Sunday 29 March 2015

Ten Months Since Labour Won Control Of "Cameron's Favourite Council" And Here's Some Of The Things We've Done

H&F Council's former Conservative administration designed the
borough's logo in the official colours of the Conservative Party: dark
blue and green. We've kept the logo but coloured it a patriotic
red, white and blue instead.
It's ten months since my fellow Labour councillors and I were hired by the residents of Hammersmith and Fulham to deliver this manifesto. Since then, we've been working to do what we said we'd do. Here's an update on some of what's happened so far.

The first thing we did was to announce an immediate review of the closure of the award winning Sulivan Primary School which was featured on BBC News here. We later saved the school and part of that story was featured in the Daily Mirror here.

My fellow Labour councillors and I then CUT our special responsibility allowances (our pay) by 10% - which is in direct contrast to what our Conservative predecessors did. We wanted to set the right tone when approaching the Council's £71 million budget gap we inherited.

Here's some of the other things we're doing or have already done:
  • Defending Charing Cross Hospital. We changed the Council's position from one of supporting the hospital's demolition and supporting the closure of its A&E under the Conservatives to one of vehemently opposing that. There are many things we are doing to expose how weak the government's hospital closure plans are and we have set up this public enquiry chaired by the formidable Michael Mansfield QC. Last year we asked people to stand with us to defend our hospital - that's exactly what we're doing.
  • Won over £50 million by renegotiating inherited property deals. By the middle of the summer a small team of my fellow Labour councillors and I had renegotiated £16.2 million in extra funds for our borough from deals Conservative councillors had already concluded and closed the book on. That figure is now over £50 million as the BBC's Sunday Politics programme featured here. We are working to win more. 
  • Put the largest ever number of council funded police onto H&F's streets. Using some of the money from the renegotiated property deals we've funded 44 police officers. It's not usually the council's job to do that but we believe it is important to support police numbers when the London Mayor is cutting them - we also promised we'd do that before last year's council elections.
  • Abolished charges for home care for disabled and elderly residents. This leaked memo in 2008 underlined the risk many elderly and disabled residents faced when the Conservative administration introduced charges for vital home care. We have cancelled the £12 per hour charge. We paid for that by shutting down council magazines, lamp post vanity banners and council propaganda posters as was featured in BBC Radio 4's You And Yours programme.
  • Put residents first not property developers. Unlike our predecessors, Labour councillors do not take any hospitality from people wanting to do business with the council. Despite a small number of some of the worst type of developers camping out in Mayor Boris Johnson's offices in an attempt to undercut residents and undercut the public purse, we have taken a responsibly firm line with property developers. We have also introduced new policies so: we publicly record who we meet on the council's website; we invite residents to take part in some of the meetings; and have given residents speaking rights at planning meetings.
  • Homes for residents not overseas investors. We have so far negotiated for 231 new affordable homes to be built and are working to get more. We halted council house sales to property speculators and cut rents from the Conservatives' proposed 4.58% increase to a 2.89% increase. We've also set up this independent housing commission so council house residents themselves can decide what happens to their homes in future.
  • New support for food banks, the homeless and the voluntary sector. The charity and voluntary sector plays an important role in our community so we have increased their budget by 25% which, when you add the cuts the Conservatives had planned, is 40% more funding than they would have had. We have started a new policy of supporting our local food banks and are also funding measures to reduce the causes of food poverty.
  • Budgets and efficiencies. The Lord Adonis review is helping deliver savings. We've also renegotiated contracts with suppliers, are paying down historic debt, cutting the numbers of expensive senior managers and are introducing zero based service reviews. There's much else we're doing too as you can read here. That means this year we have made £24 million in savings. These are tough times and we're determined to protect residents and do everything possible to make savings fairly.
  • Cuts in council charges and we're the only council in London to cut council tax. Meals and wheels prices rose by £700 a year under the Conservatives and they used some harsh tactics to deter usage. We've immediately cut meals on wheels prices by 33%. In June H&F's former CEO told me that the Conservatives had been planning to raise parking charges by 14.7%. We halted that and froze parking charges instead. We have in fact cut 16 council charges, frozen 139 other council charges and 90% of all council charges, as measured by the income they raise, will be cut in real terms. The council's former Conservative administration used fees and charges as stealth taxes. They had some of the highest and some of the maddest in the country. We halted their charges for residents using a fitness trainer in local parks this year and forced a re-think on this disgraceful new charge for grieving parents last year. We will continue to approach this area fairly. We've also cut council tax too - just as we promised - and are the only council in London to have done so.
  • Supporting local businesses. We're doing everything we can to be a business friendly administration and want Hammersmith and Fulham's economy to be stronger. We're supporting independent retailers and arranged a Festive Market which had 10,000 shoppers pack North End Road in just one day demonstrating how by working with local businesses we might be able to regenerate deteriorating shopping areas in the future. We have already begun to switch the council's purchasing power to support local businesses and are undertaking many other pro-business initiatives.

The above list is a summary of just some of the things my colleagues and I have done or are doing. There's much we're having to fix too. For example, in November 2013 Conservative councillors cut £465,000 from the street cleaning budget but arranged the cut in services to come in in June 2014 - just days after the local elections. They also extended their street cleaning contract with Serco to 2021. You can read more about that here.

I remain deeply grateful to all of the 22,163 residents who voted to give us the opportunity to do this job. My fellow Labour councillors and I are trying to do things differently for all residents - doing more things with local people rather than to them. You can find out more about that and what H&F Council is now doing in this booklet – the influence of our manifesto is evident. As you'll see, there's still much more to do.

