Thursday, 29 May 2008

Everybody Matters - making Community Cohesion work

I've heard it said that the good thing about losing one's memory is that one gets to meet new friends every day!

Whether that is true or not, I had an extraordinary piece of good fortune when I arrived at the Civic Centre this morning for the sole purpose of treating myself to one of the surprisingly tasty English breakfasts which they serve up in our canteen. For en route to said canteen I encountered a number of Somali ladies and gentlemen, including my good friend Hassan Isse, who naturally assumed that I had
turned up to attend the Annual General Meeting of the Refugee Employment & Training Initiative (RETI), which I had promised to do and to which I had been looking forward very much. But for whatever reason I hadn't noted the date in my diary, and would have missed it but for the call of my rumbling tum.

RETI is an organisation which provides advice and assistance to newly-arrived immigrants and their families with a view to helping them to integrate more easily into British society. Although heavily rooted in the Somali community, it is reaching out to other groups and amongst those I encountered today were Albanians, Kosovans, Nepalese and Tamils. Despite its name it provides services to members of these groups irrespective of whether or not they have attained British citizenship, a fact which has led some members of RETI to question whether the misnomer "Refugee" should now be dropped from its name.

Initiatives such as RETI should provoke healthy debate amongst those of us who hold the view of the current administration at the London Borough of Hounslow that there should be more emphasis on what unites the people of Hounslow, a thoroughly multi-cultural community with over 120 languages spoken, rather than on what divides us. Knowing some of my colleagues within the coalition the instinct might well be, perhaps understandably, to see RETI as being more a product of the old mentality, providing special services for some sections of the community and not for others.

It is worth considering therefore the three foundations on which Community Cohesion is built, according to the Department of Communities and Local Government:
  • People from different backgrounds having similar life opportunities
  • People knowing their rights and responsibilities
  • People trusting one another and trusting local institutions to act fairly
It is the first of these that we need to consider. There is ample evidence to suggest that members of the Somali and many other newly arrived communities are less likely to find employment, less likely to achieve at school and more likely to experience mental health issues than other members of our society, be they from the majority community or from the more settled and established minority groups. Pretending this fact isn't there and not talking about it will not make it any less of a fact. We cannot, at least according to DCLG, achieve cohesion between groups of people who have different life opportunities to one another.

Groups such as RETI aspire to create a level playing field. In other words they want to create conditions within our society which make integration and cohesion more, not less, achievable. To that end I believe they should be supported and encouraged.

I share the revulsion of all my colleagues within the coalition towards the tacky, cynical vote-buying approach which the previous administration took in its support for some elements of the Voluntary Sector. But in our rejection of this approach we need to be clever, and resist the temptation to throw the baby out with the bathwater in the process of making some grand gesture. We should make our support for the Voluntary Sector work for Community Cohesion, just as our predecessors made it work for themselves.

RETI is one of many groups which, if successful, will pave the way for a united, cohesive and integrated Hounslow. But as it blossoms from beyond its purely Somali origins and reaches out to other newly-arrived groups I can foresee this particular organisation, possessed as it is of dedicated, astute, charismatic and highly intelligent leadership, becoming a very major player in the Community Cohesion work which is so important to me and to all of my colleagues.

These people deserve all the help and support we can give them.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

A fine little meeting

On May 12th I wrote: "Whilst we crammed 200 people into Isleworth Public Hall last year to discuss the possible imposition of Controlled Parking Zones in and around South Street and St. John's Road, we are still capable of drawing in less than twenty on a bad day".

Well, last night we didn't have less than twenty at the ICG's Public Meeting at the Isleworth Working Men's Club - thanks to our trusty club steward who came and sat with us between pouring the pints!

All the same, and modest turnout aside, this first in what will be a whole series of Friday night public meetings was a superb exercise, with our team of councillors giving an extremely good account of themselves and several members of the public engaging us with their issues.

