Sunday, 21 December 2008

What a night!

I am posting on a Sunday morning after having spent a day recovering from a wonderful ICG Christmas Social at Isleworth Working Men's Club on Friday night.

Whilst we had had some difficulties during the organisation of the event, the turnout was nonetheless considerably up on last year's and a really good time was had by all.

We were particularly pleased to welcome a dozen or so fellow councillors from the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats and West Area Independents, and couldn't help noting with a hint of irony that only the "pariahs" of local politics (as defined by ex-Councillor Pat Nicholas, May 1998) could host a social event which brought together such a diverse range of local political figures.

Detractors will point to such a display of unity as "evidence" that their foes are in essence all from the same stable, although we would tend instead towards the view that a new era is dawning in local politics which sees most of its participants divided in politics, but brought together by a common commitment to restore honesty and integrity to local debate.

It was great also to see our old friend Jim Lawes, the legendary and much-missed star of the BrentfordTW8 and ChiswickW4 community forums, looking good and (by means of an explanation for his absence from the forums) working very hard.

I hope to be able to post up some photos of the event shortly. In the meantime a big thank you to everybody who came along and took part.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Three Wise Men....a postscript

As we promised those who came along to the Question Time event earlier in the week (see below), we have studied the comments which were submitted on the survey sheets at the end of the debate and have taken on board some of the suggestions that have been made to improve it for next year and to provide an even more effective platform through which residents attending can let us know of their concerns.

One thing that surprised and pleased me was that I seem to have held my own in the "ratings". Attendees were asked to rate the performances of the three elected members on the panel as well as of the Scrutiny team. My rating was marginally ahead of one of my colleagues, and just a little behind the other. Considering I was on "away" territory - almost exclusively discussing service matters rather than the community empowerment issues which are the ICG's concern - I am very happy with this.

Overall the event itself was very well received, with a very large majority expressing the view that it had been a useful exercise.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Three Wise Men?

Probably not. But Council Leader Peter Thompson, Deputy Leader Mark Bowen and I did our best to give full and honest answers when questions were put to us by residents at what will hopefully have been the first of many Question Time events hosted by the London Borough of Hounslow's Overview & Scrutiny Committee at the Civic Centre last night.

Questions were asked on a whole range of subjects, including parking, leisure, social services, conservation and the credit crunch. O&SC Chair Councillor Peter Carey, who was superb as Master of Ceremonies for the event, then put them to each of us for our comments.

There is never too much we can do to engage reisdents and to find out what their concerns really are. Although the gathering last night was too small to be accepted with confidence as being reliably representative, it enabled us to make a very good start.

Friday, 28 November 2008

The art of hedging

As one who has been known to take the occasional flutter I am probably more familiar than most with the concept of hedging one's bets. Many a time I have backed a soccer team or a horse with one book and then laid it off with another at a favourable price, locking in a guaranteed profit.

Sadly Hounslow New Labour's latest act of hedging,
taking an anti "cuts" stance whilst simultaneously demanding even bigger reductions to our borough's spending than we have currently managed is not likely to reap dividends. Those whose loyalty is not to New Labour are unlikely to be taken in, whilst traditional Labour supporters whose instinct it is, like mine, to protect services first and foremost will in all likelihood be confused and demoralised by this latest volte face.

Thus the debate at this week's Borough Council meeting at which the first tranche of proposed savings was introduced saw New Labour in mid fluster. As soon as Labour Deputy Leader Councillor Ruth Cadbury began to issue forth in a schoolteacher-like tone, voice filled with an absurdly exaggerated indignation that was so clearly contrived, it was obvious to me that the party had not been briefed as to whether it was required to support the proposals and demand that they should be taken further, or oppose them with a flourish of socialistic ardour.

My suspicions were confirmed when the Labour Group proposed that the report be deferred, ostensibly on the grounds that they had not had enough time to consider it.

One cannot but admire the lengths that the depleted ranks of Hounslow New Labour are prepared to go to in their efforts to try to keep their alleged Members of Parliament in office and in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. Their willingness to sacrifice their credibility and if needs be to allow themselves to become a borough-wide laughing stock in the name of that quest is certainly to be respected.

The whole glorious farce was beautifully epitomised by Councillor Mohinder Gill, a likeable chap, when he raised his hand to oppose the recommendations, then quickly dropped it again after looking around and seeing that his colleagues had been instructed to abstain.

One is almost tempted to hope that the sacrifice turns out to be worth it. Almost.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

A firm foundation?

Yesterday I drove to Penge, a place in South London that I'd heard of but had never before had cause to visit, to sit the first day of my Congregational Federation foundation course for which I have been sponsored by my local Church.

For those who feel it is their calling the course can be the first small step towards becoming a preacher, providing the grounding in theology that is of course an essential prerequisite for such a commitment. For others it is simply an opportunity to broaden one's knowledge base and sometimes to exchange ideas with members from other congregations.

I'm not in any way sure that I'd be cut out to deliver sermons from the pulpit. Public speaking I am accustomed to, but whether I am the right person to be setting myself up as an example for others to aspire to is another matter entirely.

Time will tell. For the time being the plan is to quietly complete the course and consider my options.

The Lead Member presents...

One of the most enjoyable tasks that I find myself undertaking in my capacity as a local councillor and Lead Member is making presentations to various members of the community who have in some way or another contributed towards improving our society and the lives of those around them.

Some weeks ago I attended a function at the Master Robert Hotel at which I was called upon to present awards to members of the community who had engaged in anti-crime work on their respective estates, helping the police and the local authority to tackle anti-social activity. It was a sobering reminder that whatever platitudes we as politicians or public figures may give voice to, it is always the community itself which is in the frontline of having to deal with the effects of crime.

Then shortly before the recent Remembrance Day parade Councillor Paul Fisher and I had the pleasure of handing a framed certificate to Ralph Clifton, landlord of the popular Griffin public house in Brentford, in recognition of his extraordinary success each year in raising funds for the Poppy Appeal. Just a few days later he once again amazed us by announcing that he had generated a further £1,100 this year.

And last Wednesday I ventured along the road to the Green School after having been consigned to my flat for nearly two weeks by illness (Caroline's illness, not mine, but someone has to feed the kids) to present Bronze Awards to dozens of local schoolchildren for their work on the Duke of Edinburgh Scheme. They, together with the Silver and Gold Award winners who regaled us with tales of their sometimes extraordinary adventures, presented a face of today's youth that is sometimes overlooked amid the media stories of knives, drugs and criminality which seem to dominate every issue of our national newspapers.

At the conclusion of the Duke of Edinburgh event due tribute was rightly paid to the amazing Dot Hasler, who has co-ordinated the scheme in the London Borough of Hounslow for many, many years, and who will be retiring from her role in a few weeks' time. Her tireless efforts will be sorely missed by the local authority, and by the youth of the Borough.

Events such as these serve as a useful and in some ways humbling reminder of what community empowerment is actually about in practice. Real people, working selflessly, to make a local environment a better place and to improve quality of life for those around them, often without the recognition which we as elected officials seem to expect for ourselves.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

The Parade in Pictures

Scenes from the Isleworth Remembrance Day Parade -
Sunday, 9th November 2008

A section of the parade in North Street shortly after march-off. Behind Councillor Paul Fisher and myself are Mary Macleod, the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Brentford and Isleworth and (partially obscured) Councillor Barbara Reid.

