Monday 20 December 2010

H&F Conservatives Grit Failure - “Elderly Going Down Like Ninepins"

Fulham Road, Fulham
This is the third winter in a row that there has been a lack of any gritting on Hammersmith and Fulham’s main roads, pavements and side streets. It’s not the same in neighbouring Kensington and Chelsea who appear to have gritted all their high streets and pavements within hours of the snow first falling. This is clearly a budgetary and policy decision made by H&F’s ruling politicians and one that is causing chaos for many Borough Residents.

The lack of any attempt to make even main thoroughfares safe became obvious in February 2009 – when H&F Council tried the excuse, they “couldn't get their gritting machines going.” Last winter this reoccurring failure even damaged the attempt of a local Conservative councillor to become a Member of Parliament – so it's reasonable to expect lessons would have been learnt.

Dawes Road, Fulham
Shepherds Bush Councillor Mercy Umeh (Lab) tells me "it's chaos they haven't improved any safety measures since the last big snow fall". Adding "as recently as last Saturday I couldn’t find a single street that had been gritted and I still can't find much evidence of any gritting today."  Mercy said “My Saturday morning surgery was very busy. One constituent, who cares for her elderly mother told me she is distraught as she is unable to take her mother out in her wheelchair. I’ve written to officials demanding immediate action but as yet the streets remain un-touched.”

Munster Road, Fulham
Local resident Bert Schouwenburg contacted me to say that last Friday he slipped on the untreated ice in Shepherds Bush. He says “I went head first onto the pavement, ended up in an ambulance and now have 8 stitches in a nasty head wound above my eye. Was I in a back street where the pavements hadn't been gritted? No, I was in Goldhawk Road.” Bert Schouwenburg is the President of H&F’s Trades Council and said “Despite the weather warnings, H&F Council and their contractors had not salted or gritted any pavements and the ambulance staff told me that the elderly were going down like ninepins - some of whom will never walk again.”

Meanwhile, I was out and about in Fulham on Saturday. I took these photos (click to enlarge) from 1.00pm onwards. Notice that not only is there un-melted ice, there’s no sign of any grit or treatment to make it melt.

If you’ve fallen or been hurt or are caring for someone who has, you can complain to H&F Council by clicking onto the email address listed at the bottom of this link. Please copy me in to any complaints by emailing me here.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

H&F Pays “Retired” Bureaucrat The Equivalent Of 1.17% Cut In Council Tax For Each Local Household

On Monday, the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP (Con), the Secretary of State for Local Government, announced that Hammersmith and Fulham will have a 6.56% cut in central government funding. He also announced an interesting solution to balancing the books. He said “Councils could cut chief executive’s pay.” He should re-read this article scooped by the Mail on Sunday on the 31st October 2010. It tells how H&F’s Nick Johnson “receives a total of £310,000 a year – making him what is believed to be the highest-paid council-funded official in Britain.” The Mail explains that this sum is a combination of Nick Johnson’s ability to draw a £50,000.00 local government pension as well as invoicing H&F for over £260,000.00 a year. He is able to claim both these amounts because the Hammersmith and Fulham money is paid to his private limited company (Davies Johnson Ltd) rather than directly to him. I think Mr. Pickles should look into the circumstances around this.

Nick Johnson is currently paid as H&F Council’s interim Housing Director and the Chief Executive of H&F Homes - its 100% owned housing management subsidiary. Prior to that he had worked as Bexley Council’s Chief Executive where, according to this newspaper report, he was paid a salary of £203,000 a year.

But he retired from Bexley earlier than the normal pensionable age on 4th November 2007. This happened after he was deemed to be so ill that he was “permanently unfit to discharge his duties or any comparable duties as defined by the Local Government Pension Scheme regulations”. Dr. Johnson started work in Hammersmith and Fulham on 11th February 2008 – fourteen weeks and one day after he retired. Since then he has billed H&F around £700,000.00. This sum equates to a 1.17% cut in council tax for each Borough household. Davies Johnson Ltd was incorporated on the 27th February 2006.

In a note to Bexley Councillors the current Chief Executive of that authority tells how an “Independent Occupational Health Consultant” reached the conclusion about Dr. Johnson’s health and the decision to retire him was made in 2007 by “the Acting Chief Executive, Dave Berry and the Leader of the Council [former Councillor and former Deputy Mayor of London Ian Clement (Con)].”

Bexley councillors have questioned why they are paying a pension to an individual who appears to still be working. Their Chief Exec has advised them “Dr. Johnson has confirmed that he is not employed by Hammersmith and Fulham homes or any other eligible employer, so the Council has no basis on which to reduce any benefits being paid under the statutory terms of the Local Government Pension Scheme.”

The Swanley and Dartford Chronicle finds these goings on highly questionable and says Nick Johnson “clearly works for H&F Homes” on page 2 in this piece titled “Miraculous Recovery”.

