Monday 28 February 2011

Incompetent? A Spotlight On H&F Conservatives' Debt Strategy

Cllr. Andrew Jones (Lab), taking the Tories
to task on their wasteful approach
Cllr. Andrew Jones (Lab) is an economics professor. He is also H&F Labour's Shadow Cabinet Member for Value for Money and has written this piece below for HFConWatch:

Like the Tory-led government, H&F Conservatives should stop using debt as a smokescreen to do what they want to do ideologically – cut down the state.

Tory Hammersmith & Fulham councillors are justifying their decision to slash with abandon by saying there is an urgent need to pay off the council’s debt. They either believe this, in which case they are economically illiterate, or they don’t, in which case they are dishonest. We thought we’d ask our own economic policy guru, Labour councillor Professor Andrew Jones, to explode a few Tory myths.

Myth No 1: H&F’s debt is unsustainable.
It isn’t, any more than a mortgage on a home is. Another word for debt is borrowing. And just as people borrow money through mortgages to have somewhere to live, councils of all colours borrow money (incur debt) to provide facilities and local services. A previous Hammersmith and Fulham Tory administration increased the debt to build the unloved Town Hall extension and the now defunct Janet Adegoke swimming pool. Labour borrowed to build affordable local homes for rent. Both parties borrowed to improve schools. 

The difference between a council’s debt and ordinary people’s is that councils can get much better deals, such as 20-year fixed rates, and they can switch deals when rates fall. It may not suit the Tories’ political purposes to publicise this but Hammersmith and Fulham council officials have rightly taken advantage of record low interest rates in recent times to make much of the council’s borrowing very cheap by historical standards.

Myth No 2: Paying off debt quickly is always best

.When the economy is doing well, paying off debt more quickly can be a good idea. This is why the last Labour administration in Hammersmith and Fulham paid off £12 million in 2005/6 – more than the Conservatives in four years – without damaging services. 

But when times are hard, just as most people can’t afford to increase their mortgage payments without having to cut back on basics like food, heating and clothes, the only way that councils can repay their debt quickly is, as Hammersmith and Fulham is doing, by cutting essential services such as child protection and Sure Start and by selling off community buildings.

This brings us to Myth No 3: H&F Tories are practical, not ideological.
Far from it. Hammersmith and Fulham's debt is more affordable than ever due to low interest rates, which means the pain being caused by over-rapid debt cutting is impractical and unnecessary. So why is the council inflicting it? The answer is that they are using debt as a smokescreen to do what they want to do ideologically – cut down the state. Cut it nationally and cut it locally.

You can disagree with this ideology while accepting that an honest difference of opinion here is possible. What isn’t acceptable is the Tories’ dishonesty in hiding behind the smokescreen of economically illiterate arguments about council debt to make ideologically-driven cuts.

Finally, there's Myth No 4: H&F Tories achieve value for money.
On any measure, they don’t. What they are doing is asset stripping at a period of low return after a recession. They consistently fail to look to the long term or to undertake any cost-benefit analysis of their actions. 

Take the sale of community buildings. This will bring in a mere £800,000 (at best and more likely to be no more than £250,000), around one half of one per cent of the council’s borrowing. Our community will lose out today, and if a Labour council wants to expand services in the future, buying new buildings will cost more than if we had kept the ones we have. And even if the sell-offs were necessary, it makes no sense to make them now at the bottom of the market.

Equally, while cutting voluntary sector grants saves trivial amounts of money, taking away this Big Society safety net will increase demand on Hammersmith and Fulham council from the most vulnerable in our society. How will the council find the extra money to meet the demand? By cutting services to those on middle incomes? Or – despite all their fine words – by leaving the most disadvantaged to suffer?

H&F Conservatives are also quite prepared to spend money with reckless abandon when it suits them. Their plan to replace the Town Hall extension, which they themselves built with debt, is likely to cost millions and benefit only property developers.

It is time to look beyond the myths.
Whether you call it debt or borrowing, there is no economic requirement to cut services and facilities in order to pay off what Hammersmith and Fulham council owes at this reckless pace. Politics is always about choices. H&F Tories are making an ideological choice and they should come clean about it.

Saturday 26 February 2011

Boris Sneaks In And Out Through Side Doors Despite £15,000 Hammersmith Police Security Operation

"Listen to us!" Hammersmith protest at Tory convention today
There were just short of fifty police officers providing a cordon of protection around Hammersmith Town Hall today but Mayor Boris Johnson (Con) still arrived and left the London Regional Conservative Party Conference through side doors.

