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"

Saturday 23 October 2010

New York Times On UK Coalition Government's Economic Approach: "It Boldly Goes In Exactly The Wrong Direction"

The New York Times offers an insightful take on the Conservative and Lib Dem Government's plan for managing our economy. Here's an extract "Maybe Britain will get lucky, and something will come along to rescue the economy. But the best guess is that Britain in 2011 will look like Britain in 1931, or the United States in 1937, or Japan in 1997. That is, premature fiscal austerity will lead to a renewed economic slump. As always, those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it."

Earlier in the article Paul Krugman questioned the logic of this austere approach concluding “In this case, the victims are the people of Britain, who have the misfortune to be ruled by a government that took office at the height of the austerity fad and won’t admit that it was wrong."

Professor Krugman doesn’t duck explaining the real reason for the Conservative/Lib Dem’s approach. “Why is the British government doing this? The real reason has a lot to do with ideology: the Tories are using the deficit as an excuse to downsize the welfare state.” Click here to read the article in full.

Krugman was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2008. He offers a very different view to that of David Cameron (Con), Nick Clegg (Lib Dem), George Osborne (Con) and Danny Alexander (Lib Dem) - who all tell us their way is the only possible way out to build our future economic prospects.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Cameron’s Secret Social Housing Plans Aren’t Secret Any More

Yesterday, the BBC reported that David Cameron’s government is about to end secure tenancies for council house residents. It will also put rents up to ‘near market values’ for all social housing tenants. These terrible policies are the very same Tory proposals that my colleagues and I first uncovered three years ago. Last year this four minute video, made by the Guardian, summarized the issue in full.

Back then, the Conservatives said we were “scaremongering”. In fact, it’s almost five months to the day that David Cameron told the Telegraph that Labour had spread “lies” about this which, he said, was the reason Labour won the Hammersmith Parliamentary Seat. I wrote to him about his false and un-prime ministerial accusations but he has never responded. Now, it turns out everything that we said his government would do has sadly been proved true.

These proposals are dire. They, along with the Coalition Government’s new plans for housing benefits, will put many of our neighbours on low incomes into a state of despair. Large numbers of local families will not be able to make ends meet or pay their rents. What will happen to them then?

Tuesday 19 October 2010

H&F Conservatives To Demolish Local Heritage In And Around Shepherds Bush Market

With the Conservative Administration looking to demolish many of the historic shops near Shepherds Bush Market we sent our man Cllr. Colin Aherne (Lab) down to one of London’s last traditional pie and eel shops to tell us what we’ll be missing if the Tory plans are allowed to go ahead. He kindly took Hammersmith Broadway’s Cllr. Mike Cartwright (Lab) along for the er… much needed sustanence.

Here’s Colin’s report:

“I have lived in Shepherds Bush for 37 years and I love it. Walk around our streets and you are seduced by a multitude of shops and cafes offering food from around the world. West Indian, Lebanese, Greek, Polish and Indian – it is all here and more. Everything that’s good about living in the most multi-cultural city on the planet. One of my real favourites though, is A. Cooke’s Traditional Pie, Mash, Liquor and Eels Shop.

Cooke's has been a London landmark since 1899. Situated on Goldhawk Road, it is easy to walk past it as you come out of the market. I would advise you don’t. On entering, you are confronted by brown tiled walls, formica tables and a packed house of people tucking into steaming hot fare.  Delicious minced beef pies, sumptuous mashed potato, jellied eels and green liquor served like this since Queen Victoria was on the throne. It has been in the Boughton family since the beginning. Mike Boughton remains tight-lipped when asked about the secret recipe for his pies. He will say that they are made daily on the premises and he serves them up to well over two thousands residents of Shepherds Bush each week. The liquor is a parsley sauce, which, taken with malt vinegar gives the jellied eels a surprising amount of tastiness. With pie, mash and gravy at only £3.50 Cooke's is still providing thousands of working-class ‘Bush’ residents with a wholesome meal.”

You can join this Facebook group to support the campaign to save these shops.

Thursday 14 October 2010

Packed Public Meeting Signals Long Fight To Stop Hammersmith Skyscrapers

Harry Phibbs stood nervously facing a crowd of four hundred and fifty of his constituents. “I’m here to…” he began. But the resident next to me interrupted. “Listen!” she muttered - guessing his ploy - just moments before Cllr. Phibbs (Con) uttered that word too. A quiet laugh rippled across the immediate quarter of the room. This incident captured the mood at last night's meeting. Nobody believed that their concerns were being heard. H&F Council’s consultation on the new Town Hall development is a cynical affair.

