Thursday, 30 October 2008

Double-Life Syndrome - am I a little bit odd?

I don't think I would ever leave Isleworth to live anywhere else. With all my roots, my childhood and my memories being there, it would seem almost like a betrayal, even though the majority of the people I grew up with have long moved on to pastures new.

When I am at home though, there is nothing I look forward to more than my next holiday. It doesn't much matter whether it's a week in the Algarve or a £9.50 Sun weekend on the Isle of Wight, I love to be across the water and away from it all.

And then, as soon as I arrive at my apartment, caravan, bungalow or whatever, almost the first thing I do is log onto my laptop and attend to my casework or liaise with my Community Group colleagues back home.

Somebody once described it as "Double-Life Syndrome", the desire always to be part in one place and part in another.

As I write I approach with a little sadness the last night of a week-long stay on the Island. Having spent the first three nights in a modest chalet at Whitecliff Bay, we then moved across to Rookley Country Park for another four in one of Island View Holidays' impressively spacious new bungalows.

As each member of my family has distinctly different interests, life is always a compromise. At Whitecliff Bay much time was spent amusing the children, including endless games of pool with Joe. On one occasion though we managed a very pleasant walk along the beach during which he was able to put his geological expertise to good use by describing to us all the many rock formations along the multi-hued cliffs (see above).

Rookley provided me with an opportunity for a spot of fishing, while Caroline took the little ones to the cinema. Then today it was the turn of Caroline and I to venture out on a five-mile cliff-top walk, much to the chagrin of the couch-potato tendency.

Whilst I'm no stranger to walking, the cliff-top hike (below right) was a completely new experience. The official guides assume that the walker is an anorak, familiar with the requisite lingo. Thus it was that I found myself hundreds of feet up in the air, one eye straining down at the sea below whilst keeping the other out for a "triangulation point" without having the foggiest what one actually looked like.

Somehow we got down, and back, and now it's off to the club to watch a cabaret for the last time before making our way back to TW7 in time for my Ivybridge surgery. And looking forward, no doubt, to next year's holiday.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Mere words, or an historic breakthrough?

Tonight Borough Council approved a motion proposed by the Leader of the London Borough of Hounslow, Councillor Peter Thompson, and seconded by the Community Group's Councillor Paul Fisher, supporting the Sustainable Communities Act and its intention to allow local authorities and their communities to drive assistance given by central government to reverse community decline and promote thriving, sustainable communities.

The Act defines four aspects of sustainable communities thus:

  • the improvement of the local economy,
  • protection of the environment,
  • promotion of social inclusion, and
  • participation in civic and political activity.
Significantly, the motion was supported without amendment by all the parties on the local authority. In other words, for all the political parties represented on the London Borough of Hounslow, participation in civic activity by all residents is now a recognised and desirable objective!

The importance of this cannot be overstated. It effectively means that, even for those who have bitterly opposed the ICG since its inception in 1994, it is now acknowledged that we have been right all along. Our rationale as an organisation has been utterly and unanimously vindicated.

Just last March a Community Group motion tabled a motion to Borough Council which included the following: "This council undertakes to extend its support and assistance to all independent community organisations which can reasonably demonstrate that they represent the aspirations of the community they serve, without seeking to influence or direct those organisations in any way other than with their consent.

"Furthermore this council accepts as a fundamental principle the equal right of all residents to participate in all fields of community and civic activity, and deplores any action which might give office or other advantage to any on grounds of political preference or affiliation.

"This council therefore instructs the Executive member responsible for improving community engagement following Annual Borough Council in May 2008 to investigate and thereafter to implement measures through which the consultative and participatory processes may be improved, and all officers to recognise and to actively assist in the delivery of this policy."

Although passed by Council, New Labour at the time could not bring themselves to support these sentiments and the whole Group abstained.

Obviously any policy statement is about the doing and not just the saying. However the fact that all parties felt able to offer
even their in-principle support to such a radical departure from previous thinking could be a sign that the message is at long last getting through.

Never before has this space been so keenly watched as it will be over the coming months.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Innocent mix-up, or a new low in New Labour's war on the Worton community?

On Monday a local Somali community leader received an unexpected telephone call from the alleged Member of Parliament for Feltham & Heston, Mr. Alan Keen, inviting him to a reception that evening with the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street. Evidently a spare ticket had become available at the last minute. A little perplexed, he nonetheless accepted and attended the event.

