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.

New blog by Councillor Paul Fisher

My friend and Community Group colleague Councillor Paul Fisher has joined the world of blogging, launching his own site called Cllrfisher's Weblog.

Please give it your support by visiting regularly and adding your comments.

Hopefully we will see more Hounslow councillors in the not-too-distant future letting us have their thoughts on the big issues of the day, as well as a bit of insight into the everyday life of an elected member of a local authority.

Good luck with it Paul.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

New Labour - an idea whose time has passed

I apologise in advance for another post on that subject, but an A3 leaflet which was doing the rounds on Isleworth's Worton estate earlier in the week finally convinced me that it is game over for the abomination that is New Labour.

On those rare occasions when New Labour in Hounslow gives any impression of being interested in knowing why it has been so thoroughly wiped out in its former stronghold in Isleworth, the usual practice is to suggest that the ICG is some form of local, right-wing political party - either of a meekly Conservative bent or representing something altogether more sinister, depending upon the audience to whom the suggestion is being addressed.

I have long been of the view that there are essentially two reasons for this wilful misapprehension of what has been happening in and around Isleworth, perhaps only one of which is
after all pernicious.

The first, of course, is simply about blatant smearmongering. At the 2006 local elections Hounslow Labour's strategy seemed to revolve around committing almost its entire political machine to the cause of returning Isleworth to where it "belonged", with a campaign based wholly on the failed tactics of 2002 involving the terrorisation of minorities and other vulnerable people. Its tragic miscalculation of ICG strength and its ignorance of political realities in Isleworth led to the Party bogging itself down in the Russian winter of a hopeless cause while we merrily cleaned up in Syon, and even helped engineer the downfall of a leading Party apparatchik in Brentford.

The second reason for New Labour's determination to attribute a political motive to the ICG's operation, I believe, is more to do with simple reassurance. If New Labour bigwigs are able to convince themselves that their rejection by the community of Isleworth has some kind of ideological foundation, it helps absolve them of any blame for their own predicament. And, of course, of the need for any serious introspection of a kind which might reveal nasties of a kind which they would prefer to remain unrevealed.

Whichever of the two motivations drives New Labour in its dealings with the ICG today what is clearly apparent is a lack of scruple, combined with an equal lack of any real kind of programme beyond the pursuit , or retention, of political office. Nowhere is this more evident than in the aforementioned leaflet (above right), which leads with the interesting announcement: "Ann Keen says Cut the Council Tax".

The article goes on to tell us: "...the level of Council Tax is controlled by Hounslow Council and so could, and should, be cut to help at this difficult time...unfortunately the Conservatives who run Hounslow Council could only freeze the Council Tax this year...

"Ann's suggestion has been backed by Labour councillors in Hounslow who argue if it's possible to freeze it then surely it must be possible to cut the council tax locally...

"Hard pressed local families have enough to deal with without more taxes on top - unlike the Tories and Lib Dems we think the local council tax should be cut."

There is little point in dwelling for too long upon the sheer gall of the message conveyed by New Labour in these few short words. It is very widely known indeed that New Labour in Hounslow has for two years outspokenly opposed the policy of the current administration of keeping Council Tax low, and that it dares to believe that it could get away with now trying to suggest the exact opposite serves only to reveal the utter contempt in which Mrs. Keen and her followers hold their own voters.

Believe it or not, what overcame me when I read the headline was actually a genuine sense of sympathy and embarrassment for all those New Labour apologists and acolytes, including one or two who have technically left the Party itself, who had invested so much time and effort in writing letters to the local press, posting comments on internet forums and using every other available means to argue the case for a higher Council Tax in order to protect what they would have us believe were services for the vulnerable (but often in reality, of course, jobs for cronies). Greater love hath no woman than this; that a woman lay down her friends for her life - as John the Apostle might have said had he encountered the appalling Mrs. Keen.

Locally, as nationally, it is evident that New Labour has lost its way. As it has done so it has become progressively (if that is the right word!) more dishonest, more opportunistic, and less motivated by any kind of principle. Rather than being a means towards achieving an end, the acquisition of political office by any means possible has become the end in itself.

And yet, ironically, I believe not only that there is a need for a Labour Party in our local politics, but also that a Labour Party rooted in honesty, integrity and sound principles would in the fullness of time actually turn the tide around once again. Alas current Party wisdom seems to have it that the way forward for an organisation which finds itself increasingly rejected for its cynicism, its dishonesty and its nastiness is to become more cynical, less honest and nastier.