Caroline Andrews chaired the meeting with humour and with confidence. Jon Hardy provided a fascinating analysis of local health issues and the work of the Scrutiny committee and panels aided by the imaginative use of stage props. Genevieve Hibbs - Madam Mayor to some - was enthusiastically received as she talked the meeting through some of the work and duties of the community councillor in a coalition administration, and ran us through some of her themes and ideas for the year ahead. And last but not least, new Executive member Paul Fisher left those present with a tantalising insight of how we see the Empowerment agenda unfolding during the last two years of the present council. All that was left for Yours Truly to do was to keep the beers coming.

The small attendance included representatives from Charlton House, Brent Lea, Ivybridge, Worton and the South Street traders, and hopefully residents and businesses in these areas will be furnished with an account of the work we are doing and the efforts we are making to engage with the communities we serve.

Ideas are already being developed with a view to increasing participation at future events, including "themed" meetings and the targeting of special interest groups. In the meantime, I believe we were all enthused and encouraged by the way in which the diverse group of people who did come along engaged with us and with each other. There were no passengers.

Mysteriously, the lights went out on the IWMC shortly after midnight, but the community councillors who represent the wards of Isleworth and Syon have no intention of leaving our constituents in the dark.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Whither the Members' Car Park?

Tonight I shall risk incurring the wrath of fellow elected members across the political divide by letting the world into a hitherto little-known secret. That is, that for the last few days a major e-mail debate has been raging amongst councillors and officers over the use - past, present and possible future - of the Members' Car Park at Hounslow Civic Centre.

Conservative, Labour and ICG councillors have all entered the fray. Unconfirmed rumours abound - Labour wants to turn it into a Labour-only car park, giving parking spaces to members of factions in exchange for committee posts (reportedly a little extra space will be provided for members with large families from the west of the borough). The Conservatives want to sell it off for development. The Liberal Democrats are believed to be considering abstaining.

It would appear that prior to 1986 the small patch of tarmac currently known as the Members' Car Park was for the use of emergency vehicles only. It was subsequently annexed under the then Labour administration, evidently with the tacit agreement of the emergency services or at least with nary a voice raised
by them in protest.

The problem is that, being in very close proximity to the Civic Centre entrance, it has also become a convenient place in which to locate unsightly skips and removal vehicles whenever an office manager decides to have a clear out. Sometimes those concerned forget to notify the members, whose car park it now is, leading to much wailing and gnashing of teeth*.

Some very strident positions have been adopted, in some cases it must be said by those with the least to gain from adopting them. The debate, originally about the siting of skips, has now spilled over into one on the much loftier issue of whether there in fact ought to be a Members' Car Park at all or, if there should, whether it ought to be located somewhere different.

With councillors unable to reach any kind of consensus on this all-important subject, it strikes me that this is the kind of issue which ought to be fought out in the public arena, with members of the public having the opportunity to partake in the discussion. Pending the launch of a YouGov survey, please feel free to use the comments section at the foot of this post to let us have your views.

* Acknowledgements: Matthew 13:42.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Hounslow elects first ever ICG Mayor!

COUNCILLOR Dr. Genevieve Hibbs (right) was unanimously elected as the new Mayor of Hounslow by Borough Council last night.

Genevieve, who represents Isleworth ward, is the first ICG member and indeed the first independent ever to become Mayor of the London Borough of Hounslow. Her election was supported by all Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, West Area Independent, Hounslow Independent Alliance and Chiswick Independent councillors, as well as of course by fellow members of the Community Group. Her Deputy will be Councillor Shirley Fisher, who replaces her ICG Syon ward colleague Councillor Caroline Andrews. Genevieve's nomination was proposed by myself and seconded by Councillor Peter Thompson, the Leader of the Council, who gave an excellent and moving speech in her support.

In her address to Borough Council, the new Mayor announced that "Communicating and Building Relationships" would be her theme for the coming year, an initiative which will greatly help realise the ICG's core objective of creating a more engaged and united community.

Another appointment of huge significance was that of my other fellow Isleworth ward councillor Paul Fisher to the Council's ruling Executive. Paul will take the leading role in driving the Empowerment agenda instigated by a successful motion which I put to Borough Council in March.

