Sunday, 24 August 2008

Musings and ramblings on a Sunday afternoon

Most Sunday mornings I go to Isleworth Congregational Church, where for several years I have had the honour of serving as a Deacon.

I tend not to preach about my religious convictions. Whilst I may have carved a niche of sorts in the world of local politics, my theological grounding is limited to say the least. My commitment to my Church, such as it is, derives from instinct rather than scientific analysis. I think that is why they call it faith.

Without wishing to imply any disrespect to those good men and women who give up their Sunday mornings to come along and preach, I do on occasions find my thoughts wandering onto other matters - sometimes inspired, it has to be said, by something the preacher has said.

This morning I found myself reflecting on my activities of the past couple of weeks. In short, I have been using the political "quiet season" as a window of opportunity for trying to earn a crust.

When I first became a councillor, back in 1998, a councillor's annual allowance was in the region of £1,400. There was no question that this was just what it said on the tin - an allowance - and not a salary.

That allowance has since grown in increments to a little under £10,000, proportionately a massive increase but still not in itself a salary. Interestingly, these incremental increases all took place under the previous New Labour administration, who supported pay increases in office but oppose them in opposition.

With the introduction by the New Labour government of the new Executive or Cabinet system, a goodly proportion of the workload which used to be spread more evenly now falls upon the shoulders of a small handful of councillors. Acting upon government guidance the previous New Labour administration, which oversaw the introduction of this system in Hounslow, drastically ramped up the allowances available to Executive councillors (a hike which, again, they claim to be against now that they are in opposition and no longer benefit from it). The current administration took this one step further earlier this year and increased Executive allowances again, once more as a response to formal recommendations.

What this means in effect is that, as an Executive member, I now receive £16,000 per annum on top of the £10,000 that I receive as a councillor. As it happens I didn't support the increase when it was proposed at Borough Council (a matter of documented historical record, although that inconvenient fact doesn't stop my opponents from pretending that I did). I didn't support it, not because I don't honestly feel that I and other Executive members can justify such an amount with the work we put in, but because the government, having advised Hounslow and other councils to pay "realistic" salaries (let's face it, they can no longer be called expenses) to Executive members, then didn't make any extra provision to enable us to do so without eating into our own already scarce resources.

Now I make no criticism of fellow Executive members who manage to perform their civic duties whilst holding down full-time employment in other areas. However, speaking personally I do not feel I could function as effectively as I demand of myself if I had the added burden of holding down a 9 to 5 job in the market and so, consequently, I have made the decision not to do so.

Criticism of that decision comes primarily from two sources. The first and most obvious is the bitter, failed ex-councillors who were unceremoniously dumped by the electorate (although you'll never hear any suggestion from them that they might have been at all to blame for their own predicament). These are people who held office when members' allowances were at an absolute minimum and who, perhaps understandably up to a point, feel resentful that those whom the electors chose to replace them with are now receiving remuneration on a level which they
personally did not enjoy. It is a particularly cruel irony when one considers that they represented a political school of thought which was fiercely materialistic in its outlook.

The second is those who, quite simply, presumed that councillors already lived in mansions, drove Rollers and received six-figure salaries. The look of surprise on the face of constituents when they discover that, as Lead Member for Housing, I still live in an overcrowded, rented flat on what many deem to be a "problem" estate (unlike the previous crowd, "it's not what you know but who you know" forms no part of the philosophy of the new administration) has to be seen to be believed.

In actual fact being through my own choice a "full-time" Executive member leaves me between a rock and a hard place. Unlike the councillors of 1998 I cannot claim to be doing the job solely for love. And yet with a family to feed and a roof over their heads to keep I still need to pay the bills. Love is a noble cause for which to work, but when I told my bank manager I loved him his reply was "I love you too, but what about your overdraft?".

And so it is that I've been sitting at my desktop PC for the last two or three weeks, devising ways of bringing in an income which will supplement that which I receive from the local authority without committing me to working fixed hours. I have started to build websites and blogs with that ignoble but wholly necessary purpose in mind.

So this is where the story comes back to my attendance at Church. Because for all the effort I put into promoting my local political cause, an effort which I am now trying to imitate in promoting a business of sorts, it occurred to me that I have done little by comparison to promote the work of the Church. My lack of theological expertise is mitigation, but not entirely an excuse. There are things I can be doing, and haven't been.