For the forseeable future, it would seem, political life for the ICG must go on.

Friday, 25 July 2008

URA - One Year On

When I first took over the post of Lead Member for Housing, or half the post as it was at the time, my first challenge was to oversee the Hounslow Homes Management Review as part of the agreement between the London Borough of Hounslow and Hounslow Homes drawn up under the previous administration.

Whilst most people would, quite reasonably, have expected the main focus of the Review to have been upon such obvious matters as service delivery, my mandate as a community councillor was more about democratising the process through which tenants and leaseholders were able to participate in the management of their estates. Hitherto, of course, the ethos of the old administration had permeated Hounslow Homes and political allegiance had often been the criteria for determining which tenants could be part of the process and which could not.

The Review process was not a pleasant one. My political opponents recognised, as I did, what it was that was at stake and resisted it with all their might. It was probably the first determined assault made by the new administration on the values which had inspired the previous régime. Obstacles were thrown into my path from all sides which had to be overcome. House publications were mysteriously briefed, regional and even national newspapers launched personal attacks, and a question was even asked of the Prime Minister in the House of Commons! What the process had the effect of doing, however, was to exorcise the forces which had laid dormant within all of the inter-connected institutions and to draw them out into the daylight which they so feared. Once that had been achieved, they could be and were put to the sword with relative ease.

The inspiration for my conduct of the Review, indeed the inspiration for the ICG itself at least in its earlier years, came from Ivybridge and the problems which had torn the local residents' movement asunder. The whole ethical battle between the forces of cronyism and democracy had been fought out in microcosm on that estate for three decades. To a large extent those people who were running the old tenants' association at the time had merely inherited this culture and were not consciously advocates of it. But the damage had been done, and one of my first acts under the revised terms of the Management Agreement which I imposed was to try to bring the warring residents together under the umbrella of a new association which every resident had an equal right to participate in.

In July 2007 the former New Ivybridge Tenants' Association (NITA) and it's independent rival the Ivybridge Tenants' Action Group (Ivytag) agreed to simultaneously disband and a new association, the United Residents' Association of Ivybridge (URA), came into being. At the top table former leaders of NITA and Ivytag sat side by side. Tina Howe, the former Chair of NITA was elected to the same post in the new association.

Frustratingly, there were a few who saw my support of the new Chair as an act of betrayal. This small group, people who had previously been my allies in the struggle to change things for the better, were simply unable to comprehend that it had always been the principle for which I had fought, not the personalities. My quarrel had never been with any individual and I had never professed it to be, but only with the culture of cronyism which those individuals had inherited, and which had been actively fostered by the old régime at the Civic Centre and at St. Catherine's House.

So it was then that the URA was born, whilst a small rump from the former Ivytag (as well as one ex-member of NITA who was equally unwilling to embrace the unity concept) walked away. In an amusing application of the "any port in a storm" saying, the local New Labour Party against whose political interference Ivytag had been fighting since its inception, appeared to come out in support of the new (ex-Ivytag) rebels!

It was against this background of continued (although by previous standards much reduced) unrest that the fledgling URA had to operate. However in one short year the URA has already chalked up some considerable successes. A new safety fence outside Ivybridge Primary School, the removal of the illegal burger van which had squatted in the residents' car park on rugby match days, vastly improved communications between residents and Hounslow Homes, promised action against the nuisance caused by match-day chauffeurs and an impending £60,000+ bid for a play scheme project were all announced at last night's well-attended Annual General Meeting, which I had the privilege of chairing in the unavoidable absence of my friend and colleague Councillor Paul Fisher, who was himself chairing the Community Investment Advisory Panel at the Civic Centre.

A strong new Committee has been elected for 2008/09, and I have every confidence that this determined team will take Community Power on Ivybridge to new heights and set ever better standards. One pessimist in their midst complained that "only" 17 people had been elected to serve. It is easy to forget the days when the large majority of those who aspired to contribute towards the betterment of the estate were sitting on the outside looking in.

Councillor Fisher and I are always looking for fresh ways to boost involvement in, and the influence of, residents' groups around the borough and some ambitious ideas have already been actively discussed with officers of the Council. This space should be watched with some interest.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

It's a funny old world - Part two

I have probably never done as much work in a week as I have this week. I was at my PC from early Tuesday morning until 4.30 on Wednesday morning attending to some personal business, and today I've been similarly occupied ploughing through e-mails and outstanding casework at a rate of knots.

