Tuesday 31 July 2007

Illinois, State Backbenchers Known as "Mushrooms". Sounds Familiar?

I was reading a piece in the New York Times yesterday and it mentioned that “rank-and-file lawmakers [in the Illinois State Senate] were known as ‘mushrooms’ because they were kept in the dark and fed on manure”.

It made me smile as only recently (late one night in a local Hammersmith pub) a H&F Tory frontbencher confided to us that he “couldn’t give his backbenchers too much information as it would open up a can of worms” I guess all administrations in every democratic country will see their own backbenchers as a group that needs to be managed. I think the media spotlight makes the “mushroom” approach almost impossible for our national politics but it is one that can be witnessed in local government - although, I’ve always thought it to be self defeating, as rigorous scrutiny and healthy debate produces better public policies and so better administrations.

In H&F we have 176,000 residents and our Administration councillors are charged with the responsibility of a £180million budget. Last year, 22 of the 33 Conservative councillors elected were new to political office. Public office is a huge responsibility. It requires politicians to understand the needs of all they have been elected to represent, have the capacity for independent thought, develop & scrutinise policy options and then advocate their point of view. While (as with any new job) it is understandable that initial inclinations can be to fit in and get on with the boss; it is disturbing that most of the Tory Group has so far acted as little more than voting fodder.

Meanwhile, the local Tory frontbench admits to "making mistakes" with their 18% pay hike, crime and education policies as well as confirming that they are not on top of the details on elderly people’s services, housing, or the environment. And so it’s little wonder that many local people are already beginning to question whether there are any checks and balances within the H&F Conservative Group of councillors.

More manure anyone?

Monday 30 July 2007

Update on Hammersmith Grove Ten Story Office, Restaurant and Cinema Complex

Following public pressure, the Council has re-opened negotiations with the property developers to insist that the Hammersmith Grove/Beadon Road development is reduced by 5%.

My fellow Hammersmith Broadway ward councillors and I believe that a 5% reduction isn’t anywhere close to being sufficient. We will continue to push the Council on this matter and are grateful to all those residents that took the trouble to write and tell us their views.

Sunday 29 July 2007

Political Quiz

People have defined themselves politically as being on the right or left-wing since the French Revolution (Back then the definition related to the fact that the Royalist sat on the right of the French parliament and the Revolutionaries sat on the left).

However, some now question whether current definitions are too simplistic to describe modern political views. I came across this quiz (from 2005 but it still works), which adopts that viewpoint as its premise. It takes around 5 minutes to complete and your answers will be plotted onto a graph and compared to YouGov opinion surveys as well as other participants’ answers.

Without getting into the debate on the viability of left-right definitions; I do think this is a fun quiz for a Sunday. Click here if you fancy giving it a go.

Friday 27 July 2007

Schools Commission Announcement Set for September 6th

Sources tell us that the Fulham Schools Commission has completed its review and the result will be announced by Cllr. Stephen Greenhalgh (Con), the Leader of the Council, on September 6th.

There is a wide expectation that the Commission will announce another closure of a Fulham Secondary School on that day as well as confirming that the Council will resurrect plans, started under Labour, to win Government funding for a new academy. Labour does not support the controversial Commission because the Tories refused to allow places for local parents or teachers, fuelling speculation that it is little more than a Trojan horse for a further schools closure.

The Conservative Administration has unveiled plans to close two primary schools but earlier this year had to retreat from its plans to close down Hurlingham and Chelsea Secondary School. The announcement to back away from the Hurlingham and Chelsea School closure was made in the same press release that told us about the new Fulham Schools Commission chaired by Baroness Perry (Con).

Education is fronted by "Tory hatchet-man, Cllr. Antony Lillis" (Con) in our borough. He has a long record of cutting key services and closing down public facilities. Lillis is leading the Tories’ current schools closure programme, however, he also ran a public campaign to shut Phoenix Secondary School when he was in Opposition.

Thursday 26 July 2007

More Heavy Rain Fall Forecast for Sunday

The MET Office is saying that London Residents should expect another heavy rainfall this Sunday. People wanting advice about flooding should call 0845 988 1188 or click here to get onto the Environment Agency’s website.

