Wednesday 22 April 2009

What Should Be Done To Support Our Local Small Retailers?

Like many small retailers, the shops on Askew Road have had it tough recently. Their troubles started well before the global recession. There’s the ever-present competition from the major players, draconian parking measures drove customers away and high business rates are just a few of the problems they suffered.

During the last three years Askew ward’s (see pic) Councillors Gill Dickenson (Lab), Lisa Homan (Lab) and Rory Vaughan (Lab) have campaigned for a change in H&F Council’s approach. They forced the Council to carry out a consultation on Askew Road’s shopping area. The result of this is that H&F Council has now agreed to reductions in the tariff on the five pay and display bays to 20p for 30 minutes to encourage people to ‘stop and shop’. My colleagues also managed to persuade the Council to introduce a range of streetscape improvements such as raised entry treatments in Cobbold, Gayford and Hadyn Park Roads - with work set be carried out at the end of May. They are continuing to campaign for more.

Regular readers will recall that an all-party Parliamentary group published High Street Britain - alarmingly concluding that small retailers may “vanish from Britain’s high streets by 2015” as featured here. It was therefore a positive step that on the 19th September 2007 all Hammersmith and Fulham’s councillors of both parties voted in favour of the Administration’s motion to the Council that read:

“This Council notes the publication of an independent Commission on Retail Conservation set up by Kensington & Chelsea Council and the recent submission to the Council by the Fulham Society of "Renaissance in Fulham". As a result of increasing concern at the disappearance of independent retailers, this Council resolves to study these two reports and further consider ways in which to support shops and the local economy in Hammersmith & Fulham.”

At the time, my Labour colleagues and I raised concerns that the Tories’ motion was more than a little short on action points and also voted for H&F Conservatives to follow Kensington and Chelsea Council’s lead in supporting its small retailers. Our Conservatives Councillors argued that was unnecessary and said we should judge their Administration by their subsequent actions. Nineteen months have passed since then and, unlike other London councils of all political colours, H&F Council still does not have a borough wide strategy for supporting our small retailers. There was no mention of how the Administration will “support shops and the local economy” in their last budget – which will be effective until April 2010. Time is running out and things have got worse, with BBC News recently choosing the Fulham Road as the site that best summed up their recent exposé on the failing small retail sector.

I urge greater urgency. There are things that can be done now to make the plight of our small retailers easier. I hope the Administration acts soon and gets on with doing precisely that.

Thursday 16 April 2009

H&F Conservatives’ Harsh Line On Homelessness

It is increasingly difficult for homeless people to get Hammersmith and Fulham Council to accept that it has a duty to house them after H&F Conservatives tightened the processes and criteria around acceptance.

People become homeless for all sorts of reasons. Different types of crisis such as domestic violence, mental illness, or debt can suddenly place a person in need of shelter. Local councils have always been in the front line of providing the necessary safety net. The last Labour Administration was so effective at helping people who found themselves homeless that our Conservative neighbours at Kensington and Chelsea Council joined in with many our schemes.

H&F Conservatives have taken a very different view during the last three years. The first indications of a less than compassionate approach occurred in 2007 when they described the homeless as a “law and order issue” and banned the BBC and Crisis from running a Christmas shelter. They cut funding to local homeless charities, such as Broadway (as you can read here on page 18), and actually sold off twelve homeless hostels raising millions of pounds in revenue for the Council while explaining that they didn’t need the shelters any more. They then also began to sell off many empty Council homes instead of re-letting them to people on the waiting list and did all of this while tightening the homeless acceptance criteria.

The latest figures show that H&F Council now only agrees to provide shelter for around half the numbers of homeless people it had accepted under Labour back in 2006. Some local backbench Tories are bizarrely trying to promote the notion this is an indication of their efficient approach to solving homelessness in the borough. I am not sure if this premise is a result of a failure to understand what their frontbench colleagues are up to; disingenuous propaganda; or it’s just that particular type of heartless ignorance but, as the attached photo above demonstrates, homelessness is still a plight for many of our fellow residents - even if H&F Conservatives are no longer prepared to put a roof over their heads.

The above picture was kindly sent to me by local resident Jane Bain. She took the photo early yesterday morning. It shows a homeless gentleman sleeping on a fly-tipped mattress next to Hammersmith Bridge.

Monday 13 April 2009

Murky Goings On Over H&F Conservatives' Latest New Charge For Residents

It’s been a long standing principle of our democracy that government needs to set out what it intends to do so it can be held to account. Hard won processes should kick in which should allow the public, the media, administration backbenchers and oppositions to know what is happening and to consider the pros and cons before any major policy is implemented. So, how come H&F Council’s Conservative Administration has just introduced another brand new stealth tax and the Conservative Chair of the scrutiny committee meant to look at such policies was forced to admit that even she “didn't know about the charge”.

H&F Council has decided to now charge, £15 per item, to remove unwanted household furniture. This service used to be covered by the council tax payment and up until the beginning of this month there was no extra charge for using it. The charge is an interesting measure as on initial consideration it may seem to make sense to charge people for removing their old belongings. However, many of the councils that levy such a charge often end up spending more than the money raised because they have to deal with significant increases in unwanted extra fly-tipping – and regular readers will recall the Hammersmith and Fulham Council is currently £1million over its budget precisely because of unforeseen increases in the level of local fly-tipping.

The Cleaner and Greener Scrutiny Committee should have considered all of this and looked at the measure as part of H&F Council’s failing strategy for keeping our streets clean. However, when the committee last met on Wednesday, 8th April, Cllr. Eugenie White (Con), the Chair of the committee admitted that her Cabinet colleagues and council officials had even failed to inform her of what they were doing.

Cllr. Wesley Harcourt (Lab), the Shadow Cabinet Member for the Environment (pictured left) asked where and when details of this latest policy change had been published. A senior environment official responded by telling the committee that details had “not been explicit in the budget papers”. Wesley asked the official if he believed H&F Council’s approach was “conducive to transparent government?” The official didn't respond - his silence providing the answer.

Now, if there’s one department that could do with some scrutiny and advice it’s H&F Council’s beleaguered environment department. Their new garden waste scheme crashed and burned a mere eighteen months after it was triumphantly unveiled (a decision also kept from committee scrutiny); complaints about filthy streets and dog fouling have soared; and few local people have any confidence in the current planning regime.

I suspect that this new residents charge is more to do with the incompetent way this service has been privatised than anything else and that this is the reason the Administration was keen to hide its latest stealth tax from the public’s gaze. I know that when the street scene services were being handed over to SERCO much was missed out. SERCO have been back to H&F Council on a number of occasions successfully seeking many hundreds of thousand of pounds in extra funds.

I am sure the story behind this will all come out in the end. And, when it does, I will ensure that you can read about it here.

Wednesday 1 April 2009

First Lady Visits Charing Cross Hospital’s Maggie’s Centre First

Michelle Obama, the First Lady, today visited the Maggie's Centre at Charing Cross Hospital which was the first stop in a busy day of engagements. Mrs Obama was the guest of Sarah Brown, the Prime Minister’s partner, who is a Patron of Maggie’s. The visit will be a great boost for the patients and staff at the centre which, as reported here, was opened by Sarah Brown last year.

The Maggie’s Centre offers information, psychological and emotional support and practical advice to anyone affected by cancer and is not just open to people who have been diagnosed with cancer, but also to their families, friends and carers. All their services are free of charge and they work in partnership with local NHS Trusts.

For more information about Maggie's Centres and the work they do please click here to get to their website.