H&F Conservatives say Nick Johnson is “good value for money” in this article here. Our local Conservatives’ admiration for Nick Johnson were first published by Cllr. Stephen Greenhalgh (Con) when he thanked him and others for the “tremendous amount of help as we have developed our thinking” on page 6 of this controversial policy paper titled Principles for Social Housing Reform. Many of the ideas in Cllr. Greenhalgh’s paper are now set to become government policy. These including hiking social housing rents to “near market values” and removing people’s rights to secure tenancies.

On the 24th June 2010 Nick Johnson gave evidence to the Borough's Housing, Health and Adult Social Care Select Committee to say he worked “full time” for both H&F Council and its housing management provider H&F Homes. I asked him how this has come about and he told the committee that his work for the Council had begun following a “personal request from Geoff Alltimes” - Hammersmith and Fulham Council's Chief Executive.

This position was “interim” so it did not go through any of formal recruitment panel involving councillors. I decided to investigate what was happening but finding out about Nick Johnson’s company and payment details was made extremely difficult. Here’s a time line of what happened:
  1. On the 30th July 2010 I received a response from H&F Homes telling me “Davies Johnson Ltd’s supply of Nick Johnson’s services to H&F Homes is commercially sensitive information and subject to commercial privilege.” They flatly refused to tell me how much was being paid to that company.
  2. I took this matter up with Geoff Alltimes and on 24th September 2010, he wrote to inform me that Dr. Johnson’s company is paid “£950 pounds per day.” Which he asserted “equates to an annual salary of approximately £160,000, plus on-costs.”
  3. I continued to ask questions and on the 20th October 2010 I was sent the exact information which showed that in the period 2008/09 Davis Johnson Ltd was paid £268,405.00 and during the period 2009/10 it was paid £260,980.00. 
  4. On 22nd November I wrote to Geoff Alltimes to find out why I was misinformed. Indeed, in the worst instance Nick Johnson had actually been paid £108,405.00 more than Mr. Alltimes told me. As yet, I have not had a reply.
This behaviour is very concerning. It also makes H&F’s boast that it would be “Britain’s most transparent council” look more than a little hollow.

Grant Shapps MP (Con), a government minister who works for Eric Pickles MP, was on the Politics Show on Sunday. He was complaining about a council paying its Chief Exec £170,000.00 a year. Maybe he and his boss should take Hammersmith and Fulham Council to task as our Chief Exec is also one of the highest earning local government officials in the UK and well takes over £270,000.00 out of the public purse. Add in Nick Johnson’s vast payments and it’s reasonable to wonder who is bearing the brunt of the cuts to services in Hammersmith and Fulham? It doesn’t appear to be our high ranking bureaucrats.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Quarter Of A Million Pounds Wasted In Five Years Because Town Hall Lights Left On

H&F Council now admits that over the last five years alone, they have wasted up to £250,000.00 in electricity and burnt an unnecessary carbon footprint of 1,250 tonnes of CO2. The reason? They couldn't manage to turn the lights off in the Town Hall Extension.

I last reported on this a couple of years ago and have written to the Chief Executive of H&F Council on many occasions to ask why they were incapable of switching the lights off. Here’s a telling response I had from a senior official on 22nd May 2008, “The method of switching the lights on and off is via a computer system and unfortunately a problem has occurred to the system… which now prevents the lights being switched off. Whilst in the past we have resisted the option to by pass the computer system by providing a simple switching system to each floor on the grounds of cost and the limited life of the building this recent failure to yet again turn off the lights is clearly unacceptable. An order has now been placed to provide simple manual switches per floor. These works are due to be completed in the next two weeks. Security will then be instructed on how to turn off each floor via these manual switches. I hope this answers your questions and can only apologise on behalf of the Council for this recent failure to adequately control the lights at the Extension.”

Close to £100,000.00 of tax payers money has been wasted since that email was sent. But, yesterday on H&F Council’s intranet, there is a self-congratulatory message applauding their achievement as now they believe they've cracked it: “Due to the recent office moves in the Town Hall extension we have been able to identify the areas where lights need to be on for 24 hours… and have taken steps to switch off the rest of the lights in the building after office hours.  From Friday 26th November, the only lights that should be left on in the Town Hall Extension may be the 6th floor (top floor) and the staircase lighting.”

H&F Council proudly tells us "We have estimated  that this will save the council approximately £40- 50k a year and will reduce our carbon footprint by 250 tonnes of CO2." Consider for a moment all the horrible cuts in services or the vast amount of stealth taxes local residents have had to suffer in recent years. Meanwhile, they were literally burning our money night after night. This tells you a lot about what is wrong with H&F Council and provides an insight to the ineffective culture around their cuts programme.

Saturday 4 December 2010

What Are H&F Conservatives Offering Toby Young's Free School?

H&F Conwatch is reporting that our local Council is considering handing over the Askham Family Centre to Toby Young (see pic) so he can temporarily turn it into his free school. I have written to the director of education to seek clarification and find out exactly what is happening.

Toby Young is an associate editor of The Spectator and also writes for The Daily Telegraph. H&F Council has been in talks with his school organisation for some time about using Palingswick House as a permanent home for his free school - once all the charities that currently use that building have been successfully evicted. The BBC provides a full report here.