Residents of Isleworth pay their solemn respects to those local servicemen who gave their lives in two World Wars and other conflicts.

Local Church leaders conduct a non-denominational Service of Remembrance. My Pastor, the Reverend Antony W. Ball, is third from the left in the front row.

Councillor Paul Fisher lays a wreath on behalf of the community of Isleworth.

The Mayor, Isleworth councillor Dr. Genevieve Hibbs, represents the London Borough of Hounslow.

Nick Buss pays his respects on behalf of Isleworth Congregational Church.

The Pride of Murray Pipe Band leads the column along Twickenham Road after the Service.

Further along Twickenham Road. The blonde on my left arm is my daughter - honest!

Into Brantwood Avenue. The flag-bearer leading the parade is Vic London, active ICG member and one-time local election candidate (Osterley & Spring Grove, 2002).

On to the home straits, the marchers are led back to base by the Mayor and the Borough Commander of the Metropolitan Police, David Bilson.

Lest we forget. Wreaths at the Cenotaph pay tribute to Isleworth's fallen.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Lest we forget

Just as we do every year, myself and several ICG colleagues have been helping the Isleworth Royal British Legion to sell poppies at a number of local outlets including the large Tesco stores at Isleworth and Osterley.

The Poppy Organiser at IRBL is my father, Ronald Andrews, and it is probably fair to say that other ICG members make up the larger part of the selling team that has seen collections increase steadily each year for the last several years.

In Isleworth the parade itself, which takes place this Sunday, has also been growing. At first this may seem odd, with the number of ex-servicemen ever decreasing for obvious reasons, but Isleworth of course is a community in which civic participation is now actively encouraged across the board. Whilst a dozen or so years ago the parades would be attended only by ex-service people, a few Legion members and a small gaggle of local dignitaries, it is now possible to count in the hundreds the number of ordinary, everyday members of the community who come along to honour those who gave their lives for us all. I believe this is a welcome development.

It is a fitting tribute to the gallantry and valour of these brave people that their memory should not only be being kept alive, but that awareness of their sacrifice should actually be increasing.

If you are reading this article before November 9th and haven't yet bought a poppy, please pop along to Tesco or another local vendor and do so now.

A chilling memory at the birthday celebration of Jalaram Bapa

On Wednesday I joined the Hounslow Borough Commander of the Metropolitan Police David Bilson, Superintendent Clive Chalk and the London Borough of Hounslow's Head of Equality and Human Rights Celia Golden for a celebration of the birthday of the Hindu saint Jalaram Bapa at the ShriJalaram Seva Trust in Barrack Road, Hounslow.

Mindful as ever of the the challenge involved in celebrating a minority culture in our borough whilst at the same time taking care to stress the need for divisions within the community to be broken down and a new unity to be built on the greater values which are common to us all as human beings, I had the benefit of a long and extremely interesting conversation with Amina, the President of the Trust, who explained some of the work that his organisation had been doing within the wider community in the immediate surrounding area. Celia and I resolved that we should help and encourage him in this kind of barrier-breaking activity in any reasonable way that we could.

After our chat and some food, we guests were invited to take part in what it is probably fair to say was the longest introduction to the cutting of a birthday cake that I have ever witnessed, with over two hours of singing and dancing as well as some seriously funny banter between the talented Master of Ceremonies (or, as she was female, should that be the Mistress of Ceremonies?) and the 250-strong crowd. I also delivered what I believe to have been the first public speech I have ever made without my shoes on.

An area of the hall behind the five-foot long birthday cake was sectioned off in dedication to the great saint, and confetti and colour and decoration abounded. Also in evidence were several painted swastikas, which left me with a chilling and sobering thought as I monetarily recollected a function of a substantially different kind, of which I was once a guest of honour in that very same hall when it had been an annexe of the Hussar public house, which for a time was populated by the local skinhead and general right-wing youth fraternity a little under twenty years ago.

The swastika is, of course, a sacred symbol in Hinduism. Nevertheless I was left wondering just how many people of my acquaintance from those bad old days would ever be blessed with the opportunity to come back in shoes (well, socks) similar to mine and take part in such an infinitely more constructive and gratifying event.

Pride in our borough

When we as an administration speak of pride in our borough, we refer of course to our facilities, our services, the unique character of our towns and villages and most importantly of all, of course, our people.

However on Monday, in the company of the Leader of the Council Peter Thompson who also leads for the borough on Community Cohesion, I took part in a presentation which left me immensely proud of our officer team of specialists in Equalities, Community Cohesion and Community Safety which is quite possibly second to none in the entire country.

The occasion was a presentation to the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) in support of Hounslow's application as a borough for Beacon status in Community Cohesion.

So often these events become exercises in box-ticking, with wearisome speeches about performance indicators and targets which leave one with an impression of subject matter that has been thoroughly digested but not quite really understood.

When it comes to our Community Cohesion work there is not a question of any lack of understanding, nor of clarity of vision as to where we want to be headed. For us it is not about getting a financial reward or a star in our merit book, but about eradicating genuine disadvantage and disengagement and building a complete sense of unity and togetherness in a borough where Everybody Matters.

As well as the Liberal Democrat Leader Andrew Dakers, who has always been supportive, I was grateful to Labour councillor Nisar Malik, who led for his party in the absence of his Group Leader Jagdish Sharma and who very graciously paid tribute to the work of the new administration in building Community Cohesion, as well as to the previous administration of course for the work that it too did in the field. Newly elected in 2006, Councillor Malik has sometimes had a rough time of it in the Council Chamber as a result of one or two comments made which could perhaps have been better worded, but I've long believed him to be one of the stars amongst the current crop of Labour councillors as well as himself being a very likable and decent guy.

Obviously one of the factors that will determine the success or otherwise of our Beacon status application will be the calibre of the opposition, and that is something over which we clearly have no control. Nonetheless I am happy that, even if in the event we are not successful, we have assembled a team in Hounslow that really is going to do the business in building cohesion in our borough in the coming months and years.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Double-Life Syndrome - am I a little bit odd?

I don't think I would ever leave Isleworth to live anywhere else. With all my roots, my childhood and my memories being there, it would seem almost like a betrayal, even though the majority of the people I grew up with have long moved on to pastures new.

When I am at home though, there is nothing I look forward to more than my next holiday. It doesn't much matter whether it's a week in the Algarve or a £9.50 Sun weekend on the Isle of Wight, I love to be across the water and away from it all.

And then, as soon as I arrive at my apartment, caravan, bungalow or whatever, almost the first thing I do is log onto my laptop and attend to my casework or liaise with my Community Group colleagues back home.

Somebody once described it as "Double-Life Syndrome", the desire always to be part in one place and part in another.

As I write I approach with a little sadness the last night of a week-long stay on the Island. Having spent the first three nights in a modest chalet at Whitecliff Bay, we then moved across to Rookley Country Park for another four in one of Island View Holidays' impressively spacious new bungalows.

As each member of my family has distinctly different interests, life is always a compromise. At Whitecliff Bay much time was spent amusing the children, including endless games of pool with Joe. On one occasion though we managed a very pleasant walk along the beach during which he was able to put his geological expertise to good use by describing to us all the many rock formations along the multi-hued cliffs (see above).