What he was afraid of was hard to tell. Was it the disabled people objecting to H&F Conservatives putting lives at risk; or parents objecting to the closure of Sure Start; or was it the other Hammersmith residents objecting to the £35 million Town Hall monstrosity the Administration is trying to force on the people of our Borough? One thing was clear. Mayor Boris Johnson didn't feel up to meeting them. Indeed, one photographer told me that the Mayor was so nervous when caught sneaking out of the Town Hall from a disused delivery entrance that he nearly fell off his bike when another photographer ran to capture the moment on film.

Tara Flood campaigning against the Conservatives'
harsh treatment of disabled people
Parents and students campaigning to Save Education Maintenance Allowance were there along with a wide assortment of other protest groups. Andy Slaughter MP (Lab) and several of my fellow Labour councillors attended to show their support for local residents. Later the police told me they had been very happy with how the 150 strong crowd had behaved while asserting their objections to the Conservatives' agenda.

Many of the residents there were surprised that not one single Conservative politician would engage with them. They had wanted a chance to explain their views and thought they would be listened to. One senior police officer told me he roughly estimated the cost of the large police presence at £15,000.00 of public money. So it's hard to understand why Boris and other leading Tories didn't think the tax payers that had attended today at least deserved to a chance to have their concerns heard and noted.

Thursday 24 February 2011

Boris And Conservative High Command Come To Hammersmith To Worship At The Altar Of Tory Cuts

It's the things people do that tells you what they really think. So it's telling that, in the week that Hammersmith and Fulham's Conservative administration agreed its controversial budget Mayor Boris Johnson has chosen to host the regional Conservative Party Conference in Hammersmith Town Hall (Click to view invitation).

He will be joined at the Altar of Tory Cuts (I understand it's in a small, dark room in the Town Hall basement) by Conservative government ministers and Council Leaders from across London.

An adviser to Eric Pickles MP, the local government secretary, will be a keynote speaker and all this in the week Cameron's favourite Council added an extra 3.7% cut to the 11.3% blow Mr. Pickles handed to the residents of Hammersmith and Fulham.

As well as the cuts, regular readers will recall that the Conservatives have:
Indeed, Mr. Pickles even saw fit to turn a blind eye to the what the Mail on Sunday calls the "highly unusual" circumstances that allowed one Hammersmith and Fulham Council "consultant" to claim £310,000.00 of public money. 

All this appears popular stuff in the body politic of the modern Conservative Party. There are even rumours that David Cameron may make an appearance. At least we know where they all stand on such controversial matters.

H&F Tories Cutting Faster And Further Than Even Their Own Government

Andy Slaughter MP (Lab) standing shoulder to shoulder
with local residents affected by £33 million of cuts
There’s a particular sound a large audience makes when it includes toddlers and babies. That was the atmospheric back drop to the debate on H&F Council’s budget last night. Sadly, the pertinence of it appeared lost on the Conservative Councillors who jeered and cheered as they were asked to justify their cuts and spending priorities.

The public gallery was packed with a wide range of local people who will be affected by the £33 million of cuts this year. Severely disabled people; the elderly; children; environmentalists and concerned citizens sat side-by-side to hear the justifications for such a draconian approach to front line services.

Central government had cut its grant to Hammersmith and Fulham by 11.3%. On the Daily Politics programme, Andrew Neil had said that Mr. Cameron was taking a “sledgehammer to local government.” But H&F Conservatives have long been celebrated in Tory circles for being in the vanguard of the cuts agenda. So their “sledgehammering” included an extra 3.7% whack removing a whopping 15% from the Borough budget.

But some things were being protected. The Council spends £5 million on what one Tory MP called “political propaganda on the rates.” They admit to spending £1.8million on consultants - with the Mail on Sunday pointing out that this Conservative Administration employs the, £310,000.00 a year, highest paid of all “taxpayer-funded fat cats.” They are wasting £35 million on new Town Hall offices and failed to maintain the momentum set on debt repayments when the market was right. Indeed, the TaxPayers’ Alliance criticised the 16% salary rises they gave to senior bureaucrats. And, when you consider that this Conservative Administration admitted wasting £250,000.00, because they could never get around to turning the lights off in the Town Hall extension, it is questionable how genuinely thorough they have been in tackling their budget predicament. My Labour colleagues and I have long called for a different approach.

But the public were there to plead for their services. A staggering £4.279 million was sliced from the home care budget for the Borough’s elderly, sick and disabled residents. That will mean many will be left with no service whatsoever. Others will be charged inflation busting hikes in charges – which last time caused the Council to admit it had put lives at risk. One disabled woman became so upset that she cried out, mid-debate, that they were “cruel!” The response was swift. The Tories nodded in the direction of officials and security guards carted her off before she could tell more truth to power.

The Administration cut £1 million to the children’s service that is meant to stop child abuse. I asked Administration Councillors if they would guarantee that this would not put any child at any greater risk. They refused to answer.