A wide range of families, including those with severely disabled children, are currently provided with vital support at the Askham Family Centre. I will tell you what H&F Council plans to do with them once I have a responce from the director of education.

Friday 26 November 2010

Council's Propaganda Response Is No Substitute For Listening To Shepherds Bush Market Fears

Remember this disastrous council cabinet meeting on the 12th November? Or this mass demonstration against, amongst other things, H&F Council's Shepherds Bush Market plans on the 27th October? Well, the Shepherds Bush Blog has scooped the Conservative Administration's long-awaited response to all possible concerns.

Have the Council listened? Have they agreed to genuinely work with the residents and traders and put forward regeneration proposals all can support? Er... No. Instead, the have gone for their default position and put out an expensive piece of propaganda telling us all how positive their plans really are. Chris Underwood has the whole story here.

Meanwhile, the next public meeting to consider the Shepherds Bush Market proposals will take place at 6.30pm on Wednesday, 1st December 2010 and will be held in the old Shepherds Bush Library, 7 Uxbridge Road, Shepherds Bush.

Sunday 21 November 2010

Town Hall Planning Sham Puts H&F Conservatives In Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs Again

H&F Council is back in Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs section. This time it’s about their highly controversial Town Hall development plans and it chalks up a fifth Rotten Boroughs appearance for the Conservative Administration in four years.

The current issue of the Eye features H&F’s oddly hard of hearing Conservative cabinet who on the 13th October promised a packed public meeting that they genuinely wanted to “listen”. At the time, the audience were sceptical of this but that sentiment turned to indignant disbelief when five days later, representatives of Save Our Skyline (SOS) met Cllr. Stephen Greenhalgh (Con), the Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council. They report that he “did not offer any concessions or commitments to review the plans.”

Then, on the 29th October, H&F Council and its preferred developers formally submitted the unchanged plans to H&F Council’s own Planning Applications Committee (PAC) where the plans are widely expected to be rubber stamped by the Tory authority.

Residents are understandably outraged. One person told me “These people must think we are really stupid. How can they look us in the eye sincerely promising to listen and then submit the completely unchanged plans within days of saying that?”

Readers can view the different parts of the Council's application by following these links:
  • Full Planning Application here
  • Listed Building Consent here
  • Conservation Area Consent here
You can read the Private Eye article by clicking onto the attached clipping. Meanwhile, there is another public meeting which is being arranged by SOS to hear more about these proposals. It will take place at 7.00pm on Monday, 6th December at Rivercourt Methodist Church, King Street, Hammersmith, W6 9JT.

Saturday 20 November 2010

Cameron's "Lies" Accusations Rebound

Today the BBC, the Guardianthe Independent and a plethora of media report that,"new social housing tenants could be kicked out of their homes after as little as two years under Government plans." They tell us the "Coalition moves to put an end to lifetime tenancies will go even further than previously indicated".

This policy originated here in Hammersmith and Fulham. It was published by the Leader of H&F Council in this document. The Guardian made this video and repeatedly asked the Council Leader; Grant Shapps MP (Con), the current Housing Minister and many other leading Conservatives to explain their plans. But all remained schtum. It would have been electoral dynamite it they'd announced it before people voted. So they didn't.

Instead the Conservatives proclaimed to anyone that would listen that my Labour colleagues and I had told "lies" about their plans to severely curtail tenancy rights for social housing residents. The Prime Minister even joined in and made this "lies" allegation in the Daily Telegraph. It's unusual for politicians to use the word "lies" as it is considered to be "unparliamentary language" and is forbidden in the House of Commons. So you'd think Mr. Cameron would have wanted to be on rock solid ground before talking in such bold terms. But he wasn't.

It's not the first time Mr. Cameron has been so careless with his language. I noticed that he also accused the Labour Party of lying over pensioner benefits in this interview with the Telegraph. Doesn't look like he was right on that one either.

Now the election is over and there probably won't be another until 2015, I wonder if Mr. Cameron has experienced a quite moment of regret about his less than truthful approach with the public on these matters before they casted their votes?...

Thursday 18 November 2010

Housing Benefits Homeless Tsunami?

Shelter has written to say that out of the 433 local authorities in the UK, Hammersmith and Fulham will be the tenth worst affected by the government’s housing benefits and Local Housing Allowance (HB) cuts.

Families in, for example, a 3-bed home will be a staggering £204 a month worse off. Meanwhile, the Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP) own analysis demonstrates that 100 per cent of those in 1,2,3,4 and 5 bed-properties who receive any form of HB will lose out in our Borough. Hundreds of households will be evicted and many will become homeless.

But none of this information was presented at Tuesday night’s Housing Select Committee when we met to consider the consequences for local residents. Instead we were given this inadequate report.

Cllr. Andrew Johnson (Con), the Chair, agreed that the HB cuts are the biggest issue ever presented to his committee but then said H&F's officers were only capable of providing an interim report - despite the Opposition asking for an urgent briefing last June. Cllr. Johnson was unconvincing when he tried to explain the extraordinary absence of the Housing Director. Instead we were provided with a single official who did his best but struggled to answer many questions. As the meeting progressed my Opposition colleagues and I realised that all this was indicative of H&F Council's lack of interest and readiness to deal with the resulting problems the HB cuts will bring.