Rookley provided me with an opportunity for a spot of fishing, while Caroline took the little ones to the cinema. Then today it was the turn of Caroline and I to venture out on a five-mile cliff-top walk, much to the chagrin of the couch-potato tendency.

Whilst I'm no stranger to walking, the cliff-top hike (below right) was a completely new experience. The official guides assume that the walker is an anorak, familiar with the requisite lingo. Thus it was that I found myself hundreds of feet up in the air, one eye straining down at the sea below whilst keeping the other out for a "triangulation point" without having the foggiest what one actually looked like.

Somehow we got down, and back, and now it's off to the club to watch a cabaret for the last time before making our way back to TW7 in time for my Ivybridge surgery. And looking forward, no doubt, to next year's holiday.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Mere words, or an historic breakthrough?

Tonight Borough Council approved a motion proposed by the Leader of the London Borough of Hounslow, Councillor Peter Thompson, and seconded by the Community Group's Councillor Paul Fisher, supporting the Sustainable Communities Act and its intention to allow local authorities and their communities to drive assistance given by central government to reverse community decline and promote thriving, sustainable communities.

The Act defines four aspects of sustainable communities thus:

  • the improvement of the local economy,
  • protection of the environment,
  • promotion of social inclusion, and
  • participation in civic and political activity.
Significantly, the motion was supported without amendment by all the parties on the local authority. In other words, for all the political parties represented on the London Borough of Hounslow, participation in civic activity by all residents is now a recognised and desirable objective!

The importance of this cannot be overstated. It effectively means that, even for those who have bitterly opposed the ICG since its inception in 1994, it is now acknowledged that we have been right all along. Our rationale as an organisation has been utterly and unanimously vindicated.

Just last March a Community Group motion tabled a motion to Borough Council which included the following: "This council undertakes to extend its support and assistance to all independent community organisations which can reasonably demonstrate that they represent the aspirations of the community they serve, without seeking to influence or direct those organisations in any way other than with their consent.

"Furthermore this council accepts as a fundamental principle the equal right of all residents to participate in all fields of community and civic activity, and deplores any action which might give office or other advantage to any on grounds of political preference or affiliation.

"This council therefore instructs the Executive member responsible for improving community engagement following Annual Borough Council in May 2008 to investigate and thereafter to implement measures through which the consultative and participatory processes may be improved, and all officers to recognise and to actively assist in the delivery of this policy."

Although passed by Council, New Labour at the time could not bring themselves to support these sentiments and the whole Group abstained.

Obviously any policy statement is about the doing and not just the saying. However the fact that all parties felt able to offer
even their in-principle support to such a radical departure from previous thinking could be a sign that the message is at long last getting through.

Never before has this space been so keenly watched as it will be over the coming months.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Innocent mix-up, or a new low in New Labour's war on the Worton community?

On Monday a local Somali community leader received an unexpected telephone call from the alleged Member of Parliament for Feltham & Heston, Mr. Alan Keen, inviting him to a reception that evening with the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street. Evidently a spare ticket had become available at the last minute. A little perplexed, he nonetheless accepted and attended the event.

The reason that a ticket had become available at such short notice may well have been because the name of Councillor Paul Fisher, Hounslow Council's Lead Member for Service Improvement and Community Empowerment, had mysteriously been erased at about the same time from the list of invitees.

Councillor Fisher had been invited to accompany one of the young residents of Isleworth's Worton estate who had recently received the Metropolitan Police Commissioner's Community Safety Peace Award for their work under the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. Sadly the youngster concerned, Jamie Kempson, was understandably overwhelmed and did not wish to attend the reception without Councillor Fisher, who was refused admission at the door.

Lurking in the background when Councillor Fisher arrived was Mr. Keen, and his unsuspecting Somali accomplice.

Even by the standards of political pettiness and spite that have earned New Labour in Hounslow the notoriety they deservedly enjoy, particularly in Isleworth, it seems difficult to credit that they would stoop so low as to deprive
a hard-working and community-spirited young member of the community the opportunity of a lifetime, to meet the Prime Minister and to have his good work receive the recognition and congratulation it deserved from the most senior political figure in the land. However there are a number of incidents which, whilst they may constitute nothing more than a series of coincidences, certainly give us food for thought.

One is that the Somali activist in question was one with whom Councillor Fisher and myself have been working very closely and constructively on a series of community cohesion projects. Part of New Labour's modus operandi in these parts is to try to overawe those in the community it seeks to use by impressing them with its importance and contacts. Residents of my own estate have been offered the impossible-to-refuse opportunity to "meet Ann Keen in person" (no less) in exchange for their acquiescence on specific community issues. If the gentleman in question was as shallow as New Labour assumes he and other members of the hoi polloi to be, he might well have been flattered enough to sell his soul to New Labour. In any event, inviting this particular guest has all the hallmarks of "getting one over" on the hated ICG and Worton community.

Another is that on the very morning following this incident, at 10:29 to be precise, this very blog was visited by somebody at the Houses of Parliament (thanks Statcounter). Don't they say felons always return to the scene of their crimes? There being nothing on here at that time about the incident, whoever it was only hung around for four seconds.

I sincerely hope that this incident was nothing more than an innocent mix-up, and that it was not the latest manifestation of New Labour's long-running hatred of the residents of the Worton estate (residents one of its representatives abused as "whingers" a few years back when they dared to oppose the Party's plans for their green). If this is the case, I promise to publish any statement from New Labour
to that effect here on this blog . Should such a statement not be forthcoming people will draw their own conclusions, and those conclusions will no doubt differ from person to person.

In the meantime, all I can say is roll on the general election!

Supporting our local football club - the Lionel Road Project

Two Queens Park Rangers supporters and a Swansea City fan were given the opportunity to progress their footballing education last night when they and other members of Hounslow Council's Executive were guests at Brentford Football Club as we watched our local team demolish Morecambe 3-1 to climb to second place in the League Two table.

Earlier we had been given an update by the Club and its partners on its ambitious plans to build a new 20,000-seater stadium at Lionel Road, a little over half a mile up the road from the Club's current home at Griffin Park.

Whilst the planning detail itself is a matter for the Sustainable Development Committee and one in which we cannot interfere, the Council is being asked to give its support to the principle of the build, and I don't think I'm giving any secrets away when I say there is a general feeling of enthusiasm and goodwill towards the Club as it attempts to turn around its fortunes off the pitch as it has already begun to do on the pitch.

In this modern day and age it is unsustainable for a professional football league club to only be in operation for about 25-30 days each year, and the size and physical location of Griffin Park does not lend itself to expansion on any significant scale. The unwelcome spectre of groundshares as far away as Woking were looming over the Club just a few years back, and there had also been talk of relocating to Feltham Arenas and Western International Market, amongst other sites, before Lionel Road became the preferred option.

Since then the Club's development partner has successfully acquired the land, and the Project at last looks ready to roll.

Speaking personally as a Brentford supporter (although not in recent years as regular an attendee as I would like to have been) it has been a pleasure and a privilege to lead for the local authority on this Project and if, as looks increasingly likely to be the case, it comes to fruition there will be few as happy to have played a part as me.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Giving a new meaning to travelling to work

Isn't modern technology wonderful? Less than ten minutes ago I took this, admittedly rather grotty photograph from the window of the 17:30 ferry from East Cowes to Southampton, and now here it is on my blog.