Sure Start was closed down in all but name as £3.4 million was removed with the vast majority of families soon to be turned away from a service that's proved critical to children’s long term education. Parking rates have been hiked by over 55% and over five hundred stealth taxes were increased by a minimum of 6%. 

The Conservatives claimed that they are protecting front line services for "vulnerable people" but that evidently isn't true. Just look at the summary of some of their cuts below. Click here for a link to the budget papers.

Cuts to crime and anti-social behaviour budget
  • £395k cut to on-street enforcement (losing 8 officers) (page numbered 783)
  • £99k cut to out-of-hours service (losing 3 officers) (page numbered 784)
  • £120 cut to police working hours (page numbered 785)
  • £155k cut to Safer Neighbourhood Police Team (page numbered 785)
Cuts to education and children's services cuts
  • £1 million cut to family support and child protection (page numbered 772)
  • £2.725 million cuts to children in care (page numbered 773)
  • £3.4 million cut from closure of the Sure Start Programme (listed as "Tiers 2&3" on pages numbered 773 and 774) 
  • Cut £175,000 from literacy through football for children with learning difficulties (page numbered 774)
 Cuts to adult social care (Community Services) budget
  • £1 million cut to adults with learning difficulties (page numbered 775)
  • £300k cut to people with mental health conditions (page numbered 775)
  • £4.279 million cut to home care for people who are elderly, sick or disabled (page numbered 775):
    • £300k cut through "creative" personal support plans
    • £3 million cutting use of nursing homes
    • £400k Again tightening eligibility criteria so less people get home care
    • £579k cut to the carer's time spent with client by electronic monitoring
    • 12% increase in home care charges (page numbered 794)
  • £100k cut to advice services (page numbered 776)
  • £100k cut to meals on wheels
Cuts to homelessness budget
My Labour colleagues and I voted against this budget. There are things we support such as the zero setting of Council Tax but the Conservatives have had long enough manage our finances. The incompetence of their approach and wasting tax payers’ money on the wrong priorities is hard to stomach in itself. Consider who is paying the price for this and it's easy to understand the highly charged sentiments of those residents that turned up.

Clearly feeling under pressure the Conservatives retreated to what is now their hackneyed phrase about the national economic situation. But the fact is the Conservative led government’s approach is coming in for much international criticism. Writing in the New York Times, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman asked “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.” Brad DeLong, another American economist, took the highly unusual step of saying the Cameron led government are "clueless dorks." The latest 0.6 shrinkage in the UK economy combined with increasing levels of inflation indicates that we could well be heading towards Japanese style stagflation George Osborne was warned about when he unveiled his economic plans. I predict the government will be forced to change course as the next election approaches but not before we see terrible youth unemployment blighting a generation and the misery these economically illiterate policies being bourn by many of the people packed into Hammersmith Town Hall last night.

H&F Conservatives had done everything they possibly could to deny any proper scrutiny of their budget prior to this meeting. And, far from defending Hammersmith and Fulham’s residents from the government’s highly ideological cuts our local Conservatives “were on the sidelines clapping and cheering.” I put that to them at the meeting. Afterwards, a resident came up to me and said, "You only had to look at the smirks on their faces to know how true that was." Sadly, I think she had got that just about right.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Confused About Cameron's 'Big Society?' Francis Maude Plainly Is Too

Francis Maude MP (Con) struggled to explain
the 'big society'
It's just a few days after Cameron's favourite Council killed off a large part of Hammersmith and Fulham's 'big society' and the national press were there to report it. So yesterday the Prime Minister lauched a fightback aimed to explain exactly how his 'big society' will all work. His team took to the airwaves with Mr. Cameron's Cabinet Secretary, the Rt Hon Francis Maude MP (Con) leading the charge.

Sadly, Mr. Maude's appearance of Radio 4's PM news programme didn't go too well as having explained how UK citizens need to do more volunteering he then came unstuck when Eddy Mair asked him what volunteering he did. You can listen to the piece here.

OK. So maybe I've reported this with an unkind amount of schadenfreude but there is a wider point. If the government and local authorities are cutting vital services such as Sure Start, selling off buildings used by voluntary groups and even using the 'big society' as a possible means of cutting heath and social care then they need to have a policy that's thought out, is properly project managed and one they are capable of explaining. It's been well over a year since it was announced as the Conservative's key policy and it still looks like no more than a catchy slogan dreamed up by a bunch of public relations bods.

Monday 14 February 2011

Why Didn't H&F Conservatives Fight For Our Children's Schools Investment?