Shelter forecasts that “134,000 UK households will either be evicted or forced to move when the cuts come in next year”. London Councils, (the body representing the capital’s 33 local authorities) has published this briefing which says "82,000 London households will be at risk of losing their homes". These are astonishing figures - the consequences of which have never been seen before in our Borough. But the price won’t just be measured by human misery: an independent Cambridge University report, commissioned by Shelter, forecasts “the government will face costs of up to £120 million a year due to the surge in homelessness.”

Tuesday night’s meeting was devoid of this independent research or any authoritative analysis. Instead, we were given lots of “anecdotal” hearsay. For example, “We have no information on the number of landlords that will lower their rents to accommodate these changes” we were told, “but anecdotally I don’t believe landlords will be averse to doing this”. "Have you surveyed local landlords?" I asked. “No” - they hadn't. "Has the Cabinet Member for Housing met with the National Landlords Association to hear their concerns?" I questioned. “No, but anecdotally, we believe sufficient numbers of them will lower their rents” came the reply.

This was a strange approach. London Councils (a body this Council belongs to) found “Over half of the landlords renting properties to housing benefit tenants in London at the time of completing the survey stated that they would either evict their tenants or not renew the tenancy agreement at the end of the term even if there was a very small shortfall in rent". Their survey also found that ,“when the shortfall in rent rises to over £20 a week, over 90 per cent of landlords renting properties to LHA recipients in London would look to evict the tenant when they fall into arrears or not renew the tenancy at the end of the period.”

Consider this brief by Shelter which says, “the vast majority of HB claimants are either pensioners, those with disabilities, people caring for a relative or hardworking people on low incomes, and only one in eight people who receive HB is unemployed”. Crisis says, “the coalition Government is misrepresenting the reality of benefit claimants” And the BBC reports Age UK's analysis that the “80,000 pensioners who rent privately face losing an average of around £12 a week in payments." This, they conclude will “leave some elderly people on such low incomes their health may be at risk." All this research conjures up a horrible backward vision for the future of our society. One that has more in common with the wretchedness of the Great Depression than our aspirations for the 21st Century.

Contrast that research with the views expressed by Coalition ministers who have described those reliant on benefits as making a “lifestyle choice.” The Prime Minister himself has sought to mislead the public by implying that vast numbers of benefit claimants are living in homes many people "couldn't even dream of." A view that appears to ignore well-researched evidence expressed by a plethora of independent experts and is apparently based on no more than ignorant class-prejudice.

H&F's Council report was virtually useless at advising us what would happen to the residents we have been charged to represent. So Councillors Rory Vaughan (Lab), Iain Coleman (Lab) and I mostly relied on questioning the solitary council official to find out about the Administration’s approach. We learnt that H&F Council: 
  • estimate 1,300 Borough residents being affected in some way but have no idea whether there will be “a small wave of homelessness applications or a homeless Tsunami” in the Borough.
  • are not alarmed that the National Housing Federation disagrees with them and forecast 1,940 local residents being affected. Indeed, it appears that the DWP also disagrees with H&F Council as on page 20 of this government report it shows there are 2,670 Hammersmith and Fulham residents affected by changes to the Local Housing Allowance.
  • made no mention in their report of the HB changes for job seekers.
  • say that 650 tenants had been placed in private rented accommodation by the Council themselves and they would look to reassess these people if approached by them.
  • admitted that there has not been any special staff training or planning for this possible “homeless Tsunami” but said out of a department of 110 staff about 70% had some form of front line client experience
  • admitted that no work has been done on those HB claimants whose rent is currently below the new cap but who are likely to be affected next year after their rent is subjected to an annual upward review.
  • admitted that they are considering how to spend the government’s transitional payment of £400k but have not ring fenced this to deal with the resulting homelessness.
  • agreed that Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) residents in receipt of HB could be adversely affected as figures demonstrated that certain groups had larger families and therefore lived in larger properties. The Council said they hadn’t carried out an Equality Impact Assessment.
Given the possibility of a “homelessness Tsunami” hitting our Borough, it was perplexing to witness the Administration's lacklustre approach to this matter. It is particularly hard to understand why this Conservative Administration is actually closing homeless support agencies. And their aggressive policy of tightening homeless acceptance criteria will have devastating consequences for the households that find themselves kicked out of the place they live.

One obvious consequence of the HB cut is that people on low incomes will be removed from areas such as Hammersmith and Fulham. Shelter says that by 2016 this policy will have made significant changes to the population of London. The Observer put this story on its front page and even Mayor Boris Johnson has accused the Coalition Government of "Kosovo-style social cleansing." But the fact is this appears to be the feature of these changes that the Conservatives actually find most appealing. After all, the right-wing economic philosophy behind this policy is the same as that proposed by the Leader of H&F Council when he urged a hike in social housing rents up to "near market levels" (a policy now agreed by the Coalition Government). The idea being that the “invisible hand of the market” will collar people on anything other than high incomes and shift them out of areas like Hammersmith and Fulham – which has the fourth highest land prices in the Country.

