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.

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