Thursday 28 January 2010

Housing Minister’s Letter To Mr. Cameron Raises Some Uncomfortable Questions

Given the assertions made by David Cameron during his disastrous public meeting at St. Paul's Church, Hammersmith, I thought readers might like to see the letter sent to him by the Rt Hon John Healey MP, the Minister for Housing and Planning.

Some have suggested that the most generous excuse for Mr. Cameron's apparent lack of understanding about H&F Conservatives plans to knock down over 3500 council homes and force residents out of the borough was that he was badly briefed or even misinformed by local Conservative councillors. That’s a possibility for sure.

However, John Healey’s letter was sent to Mr. Cameron on 28th July 2009. In it, the Housing Minister directly asks Mr. Cameron to explain where he stands on these highly controversial plans. Mr. Healey also asks David Cameron to set out what his position is on the policy proposals put forward by H&F Conservatives to remove a gamut of tenants' long-standing rights.

It is therefore very hard to believe that the Leader of our national Opposition would ignore all this at the time and then six months later fail to ensure that he was fully briefed before coming to meet the people of Hammersmith.

Even H&F's Conservative Administration now offers a mealy-mouthed confirmation that they aspire to knock down six major housing estates in the borough and have offered "guarantees" to the affected residents - which actually guarantee nothing of any substance. So, Mr. Cameron has either been highly negligent or is possibly playing a very cynical game? You can watch this video featuring one Mr. Cameron's responses (he was asked about it many times) to a local resident:

I’ll leave you to make your minds up concerning Mr. Cameron's handling of this issue and I'll leave it to John Healey's letter to shed some more light on Mr. Cameron's approach to dealing with the public on matters of great personal concern to them. Please click on both pages of the letter to expand and read in full.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Mayor Boris Johnson Cuts Cops By 500

Under Ken Livingstone London’s police numbers were the highest ever in its history. He introduced the popular neighbourhood police teams and crime fell. Now, within less than two years of becoming Mayor, Boris Johnson has unveiled plans to remove almost 500 police officers from London's streets. The Mayor’s budget can be viewed here.

Mayor Johnson has also announced his surprise resignation as Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority. This flies in the face of a key election commitment when he said “I will provide strong leadership by taking responsibility and chairing the Metropolitan Police Authority and using my influence to tear up red tape and needless form-filling, so we can get more police out on the streets.”

Why Labour Councillors Will Reform H&F Council’s Scrutiny Process

“Any questions?” asked Cllr. Harry Phibbs (Con), the Chair at last night’s Value for Money Scrutiny Committee. My two Labour colleagues and I had decided to allow the majority six Conservatives (five showed up) to ask their questions first, so I said we would defer to them. Then, after a seemingly endless silence, an uncomfortable “Everyone else is happy” was nervously offered up by one of that committee’s former Tory chairs. She was indicating that none of the Conservatives intended to ask a single question about the management of the borough’s £184million annual budget.

Last night’s meeting had been set to be the most important of the year but it didn't play out like that. To start, Cllr. Stephen Greenhalgh, (Con) the Leader of the Council and Cllr. Mark Loveday (Con) the Cabinet Member for Strategy, failed to turn up or send anyone else from the Cabinet to answer to the Committee. Indeed, only a small number of council officers attended but they soon admitted that they were incapable of answering most of my questions with any substance.

We ended up in a farcical situation with my Labour colleagues and I spending over an hour asking questions about the deliberately vague terms, laid out in the report, that describe each of the Council’s cuts. This was met with a long line of officers' responses that went along the lines of “I’m guessing that’s about… but I’ll check that out and write to you”. On a couple of occasions, the Conservative committee members who were supposed to be scrutinising the Administration ended up answering for it.

There was serious business to be done last night but the circumstances made it impossible for that to happen. Last February, the Conservative Administration agreed the budget with the same degree of rubber stamping only to find that three months later it was in “crisis” as there was already over a £2million overspend by May. This was only solved by raiding balances. There is much to be concerned about the robustness of the figures put forward in this year’s budget report. Parts of it are clearly little more than fantasy but I will report on that later.

My rub at the moment is that this Administration’s scrutiny process doesn’t work. To be fair to Cllr. Phibbs, he is the most proficient of the four Tory chairs that committee has had in the last four years. But, it’s worth noting that, with the exception of the first incumbent, the others never even got to grips with the most basic aspects of their responsibilities. Evenings were wasted listening to sycophantic exchanges 'toing and froing' between Tory backbenchers and Tory frontbenchers.

Indeed, this problem is much the same across all the current scrutiny committees which have barely evolved from the earliest days. The current scrutiny process is so dire that my Labour colleagues and I agree that if we had a clashing council commitment in our diary, such as a residents’ association meeting, then we’d go to the other instead.

There’s an election on May 6th. If my colleagues and I form the next Administration we will scrap all but the statutory scrutiny committees. We will replace them with Select Committees – much as they have in Parliament. These will involve residents and local groups. They will be charged with seeking out genuine value for money and improvements in services.