So, it was to Cllr. Lucy Ivimy's (Con) credit that she agreed for me to arrange briefings with Shelter, and the Small Landlords Association/National Landlords Association in her role as the Cabinet Member for Housing. The Chair of the Housing Select Committee also agreed to bring back a full report to the February Meeting and said he’d ensure that the Housing Director and housing benefits officials actually attend this time. I also asked that we have independent evidence presented by expert sources outside of H&F Council. Hopefully, that will be arranged for the next meeting as well.

My position on housing benefits has long been that it needs radical reform. But not like this. I will report more as this story unfolds.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Homeless Charity Closes Doors After Bitter Tories Remove Funding

Threshold Housing Advice closed its doors for the final time last week. This homeless service's crucial work has been carried out in our Borough since the 1970s but it was forced to shut down after the Conservative Administration removed 100% of its funding. This vindictive act was finally debated at this packed Full Council Meeting. It is to the credit of the Hammersmith and Kensington Times that they have chosen to feature this issue on their front page. You can buy the paper from all good local news agents.

Regular readers will recall that Threshold took H&F Council to the Local Government Ombudsman after the Conservative run authority refused to aid a pregnant homeless woman who had been badly beaten up by her so-called partner. The Ombudsman found the Council to have be guilty of "maladministration". The Administration's response to this was to seek to put the charity out of business - which it has now successfully done. Threshold actually has another case against H&F Council which it has now also taken to the Ombudsman and this appears to even worse.

In fact, Conservative councillors were so incensed by the negative national media coverage following the first Ombudsman case that they even tried to stop all debate on the charity's future. You can read the Hammersmith and Kensington Times article here.

Friday 12 November 2010

"Shut Up... Pin Your Ears Back And Listen" Says Council Leader At Public Meeting, Hammersmith Town Hall, 11th November 2010

Ms. Aniza Meghani and Mr. Andrew Frederick were two of the local residents that braved the rain and cold to attend Hammersmith and Fulham Council's Cabinet Meeting last night. They were presenting petitions concerning the Conservative Administration's plans to demolish Shepherds Bush Market, destroy many of the current businesses and move a homeless refuge to a residential street.

These are emotive issues but both petitioners gave sober, evidence-based presentations that demonstrated a detailed local knowledge which any reasonable local authority would want to genuinely consider. But last night's encounter felt uncomfortably odd. In part, this was because when H&F's Cabinet was invited to question the petitioners and learn more about their concerns none of the eight Cabinet Members did so. In fact, they all looked extremely embarrassed - leading many in the thirty strong crowd to openly mull over what had led to this shame-faced, bowed headed response?

The Cabinet were evidently jittery and this appeared to be a factor in Cllr. Stephen Greenhalgh's, (the Leader of the Council) bizarrely aggressive interactions. These began when Cllr. Mike Cartwright (Lab) said he had some questions to ask the residents and raised his hand to do so. "No!" was the angry answer spat across the room. Cllr. Greenhalgh tried to move on but I intervened to say "He must know that there are increasing numbers of people in this Borough who do not believe for a moment that their concerns are being listened to by his Administration. Many of these residents are life long Conservatives and even their voices are not being heard. Save Our Skyline, the Goldhawk Industrial Estate Campaign, Save Sands End... are just a few of the residents groups that have formed in response to this and that list goes on and on." I asked him "why add tonight's groups of residents to that list, why not engage with them and ask questions - which is what these residents had rightly expected to happen when they turned up tonight?". To be fair to Cllr. Greenhalgh, he did respond to that point. Sadly, for the people in the room it began with the words "Shut up... pin your ears back and listen". He then went on to tell us his views on the matter - some of which were interesting.

Putting all this to one side: it's worth asking what would be the international response to any leading political leader in an established democracy who decreed not to allow the official Opposition's voices to be heard in the most important committee in their elected body? And how much worse would the outcry be if  all this happened against a back drop of widespread public discontent on a highly controversial matter being considered by that committee? There would rightly be accusations of aspiring towards a tin-pot dictatorship, and so on. But that is exactly the sequence of events that occurred last night.

Given Cllr. Greenhalgh's oft asserted position that he's "in listening mode", I can't believe that he will reflect on last night's events as anything other than a disaster. You can read more about that meeting at the Shepherds Bush Blog.

Meanwhile, local residents and traders have arranged a public meeting to consider the Shepherds Bush Market proposals. It will take place at 6.30pm on Wednesday, 1st December 2010 and will be held in the old Shepherds Bush Library, which is at 7 Uxbridge Road. I understand that Cllr. Greenhalgh has now agreed to attend.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Westfield Bouncers' Heavy-Handed Approach To Protesting Librarians

Local librarians experienced a bruising encounter with Westfield's "security guards" yesterday morning while they were standing outside of the Shepherds Bush Library handing out leaflets and asking people to sign a petition. Four of the five people alleged to have been hassled were women. Chris Underwood of the Shepherds Bush Blog filmed some of the incident and gives a full report here.

