Friday 19 August 2011

Record Rent Increases Bad For Economy, Bad For First Time Buyers And Damaging To Social Cohesion

The Guardian reports record rent hikes
Today's Guardian is reporting that rents in England and Wales have risen to a record £705 per month with the sharpest rises in the South East. This is a sign of the chronic housing shortages and policy failure. It will have a detrimental effect on households at risk of eviction because of the government's controversial cuts to housing benefits (HB) and Local Housing Allowance (LHA). It will also be critically damaging for first time buyers trying to save a deposit and get onto the property ladder.

It's useful to consider how Hammersmith and Fulham's Conservative Administration approaches the housing issue as its leading councillors have been the key influence on the current government's housing policies.

This time last year Shelter forecast that 134,000 UK households could find themselves evicted or forced out because of the government's approach to HB/LHA. Local councils, such as my own, were tasked with dealing with the fall-out. It quickly became apparent that they intended to shun their legal responsibilities. To start, they turned a deaf ear to the many experts and charities that had begun to demonstrate what is likely to happen, they failed to carry out any comprehensive assessment of the issue for themselves and eventually attacked those that had. All shocking stuff when you consider that there are 25,000 local households that will be adversely affected in some way. Today's rent figures will exaggerate the problems they face and add to their chances of eviction.

Meanwhile, our Council's failure to enforce its obligation for new schemes to have sufficient affordable, decent accommodation to buy and rent is also compounding this problem at a local level. Indeed, not only does it bow to the wishes of private property speculators but H&F Conservatives have also successfully ensured that their pet housing associations, such as Notting Hill Housing Group, equally fail in these duties - even when they have an opportunity to do the right thing.

Statistics currently demonstrate that the average person in their early twenties, will not be able to get onto the property ladder until they're in their early fifties. Meanwhile, literally hundreds of thousands of UK families who are bringing up their children in miserable housing conditions are just beginning to discover that this government has slimmed their chances of getting a decent affordable home and cut their rights as future tenants.

The next Labour government will inherit a housing emergency. One that will have a massive effect on our economy and social cohesion. Today's news underlines the importance of having a government and local councils that understands these problems and come forward with policy platforms able to take us in a different, better direction.

Monday 15 August 2011

Thumbs Down For Disappointing Town Hall Mark II

Photo construction from property firm King Street Regeneration
which is owned by Grainger Plc and Helical Bar Plc
About four months have passed since H&F Conservatives and their property speculator partner promised to go away and develop exciting new proposals for their infamous Town Hall office scheme. Now they’re back but the proposals are neither exciting nor that new.

The ridiculous bridge into Furnivall Gardens remains but it’s more worrying that the scheme still contains proposals for big, shiny, new and unnecessary offices for Town Hall bureaucrats. That fact alone has tied the hands of the negotiators and meant that Conservative councillors and their officials failed to deliver even the expected cut of five floors for each of the three residential blocks of flats. Instead, it has cut the number of flats by just 30 and appears to be heralding its major achievement as reducing only one tower block, close to the river, by just four floors.

Meanwhile, all of the following has been offered up just to suit the wish for council officials to get brand new offices:
  • The demolition of the cinema and replacement with a supermarket – probably a Tesco
  • The demolition of all 54 Pocklington Trust homes for the blind
  • The demolition of the King Street shops immediately in the block to the west of the cinema
  • No affordable housing
  • Blighting the Hammersmith skyline for generations to come
That’s some sacrifice and for what? As I mentioned before, the people leading this have become emotionally attached to getting new Town Hall offices. That’s inappropriate and we won’t get a decent regeneration scheme in King Street, that has wide ranging public support until those new council offices are dropped from this project.

Sunday 14 August 2011

H&F Conservatives Told They Must Restore The Sergeants And Give Us More Police

Just a few weeks ago, on the 17th July, it was announced that our Borough’s Safer Neighbourhood Police Teams (SNTs) will face a cut from 16 to 12 sergeants. The Cabinet Member responsible for policing in Hammersmith and Fulham is Cllr. Greg Smith (Con). He gave this quote “In these difficult economic times everyone has to do more for less and to be only losing four Safer Neighbourhoods Sergeants at a time when other boroughs are losing more is good news for Hammersmith and Fulham."

Good news?.. Really? Other similar "good news" cuts were made to crime fighting in the Council's budget last February. 

Last week Hammersmith and Fulham's brave police officers did an excellent job tackling disturbances whenever they arose around the Borough. They were supported from police officers who came from as far away as Wales and Hampshire.

The Borough will still need extra police when this has all died down. My Opposition Labour colleagues and I have been calling for that since long before the riots happened. We campaigned against police cuts in 2007, pledged more police in 2009 and explained how we would pay for them in our manifesto in 2010. Now, there are wide spread calls for more cops. Restoring the four police sergeants, who had played such a critical front line roles, should just be the start of having a more comprehensive strategy to tackle crime and disorder in our Borough.