Over the last three days I must have done more work than I had managed during the previous fortnight. Whilst lots of people can say they travel to work, I take the notion very literally.

Please keep an eye on this blog over the next couple of days for a really big story. There are some great things happening in the community of Isleworth right now.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Countering the Gunnersbury Park lie campaign

* Acknowledgements to the London Borough of Hounslow

Responding to recent rumours about the future of Gunnersbury Park, leader of the council, Cllr Peter Thompson, said: “There has been much speculation in recent weeks about Gunnersbury Park and plans for its future. I am very happy to be in a position to set the record straight.

“Gunnersbury Park has suffered from years of historic underinvestment and neglect. The new administrations in Ealing and Hounslow are committed to safeguarding this wonderful resource and to preserving it for future generations.

“Let me be very clear. There is no secretly adopted plan to build on the park. Nor is there any intention to take decisions about the park’s future without the fullest involvement of the community as a whole.

“Since September last year, a small group of members and officers from both Ealing and Hounslow have been meeting informally to explore the possibilities. It is worth stressing that this group has no decision-making powers.

“A conservation management plan has already been produced after consultation with all stakeholders. It sets out both councils’ vision for Gunnersbury as: ‘a sustainable high quality park with varied uses which serve the local community and the region whilst respecting, enhancing and interpreting its historic framework and fabric.’

“The task now is to look at the options which are available to us to turn that vision into a reality. Therefore, the councils are jointly commissioning an “options appraisal” and have asked a number of recognised specialist consultancies to bid for this work. The results of that work will be seen early in the new year and we intend to launch the fullest possible public debate on all of the potential options at that stage.

“The informal joint working group between Hounslow and Ealing will continue to meet to hear of progress and is next due to meet at 7pm on 16 October at The Small Mansion. I have no objection to this session being in public as it will help to dispel the suspicion and mistrust which appears to have been built up recently.

Meanwhile, Hounslow and Ealing are working on the constitution for a new joint body and will be taking this through their respective councils in the next two months.”

Monday, 6 October 2008

Ivybridge loses a legend - but gains a blog!

It is with great regret (for us here in Isleworth) that I have to announce the departure of longtime Ivybridge residents' stalwart Tina Howe (left), who is moving elsewhere.

Tina served on the old NITA association for many years, latterly as Chair, and assumed the lead role on the new United Residents' Association (URA) when it was created last year.

The amount of hard work that Tina has put into the estate over the years is difficult to overstate, but her achievements and those of the URA under her leadership speak very much for themselves. I wish Tina and her family all the very best at their new abode, and I am confident that she will continue to serve the community on her new estate as she has done on Ivybridge.

Tina's erstwhile deputy Tony Smith, former Chair of Ivytag, has already taken over in the hot seat and one of his first deeds as Chair has been to set up a new blog to compliment the URA's existing web presence. I urge visitors to take a look and to support it with their comments.

Following in Tina's footsteps will be no mean feat (no pun intended), but I and my fellow ward councillors will be offering Tony and his team all the help we can.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Under the Rainbow

The bidding phase of the Rainbow Project was formally launched on Tuesday, with an impressive gathering of tenants, councillors and officers from both Hounslow Homes and the London Borough of Hounslow coming together to celebrate the release of around £1.5m of funds for tenant-led initiatives on our estates.

After enjoying tea and biscuits whilst listening to a series of short speeches from Alf Chandler (
Chair, Hounslow Homes), Bernadette O'Shea (Chief Executive, Hounslow Homes), Councillor Dr. Genevieve Hibbs (Mayor of Hounslow), Julie Brooker (Chair, Hounslow Federation of Tenants' and Residents' Associations) and myself, delegates were led under a rainbow which had been imaginatively located across the door into a "fairground" at which popcorn, hot dogs, burgers and ethnic delights were purveyed whilst the younger ones were able to play games, blow up balloons and have their portraits drawn in caricature.

All in all it was a lot of fun, and with the latecomers taken into account some 100 people were able to partake. However the essential message was not in doubt - that residents of this borough, in this case tenants and leaseholders in properties managed by Hounslow Homes, are taking control of their own communities at last.

My speech to delegates at the event made the rationale for the Project abundantly clear, and I make no apologies for reproducing it in full below:

"When the new administration took office in 2006 I think it is fair to say that my appointment as Lead Member for Housing wasn't greeted with whoops of delight in every office at St. Catherine's House.

"I had, and have, some very forthright views on the question of Tenant Involvement, views which were the product of years of history and personal experience, and I was equally forthright in expressing them.

"When I came into this office I was absolutely determined to reshape our approach, as a local authority, to this area, and I pressed ahead determinedly - some might say a little pig-headedly - to do precisely that.

"Put at its very simplest, the goal I have striven to achieve is the maximum possible participation, involvement, and ownership by our tenants of everyday life and activity on our estates.

"Whether we are councillors or officers, Board Members or whatever, our sole reason for being here is to serve the public. We exist for the public, the public doesn't exist for us.

"Our tenants and leaseholders - our residents, call them what you will - are the eyes and ears of our community. They let us know when there are issues on their estates - whether it be a lapse in our performance as a landlord or wider issues such as anti-social activity, drugs, crime - it is usually through our residents that we find out. And when those residents are organised, we find out more quickly.

"Tenants' and residents' associations are the best vehicle for creating community cohesion (basically the "in" term for a society in which people from all backgrounds get along, enjoying the same rights and opportunities and living together in harmony). There is no better way to break down barriers between sections of the community which may mistrust or fear one another than for those people to come together and discuss, and campaign on, those issues that concern them the most. More often than not, they quickly discover that their problems and concerns are fairly much the same.

"So there is nothing to be afraid of with free, independent and strong tenants' associations. An association that just does what the landlord tells it and doesn't challenge us is frankly of no use to anyone. Working with organised bodies of tenants is actually an easier, and more productive option than not doing so.

"The Rainbow Project is about empowering our residents. What we have done is taken approximately £1.5m from Housing Revenue Account reserves - tenants' money - and said this is here for residents to spend how they think it should be spent, improving the fabric and quality of life on their own estates. Whilst we will offer help and guidance it is the tenants, not us, who will be leading on the Project. Even the name - Rainbow Project - was chosen by a resident at the HFTRA Conference back in the Spring.

"The objective of the Project is threefold:

"Firstly, obviously, it will provide regeneration in areas where it is needed. At a time when Hounslow Homes has had to reorganise and make efficiency savings, it is a piece of really good news. We hope we will see community centres refurbished, play facilities built, environmental and community cohesion projects launched.

"Secondly, it will energise existing TAs. Those of you who represent tenants' and residents' groups will be aware of just how thankless a task it sometimes is, working to create a better environment for everyone when so few people offer to muck in and help, sometimes even criticising you when things go wrong without having even the slightest intention of helping you to put things right. We hope this project will serve as an incentive and as a morale-booster to our hard-working residents' groups.

"Thirdly, we hope it will lead to the creation of new groups where none currently exist, and similarly to more interaction with other voluntary bodies, some of whom incidentally you may find being very friendly with you all of a sudden as this Project gets under way.