Days earlier, Phibbs had written to the Evening Standard to tell its readers that “the scheme is to be welcomed”. His full-throated support for the project echoed that of his boss, Cllr. Stephen Greenhalgh (Con), the Leader of the Council. Cllr. Greenhalgh had reluctantly spoken at the meeting just ten minutes earlier but only after the Chair had spotted him lurking at the back of the room. He said he would “look into concerns about the size of the buildings” but spoke in a manner that implied it was news to him that the scheme now included two fourteen storey skyscrapers. Greenhalgh too had asserted that he was in “listening mode” but it was hard to see what this “listening” would produce.

Over the last four and a half years Cllr. Greenhalgh’s Administration has developed a close relationship with developers. It has met them on numerous occasions both in the UK and in Cannes on the French Riviera. It is evident that the Administration has been out-negotiated at every point. Now, we have a proposed scheme likely to blight central Hammersmith for many years to come.

I was a member of H&F’s cabinet when officials first brought forward a smaller scheme for this site six years ago. Cllr. Mike Cartwright (Lab), ex-Councillor Chris Allen (Lab), others and I argued against it and it was quashed. I recall being shocked at the officials’ unseemly enthusiasm for the shiny new Town Hall offices it would provide. When in 2005 I became Deputy Leader of the Council, I told officials to halt all work on the project and that the demolition of the cinema and Pocklington Trust flats would not be given the go-ahead on my watch. It was therefore a surprise when, one year later, the newly elected Conservative Administration embraced a bigger scheme with such energy. They had vigorously campaigned against demolishing those buildings just months before.

H&F's Conservative Administration is now seeking to make this into an issue about whether or not we regenerate Hammersmith, King Street and demolish the ugly Town Hall Extension (built by a previous Tory Administration). But residents have a more sophisticated series of objections as these comments demonstrate.

I have never known a time when all of the residents' associations in the area are so united against anything. But the question is still how can residents make this Administration listen to their concerns?

Firstly, I think it’s important that residents meet with Administration councillors, insist they disclose all about H&F Tories' murky negotiations with developers and engage the Administration on the details of the scheme. My Opposition colleagues and I will do all we can to support this.

Secondly, I think the Administration needs to recognise that significant numbers of local people will continue to object to these awful plans. I recall one senior Administration member dismissing scornfully “the poxy number of objectors” when only forty or so residents attended another planning meeting. That same Conservative Councillor was pale with anxiety when over two hundred and fifty local people came to demonstrate their objections at a different planning meeting. Last night, there was almost twice that number of residents attending the Save Our Skyline meeting. On previous occasions there have been over a thousand people attending other public meetings. In short, this Administration needs to see and understand that its current plans for the Town Hall redevelopment are completely unacceptable to very large numbers of Hammersmith and Fulham’s residents. Possibly, and only then, they may actually begin to listen… We are, after all, living in a democracy.

If you would like to join the residents' campaign you can email Save Our Skyline directly by clicking here.

Thursday 7 October 2010

Tory Conference Given Cuts Lessons From Hammersmith & Fulham

The BBC reports that Stephen Greenhalgh (Con (see pic)), H&F’s Council Leader, has been sharing his approach to cuts at the Conservative Conference.

He’s reported as advising Cameron’s government and fellow councillors to learn to speak civil servant and find "a language that resonates with people who work in the public sector - it's no good frothing at the mouth and saying 'I am really going to enjoy implementing the cuts'. They will think you are a nutter. Start off by saying 'we are here to deliver value for money and, by the way, if you want to spend any money you need my approval”.

Hmmm. Given H&F Conservatives’ record of stealth taxes, front line service cuts, record salary hikes for Tory councillors and senior officials and selling off important assets like youth clubs and residents’ homes then I can’t see how that offers "better value for money" for the thousands of people affected.

Council's Renewed Bid To Rent Out Furnivall Gardens

H&F Council has submitted an application to renew their licence for Furnivall Gardens on Hammersmith’s riverfront. The Council wants its own licensing department to allow it to hire out the park and run private events which will include the “supply of alcohol” and “plays, films, live music, recorded music, performance of dance and anything of a similar description between the hours of 11.00 and 23.00 Monday to Saturday and 11.00 and 22.00 on Sunday". You can read details of the application by clicking here.

If nobody objects this application will be granted on the 29th October. The last day for objections is the 28th October. Officers tell me that there have been no objections against this application so far.

The Council has put private polo events on in one local park and applied to stage public wrestling in another. I haven’t changed my position on this application and H&F Tories' other money-making scams since last time. I will therefore object. If you too would like to raise concerns about the extra noise, more litter, no parking provision and loss of amenity of a much loved public park then please email the licensing officer by clicking here and quote this reference number: 2010/01373/LAPR.