Five years ago when Cllr. Greg Smith took on this important cabinet job he actually enjoyed the Labour Opposition’s support. He promised extra police and up to 80% cuts in crime. Now he appears to have been reduced to being an apologist for police cuts and rising crime. That strategy is in tatters. A telling incident occurred at the Cabinet Meeting on 18th April this year. Cllr. Smith and his colleague, the then Cabinet Member for Housing, explained that council homes are being sold off on an unspecified council estate because they thought crime was out of control and there had been a murder. That is an extremely odd crime reduction strategy and one that hadn’t been officially admitted in any published council documents. When Cllr. Smith was asked if this was indicative of his failure to deliver on his publicly stated crime pledges he became furious and responded with a particularly ill-advised four letter expletive. He appears to be under a lot of pressure.

Last year, crime rose again in Hammersmith and Fulham. The public expect those in power to focus on the future and what they will do next. So to begin, Cllr. Smith must get the Council he helps to run, to fund and restore the sergeant positions. I would suggest that money should come from savings elsewhere such as:  
  • Saving at least £600,000.00 by cutting council directors, super tri-borough directors and assistant directors jobs
  • Saving at least £1 million by getting rid of high paid consultants. The council admits it has failed to monitor consultancy contracts and has unknowingly paid out vast amounts of public money without being aware the sums were so high.
  • Saving at least £1.25 million by cutting the council's press office, shutting down the three glossy council magazines and ending the council's controversial propaganda budget.
  • Halting the £35 million new Town Hall offices scheme
There's many more savings that could be delivered. It is therefore eminently possible to invest more in crime fighting if the political will is there. I hope that Cllr. Smith and his colleagues find a new determination to do that. Currently it's likely that we will hear lots of tough talk in the coming days. But as the saying goes, “Talk is cheap.”

We had hoped to debate much of this at the last full council meeting on 29th June. But the Conservative led local authority packed the agenda and voted against our council motion without a single word being said. So, just for the record, should Labour win control of the Council in 2014, I stand by our promises and confirm we will invest more in crime prevention and policing than the current Conservative run Council. We will restore the sergeants and provide all of the Borough’s sixteen wards with extra 24/7 police task squad protection.

Friday 12 August 2011

Public Meeting To Save Hammersmith Riverfront: 6th September 2011

I have been sent this website from a new residents’ group in the Borough that is campaigning for a more reasonable approach to developing Hammersmith Embankment. Save Our Riverfront (SOR) is another non-party political campaign which appears to be following in the footsteps of Save Our Skyline (SOS).

The St. George subsidiary of Berkeley Homes purchased the Hammersmith Embankment site (which they have re-christened "Fulham Reach") last year and hopes to get planning permission for almost 750 properties. Those would be built up to 9 storeys high on one of the most sensitive sites in Hammersmith. You can read a full report about that here.

Feel free to click on the attached poster, print it out and put it in your window if you're concerned about St. George's plans.

Save Our Riverfront have arranged a public meeting at 7.00pm on Tuesday, 6th September 2011. It will be held at St. Augustine’s Church, 55 Fulham Palace Road. They are asking H&F Council to say no to this enormous scheme. I expect the meeting to be packed out and wish SOR luck in their aim of encouraging our Council to see sense.

Planning officers are currently writing up their recommendations in preparation for a report on the site which will be considered at the Planning Application’s Committee (PAC) on Wednesday, 14th September. Therefore residents wanting to influence the planning process should send their comments and objections in by either clicking here or email letters directly to the planning officer here and quote reference 2011/00407/COMB. The planning recomendations will be published here on Monday, 5th September. The PAC is a public meeting and I urge residents to attend. The details of where and exactly when can be found here.

Thursday 11 August 2011

Brave Borough Police Deserve Our Thanks And Support

By the middle of this week, many of the men and women that make up our Borough’s police force had been on duty for in excess of twenty hours. They faced hostile groups armed with baseball bats and batons as pockets of disturbance sprung up in a handful of locations around Hammersmith and Fulham. I have been contacted by many local people who wanted to find out what’s going on, some of them frightened, but all of them extremely grateful and proud of our police officers who put themselves in harms way to protect them, their families, their businesses and their property.

We’ve now had record numbers of police on the streets for several days. Added to the regular police constables, there are Community Support Officers, Safer Transport officers, CID officers, Crime and Drug Squad officers, Intelligence Unit officers, Football officers, special police constables and more. What is clear is that together, they are successfully managing to contain the violence and put a stop to this anarchic, materialistic criminality whenever it appears in our neighbourhoods.

Whatever the situation around the death of Mark Duggan, there is absolutely no excuse for the violence, robbery and looting that has taken place since. We can and must spend time later coming to a balanced and informed view about why this is happening and what needs to be done to stop it re-occurring. For now, enough is enough and we need order fully restored.

