Last night's Borough Council meeting was a marathon by anybody's standards, but after a long day of briefings and meetings it promised to be something of an ordeal.
In the morning I had met with a senior housing officer to touch base on various matters concerning the Housing half of my portfolio, and later on in the afternoon it had been over to St. Catherine's House in Feltham for the regular Partnership Meeting between the London Borough of Hounslow and Hounslow Homes. Then, after having returned to Isleworth to pick up Caroline, the two of us had a scheduled meeting with housing and legal officers in connection with an ongoing matter of local importance. In between all this I had the task of compiling about half a dozen short speeches for the big event in the evening.
One recent feature of Borough Council meetings has been the tendency to take advantage of the Announcements slot to impart news of good things happening in the wards and around the borough. Last year's Mayor Councillor Andy Morgan-Watts used this opportunity to pay a warm tribute to Caroline, who had served with great diligence as his Deputy.
Another announcement which I had a particular interest in was made by my colleague Councillor Paul Fisher, who had organised a presentation by the new Mayor Councillor Dr. Genevieve Hibbs to the young people on Isleworth's Worton estate who had won the Bronze certificate for their work under the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. I intend to post a stand-alone feature on this wonderful achievement shortly, so I'll not dwell upon it here.
During the Questions from Members slot I was required to field a question from Labour's Councillor Matt Harmer on the subject of Disability Adaptations for local authority tenants, for which there is currently a backlog. Whilst I had had ample notice of the question itself and had therefore been able to provide him with a full and accurate response, the sting in the tail during this session is usually the Supplementary Question, which follows on from the response given but of which the Lead Member being questioned has had no forewarning. I had, incorrectly as it turned out, guessed that Councillor Harmer's piece de resistance would be a reference to the £1.5m which I have committed to the Rainbow Project to empower tenants on our estates, and I had prepared my riposte accordingly. In the event however he wrong-footed me by asking a somewhat benign question relating to the particular hardships being faced by two individual residents of his ward, and could I promise that I would do my best to help them, which of course I was more than happy to do.
A motion from Councillor Paul Fisher expressing our gratitude to our servicemen, carefully worded so as to accommodate the sensitivities of those, like myself, who oppose the military adventures of the present government (and at least one Labour councillor admitted to me after the meeting that he also did), was unanimously supported. Making one of the best contributions of the evening, Labour councillor Elizabeth Hughes told of how her own grandfather had died later in life as a result of having contacted malaria during World War Two, which struck a particular chord with me because, by a curious coincidence, my maternal grandfather died under exactly the same circumstances following his service in Burma. Perhaps rather cruelly, I found myself reflecting upon how such an apparently sensible person could have found enough in common with David Hughes, the former member for Bedfont ward who on many an occasion has invaded the Brentford TW8 forum and assailed it with an unrelenting salvo of his demented ramblings, to have wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. Whatever do they find to talk about?
But the big debate was always going to be the one surrounding the recent comments by Labour Leader Councillor Jagdish Sharma at a recent meeting of the Central Hounslow Area Committee, where he had suggested that the actions of Hounslow's planning enforcement officers in clamping down on illegal development in the borough were inspired by institutional racism. A brave but doomed attempt by Councillor Hughes to amend the motion condemning his remarks out of existence by trying to rewrite what he had actually said was defeated by the votes of all the other councillors present, but not before she had delivered a rather peculiar speech which at one stage drifted almost seamlessly onto the completely unrelated subject of housing allocations under LOCATA, at which point she made reference to a pre-election pledge which I am supposed to have made and not kept which left me baffled as it was entirely unfamiliar. Hopefully she will furnish me with the necessary details to allow me to comment.
The epic meeting concluded with some fitting and much deserved tributes to departing Assistant Chief Executive Howard Simmons, who has been very helpful indeed to me in my Community Safety work, and to veteran Osterley & Spring Grove member Councillor Peter Carey*, who was quite deservedly made an Honorary Freeman of the Borough of Hounslow, joining Councillors John Connelly, Barbara Reid and Jagdish Sharma who have already been similarly honoured as a result of having served as elected members for more than 25 years apiece.
All in all this whole event was a fiery baptism for the new Mayor, but she handled it well and will no doubt benefit from the experience.
* For more on Councillor Carey and his award see Bowen's Blog.