At the Full Council Meeting on the 27th October last year Councillors Caroline Needham (Lab) and Elaine Chumnery (Lab) moved a resolution against “the devastating impact to Hammersmith and Fulham of the withdrawal of Building Schools for the Future (BSF) Funding” they then called on the Conservative “Administration to use its influence with Central Government” that would “enable schools to provide accommodation fit for purpose.” H&F Conservatives voted against it while shouting out heckles of “it’s bad value for money.”

Last week the High Court ruled that the way the decision was made is “unlawful.” This could mean that the six councils who took action against the Conservative led government’s cut to BSF may have won up to £1 billion in education funding for their local children. It’s a shame Hammersmith and Fulham’s Administration didn’t follow the lead given by their Conservative colleagues in Kent County Council who have evidently given the education of local children a greater priority than sucking up to their colleagues in government.

As Deputy Leader of H&F Council, in 2005/06, I was one of those that put together the deal to launch the new Hammersmith Academy - which opens this September. We also began moves to benefit from the new BSF policy as it is still the case that the Borough's other schools need significant investment. In 2006, shortly after their election victory, I was pleased to see local Conservatives back the Academy (the funding coming from sponsors and the Labour government) but by now contriving to end BSF H&F's Tories have badly undercut the good work being done in the Borough's schools facing this cut.

Cathnor Park Children’s Centre Cut Indicative Of The Tories' Attack On The Renowned Sure Start Programme

H&F's Conservative politicians said they were too "busy" to
attend the Cathnor Park Children's Centre closure meeting.
I counted just over one hundred parents, grandparents and carers at Cathnor Park Children's Centre last Thursday. At 1.00pm they had squeezed into the state of the art centre, their rain soaked cloths being the least of their concerns as they listened to an official set out a massive reduction in the services available to their young children. H&F Conservatives had cut the centres budget from £455,000 per year to £19,000.

OFSTED had rated the facility as “outstanding.” The people in the ro
om told how it was "essential." A grandfather testified how he had brought up children in an era when Sure Start didn't exist and could contrast that with the positive difference it was making to his grandchildren's lives. But the Cathnor Park Children's Center's card was marked at a Cabinet Meeting on the 10th January when the Conservative Administration cut the Sure Start budget by £3.4 million. Meetings like this are happening up and down the Borough as 16 Sure Start Centre's are being cut to just six “hub” services. There will also be ten “spoke” services but officials privately tell us “not much if anything will happen in those.”

The Cathnor Park Children’s Centre is one of the few to have facilities for children with hearing difficulties; it provides crucial health and family advice to all that go there and one mother in the audience told how her children had cried when they learned that the playgroups would go. It was an emotional meeting as people realised that, despite the Council’s spin, most of the current beneficiaries of the service would now go without.

There was no sign of the Conservatives Cabinet Member for Education who, it transpired, had chosen to go to a conference instead of meeting the people affected. The Tory Leader of H&F Council had stayed away too so the audience were left with an official who struggled to explain a policy planned by H&F’s Conservative politicians. Andy Slaughter MP (Lab) managed to be there to offer his support so the excuse that Tory politicians were “busy” didn’t go down well with the audience.

Sure Start is an internationally renowned programme designed to give "children the best possible start in life." It was introduced by the Labour Government and there are similar ground-breaking schemes in the United States, Australia and other developed countries. David Cameron backed the scheme and pledged to keep it during the last general election. But on becoming Prime Minister he removed the ring-fencing from it’s funding which has allowed Conservative run Council’s to re-direct the money away from the service.

Hammersmith and Fulham is one of the Council’s taking the harshest line and have ended Sure Start locally in all but name. Many campaign groups are springing up around the Borough to defend their children’s services against this attack. Shout Out For A Sure Start are doing the same nationally.

I think ending Sure Start is a horribly short term measure that will be completely detrimental to children’s life chances. It will also have a negative effect on Britain’s long term competitiveness in the increasingly globalised economy.

Friday 11 February 2011

H&F’s Big Society Shut Down And Sold Off

“What just happened?” asked a young woman near the end of Monday night’s Cabinet Meeting. “Did they vote?” She wasn’t the only person amongst the three hundred strong audience to be unsure. Cllr. Stephen Greenhalgh (Con), H&F’s Council Leader, had called a break but most in the room hadn’t noticed that just a few seconds earlier he had muttered the words “Item 15?” to which his fellow Conservative councillors answered “agreed.” Then, “Item 16?” and likewise – thus signalling that H&F's Cabinet had authorised the sell-off of local community buildings at the heart of Hamersmith and Fulham's ‘big society.’

Anna Du Boisson of the West London School of Dance
The evening had begun with a packed demonstration. There was an eclectic mix of people who would be affected by the loss of services and facilities being delivered from five of the buildings on the Tories’ list of those to be "disposed" (See page numbered 229). Young children held placards asking the Tories to let them keep their judo club, others pleaded for their ballet lessons, youth clubs and family support. A large group of elderly citizens called for their gym to be kept open while beneficiaries of the charities being booted out of Palingswick House packed the area outside the front of the Town Hall. There were too many groups to mention but all had shared a desperate hope that their buildings and services might be sparred.