"Now, whatever the virtues of this Project, let me make one thing clear - empowering tenants is not all about money. Money is a necessity, money is nice. But it can be used for good or for ill. It can be used to empower and indeed liberate residents, or it can be used to shackle them. If money is thrown at you to make you do a certain thing or vote in a particular way then it causes more problems than it solves, and ultimately does nothing to help you no matter how much the opposite may seem at first to be the case.

"This Project is not about buying your support or your acquiesence, it is about giving you back something that's yours, and helping you to regenerate your estate in the way in which residents feel it should be regenerated. It's about empowering our community.

"I began by saying that my appointment as Lead Member for Housing was not well received in some quarters. Let me just say that, a little over two years on, I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the enthusiasm, the co-operation, the help, the inspiration, the ideas and the sheer energy that has been put into this Project by all the staff at Hounslow Homes, as well as those who have been involved at the Council itself. The reaction of staff members to this Project has been nothing short of fantastic, and it is why I firmly believe that this Project will be a success.

"It is my hope that the Rainbow Project will not be a one-off, but will be the first of many schemes to put power and decision-making back where it belongs, and to build our already excellent tenants' movement into something still better and stronger.

"I'll shut up now. I hope you enjoy the remainder of the evening, and I look forward to working with you all on the Project."

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Worton youngsters scoop prestigious community safety award

Young residents of Isleworth's Worton estate (see picture, acknowledgements to the Hounslow Chronicle) have won the Metropolitan Police Commissioner's Community Safety Peace Award for their work under the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme.

They were presented with the award on Thursday at a London hotel (see below) by the Commissioner Sir Ian Blair and the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith MP.

The work undertaken by youngsters from the estate includes a massive and ongoing clean-up campaign, clearing mountains of debris, overgrowth and graffiti from the estate's maze of alleyways.

The intitative has been actively supported by the Metropolitan Police and its Safer Neighbourhood Team, community payback, the residents' association (ROWE), ward councillors, LBH Street Management and (after a bit of a misunderstanding) Hounslow Homes.

The success of this project boils down to an excellent joint effort between so many people and the amount of goodwill which has been poured into it by so many local agencies. Special mention must go to Kim Dobson - the estate's terrifyingly dynamic youth organiser, PS Kirsty Hayes, PC Mike James, PC Phil Beal, Bridget Klempner from London Probation and Councillor Paul Fisher, whose performance as a ward councillor and leader of his community quite simply becomes more awesome by the day.

It is difficult to overstate the contrast between the commitment of Paul and other community councillors (if I might say so myself) to empowering good local communities like that on the Worton estate, and the attitude of our New Labour predecessors (one of whom described the same residents as "whingers" during her row with her own constituents over the development on the green, providing them with a useful reminder of what would be in store for them should she or any of her successors ever be re-elected by the voters of Isleworth ward).

I would have loved to have been at the event on Thursday to give my support to these wonderful people who work so hard for their community and for our local environment but unfortunately couldn't due to a few, hopefully temporary personal difficulties. Nonetheless I would like to say a big well done to them all. I am so proud of my community and what, when allowed the chance, it is capable of achieving.

From left to right: Councillor Paul Fisher (Isleworth ward), Sir Ian Blair (Commissioner, Metropolitan Police), PC Phil Beal, Kim Dobson, PC Mike James, Councillor Shirley Fisher (Syon ward, Deputy Mayor of Hounslow), Councillor Dr. Genevieve Hibbs (Isleworth ward, Mayor of Hounslow).

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Further revelations on those rosebuds

Back in June, under the heading "On rosebuds and other thorny issues", I drew readers' attention to the bizarre spectacle of former New Labour councillor Vanessa Smith writing excitedly, and not a little paradoxically, to the letters' page of a local newspaper about the prospect of a fully-fledged Conservative administration at the London Borough of Hounslow following the next local elections in 2010.

The paradox arises from the fact that despite her New Labour sympathies, which clearly remain intact in spite of her quarrel with the local party leadership which led her to contest two council elections as an independent, her deep-rooted hatred of the ICG and of the community empowerment agenda in general means she can barely contain her excitement at the thought of an administration - any administration - in which the ICG no longer plays a part.

So much for Ms. Smith. However, this morning I had the benefit of a long and quite in-depth conversation with a prominent local individual well connected with the Labour Party itself, who informed me without any prompting on my part that New Labour in Hounslow, having accepted the futility at this stage of trying to win back control of the borough, is "pinning all its hopes" (the exact words used) on an all-out Conservative majority in 2010.

When one bears in mind the traditional Labour stereotype of the cost-cutting, service-slashing, privatising agenda of the Conservative Party, this serves to give us some indication of the importance our opponents place within the overall scheme of things on combating the work of the ICG in trying to build a resurgent, powerful and independent community.

Assuming this information is correct - and the evidence of my own eyes and ears (as well as Ms. Smith's letter) tend me towards the view that it is - then it would certainly explain the timidity, to the point of almost deliberate ineffectiveness, of New Labour in opposition. It would also explain the feeling of demoralisation which clearly exists amongst some members of the local party who still place greater import on socialist principles than on organisational control-freakery.

Of course, just to complicate matters further it looks increasingly likely that the next general election will be fought on the same day as the local elections, and that is a contest in which New Labour will certainly not be hoping for a Conservative victory as its heroine and role model Mrs. K££n vies to secure for herself another four or five years of the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed, and which she and her followers presume to be hers by right.

Thursday, 6th May 2010 has the potential to be a very interesting day indeed. Unlike, sadly, the many Borough Council meetings which are still to take place before it.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Back in the swing

Tonight (or ought I at this early hour to say last night?) saw the first meeting of the London Borough of Hounslow's Executive for some considerable time. It was also one of the shortest on record, with only one substantive item on the main body of the agenda and two on "yellow pages" discussed, in accordance with long-established council rules and statute, following the exclusion of the press and public.

I had no involvement in the public item, but the two items on yellow pages involved future plans for the currently derelict Meadowbank Community Centre in Cranford and the New Build by Hounslow Homes on Hounslow's Beavers Estate respectively.

As it happens these are two issues close to my heart. Whilst I am obviously not at liberty to report on the substantive discussions that took place I can say that both items were presented with enthusiasm. There can be few matters which are more relevant to real people than the creation of a community facility in an area of strategic importance which will be run by and for local residents, and the building of fit-for-purpose homes to replace decrepit old stock.

Once again the ICG was able to take advantage of its presence on the current Executive to promote and deliver the community agenda.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Counting the visits, counting the days

Yesterday afternoon I installed an invisible stat counter onto this blog and I am amazed by the number of unique visitors it attracts, especially in the light of the fact that it hasn't been updated for over a fortnight.

It is therefore with a certain feeling of guilt that I put digit to keyboard again, to carry on where I left off.

As I stated previously August is the political "close season" and, as such, I sh
ould in theory have more time during that month than normal to post up my news and thoughts. We know however that nature abhors a vacuum, and into the vacuum created by the relative lack of meetings during August stepped not only the need to make a living, but also the usually vociferous demands of two children who have been enjoying their last summer holiday before entering senior school for the very first time.