It is funny how adversity often teases out introspection. Have no fear, you won't be hearing me ringing bells or preaching in the High Street any time soon. But a little bit of time devoted to something which has sustained and inspired me so much in my life must surely be a sacrifice worth making?

Friday, 15 August 2008

John Benn

Earlier today I attended the funeral of long-time Isleworth resident John Benn (left), from Dawes Avenue, who sadly passed away last week aged 78.

John's boys Richard and Christopher went to Worple Road Primary School at the same time as I did, back in the 1960s. But I came to know John himself, and his wife Sylvia, on the social circuit in Isleworth many years later.

Both were regular attendees at ICG social events, coming away with us on our old seaside coach trips as well as supporting quite a few of our socials at the Isleworth Royal British Legion. A quiet and unassuming couple, I often found myself a little nervous that they might have felt slightly uncomfortable in the sometimes noisy family atmosphere of some of those events, but they always came back and were regular and welcome participants. In spite of his overtly modest demeanour, John had a real sense of humour and was quite entertaining in conversation. His company will be missed by his many friends at the Isleworth Working Men's Club where, appropriately, the reception was held after the funeral.

John was also a bit of a handyman. On more than one occasion my wife Caroline has taken her broken and punctured bicycles to him, which he would swiftly attend to and never ask for anything in return.

The down side of being involved in local community politics and knowing so many people is that one loses so many friends. For me John will always rank among the best of those. It was a fitting tribute to such a decent man that the chapel at Hanworth Crematorium was filled to the brim with people who had turned up to pay their respects.

I would like to express my sincere condolences to Sylvia, his children, his grandchildren and all other members of his family.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Rainbow Project announced on LBH website today

The £1.5m Rainbow Project was formally launched on the London Borough of Hounslow website today, and a series of no fewer than seven roadshows announced to bring this exciting initiative to the attention of residents around our borough.

The Project is an important first step towards empowering our tenants and leaseholders and, whilst we accept that it takes will and not just money to enable us to give power back to the residents where it belongs, it sends an important message that we are single-mindedly determined to put our objectives into practice.

Please do come along and support us when the roadshow comes to your town.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Delivering good service in Feltham

This morning I spent an hour or so walking around Pinewood Road and Sandalwood Road in Feltham, in the company of Feltham councillor Gillian Hutchison, who is also a Vice Chair of Hounslow Homes. It is an area I am familiar with, having actually lived in Pinewood Road myself for a few months back in 1993.

Inevitably there is some work to be done there. Repairs and maintenance are an ongoing challenge, and no sooner is one job of work done than another needs doing.

I have sent Hounslow Homes a checklist of jobs which need to be undertaken on the estate and I've no doubt someone will be attending to them very shortly. The people of Feltham are fortunate to have a good team of councillors who will not allow the fabric of the local area to deteriorate.

When I was in opposition I invited the then Lead Member for Housing, Bobbie Awan, to Ivybridge to show her around and introduce her to a few of the local characters. People on the estate were heartened by the fact that she was taking an interest, and it was a source of some reassurance to them that despite the adversarial nature of local politics she and I were both determined that standards of service should be maintained.

Now that I hold that portfolio I would like to think that other councillors would call on me if they have any issues that need attending to on the estates in their wards, irrespective of which political party they bat for.

Our residents deserve good service.

Georgia on my mind

Whatever the merits or otherwise of Russia's intervention in Georgia, the disproportionate ferocity of its military campaign must have brought back chilling memories to those of us old enough to have lived with the fear of imminent nuclear attack on our probably overactive minds during the latter years of the Cold War.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for an immediate end to Russia's action, for which he said there could be "no justification" and which "threatens the stability of the entire region and risks a humanitarian catastrophe".

And he is probably right. However I wonder whether his postures of moral indignation are not tinged with just a hint of embarrassment, given his wholehearted support for the recent war in Iraq and that country's subsequent occupation by British and US forces?

The "justification" for that war, we will remember, was that Iraq was said to possess Weapons of Mass Destruction which if they were not taken out imminently would threaten the peace and security of humankind.

Anybody who knew anything about Middle Eastern politics knew full well that Iraq possessed no such weapons. Tony Blair knew it. Even I knew it. But it was the justification given for Britain's participation in the invasion of another country which even conservative estimates now tell us has resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 people, the large majority of them non-combatants. And when he finally admitted that the WMDs that we had gone to war to eliminate had never actually existed, he shrugged it off as though he had given the nation an erroneous weather forecast.