The odd thing about it is I'm not at home, or at my office, or at the Civic Centre, but in Rookley Country Park on the Isle of Wight on a Sun holiday!

Each year The Sun newspaper sells thousands of holidays at various UK and European resorts for just £9.50 per head. For the holiday sites, it's a good way of filling up unutilised space outside peak season. The down side is that one doesn't always get the date one wants, and on this occasion when we were told we had been given July 14th it was a no-no as the kids are still at school and don't break up until next week.

So rather than waste the booking I figured here was a very good opportunity to get some work done, away from the distractions of home and life in Isleworth in general. And here I am!

Tuesday in particular tested the willpower somewhat, with glorious sunshine all around as I sat in my caravan glued to my laptop and living on a diet of white bread and tomato soup. But I've no regrets, the work had to be done.

It really is a funny old world when you go on holiday to get the work done which you're too busy to do whilst you're at work. But as Del Boy used to say on the telly, you know it makes sense.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!

As a service to our absentee MP and to the New Labour Party in Hounslow, I reproduce below without amendment a posting which appeared on the party's local webpage a couple of days ago. To those who will accuse me of tactical naivete by needlessly giving a plug to our opponents, my response would be that the importance of empowering people in an age of dictatorship by spin cannot be stressed enough:

"Local people will be able to petition the council to take action on issues such as traffic calming, moving dumped cars, or cleaning up fly-tipping under new rights proposed by the Labour Government.

"Local Labour MP Ann Keen has challenged local people to take up the new powers and force action from the council.

"Ann said: ‘Most people Brentford and Isleworth have signed a petition. But soon, petitions will have real bite, and the council will have to sit up and take notice of local people’s concerns. I want people to tell me what they want fixing, and if the council won’t act, we will work together to launch a petition. Petitions will give our communities real clout.’

"Labour’s Communities in Control white paper also suggests that local people should be able to decide how the council spends money, how criminals should be punished as part of their ‘community payback’, how more young people should be involved, and how local groups should own and run assets such as parks and community centres.

"Ann Keen MP will be giving out a new pocket-sized card called What Can I Do? to local groups in coming weeks. The card sets out how people can have their say, get involved, and make changes locally."

I promise I am not making this up, this really is on the Brentford and Isleworth Labour Party's website.

If there is any sincerity at all in this new approach beyond its obvious Hounslow Council-bashing then this new initiative has to be applauded. But taking into account the track record of its authors, I hope I will be forgiven for not getting myself all worked up just now.

Beaten by the Tractor Boys

One casualty of my chosen vocation is that I don't get a lot of time to do many of the things that I once enjoyed, a prime example being attending football matches. However as a Brentford supporter I thought it was about time that I paid Griffin Park a visit so, in the company of my son Joe, I went along last night to see them play Ipswich Town in a friendly.

Sadly they went down 2-0. After Brentford had dominated the first half without managing to capitalise, the Championship side's class began to shine through in the second half and in the final analysis the result was a fair one.

However there was much about Brentford's performance to be enthusiastic about, so let's hope Andy Scott can pull it off and get us back into League One next May.

A necessary excursion

One type of event that an active councillor attends almost as frequently as meetings is funerals.

Yesterday my wife Caroline was a tad perplexed as to why I would drive 140 miles to and from Chichester to attend the funeral of Ted Hitchcock, a man whom I had seen twice, possibly three times, during the last thirty years.

When I was a lad of fourteen I was, as I am today, a regular attendee at Isleworth Congregational Church. As well as services on Sunday mornings, the Church ran a youth club on Monday evenings which was the highlight of my social calendar. During one year in particular - and I remember the year well, it was 1976 - it was the epicentre of everything I lived for. It was where my closest friends went, it was where my gang was based, it was where music was played of a kind (Barry White, Van McCoy, George McCrae) for which I would not under other circumstances have had any enthusiasm but which, because I associate it with that year and with that club, I still cannot listen to without an almost unbearable desire to turn back the clock and walk back into the Church Hall one last time in my four-inch platforms and tartan lumber-jacket (with collar upturned) to see my old mates once again.