Doing the family thing provides one with an opportunity for reflection that is often absent when engaging in political business. At Legoland I had plenty of time to reflect upon how a normal person would view somebody who happily paid £36 to ride on a bus in the full knowledge that it would not arrive for two hours, and that the journey would then last for no more than four minutes before terminating at the exact same point from which it had departed. However as the day progressed I was privileged to be able to enjoy the same exp
erience no less than four times, reassuring me that at just £9 per ride I had received real value for money.

More fulfilling, for me, was a sunny day spent in Brighton. Ever since, at a late age, I learned to drive a car my use of public transport has fallen woefully short of my advocacy of it. It came as a pleasant surprise to discover that, with a bit of luck in arriving at the right station at the right time, it is possible to travel from Isleworth to B
righton in less than one hour and twenty minutes (in other words considerably less time than I had spent standing in the aforementioned queue at Legoland!).

Despite the tendency these days towards holidaying abroad there is still a unique appeal about a visit to an English seaside resort, and Rosie and Joe (above) were not noticably inconvenienced by the experience.

Rosie now has embarked upon one of the most daunting journeys she will make - through senior school - and Joe reports for duty on Wednesday. It seems like no time ago at all that we were pushing them along in the distinctive, elongated Swedish twin pram that announced our arrival to the neighbours.

In the meantime for me it's back to the world of meetings, doorstop agendas and political parry and thrust which seems to have become my lot.

I'll do my best to keep this blog updated as I go along, and as always your comments and observations would be most welcome.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Musings and ramblings on a Sunday afternoon

Most Sunday mornings I go to Isleworth Congregational Church, where for several years I have had the honour of serving as a Deacon.

I tend not to preach about my religious convictions. Whilst I may have carved a niche of sorts in the world of local politics, my theological grounding is limited to say the least. My commitment to my Church, such as it is, derives from instinct rather than scientific analysis. I think that is why they call it faith.

Without wishing to imply any disrespect to those good men and women who give up their Sunday mornings to come along and preach, I do on occasions find my thoughts wandering onto other matters - sometimes inspired, it has to be said, by something the preacher has said.

This morning I found myself reflecting on my activities of the past couple of weeks. In short, I have been using the political "quiet season" as a window of opportunity for trying to earn a crust.

When I first became a councillor, back in 1998, a councillor's annual allowance was in the region of £1,400. There was no question that this was just what it said on the tin - an allowance - and not a salary.

That allowance has since grown in increments to a little under £10,000, proportionately a massive increase but still not in itself a salary. Interestingly, these incremental increases all took place under the previous New Labour administration, who supported pay increases in office but oppose them in opposition.

With the introduction by the New Labour government of the new Executive or Cabinet system, a goodly proportion of the workload which used to be spread more evenly now falls upon the shoulders of a small handful of councillors. Acting upon government guidance the previous New Labour administration, which oversaw the introduction of this system in Hounslow, drastically ramped up the allowances available to Executive councillors (a hike which, again, they claim to be against now that they are in opposition and no longer benefit from it). The current administration took this one step further earlier this year and increased Executive allowances again, once more as a response to formal recommendations.

What this means in effect is that, as an Executive member, I now receive £16,000 per annum on top of the £10,000 that I receive as a councillor. As it happens I didn't support the increase when it was proposed at Borough Council (a matter of documented historical record, although that inconvenient fact doesn't stop my opponents from pretending that I did). I didn't support it, not because I don't honestly feel that I and other Executive members can justify such an amount with the work we put in, but because the government, having advised Hounslow and other councils to pay "realistic" salaries (let's face it, they can no longer be called expenses) to Executive members, then didn't make any extra provision to enable us to do so without eating into our own already scarce resources.

Now I make no criticism of fellow Executive members who manage to perform their civic duties whilst holding down full-time employment in other areas. However, speaking personally I do not feel I could function as effectively as I demand of myself if I had the added burden of holding down a 9 to 5 job in the market and so, consequently, I have made the decision not to do so.

Criticism of that decision comes primarily from two sources. The first and most obvious is the bitter, failed ex-councillors who were unceremoniously dumped by the electorate (although you'll never hear any suggestion from them that they might have been at all to blame for their own predicament). These are people who held office when members' allowances were at an absolute minimum and who, perhaps understandably up to a point, feel resentful that those whom the electors chose to replace them with are now receiving remuneration on a level which they
personally did not enjoy. It is a particularly cruel irony when one considers that they represented a political school of thought which was fiercely materialistic in its outlook.

The second is those who, quite simply, presumed that councillors already lived in mansions, drove Rollers and received six-figure salaries. The look of surprise on the face of constituents when they discover that, as Lead Member for Housing, I still live in an overcrowded, rented flat on what many deem to be a "problem" estate (unlike the previous crowd, "it's not what you know but who you know" forms no part of the philosophy of the new administration) has to be seen to be believed.

In actual fact being through my own choice a "full-time" Executive member leaves me between a rock and a hard place. Unlike the councillors of 1998 I cannot claim to be doing the job solely for love. And yet with a family to feed and a roof over their heads to keep I still need to pay the bills. Love is a noble cause for which to work, but when I told my bank manager I loved him his reply was "I love you too, but what about your overdraft?".

And so it is that I've been sitting at my desktop PC for the last two or three weeks, devising ways of bringing in an income which will supplement that which I receive from the local authority without committing me to working fixed hours. I have started to build websites and blogs with that ignoble but wholly necessary purpose in mind.

So this is where the story comes back to my attendance at Church. Because for all the effort I put into promoting my local political cause, an effort which I am now trying to imitate in promoting a business of sorts, it occurred to me that I have done little by comparison to promote the work of the Church. My lack of theological expertise is mitigation, but not entirely an excuse. There are things I can be doing, and haven't been.

It is funny how adversity often teases out introspection. Have no fear, you won't be hearing me ringing bells or preaching in the High Street any time soon. But a little bit of time devoted to something which has sustained and inspired me so much in my life must surely be a sacrifice worth making?

Friday, 15 August 2008

John Benn

Earlier today I attended the funeral of long-time Isleworth resident John Benn (left), from Dawes Avenue, who sadly passed away last week aged 78.

John's boys Richard and Christopher went to Worple Road Primary School at the same time as I did, back in the 1960s. But I came to know John himself, and his wife Sylvia, on the social circuit in Isleworth many years later.

Both were regular attendees at ICG social events, coming away with us on our old seaside coach trips as well as supporting quite a few of our socials at the Isleworth Royal British Legion. A quiet and unassuming couple, I often found myself a little nervous that they might have felt slightly uncomfortable in the sometimes noisy family atmosphere of some of those events, but they always came back and were regular and welcome participants. In spite of his overtly modest demeanour, John had a real sense of humour and was quite entertaining in conversation. His company will be missed by his many friends at the Isleworth Working Men's Club where, appropriately, the reception was held after the funeral.

John was also a bit of a handyman. On more than one occasion my wife Caroline has taken her broken and punctured bicycles to him, which he would swiftly attend to and never ask for anything in return.

The down side of being involved in local community politics and knowing so many people is that one loses so many friends. For me John will always rank among the best of those. It was a fitting tribute to such a decent man that the chapel at Hanworth Crematorium was filled to the brim with people who had turned up to pay their respects.