The librarians are asking people to support their objection to H&F Council's proposals to cut their wages between a staggering £2000 to £7000 a year and they object to the closure of several local libraries and the mobile library.  The librarians also want the Council to reverse its plan to stop employing specialist reference librarians - many of whom have advised students and school children using local libraries as a quite place to complete their home study and a place where they can benefit from expert research support. H&F Council wants to replace these professionals with unqualified staff instead in what is little more than an attack on knowledge.

The new Shepherds Bush Library was negotiated as part of a Section 106 agreement when Westfield was given planning permission over ten years ago.  So I don't believe Westfield's bouncers had a legal right to move the librarians on the basis that they were on Westfield land. The library isn't their land. It's Council property. But putting that aside, it is a hard fought for and intrinsic British right for people to be able to protest and have free speech. Westfield's aggressive actions were contrary to that and this reflects badly on their reputation. I believe that many of the retailers that have taken space in the shopping centre will be embarrassed by Westfield dragging them into this issue. I will be writing to Westfield to ask for a full explanation; for an apology to the librarians and for an assurance that this won't happen again. I will also write to H&F Council's Chief Executive to seek assurances that he will take this matter up with Westfield and that the Council does not support the suppression of these legitimate, peaceful protests.

H&F Conservatives' Fifty Five Per Cent Increase In Parking Charges

Last December the Daily Telegraph put H&F Council on its Top Ten List of Parking Shame. That doesn't seem to have caused a moment of regret amongst the Conservative Administration as last month they unveiled new plans to introduce a 55% increase in parking charges across most of the Borough. The first of these ticket price hikes kick in this month.

The Conservatives have also announced a 20% increase in parking permit charges. This January they will rise from £99 to £119. And car driving residents will be hit again if they wish to park outside of their neighbourhood parking zone as parking ticket prices will jump from £1.80 an hour to £2.40 an hour. A further leap will be added next year when the Administration says it will increase the charge again to £2.80 an hour.

The Conservative Administration's excuse for their latest soaring stealth tax is "these prices put us on par with other inner London Boroughs". But that statement appears to be at odds with the facts when you consider that hourly tickets can be purchased in Kensington and Chelsea from 50 pence; in Wandsworth from 70 pence and in Southwark from 80 pence - you can even park in parts of Westminster for £1 per hour.

Regular readers will recall that H&F's Conservative Administration has brought in over 500 new or increased stealth taxes and that Nick Botterill (Con), the Deputy Leader of our Council (and the person responsible for parking policy) successfully argued for an increase in the level of parking fines which saw the cost rise from £80 to £120.

H&F Council Gets Wrist Slapped Over Shoddy Responses To Freedom Of Information Request

H&F Council has been found to take too long in responding to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests from members of the public. The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) is now monitoring H&F Council after it was found to have responded to less than 85% of request in a timely manner. This probation will last for three months.

Having seen H&F Council's approach at close quarters I believe that it has a deliberate policy of making it awkward for members of the public to get information they are entitled to. The reasons for this vary from fear of looking incompetent, self-serving or wasteful to a culture of indignation amongst senior bureaucrats at the public having a right to ask them about their dealings. Whatever the reasons, I hope H&F Council gets the messages and changes its ways.

If you'd like to find any information from H&F Council then you can email them by clicking here. Alternatively, you can write to them at: H&F In Touch, Room 229, Hammersmith Town Hall, London W6 9JU. The Council is obliged to provide advice on how to make an FoI request and it has done so here.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

H&F Conservatives’ Bogus Debt Argument Used To Explain South Park Sell Off

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time”… Last night I walked back from a public meeting pondering this saying – attributed to Abraham Lincoln. The meeting had been arranged by the Friends of South Park to discuss the future of that much loved open space and it appeared apt having witnessed Cllr. Greg Smith’s (Con) explanation for trying to sell off a proportion of it to property speculators.

The Friends’ Group had argued against the Conservative Administration’s plans. Ms. Julie Lane gave a thorough presentation of the issues and did so in a manner that would make any barrister proud. She explained how the park was protected by a covenant but that the Council was looking to change this to facilitate the sale. Ms. Alex Schiewind then proposed a business plan that would see improvements introduced over the coming years.

At this point Cllr. Greg Smith took to the stage. He is the Borough’s Cabinet Member for Residents Services.  He said that the national and local debt was so colossal that they had to look at ways of raising capital and the park sale is a necessary measure. This is the same argument being rolled out across the Borough and is being used to justify the selling off of community centres, schools, youth clubs, council homesa carers' centre, a families centre, libraries and many, many more treasured local facilities. Now we can add this park to the list. But their argument is baloney.

I don’t want to get into the national debt debate now but will say there are many different views on this matter. Nobel prize winning economist Professor Paul Krugman made it pretty clear here that he believes the Government’s austerity budget is solely a consequence of a right-wing Tory philosophy and nothing to do with sound economic management.

As far as the local debt argument goes then I think the Tories have a cheek. Firstly, I paid off £12 million of debt in the one year I was Deputy Leader of this Council (2005/6) which compares better than the £24 million (they actually include my figure in this) they claim to have paid off in their first term.

