Thursday 31 May 2012

Update On Local Hospital Closures

Charing Cross Hospital's A&E up for closure.
There is more news on the likely closures of local accident and emergency services. As previously reported, the government have charged NHS North West London with undertaking a health service reorganisation. That will see all north west London's hospitals competing with each other and eventually losing some crucial services.

Residents in our Borough will be particularly interested in the proposed cuts being considered for Charing Cross, Hammersmith and Chelsea & Westminster hospitals.

Rory Vaughan is H&F Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Member for Health and Adult Social Services. Hammersmith and Fulham Council sent him as a representative to NHS NW London’s regional meeting to find out more about what’s being planned. Here’s his report.

Cllr. Rory Vaughan (Lab)
Councillor Rory Vaughan’s Report on the Joint Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting of 17th May 2012
NHS North West London have carried out more work on the government's proposed cuts to local health services since they last presented their views to Hammersmith and Fulham’s Borough select committee on 17th April.

NHS NW London say they will be consulting on three options for change. All three involve closing Hammersmith Hospital's Accident and Emergency department - although they claim it will remain as a ‘specialist’ hospital.

They are considering cuts to hospital services across the north west London administrative area but these are the particular closure options which will have the greatest affect to our Borough residents: 
  1. Their preferred option will be to close Charing Cross Hospital’s accident and emergency department rather than Chelsea and Westminster’s.
  2. Their second option is the reverse of that and end A&E services at Chelsea and Westminster but keep those at Charing Cross
  3. Their third option is again to close Charing Cross Hospital’s A&E and not Chelsea and Westminster’s but that plan also involves keeping Ealing Hospital’s A&E instead of the one at West Middlesex.
Consultation on all three options will start on 2nd July 2012 and end on 6th October 2012. They have extended the consultation period to fourteen weeks, from the usual twelve, due to the summer holidays and Olympics.  There will be two consultation sessions in each borough and one in each of the London boroughs of Wandsworth, Richmond and Kingston - whose residents are also affected.

Monday 28 May 2012

No Resignations Yet After Judge Says H&F Council's Shepherds Bush Market Plans Are Unlawful

H&F Conservatives indicate they still want to demolish these
much loved shops despite High Court judgement.
H&F Conservatives’ terrible scheme to demolish Shepherds Bush Market has been ruled as unlawful in the High Court. The judgement was made on Friday after the Goldhawk Road Shopkeepers successfully brought a judicial review of H&F Council’s planning processes. However, H&F Council have indicated that they are likely to try and ignore Mr. Justice Wilkie's judgement in this press statement also released on Friday morning.

Even by the Council’s low standards, that is an astonishing position to take. The finances alone are hard to justify when you consider that H&F Council have spent £600,000 on legal fees, propaganda and officers' time - a sum equivalent to a 1% council tax cut for every Borough household.

The Administration's position is sadly consistent with their long-standing approach of ignoring the views of all that are against this scheme - as happened when the Goldhawk Road traders brought a petition to this Borough Cabinet Meeting in November 2010.

Mr. Justice Wilkie has handed down a damning indictment of H&F Council's behaviour. It has made the roles of the leading Conservatives and lead officials behind this scheme untenable.

It is worth noting that it is the same gang of individuals in the Council behind this scheme as were behind the Town Hall Skyscrapers scheme, the West Kensington scheme, the Fulham Reach scheme, the Goldhawk Industrial Estate scheme, the Hammersmith Grove office towers and many others. They have also introduced dubious new planning rules to make it harder for elected representatives to examine their all-too-close relationships with property speculators. Those responsible for all this in the Administration must listen to the traders, to Shepherds Bush residents and to the judge or they should resign. I will be perusing this with the authorities.

Meanwhile, here is the press release from the Goldhawk Road traders. And, if you're prepared to register, this is a very interesting report too.