I would like to express my sincere condolences to Sylvia, his children, his grandchildren and all other members of his family.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Rainbow Project announced on LBH website today

The £1.5m Rainbow Project was formally launched on the London Borough of Hounslow website today, and a series of no fewer than seven roadshows announced to bring this exciting initiative to the attention of residents around our borough.

The Project is an important first step towards empowering our tenants and leaseholders and, whilst we accept that it takes will and not just money to enable us to give power back to the residents where it belongs, it sends an important message that we are single-mindedly determined to put our objectives into practice.

Please do come along and support us when the roadshow comes to your town.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Delivering good service in Feltham

This morning I spent an hour or so walking around Pinewood Road and Sandalwood Road in Feltham, in the company of Feltham councillor Gillian Hutchison, who is also a Vice Chair of Hounslow Homes. It is an area I am familiar with, having actually lived in Pinewood Road myself for a few months back in 1993.

Inevitably there is some work to be done there. Repairs and maintenance are an ongoing challenge, and no sooner is one job of work done than another needs doing.

I have sent Hounslow Homes a checklist of jobs which need to be undertaken on the estate and I've no doubt someone will be attending to them very shortly. The people of Feltham are fortunate to have a good team of councillors who will not allow the fabric of the local area to deteriorate.

When I was in opposition I invited the then Lead Member for Housing, Bobbie Awan, to Ivybridge to show her around and introduce her to a few of the local characters. People on the estate were heartened by the fact that she was taking an interest, and it was a source of some reassurance to them that despite the adversarial nature of local politics she and I were both determined that standards of service should be maintained.

Now that I hold that portfolio I would like to think that other councillors would call on me if they have any issues that need attending to on the estates in their wards, irrespective of which political party they bat for.

Our residents deserve good service.

Georgia on my mind

Whatever the merits or otherwise of Russia's intervention in Georgia, the disproportionate ferocity of its military campaign must have brought back chilling memories to those of us old enough to have lived with the fear of imminent nuclear attack on our probably overactive minds during the latter years of the Cold War.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for an immediate end to Russia's action, for which he said there could be "no justification" and which "threatens the stability of the entire region and risks a humanitarian catastrophe".

And he is probably right. However I wonder whether his postures of moral indignation are not tinged with just a hint of embarrassment, given his wholehearted support for the recent war in Iraq and that country's subsequent occupation by British and US forces?

The "justification" for that war, we will remember, was that Iraq was said to possess Weapons of Mass Destruction which if they were not taken out imminently would threaten the peace and security of humankind.

Anybody who knew anything about Middle Eastern politics knew full well that Iraq possessed no such weapons. Tony Blair knew it. Even I knew it. But it was the justification given for Britain's participation in the invasion of another country which even conservative estimates now tell us has resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 people, the large majority of them non-combatants. And when he finally admitted that the WMDs that we had gone to war to eliminate had never actually existed, he shrugged it off as though he had given the nation an erroneous weather forecast.

I am not a pacifist as such. I believe any nation, like any person, has a right of self-defence. But war is a truly terrible thing and the loss of innocent human life in pursuit of ideological or commercial interests is probably the most appalling tragedy that mankind has ever inflicted upon itself.

Our leaders could lecture those of other nations with greater moral authority if they were to set a better example themselves.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

By mutual agreement Sunday for me is "family day", and the two most recent members of my family like nothing more than to spend it sprawled on the settee watching the television, or doing something similarly unadventurous. So when I travelled to Gunnersbury Park for the London Mela I did so alone, and on the understanding that my visitation would be a short one.

Organisers of the London Mela describe the event as "the biggest festival of South Asian music and culture to take place outside of the Indian sub-continent". The London Evening Standard takes the view that it is "a secret to be shared with the wider community". However it is described, each summer 75,000 people converge on Brentford for an afternoon of festivity, food and fun.

The Hospitality Tent is always a mixed blessing. It is very rude to turn down free food, however having consumed an appropriately sociable quantity of it one is invariably less disposed to sample the various dishes on sale around the field, notwithstanding the lure of the aggressively aromatic spices which make them rather difficult not to notice.

Some of my (non-ICG) colleagues on the council are a little cooler about the Mela than I am. The naked cynicism of the old council administration which lauded the Mela yet refused to recognise St. George's Day on the grounds that it was "racist" - a stance which, insultingly, it believed would impress the Asian community and thereby lock in its votes - has left scars which will take time to heal. There are some people, people whose commitment to cohesion and integration is no less than mine, who see the Mela in that context and with that memory in mind, as an expression of cultural triumphalism.

Speaking personally I take a much more optimistic view. For the Mela, in fact, places South Asian culture within the context of a Western environment. The layout of the stalls, which purveyed a welcome mixture of ethnic and indigenous wares, was more akin to that of a London market than an Eastern bazaar. Even the music which blared out rather too loudly from the huge stage under the direction of the DJ "Crash" (last year's Master of Ceremonies, the hilariously named "Abdul Cool", obviously had a prior engagement) came across as a curious blend of traditional bhangra and that repetitive rapping stuff that the kids seem to go for today.

On the bus going home it struck me, from a Community Cohesion perspective, what an opportunity we had missed a couple of years back with all that pernicious St. George's Day nonsense. Imagine 75,000 people attending a St. George's Day festival, bedecked with English flags and populated by British people of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds, with food, music and dance from South Asia, China, the Caribbean, as well as from the UK. A festival which would flaunt the proud Englishness of the diverse society which we enjoy today. What better way could there possibly be of putting across the message that we are an integrated community, contemptuous of prejudice and disharmony, diverse yet cohesive, brought together by the common values that unite us in a society in which Everybody Matters?

It isn't rocket science, but sometimes I feel like a voice in the wilderness railing unheard against the powerful but ultimately false dichotomy of diversity and integration.

A St. George's Day festival to celebrate multi-cultural Englishness in the 21st century. I wonder whether anybody will have the courage to suggest it?

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

A useful evening's work with tenants in Feltham

August is traditionally the sleepy season for council business. Whilst the casework continues relentlessly the meetings calendar is virtually bare for councillors, allowing those of us who need to to catch up with other work. It was odd then that today my presence should have been required at not one but four meetings.

It was the fourth and final meeting which I enjoyed the most, doing as I was what I most enjoy doing, meeting the public and trying to help tackle their issues.

The meeting was held at the Bedfont Lane Community Centre at the request of Feltham West councillor Barbara Harris, to discuss a number of difficulties which local residents have had with Hounslow Homes, some of them everyday niggles but others of a more serious nature. As well as Councillor Harris and her Conservative colleague from Feltham North Councillor Gillian Hutchinson, the meeting was attended by several active local residents' leaders and also by Jill Gale, the Director of Housing at Hounslow Homes, who dealt with the issues which arose with consummate professionalism, not being defensive or denying the existence of problems but instead promising to work with councillors and residents to get them resolved.

Inevitably many of the issues raised were beyond Hounslow Homes' remit. Some were also beyond mine (one gentleman wanted me to reintroduce National Service). Nevertheless what heartened me was that the hint of frostiness which was in the air when the meeting began as the attendees prepared to vent their spleen noticably thawed as it progressed, and by the time proceedings drew to a close after some ninety minutes of varied discussion there was a tangible sense of optimism about the place.

