Tuesday 26 April 2011

Now H&F Taxes Exercise In Local Parks

Residents will be charged for using Hammersmith and
Fulham's parks if they have a personal trainer
Hammersmith and Fulham's Conservative run council has become famous for its stealth taxes but this latest tax is really quite hard to believe. The Daily Mail is reporting that our local authority will now charge between £350 to £1,200 a year for personal trainers, nannies or even nursery assistants to use the Borough's parks. You can read the full story here. This charge will undoubtably be passed onto clients of these services - the vast majority being local residents who have already paid for our local parks via their council tax.

Many of the people providing these services are self-employed. They do not have the enormous salaries, final salary pensions or iron-clad, ultra-secure employment terms of, for example, senior local government officers. So it's telling that H&F Conservatives failed to defend the corner of the smallest of small business entrepreneurs.

However, this policy shines a spotlight on the Conservative Administration's failure to deliver genuine improvements in efficiency in incompetent quarters of the Council. Instead they have been content to sign off stealth taxes or cuts in services presented to them as easy savings. Consider that this is the only council out of the 33 local authorities in London to be introducing these extraordinary charges. They're also the same council behind plans to waste £35million on new luxury Town Hall offices and the people who cancelled the garden waste service, introduced new charges for removing bulky waste and hiked parking fees up by 55% only six months ago. So it's questionable why they're still allowed to print Putting Residents First on the sides of their numerous council vehicles.

Sunday 17 April 2011

Tories To Sneak Through Final Blow To H&F's Children's Centres During Easter Break

Thousands of local children will be turned away after H&F
Conservatives close down Sure Start tomorrow night
So there it is on page 41 of the latest Hammersmith and Fulham Council Cabinet Papers. It's been four and a half months in preparation. There have been denials it even existed but it's finally revealed and there for all to see: a shiny big metaphorical nail that the Conservative run Council hopes to hammer into the coffin of the Borough’s Sure Start programme. They’re shutting it down in all but name.

How could this happen? Both the Prime Minister and his deputy had previously gone out of their way to assure the public that Sure Start would be safe in their hands. David Cameron (Con) told the National Childbirth Trust that “We are strongly committed to Sure Start Children’s Centres and will strengthen this service by introducing 4,200 Sure Start health visitors so all mums and dads get the support they need from birth until their child starts school.” Nick Clegg (Lib Dem) told that same charity: “My party will protect existing childcare entitlements and Sure Start.” Given such strong assurances from such powerful people you’d think it would be hard for them to go back on their words less than a year after they’d uttered them.

But they did and in a highly cynical manner too. First, and under the guise of localism, they removed the ring-fence from Council’s Sure Start budgets and merged them with other budgets. This is contrary to long standing government moves happening elsewhere in education where funding is now given directly to schools. Then, the Conservative-Lib Dem government axed the money it gives to local government. Cameron and Clegg would both have known how this combination would play out on the ground. So now we see Conservative led local authorities up and down the country shutting down the scheme that both Mr Cameron and Mr. Clegg had both promised to protect.

H&F Conservatives have long been in the vanguard of reducing public services and actually complained “the cuts don’t go far enough.” So at this point it’s worth remembering that for every £3 the government cut to Hammersmith and Fulham’s total budget our local Conservative Administration added an extra £1 cut. That left the people of this Borough facing an unprecedented £33 million of local cuts and local stealth taxes and that's just for this year alone.

If you look at the top of the panel on page numbered 759 of H&F’s budget papers you can see that our Council was allocated £9.4 million by the government as part of the new merged children’s early intervention budget. Around just under half of that is money for Sure Start. The Council’s narrative tells us “this is a new grant that is intended to give local areas the freedom and flexibility to invest in early intervention. It is pulled together from a number of old specific grants (such as Sure Start) and ABG.”

But look at the pages numbered 773 and 774 of the same budget and you’ll note that listed as "Tiers 2&3" a total of £3.4 million is removed from the local Sure Start budget which takes out most of the Sure Start funding. That’s how the Borough’s sixteen Sure Start centres are being cut to six. The rest will still get some funding but it will be vastly reduced with for example the Cathnor Park Children’s Centre budget being sliced from £455,000 per year to £50,000 a year. Most of the other centres across the Borough will have their budgets cut back to £19,000 leaving them, at best, only capable of a skeleton service. The long and short of all this is that the vast majority of the thousands of local families that currently benefit from Sure Start children's centres will be turned away.

