillor and deputy leader, confidently revealing ambitions to cut council tax from its already low levels to zero ‘by 2012’. Needless to say this courageous aspiration was never realised.

And, when I worked as a reporter in the area in the earlier 2000s, Westminster Council was inordinately proud of the network. The manager of the CCTV control room was not only keen on inviting the press and other visitors to see how the operation worked, but he was also a frequent witness at council meetings and attended gatherings of organisations like the Leicester Square Association, reminding the locals how useful the CCTV was in improving their security.

But now, while other police and private cameras will remain, Westminster wants to switch theirs off, claiming it will save a £1million a year, a fairly paltry sum when they are looking for savings of more than £100million. A report on the matter concludes it is not the ‘most effective use’ of council money and the ‘operational benefit to the council is limited’; working hand in hand with the police, it seems, is so last decade.

A Soho resident I know wondered whether their safety was being put at risk by these cuts. After all, for years Westminster Council, the police and the government have been telling anyone who’d listen that the network was a success, acclaimed for cutting crime in the West End. Have they, in fact, all be telling porkies?

John Denham
In 2002, the Press Association reported how Home Office minister John Denham, was treated to a private viewing of footage - in the ‘£1.2million CCTV control room in the Trocadero Centre’ - of an incident in which eight youths launched an unprovoked attack on two men in Leicester Square. Other treats included a fist fight and a man urinating into a bin in Soho. Denham announced an extra £169,000 grant for three new cameras to the system and claimed that, while the CCTV centre had only been in operation for four months, 'it was already producing real results’. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Andy Trotter said ‘CCTV had been a great help in tackling late night incidents’.

In April 2003, Deputy Commissioner Ian Blair praised CCTV for helping to cut street crime in Westminster by 33 per cent

And in January, 2001, Westminster councillor Alan Bradley, who was then cabinet member for community protection at the council, wrote a letter to the council taking issue with a claim that CCTV does ‘not appear to make such difference anyway’. Councillor Bradley wrote: ‘We cannot quantify exactly how much difference it makes but we have seen a drop in street crime of 30 per cent in the West End in the past year. CCTV is one tool to help in the battle against crime and antisocial behaviour…. In Leicester Square for example, our CCTV was instrumental in the successful prosecution of seven youths who assaulted a tourist… the only comment I hear from people in Westminster about CCTV is to press for it to be extended to the streets where they work and live.’

In July 2004, Sound, the nightclub in Leicester Square, lost its licence after attacks on customers by bouncers were captured on CCTV. Superintendent Chris Bradford, from the Metropolitan Police’s clubs and vice unit, said: ‘The video footage showing the kickings given to customers were horrific.’

In April 2007, a man dubbed ‘Britain’s most prolific handbag thief’ was jailed for four years. Maurice Young, then 55, ‘was captured on CCTV at the scenes of the crimes’.

In September of the same year, the numbers of traffic wardens were cut in the West End by 20 per cent, with the council boasting that an expanded CCTV network could do the job more efficiently and save £1million a year.

Before the Olympics, in May 2012, the Evening Standard reported that police ‘swooped on Soho’s most wanted drug dealers in a pre-Olympics blitz on the street trade in heroin and crack cocaine’. Police identified a ‘hit list of 36 top-level suspects – amassing CCTV evidence and conducting test purchases’.

Camille Gordon
One crime CCTV didn't help solve, however, was the murder of Camille Gordon, who worked as a nightclub hostess at the Blue Bunny Club in Archer Street, Soho. This was a clip joint, a venue which enticed men in with the promise of a strip show and even sex for prices as low as £5. Once inside, normally in a basement, customers would suddenly find themselves with an astronomical bill of hundreds of pounds and threatened with beatings if they didn't pay. Sometimes, unfortunate customers would even be marched up to cash points and ordered to withdraw money by some knucklehead. The business plan of these clubs - which have mainly gone now - relied upon knowing that their victims were highly likely to be far too embarrassed to ever complain to the police.

On this particular occasion, on March 1, 2004, there was a dispute with a young black man who was facing a £375 bill after being in the club for about ten minutes. He left the club only to return and stab the 23-year-old Ms Gordon, who staggered down the stairs of the club before collapsing. Archer Street, at that time, had no CCTV cameras and the only footage that was obtained by cameras nearby displayed grainy pictures of a figure heading away who may or may not have been the killer. Despite a £20,000 reward being offered, her killer has not been captured.

There is, of course, no way of knowing whether CCTV would have led to the successful conviction of her killer but I remember police bemoaning the lack of decent footage and Westminster Council certainly wasn't saying CCTV was of 'little benefit' at the time.