The reason that a ticket had become available at such short notice may well have been because the name of Councillor Paul Fisher, Hounslow Council's Lead Member for Service Improvement and Community Empowerment, had mysteriously been erased at about the same time from the list of invitees.

Councillor Fisher had been invited to accompany one of the young residents of Isleworth's Worton estate who had recently received the Metropolitan Police Commissioner's Community Safety Peace Award for their work under the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. Sadly the youngster concerned, Jamie Kempson, was understandably overwhelmed and did not wish to attend the reception without Councillor Fisher, who was refused admission at the door.

Lurking in the background when Councillor Fisher arrived was Mr. Keen, and his unsuspecting Somali accomplice.

Even by the standards of political pettiness and spite that have earned New Labour in Hounslow the notoriety they deservedly enjoy, particularly in Isleworth, it seems difficult to credit that they would stoop so low as to deprive
a hard-working and community-spirited young member of the community the opportunity of a lifetime, to meet the Prime Minister and to have his good work receive the recognition and congratulation it deserved from the most senior political figure in the land. However there are a number of incidents which, whilst they may constitute nothing more than a series of coincidences, certainly give us food for thought.

One is that the Somali activist in question was one with whom Councillor Fisher and myself have been working very closely and constructively on a series of community cohesion projects. Part of New Labour's modus operandi in these parts is to try to overawe those in the community it seeks to use by impressing them with its importance and contacts. Residents of my own estate have been offered the impossible-to-refuse opportunity to "meet Ann Keen in person" (no less) in exchange for their acquiescence on specific community issues. If the gentleman in question was as shallow as New Labour assumes he and other members of the hoi polloi to be, he might well have been flattered enough to sell his soul to New Labour. In any event, inviting this particular guest has all the hallmarks of "getting one over" on the hated ICG and Worton community.

Another is that on the very morning following this incident, at 10:29 to be precise, this very blog was visited by somebody at the Houses of Parliament (thanks Statcounter). Don't they say felons always return to the scene of their crimes? There being nothing on here at that time about the incident, whoever it was only hung around for four seconds.

I sincerely hope that this incident was nothing more than an innocent mix-up, and that it was not the latest manifestation of New Labour's long-running hatred of the residents of the Worton estate (residents one of its representatives abused as "whingers" a few years back when they dared to oppose the Party's plans for their green). If this is the case, I promise to publish any statement from New Labour
to that effect here on this blog . Should such a statement not be forthcoming people will draw their own conclusions, and those conclusions will no doubt differ from person to person.

In the meantime, all I can say is roll on the general election!

Supporting our local football club - the Lionel Road Project

Two Queens Park Rangers supporters and a Swansea City fan were given the opportunity to progress their footballing education last night when they and other members of Hounslow Council's Executive were guests at Brentford Football Club as we watched our local team demolish Morecambe 3-1 to climb to second place in the League Two table.

Earlier we had been given an update by the Club and its partners on its ambitious plans to build a new 20,000-seater stadium at Lionel Road, a little over half a mile up the road from the Club's current home at Griffin Park.

Whilst the planning detail itself is a matter for the Sustainable Development Committee and one in which we cannot interfere, the Council is being asked to give its support to the principle of the build, and I don't think I'm giving any secrets away when I say there is a general feeling of enthusiasm and goodwill towards the Club as it attempts to turn around its fortunes off the pitch as it has already begun to do on the pitch.

In this modern day and age it is unsustainable for a professional football league club to only be in operation for about 25-30 days each year, and the size and physical location of Griffin Park does not lend itself to expansion on any significant scale. The unwelcome spectre of groundshares as far away as Woking were looming over the Club just a few years back, and there had also been talk of relocating to Feltham Arenas and Western International Market, amongst other sites, before Lionel Road became the preferred option.

Since then the Club's development partner has successfully acquired the land, and the Project at last looks ready to roll.

Speaking personally as a Brentford supporter (although not in recent years as regular an attendee as I would like to have been) it has been a pleasure and a privilege to lead for the local authority on this Project and if, as looks increasingly likely to be the case, it comes to fruition there will be few as happy to have played a part as me.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Giving a new meaning to travelling to work

Isn't modern technology wonderful? Less than ten minutes ago I took this, admittedly rather grotty photograph from the window of the 17:30 ferry from East Cowes to Southampton, and now here it is on my blog.