The night was atmospheric: local musicians who are set to lose their practice venue pounded drums, the beat providing a backdrop to chants of “save our community” and “support our big society.” Large white outside broadcast vans, with aerials reaching high into the night sky, gave the scene added drama.

Inside and the Cabinet Meeting had been transferred from a small committee room to the vast Assembly Hall but it was still standing room only. This excellent blog also tells how the meeting played out.

The Cabinet Meeting began with presentations from the community groups petitioning their Council to let them survive. Those were business like, at times inspiring and often moving. None asked to continue with the status quo. They argued for a new approach – one that would require H&F Council to work with them so they could buy the buildings and run them as mutualised community trust.

Then, when it came to the Opposition's questions Cllr. Greenhalgh announced a new format. He hadn't given any prior notice of this change but insisted that we would now have to ask all our questions in a solid block. No question, then answer, then another question for this Administration. He said if we didn't like it then we wouldn't get a chance to ask anything. Could you imagine the outcry if the Prime Minister did something similar for his weekly questioning? I reminded him that he was seeking to ditch a form of accountability that is the norm for democratically elected politicians around the world and asked him what he was afraid would happen if he answered our individual questions? "Is that your question, he responded." I asked him if he'd guarantee to answer all the questions we asked. He nodded, which I took as an indication that he would and so we went with his format for this occasion. He looked unsure of what he was doing and appeared to be inventing the rules as we went along. Both he and his cabinet colleagues looked extremely nervous.

Andy Slaughter MP with some of the 300 protesters
So I asked the Leader of the Council “Would he delay this decision for some months and consider changing his approach so instead of viewing these community groups as opponents they could be seen as potential partners who, with the right support from the council, could put together viable business plans and raise funds to take over their buildings and maintain their ‘big society’ services?" Cllr. Greenhalgh just looked back at me. “Next question” he said. I asked “On the Council’s website it says that if these buildings are not sold you will have to make a further £20 million of cuts to front line services but going by the Council’s own figures it is evident that these buildings would only bring an interest saving of, at the very most, eight hundred thousand pounds – and that’s assuming you immediately sell all the buildings and get the money in the bank by 1st April. So is this £20million figure a mistake or dishonest spin and if not could he explain how his administration came up with this vast sum?" There was a pause then the familiar “Next question” - although it is since interesting to note that the "£20million more cuts" claim has now been removed from H&F Council’s website.

By this point I noticed that none of the Conservative Councillors or their officials were making any notes of the questions. I asked Cllr. Greenhalgh how he was going to answer them. He shrugged. I carried on.  “I note that your administration is claiming that no voluntary services will be lost… Tonight, we’ve heard of how those are extremely wide ranging so has the Council carried out an audit of all the services in all these buildings (which I suspect it hasn’t) and if not, how can the Council’s claim possibly have any substance?” Cllr. Greenhalgh paused, checked that was all of the Opposition's questions and began to sum up and move to the vote. I interrupted, asking him if he was going to answer any of the questions put by me, my fellow Labour councillors or the audience. He didn’t respond and the vote went through unnoticed by almost everyone in the hall. It has since transpired that the Council report they voted on is littered with awful mistakes.

Newsnight were there - as were BBC News, ITV News, BBC Radio, the Guardian and Evening StandardBBC London covered the story on Monday's evening Drive Time, LBC Radio ran it throughout Tuesday and it was raised by Ed Miliband MP (Lab), on Wednesday at Prime Minister’s Questions. Even today’s Economist refers to it. The London Politics Show had broken the story last Sunday. All wanted to know why Cameron’s favourite Council was shutting down Hammersmith and Fulham’s ‘big society.’ Given all this, I was surprised Cllr. Greenhalgh and his colleagues did not feel up to answering any of the perfectly legitimate questions.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

H&F Council Sends Afghan Refugees to A Dog Club And Iranian Refugees To The Iranian Embassy

H&F Council have officially advised refugees from Afghanistan to seek support from an Afghan hound club. The advice was published in Council Papers (see page numbered 346) which the Conservative led authority used to justify their view that there are in fact "excellent alternatives" for those affected by their decisions to sell off Palingswick House. That building provides offices to the Afghan Council UK, the Iranian Association and many other local charities supporting 'vulnerable' individuals. The report also urges Iranian refugees to seek help from the Iranian Embassy (see page numbered 353).