Secondly, they waste our money. For example, they spend £5 million on propaganda and were actually criticised as corrupt for doing so by John Whittingdale MP – a leading Conservative MP in his role as the Chair of the Parliamentary Select Committee investigating the matter. Worse still, the Conservatives need to raise £35 million of capital to pay for the hideous new Town Hall offices in Hammersmith. When questioned last night Cllr. Smith denied this but he didn’t tell the questioner that his figures are highly contrived and do not have the confidence of independent observers or the Opposition.

Local authority debt is like any long term loan or mortgage. Most Councils have debt they've inherited from previous administrations (of all colours) who built swimming pools, offices, houses, community centres, libraries, etc. That's how Hammersmith and Fulham’s debt came about. It's a judgement how much you pay off as you have to balance what other things you're sacrificing.

At the moment debt is cheap to service. Land and property are also relatively cheap too. It is the height of incompetence to sell off council property when most property speculators know they can negotiate to get it for a song.

Actually, many residents believe this Administration is too close to property speculators. In 2007 the Conservative Council held a property speculators conference which they titled “Open for Business”. They launched this unbelievable video which appears to indicate that they will manipulate the planning process to make it easier for speculators to get what they want. Later, they were attacked by the Sunday Times for sending Cllr. Mark Loveday (Con), (at tax payers’ expense) to Cannes on the French Riviera to meet more property speculators during which his officials explained he offered up the Borough’s “contentious development sites”. It is plain to see that their plans for many of these sell offs started well before there was any talk of a global financial crisis.

South Park is “contentious”. It’s a park - not a “development site” but this Administration doesn’t see it like that.

Not everyone in last night’s meeting was against the Tories’ plans. I sat next to one old lady who made it clear how she strongly supported the Conservatives. But she was in a minority of less than five who didn’t vote against their plans to sell off a corner of the park. The rest of the room (about fifty residents I think) vocally expressed their opposition to selling off any part of South Park. Rightly, they pointed out that once this green space is gone it will be gone forever.

The Tories are relying on a belief that the Friends of South Park won’t have the funds or ability to legally test their plans to dispose of the park covenant. I’d guess they’d also hope to pack any vacant places on the committee with Tory activists and then expect all opposition to just fade away. I hope it doesn’t because if they get away with this park sell off then where will it all end?

Maybe they think they can fool all of the people all of the time into believing that they have to sell of every available community asset. I'm with President Lincoln - I don't believe they can.

Monday 1 November 2010

Rally To Restore Sanity To H&F’s Tea Party Tories: Fulham Town Hall, 27th October 2010

A clear sky hung over the Broadway last Wednesday evening. Lights from shop fronts, street lamps and bustling traffic brightly illuminated the scene outside Fulham Town Hall. The autumn chill had failed to deter over two hundred dignified residents, who waved their posters and waited to make their points as their elected representatives arrived to take part in the Full Council Meeting.

Hundreds more were inside: some in the packed Gallery overlooking the Council Chamber, others in an overload room - waiting to hear the debates and count the votes - which would be despatched to them via intercom.

It was the liveliest Full Council Meeting I’ve ever attended. Seven thousand Sands End residents had signed a petition to save their community centre. People had travelled down from Shepherds Bush to argue against the Conservatives’ proposal to shut their market for five years, demolish much of the surrounding area and put nearly all the traders out of business in the process. More people were there from Barons Court hoping to save their library. And sitting on the front row of the gallery seats were the clients and charity workers of Threshold Housing Advice - anxiously waiting to see if the Tories would actually take revenge and vote to shut their vital homeless service. The question uniting all was would this Conservative Administration listen and act?

The Sand End residents were first up. Mr. Nicholas Waldemar-Brown gave a convincing speech. He argued that closing the Sure Start centre, library, gym, pottery studio and other services would be a backward step for the Sands End community. He asked what business sense the Tories had when they opened the gym at 10.00am – long after many had gone to work. The Conservatives didn’t look confident in their reply: promising the sceptical onlookers that they would try and maintain many of the current services. But the crowd reacted with incredulity when Conservative councillors then said that those services would be moved to Hammersmith and other destinations miles from their current location in South Fulham.

The Conservatives did admit that they needed the £2 million capital receipt the sale of the Community Centre would bring. But they shied away from telling the audience that this was to help raise the necessary £35 million of funds to build new Town Hall offices that will blight central Hammersmith for many years to come.

Many looked on in vain hoping for support from their Sands End ward councillors but their elected representatives sat uneasily avoiding their constituents’ gaze. After an hour and twenty minutes the vote eventually came and, like the rest of the Tory Group, the Sands End councillors raised their hands and voted against their constituents’ wishes.

Next up was the Shepherds Bush residents and traders. Mr. Coll McDonnell asked (
see page 24) the Conservative Administration to pull back from its plans to destroy much of the current structure and rather than “crush the life and community that presently thrives along the Goldhawk Road; would the Council consider the possibility of the restoration” instead?

