“I’m not exactly high profile in the media” says Len Duvall speaking to Greenwich.co.uk earlier this month.
“I will enter the media if I feel like I have to, and no disrespect to my colleagues, but the job is about more than getting your name in the papers or the party’s name in the papers.”
If Duvall wins next month then he will begin this fourth term as the London Assembly Member for Greenwich and Lewisham. But despite being in the job for over a decade, many people in the area will struggle to name him.
Like long-serving Greenwich MP Nick Raynsford, Duvall is a quiet operator who seems more interested in getting on with the job than becoming a political celebrity.
But it is Duvall’s dedication to that job that is now being questioned by his opponents, some of whom have criticised his role as director of developers Tilfen Land.
Tilfen have extensive business in Greenwich Borough and his position there was the subject of a complaint to City Hall by one former Greenwich Liberal Democrat councillor. The complaint was ultimately resolved in Duvall’s favour:
“Anyone who knows me knows that I have been very scrupulous about those interests. I’ve never lobbied for Tilfen Land in terms of Greenwich Council and I’ve kept away from that. There’s one particular liberal Paul Webbewood who’s made a number of accusations against me on a whole number of issues that have been odd over the years. Good luck to him but I always say if you’ve got something then it should be investigated. I’ve got nothing to hide.”
Duvall is chair of the London Labour Party, and the party’s candidate Ken Livingstone has attacked Boris Johnson for being a “part time Mayor.” Is Duvall a part time Assembly Member?
“Look, I spend roughly ten to twelve days a year on Tilfen Land and not even whole days. That’s my other interest. I also do voluntary work for Firepower, the Royal Artillery Museum Trust. I don’t regard that as part of my role. I do that because my dad and my grandad were gunners. But if that’s the only thing my opponents can say about me then I’m not particularly worried.”
Livingstone has promised that he will not do any other outside jobs if he is elected as Mayor. Shouldn’t Assembly Members make the same pledge? “This job isn’t going to last forever. I do need to keep in touch with the world outside of politics.”
Duvall points to his role in securing the Cutty Sark DLR station as evidence of his commitment to the borough and says that he has been “humbled” by the responses he has received on the campaign trail.
“There is nowhere where we have not been to. There has been activity in all wards and I enjoy campaigning. It keeps your feet on the ground listening to people and not just your own supporters.”
The polls show that while Labour are likely to win more seats on the London Assembly, they will struggle to unseat the Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson.
Duvall is highly critical of Johnson’s decision to cancel the proposed Thames Gateway Bridge at Gallions Reach, but he says he is in favour of the mayor's alternate proposal, a road tunnel at Silvertown.
“I am in favour of having both the Silvertown crossing and the Thames Gateway Bridge. It’s better to keep vehicles moving rather than being forced to make long unnecessary detours. We cannot continue as we are.”
Duvall admits that his support for these crossings "will not be popular." Nor will his insistence that both Blackwall Tunnel and any new crossing should be tolled:
“I can’t see in this current period of time with the government’s attitude to infrastructure investment how we can do this without tolling and I think Boris is being disingenuous by not saying that these are going to have to be tolled.”
But couldn’t new crossings be funded by private investment and sponsorship like the Mayor’s new cable car on the Peninsula?
“We were told that the cable car was going to be all paid for by the private sector at one stage and it’s ended up that the public sector are going to have to pay for most of it And Emirates seem to have got a very good deal. Their contribution has fallen far shorter than what was promised.”
Will he be jumping aboard later this year?
“It’s a thing I would take my grandson on. It’s not a thing I would consider using unless I was going to the Excel Centre direct. If it was going to Canary Wharf then maybe that would be different. I could have seen people using that then as an alternative to jumping on the tube or bus. But I’m just not sold on it as being a strategic part of the transport infrastructure. It’s laughable.”
Duvall was the former leader of Greenwich Council. I ask whether he supports the campaign being led by Labour councillor Rajwant Sidhu to return to a committee system.
“I worked with the committee system and campaigned against it. There’s good and bad elements to both structures but the committee system wasn’t that wonderful. That said, I think there are issues with transparency with the current system which is why I’m in favour of councils moving to directly elected mayors instead.”
Should the council continue publishing the Greenwich Time newspaper, despite new government guidelines discouraging such papers. How does this help with transparency?
Duvall admits that “the style of Greenwich Time does cause some controversy” but insists that it has “done some excellent work post riots.”
“When I was leader we didn’t have it on a fortnightly basis, but I do like Greenwich Time. I don’t see it substituting local newspapers and I think we’re very lucky in Greenwich and Lewisham to have the Mercury, South London Press and the News Shopper, albeit they’ve all done stories that you would balk at.”
One newspaper that Duvall has regularly balked at is the Evening Standard. At the last mayoral elections, the paper campaigned vigorously against former Labour Mayor Ken Livingstone, leading to charges of bias.