The advice was given as part of the Equality Impact Assessment which H&F Council is legally obliged to carry out when making such decisions. On the front page of the Southern Afghan Club’s website it tells how it has been “bridging Afghan hounds and humans since 1946”. The Iranian Association's website tells how it "has enabled unemployed ethnic minorities and refugees in London to overcome language barriers."

So how was this missed? H&F's Conservative members of the Cabinet had at least two meetings where they were meant to consider all aspects of the cabinet meeting paper and challenge their officials' recommendations. The responsible cabinet members also has a duty to go through the papers and ensure it is fit for them to sign their names to. So it is telling that these mistakes remained in the paper right up until the final stage of the decision making process when it was presented to the packed Cabinet Meeting. Not one Tory councillor asked why it was appropriate to direct refugees to the embassy of the country they had fled or why a dog fanciers' club was listed as an "alternative support service" to the Afghan Council UK? All this raises serious doubts as to whether H&F's Cabinet actually did read, understand and check out the advice given them by their officials and indicates the apathy of H&F Council which stopped it dealing with this matter properly.

I will report more on Monday night’s meeting later but it is worth noting that at the beginning of the meeting Cllr. Stephen Greenhalgh (Con), the Leader of H&F Council, asked all seven of his cabinet colleagues if they had read the Equalities Impact Assessments and understood the details and consequences of their decision. They all stated on record that they had.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

H&F, K&C and Westminster Mergers - Update

Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster Councils have published their latest document which hopes to detail how they will merge many of our services. My fellow Opposition Leaders and I published this joint letter when the plans were first unveiled last October. I will provide a more detailed report on this latest development later.

I'm in favour of merging services with other public bodies where's there's a strong business case likely to deliver genuine back office savings. My concerns are that these proposals are a long way off being a strong business case and I can't see what the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham has in common with the City of Westminster that would make them an ideal partner in this enterprise. In fact, it is evident that these proposals are being rushed and given this less than competent approach, it is extremely likely that public money will be wasted and service will fail. I believe that the reason's these particular three Tory run councils want to get together is so they can cut more front line services, introduce more stealth taxes, attack front line jobs, gerrymander the Boroughs and undermine local democratic accountability.

Monday 7 February 2011

Will Cameron's Favourite Council Kill Off the Borough's 'Big Society'?

Tonight at 7.00pm Hammersmith and Fulham's Conservative Cabinet is set decide whether to sell off community buildings housing some of the most active 'big society' volunteer groups in the Borough. The Council report recommends (see page 229) that councillors agree to sell off eight community buildings - many currently housing a wide range of important services. H&F is well known as Cameron's favourite Council so this decision is little short of a a slap in the face for the Prime Minister's somewhat vague 'big society' policy initiative. Unhelpfully, this comes at a time when it is under attack from national figures from across the political spectrum.

Palingswick House houses twenty three community groups, the Irish Cultural Centre is the epitome of  the 'big society' and new groups of residents from all political persuasions have come forward offering run the Sands End Community Centre and the Village Hall at 58 Bulwer Street. Meanwhile, key services such as those supplied to vulnerable children are being ripped out of the Askham Family Centre.

The Conservative Leader of H&F Council debated his proposals with me on yesterday's Politics Show (See 46:41 minutes in). The Conservative's even had the Council's Press Office tell people that "if we do not sell these buildings, we will have to find £20million more from service budgets.” But that is plainly rubbish as it will only save between £700,000.00 to £800,000.00 per year in interest payments and that's assuming they actually find a buyer for all the buildings on their list and at a reasonable price in this market. They have struggled to do that in the past. Some building they put on the market three years ago still sitting empty and unsold.

To put the £700k to £800k figure in perspective, it's worth noting that the Conservative run Council have paid about that to just one consultant since 2008; that they were attacked by a Conservative MP for wasting £5million of tax payers' money on "political propaganda"; they wasted a quarter of a million pounds because they couldn't muster the competence to turn the Town Hall lights off and they're throwing away £35million on new and completely unwanted Town Hall offices. There are many other available options available to finding any financial shortfall.

Personally, I don't object to selling buildings that are of no use but even then I would only want to sell those that fit that criteria when market conditions are right - which isn't now. The problem with the majority of the buildings the Conservatives are looking to sell tonight is that they are of crucial use to the communities they sit in and once sold it would be very hard for any future Administration to ever get them back. This is deliberate.

Meanwhile, we have active citizens offering to take these facilities over and run them for themselves. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why the Conservatives have refused to work with these groups to come up with a positive way forward.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Local Tories Preferred Boozing Instead Of Scrutinising H&F Councils 2011/12 Budget – What Were They Trying To Hide?

The biggest areas of H&F Council’s budget are in adult social care and housing. If you add in the overlap with the health services then the Select Committee charged with looking into this year’s budget (see page 88) in those departments had an awesome responsibility… At least that’s what most reasonable people would think. So why did the Conservative Committee Chair only allow a mere fifteen minutes for his committee to question officials about the sixty page budget document – most of which is page after page of detailed figures?