Hammersmith Flyover Re-Opens But It's Time For A Tunnel

Hammersmith Flyover: H&F Conservatives reluctant to
seriously consider A4 tunnel as they calculate cost
of  losing advertising revenue
The engineering works to enable the full re‑opening of the Hammersmith flyover has been completed and the flyover is now open to all vehicles. The flyover was dramatically closed on 23rd December last year and had only been taking limited traffic since January.

An investigation is now taking place by H&F's Labour Opposition to find out why H&F Council had failed to prepare for the possibility of closure when they had admitted they knew about this since last summer. Hammersmith residents suffered traffic gridlock and heightened levels of air pollution, even in residential streets, as cars and lorries sought new rat-runs to get off the A4. 

The flyover has about seven years of life left in it. After that it will need a refurbishment or there will need to be another traffic solution. My fellow Labour councillors and I are now campaigning for an alternative scheme involving sinking the A4 into a tunnel. At the Full Council Meeting on 25th January this year we called on the Council to present a united cross-party front and to:
  • "Request the Greater London Authority to carry out an investigation into the circumstances regarding the deterioration and closure of the flyover.
  • Request that the Mayor carry out a feasibility study into putting the A4 into a tunnel through central Hammersmith."
Sadly, H&F Conservatives voted that proposal down. I guess they're not interested in doing that as they don't want to lose the £1m revenue they get from H&F Council's new electronic advertising beacons as you can read here.

Transport for London now report that the current works to fix the Hammersmith Flyover have involved "the installation of concrete barriers as well as 22 kilometres of new cables within the structure to supplement the load capacity." 

Further updates about London’s traffic information can be found here.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Increased Hardship Looms For Most Needing A New, Decent Home To Buy Or Rent

Chances of a new home diminish for most as
H&F Conservatives' housing strategy prioritises
part-time homes for international investors
Keen to find out more details behind H&F’s new housing strategies both Colin Aherne (Lab) and I attended Monday night’s Borough Cabinet Meeting. Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot of detail on offer.

We began by asking about changes to social housing. Cllr. Andrew Johnson (Con), H&F’s Cabinet Member for Housing, was quick into the rhetoric and stuck with it throughout. “The new housing allocations measures will allow people on the housing waiting list to stand a realistic chance of getting a new home” he proclaimed. But H&F’s Conservative Administration have actually become infamous for drastically cutting the supply of affordable social housing. There are currently 10,000 households on the waiting list but H&F now only lets just a few dozens of new local properties each year so “what number crunching had his housing officials come up with that meant his use of the word 'realistic' is true?” I asked. Cllr. Johnson gazed back dumbfounded. The looks on his officials' faces expressed a surprising nervousness as it gradually became apparent there has been no serious analysis of the current allocations system or any detailed forecasting of how things will be if changed.

Cllr. Colin Aherne tried to find out about the expected numbers of homes available to local residents now that H&F Conservatives were pulling out of LOCATA (which is a mostly West London scheme used for allocating social homes across the area). “Would it be more or less and if so what are the estimated numbers?” he queried. Cllr. Johnson's face went blank and after a few too many seconds had passed he said he thought it would be more but he didn’t have any figures. His officials weren't able to help him either.

I then asked about what analysis had led Cllr. Johnson and his cabinet colleagues to pick the round number of £40,000 as a household income limit which would be used in future to block those families earning above it from getting onto the social housing waiting list. That had been the key feature of the publicity the Council had trailed last week. “Why that particular figure?” “How many local people did his estimates say that would affect?” “How had he and his officials specifically categorised those families this is likely to affect?” Did the £40k ceiling have a disproportionately negative affect on any local groups?” - such as families with two working parents - “and if so, how many?” Cllr. Johnson said he didn’t know and joked about plucking that figure out of thin air before admitting that no such analysis had been undertaken on any of that either. There is certainly no number crunching in the Cabinet Report (see page 124 here) or in the impact assessments (see page 12 here).

By now almost 25 minutes had passed and Cllr. Mark Loveday, H&F Conservatives’ Whip, could see the hole Cllr. Johnson was digging for himself. So, he leaped right into it alongside him. “Why are you asking all these questions?” he shouted up at my Opposition colleague and I. “What’s your figure?” he said jabbing his finger. I suppose picking an unnecessary row is one method of deflecting attention from a colleague’s dismal performance but it’s not necessarily a good one. It turned out Cllr. Loveday didn’t know the answers to those questions either.

