Wednesday, 28 January 2009

LBH gives £4m back to tenants

It doesn't feel like three weeks since I last posted on this humble little blog. Often when there is so much to do and so little time in which to do it one is faced with a stark choice - do I spend my time doing it or writing about doing it?

Anyway last night, at Borough Council, I did it. In the face of every conceivable obstacle known to man I honoured my promise to deliver £4m (that's £4,000,000) from the Housing Revenue Account (tenants' money) back to tenants, to do with as the tenants would want done with it.

In the first instance prudent officers variously suggested to me that £4m was too much money to be spending at a time of economic uncertainty, or too much money for one Lead Member (particularly, dare I say, a Community Group Lead Member) to be overseeing.

Then the Management Board at Hounslow Homes voted to ask me to reduce the proposed spend to £2m, and to place the responsibility for its allocation into the hands of the Board itself rather than allow tenants to set the priorities.

On Sunday an e-mail arrived from the Hounslow Federation of Tenants' and Residents' Associations (HFTRA), bizarrely arguing that giving tenants £4m to spend would in some way be to their detriment and urging councillors to reject the proposal. A short meeting with two HFTRA officers the following day allowed me to correct some fairly basic misconceptions (they had not been adequately consulted - lesson to be learned) and the Federation's objections were withdrawn.

On Monday night I had to run the proposals past our coalition colleagues in the Conservative Group who, not unreasonably, were very concerned about the other, less optimistic aspect of the HRA Budget Report that I was required to deliver to Borough Council - an increase in rent charges of up to 6.95%, forced upon us by the
totally unfair and unreasonable housing subsidy system operated by the government. The system is highly complex and some were quicker than others to grasp that our hands really were tied in the setting of rent levels. Again not unreasonably in consideration of the ALMO's history, there was some suspicion that we were being "stitched-up" politically, and I have to confess that at the time I was a tad disappointed by the inference from one or two sources that I might not be equal to, or even aware of, such a challenge. However when I and my colleagues left the meeting the Conservative Group voted to support my recommendations in their entirety, albeit with some concerns that it will be my absolute pleasure to address, so I must have said something right.

Fast forward to a few hours before Borough Council, and a telephone call alerted me to some behind-the-scenes conversations amongst senior officers that could have torpedoed the Report still. I was able to speak to the Leader and another potential hurdle was negotiated successfully.

When the meeting was finally upon us I was unsurprised to learn that the Labour Group had submitted an Amendment accepting the rent increase but calling for the £4m spend to be placed in the hands of the Hounslow Homes Board and not the tenants. The Amendment was proposed by Councillor Matt Harmer, whom I like and for whom I have a lot of respect but who is still after all "one of the gang", and seconded by Councillor Elizabeth Hughes, who if my perception of body language serves me correctly dislikes me with a vengeance and whose main saving grace is that she isn't ex-councillor David Hughes.

I introduced the Report, declaring that the £4m project was an exercise in community empowerment, giving tenants a real say in how what is after all their own money is spent and in so doing honouring the Community Group's commitment to total democracy without which our presence on the council itself would have no meaning. I delivered the Report standing up in order to emphasise its importance. Points made but over-reliance on notes. As I sat down I awarded myself seven out of ten for delivery.

Then came the New Labour Amendment, Matt was very agreeable. As I acknowledged later in my summing-up, Matt is a very agreeable bloke. Indeed in the spirit of agreement, I will even plug his blog, and invite him to do the same for me in return (watch this space...for a very long time)!

His argument was simple - the Hounslow Homes Board had been elected (or in some cases selected by people who had been elected) and so had a mandate to spend tenants' money. I smiled patiently. I had been elected too. My mandate was to empower tenants, and that was what I was doing.

Then came Elizabeth. Elizabeth was worried that £4m was too much to take out of the HRA reserves at a time of economic uncertainty (rewind a few paragraphs if you feel you've read that before). Which was why she was proposing to give the Board £4m to spend from the HRA reserves rather than giving the same amount to the tenants. Elizabeth had given the game away.