All of these appointments demonstrate the importance of the role which the ICG is playing in shaping the direction of the coalition administration. I would like to congratulate Genevieve, Shirley and Paul on their appointments and to wish them every success for the coming year.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Over the sea and not very far away...

My family and I have just returned from a short weekend break at Thorness Bay on the Isle of Wight.

Arranging things around our children's schooling didn't leave a great deal of time for a holiday, but much as I love my work as a councillor representing the town in which I was born it is always nice to go away for a couple of days and recharge the batteries.

As "overseas" holidays go the Isle of Wight might seem rather an unexotic option, but it has a relaxing and peaceful character whilst the small expanse of water which separates it from the mainland truly gives one a sense of having "got away".

Sadly my council-issue handheld considers the Isle of Wight to be something akin to the North Pole or the summit of Mount Everest, and all the e-mails sent to me over the weekend finally manage to break through only when I am on the ferry back to Lymington.

I'm glad to report that normal service has now been resumed.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Enforcement - a case for an amnesty?

I keep mentioning Bowen's Blog, but there are some interesting pieces on there about a meeting which took place at the Osterley Hotel last Saturday on the theme "Save Our Homes". A further discussion is taking place on the Brentford TW8 forum.

The thrust of the meeting, it would appear, was some kind of protest against the policy of the new administration at the London Borough of Hounslow of enforcing planning laws and acting decisively against planning abuse by a small minority of property owners in the borough. More than one person who was present at the meeting has told me of a remark made there by Alan Keen, Labour Member of Parliament for Feltham & Heston, to the effect that under the old (Labour) administration Hounslow had operated a dual policy, effectively turning a blind eye to planning breaches at one end of the borough and for one section of our community.

Not surprisingly this has infuriated planning officers, whose collaboration in this self-evidently unethical and probably illegal practice is clearly implied. One former officer of the Council has publicly threatened legal action for defamation against Mr. Keen unless his remarks are withdrawn, or qualified.

I wish him every success. However, in the meantime Mr. Keen's candid comments do raise the additional question of whether trangressors who are now being enforced against were actually misled into thinking that they were immune from action by the Council. If this is indeed the case, one wonders whether there is not a case for an amnesty?

In the interests of debate, allow me to suggest a few conditions which could form the basis of an amnesty:
  • construction took place prior to May 2006, that is during the tenure of the previous administration at the Council
  • immediate neighbours happy with development
  • existence of illegal construction freely volunteered by applicant
  • full reasons provided for belief by applicant at the time of construction that development would not be enforced against.

At the moment I have introduced the case for an amnesty purely as a stimulus for debate. But, who knows, we could be having this debate sometime soon at the Council Chamber?

Monday, 12 May 2008

A day in the life of...

You'll all be relieved to hear that I've no intention of consigning my every deed to posterity by logging it on this forum. All the same, today provided as true an example as any of the kind of routine followed by a community councillor with a seat on the Executive and roots in his community.

After checking my incoming e-mails from any early risers (mainly officers of the Council), I ventured forth to the Brentford end of Syon ward to distribute some copies of the ICG's newsletter Community News. Some 350 leaflets hit doormats around Albany Road, where I happened upon a couple of old friends from Lateward Road and stopped briefly for a chat.

Then back to Isleworth for breakfast - a couple of baguettes from the popular Joseph's Patisserie in South Street (thanks Camil) - before heading off to the Civic Centre for a 1.30 meeting with the Interim Director of Housing at the London Borough of Hounslow to touch base on some issues relating to housing allocation and Hounslow Homes.

Running a little behind schedule, at 3.30 a short scurry across the Pavilion took me to the office of the Assistant Chief Executive for Corporate Policy & Regeneration for a meeting with the Head of Community Safety, the Senior Community Safety Officer and a delegation from senior management at Hounslow Homes to discuss the progress of our dedicated Race Crime work on our social housing estates.