The police are asking local businesses to keep all video footage and ensure their cameras have sufficient storage. We should all note that the vast majority of people arrested in this Borough for these crimes are not youths. That said, it would still be enormously helpful if parents and carers would make every possible effort to ensure their children remain supervised - particularly at night. Residents with information they want to pass onto the police should call the Major Investigation Team on 020 8345 4142 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111. The police have also launched this website.

Chief Superintendent Lucy D'Orsi, our Borough Commander, has called a public meeting tonight to brief people what she and her team are doing on our behalfs. That will take place at 6:45 pm at St. Paul’s Church, Hammersmith. I may see you there.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Private Dealings And Broken Alliances Raise Questions About H&F Council’s Hammersmith Riverfront Plans

Queens Wharf with the St. George's Hammersmith Embankment
site further along the riverfront to the right
There we were last Wednesday night in a brand new fantasy world. This world was one in which Hammersmith and Fulham’s Conservative-run Council complained about a property speculator’s building proposals because of “inappropriate height and massing”, their “failure to provide a suitable affordable housing provision”, “excessive density”, lack of “residential amenity”, its “un-neighbourliness” and even how it “would harm the character and appearance of the conservation area.” Consequently, the 3rd August 2011 Planning Applications Committee (PAC) refused A2Dominion’s application to build 91 residential units at Queens Wharf, Hammersmith.

Initially there was surprise amongst the seasoned observers that had turned up to witness this unusual event. Now, the Conservative Administration was making arguments it had previously scorned when made by residents and Opposition councillors on countless other schemes. So what happened? Was this some sort of Road to Damascus style epiphany? Had they seen the light?

Well let’s consider what we know: Up until the summer of 2009, Westcity Plc owned Queens Wharf. They had bought it for over £30 million. H&F Council owns the freehold to the neighbouring Riverside Studios. On Thursday 13th March 2008, senior representatives of H&F Council met with Ira Rapp, Chief Executive of Westcity Plc, in Cannes on the French Riviera. The Council refused to provide minutes of that meeting but they did concede that they were discussing plans to construct a new building on the Queens Wharf and Riverside Studios sites - which they had been doing for some time. It later emerged that the Conservative Administration had also secretly offered up the “opportunity” to include hundreds of people’s homes on the Queen Caroline Estate as part of a much bigger riverside demolition and development. The Leader of the Council was forced to reluctantly admit that in this video filmed on 29th April 2009. Residents were deeply worried but the worldwide economic slow down intervened and it became difficult for property speculators to raise funds.

Westcity Plc hit financial issues too so, in the summer of 2009, Queens Wharf was sold to A2Dominion for the knock-down price of £12.8 million. On 29th July 2009 they put out a press release about their new purchase which said “A2Dominion is working in partnership with the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham on the scheme.”

I eventually met A2Dominion for a briefing meeting on 1st December 2009. Initially they had wanted to bring along their partner representatives from the Board of the Riverside Studios but I declined. They confirmed they were still working closely with H&F Council. They told me they hoped to have plans in front of PAC for a joint Riverside Studios/Queens Wharf scheme sometime after May 2010 – shortly after the local elections were out of the way (and when the Conservatives expected my fellow Hammersmith Broadway councillors and I to have lost our seats and be less able to oppose any undesirable schemes).

I next met A2Dominion eleven months later on 3rd November 2010. The expected plans had not been submitted to PAC and it was apparent the relationship between them and the Administration had soured. The joint Riverside Studios/Queens Wharf development was, for the moment, no more. Now, A2Dominion were focussing solely on the site they owned. At that meeting, A2Dominion told me that they had met a senior person from the Berkeley Group in the summer of 2010. He had told them that a senior H&F Conservative councillor now wanted the developer of the brownfield Hammersmith Embankment site to also develop the Riverside Studios and Queens Wharf sites. How he knew that is unclear but it was interesting that the St George division of the Berkeley Group later purchased the Hammersmith Embankment site in October 2010. I asked A2Dominion if they would sell the Queens Wharf site. (Having bought it for such a low price they might feel that was the easy option.) They gave an unequivocal “No” and said they were determined to build Queens Wharf for themselves.

I met A2Dominion for two more briefings on the 27th January and 24th May 2011; their relationship with H&F Council hadn’t improved.

So last week at the bizarre PAC meeting, I enquired how this broken relationship had affected the Council’s approach to A2Dominion’s plans. A visibly furious planning officer refused to answer the question, saying it was irrelevant as the committee could only consider the current plans before it. It was useful, however, to be shown pictures of the whole riverfront and for another planning officer to go on-record and say that Queens Wharf was the Borough’s “most sensitive site.” Presumably then, the neighbouring riverside sites are also sensitive?

