Monday, 9 July 2012

Why Boris Johnson’s mock outrage over ‘elf and safety’ is not funny

Every Monday a column from Boris Johnson appears in the Daily Telegraph.

So what you might think? Well, you might be surprised that a Mayor in charge of a city of 7.5 million people can find time every week to write such a lengthy column. Others might be surprised that in addition to his Mayoral salary of £143,911 he receives the huge sum of £250,000 for expressing his views on any issue that pops into his mind.

However, ultimately he has every right to write a column in his spare time and if the Daily Telegraph thinks each and every column is worth payment of more than £5000, well surely that is a matter solely for the Daily Telegraph and its readers? And whatever your views of Boris Johnson it has to be said his columns are well written and yes, often very humorous.

My main issue with it, however, is that sometimes the views he expresses simply don’t fit easily with his elected job to represent all Londoners. Last Monday’s column was a prime example. He stopped being Mayor of London and instead decided to merely pander to the biased views of Daily Telegraph readers, many of whom live many miles away from London.

His column was on the theme of swimming in the Thames. In his column he expressed his supposed outrage over a recent ‘ban’ to stop swimming in the Thames.

In practice it is not actually a total ban, but instead a by-law requiring written permission for anyone to swim anywhere in the Thames between Crossness in east London and Putney Bridge in south-west London.

But Boris Johnson is never one allow detail get to get in the way of any issue. This by-law is in his mind truly ‘elf and safety gone mad’. In his column he described the by-law as “the kind of gratuitous legislation that is sapping the moral fibre of the nation.” And he dismissed any safety concerns that motivated the by-law by stating “if people want to swim in the Thames, if they want to take their lives into their own hands, then they should be able to do so with all the freedom and exhilaration of our woad-painted ancestors".

Well is that really the case?

Woad painted ancestor: Braveheart loved a post-slaughter dip
Are people suddenly being denied a basic ‘human right’ to enjoy the Thames?, And is it truly outrageous that ordinary people are being denied the opportunity to enjoy an activity that people such as the comedian David Walliams or theTimes newspaper columnist Matthew Parris have so recently participated in?

Well the evidence clearly shows that the tidal part of the Thames is very dangerous. In fact the Thames is one of the world’s most dangerous city rivers. This is because of the high rise and fall of the tides, up to 17 metres, combined with some very strong currents. It is worth noting that 30 bodies a year are pulled out of the river - some still alive, some sadly not.

At an anecdotal level look at what happened to Matthew Parris.

A couple of years ago he attempted to swim from the Globe Wharf apartment complex, in Rotherhithe, across the river to Limehouse.

He thought he was being incredibly clever doing this at high tide to reduce the risk of being swept upstream. However, he had not realised that navigational tables were in Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and it was British Summer Time (BST) when he made the swimming attempt, so high tide was an hour later than he had expected. Consequently he was swept three-quarters of a mile upriver from Limehouse. He could have easily killed himself.

Walliams: swam the Thames
Or look at David Walliams. If you watch the television documentary of his incredible swim it is worth noting that he suffered from ill health due to swimming in the Thames. Most critically, when his much planned swim entered the tidal stretch running through London he was constantly surrounded by a number of boats around him to support him. Immense precautions were taken to ensure he would have immediately been rescued if he found himself struggling with dangerous currents.

Any if anyone wants a further reminder of the dangers of swimming in the Thames just take a look at articles such as this and this.

Boris Johnson claims to be a learned person, but if he really wants to start talking about human liberty he should get hold of a copy of the book On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, a philosopher who championed individual liberty and to this day has immense influence on the debate over what actions the state should regulate.

John Stuart Mill argued that adults should only be controlled in the following circumstances:
That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own well, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant . . . Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
Boris Johnson needs to understand that a by-law restricting swimming in a section of the tidal Thames easily meets the John Stuart Mill test.

John Stuart Mill: Knew a thing or two
This is not just because the idiots who go swimming in the tidal section of theThames frequently lead to members of the public taking risks to their own safety to help rescue them, although that certainly does happen.

