In common with a number of other London writers and bloggers my inbox and phone have brought me claim and counter-claim over the impending launch of the East London Line.
Tomorrow (probably) the core of the line, which runs on Transport for London’s own track, is likely to be officially launched by the Mayor ahead of a full service, including on those parts of the line which run on Network Rail track, starting next month.
Opposition politicians on the London Assembly are pretty upset, they claim the launch is a breach of Greater London Authority guidelines which say any activity which “could reasonably be regarded as giving a candidate or their supporters/political party an advantage in the election… should be deferred until after the election.”
The rules go on to say: “All GLA generated or funded publicity must be, and must be seen to be, politically neutral. Anything that could reasonably be regarded as giving a political candidate or their supporters/party an advantage in the election is not politically neutral. This applies no matter what the justifications for the publicity are. “Publicity” refers to any communication, in whatever form, addressed to the public at large or to a section of the public and includes press releases, newsletters, consultation exercises and unsolicited letters to constituents.”
Given City Hall’s form for questionable press releases, some AMs are expressing serious concern that any PR for the East London Line could fail to make clear that the project was conceived, approved and funded by Ken Livingstone long before Johnson’s election and that the event could potentially benefit the Conservative Party in next month’s General Election.
In turn aggrieved voices within Transport for London are clearly miffed at the prospect of a political row overshadowing the launch of what is set to be a major boost to London’s transport capacity.
These voices insist the timetable is dictated by factors other than political campaigning – the core line is ready to open and start earning cash for London – and say the Mayor has insisted that each of the London Assembly party groups, plus the chair of the Assembly Transport Committee, be invited to attend the launch. Fairness requires me to point out that some AMs voicing displeasure failed to mention the Assembly groups had beed invited.
To an outside observer this seems a fair compromise, it brings a sense of political neutrality to proceedings while allowing TfL to publicise the start of services, but the AMs aren’t so easily appeased.
Some claim the invites only went out after they complained that the event was being scheduled during the election (apparently the invite was extended to AMs late yesterday afternoon) while others have protested that the unconfirmed nature of the event means they’re unable to properly plan their schedules.
In response to the second complaint TfL say technical issues prevent them from being certain the launch can go ahead and that the uncertainty is far from deliberate.
The word “stunt” has been used a lot today and it’s clear both sides believe the other is behaving with less than wholesome intent. Some AMs talk of making official complaints over the perceived breaking of rules while others are calling for the event to go ahead with no politicians, including the Mayor, present. This would presumably leave it to Transport Commissioner Peter Hendy to preside over proceedings.
At least all involved agree the East London Line extension is a “success story” for London, but the row TfL is so keen to avoid currently looks inescapable and, if threats of official complaints are followed through, could still be running long after the votes are counted.
UPDATE 16.55: It looks like any escalation of the row may have been avoided – at least for now – as tomorrow’s launch has been cancelled, apparently for technical reasons. No word yet on whether anyone at City Hall is feeling brave enough to re-schedule it for next week.
UPDATE 09.10, 15/04/2010: It seems TfL and the Mayor’s office plan to push ahead with the opening next week once the technical hitches are resolved. One AM has told me they’re unlikely to let up on the pressure for the event to take place without any political figures.
Elsewhere on the web:
Tory Troll: East London Line opening cancelled
BorisWatch: East London Line First Trains 15/4/2010 Update
London Reconnections: ELL Reopening Delayed Until Next Week
Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph: Boris, Labour and a tug-of-war over the train set
BBC London: East London Line reopening dubbed ‘political stunt’