Back to the Community Group office in the Members' Services Area at about 5.00, Councillor Dr. Genevieve Hibbs was beavering away at her laptop. Some interaction on the local internet forums - much of it, ironically, discussing this blog. A few 'phone calls to constituents, and some private work writing up the Minutes of the April Deacons' Meeting at my Church (the Isleworth Congregational on the junction of Twickenham Road and Worton Road).

We were joined a little later by Councillor Paul Fisher, who had arrived back from his recent short holiday in Poland and was preparing for a meeting of Area Committee chairs (Paul is Chair of the Isleworth & Brentford Area Committee). Briefly I updated him about events over the past few days. It really is amazing that in such a short of period of absence he had missed an Area Committee meeting, the HFTRA Conference, a ward surgery, sad confirmation of an Isleworth Post Office closure, and the bizarre Save Our Homes meeting, for more on which visit Bowen's Blog.

Following that meeting I drove Paul back home, then on to the Deacons' Meeting which began at 8.00. Miraculously (no pun intended) it was all over by 8.40, so it was back home for dinner, more e-mails, this blog and ...oh, yes... there are a couple of little people around the house who are deserving of a little time and attention too.

Whilst no two days are the same, this one was not untypical. The trick, I'm told, is to attend to each commitment in its correct proportion. Whether I have managed to achieve that will, ultimately, be for my constituents or a divorce lawyer to decide.

ICG Public Meeting to take place later this month

The Independent Community Group (ICG) will be hosting a Public Meeting at the Isleworth Working Men's Club in St. John's Road, Isleworth on Friday 23rd May, starting at 7.30 pm.

We are hoping that all six community councillors will be present at the meeting, and available to answer questions from members of the public about what they have been doing in their various posts and positions, as well as giving some insight into our plans for the remaining two years of the current council.

Those who have been with us throughout that fantastic voyage which commenced with our formation on 1st January 1994 will be mindful of just how far we have come since those days, when five or six comrades would sit around a beer-soaked table with me in the now-demolished Harlequin pub and bemoan the unfairness of the old administration's shenanigans which kept them off their own residents' association.

Most of those who serve the Group today were not involved in that particular battle, and have no first-hand experience of the issues which led to the creation of the ICG and forced our entry into the electoral fray which resulted in us having a councillor elected in 1998, three councillors elected in 2002, and six councillors elected in 2006 to a council with a new administration of which we are now part, with myself being given responsibility for the part of the Housing portfolio which oversees the local authority's relationship with Hounslow Homes and our various residents' associations around the borough. Nevertheless the principles and the desire for fairness and openness which inspired the creation of the ICG back in 1994 remain with every one of us as we set about the business of trying to reshape the local authority and imbue it with a new culture of transparency.

The ICG Public Meeting - much beloved of our first Chair, the late Tom Reader, and the Class of '94 - doesn't look a lot different today to those we held in those uncertain times. Whilst we crammed 200 people into Isleworth Public Hall last year to discuss the possible imposition of Controlled Parking Zones in and around South Street and St. John's Road, we are still capable of drawing in less than twenty on a bad day. It tends to depend on what the big issues are at the time.

Hopefully there is enough going on, and sufficient questions to be asked, to inspire a good crowd along to the IWMC on May 23rd. The Public Meeting is where we learned our trade, and in these heady days of Executive meetings and training conferences we forget our roots at our peril.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

"To The River" Website

Stalwart Isleworth conservationist and activist Christine Diwell has just sent me the link to an excellent website published by The Environment Trust for Richmond Upon Thames and local web wizard John Inglis.

Described as "a unique photographic record of Richmond's riverside at the Millennium", it came about as the result of an idea by the late Councillor Michael Jones, who was Mayor of Richmond in the year 2000 and to whom it is dedicated.

Follow the link marked "To The River" and click on "Isleworth" for a guided tour along the upstream reach of the Isleworth riverside.

The Mayor of Hounslow, Andrew Morgan-Watts, attanded the launch of Isleworth's inclusion in the project last Friday (May 2nd) at the London Apprentice.