Cllr. Andrew Johnson (Con), the Chair of the Borough’s Housing, Health and Adult Social Care Select Committee, arrived at the last meeting five minutes late. He had already arranged that two other weighty items were on the agenda prior to his Administration’s budget. But he then announced that there would be a special addition at the front of the agenda. That would be on swine flu vaccines.

It quickly transpired that this extra item was a consequence of this report I had posted on the 5th January. So the Conservative Administration wheeled out Dr David McCoy, who is the Borough’s NHS’s Director of Public Health. He gave a very informative presentation about how vaccines are ordered, showed graphs about influenza infections over recent years and explained how the vaccine is shared out locally. He even mentioned that he had read my piece so I asked him if his people had phoned round local GPs, how many had ran out of flu vaccine in the Borough and what was the problem with my surgery? He said they hadn’t done a survey and didn’t have that information but no GP had reported their lack of vaccine to the centre. So while, it was very nice to hear from an independent, non-political expert such as Dr. McCoy it didn’t shed any light on this issue and took up forty minutes of what should have been questions about the Conservatives' controversial budget.

By the time we arrived at the Budget it was 9.15 pm. We then had a long talk from different officials – who did as officials do and, in short, said the budget they and H&F's Conservative Cabinet had put together was the best possible budget this Borough could have. So at 9.45 pm questions began. By about 9.55 pm I suggested to Cllr. Johnson that he extend the meeting by half an hour from the 10.00 pm close these committees are set to finish. I had been a select committee chair ten years ago and always agreed to such request from committee members, and particularly the then Opposition Conservatives. It always seemed obvious to me that you look ridiculous and uncommitted if you refuse. But, Cllr. Johnson refused: “No!” he said, adding “If your side hadn’t gabbled on asking all those questions at the beginning then we’d have time for this.” The Council’s Chief Executive, directors and senior officials had waited all evening to be quizzed. I briefly listed a few of the Administration's cruellest cuts – particularly those again targeting the disabled and said we have a duty to go through these. Now becoming visibly nervous, Cllr Johnson again refused but added, “OK, I was five minutes late so let’s look at the business of the next meeting and finish at 10.05 pm.” Again I pushed him pointing out that my fellow Labour Councillor Rory Vaughan and I were ready to stay so what pressing engagement did the Conservative members of that committee have?.. The meeting ended.

Fifteen minutes later, as Rory and I were leaving the Town Hall we looked across the road at the Saluatation Pub and wondered if the Conservatives were in there. It was interesting to study their reactions when they saw us standing outside on the pavement. Startled?.. Yes. Panic?.. I think so. We waved. At least they all had the grace to look extremely embarrassed.

This year H&F Conservatives are making a record £26,890,000.00 of cuts. Many of these target the elderly, sick and disabled and other vulnerable groups. Officials don’t always provide councillors with the full picture as is evident from this leak. So councillors of all parties have a duty to go through the Administration’s cuts in detail and quiz officials on their assumptions; evidence; analysis; the risks; the options and their conclusions. None of that happened at the Housing, Health and Adult Social Care Select Committee on Tuesday, 18th January. The reasons for this were deliberate. So what were H&F Conservatives trying to hide? I will provide a full report on H&F Council’s 2011/12 budget later.

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Lisa Homan Reports On Last Week’s Full Council Meeting

On Wednesday night I attended a meeting in Parliament and gave a talk to around two hundred politicians, housing professionals, tenants, leaseholders and others about the Conservatives’ housing policies. I had uncovered many of these Tory policies when they were in inception here in Hammersmith and Fulham in 2006 and 2007. Regular readers will have seen this video made by the Guardian Newspaper in 2009 and my unanswered letter to Prime Minister, David Cameron which set out the full scale of how the Conservatives housing policies will impact Hammersmith and Fulham. I wrote this piece for LabourList which details how the Conservatives’ housing and benefits policies will restructure communities across our country. I will report more on all this later.

Cllr. Lisa Homan therefore stepped up and led Labour’s charge against the Conservative Administration at that night’s Council meeting. She has kindly sent me this report:

Cllr. Lisa Homan's Report. Full Council Meeting. Wednesday, 26th January 2011
“Wednesday evening began with both political parties coming together to award the Royal Yeomanry the Freedom of our Borough. I was honoured to be able to speak in support of this and talked about how none of us in civilian life can ever truly understand the scale of the bravery and self-sacrifice our soldiers exhibit when serving in battle for our country. There will be a Freedom Parade for the Royal Yeomanry later in the year.