Friday 22 January 2010

"MALADMINISTRATION": Ombudsman Slams H&F Council As Pregnant Domestic Violence Victim Is Forced To Sleep in Park

The Local Government Ombudsman yesterday condemned H&F Council and determined it must pay compensation to a pregnant woman fleeing domestic violence, after the Conservative run authority refused to provide her with support and temporary accommodation. The terrified woman was later found seeking shelter in a park.

The Ombudsman found that "she was not provided with the level of support and assistance she could reasonably expect as a person who was homeless and in priority need”. You can read the Ombudsman's report here.

The sharp practices detailed by the Ombudsman are a now regular occurrence and go some way to explaining why H&F Council only accepts less than half the numbers of homeless people it had under Labour back in 2006. Regular readers will recall how the Conservative Administration tightened acceptence criteria so that more homeless people would be turned away.

A leading Conservative Councillor gave an insight to the attitude being taken behind this policy change when he described the homeless as a “law and order issue” while explaining why he had banned the BBC and Crisis from running a Christmas shelter. The Tory Administration has also cut funding to local homeless charities and sold off twelve homeless hostels.

I have written to those responsible seeking a full explanation about this case and called for a review of the policies that brought it about. I will let you know when I get a response.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Labour Councillors: “We Will Sell H&F News, Cut Cost And End This Council’s PR Culture”

There has been widespread criticism of H&F News, the Council’s Pravda style propaganda sheet, ever since it was launched by the Conservative Administration in 2006.

Just over a year ago the TaxPayers Alliance attacked the Tory Administration saying "it is incredibly disappointing that, despite the economic downturn” H&F Council has increased spending on self-promotion by a staggering 11.3%. The Evening Standard also rightly slated its £5million expenditure on wasteful PR and last August said Hammersmith and Fulham “may soon become the first borough in Britain covered only by official media”.

We live in a free country and should have a strong, free local press. That's one reason why my fellow Labour councillors and I will sell off H&F News and radically cut back expenditure on the Council’s press office and advertising operation should we win the local elections on May 6th. We’ll invest the savings from this and other cost cutting schemes in lower residents’ charges and better front line services, such as crime fighting.

Meanwhile, I am pleased that the independent press is fighting back. Last Friday, thousands of residents will have received a copy of the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle through their letter box for free. Please click on the photo to expand and view. It has a beefed up editorial team and was packed with local news. It will go to 75,000 homes, each week, across the borough from now on and will offer an independent view. Good!

Tuesday 19 January 2010

You Can Not Be Serious...

Quite a number of my Labour colleagues laughed out loud when I told them: It turns out Cllr. Mark Loveday, H&F Conservatives’ campaign strategist, has written a piece accusing me of moving H&F Labour towards the “ultra left” of British politics. I think that says more about his political perspective than mine.

To evidence this, Mark Loveday says H&F Labour councillors opposed 24/7 policing in Town centres. That’s plainly not true. We opposed the Conservatives’ 25% cut in policing and worked with residents and local businesses to get that reversed, as you can read here and here. We have consistently called for more to be done on policing since 2006 and have pledged to provide more police, should we form an Administration, as you can read here.

Next, Cllr. Loveday says that I’m seeking to “forge an alliance with the ultra Left Respect Party”. This is nonsense and silly. His evidence for this is that I’m speaking at the Progressive London Conference about the need for more and better affordable homes to buy and rent along with more intermediate private housing. I am very pleased to be able to take part in this debate on the 30th January. Other speakers at the Conference include:

Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP – Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
Cllr. Serge Lourie - Lib Dem Leader, Richmond Upon Thames
Jenny Jones AM - Green Party
Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP - Minister for London
Bonnie Greer – Playwright
Kevin Maguire – Political Editor, The Daily Mirror
Ken Livingstone – Progressive London and former Mayor

There’s many others attending too. It turns out that members of the Respect Party will be speaking elsewhere in the Conference. From this Mark Loveday says I have taken an “inexorable slide to the Left”. Er… No I haven’t.

It is understandable why H&F Conservatives fear the next local elections being about their record. Instead, all this seems pretty desperate stuff usually more associated with student politics. Indeed, it is so ludicrous, I can only conclude Mark Loveday has confused reality with his wildest dreams.

Saturday 9 January 2010

Cameron Gets It Wrong And Backs H&F Conservatives' Affordable Homes Threat

On Tuesday night David Cameron came to Hammersmith. He made two points when responding to questions from residents of Council estates whoes homes are currently being targeted for demolition by the local Conservative-run council. Both points are demonstrably false.