I am not a pacifist as such. I believe any nation, like any person, has a right of self-defence. But war is a truly terrible thing and the loss of innocent human life in pursuit of ideological or commercial interests is probably the most appalling tragedy that mankind has ever inflicted upon itself.

Our leaders could lecture those of other nations with greater moral authority if they were to set a better example themselves.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

By mutual agreement Sunday for me is "family day", and the two most recent members of my family like nothing more than to spend it sprawled on the settee watching the television, or doing something similarly unadventurous. So when I travelled to Gunnersbury Park for the London Mela I did so alone, and on the understanding that my visitation would be a short one.

Organisers of the London Mela describe the event as "the biggest festival of South Asian music and culture to take place outside of the Indian sub-continent". The London Evening Standard takes the view that it is "a secret to be shared with the wider community". However it is described, each summer 75,000 people converge on Brentford for an afternoon of festivity, food and fun.

The Hospitality Tent is always a mixed blessing. It is very rude to turn down free food, however having consumed an appropriately sociable quantity of it one is invariably less disposed to sample the various dishes on sale around the field, notwithstanding the lure of the aggressively aromatic spices which make them rather difficult not to notice.

Some of my (non-ICG) colleagues on the council are a little cooler about the Mela than I am. The naked cynicism of the old council administration which lauded the Mela yet refused to recognise St. George's Day on the grounds that it was "racist" - a stance which, insultingly, it believed would impress the Asian community and thereby lock in its votes - has left scars which will take time to heal. There are some people, people whose commitment to cohesion and integration is no less than mine, who see the Mela in that context and with that memory in mind, as an expression of cultural triumphalism.

Speaking personally I take a much more optimistic view. For the Mela, in fact, places South Asian culture within the context of a Western environment. The layout of the stalls, which purveyed a welcome mixture of ethnic and indigenous wares, was more akin to that of a London market than an Eastern bazaar. Even the music which blared out rather too loudly from the huge stage under the direction of the DJ "Crash" (last year's Master of Ceremonies, the hilariously named "Abdul Cool", obviously had a prior engagement) came across as a curious blend of traditional bhangra and that repetitive rapping stuff that the kids seem to go for today.

On the bus going home it struck me, from a Community Cohesion perspective, what an opportunity we had missed a couple of years back with all that pernicious St. George's Day nonsense. Imagine 75,000 people attending a St. George's Day festival, bedecked with English flags and populated by British people of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds, with food, music and dance from South Asia, China, the Caribbean, as well as from the UK. A festival which would flaunt the proud Englishness of the diverse society which we enjoy today. What better way could there possibly be of putting across the message that we are an integrated community, contemptuous of prejudice and disharmony, diverse yet cohesive, brought together by the common values that unite us in a society in which Everybody Matters?

It isn't rocket science, but sometimes I feel like a voice in the wilderness railing unheard against the powerful but ultimately false dichotomy of diversity and integration.

A St. George's Day festival to celebrate multi-cultural Englishness in the 21st century. I wonder whether anybody will have the courage to suggest it?

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

A useful evening's work with tenants in Feltham

August is traditionally the sleepy season for council business. Whilst the casework continues relentlessly the meetings calendar is virtually bare for councillors, allowing those of us who need to to catch up with other work. It was odd then that today my presence should have been required at not one but four meetings.

It was the fourth and final meeting which I enjoyed the most, doing as I was what I most enjoy doing, meeting the public and trying to help tackle their issues.

The meeting was held at the Bedfont Lane Community Centre at the request of Feltham West councillor Barbara Harris, to discuss a number of difficulties which local residents have had with Hounslow Homes, some of them everyday niggles but others of a more serious nature. As well as Councillor Harris and her Conservative colleague from Feltham North Councillor Gillian Hutchinson, the meeting was attended by several active local residents' leaders and also by Jill Gale, the Director of Housing at Hounslow Homes, who dealt with the issues which arose with consummate professionalism, not being defensive or denying the existence of problems but instead promising to work with councillors and residents to get them resolved.

Inevitably many of the issues raised were beyond Hounslow Homes' remit. Some were also beyond mine (one gentleman wanted me to reintroduce National Service). Nevertheless what heartened me was that the hint of frostiness which was in the air when the meeting began as the attendees prepared to vent their spleen noticably thawed as it progressed, and by the time proceedings drew to a close after some ninety minutes of varied discussion there was a tangible sense of optimism about the place.