So why does any of this matter? Well, if you care about living in a country were children grow up to have good jobs and are able to win wealth for the UK in an increasingly competitive world; where they are less likely to get involved in crime or anti-social behaviour and instead live healthy, productive lives, then early intervention through Sure Start matters. Back in the seventeenth century the Jesuits began to preach: "Give me the child till the age of seven and I will show you the man." In 1964 Granada Television began the ground breaking documentary 7Up which regularly revisits how a group of people’s lives are playing out following the start they had been given. And the latest empirical evidence shows that early, pre-school, years intervention gives our children the best possible start in life. Even Republicans supported the introduction of the similar Head Start programme in the United States and almost every developed nation has a variation of Sure Start.

Hammersmith and Fulham’s Tea Party Tories believe in a radical reduction in what the State does. That’s the ideological reason why they’re ending Sure Start for children and families in our Borough. But instead of having the guts to admit this they have dressed up these closures as “efficiency” and produced a shameful report full of dishonest ‘double-speak.’

H&F Conservatives whole approach to setting out their point of view to the public has been cowardly. They first mooted the end of Sure Start under the cover of the Christmas holidays. They then agreed to end it at a Cabinet Meeting on 7th January while saying they would carry out a “consultation.” The result of that “consultation” was never in any doubt because the Tory councillors voted through the £3.4 million budget cut on the 23rd February while they were actually still running the "consultation." It’s therefore no coincidence that this policy will finally be agreed tomorrow night during the Easter break when they hope many local people will be away.

But many parents, grandparents, carers and children will be there to hear the Conservatives justify what they’re doing. A petition will be presented, London Citizens raised it at their meeting on Thursday night and many people will come along just to demonstrate their backing for Sure Start. The meeting begins at 7.00pm in Hammersmith Town Hall but those in power have demonstrated how the campaign for children's pre-school support can successfully be concluded. Sadly, that can clearly only happen when the public removes them from office.

Friday 15 April 2011

H&F Tory U-Turn On Privileged Olympic Seats After Labour Boycotts Their Scheme

Hammersmith and Fulham's Conservative councillors have changed their minds and have now decided not to purchase £50,000.00 of Olympic tickets which were to be exclusively at the disposal of Conservative councillors and their colleagues. They've left it pretty late in the day to make this u-turn and have ended up giving in and agreeing to Labour's position - which I set out here last month. So the real question is why did it take them almost five weeks before they woke up and smelt the coffee?

Our local Conservative councillors have been flapping around on this issues since 14th March when the Shepherds Bush Blog first scooped this story. Back then the Conservatives confirmed that they did "intend to take up this ticket offer" despite my Labour colleagues and I boycotting this privileged and wasteful scheme. By the 25th March they were still determinedly sticking to their plans and sent an email out from the Council Leader's office asking if there was any takers and urging us all to urgently respond so they could submit their application for the tickets to the Olympic authorities by 30th March. With no takers from Labour councillors the Conservatives were left with the prospect of this story about £50,000.00 wasted for their exclusive enjoyment (against a backdrop of their new local stealth taxes and cuts to front line services) running and running up, until and after the Olympics next year. It's evident that they decided on a disorderly retreat and chickened out. Errr... well done to them then.

This is the latest of a long line of such u-turns and all in surprisingly similar circumstances so you'd have thought they'd have learnt their lesson. Regular readers will recall this story from 2008 of the u-turn on the 14% salary rise the Council Leader awarded himself. And in 2007 Conservative councillors u-turned on the 18% salary rise they had awarded themselves. So at least they're consistent.

Thursday 7 April 2011

Livingstone Will Not Bring Back The Western Extension

Ken Livingstone. Labour's
Mayoral candidate
The excellent Adam Bienkov has scooped this exclusive story that Ken Livingstone will not seek to reinstate the Western Extension Zone (WEZ) of the congestion charge if he is elected as London's Mayor next year. This is good news.