It is the job of oppositions in all democracies to hold those in power to account. I’m genuinely interested to see any evidence they used as a base for their conclusions. Going by Monday night’s performance, that is minimal at best.

In fact H&F Conservatives are trying to end social housing in this Borough. They are removing over half of all people from the social housing waiting list. They are also ending the rights of others to get onto it. New tenants will no longer be secure in their homes as they will be evicted from two to five years. The council housing that does become available (and isn't sold off) will be let at near market rents which will exclude those hard working families even just above average incomes.

From now on H&F Council will place the majority of the families, it has a legal requirement to help, into expensive private flats supported by housing benefits which will often be hundreds of miles from home. The Council is already signing up leases in places like Nottingham, Margate and Reading. Meanwhile, while supply is diminishing, those left on the social housing waiting list will struggle to get one of the handfuls of homes offered out each year.

There is a housing crisis in London at the moment. At one end, the average twenty-something will be in their 50s by the time they buy their first home. At the other end, increasing numbers of people desperately try to overcome chronic overcrowding and homelessness and there are many different groups, such as key workers and young professionals, struggling to get a secure, decent home in between. There is a strategic urgency needed to fix this. Much of this rest at the door of the government and London Mayor. H&F Council's new Borough strategies could have a lot of influence too but do not even attempt to fix any of those problems.

In Hammersmith and Fulham virtually no genuinely affordable homes to buy or rent are being built at the moment. There are no serious measures to improve conditions in the private rented sector. Instead, H&F Conservatives' housing strategy prioritises building new luxury flats for international investors often in new, ugly tower blocks detested by local residents. That's hardly the right approach which is why my Labour colleagues and I will change that if the public vote us into office in 2014.

Thursday 17 May 2012

If We're Serious About Tackling Unemployment, Ending Child Poverty And Building A Strong Economy Then We Need To A Serious Child Care Strategy

Cllr. Caroline Needham (Lab)
Here is a guest report by Cllr. Caroline Needham, H&F Labour's Shadow Cabinet Member for Education and Children's Services:

London has some of the highest childcare costs in the country but Hammersmith and Fulham actually tops that with the average charge being £287 per week for a nursery place for a child under two years old. It is a challenge for all families to find a high standard of childcare that is affordable, local and flexible to the needs of the modern economy. So should national and local government do anything about this and if so what?

Ed Milliband has committed the Labour Party to undertaking a review of the role of childcare can play in our society’s capacity to achieve its social and economic goals. I believe our local council should do its bit too.   

Procuring high quality, flexible and affordable childcare is a concern for all families but it is particularly difficult for those households on low incomes. Research demonstrates that childcare is actually the key factor that helps parents on low incomes to: return to work; study; develop patterns of secure employment; and gain financial independence. The current lack of this causes too many parents to remain trapped in a vicious cycle of no-pay, to low-pay and back to no-pay again.

On 6 April 2012, the rules for Working Tax Credit for couples with children changed. Currently, couples have to work at least 16 hours a week between both parents. From April they will have had to increase their working hours to at least 24 hours, or they will lose their whole entitlement to Working Tax Credit which is worth £3,870 a year.

Figures from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs detail how there are 520 working families in both the Hammersmith and the Chelsea and Fulham parliamentary constituencies who will have lost income which therefore impacts adversely on the life chances of their 1,325 children.

Many parents will struggle to continue to afford childcare to enable them to work. So this government policy will also have had a negative impact on small businesses - many of whom will have had the stark choice of providing extra hours or losing staff who have young children.

In Hammersmith and Fulham there are a staggering 33,000.00 children living in poverty. The Borough’s Conservative Administration is still yet to announce any coherent policy to deal with this. The problem isn’t helped by the government’s incoherence which on the one hand has Children’s Centre partnerships and job centres encouraging parents back to work only for those parents to discover that it is impossible for them to now afford local child care.

