Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Keeping in the picture

I've been enjoying a short holiday at Rookley on the Isle of Wight with my family this half-term week, but with mobile technology and the internet there is no reason any more not to be always in the picture with what is happening back home.

I was saddened to hear this morning of two fires, one of which has caused considerable damage to the ROSE Community Centre on the Syon estate and another, even more tragically, in Mogden Lane which sadly resulted in a fatality.

Then there was what under the circumstances was a slightly awkward, but in my view still necessary conversation to be had with a local newspaper which, possibly inadvertently, ignored the Syon ward councillors when looking for a comment on the ROSE fire and went instead to those in neighbouring Brentford. This happens quite a lot to us in Syon, there is some degree of resignation to our presence in Isleworth but many are still in denial about our more recent success in Syon.

The island, predictably, is cold and - well - wintery. Nonetheless it is nice to get away and recharge the batteries for next week's onslaught of meetings, beginning with a day-long interviewing panel on Monday.

The casework, in the meantime, doesn't stop for a holiday. Modern technology has seen to that.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Reflections on the seamless rise of a community movement

One thought that obviously taxes me from time to time is where the ICG goes from here.

Perhaps as a statement that sounds more pessimistic than I had intended it to. But let us take stock of the situation as it stands, and visitors will perhaps form a better idea of where I’m coming from. Much of what I’m about to say has been said before, in different situations and sometimes to different audiences. But if the topic is to be considered fully, it is necessary at times to revisit it all the same.

The history of the ICG since its formation in 1994 has been one of unrelenting progress. Membership and public support has continually improved, to the point now where in the town of Isleworth at least practically everyone who is interested in building a strong and united community is already on board. The four statutory local elections which we have contested have seen us develop from unsuccessful protest vote (unsuccessful because nobody listened to the protest, hence our continued electoral involvement), to one councillor elected to "pariah" status (thanks, Pat!) by a two-vote margin, to three councillors elected into opposition with large majorities, to six councillors also with large majorities becoming partners in a coalition administration.

We took the Executive posts we had wanted, and drove changes through in accordance with our commitment to empowering communities. Councillor Paul Fisher, as Lead Member for Community Engagement, has been a revelation. Work is underway which will drastically alter the way in which we engage with residents and their associations, and reprogram the mindset that has been allowed to prevail for so long.

Under the auspices of my Housing portfolio I have set a similar process in motion on our social housing estates after having spent my first year spelling out to a horrified political establishment in Housing how it was going to be through the vehicle of the Hounslow Homes Management Review. I have also now established a helpful channel of communication with our Registered Social Landlords with a view to encouraging them to work more closely with their tenants and to improving tenant involvement.

With my Community Safety hat on I have worked closely with both Paul and with the Leader, Councillor Peter Thompson, to help drive a robust and respected Community Cohesion program which has, I think, finally grasped the paradox that is diversities and equalities. In this work I have been blessed with an absolutely superb driven and enthusiastic team of officers who for so long had to pay mere lip service to a cause about which they clearly feel passionately.

But for the first time our future may now lie outside our own hands. The next local elections fall in May 2010, and as I see it there are any one of three possible outcomes – a return to a New Labour administration, the election of a Conservative administration or the return of another coalition in which we may or may not have a role to play.

I feel with the benefit of hindsight that I at least, and maybe some of my colleagues also, underestimated the amount of time it would take to change the culture of the borough. Four years is a long time when it is ahead of you, it is but the blinking of an eye when it has passed.

Let me not overstate the severity of the dilemma. The ICG has achieved a million times more than any of us had imagined possible in 1994, when we’d almost certainly have settled for a private acknowledgement from the local political establishment at the time that the community would be allowed to become more engaged than had previously been the case, and even then I’m speaking only about the community in our humble little village rather than the borough. Events since that time have catapulted us into a position we never envisaged being in. But we are here now, and we want to use it to the maximum benefit of our wider community.

For me we need another four years – at least – to cement the changes that we are making in a way that they could never be reversed. Our preference, of course, would be to convince all concerned that better community engagement is a good thing and not something to be frightened of, so that a future Labour administration (and there will probably be one some day) would not even want to move things back to the bad old ways. But that is still for the future – there are sadly no signs at all of it happening yet.