£1.5m HRA Reserves Project launched at HFTRA Conference

A radical initiative to empower communities living on estates managed by Hounslow Homes was formally launched at the Annual Conference of the Hounslow Federation of Tenants' and Residents' Associations (HFTRA) today (May 10th).

The scheme will make up to £1.5m of capital money from the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) available to tenants' associations around the borough to spend on estate improvement projects of their choosing, which they will then take ownership of. The project is the first of what will be a series of bold initiatives to empower residents in the borough following the passing by Borough Council of an enabling motion which committed the new administration to a new way of thinking in the way in which we engage the communities we serve.

Delegates were asked to choose a name for the project, with the winner walking away with a £50 gift voucher. In the end we decided upon the Rainbow project, appropriate not only because of the colourful variety of estate-based schemes which will benefit from this allocation, but also because the award represents a pot of gold which awaits at the end of what has been something of a journey.

At least 200 people attended the Conference, and in spite of the rocky relationship which I "enjoyed" with Hounslow Homes and with some sections of HFTRA during my early tenure as Lead Member for Housing & Community Safety, and particularly while the Hounslow Homes Management Review was in progress, I have begun to pick up a real sense of warmth and of sincere affinity in my dealings with these organisations and the people who work so hard for them as they have come to understand just what it is that I am trying to achieve on behalf of our long-suffering tenants and leaseholders. Where there was once suspicion, if not in places downright hostility, a real united sense of direction and commonality of purpose has emerged in its place.

There are clearly still issues to be resolved before we can turn a very good service into a truly exceptional one, but just the fact that we know we are all striving for the same goal helps us to resolve difficulties as they arise. Exciting times.

Digging for Victory!

Well digging, scraping, sweeping, chopping, litter-picking and painting to be precise.

During the last seven days it has been my privilege to attend not one but two community clean-ups in Isleworth as part of the 100-day Capital Clean-Up campaign.

Last Saturday (May 3rd) Councillor Paul Fisher and I joined the Isleworth Safer Neighbourhood Team, Hounslow Homes, Community Payback and the indefatigable young people's co-ordinator on the Worton estate, Kim Dobson, with her team of Duke of Edinburgh Award hopefuls in what was the start of a challenging project which will go on for several weeks, clearing the labyrinthine maze of back alleyways on the estate of graffiti, weeds, overgrowth, litter and flytipped materials.

Kim's achievement in launching the first estate-based D of E scheme in the United Kingdom received a deserved mention at a meeting of Borough Council last month, and last week she and the other members of the team were successful in securing a £500 grant from the Isleworth & Brentford Area Committee to purchase materials for the clean-up.

Then on Tuesday and Wednesday the Syon SNT team joined LBH Community Safety, Community Payback, and representatives from St. John's Residents' Association and The Isleworth Society (TIS) in a similar operation around the St. John's Road area. Tuesday being my twins' eleventh birthday and the afternoon of our monthly Worton estate councillors' surgery, I left the work to others. But on Wednesday I went along, as did Caroline (my wife, and one of three community councillors for Syon ward), and helped apply a coat of paint to the heavily vandalised play equipment in St. John's Gardens (as well as to my car seat, jeans and hair).

These initiatives, hard work though they are, set a fabulous example of stakeholders from within the community coming together and leading from the front in the work of making our local neighbourhood a better, safer and more attractive place in which to live.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Welcome to A Community In Action

Welcome to A Community In Action, my very first attempt at this blogging thing.

After several months of dithering I was naturally horrified when I discovered that I had been beaten to the post for the honour of being the first Hounslow councillor to publish his own blog.

Mark Bowen, Conservative councillor for Feltham North and Deputy Leader of the London Borough of Hounslow, launched the interesting Bowen's Blog back in January, and it's well worth a visit.

All the same, I hope through this new venture to give some idea of the thoughts and deeds of a community councillor working to serve the people of Hounslow. I 'll try to keep it updated as frequently as possible. Please bookmark the site and feel free to add your own comments.