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.

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