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?