Over the last three days I must have done more work than I had managed during the previous fortnight. Whilst lots of people can say they travel to work, I take the notion very literally.

Please keep an eye on this blog over the next couple of days for a really big story. There are some great things happening in the community of Isleworth right now.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Countering the Gunnersbury Park lie campaign

* Acknowledgements to the London Borough of Hounslow

Responding to recent rumours about the future of Gunnersbury Park, leader of the council, Cllr Peter Thompson, said: “There has been much speculation in recent weeks about Gunnersbury Park and plans for its future. I am very happy to be in a position to set the record straight.

“Gunnersbury Park has suffered from years of historic underinvestment and neglect. The new administrations in Ealing and Hounslow are committed to safeguarding this wonderful resource and to preserving it for future generations.

“Let me be very clear. There is no secretly adopted plan to build on the park. Nor is there any intention to take decisions about the park’s future without the fullest involvement of the community as a whole.

“Since September last year, a small group of members and officers from both Ealing and Hounslow have been meeting informally to explore the possibilities. It is worth stressing that this group has no decision-making powers.

“A conservation management plan has already been produced after consultation with all stakeholders. It sets out both councils’ vision for Gunnersbury as: ‘a sustainable high quality park with varied uses which serve the local community and the region whilst respecting, enhancing and interpreting its historic framework and fabric.’

“The task now is to look at the options which are available to us to turn that vision into a reality. Therefore, the councils are jointly commissioning an “options appraisal” and have asked a number of recognised specialist consultancies to bid for this work. The results of that work will be seen early in the new year and we intend to launch the fullest possible public debate on all of the potential options at that stage.

“The informal joint working group between Hounslow and Ealing will continue to meet to hear of progress and is next due to meet at 7pm on 16 October at The Small Mansion. I have no objection to this session being in public as it will help to dispel the suspicion and mistrust which appears to have been built up recently.

Meanwhile, Hounslow and Ealing are working on the constitution for a new joint body and will be taking this through their respective councils in the next two months.”

Monday, 6 October 2008

Ivybridge loses a legend - but gains a blog!

It is with great regret (for us here in Isleworth) that I have to announce the departure of longtime Ivybridge residents' stalwart Tina Howe (left), who is moving elsewhere.

Tina served on the old NITA association for many years, latterly as Chair, and assumed the lead role on the new United Residents' Association (URA) when it was created last year.

The amount of hard work that Tina has put into the estate over the years is difficult to overstate, but her achievements and those of the URA under her leadership speak very much for themselves. I wish Tina and her family all the very best at their new abode, and I am confident that she will continue to serve the community on her new estate as she has done on Ivybridge.

Tina's erstwhile deputy Tony Smith, former Chair of Ivytag, has already taken over in the hot seat and one of his first deeds as Chair has been to set up a new blog to compliment the URA's existing web presence. I urge visitors to take a look and to support it with their comments.

Following in Tina's footsteps will be no mean feat (no pun intended), but I and my fellow ward councillors will be offering Tony and his team all the help we can.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Under the Rainbow

The bidding phase of the Rainbow Project was formally launched on Tuesday, with an impressive gathering of tenants, councillors and officers from both Hounslow Homes and the London Borough of Hounslow coming together to celebrate the release of around £1.5m of funds for tenant-led initiatives on our estates.

After enjoying tea and biscuits whilst listening to a series of short speeches from Alf Chandler (
Chair, Hounslow Homes), Bernadette O'Shea (Chief Executive, Hounslow Homes), Councillor Dr. Genevieve Hibbs (Mayor of Hounslow), Julie Brooker (Chair, Hounslow Federation of Tenants' and Residents' Associations) and myself, delegates were led under a rainbow which had been imaginatively located across the door into a "fairground" at which popcorn, hot dogs, burgers and ethnic delights were purveyed whilst the younger ones were able to play games, blow up balloons and have their portraits drawn in caricature.

All in all it was a lot of fun, and with the latecomers taken into account some 100 people were able to partake. However the essential message was not in doubt - that residents of this borough, in this case tenants and leaseholders in properties managed by Hounslow Homes, are taking control of their own communities at last.