We can look to Sweden, Norway and Denmark as good examples of tackling poverty and helping parents into work. In those countries parents can access affordable childcare from birth to age five. In Norway it is at a cost that's half the OECD average. In Denmark, childcare is free to the lowest-income families. In all cases there have been significant benefits to society, employers and their economies.

But in Hammersmith and Fulham the private sector is, for the majority of families, the only daytime child care option available. Apart from high prices, private nurseries have other hurdles too often requiring payment in advance, and/or hefty deposits, or some may even charge parents just for the privilege of being on their waiting list. Even those local families that earn above average incomes can struggle to get past those barriers.

Over the past thirty years the nature of work has changed. How people work, when they work and what employers expect is all different. London is a 24 hour city with many parents working shifts or long hours. Many find it impossible to continue their careers if they cannot source good child care that is sufficiently flexible, let alone affordable. The 5 day a week 8.00am to 6.00pm model of child care is often a mismatch for the ebbs and flows of modern working life.

Increasingly parents are choosing different models of working such as starting their own businesses, job-sharing or working from home. Parents are increasingly developing new resources based on their experience, for example, the social enterprise recruitment agency Women Like Us. This agency is currently lobbying for better range of part time opportunities in London in the light of evidence that part time work is disproportionately badly paid and is a ‘career choker’ for women.

Much of this is a problem that only national government has the scope to solve but there are intelligent, cost-effective measures that a good local council can do too. Over the next year I am beginning a wide ranging review of what that might be. The conclusions will be in Labour's next Borough manifesto. And, if the public vote us into office on 3rd May 2014, the new Labour Administration will put our childcare manifesto policies into action. If you would like to contact me about this area of policy development please email me here – I’d be happy to hear from you.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Conservatives' Housing Allocations Spin Ignores The Elephant In The Room

Yesterday's Evening Standard carried this thoughtful piece by Simon Jenkins. Here's my response:

“Dear Editor

The spotlight Simon Jenkins shined into the darker corners of London’s housing crisis is to be welcomed. But by asserting that Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s “priorities are the right ones” when allocating council homes it missed the critical aspect of their approach to social housing - rather than re-defining social housing for the modern age, the Conservative administration has set about ending it.

Consider that they have identified 3,500 council homes for demolition in their planning framework; or that they have controversially changed planning rules to halt the supply of social housing on new developments; or that the Council now auctions off council homes in its more desirable locations (58 sold last year) and you wonder exactly what affordable homes will be left to allocate?

Three hundred and sixty thousand Londoners are on social housing waiting lists with many currently living in squalid, overcrowded conditions. The government’s answer to this problem is to allow councils to discharge their duties by placing these households into private sector housing - sometimes at much greater public expense and hundreds of miles away from the essential support of their friends and families. This and much more of the government’s new approach was trail-blazed, prior to the last election, by Hammersmith and Fulham’s Council Leader in his influential pamphlet: Principles for Social Housing Reform.

And, far from seeking to help those most in need of a home our Borough’s leading Conservatives councillors closed down 12 homeless hostels, ended funding to homeless charities and even banned a Christmas homeless shelter - after describing the homeless as “a law and order issue”.

But let’s also consider current statistics on home ownership. Those tell how the average twenty-something will be in their 50s by the time they buy their first home. It is evident that fixing the supply problem is essential.

So Hammersmith and Fulham’s spin around its new policy for allocating homes begins to look like a very bad joke while they quietly reduce housing supplies. And as they continue to prioritize building luxury flats for international investors it’s hard to think anyone would believe they are in touch with Londoners’ actual housing priorities.

Yours faithfully
Cllr. Stephen Cowan, Labour Leader of the Opposition, the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham”

Friday 11 May 2012

Simon Hughes Joins Attack On H&F Conservatives' Tax-Payer Funded £7,000 Booze-Up But Shouldn't He Prioritise Sorting His Government's Trillion Pound Economic Nose-Dive?