Ted was a helper at that club, as was his wife Dorothy and his daughter Jane. He was a Deacon of the Church (as I am today), who gave up his Monday evenings for no personal gain to help ensure that twenty or thirty local youngsters were kept off the streets and on the straight and narrow. But he did more than just help. He took an interest. I can remember holding quite a few deep conversations with him about a range of issues - social, theological, musical. Whether he was humouring me or not I'll never know, but I always felt as though he was treating me as an equal.

In late 1975 some members of the club spent a weekend away on a barge on the Thames at Abingdon. Most of us travelled there by minibus, driven by another helper. Ted arrived a little while later in his estate car. Taking one look around the dormitory-style sleeping quarters he decided very quickly that they brought back too many unhappy memories of his time as a Prisoner Of War, and elected to sleep in his car
instead. But he stayed the weekend nevertheless.

As fate would have it and despite the very best efforts of Ted and others to steer me along the correct course in life, I strayed from the path regardless. Unbalanced by the sense of shock which came with the realisation that even the state of spiritual perfection that was 1976, not to mention adolescence itself, had to come to end, I began to develop an unhealthy interest in fascist politics which led ultimately to me joining the National Front, and remaining with it or with splinters thereof until just after my thirtieth birthday. Inevitably, my new enthusiasms ran coterminously with my disengagement from my Church.

Although for two decades I had hankered on many an occasion to walk back into the Church, I felt unworthy. However in 1998, shortly after having been elected as a councillor for the first time, I bit the bullet and attended a service - in part to honour a promise to the late former Secretary Pat Burch, who was also one of my constituents and who during the election campaign had taken out membership of the ICG. I have been involved again with the Church ever since.

By this time Ted and Dorothy had long retired, and had moved down south. However during my ten years of renewed work for the Church I saw them when they returned on a couple of occasions to attend special events.

Ted passed away a few weeks after his ninetieth birthday. Although I had seen him only rarely since achieving adulthood, I wanted to pay my respects to somebody who had been part of what was a very special period of my life.

I also think, subconsciously, that I wanted to give him back some of the time which he gave to me as a member of the youth club.

The world would be a much worse place without all those selfless people who give up their own time for no other reason than to make the lives of those around them better. Ted, and others of his kind, should serve as an example to us all.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Some further thoughts on Community Empowerment

"Community empowerment is about people and government, working together to make life better. It involves more people being able to influence decisions about their communities, and more people taking responsibility for tackling local problems, rather than expecting others to."

The above is the definition of Community Empowerment as given by the Department of Communities and Local Government.

This is not to say that DCLG's definition is necessarily the best one, of course, neither should we accept without question the right of a government department to impose its interpretation upon us all. Nevertheless, as an attempt to put flesh onto the bones of an abstract concept it is a surprisingly good starting point.

Yesterday Councillor Paul Fisher and I attended a one-day conference at London's Cavendish Conference Centre on the theme "Community Ownership of Assets - Creating Strong and Sustainable Communities", which discussed and debated the innovative Quirk Review into asset ownership.

Community Empowerment has, of course, been the core objective of the ICG since the day it was formed. Back then in 1994 the concept was unfashionable, particularly in the context of our own local authority, where organisational Stalinism was to survive Labour's lurch to the right of the political spectrum in policy terms.

It is gratifying to know that our vision has come into vogue even though, other than perhaps in Hounslow, it is unlikely that we as a Group actually contributed in any way towards this new departure.

As I see it there are essentially two schools of thought on the question of Community Empowerment. At the recent Housing Conference in Harrogate I was appalled to hear a speaker delivering himself of the view that all the community aspired to was good services, and that in the event of such being delivered members of the public were happy to sit back and let the political elite get on with the business of making decisions on their behalf. It is a view which I personally would always instinctively associate with New Labour, but in this instance I had been surprised to learn that the speaker was in fact a Liberal Democrat.

That is one school of thought. The other is that which would tend to be associated with the ICG, that holders of political office are morally, if not legally, delegated to act as those who elected them instruct, and that the true source of power lies with the community which put them where they are. Whilst it is necessary for the efficient working of local government for holders of political office to make decisions on a day to day basis, all reasonable efforts should be made to involve the community itself in the decision-making process, in a meaningful as opposed to a tokenistic way, to the greatest extent possible.

Yesterday's conference seemed to flow from the assumption that the second school of thought has it right. Several speakers gave their views as to how this might best be achieved. Most of it was very interesting.

However, one disappointing aspect of the whole debate for me was the fact that every speaker, without exception, seemed to equate Community Empowerment solely with grant funding. The more money which is given to communities and their organisations, so the logic went, the more free and independent they become.