Make no mistake, the issues raised still need to be dealt with. However it was a pleasant reminder to any who needed it that human nature is perhaps more trusting and reasonable than we sometimes give it credit for.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Old dogs and new tricks

On Thursday I and the excellent Sue Witherspoon, Acting Director of Housing at the London Borough of Hounslow, made a presentation to the Board of Hounslow Homes about the coalition administration's vision as defined through the new Hounslow Plan, and its ambitious Performance Improvement Programme (PIP) which will create the structures through which it will be realised.

Such a presentation was never going to be greeted with whoops of enthusiasm by everybody on the Board. When Hounslow Homes was set up in 2003 under the old administration it was regarded by most as fairly much an appendage of the New Labour political machine. All five council appointees on the new Board were either serving Labour councillors or unsuccessful Labour candidates. Having been rejected at the polls by the borough's tenants, the then administration thought it a good idea to cock a snook at the electorate by putting these same people in charge of the borough's housing stock.

The five tenant representatives were elected behind closed doors and, amazingly, usually resulted in the election of known New Labour activists. The ten council and tenant Board members would then choose another five independent members to make up the remainder of the Board of fifteen.

On the staff side the set-up was not entirely dissimilar. Many of the problems on our estates described elsewhere on this blog arose from the fact that those of us who were the "wrong" councillors were effectively frozen out of discussions relating to things happening in the wards which we had been elected to represent, as were the tenants who were known to have supported us.

When I took over the Housing portfolio I resolved to introduce a new culture into Housing in Hounslow. I believed there was a better way to conduct business, one which was not only more ethical but which also served our tenants and leaseholders better. The conduct of business by whisper and secret handshake may well work in other institutions, but in the field of government it is not only undemocratic, it also leads invariably to stagnancy in ideas and complacency and inertia in service delivery.

Nevertheless the Old Guard retains an important presence on the Board and, surprising as it may sound to some people, I have no issue with this. When we first came into office, both the Community Group and the Conservatives agreed to elect council representatives to the Board on the basis of political balance, rather than political allegiance as had been the case previously. Consequently two of the five seats were offered to Labour, an offer which they happily accepted without any evident embarrassment, even though we all know full well that in the event of Labour being voted back into office in Hounslow the old, undemocratic practices would immediately be restored. As Councillor Mark Bowen rightly said during a recent debate at Borough Council, we do things a better way because we are better.

Similarly I have no issue with other Labour activists being on the Board, just so long as they are properly elected or appointed by means of an open and transparent process. To me it is healthy, and a good thing, for all shades of opinion to be represented on such an important body.

Anyway, I digress. My brief was to present the administration's vision to the Board and I entirely anticipated that the political element would not pass up the offer of a platform from which to give voice to their sometimes very peculiar notions of where they believe me, as Lead Member, to be coming from.

The first indication that this opportunity would not be passed by came as soon as Sue introduced the ruling coalition as being one comprising the Conservative and Community Groups. "And the Liberal Democrats," interjected one of the Labour councillors, obviously disappointed by the more selective and intelligent approach to opposition taken by the small Lib Dem team on the council than by his own gang.

But it was at the Question and Answer session following the presentation that the claque really got into the swing. One member delivered himself of the opinion, completely unsupported by any evidence at all, whether circumstantial or actual, that I intended to sell off all HRA (Hounslow Revenue Account) land to developers to build private accommodation. Another, paradoxically, took the opportunity to plug a proposed development in which a close relative of a very well-known local Labour politician has or recently had an interest, even though the issue had no connection with Hounslow Homes whatsoever.

However, when all is said and done what really was pleasing about the evening was the level of interest being taken by some of the newer members of the Board, who seemed genuinely keen to know where the future lay for social housing in the borough, and how their partnership with the local authority might be further developed. This, and the fact that I already enjoy a good and positive working relationship with most of the current senior officers at Hounslow Homes, bodes well for the organisation in the future.

I hope I am not being naive when I say I believe that many who may at first have been sceptical now see the new positivism as being an altogether better way. There is no reason, other than possibly party diktat, that this positivity cannot in time transcend organisational allegiance and permit a group of people who are united in their desire to improve social housing in our borough to all work together in a spirit of openness and mutual trust.

I remain of the view that it is just possible in certain circumstances, given the time and the will, to teach an old dog new tricks. To those who counsel that it would have been easier to have just shot the dog and been done with, I would simply point out that I still have the gun.