Boris takes on fire cuts critics with his best ever State of London performance

boris_state_of_london_13For the fifth year running, Boris Johnson last night faced an audience of ordinary Londoners at the State of London debate.

After a run of identikit events at which Boris delivered largely the same speech, last night’s offered us three firsts for which it’s likely to prove memorable – the first time Boris has faced an openly hostile audience, the first time he’s had to answer to Londoners for planned cuts to fire stations and engines and the first time he’s truly sounded like a civic leader.

Until last night Boris had largely evaded public anger over the fire cuts.

Ever since he used his power to direct the fire authority, Labour have attempted to sell the planned cuts as an end goal personally planned and desired by the Mayor.

As part of their efforts, Labour Assembly Members have called for Boris to appear at the fire consultation meetings but, as he occupies no position on the fire authority, he’s wisely stayed away.

Londoners have not been flocking to the meetings in the numbers some of the Mayor’s critics wanted, my hunch is that the public are less easily scared than Boris’s opponents expected.

But at last night’s State of London there was a vocal crowd who bought the line that the cuts mean less safety, slower response times and greater risk to Londoners.

The result was a lot of booing at Boris, possibly an unprecedented level for a politician who has so far busked along on a wave of popularity and populism.

A few years ago Boris would have faltered under such sustained attacks and jeering, but last night he stuck to his guns and took on his critics.

Speaking over the heckles, he told the audience that fires are down, deaths by fires are down, hoax call-outs are down and they’re all predicted to keep falling.

What he alluded to, but failed to point out in specifics, is that decades of intense lobbying by the London Fire Brigade is partly to play for those decreases.

Fewer people get blindingly drunk, fewer smoke, all sofas are now flame retardant, electrical items are safer than they’ve ever been.

The result is that fewer people fall asleep drunk while smoking, sofa fires don’t accelerate as they used to and electrics suddenly sparking and combusting is the exception, not the rule.

Success in reducing fires means fewer fire engines are attending incidents – at a recent consultation meeting the slide claimed that even at the busiest station, engines respond to emergency calls just 16% of the time.

Perhaps true to form, Boris didn’t get into the nitty gritty of actual statistics but he did at least stay the course and take on his critics.

Despite the planned cuts clearly being unpopular and despite the loud cheers for two fire fighters speaking against them, he loudly and clearly defended his decision to push on with the consultation and sought to reassure those in the room that neither he nor the Fire Commissioner would do anything to put Londoners at risk.

For possibly the first time since he became Mayor, Boris genuinely impressed me and both looked and sounded like the sort of leader London deserves – one prepared to take tough decisions and, more importantly, defend them.

But there’s one decision that I hope he won’t defend and that’s the decision by the big strapping men who make up so much of his team to leave Victoria Borwick, Deputy Mayor for London, alone to deal with a crowd of about 50 attendees who all wanted tell someone, preferably Boris, about their particular gripe in spectacular detail.

Throughout the night Boris told people to see named members of his team afterwards, but unless they moved with the speed and agility of Usain Bolt they had no chance of doing so.

As the final applause lifted the roof and Boris left the stage, the majority of the Mayoral team raced for the door.

Borwick was left with no obvious staff support, an insufficient number of business cards and only her charm and patience with which to fend off the crowd.

A finely dressed man I assumed to be Mr Borwick pitched in, my assumption being that he wanted to whisk his good lady back home for a well deserved supper and glass of something nice.

I later discovered that he was in fact the father of Boris aide Richard Blakeway, pitching in out of a sense of decency having seen how much demand there was for Borwick’s attention.

And a harassed looking Blakeway himself finally emerged from beneath a pile of anxious Londoners, clutching wads of paper and promising someone would get back to them.

When one attendee questioned whether Borwick would really get in touch, I was press-ganged into vouching for the goodness of her word.

Now, I know that some of the Mayor’s team believe in small government and others may still charmingly believe in Cameron’s Big Society concept where people volunteer for the jobs we used to pay professionals to do, but surely it wasn’t necessary to invoke both beliefs in the same night and leave a £16bn Government to be represented by an under-appreciated deputy and someone’s dad?

Boris owes Borwick both a word of thanks and a word of apology for the way she was left in the lurch.

He also needs to wash his mouth out for uttering the dreadful phrase ‘Statutory deputy mayor’, a form of words which makes his hard working deputy sound like some troublesome legal necessity, like a fire blanket in the kitchen of a greasy spoon.

The 1999 GLA Act clearly refers to the Deputy Mayor of London, it’s about time Boris did likewise.


  1. says

    Hello Mayor Watch
    I’m a bit disappointed – you seem to have forgotten the most recent Peoples Question Time.
    It was in Catford, Lewisham borough, and I think most people who were there would agree that the audience were mostly “openly hostile” towards Boris due to his support for closure of the much loved and successful Lewisham Hospital A&E/maternity services.
    Please don’t forget Lewisham!

