“Why is this man transport secretary?” On the naked partisanship of Chris Grayling

Lawyers hold a Chris Grayling puppet during his tenure as justice secretary. Image: Getty.

Oh good, there’s more.

Yesterday, the Evening Standard revealed that transport secretary Chris Grayling had decided to block the expansion of Transport for London’s rail empire, describing it as mere “deckchair shifting”. In our report on the topic we speculated about three possible reasons for this: practical concerns, ideological ones, or nakedly political ones.

In today’s Evening Standard, there’s another top scoop on the subject, by Pippa Crerar. It begins as follows:

The Transport Secretary was today accused of putting party politics ahead of commuters after a leaked letter revealed he opposed handing over control of suburban rail to keep it “out of the clutches” of Labour.

(...)

...in a letter written before the new Mayor took over, he admitted he was against rail devolution to keep services away from any future Labour mayor, rather than because of the impact on commuters.

So. That settles that one.

The letter dates from 2013, when Conservative Boris Johnson was still mayor. Here’s the key passage:

“While I am generally a great supporter of what you are doing in London, I would not be in favour of changing the current arrangements – not because I have any fears over the immediate future, but because would like to keep suburban rail services out of the clutches of any future Labour Mayor.

Obviously similar concerns apply over a future Labour government as well, but the continuation of the system we have at the moment does at least mean that MPs and local authorities from outside the London area would have a remit over train services in our areas, which I would not like us to lose.”

Three thoughts on this:

1)  This is partisanship of the most shameless and disgusting sort. Chris Grayling is meant to be transport secretary for the entire country, not just for people who vote for him. That he would take a major policy decision based not on what is best for Britain’s commuters, but on how to best undermine his opponents, speaks volumes about Grayling’s statesmanship – and explains the level of esteem in which his achievements in previous ministerial roles, at justice and work & pensions, are held.

2) It also doesn’t really stack up on its own terms. As things stand, there are already a fair few commuters towns outside the London boundary, which are dependent on Transport for London for their travel arrangements: Amersham, Watford, Epping, Brentwood. They seem to get along fine: indeed, they seem to have better train services than most commuter towns that sit outside the TfL empire.

No mayor of London, of either party, has ever had a policy of running fewer services outside the city boundary, so as to boost those inside it. Partly that’s because it’d be stupid, but largely it’s because railways simply don’t work like that:  service levels are dependent on boring physical factors like track arrangements, signalling, the location of sidings and so forth. Political boundaries have nothing to do with it.

Does Grayling not understand this? If he doesn’t, why on earth is he transport secretary? And if he does, what on earth is he wibbling about?

3) While we’re on the topic of things Chris Grayling doesn’t seem to understand: why does he think that MPs and local authorities have any remit over franchising arrangements at the moment?

Okay, MPs can annoy the transport secretary, who can in turn annoy the train companies. But that’s a pretty indirect and weak form of accountability, as demonstrated by [insert example of terrible train service of your choice]. Local authorities, meanwhile, have no ability to control train services at all that I can see.

So why does Grayling believe that giving TfL a role in service commissioning would weaken accountability?

Once again: why is this man transport secretary?

I’m not the only one wondering that this afternoon. From the Standard:

Tory former minister Bob Neill called on Mr Grayling to stand down saying he had “lost confidence” in him as Transport Secretary.

The Bromley and Chislehurst MP told the Standard: “My discussions with him indicate to me that he’s acted for party reasons and not acted in the interests of London commuters.

“It’s pretty clear that he has a dogmatic opposition to rail devolution and I don’t think that’s a legitimate basis on which to take a decision. It demonstrates that he’s acted extremely badly. I don’t have confidence any more in him as Secretary of State.”

Bromley is of course a London constituency.

It takes a special talent to change a policy for nakedly partisan reasons, and still manage to alienate MPs from your party.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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