Following a change in ownership, the paper promised that it would be far more balanced in it’s coverage with sources close to Livingstone insisting that they were promised a “fair crack of the whip” at this election.
Duvall does not believe that they have received one:
“Sometimes you get the press you deserve” says Duvall after another week in which the paper has splashed with damaging front pages for Labour's mayoral candidate.
“But sometimes you look for a fair level playing field and I don’t want to attack individual journalists but there have been some occasions when I think the scrutiny of Boris over the past four years, I think they pulled their punches and other occasions they did a reasonable job. And why do I say that? Do I only want to see the negative stuff about Boris? No. I just want to see a level playing field. And of course it’s right that if they think the Mayor has done well on certain issues and they want to give him some column inches, but there have been some interesting stories which others thought were worthy of prominent coverage. How comes the Standard didn’t? That’s the charge.”
“There was the pension scandal at Visit London. There was the failure of the young black mentoring project. Where was the Standard there? They were crusading on that issue four years ago and then nothing. I think these have been news stories that would have been of interest to their readership and there was an editorial decision to suppress them.”
I’m interviewing Duvall soon after the paper's owner told the Leveson Inquiry that he is a personal friend of Boris Johnson. It’s new editor Sarah Sands is also reportedly a close family friend of the Johnson’s. Does he think that this has been a factor in their coverage?
“I think Leveson will be dealing with some of these relationship. Look, when [Lebedev] took over, the Evening Standard said that it would be goodbye to the biased coverage they had in the past. They said it. It wasn’t me saying it. They said it. Have they stood by what they said at the time? I don’t think so. I’m not going to go to war with them. It’s their choice but could they be a bit fairer? Yes. We dust ourselves off and I’m certainly not attacking individuals. I think there’s either a culture thing or an attitude issue there. Maybe friendships are more important than political ties. Who knows?”
For a politician who claims that he doesn’t engage with the media very often, this seems like an extraordinary intervention.
Len Duvall on…
The closure of Blackheath Bluecoat School:
“It might well be controversial for the folk there but actually some drastic action needed to be taken, and I think you could argue that it should have been taken much earlier. We’ve worked with supporting the diocese and there may well be another Blackheath Bluecoat school emerging elsewhere but for those arguing to retain it, they’ve got to realise that the finances just didn’t stack up and it was killing the other schools by taking money away from them. And educationally it hasn’t served people well. It is a hard thing to confront. It’s not taken lightly. We don’t get out of bed to take these kind of difficult decisions that cause so many people worry and consternation.”
Preparing for the Olympics in Greenwich
“The conversation between TfL, Locog, the council and locals now needs to become much more public. Not a whispering campaign for the chosen few. We need some very good publicity to enable the public to plan.”
Breakdowns in Blackwall Tunnel:
“They’ve got a new system of removing the breakdowns which I think is working well which means they’re getting out the breakdowns much faster. I don’t think they’ve got the penalties right. Many of these vehicles breaking down are from big companies. They’re not single self-employed people. They’re big companies who should know the rules and are taking a chance. I think we should increase the penalties for recovery and if necessary impound their vehicles for a day. Let them have the inconvenience as we have to suffer the inconvenience.”
On Jubilee Line delays:
“TfL have identified the Jubilee Line as being most at risk of going down during the Olympics. And it’s a great piece of infrastructure but it seems to have been dogged by problems with the upgrades. I’m increasingly worried about it and it’s difficult to get to the bottom of it. I’m told there are issues around the number of staff on the line and incidents about Canary Wharf station exits being closed, because of staff cutbacks. But when you ask TfL about it they say everything is hunky dory.”
“The provision of information when things go wrong is just very poor. The snow hits the line and then everybody is in bloody chaos because even the staff can’t give you any answers. And I think they’ve worked hard since then and understand that so things can only improve. But I think there’s an argument when contracts come up to look again and question what the operators have been doing… I personally think there should be a Rail Board for London, a sub board of TfL overlooking this.
On Ken’s critics within the Labour party:
“I don’t want to close down debate and there are right times to criticise campaigns or what candidates say, but do you really want to give ammunition to your opponents? Why would you want to do that? What is that about? And I just question the motives of some of those individuals.”
On another term of Boris:
“I do think he’s getting bored. He’s got his eyes on other places. The worst thing we could have is a mayor who isn’t engaged. Who is leaving it to others. People will soon notice that. If there’s no buy in. If you’re just looking around for a Parliamentary seat and poking sticks at your mates because you want their jobs. That’s not good for London. You see it in council leaders that want to go off and be MPs. They lose their authority. And Osborne and Cameron are not going to keep taking these sticks from Boris. They’re going to start fighting war by proxy. You will start seeing some of the things the government needs to support London with suddenly not being supported.”
Elections to the London Assembly take place on May 3rd. Get more information from London Elects.