A matter of timing

In just over three weeks’ time voters will be going to polling stations to cast their vote in the EU referendum. The polls are increasingly close, the Conservative Party is, predictably, tearing itself apart on the issue, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are having whale of a time campaigning to large crowds around the country. This, then, is the obvious time for a film (full film here) about the apparently pro-EU leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, to rail against those enemies of socialist progress, the BBC and The Guardian columnist.

Inside Jeremy Corbyn’s press team there is someone who thought allowing filming of the leader behind the scenes, by a Labour-supporting, Corbyn-voting activist, for Vice News was a good idea. Viewers certainly see the good bits of Jeremy Corbyn. He is evidently active in his Islington constituency, is excellent at talking to people, likes being with members of public and is clearly interested in their concerns and interests. At one point he remarks rather endearingly ‘every single person you meet knows something you don’t know, if you don’t interact with people you can’t learn anything and, also, it keeps you humble’.

But, the whole atmosphere pervading the film is one of paranoia, not helped by a grim-faced Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s executive director of strategy, frequently hovering in the background. While it can certainly be true that just because someone may be paranoid, it doesn’t mean people are not plotting against them, it isn’t the familiar newspaper foes that get it in the neck, it is the New Statesman, the BBC and the Guardian writer, author of an ‘utterly disgusting’ column, Jonathan Freedland. Does Corbyn really believe the BBC is obsessed with damaging his leadership? Is there really a ‘Gerald’ at the heart of his operation, leaking his PMQ question to a Tory 'Karla'?

Neither major party is a picture of competence currently. The government is hopelessly split over Europe and, thus, is incapable of presenting a coherent vision for the future of the country and has presented a Queen’s Speech denuded of anything that might be vaguely controversial. Cameron’s government, with only a small majority, has been forced into making u-turn after u-turn. Despite claims that these have been Labour successes, many – such as forcing successful schools to convert to academies, tax credit cuts, disability benefit cuts, Sunday trading laws, the repeal of the Hunting Act – have all occurred due to Conservative backbench rebellions. Yet, Labour remains stubbornly behind in the polls. And while it is certainly true that Labour’s performance in the local elections was better than expected, they were hardly – Sadiq Khan excepted – an indication of a party on its way back to power.

What is most troubling, however, is not the Jim Hackeresque confidence that everyone is conniving against him, it is the timing. Jeremy Corbyn has not been prominent in the European referendum debate thus far. It has followed something of a pattern: Conservatives in rival camps shout at each other; a few Labour figures, like Alan Johnson, Tom Watson or John McDonnell, emerge to speak briefly from the sidelines; someone questions where Jeremy Corbyn is; Corbyn duly appears and makes a speech he rather seems not to want to be giving; Corbyn goes back to whatever he was doing before anyone noticed his absence.

And, so it is today, Corbyn has been giving a speech in which he will outline his fears about the dangers of Brexit. And yet, it has already been overshadowed by this unnecessary, self-inflicted, wound.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Sadiq Khan the 'radical'

What was never clear about Zac Goldsmith’s campaign is when the dodgy fellows with whom Sadiq Khan was supposedly allied would emerge and wield their influence over the new mayor. Sadiq Khan has been in position for just over a week so it’s probably too early to judge whether he is the security risk to the capital that Goldsmith, Michael Fallon and David Cameron suggested. In his first few days, however, he has displayed little apparent sympathy with Islamic extremism. Instead, the new mayor has displayed sound judgement and shown canny political instincts.

Consider his first few days:

His swearing in ceremony took place in the modest splendour of Southwark Cathedral, rather than City Hall, several stones' throw further east along the river.

The following day, Mayor Khan attended the Yom HaShoah memorial event, remembering victims of the Holocaust. There, he chatted with the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, commiserating that he’d been unable to vote due to the shambles at polling stations in Barnet. The photographs portray an amicable meeting despite, just a few days earlier, Rabbi Mirvis warning that the Labour party had a ‘severe’ issue with anti-Semitism. 

Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, Marcus Dysch wrote:

‘A Muslim politician, the son of Pakistani immigrants, standing shoulder to shoulder with Shoah survivors? It looked good, and it felt good too. And that is not something Jews have been able to say about many Labour politicians in the past year. Two days into the job, he has now cemented his position as the community’s go-to figure.’

The Labour Party's troubles do not seem to be Sadiq Khan's.

And today (17/05/16) the Gay Pride flag is flying outside City Hall to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT): 

It has been well documented how Sadiq Khan upset some in his own community for backing same-sex marriage in 2013, to the point of even receiving death threats. This didn't stop him from reassuring Pink News back in January, however, that he would attend future Gay pride marches, after Boris Johnson's failure to attend since 2010.