Wednesday 25 July 2007

Borough Flooded Again

Residents across the whole borough were flooded out, as water and sewage spilled from Thames Waters’ main trunk pipes and into people’s homes. Clearly, many of the problems are in line with what is happening across the country as a result of record rainfalls. However, these are the fourth set of floods that the borough has experienced in three years, which raises questions about whether Thames Water and the Council have taken sufficient precautions to limit the damage.

There are three issues here: Firstly, each property should have a Non-Return Valve at the junction where the property’s pipes connect with Thames Waters’ sewers underground. This valve is crucial as it is designed to stop sewage and foul water flowing from the sewer and into people’s properties via their own plumbing system. Access to these valves is limited to Thames Water's representatives as they are situated in their sewers. However, many of the Non-Return Valves have fallen away over time which is why large numbers of residents have had foul water flushed into their homes. Secondly, the main trunk sewer pipes are 1.2 meters in diameter, with connecting sewer pipes (serving most residential roads) being smaller. These can and do become blocked. For example, Thames Water themselves told me that the floods in Askew Road, eighteen months ago, had occurred because a large real of rope had got into the system and blocked up the main sewer serving that area. Finally, the local Council has a responsibility to design out problems in its road architecture as well as to maintain gullies and keep them clean so that road water can flow into them. The Conservative Administration has reduced expenditure on refuse, street and gully cleaning by £1.5million and it’s cutting funding to highways.

My colleagues and I are keen that all possible measures to avoid future problems are taken and have written to Thames Water to ask the following questions:

1. How many properties currently have working Non-Return Valves?
2. When were the valves last surveyed?
3. How often are they maintained?
4. How often are the sewers surveyed, cleaned and maintained?

We believe that Thames Water must address these issues as a matter of urgency. They make around £180million net-profit per annum yet have only spent £90million upgrading sewers and providing additional storage for floodwater in the last few years.

Meanwhile, I understand that the Council switchboard was swamped with calls from people requiring help last week. H&F Council’s position is that people should address their problems for themselves via their insurance companies and stay with friends or family if necessary. My colleagues and I are keen to ensure that the Council is taking all possible measures to limit present and future problems and will be calling for an enquiry into the matter.

I'll keep you updated as to how we do.

Monday 23 July 2007

Council Used Telephone Interview to End Hot Meals-on-Wheels Service to 79 Year Old Sufferer of Dementia

I received an urgent call from Ray and Christine Revell nine days ago, about their elderly aunt who had her meals-on-wheels service stopped by H&F Council. Mr. Revell explained that the Council had decided to end the hot food deliveries after undertaking a telephone interview with the 79 year old lady who suffers from dementia. He told me that he and his wife “are worried sick” after they had received the letter on July 14th informing him that their aunt’s (who they don’t want to be named) hot meals would be stopped on July 17th.

H&F Council’s use of telephone interviews to determine an elderly person’s needs seems a highly dubious practice and I have written to seek a full explanation. Telephone interviews are being undertaken to help facilitate a targeted £100,000 saving to the meals-on-wheels budget - set by the Conservative Administration. The Council is also using this technique to qualify the numbers of elderly, sick and disabled local residents using its home care services as well.

Cllr. Stephen Greenhalgh (Con) told me at last week’s cabinet meeting that he has a hands-off approach saying “we trust our officers to get on with itwhen explaining why he and his team couldn’t answer any of the questions about the cuts in the home care services. The officer with responsibility for this policy is Mr. James Reilly, the Director of Community Services. I wrote to him asking that the service is immediately re-instated for Mr and Mrs Revell’s aunt. I have also asked Mr. Reilly the following questions about his scheme:

1. Why he thought telephone interviews were an appropriate means of testing all of the elderly for eligibility to essential services?
2. How does his department identify which people to assess?
3. What criteria are used during the assessment to determine the outcome?
4. What precisely does each assessment involve?
5. How many people have been given a telephone assessment and what were the results?
6. How many people have had their delivery of hot food ended in the last fourteen months?