No, the key reason for a by-law restricting swimming (without permission) in certain parts of the Thames is that the river is now a major form of traffic.

As the chief executive of the Port of London Authority stated recently:
"There's always a risk that if a boat comes across a swimmer, it has to take evasive action and that puts the people on the boat at risk, as well as other boats."
A spokesman for the Port of London Authority described things even more graphically:
“It’s not just the swimmer’s life at risk. If a boat spots a swimmer in the water and has to take evasive action, other lives could be at risk.

“The Thames is getting busier with commercial traffic and increasing numbers of leisure boats.”
Does Boris Johnson not understand this? Does he really think that the ‘freedom’ of a few maverick swimmers trumps the basic safety of the tens of thousands of people travelling in boats down the Thames every day?

Incredibly we have a Mayor of London who one day boasts about increased river services and then a few days later defends actions which would put at risk the safety of people using river services.

Restricting swimming in the tidal parts of the Thames is arguably no more a curb on the liberty of adults as banning people from driving on the right hand side of the road, or restricting pedestrians and cyclists from being able to use the hard shoulder of motorway. This is not nanny state regulation, but instead reasonable restrictions that prevent a minority harming (if not killing) others.

One other thing.

We also have a Mayor who seems to be not quite in touch with what is literally flowing down the Thames.

In his daytime job the Mayor of London has a legal duty to promote the health of Londoners.

Strangely the Mayor sees no contradiction in fulfilling that duty and encouraging people to swim in the Thames.

Figures obtained by the Liberal Democrat London Assembly Group from the Environment Agency show that just in the single month of June an incredible 15,840,896 cubic metres of untreated sewage flowed into the Thames – that is the equivalent volume of 4224 Olympic sized swimming pools. Not only will this untreated sewage take many weeks to finally flow out in the sea, but it has already been added to by extensive further discharges of untreated sewage in the last few days, especially after the heavy rain last weekend.

Such discharges of untreated sewage have led to frequent warnings from Thames Water that it is even dangerous for rowers and canoeists to use the Thames, but strangely Boris Johnson seems happy to ignore all these issues when writing in the Daily Telegraph.

Personally I love swimming. I also recognise that swimming outdoors can be far more fun and exciting than a conventional swimming pool. This blog has highlighted the joys of Hampstead Heath lido through to brooks flowing through Somerset.

However, unlike Boris Johnson I believe in listening to the experts when it comes to the Thames.

An experienced ‘wild swimmer’, Daniel Stuart, who has written several books on the subject, should have the final word on this subject:
“In principle I don’t support banning wild swimming but with the Thames it is sensible, it is a tidal river that is dangerous.

“It is never a place I would recommend. There are hundreds of far more beautiful and safer rivers and lakes.”


  1. Can't help thinking this is more about Johnson posturing against the PLA than any "ban" in swimming in such dangerous waters.

  2. "He stopped being Mayor of London and instead decided to merely pander to the biased views of Daily Telegraph readers, many of whom live many miles away from London. "

    Where as here, you stop being the Shepherds Bush blogger and start grinding your party political axe. The Thames doesn't even run through Shepherds Bush. I have said it before, but I will say it again, you really spoil this otherwise good blog with your contrived arguments against anything associated with the Tory party. And I say that as someone who is unlikely to vote Conservative at the next election.

  3. "The Thames doesnt run through Shepherd's Bush" - No, but the sewage that is discharged into it backs up into people's homes on the Askew Road which is very much IN Shepherd's Bush - but then you're so obsessed with grinding your axe you probably don't know that.

    Besides which the Thames is something that concerns all Londoners.

    If you don't like the blog why not piss off and read something else?

  4. "I say that as someone who is unlikely to vote Conservative at the next election."

    so you're a tory voter.

  5. In response to the first anonymous - blogging is not some publicly funded form of broadcasting. If you don't like the views expressed in a blog that is your issue - you don't have to read this blog.

    As it is the actual article you are commenting upon seems incredibly well balanced and quotes numerous sources to back up the points it makes. Something that can't be said for the articles churned out by Boris Johnson.

  6. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.