My speech to delegates at the event made the rationale for the Project abundantly clear, and I make no apologies for reproducing it in full below:

"When the new administration took office in 2006 I think it is fair to say that my appointment as Lead Member for Housing wasn't greeted with whoops of delight in every office at St. Catherine's House.

"I had, and have, some very forthright views on the question of Tenant Involvement, views which were the product of years of history and personal experience, and I was equally forthright in expressing them.

"When I came into this office I was absolutely determined to reshape our approach, as a local authority, to this area, and I pressed ahead determinedly - some might say a little pig-headedly - to do precisely that.

"Put at its very simplest, the goal I have striven to achieve is the maximum possible participation, involvement, and ownership by our tenants of everyday life and activity on our estates.

"Whether we are councillors or officers, Board Members or whatever, our sole reason for being here is to serve the public. We exist for the public, the public doesn't exist for us.

"Our tenants and leaseholders - our residents, call them what you will - are the eyes and ears of our community. They let us know when there are issues on their estates - whether it be a lapse in our performance as a landlord or wider issues such as anti-social activity, drugs, crime - it is usually through our residents that we find out. And when those residents are organised, we find out more quickly.

"Tenants' and residents' associations are the best vehicle for creating community cohesion (basically the "in" term for a society in which people from all backgrounds get along, enjoying the same rights and opportunities and living together in harmony). There is no better way to break down barriers between sections of the community which may mistrust or fear one another than for those people to come together and discuss, and campaign on, those issues that concern them the most. More often than not, they quickly discover that their problems and concerns are fairly much the same.

"So there is nothing to be afraid of with free, independent and strong tenants' associations. An association that just does what the landlord tells it and doesn't challenge us is frankly of no use to anyone. Working with organised bodies of tenants is actually an easier, and more productive option than not doing so.

"The Rainbow Project is about empowering our residents. What we have done is taken approximately £1.5m from Housing Revenue Account reserves - tenants' money - and said this is here for residents to spend how they think it should be spent, improving the fabric and quality of life on their own estates. Whilst we will offer help and guidance it is the tenants, not us, who will be leading on the Project. Even the name - Rainbow Project - was chosen by a resident at the HFTRA Conference back in the Spring.

"The objective of the Project is threefold:

"Firstly, obviously, it will provide regeneration in areas where it is needed. At a time when Hounslow Homes has had to reorganise and make efficiency savings, it is a piece of really good news. We hope we will see community centres refurbished, play facilities built, environmental and community cohesion projects launched.

"Secondly, it will energise existing TAs. Those of you who represent tenants' and residents' groups will be aware of just how thankless a task it sometimes is, working to create a better environment for everyone when so few people offer to muck in and help, sometimes even criticising you when things go wrong without having even the slightest intention of helping you to put things right. We hope this project will serve as an incentive and as a morale-booster to our hard-working residents' groups.

"Thirdly, we hope it will lead to the creation of new groups where none currently exist, and similarly to more interaction with other voluntary bodies, some of whom incidentally you may find being very friendly with you all of a sudden as this Project gets under way.

"Now, whatever the virtues of this Project, let me make one thing clear - empowering tenants is not all about money. Money is a necessity, money is nice. But it can be used for good or for ill. It can be used to empower and indeed liberate residents, or it can be used to shackle them. If money is thrown at you to make you do a certain thing or vote in a particular way then it causes more problems than it solves, and ultimately does nothing to help you no matter how much the opposite may seem at first to be the case.

"This Project is not about buying your support or your acquiesence, it is about giving you back something that's yours, and helping you to regenerate your estate in the way in which residents feel it should be regenerated. It's about empowering our community.

"I began by saying that my appointment as Lead Member for Housing was not well received in some quarters. Let me just say that, a little over two years on, I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the enthusiasm, the co-operation, the help, the inspiration, the ideas and the sheer energy that has been put into this Project by all the staff at Hounslow Homes, as well as those who have been involved at the Council itself. The reaction of staff members to this Project has been nothing short of fantastic, and it is why I firmly believe that this Project will be a success.

"It is my hope that the Rainbow Project will not be a one-off, but will be the first of many schemes to put power and decision-making back where it belongs, and to build our already excellent tenants' movement into something still better and stronger.

"I'll shut up now. I hope you enjoy the remainder of the evening, and I look forward to working with you all on the Project."