I understand from Mr. Revell that his aunt’s deliveries have been temporarily re-instated. Mr. Reilly hasn’t yet been able to answer any of the above questions. I will let you know when I get a response.

President Cheney!?!

Well not quite but for just over two worrying hours on Saturday morning, Vice President Cheney assumed the powers of the Presidency. President Bush invoked Section 3 of the 25th Amendment of the United States’ Constitution (as fans of The West Wing will know) to transfer authority to Mr. Cheney. The move was deemed necessary to allow Mr. Bush to be sedated so he could undergo a colonoscopy.

Just when I was beginning to think that the current Presidency couldn't get any worse, Dick Cheney stepped up to the plate. Mr. Cheney is a long-standing hawk and is hugely unpopular, with only 18% of Americans having a favourable view of him. I suppose we should all be relieved that he only had the Presidential powers between 7.16am to 9.21am but as he’s said to be the most powerful Vice President in history, we’ll all have to wait until January 2009 when, at long last, there will be a new Administration in the White House.

Saturday 21 July 2007

Independent Shops at the Heart Our Community's Cohesion

Manjit Rana and her husband have run the Tipsy Toad in Hammersmith Grove since 1989. “We like to welcome people in” she says, adding “Each customer is special to us, people live busy lives and we try to offer support and be more than just another local shop”. Her customers seem to agree, asking her to sign for parcels when they’re at work and dropping in to chat, drink tea and be updated on local news.

Manjit’s self-depreciating nature, gentle approach and good neighbourliness has earned her a loyal following but it’s getting harder for small local businesses like hers to compete with the big retailers and Manjit can be seen working behind the counter from early in the morning to late at night, just to make ends meet. Manjit says her prices for wines, beers, newspapers and groceries are “often better and at least as good as the chain stores” but she admits it’s an on-going battle to attract new customers.

Local family owned shops like the Tipsy Toad offer much more that any chain-store can compete with. They operate at the centre of the community, adding to its cohesion and giving a sense of place. Hammersmith Grove wouldn’t be the same without it.

The Tipsy Toad is situated at 91 Hammersmith Grove. Orders can also be placed by calling 020 8741 9358.

Tuesday 17 July 2007

Five Hundred And Fifty Elderly, Disabled and Ill People Lose Care Services to Save Less than is Spent on Council's Re-Branding and Decoration Scheme

“We got 52% of the vote last year” said Cllr. Stephen Greenhalgh (Con) – the Leader of H&F Council “so of course it’s up to us to choose to do this” he added justifying his mandate for cutting home care services to 550 elderly, sick and disabled local residents last night.

Then, despite admitting to having seven briefings prior to last night’s cabinet meeting, Cllr. Antony Lillis (Con) the cabinet member for social services said that he hadn’t asked officials about what other options the service users would have once the service is cut; he said he had not asked about the service users’ socio-economic profiles and seemed shocked to be told during the meeting that the users of the home care service were largely poor. Cllr. Lillis said that he couldn’t answer questions about the criteria level for losing the care service and said he didn’t know anything about the appeals process, calling on a junior officer to answer to the packed meeting. Other cabinet members in attendance and making the decision admitted that they did not know the answers to those questions either. They were; Cllr. Paul Bristow (Con), Cllr. Greg Smith (Con), Cllr. Mark Loveday (Con), Cllr. Nicholas Botterill (Con), and Cllr. Stephen Greenhalgh (Con). The decision to cut the service was voted through unanimously.

Cllr. Lillis told the packed public meeting that “The status quo was not an option” because the Conservative run council wanted to realise a £500,000 cash saving. The sum saved is less than that put aside for councillors’ pay, less than what is spent on the Council newspaper (H&F News) and propaganda activities, less than what is being spend on new blue rebranding and new blue decorations, less than 1% of council tax and equivalent to the pay of just four senior council officials. H&F Council Cabinet papers show that the Conservatives also intend to remove services from a further 800 residents within six months.