Now, it's perfectly likely that Zac Goldsmith would have been appeared at these events had he been elected mayor; they're just the sort of trips a new London mayor makes. But, they go a long way very quickly towards dispelling any fears waverers may have had over who was taking over City Hall. And, with the added benefit of hindsight, it marks the Conservative mayoral campaign as being even more tactically and painfully misjudged. 

The even more tragic aspect of the whole affair is, while the Conservative Party will ultimately continue on its way, Zac Goldsmith's reputation is likely to have been tarnished for years to come.

Monday, 25 April 2016

So who would win if the London mayoral candidates played Monopoly?

There are many ways a voter may decide how to judge the various London mayoral candidates. Some might think a candidate’s housing policy the key issue, for others maybe it’s transport. But what about whether they can play the ultimate London board game, Monopoly, or not.

Over the past couple of months my Metro colleague Sharon Lougher and I have interviewed the major candidates running for mayor. We’ve asked them about how they would tackle the housing crisis, what infrastructure London needs to cope with a growing population and what crime measures would be their focus. All agree housing is the key issue and many have found it difficult to separate it from transport, arguing that one can only be solved with work on the other.

But, while they might agree on the major issues, they disagree – particularly the leading candidates Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan – on their approaches to tackling the problems so voters are left with a genuine choice. 

To lighten the mood in an increasingly fraught contest, however, we also asked what their tactics are when playing Monopoly; which one would you trust to play the ultimate property board game and win?

Caroline Pidgeon
First up was Caroline Pidgeon. This crucial issue didn’t make the final edit in the paper, but her Monopoly tactics are to ‘buy the stations because they keep generating the revenue. Then I'd go for Mayfair’. Now, as a fellow transport enthusiast, I can only applaud the sentiment of wanting to secure the stations and I can understand the simple attraction of Mayfair. But, really, as a Monopoly tactic it is unlikely to prove a winner.

The full interview, where she talks about her transport plans, why Heathrow expansion should be stopped, how the Garden Bridge should be cancelled and Boris Johnson's legacy can be found here.

Sian Berry
Clearly, a fellow transport enthusiast, the Green Party candidate Sian Berry also said 'the stations!' when asked what she would target. You can read the full interview with Ms Berry here, where she talks about her plans to set up a renters' union across London to help private renters, getting rid of City Airport and the joys of Hampstead Heath.

Peter Whittle
Peter Whittle, the UKIP candidate, was at least honest about Monopoly admitting 'I've never completely understood the rules'.

'I used to make them up when I played my very impressionable sisters! For some reason I used to like the greens - Regent Street, Bond Street, Oxford Street. I thought they were attainable without being ostentatious.'

Bond Street is possibly a bit ostentatious these days and Regent Street, if not quite ostentatious, is certainly an advert for aspiration. But, regardless, it isn't a winning tactic for Monopoly. Peter Whittle's full interview, where he talks about tackling overcrowding in London, his love of the arts and meeting the Queen, is here.

Zac Goldsmith
Now, if there's one person who should know how to play Monopoly, it is Zac Goldsmith. He is, after all, almost wealthy enough to consider buying a space on a Monopoly board for real. Again, there wasn't enough space for the issue to make the final cut in the paper but he falls into the same trap as Caroline Pidgeon and Sian Berry.

'I would go for the train stations, to guard our precious transport infrastructure from Khan's £2bn blackhole.'

So, not a winning Monopoly strategy, but he's hoping with his overtly political answer to highlight again his major campaign theme that Sadiq Khan's plan to freeze transport fares for four years, if he becomes mayor, would blow a large hole in Transport for London's development budget. It's certainly a point of contention. Goldsmith talking of his love for Richmond Park, his plan to build houses and why Britain should leave the European Union can be found here.

Sadiq Khan
Sadiq Khan is another who really should have a grasp of how to play the game, being the son-of-a-bus driver, born and brought up in Tooting, as he's very keen to tell anyone that listens. And, it's pretty clear that he is practised at the game, as he replies:

'Buy early, and buy lots! Whether it's Old Kent Road or Park lane, buy, buy, buy.'

Finally, in the Monopoly stakes at least, a candidate has a potentially winning strategy. Whether he can win in London with his contested four-year freeze on fares and his affordable housing target of 50 per cent remains to be seen. For details on why he thinks those policies would work, and how he would like to step into a boxing ring with Barack Obama and that he definitely didn't woo his wife in McDonalds, see the full interview here.