It is undoubtedly true that community initatives do need funding. It would be absurd to argue against this. However it is equally true that funding can actually work against the whole ethos of Community Empowerment. We have seen this in Hounslow, indeed I have seen it in Isleworth - on my own estate - where grant funding is given which the recipient becomes dependent upon, and then the political conditions become evident which, if not fulfilled, lead to the threatened withdrawal of the funding and, if the threat is carried out, the subsequent collapse of the group.

This is not Community Empowerment. This is Community Enslavement.

There is a certain breed of political animal which seems to talk about nothing but grant funding, revenue streams and so on. They seem to speak in a language all of their own. I confess to finding such people tiresome.

Community Empowerment is an ideal, not a commodity which can be purchased. Community Empowerment is about creating irreversable channels through which the community can direct government, local and national.

If, having created those irreversable channels, you then still wish to give us your money, it will seldom be refused.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Well done Carol

I have to confess that I only watch (or rather listen to) Channel 4's Deal or No Deal, presented by Noel Edmonds, when it is on in my living room and I'm facing the opposite way, tapping away at the keyboard of my home PC.

However my ears pricked up yesterday when I heard Mr. Edmonds announce that his contestant was from Isleworth in Middlesex.

Carol Scarrott is one of my constituents, and so I turned to watch the show. I won't go into the details of how it's played, but for those who are interested all the information can be found here on the show's official website.

In the event Carol decided to accept an offer of £16,000 - very often a wise decision but in her case, sadly, she later learned she would have gone on to win £100,000 had she held out.

Obviously it is a game of luck, and she could just of easily have declined the offer and gone away with nothing. That's the way the game goes.

All the same £16k was a good day's work, and I'd like to congratulate Carol and hope she enjoys her winnings.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

A pig of a dilemma

Our twin children were only just four years old when we were sitting in our car at Larne, waiting to board the ferry for Cairnryan after a week visiting relatives in Newry, Co. Down.

A cattle truck pulled up beside us, crammed with cows who stared back at us and all the other motorists there, doe-eyed and innocent (the cows, not the motorists).

"Where are they going Mummy?" our daughter Rosina (above left) asked. "What are they going to do with them?"

"They are going to a farm," one of us replied.

"But they make beef from cows," she persisted. "Are they going to kill them?"

We don't believe in being dishonest with our children, so we told her that this was possibly the case. Although, we stressed, they could be milking cows.

Ignoring the latter possibility, Rosie was incredulous. "But can't we do something about it?"

"Like what?" I asked.

"Well let them go, or something. We can't just sit here and let them be taken away and killed, and not do anything. They haven't done anything wrong," she insisted, tears welling up in her eyes.

Some years later, shortly before her tenth birthday, I took Rosie on a shopping trip to Richmond. As we entered W.H. Smith's we passed a lady who was handing out leaflets. Inside the shop Rosie asked me what the lady had been doing. "Handing out leaflets," I replied.

"One of them had a little pig on it," she told me. "Do you mind if we go back and take one when we leave this shop?"

The leaflet was published by Viva!, an international vegetarian organisation, and featured a pig clearly suffering appalling treatment in the process of being prepared for slaughter. The text left nothing to the imagination. Rosie was quite distressed.

Typically, she joined the organisation and began to receive its literature. She declared herself to be a vegetarian, and has never eaten a meat product since. This was surprisingly easy for us to support - most restaurants and supermarkets offer a wide range of vegetarian options.

Before very long the whole family was being dragged along to an exhibition in Central London, where samples of vegetarian food were on offer and literature aplenty was thrust at us. One stall was run by an activist, whose name escapes me, who had been gaoled for animal rights activities. He was selling signed copies of his book in hardback.

Another was manned by a vegan group, and it was here that Rosie was horrified to learn that farm animals reared for dairy produce, even sometimes free-range, suffer all kinds of hardships as a result of the relentless demand for maximised production. It wasn't long before she made the decision to stop eating animal products completely and go vegan.

Now to those many people who tell us (and those who don't) that they think we are irresponsible parents for allowing a girl of Rosie's age to take a life-changing decision of this importance at her time of life, I would simply invite them to spend five minutes speaking - and listening - to Rosie. Having done so they would understand that her commitment to her cause is no passing junior enthusiasm. She is absolutely adamant that her conscience will not permit her to eat animal produce, and it has been our unenviable task to make it work.

