Thursday 22 December 2011

H&F Council's Wins Private Eye's Annual Rotten Borough Award For Second Consecutive Year

The Conservative run Council has again won
Private Eye's annual award
Hammersmith and Fulham Council has made Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs section again - for a fourteenth time. This time for winning one of the 2011 Rotten Borough Annual Awards.

The dubious accolade was given because the Conservative run Council closed a support centre for Afghan refugees without taking any care or thought about where they could go for help. The Administration argued it was okay to do this because the refugees could go to the Southern Afghan Club instead. But that turned out to be a dog fanciers' club for those that particularly admired Afghan hounds. You can read more about that and the other heartless advice they offered by clicking here.

This is the second year in a row that H&F Council has made the Rotten Borough Annual Awards pages. In 2010 it found itself winning under the Retiree of the Year category. That was awarded to Mr. Nick Johnson, one of H&F Council's long standing "full time" "consultants". In 2007 he retired as the Chief Executive of Bexley Council at the tender age of 54 because of ill health - which entitled him to draw his generous pension. But he then popped up in Hammersmith and Fulham fourteen weeks later as a consultant Chief Executive. H&F Council has now paid him an amount of money that is roughly the same sum as equivalent to a 2% council tax cut for every household in the Borough since he started working here in 2008 .

You can read more about Private Eye's Rotten Borough Awards in its Christmas edition (no 1304) which is available at all good newsagents.

Friday 16 December 2011

Town Hall Planning Debacle: GLA Slaps H&F Conservatives In The Face

H&F Conservatives' Town Hall Scheme
stopped - or at least "kicked into the long grass"
H&F Conservatives’ Town Hall office and demolition scheme has been stopped – for now. The Greater London Authority was apparently about to refuse the controversial scheme which was granted planning permission by H&F's Conservative councillors on 30th November. The GLA had reached the conclusion that it breached their regional planning rules - as well as those of this Borough. However, H&F Conservatives pleaded with Mayor Boris Johnson to let them "withdraw" it instead "until further notice." He agreed and so has allowed them the opportunity to bring it back at some future point without the public currently seeing all of the GLA's criticisms. It is still a "live planning application."

So sadly this is not our VE day, it's more like D Day instead. But it is still a battle victory and a humiliating slap in the face for the Conservative Administration, their planning officials and for those Conservative Councillors that block voted it through, without asking a single testing question.

There appears to have been some intriguing goings-on behind the scenes. I understand that Mayor Boris Johnson (Con) was furious at having this issue land on his desk just five months before the Mayoral and GLA elections. Thousands of residents from across south west London have protested about it and were emailing the him in droves. Indeed many, including actress Vanessa Redgrave, were taking part in a vigil outside City Hall only yesterday. A reliable source told me that Mayor Johnson and leading members of H&F's Administration have been engaged in "heated discussions." It has now been "kicked into the long grass."

However, H&F's Conservative Administration needs to rip these plans up, drop their £35m office project and agree to protect the cinema, the park, the skyline and the homes they were going to demolish. They should use this opportunity to start fresh talks with residents about what might work best. That's what I will do should Labour win control of the Council  on 1st May 2014 - assuming H&F Conservatives haven’t been allowed to grant a further planning permission by then.

For now, we must understand exactly what concerns the GLA raised about this project. Those need to be published so Hammersmith and Fulham's Conservative Administration can properly be held to account should they bring this back after the Mayoral election or propose anything similar during the next two and a half years.

There also needs to be an inquiry into the money that's been wasted on this scheme. Senior Conservative councillors and their officials have been working on it since 2006. They have spend millions of tax pounds on consultants, trips abroad to meet property speculators and time putting it all together. On top of that, they were in the process of offering property speculators well over £70m of public land to make this scheme go through.

Anyone that attended the Planning Committee on 30th November would have got a strong whiff of the weakness of the Administration’s case. This is a gargantuan mess. We need to understand how they got it so wrong and how that was allowed to happen consistently during the five years they all worked on it. And when we do, maybe there will be some resignations from the Cabinet Members and senior officials that were behind this project as well as the Planning Committee members that voted this scheme through.

You can read more about this in The Standard, the Shepherds Bush Blog and the local Chronicle.

Monday 12 December 2011

How H&F Labour Will Cut Council Taxes Without The Conservatives' Octopus Tactics

Labour's campaign for cuts in
Council Taxes
Over the last year my fellow Labour councillors and I have resumed our campaign for cuts in council taxes. Times are tough but the council has the money to do it. Today the Council announced that it will cut roughly £30 from the average band ‘D’ council tax bill. That’s a move in the right direction and I'm sure it will win them some easy headlines.