Monday 16 July 2007

Message from Andy Slaughter MP about H&F Council's Cut to Elderly's Care Services - To Be Agreed by the Tory Cabinet at 7.00pm Tonight

Alex Cottrell is a neighbour of mine in Shepherds Bush. He is 93 years old. His father died at the Battle of Mons. For most of the last twenty years that I have attended the Remembrance Parade to the Shepherds Bush War Memorial, Alex has marched at the front of the procession wearing his own medals.

Now he is a little shaky on his feet. Some days are better than others. A year ago he was provided with a Home Help by the council – someone to come in in the mornings, see he is OK, has taken his medicine, and is able to get up and start the day. It takes about half an hour.

Next week Alex loses his Home Help. The Tory Councillors say he is only in ‘moderate’ need and does not deserve any assistance. 550 people like Alex will lose their Home Helps immediately, with the threat of another 850 in even greater need losing theirs next spring. This Monday saw the latest of a series of protests by local people against these cuts.

It doesn’t matter apparently that Alex has had two falls this year, that his Home Help may be the only person he sees in a day. One morning he was too ill to let the Home Help in – but fortunately she knew where to go for a spare key. What would happen now?

These Tory Councillors are the same people who are threatening to charge for Home Care, have sacked all 166 Home Helps, have cut a quarter of the funding to the voluntary sector, who are selling off community halls and closing successful schools. Is there no limit to the callous and brutal way they treat the most vulnerable people in our community?

The Town Hall told Alex there were people a lot worse off than him – in other words he shouldn’t be so selfish. Perhaps they had in mind those same Tory Councillors, who awarded themselves an 18% pay rise. Now there’s a deserving cause.

Sunday 15 July 2007

Tory Seeks and Wins Extra £6000 Pay-Out to Carry Out Adoption Duties

There’s been quite a kerfuffle in the Town Hall since the Annual Budget Meeting, last February and it’s all about councillors' pay. It started when the Tories voted to give themselves an 18% salary rise at that meeting. There was a public backlash and now they say it was all a terrible “mistake”. They’ve stuck to this explanation despite the pay hike being originated and signed off by the Leader of the Council (Con), then agreed by the Cabinet (all Conservatives) then unanimously voted for by all 33 Conservative councillors - who heckled Labour for not supporting it.

So, there were at least three stages of checks and not one of the 33 Tory councillors noticed the pay hike coming their way? I must admit, I find it hard to believe that they could be that incompetent but they assure me they were. Such is their embarrassment at the public’s reaction that they’ve wheeled out Cllr. Harry Phibbs (Con) to write to the newspapers to attack Labour for whipping up the public outcry. The new Tory line is that the money really isn’t that important at all and everyone should have known that all along.

Okay then, but if pay rates aren’t an issue how do they explain that the Conservative Administration has just decided to offer a £6034.00 incentive to encourage Tory Councillors to sit on the Adoptions Panel? They introduced this new cash bonus on June 27th after they apparently found it difficult to recruit any volunteers from their ranks of 33 to maintain this vital role. This money will be paid as a sum above and beyond the salary already received by councillors.

Sitting on the Adoption Panel has always been a humbling duty undertaken by previous Labour and Conservative councillors without the need for any extra cash incentive. So it’s peculiar that the Tory Administration should decide to do this – especially considering the problems they’ve been through recently with their 18% pay rise.

And, who has risen to this call of duty - accepting the £6k golden hello attached? Step forward one Cllr. Harry Phibbs (Con). We wish him well in his position.

Wednesday 11 July 2007

Council Crack-Down on Chirping Birds?

H&F Council’s latest zero tolerance target for anti-social behaviour is, er… birdsong.

According to the local Chronicle; Dorothy Berry of Dawes Road, Fulham, received a letter from the local authority saying “I regret to inform you that [we] have received a complaint alleging nuisance caused by birds singing… in the early hours of the morning”.

Mrs Berry says she does not have any pet birds but admitted that the wild birds in her garden do sing early in the morning.

I’m sure there’s a rational explanation for the Council’s over zealous behaviour. Then again… maybe not.