It is estimated that reinstating the WEZ would cost up to £150 million. Ken Livingstone is quoted in the Scoop saying "I’d much rather spend that money on front line policing and keeping the fares down. And that’s the single most important thing at the moment to not do anything that takes money out of Londoners’ pockets."

Boris has introduced record travel fare hikes and is cutting hundreds of front line police officers. Both of these actions are contrary to his pre- election promises and he has no public mandate for them.

Ken Livingstone is looking at Londoners' priorities and listening to what people tell him. Spending this money on policing and stopping Boris' fare increases is exactly the right thing to do.

H&F Conservatives Award £75,000 "Advertising" And "Advertorial" Contract To Fulham & Hammersmith Chronicle

Last Monday, the Conservative Leader of H&F Council signed an "urgent decision" order awarding £75,000.00 a year of tax payers' money to be spent on advertising and propaganda in the pages of the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle.

At the last local elections my Labour colleagues and I made a manifesto commitment to limit all Council advertising spend to that which it is obliged to do by law - such as publicising planning applications, etc. I therefore believe it is wrong for the Conservatives to seek to tie the hands of any future Labour Administration on this matter and will take every possible measure and undertake every possible legal action to stop this unnecessary spend if the electorate makes Labour the local administration in 2014.

H&F Council claims that £36,500.00 of this new contract is for statutory notices. So that leaves £38,500.00 for propaganda and this figure doesn't include the costs of H&F council's press officers' pay, national insurance and pension contributions who will still be writing their spin.

It was just six weeks ago that H&F Conservatives announced draconian cuts to local police, schools, Sure Start, voluntary groups, elderly and disabled people's care and environmental services. Surely someone in the Administration realises that it is an insult to those suffering the consequences of those cuts to waste £38,500.00 on a propaganda contract?

Chris Underwood of the Shepherds Bush Blog gives this detailed report and tells us H&F Council's spin doctors may now actually be working in the Chronicle's new Hammersmith offices in a move that begs the question surely this relationship is too close for comfort? You can read the Council's version of events here.

The Chronicle began discussions with H&F Council and senior Conservative Administration Councillors about a year ago. Around that time the Tory Chair of a Parliamentary Select Committee had accused H&F Conservatives of publishing "propaganda on the rates." When the government made it clear that they would force H&F Conservatives to close down H&F News the Administration sought loop holds in the law that would allow it to continue with its Town Hall Pravda.

The Chronicle was amongst several other media outlets that bid for the advertising and advertorial contract. H&F Council claims it will allow them to "communicate to residents in space set aside and clearly signposted for public service information." Simon Edgley, Managing Director of Trinity Mirror Southern, is quoted on the Council's website saying: “We are not only absolutely delighted to sign this agreement, but also that our titles and websites will play such a significant part in ensuring that residents of Hammersmith & Fulham remain appropriately informed.”

I do appreciate the difficult financial circumstances all newspaper owners face. Increased competition from web based media and an economic situation that is squeezing advertising spend have put many papers out of business. So £75,000.00 of public money would be a welcome addition to the Chronicle's revenue. H&F News had also raised revenue by selling advertising, sponsorship and promotions. If all of that money has gone to the Chronicle then I can see why this deal is seen by them as very attractive.

However, I for one feel deeply uncomfortable with the propaganda element of this deal. To date, H&F Conservatives have used H&F News to spread "political propaganda" and blatantly mislead members of the public.  What will the Chronicle do if the Council uses its paid for "public service information" pages in the Chronicle to do the same? Will it run another story elsewhere in the same paper attacking the Council's claims? Have these negotiations already affected the nature of the Chronicle's reporting over the last year? How will this close relationship affect the stories the Chronicle choses to report and how it reports them in the future? I'll leave you the readers to judge but this signifies a different type of relationship between H&F Council and the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle to how it was previously up and until the acclaimed  "proper paper" campaign which the Chronicle ran against the local authority last year.

There are real concerns about how our Council has approached this. We don't live in North Korea or Libya and I strongly believe that in a free democratic society governments (national or local) should not publish their own media that puts their spin on their actions.  It was wrong when it happened in H&F News and it will still be wrong if propaganda appears in the pages of a local paper. And, given these difficult financial times this is quite obviously a waste of tax payers' money. I will report more as this story unfolds.