Firstly, responding to a question from Mr. Richard Osband, a resident of the West Kensington Estate, David Cameron said “When it comes to housing estates, they [H&F’s Conservative Administration] don’t have plans to knock down loads of housing estates. There’s an awful lot of black propaganda being put about by the Labour Party and others.” Clearly he did not know that the Council is at an advanced stage of consultation to knock down that gentleman’s home, along with all the others on the West Kensington and Gibbs Green Estates. He also was not aware that his Tory colleagues have published (all-be-it with a large degree of soft soap) plans to demolish six estates on H&F Council’s website as part of their Local Development Framework. Mr. Cameron does not appear to have viewed this video:

In it his close colleague, the Conservative Leader of H&F Council, is forced by residents to reluctantly admit that his administration has been in secret discussions to (you’ve guessed it) knock down her home and all the others on the Queen Caroline Estate.

Secondly, David Cameron told Maxine Bayliss, another resident whose home is under threat “If you look in terms of house building, I’ve looked at the figures before coming tonight, the previous administration built 800 new low cost houses in the four years to 2006. In the four years to 2010 the Conservatives have built, I think, 1700 houses.” None of that is true either. On the 6th November last year, the Chief Executive of Hammersmith and Fulham Council sent me a letter confirming that a total of 870 affordable rented homes will have been built, or are anticipated to be built, by housing associations (councils aren't allowed to build homes) by the end 2010. Not 1700.

Of these 870 affordable rented homes, 723 had the deals put together and planning permission granted by the last Labour Administration between 2001 to 2006 – nearly all opposed by the Conservatives at the time. A further 104 of these affordable rented homes were imposed on Hammersmith and Fulham by Mayor Ken Livingstone between 2006 to May 2008 – which the Conservatives also objected to.

Mr. Cameron seemed largely indifferent to the tremendous anxiety being suffered by the thousands of residents whose homes are under threat. At one point he told Maxine Bayliss "If you don't like them stand for election." Hardly a compassionate response, especially as Hammersmith and Fulham Conservatives are currently unleashing the most controversial social housing demolition programme since Lady Porter forced people out of the council homes in Westminister. But, when Maxine asked about that he told her "when I look at the record of what the Conservatives have done here in Hammersmith and Fulham, far from being embarrassed as the Conservative Leader, I’m proud of what they’re doing." Nice...

Friday 8 January 2010

Will Middlesborough’s Mr. Paul Bristow Get H&F’s Cllr. Paul Bristow To Sort Out The Gritting?

I slipped over and broke my leg two years ago in conditions just like this. So I am a little fed up that, just like last year, H&F Council has failed to grit the pavements and many local roads - as these photos taken this morning very much demonstrate. It's now nearly four days since the snow first fell. Clearly, the elderly and infirm will find this particularly difficult.

But, I was pleased to see that a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland is concerned how the Tees Valley councils have dealt with the much heavier snow falls in that northern constituency - much of it rural.

Mr. Paul Bristow is disgusted by those local authorities saying "There has been considerable criticism throughout the Tees Valley about the lack of gritting and snow clearance by the local authorities responsible, especially on side streets and pavements. In Middlesbrough and Redcar and Cleveland there has been, at best, minimal gritting on main roads only. Pavements are particularly treacherous with many residents unsure if they are supposed to clear the path outside their home... we hear the same excuses every year."

Quite right!!! But wait a minute… If you look carefully at the pictures on the Conservative candidate for Middlesborough's website, this chap Mr. Paul Bristow looks very much like our own Cllr. Paul Bristow (Con), the Cabinet Member for Residents Services. Surely there’s been some mistake?

Monday 4 January 2010

Boris Johnson’s 20% Fare Hikes – Not The Best Welcome Back-To-Work

Anyone who purchased a travel ticket today will have been struck by the steep rise in fares. These were introduced by Mayor Boris Johnson on Saturday, January 2nd and follow on from 6% fare increases in 2009. Saturday’s fare rises include:
  • A single bus or tram journey by Oyster UP 20% to £1.20
  • A weekly oyster bus pass UP 20% to £16.60
  • Seven-day Travelcard over 2 zones excluding zone one rises from £16.60 to £19.00
  • Monthly bus pass UP by £10.80 - 20 per cent – from £53 to £63.80
  • Six-zone peak single Tube fare by Oyster UP 10.5% to £4.20
  • A five-zone off-peak single Tube fare (outside zone 1) UP 18.2% to £1.30
  • Most Oyster pay-as-you-go Tube fares UP by 20p per trip
  • On buses and trams the daily price cap will increase from £3.30 to £3.90
  • Overall tube fares will rise 3.9% and overall bus fares UP by 12.7%.

People using their Oyster card to travel on the bus service have been hit particularly badly, with the price of a single bus journey going up by one third since Boris Johnson was elected in May 2008.

On 28th October, the Labour Opposition urged H&F Council's Conservative Administration to join us in opposing the fare hikes - much as we have local cross-party support on a range of issues, including being against the third runway at Heathrow. H&F Conservatives unanimously refused to do this - I guess I shouldn't have been that surprised, given their own record of stealth taxes.