“A week’s a Long Time in Politics”. Ten Months is an Eon

Ten months ago Senator John McCain (see pic) was invited to the British Conservative Party conference as the star attraction. At the time he was the Republican Party’s front-runner to be their Presidential candidate for the 2008 election – which he had been for some years. But, his campaign seems to have taken a possibly fatal stumble as today the New York Times is reporting that he may be forced to drop out of the race altogether.

Our local elections are under three years away and local Conservatives now openly boast that “it’s already in the bag” - relying on the on-going gentrification of the area to deliver them another win. Such an attitude may have led them to believe that it won’t affect the result if they cut police numbers, close community centers, give themselves an 18% salary rise, shut down three local schools, charge for removing garden waste, cut home care or increase meals-on-wheels charges to the elderly and sick by £200.75 a year - which are just some of the controversial measures they've introduced in their first year.

We will have to see if they're right. However, power really is with the people at election time and although local government doesn't get the spotlight of the national arena, the public don't like to be taken for granted. Political allegiances can change – as Senator McCain is finding out on the other side of the Atlantic.

Monday 9 July 2007

H&F Environment Chief Hikes Parking Fines up by 50%

Virtually all parking offences will result in people receiving a £120 parking fine from July 1st. Official papers show that the new 50% increase was introduced after Cllr. Nicholas Botterill (Con), H&F’s Environment lead, argued for it at London Councils – the body charged for setting the London wide policy on parking fines and run by the Conservatives. London Councils initially agreed to keep the charge at £80 but Cllr. Botterill immediately intervened and persuaded the committee to overturn their decision.

Cllr Botterill has now targeted local traffic wardens and council officials to bring in an additional £500,000.00 into the Council’s parking account.

Saturday 7 July 2007

Take Part in the Treasure Hunt in and around Old Fulham on Saturday, 14th July

If you’re intrigued as to when and exactly where this picture of old Fulham was taken, then you’ll probably enjoy the Hammersmith & Fulham Historic Buildings Group’s treasure hunt in Fulham this Saturday. It promises to be a fun day out for all ages and provides an opportunity to find out more about our local history.

The treasure hunt starts and finishes at the Coachman’s Lodge, Fulham Palace - which is through the gates at end of Bishop’s Avenue, SW6. Entry forms are available from 10.00am to 3.00pm. The entrance fee is £10 per team (up to 4 adults plus children) or £7 in advance. Email Angela Dixon here if you’d like to buy tickets in advance.

The picture on the right was provided by the Hammersmith and Fulham Historic Buildings Group. They were keen that I let readers know that they obtained it from H&F Archives.

Thursday 5 July 2007

Council Deal Could See Giant Building Complex on Hammersmith Grove

Hammersmith & Fulham’s Conservative Council has been in direct negotiations with a leading property developer to build an office and entertainment complex in Hammersmith (see developer's mock-up pic, left). The developer hopes to build on the Transport for London site at the bottom of Hammersmith Grove and has been involved in private discussions with Council representatives for many months.

I have written to the Director of the Environment to ask for details of when the meetings took place, who attended and what was discussed. I will let you know when I get a reply.

Richard McCubbine, a Director of the property developer Development Securities, met with me and my fellow Hammersmith Broadway ward Councillor Lisa Nandy on Tuesday evening (3rd July) to brief us on his plans. He told us that representatives of the Conservative Council had contacted his organisation in November 2006 to insist that a cinema would be added to the design.

The Council’s cinema proposal ties this development in with its controversial plans to demolish Hammersmith’s current cinema at the top of King Street. The Conservative Administration will hope that by placing a new cinema in Hammersmith Grove they will minimise public anger at the loss of the current cinema and that this will enable them to move forward with their plans to build new luxury offices for Town Hall workers on the King Street site. The Council will also be given a Section 106 payment from the property developer, which could be used to bail out the Administration’s Police funding crisis.

Mr McCubbine agreed to hold a public briefing. Cllr. Lisa Nandy, Cllr. Mike Cartwright and myself are hoping to arrange a convenient date for our constituents to attend this. Mr McCubbine told us that he had hoped to have had his plans put before the Council’s July Planning Committee but that hadn’t been possible. He said that his company has now submitted plans but is waiting for the Council to officially validate them into the planning process. He was optimistic that the Planning Committee would make a decision about the development at a September meeting.