The mood of the meeting changed when the Irish Cultural Centre presented their petition to stop the Council breaking its word and selling off their building. The issue has been widely covered in the Irish Press (and in this article below) and attracted as large audience of supporters. However, none of us expected to have to listen to some of the disgraceful caricatures Conservative councillors presented about the Irish people when making their arguments for going ahead with the closure. “They’re a resilient people” said one. Going by the looks on the faces of those in the gallery I don’t think ‘resilience’ was the temperament being experienced by those listening to the Conservatives’ insults. This issue will now be decided at the Cabinet Meeting on 7th February.

It was interesting that the Conservatives then withdrew their next motion on 'localism' which they had written and submitted for debate. They had probably recognised that with the closure of the Irish Centre, Sands End Community Centre, Pallingswick House the sell off of Shepherds Bush Village Hall and other civic buildings valued by the community together with their total ignorance to all those apposed the Town Hall redevelopment - it really was not a good time to suggest that they support localism.

The next debate centered on the Conservatives taking direct control over H&F Homes, the Council’s housing management company. This will mean the tenants, leaseholders and independent experts that govern that body will all be sacked when that organisation is wound up in a couple of months time. Imagine the outcry if the Conservatives were getting rid of all the governors in a local school and managing it directly and you’ll understand why this is a contentious matter. Add to this H&F Conservatives’ highly controversial approach to the Borough’s council housing (see Introduction above) and that an overwhelming percentage of Hammersmith and Fulham’s 18,000 council home residents had endorsed the governor led approach in 2003 then my Labour colleagues and I wanted to again question why the Conservatives refused to do another ballot (click on Labour's ballot above left to expand and read text). Instead H&F Council carried out a “consultation” (see below right) where three of the five questions counted as an endorsement of their plans. When my Labour colleagues and I challenged them about this unorthodox approach to democracy the Conservatives said we were “being pernickety”. Labour had very different plans for social housing in our Borough which we published in our manifesto. I spoke to those urging the Administration to give council home residents more control and more choice as to the future of their homes.

Councillors Wesley Harcourt (Lab) and Elaine Chumnery (Lab) then spoke in the next debate which was about the new High Speed and Crossrail station being proposed for Old Oak where they are councillors. They obviously said the right things as there was an island of consensus in the middle of the evening when the Conservatives agreed to support Labour's amendment which meant we all voted together on the amended motion.

The next motion was about the government’s housing benefits (HB) cuts. This issue had been reviewed at a Select Committee in November and following that Cllr. Lucy Ivimy (Con) and Cllr. Stephen Cowan (Lab) attended a meeting with Shelter On Tuesday, 18th January. They had gone to hear about their latest research into the likely consequences of these cuts. This was undertaken by Cambridge University (CU) and the unit involved are considered to be one the UK’s leading authorities. To everyone’s astonishment, Cllr. Ivimy launched an astonishing attack on Shelter and the CU unit that had undertaken the research. Here’s the transcript of what she said “I did go with Councillor Cowan to see Shelter. I have never been as disappointed and unimpressed in my life. I thought Shelter was a reputable organisation.  It presented us with a report based on false assumptions and deeply flawed analysis - coming to alarmist conclusions…” and referring to the Cambridge University research Cllr. Ivimy added “… yes obviously some 26-year-old undergraduate who had no knowledge or understanding of statistics and had no idea what he was doing. That's who obviously did it.”

The Conservative led government is telling housing authorities that “any arrears because of a loss of HB/LHA should be treated as beyond the tenant's control” meaning that any local household facing the loss of their home because of these cuts should be treated as “unintentionally homeless” and therefore applicable to go on the local housing register. Councillors Andrew Jones (Lab), PJ Murphy (Lab) and I asked for a clarification of this point. In response, Cllr. Ivimy said "In answer to that last question, I will say only this, which is as you know or ought to know, that every case has to be considered on its own merits and it will be considered on its own merits”. It will be interesting if H&F Council doesn’t accept the government’s recommendations as I believe they will find themselves at the wrong end of a legal challenge if they don’t.

There is little doubt that the government’s housing benefits cuts will have a tremendous affect on many local households. Cambridge University’s research demonstrates that barely any areas in Hammersmith and Fulham will still be affordable to people in receipt of some form of housing benefits by 2016. You can see that from these graphs (click to expand and view attachments) that we made available and referred to during the debate. If you consider that Shelter 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”. And then consider that there are thousands of households in our Borough who will be worried sick about being thrown out of their homes then it makes H&F Conservatives’ approach to this hard to respect.

Councillors Andrew Jones (Lab) and Iain Coleman (Lab) then spoke to the motion listed on page 725 about the need to refurbish the all weather pitch in Bloomfontein Road and to Cllr. Greg Smith's (Con) credit he agreed to do something about it.