Ken goes on the offensive

London's Mayor spends the holidays quietly planning his great new revolution
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Indy Politics

While deputy Prime Minister John Prescott suffers the humiliation of being told that his public-private partnership plan for the London Tube could endanger the safety of passengers, London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone - an opponent of the scheme from its inception - is in the middle of an unprecedented summer offensive.

While deputy Prime Minister John Prescott suffers the humiliation of being told that his public-private partnership plan for the London Tube could endanger the safety of passengers, London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone - an opponent of the scheme from its inception - is in the middle of an unprecedented summer offensive.

Initiative after initiative, often unflagged and personal, have kept Mr Livingstone's profile as high as the London Eye during the traditional somnolence of August. The capital's first-ever chief executive may be commuting back and forward from his holiday location on the South Coast (no Tuscan idyll for him), but his mind and energies are already lodged in Romney House, the Greater London Authority's headquarters.

He has pledged £9m of taxpayers' money to guarantee a new footcrossing over the Thames next to Hungerford Bridge. He has vowed to preserve the traditional Routemaster red bus. He has pushed forward legislation to transform Trafalgar Square - banning traffic, halting illegal street traders, even withdrawing the licence of the only remaining seller of pigeon-feed.

And that was only a part of it. The Tube's £10 on-the-spot fines for those caught travelling without a ticket are to be scrapped. Executives of the capital's transport authority are to lose their company cars. East Thames Buses, a small company operating either side of London's river, is to be taken back into public hands, with the possibility of others following suit.

As if none of the above was controversial enough, Mr Livingstone also let it be known he is against plans to subject his senior advisers to the same strict rules on lobbying and hospitality that have been imposed on GLA staff and members. The fear is that top aides and confidantes will be seen as a special mayoral cadre, operating outside the system. But the Mayor was unbowed by criticism of his stance, saying he expected the "highest standards of behaviour" from his appointees but they were distinct from GLA members and employees.

Finally, Mr Livingstone has advertised his readiness to proceed as quickly as possible with his policy of charging motorists for entering central London. Congestion charging is to be the subject of the first major investigation by the Assembly's key transport committee, and should the committee approve the Mayor's plan, its introduction could mark the formal opening of hostilities between the GLA and central government.

David Wetzel, the man in charge of Transport for London, has been responsible for keeping things moving while his boss took a holiday.

"Ken always intended that we would hit the ground running. There is a lot to be done and time is precious to achieve some of the big things," he said.

Cash restrictions have prevented the GLA from rolling out some of what it planned: free fares for children under 11 and the removal of cash handling from all London buses have had to be shelved.

"We are impatient for change. It is our city and we love our city," Mr Wetzel said. And in a side-swipe aimed at Mr Prescott, he added: "If you have someone from Hull with two Jags running London you can't expect too much to happen."

Having announced that being a backbench MP was no job for a grown-up and that, in consequence, he would not be contesting his Brent East seat at the general election, Mr Livingstone has effectively cut his ties to Tony Blair's Westminster. The Prime Minister may still wield overall control of London's purse strings; controlling London's mayor is likely to prove a sterner test.

Mr Livingstone will draw strength for the struggles ahead from the revelation yesterday that London Underground could face prosecution for breaches of its safety rules. Last Thursday Stanley Hart, the Health and Safety Executive's principal inspector of railways, warned London Underground of "growing concern" over the partial privatisation of the Tube, due to begin in April.

Hart's expressed "disquiet" over the safety implications of privatisation was seized on by Mr Livingstone almost as soon as his memo was leaked.

"This letter," said the Mayor, "will confirm Londoners' worst fears about the Government's public-private partnership scheme and highlights the risk of a Paddington-style crash underground."

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