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.