But H&F Conservatives are like an octopus that gives with one arm but rifles through your pockets and takes your money with its seven others. Early on their Administration introduced nearly 600 new or higher inflation busting stealth taxes. The Telegraph have put them on their List of Parking Shame for, until this year, introducing nearly 60% hikes in charges in a single year; elderly and disabled people now pay £12.40 an hour if they need home care; and even introduced new charges this year for people who want to use a personal trainer in our parks. The real mission for H&F Conservatives should be how can they genuinely put more money back into the pockets of hard pressed households up and down the Borough.

Consider that roughly £600,000 is equivalent to a 1% council tax cut in this Borough, It’s therefore easy to understand the scope for further cuts if you look at what our money has been wasted on in recent years. Here’s a list:
  • Wasted £35million on the unwanted Hammersmith Town Hall office scheme by handing over expensive council owned land and paying for much of the work undertaken by officials and professionals
  • Wasted up to £12million on employing unnecessary consultants that the council admitted were paid despite many no longer doing any necessary work for the council.
  • Wasted £5million a year on what a leading Tory MP said was political propaganda on the rates
  • Giving senior bureaucrats 16% salary rises and, at an average of £220,000 a year and therefore employing the highest paid senior council bureaucrats in the UK
  • They even admitted wasting £250,000.00 because they failed to turn the lights off in the Town Hall extension
H&F Council have now paid this consultant almost the same as a 2% council tax cut for every Borough household. And the culture around respecting public money is wrong when they argue it’s OK to spent £7,000 on a booze up that started on a Monday afternoon. There is more and it can be stopped.

Labour will cut Council Taxes should we win the election in 2014. We will use zero based budgeting to access all H&F Council’s expenditure and will strip out waste such as that listed above.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Town Hall Scheme On Boris Johnson's Desk After H&F Conservatives' Predictable "Yes" Vote

Residents queueing to get into the planning meeting just
before the 7.00pm start. Dozens were barred because
H&F Council booked too small a room
to accommodate everyone
Well over 400 Hammersmith residents turned out to a special session of the Planning Applications Committee (PAC) last week. They had come to hear the arguments the Conservative Administration would use to justify their office and tower block scheme. But, as one leading resident later wrote: council “officers offered no real analysis or justification for their recommendations” adding we have “rarely heard such a display of double-speak and flummery.” Needless to say, none of that stopped all seven Conservative councillors on PAC from somewhat predictably block voting their own Administration’s plan through. Labour’s three PAC members voted against. Now the decision goes to Mayor Boris Johnson (Con).

The Mayor has to review this scheme, not least because the Council has a clear conflict of interests. Boris Johnson has the power to instruct H&F Council to refuse permission. If he looks at the evidence objectively then it’s hard to see him doing anything other than that. But many residents fear that Boris Johnson’s close relationship with H&F Conservatives could be an obstacle. The Mayor and H&F Conservatives work closely on policy together, H&F Council hosted Boris Johnson’s campaign day, the Council Leader worked on the Mayor’s Audit panel and is said to be chairing his re-election committee.

The scheme could also be called in by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. But many residents are equally wary of that, noting that this post is currently held by Mr. Eric Pickles MP (Con). He has described H&F Council as the apple in his eye and even made the Council Leader the Chair of his Innovation Unit.

None of that should affect the process but I understand why residents are concerned. H&F Council’s PAC meeting looked like a stitch-up from beginning to end and has left many with little more than contempt for the way the Administration and Conservative PAC members have acted. I cannot recall witnessing such a thoroughly disingenuous approach to any planning application – and that’s really saying something. I therefore think there should be an independent investigation of what has gone on.

Over 1,300 residents, local community groups and English Heritage had written in to offer their criticisms of the project. English Heritage had taken the unusual step of detailing why this scheme will cause “considerable harm” to the environment. But none of that appeared to matter. The meeting was characterised by Conservative PAC members lining up to ask planted questions and planning officers then nervously responding with their often rehearsed answers. Nobody in the audience had any confidence that any of their concerns were being properly dealt with.

The scheme is the end result of four years’ of negotiations which had been led by Cllr. Mark Loveday, H&F Conservatives’ Chief Whip and Cabinet Member for Strategy and Nigel Pallace, the Director of the Council’s Environment and Planning Department. Driving it all was the Administration’s desire for £35m of new offices for Town Hall bureaucrats. To get those, the Conservative Administration had traded £70m land, will agree to CPO and demolish homes, shops and the cinema; it had agreed to build on a quarter of the riverside park; and for its chosen developer to build tower bocks reaching up to 15 storeys high into the Hammersmith skyline. It is a ridiculous deal and it’s hard to find anyone that supports it other than the Conservative Administration or the developer.