Wednesday 6 October 2010

H&F Council Propaganda Sheet To Go But Will Its Reincarnation Have Editorial Integrity?

I suppose the writing was on the wall after a Parliamentary select committee attacked H&F Council’s political propaganda as a corrupt abuse. Last week the Secretary of State finally acted and, as the Guardian reported, H&F News will have to stop being a council-owned spin sheet.

Even as late as June of this year, H&F Conservatives were sticking by H&F News. They actually voted against a Labour motion to the Council that supported their own government’s call for their propaganda machine to be wound up - as you can see on page 7 of these minutes.

So it is ironic that H&F have been forced down this path by this Conservative-led government. I understand H&F Council has actually had a number of private discussions with the owners of a local media provider over the summer and now plans to tender H&F News - which will be run at an arms length from the Council. We will have to wait to see if we end up with something that has editorial independence and integrity.

If this new path H&F Council has so far been forced down seems at all familiar, that’s because it is. H&F Labour have campaigned against H&F news since 2006 and made a manifesto commitment to sell it off at the recent local elections. But, the devil will be in the detail of what this Administration does.

Local Tories aren't quite going that far. "Arms length" implies some sort of editorial interference, no matter how subtle. I can't imagine H&F News (under these proposals) attacking some of the corrupt actions of H&F Council, such as their false, tax payer funded "super sewer" allegations made simply to win support for the Conservatives prior to the last elections.

H&F Council is yet to make a commitment to an independent editorial board - which would be an essential feature of the proposed structure. So, while on the face of it, this looks like positive news the detail may show that this is no more than a better disguised front for the same old corrupt propaganda. Watch this space.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

H&F Council’s Basingstoke Vision For Hammersmith

On page 64 of H&F Council’s newly proposed Local Development Framework (LDF) it says “Hammersmith Town Centre is the preferred office location in the borough and the Council will encourage major office based development”. One reason that sentence is in the LDF is they have to justify the Conservative Administration’s highly dubious plans for a new Town Hall office complex and supermarket. Intrinsic to their proposal is the demolition of the cinema, shops and many local homes.

My Labour Colleagues and I campaigned against this awful scheme at the last local elections. We made a manifesto commitment to stop it should we have won a majority on H&F Council.

We didn't. But many local residents, of all political persuasions, are also up in arms about it. They, quite reasonably, argue it will blight Hammersmith and damage the quality of life in the area for many years to come. Save Our Skyline is a new, non-political residents' group that has support from all the leading residents’ associations. They have arranged a public meeting so residents can hear more about H&F Council’s plans for our neighbourhood on Wednesday, 13th October 2010. The meeting will start at 7.00pm and will take place at Rivercourt Methodist Church, King Street, Hammersmith, W6 9JT.

I would urge you to attend. Going by the photos, the Town Hall development will leave Hammersmith looking like Basingstoke’s oddly ugly sky line. It is important to also note that it will cost local tax payers at least £35 million. So it isn't only the landscape likely to be blighted by H&F Conservatives' plans.

As long ago as March 2008 Cllr. Mark Loveday (Con), H&F's Cabinet Member for Strategy, flew to Cannes on the French Riviera to meet property speculators. He returned again the following year. The official explanation for these trips was that he and his team were having secret meetings to discuss "contentious development sites" in the Borough. He has refused to tell us what was discussed or agreed. However, we do know that H&F Council has caved in to developer’s demands to make the buildings much taller and at a much greater density than the Council originally proposed. 

It is important that H&F Council is able to demonstrate that it is taking the concerns of local residents seriously in its private meetings. This does not appear to be the case. In fact, rather than being open with the public about its relationship with property speculators, this Administration mislead residents objecting to previous "contentious" developments. So, this time, H&F Council must be prepared to make public who it's been dealing with, how often it's met them and what it has been saying and agreeing about this highly controversial site.

Take a moment to also consider that H&F’s Conservative Administration is set to grant further planning permission for two new super-sized office blocks at the bottom of Hammersmith Grove, that they are hoping to knock down and rebuild Shepherds Bush Market (and the surrounding shops), they plan to stick a another giant complex on Hammersmith Embankment and, on top of all of this, they want to demolish people's homes on Ashcroft Square and the Queen Caroline Estate. It seems fairly conclusive that H&F Conservatives' short terms plans for Hammersmith involve making it one of the biggest building sites in Europe.

My fellow Labour councillors and I oppose these schemes as do many residents. I will detail why later. For now, please take a look at the Save Our Skyline website for more information. Please click here if you want to sign their petition. If you'd like to put a protest poster in your window, you can click on the attached photo to increase its size and print it off. You can email Save Our Skyline directly by clicking here.