Earlier last month, the Shepherds Bush Group had asked the Council to delay the vote on its planning brief until after their issues had been properly considered. The Conservatives refused so I directly asked Cllr. Stephen Greenhalgh (Con), the Leader of the Council to postpone the decision on the matter until this happened and told him the Opposition required a vote on the matter. It took him by surprise. His Whip, Cllr. Mark Loveday, erupted in a fury but the crowd cheered and waited. Shepherds Bush Councillors Mercy Umeh (Lab) and Andrew Jones (Lab) gave powerful speeches urging the Administration to see sense and listen. Cllr. PJ Murphy (Lab) said no Administration should “tread on the dreams” of traders who wanted no more than to be independent, make a living and provide for their families. The room went quiet. All including Andrew Slaughter MP sat waiting for Cllr. Greenhalgh’s response. It was “No”. The Conservatives voted to carry on with their plans. Boos and jeers rained down from the Gallery. The erstwhile cocky Tories now looked worried.

The homeless charity came next. Readers will recall how H&F Conservatives removed all Council funding from it and stopped all debate on the matter at the last Council Meeting. Presumably they had hoped that this would make them quietly go away. It’s true that most of the charity’s office furniture has gone and the case workers are unpaid but homelessness is a issue that inspires commitment. Threshold’s staff has still been working in the hope that the Conservatives would see sense and have a change of heart.

Threshold deals with the most awful of cases. Local teenagers that have been sexually abused, who run away risking more danger; women escaping from violence; ex-soldiers in crisis after struggling to cope with Civvy Street. Threshold had picked people like this up, supported them and put them on a better track in our Borough since the 1970s.

Cllr. Lucy Ivimy, the Cabinet Member for Housing spoke for the Conservatives. Incredibly, she confused the work of Threshold with the Council’s housing allocations process and housing allocations advice centre indicating she was not on top of her brief and didn’t know what she was talking about.

I spoke directly to the Conservative backbenchers. How many of them had gone to their leadership to ask about Threshold? What behind the scenes concerns had they raised? Did any of them seek assurances or guarantees that this vulnerable group of homeless people would still be supported? I scanned the Tory benches. Going by their blushed-faced, shoe-studying body language I don’t think any of them had. I asked them to vote to support Threshold. Then, unanimously, they voted to shut it down.

Many of the Conservative Group are young and ambitious. Others are young, naive and unquestioningly obedient. Then there are those that just agree with their Leadership’s programme. This combination doesn’t work well for those residents trying to make their council see reason. All too often the Administration’s supposed listening is little more than a process designed to disguise a conclusion reached long ago.

This Tory Administration has reached cause celeb status amongst grass roots Conservatives because they are pushing a radical small state agenda not previously seen on this side of the Atlantic. But last Wednesday night H&F’s Tea Party Tories were shocked to see local residents (of all political persuasions) mount their own Rally to Restore Sanity in the centre of Fulham Broadway. Sadly, many agree that we still have some way to go before that happens.

Friday 29 October 2010

H&F, K&C And Westminster Merger. The Starting Point

It's been exactly one week since proposals to merge many of the services in Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster Councils were announced.

Media coverage about this has ranged from balanced and inquisitive to fawning but many of the details still remain under wraps or yet to be concluded. The three borough's Opposition Leaders have written this letter to set out where we all currently stand on the matter:

"Labour Councillors in Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham are all in favour of any genuine efficiencies and we continue to be determined to root out waste. We note with interest the many innovative back office mergers that have been implemented across the public sector in recent years.

We believe major long-term changes, like this, should be above party politics and not be driven by one party’s political agenda. This merger would result in services being provided to a population equivalent to the size of Glasgow. Large Councils are not necessarily more efficient and indeed, there have been many high profile failures when councils have merged services before. We believe that there must be cross-party involvement and wide public support for these proposals.

Sadly, the Conservatives in all three boroughs have been highly secretive about this scheme. Indeed, they would not allow their officials to consult or brief any Opposition Councillors in any of the three local authorities prior to the announcement and have failed to provide any detailed information since. We also have the following concerns:

  • The Conservatives are not ruling out using this merger as a mechanism for even more front line service cuts, stealth taxes and loss of vital jobs, or as an excuse to further to undermine local democracy or sell off more essential community buildings such as youth clubs, schools, libraries and homes.
  • The Conservatives have not explained how local residents will keep their ability to hold their own council to account on important matters of local concern.
  • The Conservatives have not explained how any newly elected administration would be able to secede from any part of this if political control changes at the local elections in 2014.
  • The Conservatives have not explained why these particular local authorities should merge services. Indeed, we would suggest that there are other possible combinations that are more geographically, socially and economically suited. 
Already, there appear to be different messages coming from the three Conservative authorities. This confusion does not bode well for the project’s success given it is only just getting started. We call on the Conservatives to take a more open, inclusive and transparent approach to these merger plans.

Yours sincerely

Cllr. Judith Blakeman
Leader of the Opposition
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
Cllr. Stephen Cowan
Leader of the Opposition
The London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham
Cllr. Paul Dimoldenberg
Leader of the Opposition
The City of Westminster"