There was more. Councillor Raj Bath, a Labour member of the Hounslow Homes Board (under the present administration council seats on the Board are allocated proportionately amongst the parties, under the previous administration they were all given to Labour - in many cases to ex-councillors whom the electorate had erroneously rejected), regretted the lack of "trust" allegedly placed in the Board by my recommendations and suggested that I (the Lead Member for Housing) was "interfering" in Housing matters.

His fellow Board Member Councillor John Cooper protested that Hounslow Homes had always worked closely with tenants (note to readers from Ivybridge - please don't stone the messenger, I'm only reporting what he said), ignoring the fact that it would continue to do so as part of the £4m project, and that the only difference was that the project would be tenant-led.

These were the points I addressed as I summed up. My closing remarks were cut short when the Chief Executive indicated to the Mayor within a nanosecond that I had had my statutory five minutes (please remind me to ask Councillor Ruth Cadbury what her secret is). Nonetheless the point was made, as was local history when Borough Council voted to approve the project (having already rejected the New Labour Amendment).

Lots of things, some of them regrettable, are said during the course of political debate, but one essential point needs to be made in the light of the comments that issued forth from the New Labour benches, and that is this. The handing over of £4m of tenants' money to tenants is not a punishment inflicted upon Hounslow Homes, neither is it in any way an expression of No Confidence in the Board. As Raj Bath rightly said last night I enjoy a good, friendly relationship with most if not all Board members. Even those who still use those Board meetings I attend as a platform from which to aim political barbs usually end up having a chat and a laugh with me after the meeting. To view the £4m project as a slight upon the integrity, expertise or capability of the Hounslow Homes Board is to miss the point entirely.

Empowering residents is my business. Empowering residents is the Community Group's business. Empowering residents is the Community Group's raison d'etre. It is what we do.

New Labour by instinct strives to keep power, training and knowledge as the preserve of a select few. Just as it did during the Hounslow Homes Management Review in 2006, it demonstrated last night that it still considers the Hounslow Homes Board to be operating within its sphere of influence. Whether the Board sees things the same way is a matter for conjecture, but in some respects that is irrelevant. What New Labour was doing was protecting what it perceives to be its empire. That its empire-building antics have resulted in it losing control of the local authority itself in no way deters the mentality from presenting itself at every necessary opportunity. New Labour is as New Labour does. It is the Nature of the Beast.

The biggest threat to the New Labour mindset comes not from any rival political party, but from those it needs to retain in a state of perpetual dependency in order to justify its own continued existence. That is why most of its members and followers will freely admit to detesting the ICG far more virulently than they detest their supposed ideological opposites in the political field.

Last night the Stone Table cracked just a little bit more. I make no apology for doing everything I can to reverse some of the injustices of the past, and hereby serve notice that there is plenty more to come.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Tuesday is Back To Work Day

Strictly speaking I've been working throughout the holiday period, as the out-of-hours sign-in sheets at Hounslow Civic Centre bear witness.

However, despite a two-hour gathering of the Community Safety Partnership on Monday it was yesterday that the "normal" business of meetings and briefings was resumed.

First off was an informal meeting with Housing officers and a Labour councillor to discuss a suggestion he'd made to me in respect of a housing matter in his ward. Despite the adversarial nature of our relationship when in the council chamber it was a sensible and very constructive meeting, beginning with a warm handshake and concluding with me taking on board his ideas which I believed would bring us the benefit of helping to keep a tight-knit community together. It was a welcome departure from his party's traditional refusal to work with members of our Group and a way of conducting political business that I find far more rewarding than the contrived yah-booing that is its traditional preference. I live in hope that it will catch on.

Once the business of that meeting was done with I stayed around for another meeting with the same officers to discuss a number of topical issues that need to be attended to, not least the forthcoming Housing Revenue Account (HRA) budget setting.