I believe that this development is far too big for that site. I also have severe concerns about putting extra restaurants and a cinema into a residential area like Hammersmith Grove. I think that if this development goes ahead it will cause extra noise, extra pollution and extra traffic with delivery lorries turning up in the early hours – disturbing many local residents.

Please email me directly if you have concerns about this matter.

Tory Leader Admits “We’ve Made Mistakes” With Borough’s Education but Still Plans to Close Local Schools

Speaking at the last full Council meeting on June 27th, Councillor Stephen Greenhalgh (Con), the Leader of H&F council, repeated his apology that he and his Administration had "made mistakes" with the borough’s education. However, he refused to withdraw plans to close two local primary schools and wouldn’t deny that his administration is still seeking to close a Fulham secondary school.

The Labour Opposition offered to work with his administration, local parents and teachers so as to take party politics out of the local education issue. We suggested that this would save his Administration from any further blame and allow us to come together to develop policies that would benefit all in the borough. This was rejected by the Conservatives as was Labour’s bid to involve local parents and teachers in the Fulham Schools Commission – which has recently been set up to look at secondary school provision in Fulham. The refusal to involve local parents has added to the widespread concern that the new Commission is little more than a Trojan horse being used to have another try at closing a local secondary school. See terms of reference here.

The announcement to establish this Commission was shrouded in controversy from the beginning as it was made on the same day that the Administration decided to withdraw its plans to close Hurlingham and Chelsea Secondary School. The Council had previously valued the land on which the school is situated at £24million and had hoped to close the school next year. However, the Conservative administration were forced to withdraw their closure plans only hours before they were due to be considered by the Independent Schools Adjudicator and only because the Administration was advised that the Adjudicator would throw their plans out, as they lacked substance.

Labour’s proposal to involve local parents and teachers in the Commission seemed sensible and would have gone some way to allaying fears that it’s simply a front for more school closures. The Commission is chaired by Baroness Perry (Con) a former Chief Inspector of Schools.

Labour does not support the Commission. We think that it’s important that local parents are involved in its deliberations and will work to make sure that their voices are heard.

Protest to Protect the Elderly, Sick and Vulnerable on July 16th

The H&F Conservative Council is proposing to cut home care services to 550 elderly, sick and vulnerable local residents. The Cabinet is taking a decision on this at its meeting on 16 July at Hammersmith Town Hall. See papers here. Members of the public can attend and protest.

Labour’s Cllr. Rory Vaughan (see pic) is leading the fight to protect the users and has been working closely with a number of local charities and community groups. Rory said “Eighty per cent of those that will be losing access to care are elderly and this is only the start. The Council has admitted that it is also reviewing the service for a further 850 users, who could all lose their services as well within the next 12 months. It’s heartless and goes against everything the Tories promised these people before last year’s local elections”.

Minister announces that Neighbourhoods Will Get Direct Control Of Council Cash

Local neighbourhoods are to be given direct control of cash that is currently devolved to local councils - as called for only recently on this blog. The idea has actually been around for some years but it has been actioned today by Hazel Blears (see pic), the new communities secretary. Ms Blears – an ex-local councillor herself - set out 10 pilot projects that include Birmingham, Merseyside, Lewisham, Bradford, Salford, Sunderland, Newcastle and Southampton. The story is covered in today's Guardian .

I think this is a great move. Councils are, all too often, slow moving, expensive bureaucracies that are unresponsive to local people’s wishes and needs. I came to the view a while back that one solution is to devolve power down to people in local neighbourhoods and let them make decisions for themselves. Not all my councillor colleagues agree though. Just as turkeys wouldn’t vote for Christmas many councillors see this as a threat to their power base. I’m not sure what Sir Simon Milton’s (the Leader of the national councillor body the Local Government Association) views are but he’s being quoted on this morning’s Today Programme questioning whether there’s a “public appetite” for such a move.