Sophie Walker
But, an honourable mention also needs to be made for Sophie Walker, the leader and mayoral candidate for the Women's Equality party. Rather than engage in the competitive bluster of a Monopoly game, she pointed out what practical uses it can have. She said:

'I play with my daughter Grace, who has autism, and struggles with maths as well because she has dyscalculia. So when I play Monopoly my main strategy is to help her understand the value of the properties that she's buying and whether she can pay the mortgage.'

Here is someone with a sensible purpose for the game rather than one who wastes hours - albeit with sadistic glee - trying to bankrupt one's opponents. You can read more about the struggle for equal pay, trying to end violence against women and why Mary Wollstonecraft deserves a statue in London here.

Friday, 8 April 2016

The sins of one's father

One cannot atone for the sins of one's father. One cannot even atone for their accounting choices. I dare say that, gazing back through my family tree, among the many fine and upstanding people, several of the characters that feature would have done something of which I thoroughly disapprove. I imagine there was a racist, a bully, maybe a petty criminal and a blithering incompetent. There's little I can do about it. And I reckon I do things that will make my daughters in future roll their eyes in bewilderment.

I actually feel a bit sorry for David Cameron for this is the problem he now faces. He cannot undo the business decisions his father made and it must be very excruciatingly painful for him to see a figure he loved and so obviously admired to be hauled over the coals, especially as his financial arrangements were far from unusual and all tax owed - under the law - was paid. People claiming that Cameron has benefited from tax dodging are simply wrong. He hasn't.

Nothing illegal has occurred. That does not mean, however, that the prime minister hasn't made a series of terrible of mistakes that yet again leaves his judgement open to question. While the urge to defend the honour and privacy of one's father is a perfectly natural instinct, it is hard to imagine how it could have been handled more incompetently.

It is the end of yet another wretched week for the government and most of the problems are entirely self-inflicted. In his interview last night, yet again David Cameron said 'I don't have anything to hide', but it was the fifth statement on his financial affairs, having spent the week trying to dodge the question.

David Cameron was at pains to say Blairmore Investments wasn't set up to avoid tax. Yet, the 2006 prospectus for the scheme stated:

'The directors intend that the affairs of the fund should be managed and conducted so that it does not become resident in the UK for UK taxation purposes... the fund will not be subject to UK corporation tax or income tax on its profits'.

And it is noticeable that both the prime minister's £300,000 inheritance and £19,000 profit from Blairmore both happened to be just below thresholds above which tax would have been due.

Why also did Cameron sell his stake in January 2010? It surely cannot have been because he feared how it might appear if he were to win that year's general election, can it?

And while not strictly necessary under the rules, it is a noticeable omission from his Register of Interests after repeatedly asserting his transparency.

The claim that 'we are all in this together' also sounds particular hollow now and Cameron's criticism of others using offshore vehicles - such as Jimmy Carr - does appear at the very least foolish, if not hypocritical, now.

These are awkward questions which the prime minister may still face pressure to answer.

Oddly, though, they're almost irrelevant. The bigger issue is political competence. Lurching from self-inflicted wound to self-inflicted wound, the government currently gives the impression of being tired and out of ideas, much like John Major's administration after the disaster of Black Wednesday.

Consider the last few weeks. George Osborne's budget took three days to fall apart spectacularly. Jeremy Hunt is proving more unpopular at health than even Michael Gove at education and the junior doctors' dispute shows no sign of being over anytime soon.  Sajid Javid found himself on a jaunt in Australia when Tata was holding a crucial, and long expected, meeting on the future of the British steel industry. Even the EU pamphlet, while in many ways perfectly understandable, is a £9.3million invitation for a bit of internecine warfare.

One can only think that the most plausible explanation for this is the EU referendum. The government is chronically divided and is struggling to present an agreed voice on almost anything. We witness, on a ridiculously frequent basis, ministers within the same departments saying contradictory things - meaning that focusing and simply getting the basics right is very difficult to achieve.

The biggest danger for the government is that this image of incompetence might sway voters in the EU referendum. While it is fair to say neither side of the Brexit debate has covered itself with glory, no one wants to be on the same side as an incompetent and it always looks worse coming from a government. Voters might tick the box to leave the EU simply to give the government a bloody nose rather than because it's something they actually want to do.

Despite the ineptitude, however, any calls from Labour for Cameron to resign are way over the top and while the government does seem tired, it remains very hard to imagine a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn ready to step into the breach.

It is recoverable, of course. Cameron simply must shore up the team around him for currently he is receiving woeful advice. And if the Prime Minister wins the EU referendum - which still seems most likely - he will have the opportunity to shake up his cabinet, refresh it and try and push on; though it will be a struggle to keep all sides happy.