  2. Steve says

    Why should the Mayor be happy with half the wards in the borough of Westminster, not making the attendance times for the first attending fire engine after his cuts, attendance times set out by the London Fire Brigade itself? If the Mayor thinks by failing to meet standards set by the LFB, no one will be put at greater risk of injury or death from fire, then has no grasp of what the fire service is here for.

    These cuts will affect thousands of Londoners and thousands of firefighters, This is a deadly move by the Mayor and it will come back to haunt him. I hope the so called public consultation results, make him think again, before it’s too late for some.

  3. Diana Crawshaw says

    Boris Johnson shows his lack of understanding of the requirements of an efficiently run emergency service whose objective is to save lives. By cutting the amount of fire stations he chooses, he creates voids of unprotected areas, which will make extra demands on those remaining.He would be requiring them to work twice as hard for the same money. If these cuts go ahead, the name of each resulting mortality should be tattoo’d on his forehead

  4. Ben Sprung says

    The Mayor’s two central points are flawed.

    1) That the commissioner would not have come with the plan if it was not safe.
    2) Fire deaths are going down.

    1) The Commissioner had no choice, the plan came after the Mayor’s buget cut. This is cart before the horse. Fire cut has and should continue to be based on risk not budget. In the last safety plan the same commissioner was very clear; ‘there are regular enough large incidents to justify the level of emergency response capacity which we hold ready each day’.

    2) Fire deaths are actually going up!
    08/09 39
    11/12 44
    13/14 (target) 56

  5. Steve says

    Leading up to the 2008 London Mayoral Election, the Fire Brigades Union ask a set questions to all the candidates. Here are Boris Johnson’s answers.

    Why should London’s firefighters vote for you?

    Johnson: For three reasons. First, I will safeguard LFEPA resources, including equipment and stations, and fight for fair pay and pensions for firefighters. Second, I will lobby the government hard to fund the London resilience plan from their budget, as with the Metropolitan police’s terrorism strategy, so it doesn’t come out of the LFEPA reserves. Third, for all firefighters living in London, I will reduce crime on the streets, improve green spaces, and make the quality of life better for them and their families.

    Will you give a commitment that there would be no cuts to frontline firefighting resources in London such as station closures or reductions
    in establishment levels or appliances during your period of office?

    Johnson: Yes, I will argue for more resources from the government for LFEPA, to make London safer. There is a financial conspiracy between the incumbent mayor and the government over funding for London. London needs a mayor who will bang the table to ensure we get funding from the government, and that absolutely means for firefighters. Each year, I will argue for more government resources, not less, from ministers. Under Ken Livingstone, fire stations have been under threat from Westminster to Bethnal Green to Euston. Whilst it is crucially important that we improve LFEPA resources in London’s suburbs, this should not mean the downgrading of station services, including control room

    The Fire Brigades Union is currently involved in a major dispute with the government which might result in a national strike over its attempt to effectively abolish ill-health pensions for firefighters. Do firefighters have your support in this dispute?

    Johnson: I don’t favour strike action; it causes too much public disruption.
    Nonetheless, firefighters are amongst the bravest of public sector workers. For a number of years, they have had a harsh deal from the government on their
    pensions. I strongly believe their pension contribution budgeted by the government should reflect this.

    Do you support the government’s public sector pay limit of 2%?

    Johnson: The government’s mismanagement of the economy now means there are very uneven public sector pay awards. Ministers bang on about low inflation, but the reality for firefighters, and all Londoners, is that inflation on food is in double digits, and the cost of living in London is considerably higher than eight years ago. Public sector pay awards should reflect that.

    The Fire Brigades Union has argued for an increase in London weighting allowance to 27% of a firefighter’s salary, in line with a report by the GLA London weighting advisory panel published in June 2003, which proposed that London weighting in the public sector be calculated by comparison with wages in the private sector. Do you support this claim?

    Johnson: Yes, in general I am an advocate of a London weighting for employees. You refer to a 2003 report some time ago, and clearly the mayor has commissioned nothing during his last term. If I am fortunate enough to be elected on 1 May, I will commission a new report and take it to ministers.

    What would you do to address the problems experienced by public sector workers including firefighters that arise as a result of the acute lack of affordable housing in the Greater London area?

    Johnson: I will do a great deal. There is no doubt that there is an affordable housing crisis in London. Housing waiting lists have rocketed by 68 percent under Ken Livingstone; the proportion of affordable housing has fallen sharply; and the supply of key worker homes has been increasingly slow just two new houses being built in some boroughs last year. I will work with the borough
    councils to build 50,000 new affordable homes by 2011, including increasing the supply of home ownership schemes for key workers by one third.