Unlike vegetarians, vegans don't have it on a plate (no pun intended). Most restaurants and shops do not indicate whether their products are vegan and even
the most innocent items need to be studied - sweets, for instance, will often contain gelatin whilst even vegetarian options such as Quorn more often than not include milk powder or free range egg.

With the assistance of supplements, and thanks to her penchant for calcium-fortified soya milk, Rosie maintains a healthy diet and consumes her required daily intake of protein, calcium, iodine and vitamins B12 and D, but it is always a struggle. As a lifelong carnivore it is an altogether alien experience for me, as well as for Caroline, trying to work out new and interesting recipes from such a limited range of options, although one unexpected by-product has been that we too find ourselves eating less meat.

As for Rosie's stubborn determination to stick to her guns in the face of all comers, one can only speculate as to where she gets that from.

Friday, 4 July 2008

It's a funny old world!

Back in the year 2000 I and the ICG were involved in a massive residents' campaign (above) against one part of a proposal to build houses on Isleworth's Worton Green. The proposed development, which has since gone ahead, involved the destruction of much of the open green space which existed on the estate for the benefit of residents already there and, whilst acknowledging the need for more social housing, this part of the development proposal was considered completely inappropriate. The associated proposals to replace decrepit bungalows in Octavia Road with new family housing, and to provide two new bungalows on the corner of Kennet Road, were supported.

The battle was one of the fiercest that local residents have been involved in for many, many years. As a solitary community councillor serving the old Isleworth South ward alongside two Labour councillors, I was marginalised throughout. The head of what was then Hounslow's housing department, before the advent of Hounslow Homes, was quite openly political and hostile to the ICG. The two Labour ward councillors went to war with their own constituents, subjecting them to verbal abuse through the pages of the local press and colluding in the production of an utterly dishonest residents' survey conducted on the estate which managed to create an impression of about 95% support for the plans, when the reality was about 95% opposition.

The Labour majority on the borough's planning committee approved the plans on the nod after going through the motions of hearing the objections of Isleworth residents. The residents appealed and a Public Inquiry was held, at which the Planning Inspector appointed by the Secretary of State supported the residents, only to be overruled by his own boss who deemed that the development should go ahead.

That particular battle was lost but the residents had the last laugh when, two years later, they savaged the two Labour councillors who had betrayed them at the polls, returning three ICG councillors with a thumping majority, a defeat from which Labour has never recovered in Isleworth, and which acted as a springboard for a similar raid into neighbouring Syon ward four years later and the subsequent removal of the New Labour régime for the first time in 35 years.

I recount all this by way of background to my presentation last night to the Heston & Cranford Area Committee. Six years on from the Battle of Worton, I find myself as Lead Member for Housing in a coalition administration. My brief at the Area Committee meeting was to try to persuade its twelve members, all from the Labour Party, to support my plans to build new social housing units on six sites in Heston.

I am a firm believer in social housing. With more than ten households in need of housing for every one unit available, the funding which has been made available to us to construct hundreds of new units at three sites within the borough should in my view be put to the best possible use.

However, I have never forgotten the lessons which I learned during the Worton campaign. I resolved from a very early stage that local ward councillors and other stakeholders would be kept in the information loop, their opinions asked and their local expertise respected and utilised. I am determined that residents who have worries about aspects of the development should be listened to, and their concerns acted upon. Both I and my officers will be totally honest with all parties at all times. There will be no underhandedness, deceit or chicanery on my watch.

In this particular instance it is the residents of Heston's Brabazon estate who are concerned by proposals which they say would take away valuable amenity space on the estate. I have asked officers to investigate alternatives which might address these fears.

Now I had never expected to be lauded by the councillors of Heston and Cranford. Having, quite correctly in my view given the circumstances, taken away their Area Planning Committee's powers of enforcement, I anticipated that I would be as welcome as the proverbial outbreak of flatulence in an astronaut's suit. As it happens I was pleasantly surprised by the demeanour of most of the members, which was decent and respectful. The Chair gave me ample opportunity to present my case in spite of the heavy agenda, then gave way whenever I ventured to respond to questions put to me by members of the Committee. I was supported by a consistently excellent officer team from the London Borough of Hounslow and Hounslow Homes.

However I was disappointed by the shallow opportunism of some of the objections which I encountered. Councillor Amritpal Mann was effectively opposed to any extension of social housing provision in Heston, suggesting that it should be moved instead to Chiswick, Bedfont or Isleworth (it was necessary for me to point out that Isleworth ward already has the highest percentage of social housing in the borough).