In the end, it does rather feel that the final days of the David Cameron era has arrived. If he loses the EU referendum he's a goner anyway, but if he wins he will at least have the opportunity to depart on his own terms.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's tea recipe

The Today programme is discussing tea recipes; here is Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's somewhat absurd tea making process:

That's all changed. Now, to make my tea, I need two good-sized mugs. I boil the kettle. The hot water goes into one mug first, stays for a few seconds so the mug is heated, then goes into the second mug. The tea bag goes into the first, hot, mug, boiling water is poured in, to within a couple of millimetres of the top, and the two mugs, one containing brewing tea, and the other containing hot water, are left to stand. After about five minutes, the mug of brewed tea is placed in the sink, where some new hot water (freshly re-boiled) from the kettle, is sloshed into it, so it overflows by about half a mug. This is to stop the well-brewed tea being too strong. The full-to-overflowing mug is now tilted a little bit, so it spills out enough tea to allow room for some milk.

Remember the second mug, full of the hot (now not so hot, but still quite hot) water that was used to warm the first mug? That is now emptied. The tea bag is fished out from the first 'brewing' mug, and placed in the bottom of the empty 'warm' mug, where a small splash of milk is poured over it. The effect of the hot tea bag, and still-warm mug, is to take the chill off the milk - and impregnate it with a mild tea flavour. To encourage both these objectives, the mug is picked up and swirled, put down for a few seconds, picked up and swirled again, and left to stand for a short while longer. The tea-coloured, warm milk is now poured from tea-bag mug to brew mug, which is given a stir.

The resulting colour is observed. A little more milk may be necessary, in which case it will go via the still-warm tea bag mug, into the brew mug. When the colour is exactly right, I will stir in exactly one rounded teaspoonful of golden caster sugar. The tea, which at this point is still far too hot to drink, will now be left to stand for at least five minutes, before a sip is attempted.

After that laborious process I'm not sure what time there would be for any other morning rituals. The full article can be found here:

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Only chain stores of a certain size need apply

The one thing the team behind the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station have been very keen to stress – whether it ultimately turns out to be the case or not – is that they are not intending it to be just another luxury flat development. Yes, a studio flat may set you back £800,000 but, really, it’s a mixed development, they tell everyone they can find.

Following this theme then, they have just unveiled the first commercial tenants for the site and they are trying to reassure everyone it will not be just another identikit high street, at least not just yet anyway. Rob Tincknell, the chief executive of the Battersea Power Station Development Company, says he has been ‘approached by a number of big chains’ about leasing sections of the development but that they haveall been refused.

Instead, there will be Pedler – a sister branch to a restaurant in Peckham – the fourth Vagabond wine shop, a General Store (any relation to the hilariously hip and expensive General Store in Bellenden Road, Peckham?) and a new incarnation of Allens the Butchers, the lovely shop which once graced Mount Street in Mayfair for so many years before being forced to close by spiralling rents. (If you ever watched an episode of Poirot with David Suchet or Jeeves & Wooster with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, and a scene required a butchers, it would be Allens that would feature.)

There will also be a fourth outlet of The CoffeeWorks Project and a fifth pub from the smart pub/restaurant chain Darwin & Wallace (for an idea of the sort of thing they might offer just look here). And there will be a Village Hall space run in partnership with the Battersea Arts Centre.

These all sound very good – I’m particularly pleased to learn Allens will have a high street presence once more though it will never match the sheer romance and beauty of its previous site where the butcher's block was curved by years of use and the window was full of hanging pig carcasses – but clearly chains aren’t banned. They just have to be chains of a certain size. It rather seems to me this trend was set by the refurbished St Pancras Station which, when it first opened to acclaim, eschewed major high street stores and set a model many now follow. It isn’t fairing badly at St Pancras, though, some may feel regrettably, there are two WHSmiths and two M&S stores there now.

Whereas for many years, people feared shopping area developments would tragically lead to a disappointing interpretation of Slough High Street, with every functional chainstore turning up for duty, now it seems developers are trying to ape more apparently edgy areas. It is more likely to be the hip streets of Shoreditch, Peckham and Brixton providing the inspiration these days. So, while we wait to see whether Battersea Power Station becomes yet another lonely enclave where the wealthy have placed their money to gather decent interest or a mixed residential community, the Battersea Power Station Company does deserve credit for trying to be thoughtful and imaginative in the commercial spaces at the site. They may still be small chains in glass-fronted stores but we're not bored of them yet.