Boris comes to Catford for People’s Question Time

Boris Johnson. Pic: Gaelle Laforest

The platform at People’s Question Time. Pic: Gaelle Laforest

Mayor of London Boris Johnson brought People’s Question Time to Catford last night, a biannual event that allows Londoners to interact with him and members of the London Assembly.

By around 6pm, hundreds of people had formed a queue that snaked around the Catford Broadway theatre. A red carpet of Save Lewisham A&E posters coated the pavement, whilst a man handed out protest song sheets to the masses. George Hallam, 65, an economics professor at Greenwich University dressed up as the Mayor of London for the occasion. He said: “I’ve been invited to speak, it’s People’s Question Time!”

George Hallam. Pic: Gaelle Laforest

George Hallam. Pic: Gaelle Laforest

When a passerby asked for a picture of him he stopped mid-sentence to oblige, after touching up his blonde wig. “I think I’ll give him a run for his money as best Boris Johnson tonight!”

Photographs of the comedy acts that have graced the theatre’s stage line its hallways, but there were few laughs as Johnson settled into his seat to a chorus of boos. Instead of cheers, there were two letters on everyone’s lips: ‘A’ and ‘E’.

Johnson was introduced by Jennette Arnold, chair of the Assembly, who told the audience: “I hope we’ll keep the drama to a minimum and that the Mayor will not get into a pantomime routine. [Our job] is to keep an eye on the Mayor. We are delighted to share that job with you tonight.”

The subject of Lewisham’s endangered A&E department was given a question slot of its own.

Vicky Penner, from the Save Lewisham A&E campaign, asked about maternity care explaining that had it not been for the A&E at Lewisham, her son would have died during labour: “I don’t think, Boris, that you want to be a part of a Tory party that is complicit in the deaths of mothers and babies.”

In response to the audience’s cries of agreement, Johnson said: “I accept and understand that people are extremely anxious about this issue. However, I have to weigh up the very strong views of the people of Lewisham with the expert opinions of people who, like you, want to improve clinical outcomes.”

Stephen Knight, London Lib Dem Assembly member, said what was needed was an increase in the number of A&Es in the borough, not a reduction: “Boris’s job is to speak for Londoners. It is clear tonight what Londoners think. I say this to Boris: do your job, speak for Londoners, speak for Lewisham and speak up against the closure of its A&E!”

Darren Johnson, the Assembly Green Party member said: “We hear the same old waffle from the Mayor. Boris is not speaking up for Lewisham like he did in 2008 in Bexley to save Queen Mary’s hospital. Why is he not doing the same today?” He added: “It seems to me paradoxical that nothing is said of the interests of the people whose lives will be saved thanks to this.”

And Onkar Sahota, a GP and Labour Assembly Member for Ealing and Hillingdon, said: “I’m surprised the mayor can sleep at night. He takes no responsibility for the lives that are at risk. Lewisham Hospital should be saved.”

The next member of the audience to speak called the Mayor on his own words: “You said you wanted full A&E services across London, because fewer minutes in an ambulance could mean the difference between life and death.” Another woman was met with thunderous applause when she asked: “In all your years of experience, have you ever come across a business that has one of its most sucessful outlets closed down? Because that’s what we feel is happening in Lewisham with the A&E.”

The Mayor answered by assuring the audience once more that he would engage in “further representation” on  behalf of the people of Lewisham. Jos Bell, from the Save Lewisham A&E campaign, rose from her seat and demanded a meeting as cries of “Boris, will you meet us?” echoed across the room. Johnson eventually agreed to a meeting if it could be “conveniently arranged.”

Dr Brian Fisher, a local GP and campaigner for the A&E, said: “You have a responsibility in this issue. You are ignoring this responsibility. You are a coward.” Replying, the Mayor Johnson showed anger for the only time: “I will not be called a coward by you, sir.”

Cuts to local services remained the audience’s main focus. One woman asked Johnson: “Will you accept the culpability for the death of the people who will die because there will be no fire stations and no hospital in the area?”

Len Duvall, leader of the Labour group on the Assembly and chair of the event, reminded her that she was supposed to be asking a question about housing. “It will be houses that are burning!” she replied.

When cuts to the police force were brought up, Johnson was anxious to deliver positive news: “London is recruiting 5,000 new police officers.” But Joanne McCartney, the Labour Assembly member for Enfield and Haringey retorted: “When the Mayor talks about increasing police numbers, he’s talking about putting back some of the officers he’s already cut.”

Other subjects covered included the environment, the extension of the Underground to south east London and bankers’ bonuses. Local Labour MP Heidi Alexander also asked Johnson how he planned to tackle knife crime. He said that, although the number of deaths by stabbing had decreased during his leadership to eight last year, “one is too many. One is too many.”

He als0 agreed to ”look into” proposals for a pan-London toll system for cars crossing the Thames, agreeing that the current payment system is unfair. However, he told the audience member who suggested it: “You were slagging off the cable car! Cease this pointless negativity, folks. It’s carried 1.9m people already and those who use it give it higher marks for customer satisfaction than Madame Tussauds or the London Eye. It received £36m in sponsorship and will have covered its revenue cost and capital cost by 2019. You can’t say that about anything else in the city!”

Pic: Gaelle Laforest

Pic: Gaelle Laforest

Key quotes: How the anger over the A&E dominated the evening:

Heidi Alexander, Labour MP for Lewisham East: “(Johnson) failed to invest adequately in social housing, and now there is an all out assault on our health services. Tonight was a reflection of people’s anger towards what this Tory government is doing.”

Jos Bell, press officer for Save Lewisham A&E Campaign: “The dismantling of all of our acute A&E services will put lots of people’s lives at risk. Jeremy Hunt has made this decision completely disregarding the four criteria that he himself set, which were GP’s approval (over 400 GPs wrote to him saying this is a terrible idea), clinicians don’t approve (95 consultants wrote to the Department of Health to protest), the local population doesn’t approve, and it’s not going to improve patients’ choice. They also said it was only going to be two minutes extra travel, but we disproved that by doing two test bus rides which both took over two hours. We want Boris Johnson to sit down and talk to us and hear the facts.”

One audience member: “Matthew Kershaw [the adminstrator of the South London Hospital Trust] calls the downgraded A&E that is proposed an ‘urgent care unit.’ He’s using clever words, but we know that is not an A&E. We are not that stupid in Lewisham.”

Tony O’Sullivan, consultant paediatrician at Lewisham, asked: “How can he [Boris] sleep at night when two of the most deprived boroughs in the whole of England, that’s Lewisham and Greenwich, of 50,000 people are going to be deprived of a fantastic hospital?”

Another audience member wondered: “How many affordable homes are you going to make from selling our hospital?”


Around 700 people attended the meeting. Pic: Gaelle Laforest

Around 700 people attended the meeting. Pic: Gaelle Laforest

By Gaelle Laforest and Ellie Slee


  1. Martin March 8, 2013
  2. Jos Bell March 8, 2013
  3. Ellie Slee March 8, 2013

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