Meanwhile, if you're keen to support a new local independent retailer, my top tip for those who like beautiful French cakes, pastries, chocolate and breads, is pop into the new Patisserie Sainte-Anne. It moved from Paris to King Street, Hammersmith last year and is a wonderful addition to our borough. 

Sunday 8 March 2015

What's Happening To Council Housing In Hammersmith and Fulham?

Residents chatting with the Rt Hon Keith Hill
H&F Conservatives have put two individually addressed mail shot letters out to council housing residents saying that council homes are about to be privatised by H&F's new Labour administration. That is patently untrue.

Last year my fellow Labour councillors and I promised in our manifesto (page 7) that we would "take immediate measures to protect council homes now and in the future" from unwanted demolition. We promised to "work with council housing residents to give them ownership of the land their homes are on" and said "each year the Conservatives have hiked rents and service charges up by significantly more than inflation. Labour will take action to keep rents and service charges low" - that is precisely what's happening. People now have the opportunity, with the new Residents' Housing Commission and the ballot of council housing residents, to decide what they want to happen next.

The reason H&F Conservatives are putting out such nonsense is simple. They are horrified that if residents gain control of the land their homes are on, a future Conservative run council would not be able to continue to sell it all off to property developers - just as they did before voters removed them from office last May.

During the eight years H&F Conservatives ran Hammersmith and Fulham Council it became one of the most controversial housing authorities in the UK. The Conservatives social cleansing activities made them infamous in the national press with for example, this video made by The Guardian in 2009 and this article in The Independent in 2010 telling people exactly what they were doing.

H&F Conservatives are the same people who tried to hoodwink local people into believing they had "saved" Charing Cross Hospital. Now they are spreading this new and completely cynical lie as a deliberate attempt to confuse council housing residents during this review.

What will the Residents' Housing Commission do?
The independent residents-led housing commission will review all the options available for the future of council housing in the borough. The Residents' Housing Commission is chaired by the Rt Hon Keith Hill and will consider with residents all the best possible options for giving them more responsibility and control of their homes, stopping unwanted demolition and keeping rents and service charges low. The Residents' Housing Commission will then make recommendations which will be voted on by council housing residents.
This new Labour administration's ethos is to try and do things with people - not to them. We want to give local people more power about what happens in their neighbourhoods and that includes people living in properties where the council owns the freehold and the lease.

What did H&F Conservatives do?
When running Hammersmith and Fulham council, Conservative councillors described council residents as “locked in a dependency and expectancy culture” and called council housing “subsidised housing”. That type of ignorant snobbery is one of the reasons why they reduced the numbers of council homes and want residents who usually live in social housing moved out.

In a borough like Hammersmith and Fulham the Conservatives could at some point in the future win an election. If they did, people on council estates would again find themselves treated like second class citizens and thousands of council homes would again be under threat. Here's what the Conservatives were doing until they lost control of H&F council last May:
  • H&F's Conservative councillors secretly offered over a third of all council homes to property developers for sale and demolition and only admitted it after being caught out by residents on video as you can view here.
  • Despite initially denying they were even in talks to sell people's homes on the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, H&F Conservative councillors went on to sell those people's homes and gave planning permission for them to be demolished - all against the wishes of the 800 households who voted 4 to 1 against the plans.
  • H&F's Conservative councillors sold individual council homes off to property developers almost whenever they became available even featuring on this episode of the BBC's Homes Under The Hammer.
  • Having cut the amount of social rented housing, H&F Conservatives would only offer housing in expensive private sector landlord (PSL) properties which locked residents into the welfare trap and was expensive for the public purse.
  • H&F's Conservative councillors successfully lobbied the Conservative/Lib Dem government (with this policy document) to hike all new rents up to 80% of market rates instead of 25% or 40%.
  • H&F's Conservative councillors hiked up rents and service charges for Hammersmith and Fulham's established residents by far more than inflation - with rents rising by as much as 7% in one year.
  • H&F Conservatives fixed the planning process to stop any new socially rented homes being built.
  • H&F Conservatives granted permission for more new homes for overseas investors than they did for UK residents.
These are just some of the things H&F Conservatives did to residents living in or needing social and council housing. Any study of their record gives an informed insight to the antipathy they have for our fellow residents living in council homes. Despite all of this, H&F Conservatives are bizarrely making out in their literature that they're now allied to Defend Council Housing and other left-wing groups.

What have H&F Labour done on social housing since winning last May's council election?
A lot has happened since the 22nd May 2014 when voters gave Labour control of H&F Council. We're working to do a lot more. Here's what we've done so far:
  • We’ve halted council homes sales to property developers.
  • We’ve re-negotiated H&F Conservatives' property deals and won 231 new affordable homes and we're in talks to deliver many more.
  • We have REDUCED the proposed rise in average council rent and service charges from 4.58% to 2.89% for council tenants.
  • We have FROZEN council management fees on service charges for council leaseholders.
  • We prioritise homes for residents, not overseas investors.
  • We are defending residents whose homes have already been sold.
  • We have set up a Residents’ Housing Commission to: give residents greater control and responsibilities; help them protect council homes against unwanted demolition and redevelopment; and keep rents and service charges low.
Who is the Rt Hon Keith Hill?
Keith Hill is the chair of H&F's new residents-led housing commission. He is a former housing minister with one of his most notable achievements being ensuring billions of pounds worth of investment into improving council and housing association homes through the Decent Homes programme.

Keith has an expert knowledge of housing and will work for H&F council housing residents to ensure they get the information and the independent support and advice they need when working through all the possible options for the future of their homes.

Keith is also famously one of the nicest people in public life. You can read more about Keith and the commission here.