I asked Nigel Pallace how the process had worked, what minutes had been kept of the many private meetings with the developer and who had been involved? Notably, I wanted to know what had come first, the deal or the changes to the Local Development Framework (LDF) and justifications for the scheme his officials are using to recommend “approval”? His response was long and didn’t answer my questions. I asked him another four times. But each time he gave a similar answer. He talked about an earlier scheme that he had worked on with some of my colleagues in a previous Labour Administration - the subtext of all that appeared to be to try and link the current Labour Opposition into this current scheme. A young Conservative councillor pounced on that and tried to articulate an accusation. But Mr. Pallace knew all too well that this was irrelevant; that those people behind the 2002 scheme had listened and dropped it; and that it was me, Cllr. Mike Cartwright (Lab) and former Cllr. Chris Allen (Lab) who ensured that scheme was killed as soon as we found out about it. Labour's last Borough manifesto confirmed that this scheme would be dead forever - had we won the elections last year.

By the time Mr. Pallace had finished his remarks I think many in the audience were of the view that officials had changed the LDF and written their justifications with the sole aim of recommending approval for the Administration’s scheme - not that he said any of that.

Ravenscourt Park ward Councillor Lucy Ivimy (Con) added further clarification. She told the PAC that “the report is deeply defective. It contains basic errors of fact; it appears to accept without criticism arguments and evidence put forward by the applicants, and contains arguments that bear all the hallmarks of being disingenuous. I note that those responsible for producing it, report to that same executive which has been the main moving force for the council behind these proposals, and I wonder what influence that executive has had on the professional judgement of officers.”

Last May, Cllr. Ivimy was sacked from her job in that Executive as the Administration’s Cabinet Member for Housing. Her time in that role made her evidence all the more insightful and powerful. She gave an excellent speech but it really is a shame that she didn’t express similar sentiments when she was Chair of the PAC. Then she ruthlessly forced through a wide variety of awful schemes against hundreds of residents wishes including this one here. Later as a voting member of the PAC, Cllr. Ivimy he didn't express any concerns or even support her own constituents when she voted through these terrible schemes here and here.

Councillor Mark Loveday, the Conservative Chief Whip and the lead Administration councillor for the scheme, was stood at the back of the room eyeing the proceedings at the front. He would have been an anonymous figure for all but the councillors and a few residents.

I wondered what pressure the Conservative PAC members must feel given the importance of this scheme to senior members of their Administration.

The vote took place just before midnight. It had been a long night and it was impressive to see hundreds of people wait so long to see the outcome. Indeed, dozens had been barred from entering the smaller hall the Council had booked at Latymer Upper School. But the outcome was thoroughly predictable. So much so that as we left members of Save Our Skyline (SOS) were stood by the door handing out a press release printed prior to the meeting but criticising the vote that had just happened.

Residents can ask Mayor Boris Johnson to refuse this scheme by emailing Mr. Giles Dolphin here. I think it’s worth copying in Boris Johnson at this email address too. As well as that, residents should write to The Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. You can email him by clicking here. If you want to consider what others are saying the main objections are you can see those here on SOS’ website.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

“A Disaster:” “Britain’s Experiment In Austerity”

Professor Krugman's analysis from across the Atlantic
offers an alternative view of how Britain should
rise to its economic challenges
Professor Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist, has again reported on the British economy - his first analysis since the Autumn Statement. He’s not a fan of the Conservative/Lib Dem government’s austerity experiment which he says “will depress the economy even further in the short run, leading to further depression of long-run potential.” You can read his article by clicking here.

Writing in the New York Times Professor Krugman notes that things are unlikely to change because “the truly awful thing is that Cameron and Osborne are so deeply identified with the austerity doctrine that they can’t change course without effectively destroying themselves politically.” Professor Krugman has also spotted that the government is well aware of the effects its policies are having and has effectively admitted that in the latest report from the Office of Budget Responsibility. If so it makes our current economic predicament even more depressing.  

It is admirable that Professor Krugman resisted all attempts to crow that he told us so. But he offered his first warning about the government’s austerity programme less than six months after the last election saying it “will lead to a renewed economic slump” and has charted what's actually happening since.

The Conservative/LibDem government had effectively gambled that Britain could get away with running an austerity budget, not least, because they expected our major trading partners would have sufficient growth to pull us along in their slip stream. But our biggest partners are the European Union and the United States and they are hardly in a position to do that. We therefore need another economic plan, but as Professor Krugman pointed out, that’s unlikely to come from Mr. Cameron and Mr. Osborne.

Labour’s Ed Ball argues that there is a better way. It is without doubt in our national interests that we have a thorough public debate on how that might work and what we do next.