Councillor Elizabeth Hughes stressed the inclusion of a private element within the plans, implying that this was actually the driver for the scheme, either ignoring or unaware of the fact that the private housing element will actually be the enabling development for the social housing provision.

Councillor Raj Bath questioned the reasonableness of imposing a service charge on future residents, seemingly oblivious to the fact that service charges were imposed by Hounslow Homes following a decision of its Board, of which he is a member.

By way of mitigation for their negativity Councillor Gurmail Lal suggested that conditions had been different in 2005, when the then Council Executive of which he and Councillor Mann had been members gave the go-ahead for the development in the first place.

We live in interesting times when a Conservative-led administration launches upon an ambitious programme of social housing development which is then resisted by an Area Committee solely comprised of Labour councillors. I am satisfied that my position on social housing provision has remained consistent throughout. Can certain others honestly say the same?

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Goodbye, nothing to say

If they were ever to introduce tolls for our roads I would find myself investing in a season ticket for the M3.

Sticking with our usual policy of little, cheap and often when it comes to our family holidays (being a community councillor is not conducive to disappearing for a fortnight at a time) the Andrews household, accompanied on this occasion by my mother and father, spent the weekend just gone at Landguard Holiday Park in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, returning on Monday evening.

Then, the very next day, it was back down the motorway to Bournemouth for the Local Government Association (LGA) Annual Conference, which is where I am as I write.

In an earlier article I spoke of how Kevin Maguire, the Political Editor of the Daily Mirror, had made an inaccurate statement about me in one of his columns implying that I still held the same views which motivated me as a member of the National Front back in the 1970s and 80s, which as anybody who knows me at all will confirm I do not. In that article I conceded the possibility that Maguire had made an innocent mistake, and in order to enable him to reflect upon the falsity of his words I forwarded the contents of my blog article to him. Needless to say I have not heard a word from him since, neither an apology for misrepresenting me nor even an acknowledgement.

As a consequence Maguire has been admitted to my Deliberate Liars Club, where he takes pride of place alongside fellow journalist and Lying-Scumbag-in-Chief Andrew Gilligan of the London Evening Standard.

Those who read that article will recall my admittedly mischievous suggestion that I might challenge Maguire over his remarks at the LGA Conference, where he was listed as a speaker at a plenary event on the subject of "Homes fit for local people".

Now to be perfectly truthful, I never really did have any intention of raising what is essentially a private matter between myself and Maguire at an open forum. It would have been hugely disrespectful of the other 250-300 people attending the session who had gone along to listen to a debate about housing. Nevertheless I did attend the session, strategically positioning myself in a row of seats all of my own at the top of the meeting where I was likely to stand out before any properly-sighted individual seated at the top table.

As soon as the session began I was disappointed to discover that Sir Bob Kerslake (to whom no offence is intended) was to be the only actual speaker and that Maguire had been relegated to a mere member of the six-person panel behind him. Unlike the other panel members, he didn't even receive a personal introduction from the Chair.

Nevertheless I couldn't resist a bit of fun, so I raised my hand and was eventually given the microphone. Congratulating Sir Bob on his speech and expressing my pleasure at seeing "an old Hounslow boy doing so well for himself" (as Chief Executive at the London Borough of Hounslow in the early 1990s it would be fair to say he was not a particularly strict observer of the statutory requirement for senior officers not to engage in political activity, but these were after all the bad old, pre-ICG days of cronyism run rampant), I introduced myself by name and office in a manner which must have left Maguire in no doubt as to who I was. Then, after asking an innocuous question (which, in the event, only Sir Bob made any attempt to answer), I shared my hope that "those on the panel who haven't spoken yet will let us have their views on this subject".

Unfortunately it was not to be. The vaunted speaker turned panel member rose from the table at the end of the 75-minute session without having uttered a single, solitary word. When, as the audience began to make its way out of the impressive Windsor Hall, I headed towards the stage in the hope of engaging Maguire in a few minutes of private conversation, he hurriedly turned around and found somebody else to speak to. Not only a conscious liar, it would appear, but a moral coward to boot.

Tomorrow David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Hazel Blears will be addressing the Conference, then it's off home for a presentation to the Heston & Cranford Area Committee.

And on Friday morning, for the first time in ages, I am minded to buy a copy of The Sun.