A local resident sent me this extract from Simon Hughes' latest missive. It was sent out on the 30th April and, rather typically, he attacks all the main UK political parties. He lays into his Conservative Party allies with particular venom and tells how they have squandered public money. One example he cites is our very own Hammersmith and Fulham Council where H&F Conservatives famously wasted £7,184.00 of tax payers' money on a Monday afternoon booze-up.

Regular readers will recall that in the heat of all the public outrage, this caused local Conservatives to fall back onto the ill-advised argument that their afternoon shindig was good for staff morale. They said this despite record redundancies and pay freezes for front line staff and during a period when senior officials reaped the benefits of some of the largest inflation-busting salary rises in the UK.

While I suppose it is good to have the famously slippery Mr. Hughes leap onto this bandwagon, I think most people would be happier if the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Party focused on the big issue facing our country. He needs to put his energies into getting his government to drop its woefully inept austerity gamble with the UK economy. As Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman points out: "Now Britain is officially in double-dip recession, and has achieved the remarkable feat of doing worse this time around than it did in the 1930s... They will not change course, which means that Britain will continue on a death spiral of self-defeating austerity."

Friday 4 May 2012

Turmaine Landslide!

Local resident with Councillor Matt Turmaine who was
elected yesterday by the residents of Holywell ward, Watford
Please indulge me while I report that Matt Turmaine has been elected to represent the residents of Holywell, West Watford securing a fantastic 62% share of the vote. Previously a resident of Hammersmith and Fulham, Matt has long been an active and truly hardworking campaigner. He is also a thoroughly decent bloke.

Sadly for us in H&F Labour, Matt and his wife moved to Watford quite a while ago but that was good news for them and (if I may say so) has also turned out to be good news for the people he now represents. He will work hard for them and do them proud.

Well done to the newly elected Councillor Matt Turmaine and to all his Watford Labour colleagues.

H&F Conservatives Up Their Attacks On Homeless People And Try To Hoodwink Residents As They Seek To End Social Rented Housing

H&F Conservatives to ship homeless households
hundreds of miles away
New rules, being considered by H&F Council’s Conservative Administration, make it likely that the Borough will no longer provide any local shelter to anyone deemed homeless and they will not be allowed onto the housing waiting list either – no matter what their circumstances. The Guardian has written this comprehensive report about the Tories' plans.

People become homeless for many reasons. Different types of crisis such as illness, domestic violence, debt and mental breakdown can suddenly place a person or household in need of shelter. However, Hammersmith and Fulham Conservatives have developed an infamous record on homelessness and affordable housing. There are few local residents who will accept their explanations why they say these measures are necessary. Here’s a summary of what they've done to homeless people during the last six years:
  • In April 2007 H&F Conservatives slashed funding to local homeless charities
  • In the autumn of 2007 H&F Conservatives told Crisis, the homeless charity, and the BBC that they were forbidden to run a Christmas homeless shelter - describing homeless people as a “law and order issue.” They even refused to meet with directors of the Crisis to discuss their concerns.
  • Weeks later, during the 2007/08 Christmas holidays, H&F Conservatives announced they were shutting down and selling off twelve homeless hostels
  • By April 2009 reports were coming in that H&F Council was turning away homeless people and refusing to provide the statutory support they were legally obliged to offer
  • In January 2010 H&F Council was found guilty of maladministration having unlawfully turned away a pregnant domestic violence victim who was later found, in a state of terror, sleeping in a local park
  • By February 2010 charities were reporting that H&F Council had turned away more people (many victims of horrific cases) it was legally obliged to help
  • By July 2010 H&F Conservatives sought revenge on the charity that identified the maladministration case by removing all funding. In September the Administration instructed the Conservative Mayor to block any debate on their attempts to close the charity – despite a large crowd of homeless people turning up to hear their arguments. The Charity was shut down in November 2010
  • Meanwhile, from June 2010 onwards, H&F Conservatives refused to have any genuine review of the likely wave of homelessness following their governments cuts to housing benefits and local housing allowance- as you can read herehere, and here. Cllr. Lucy Ivimy, the then cabinet member for housing, even attacked Shelter the charity, and inferred it was disreputable
  • Last week it was announced that H&F Conservatives were planning to ship many homeless families, in receipt of housing benefits, hundreds of miles away to cities and towns such as Nottingham, Reading and Margate.
As a back drop to all this it’s worth noting that H&F Conservatives are ending the council’s affordable social rented housing supply - therefore making their tinkering with how they allocate it look a very bad joke as there are very few homes to actually allocate. To accomplish this they are demolishing 3,500 council homes, have fixed planning processes to block any new affordable rented homes, and are selling off council homes to property speculators – as featured on the BBC’s Homes Under The Hammer.