Now, consider what’s happening a hundred metres or so down the road on Hammersmith Embankment. St George has submitted plans for a truly massive development of 744 residential flats which will be built up to 9 stories high. They have re-christened the site “Fulham Reach.” Included in their proposals are plans to build accommodation they describe as "Manhattan Apartments." These tiny dwellings are more reminiscent of Tokyo micro-flats than anything I've ever seen in New York - I cannot see how they will add anything to our area. The PAC will discuss and vote on those plans at its next meeting on Wednesday, 14 September. All indications are that H&F’s Conservative-run Council actually intends to grant permission for this scheme.

Planning pictures attached to HAMRA's objection letter.
Like many others, the Hammersmith Mall Residents Association (HAMRA) has already lodged its objections. They make some excellent points. In particular they say they have “reviewed all the representations to that section of the Core Strategy” that deals with the “Fulham Reach” site. HAMRA details how “the majority stated they did not want large-scale buildings on this site. The only representation in favour of having larger buildings was made by St George... Their representation went on to request that the allowed height of buildings be changed to 33.6m, the same height as Blocks B, D and F in the current application. Why, when all but one of the representations asks for smaller buildings, did the Core Strategy document change to suit the developer of the site, rather than respecting the generally held views of local residents?” An insightful question…

Indeed, it appears St. George’s “Fulham Reach” scheme has these familiar failings:
  • “inappropriate height and massing”
  • “failure to provide a suitable affordable housing provision”
  • “excessive density”
  • lack of “residential amenity”
  • “un-neighbourliness”
  • harm to “the character and appearance of the conservation area.”
There’s a more thorough critique of St. George's proposed scheme in the excellent objection letter from Melanie Whitlock, the Chair of the Hammersmith Society. To view it you need to go to the “Consultations” section of their website and click on the Hammersmith Embankment link.

Planning officers are currently writing up their recommendations about the Hammersmith Embankment application. Residents wishing to try and influence the planning process should send their comments and objections in by either clicking here or email letters directly to the planning officer here and quote reference 2011/00407/COMB. I advise that those should be sent in by Friday, 2nd September as the planning papers will be published here on Monday, 5th September but it is still possible to hand comments and objections in right up to the moment the PAC sits at 7.00pm on 14 September.

Hammersmith and Fulham's Conservative Administration intends to develop large tracts of the Hammersmith's riverfront. If you get the chance, take a moment to stand on the Barnes side of the river bank next to Hammersmith Bridge. Then consider that over the next few years they hope to start demolishing and building new schemes stretching from the left of your view point at the Town Hall, to the Queen Caroline Estate, Queens Wharf, the Riverside Studios and Hammersmith Embankment (Fulham Reach) on the right of your view. That’s an awful lot of building works and we haven't even considered their plans for Fulham or Shepherds Bush. Currently, all of their schemes share one common characteristic: they're all against the wishes of every residents’ association, every amenity group and the majority of local people in the affected area. That cannot be a good way for an elected local council to behave.

If you’re concerned about the Hammersmith Embankment scheme and want to let H&F Council’s decision makers see the strength of public concern please come to the next PAC meeting which will be held at Hammersmith Town Hall at 7.00pm on Wednesday, 14th September. I’ll see you there.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Cynical Conservatives Spent Thousands More On Legal Fees Fighting Parents Than On The Children’s Service They Were Trying To End

Cllr. PJ Murphy (Lab) uncovered how H&F Council
wasted thousands of pounds fighting parents
campaigning for children's centers
Councillor PJ Murphy (Lab) has forced officials at H&F Council to come clean and admit they spent £67,480.00 on legal fees unsuccessfully trying to stop parents challenging the Conservative Administration’s decision to all but end the Sure Start programme at the Cathnor Park Children’s Centre.

Earlier this year H&F Conservatives slashed the £455,000.00 annual budget for the Cathnor Park centre to just £19,000.00 as part of their overall £3.4 million cuts programme to all the Borough’s children’s centres. After much local anger they then said they would raise the Cathnor Park centre’s funding to £50,000.00. However it now turns out H&F Council spend nearly £20,000.00 more than this trying to fight a Judicial Review of their decision by local parents determined to show the injustice of H&F Conservatives' controversial decision.

On 1st July, Mr. Justice Collins indicated that the parents had an arguable case and told the Conservative run local authority that its actions maybe unlawful. H&F Council capitulated and gave in to parents demands.

The costs of our Council’s futile legal endeavour break down as follows:
  • H&F Council’s in-house legal fees £25,848.00
  • Court fees of £80.00
  • Counsel’s fees £41,552.00
Many local residents will be astonished that the Administration chose to waste nearly £70,000.00 of tax payers’ money fighting local parents in the High Court while leaving the majority of the Borough’s other children’s centres each with only £19,000.00 to run severely scaled down children's services.