Make no mistake, the issues raised still need to be dealt with. However it was a pleasant reminder to any who needed it that human nature is perhaps more trusting and reasonable than we sometimes give it credit for.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Old dogs and new tricks

On Thursday I and the excellent Sue Witherspoon, Acting Director of Housing at the London Borough of Hounslow, made a presentation to the Board of Hounslow Homes about the coalition administration's vision as defined through the new Hounslow Plan, and its ambitious Performance Improvement Programme (PIP) which will create the structures through which it will be realised.

Such a presentation was never going to be greeted with whoops of enthusiasm by everybody on the Board. When Hounslow Homes was set up in 2003 under the old administration it was regarded by most as fairly much an appendage of the New Labour political machine. All five council appointees on the new Board were either serving Labour councillors or unsuccessful Labour candidates. Having been rejected at the polls by the borough's tenants, the then administration thought it a good idea to cock a snook at the electorate by putting these same people in charge of the borough's housing stock.

The five tenant representatives were elected behind closed doors and, amazingly, usually resulted in the election of known New Labour activists. The ten council and tenant Board members would then choose another five independent members to make up the remainder of the Board of fifteen.

On the staff side the set-up was not entirely dissimilar. Many of the problems on our estates described elsewhere on this blog arose from the fact that those of us who were the "wrong" councillors were effectively frozen out of discussions relating to things happening in the wards which we had been elected to represent, as were the tenants who were known to have supported us.

When I took over the Housing portfolio I resolved to introduce a new culture into Housing in Hounslow. I believed there was a better way to conduct business, one which was not only more ethical but which also served our tenants and leaseholders better. The conduct of business by whisper and secret handshake may well work in other institutions, but in the field of government it is not only undemocratic, it also leads invariably to stagnancy in ideas and complacency and inertia in service delivery.

Nevertheless the Old Guard retains an important presence on the Board and, surprising as it may sound to some people, I have no issue with this. When we first came into office, both the Community Group and the Conservatives agreed to elect council representatives to the Board on the basis of political balance, rather than political allegiance as had been the case previously. Consequently two of the five seats were offered to Labour, an offer which they happily accepted without any evident embarrassment, even though we all know full well that in the event of Labour being voted back into office in Hounslow the old, undemocratic practices would immediately be restored. As Councillor Mark Bowen rightly said during a recent debate at Borough Council, we do things a better way because we are better.

Similarly I have no issue with other Labour activists being on the Board, just so long as they are properly elected or appointed by means of an open and transparent process. To me it is healthy, and a good thing, for all shades of opinion to be represented on such an important body.

Anyway, I digress. My brief was to present the administration's vision to the Board and I entirely anticipated that the political element would not pass up the offer of a platform from which to give voice to their sometimes very peculiar notions of where they believe me, as Lead Member, to be coming from.

The first indication that this opportunity would not be passed by came as soon as Sue introduced the ruling coalition as being one comprising the Conservative and Community Groups. "And the Liberal Democrats," interjected one of the Labour councillors, obviously disappointed by the more selective and intelligent approach to opposition taken by the small Lib Dem team on the council than by his own gang.

But it was at the Question and Answer session following the presentation that the claque really got into the swing. One member delivered himself of the opinion, completely unsupported by any evidence at all, whether circumstantial or actual, that I intended to sell off all HRA (Hounslow Revenue Account) land to developers to build private accommodation. Another, paradoxically, took the opportunity to plug a proposed development in which a close relative of a very well-known local Labour politician has or recently had an interest, even though the issue had no connection with Hounslow Homes whatsoever.

However, when all is said and done what really was pleasing about the evening was the level of interest being taken by some of the newer members of the Board, who seemed genuinely keen to know where the future lay for social housing in the borough, and how their partnership with the local authority might be further developed. This, and the fact that I already enjoy a good and positive working relationship with most of the current senior officers at Hounslow Homes, bodes well for the organisation in the future.

I hope I am not being naive when I say I believe that many who may at first have been sceptical now see the new positivism as being an altogether better way. There is no reason, other than possibly party diktat, that this positivity cannot in time transcend organisational allegiance and permit a group of people who are united in their desire to improve social housing in our borough to all work together in a spirit of openness and mutual trust.

I remain of the view that it is just possible in certain circumstances, given the time and the will, to teach an old dog new tricks. To those who counsel that it would have been easier to have just shot the dog and been done with, I would simply point out that I still have the gun.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Doing what we do best

Hounslow's six community councillors spend a tremendous amount of their time attending meetings and working for residents of the borough in ways which might not always be understood or recognised.

Amongst our number we have a Mayor, a Deputy Mayor, two Executive members, a Hounslow Homes Board Member, an Area Committee Chair, an Area Committee Vice Chair, Scrutiny Panel Chair and four Trustees of a local housing charity (yes, that does entail some doubling-up!).

It is not unknown for me to attend five, six, sometimes even seven meetings back-to-back with nary a break in-between for a bite to eat.

But none of this would be to any avail if we failed to remember why it was that the good people of Isleworth and Syon wards elected us to office in the first place.

The ICG has a proud history of militant activity on behalf of local residents. From the Worton Green campaign to Geco, the fight against Post Office closures, our campaigning on the Woodlands, the Holiday Inn demo, the successful work we did to improve the 267 bus service, the protests against New Labour's callous closure of the John Aird House residential care home and of course our ongoing work with residents over the odour and mosquito problems inflicted on us by Thames Water's Mogden plant, the ICG has consistently led the way.

So when Councillor Caroline Andrews (above left), my wife and one of the three elected members for Syon ward, called a meeting of residents from Smallberry Avenue to try to get some action over the ongoing issue of the fencing (or lack of it) at the rear of their properties, some of us felt a warming sense of deja vu.

Rather than book a hall, Caroline figured that with the nice weather we could probably get away with calling residents out into the cul-de-sac for a street meeting. The police were advised lest we be confronted by hordes of angry demonstrators. The offending developer, Bellway Homes, was also invited, as was a planning officer from the London Borough of Hounslow. Neither attended, but more on that at a later date.

The meeting had been called for 6.30 pm. At 6.32, Caroline and I were standing like two spare parts on the corner of the street, watching doors and windows for any sign of life. Then two residents' representatives from Primrose Place arrived to join us, and the four of us embarked upon another five minutes or so of nervous curtain-watching. Was this really such a big issue to local residents? Had we been wasting our time?

And then the weirdest thing happened. About half a dozen front doors opened more or less simultaneously, and the residents who had evidently been lurking behind them emerged as one onto the street. Then another half dozen, then more. The residents instinctively walked in small groups of two, three and four down towards to alley at the bottom of the road. What had looked like a ghost town only two or three minutes earlier now resembled a march. In all, nearly thirty residents from this small street gathered under the watchful eye of three local police officers, who joined in with the banter and fun.

Those present quickly agreed on a proposed solution to their problems, and an ad-hoc committee of representatives was formed to engage with local councillors and the developer. We assured residents that a more proactive and supportive attitude from our planners would be forthcoming, and that we were confident of achieving our objectives through one means or through another. Everybody went home relatively happy, and Caroline and I politely declined more than one invitation to join residents at their homes for a cup of tea or something stronger, although on another occasion I'm sure we'll have more time.

This little activity, for me, served to remind me of why I decided to involve myself in local community politics in the first place. Street activism, working constructively and as one with our people at the grass roots. It's what we've always done best.