There is little doubt that that there is a housing crisis and that it is particularly bad in London. As well as all of the above, it is now statistically the case that the average Briton currently in their twenties won't get a foot on the property ladder until they are in their fifties. There needs to be a fresh approach to housing policy. One that critically increases the supply of affordable homes to buy and rent and one that gives all our citizens a chance of a decent secure home.

Thursday 3 May 2012

Time To Get Serious About London’s Future

Labour's Ken Livingstone offers the only chance
of a progressive plan for London
The food bank in my Borough is doing record business. It is tucked away in Fulham’s shrub lined streets. Walk past the pastel painted houses and polished Range Rovers, and amongst this tapestry of wealth are people humbled by their predicament into waiting for just enough charity for their families to get by - some having not eaten for days.

Nearby: local nurseries turn away 80% of the toddlers that once enjoyed the local Sure Start centres; those made homeless find services shut and government attitudes hardened; vital police sergeants have been made redundant; affordable homes are lined up for demolition; and teenagers struggle to stay in school now Education Maintenance Allowance has ended. This is a snapshot of London 2012, two years into Cameron’s, austerity-squeeze, double-dip-recession, most conservative of governments.

Commentators of all persuasions tell us the future looks bleak. Some say it could be like this past 2017. No wonder polls indicate a persistent sense of pessimism as Britons “fear their children will be worse off than they are” and “are losing faith that governments can fix this.” That maybe explains a little, why the tufted haired Tory - who could so easily be a character from a Bertie Wooster novel - is still in the race to be London’s Mayor.

At least some can have a laugh during these darker days.

But these are serious times and we need serious strategies to tackle London’s challenges. There has been scant evidence of those during the last four years. Take the current Mayor’s youth violence strategy, Time for Action. In 2008 it was hailed as a cornerstone to tackling the pernicious killings we have seen across the capital but last week its author characterised the Mayor’s approach as "superficial, unserious and seeking to do as little as possible." Or consider the Mayor’s policy to London’s emerging housing crisis which saw only 56 affordable homes started in the last six months. Even the Economist magazine, in an article supportive of the incumbent Mayor, accepts he has a habit of “losing interest” and whereas “Mr Livingstone ran London as a machine; Mr Johnson occasionally appears to forget where the levers are.”

Look across London and there is a strategic urgency for an effective government machine. Our city needs a serious approach to deliver new infrastructure and modern services to maintain its global lead in commerce, the arts and finance. We need serious strategies that deliver more and better affordable housing; lower crime; and clean, safe transport. We need to help kick start the economy by putting a little cash back into Londoners’ pockets with cheaper energy, cheaper rents and lower fares. And progressives across our city want to see child poverty, homelessness and the poisoning of our environment all taken seriously by London’s elected leaders.

This Thursday’s London elections offer a chance of change. That is the only thing that matters. The Conservatives’ offer is scarce of ambition, limited in scope and damaging to London’s prospects. Contrast that with Labour’s comprehensive manifesto that seeks to reassert London’s optimism about its capacity to deal with all its challenges. The only progressive choice is obvious.

But the outcome of Thursday’s elections will matter most to those at the crunch end of the Conservatives’ policies. A vote for Labour will give us a chance to bring new hope and tell them that, in Ken Livingstone, there’s a new Mayor in London and this one is on their side.

This article first appeared on LabourList.