Then it was off to Kingston for a couple of hours for a shopping trip to fulfil a promise to my daughter Rosie on her last day before returning to school. It's frightening how quickly they transform from screaming infants to fashion chicks (though still occasionally screaming).

The evening was dominated by an unusually long Executive meeting to which I brought two reports, one recommending a spend of a little over a million pounds to offset a shortfall in the costs of a New Build project, an unfortunate consequence of the credit crunch. Whilst support was not unanimous - one of my Executive colleagues expressing reservations about the principle of building new social housing - my recommendation was carried by a majority on the Executive in spite of my admittedly provocative invocation of Mao Zedong in support of my case. Any coalition necessitates compromise, and in the case of ours it has brought about a pragmatism which I believe to be healthy for our local government and for democracy.

My second turn was a response to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee's recommendations following its Review of Allocations Policy. Whilst all of the recommendations were helpful a few were impractical, one or two were not particularly well thought-out and certain of them conflicted directly with the administration's stated policy. Nonetheless I was pleased to be able to accept a significant majority of the recommendations, and where I wasn't I made it clear that I was prepared to talk further. The Executive supported me on this.

The last meeting, between the two Community Group councillors serving on the Executive, took place at a local hostelry. No minutes were taken, which is probably just as well.

All in a day's work!

Sunday, 4 January 2009

New Year, New Challenge

In late November Caroline spent some time in hospital recovering from a malady known as cellulitis. It is a condition that I'd previously never heard of, but apparently it is completely unrelated to the skin problem of a similar name. Whilst in itself it is not life-threatening, it can if not diagnosed in time lead to septicaemia, which of course is, so we had an anxious couple of weeks.

No sooner had she recovered than my own 73-year-old father was taken ill. Thankfully, it transpired, he was only suffering from stomach ulcers.

Then, after having spent a few weeks in West Middlesex Hospital with an illness which we still haven't got to the bottom of but which was likely to have been pancreatic cancer, my step father-in-law, until a few weeks ago an apparently fit man and outwardly a very young 66, passed away just after Christmas.

Under the circumstances my short attack of gout seems to have been the best deal going this holiday season. I've had better ones (holiday seasons that is, not attacks of gout). But now that it's over with, it would be appropriate to look ahead to the New Year and the challenges and opportunities that it is likely to bring.

I find it difficult to believe that we have been in administration at the London Borough of Hounslow for some thirty months. When we first negotiated the terms of the coalition and took up our respective portfolios I was confident that we had all the time in the world to exorcise the organisation of the old ways of thinking and of doing things. Whilst I believe we have made great strides towards that objective, it becomes increasingly clear to me as the months roll on that we will not have completely finished the job by the time the borough goes to the polls again in May 2010.

My goal is to create an authority which could not, upon re-electing an unreformed Labour majority at some future time, switch effortlessly back to the old ways of patronage, political matesmanship and institutionalised inequality. Everything that the Community Group has done as a partner in this coalition administration has been with that purpose in mind.

Of course, we don't know what will happen in 2010. We are thankful that the opposition remains lucklustre, disorganised and demoralised, a situation doubtless induced by its rejection locally coupled with its cyclical unpopularity on the national stage at this present time. Whilst there are no signs of a change of attitude locally, the national pendulum will in not too many years' time swing the other way once again.

Quite possibly we could, if we stand for election again and retain our seats, find ourselves as a minority Group under a fully-fledged Conservative administration. A Conservative administration would quite naturally wish to pursue a Conservative political programme and our role under such a set-up, I imagine, would be to ensure that the decronification process in which we have led the way does not get left by the wayside or end up playing second fiddle to ideology, a thing which we believe to be of lesser importance at a local level.

Whatever happens, for the first time we find ourselves facing a situation which is not entirely in our own hands, one of which the outcome is not one that we can predict with confidence. All we can do is continue to do our job (a job which has been done fantastically well by our first-time councillors in particular), improve where necessary, and last but not least ensure that we use our remaining time under the current term to maximum effect to help move the authority closer to where we always wanted it to be, at the very heart of our community.

Happy New Year.