Would an administration in which we weren’t involved continue to drive this process through to where it needs to be? Obviously New Labour wouldn’t. That much was made clear when they opposed our plan to give our tenants a say in how £4m of their own money should be spent. Would the Conservatives? I like to think they would, they have after all been supportive of our aims as partners in coalition. But would they prioritise it? Maybe, maybe not. They have, after all, a program of their own to deliver.

Assuming that the ICG is involved again, I hope the voters of Isleworth and of Syon give us the opportunity to finish the job. But, for the first time, our ability to do so now also depends on the voters in other wards, in which we have no influence.

For their part, the Labour Party have made it clear that they would prefer an all-out Conservative administration to a coalition that included the ICG. A strange position to take for a party that has its historical roots in socialism, some would argue. But those residents on our estates who have been the victims of local Labour's obsessive meddling and control-freakery in the past would not be among them.

Surreal in Seville

I took advantage of my current proximity on Wednesday to link up with my friend and ICG colleague Councillor Paul Fisher in Seville and to share a couple of hours discussing over a fruit juice or two the demands of councillorship in an environment in which those demands were largely absent (although the e-mails kept a-coming throughout).

Paul’s pleasure, as those who know him will be aware, is to follow the England soccer team to the four corners of the Earth, even when the match is only a friendly. Indeed only a few months ago he found himself being dragged kicking and screaming to Trinidad & Tobago to witness just such an encounter.

On Wednesday, of course, England played (and were beaten by) Spain in Seville, which is a three-hour coach ride from my base here in Albufeira.

It was only the second time I had ever been to Spain. The first occasion was a weekend in Madrid in 1990, when a friend who worked for a travel agent managed to wangle two tickets on the now-defunct Dan Air for £25 apiece (how sad that I should even remember the price!). Seville is very different – warmer, for time of year, and more beautiful other than for a graffiti epidemic that sadly falls outside the jurisdiction of Councillor Barbara Reid and the Hounslow Plan.

Walking in a t-shirt along pedestrianised streets lined by trees packed with oranges induced a sense of the surreal when I thought back to how, just nine days previously, I had tramped through several inches of snow with my daughter Rosie in the early hours to catch a bus which wasn’t running to a school which wasn’t open.

For those rich enough, for it isn’t cheap, visitors can tour the city on a horse-drawn carriage (see above), something I’m sure Rosie in particular would love to do.

Way back in 1929 Seville hosted an Iberian-American Exhibition in which each participant nation built its own "pavilion" of varying degrees of splendour. Those buildings still stand, and although they now serve different functions – one is a bank, another a university – their original purpose is still indicated for posterity. The Spanish pavilion, pictured in part at the top of this article, is particularly huge and grandiose, although architecturally probably not as stunning as some of the smaller Central and South American offerings.

As I write it is my last whole day in Portugal and, as if to rub it in, by some margin the most glorious. I’m not sure quite how the Isle of Wight is going to compete with this.

Monday, 9 February 2009

The Price is Right

Today I surprised myself with a rare piece of financial acumen.

Apparently my UK-based mobile broadband, which usually costs a little under £15 each month, would have run up a cricket score had I used it, as I had planned to do, for my work whilst here in Portugal. According to a story I read on the web, a British woman who downloaded five episodes of Friends (why? Ed) whilst on a trip to Germany famously returned home to an £11,000 bill.

And so I am now the proud owner of a Portuguese mobile broadband package - what we call Pay As You Go - and I'm typing away this evening at local rate.

Olé, as they say up the road!

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Le Tiss and La Keen - an ungodly alliance

Back in the 1990s I was a big fan of the Southampton footballing legend Matt Le Tissier. Like many people I could never understand how a man with his sublime talent could have been repeatedly overlooked by a succession of England managers, particularly when the Brazil manager at the time let it be known that Le Tiss ("Le God" to many Saints fans) would have been the first name on his team sheet had he been Brazilian.

So I nearly choked on my paella this morning when I read in the News Of The World (Iberian edition) that the supremely gifted Channel Islander would be teaming up with the idle timeserver Ann Keen, alleged Member of Parliament for Brentford & Isleworth, in a national campaign to remind hospital patients and visitors to wash their hands.

The campaign was devised by businessman Ashley Brooks after he nearly died from the "superbug" MRSA.

Let me not be churlish about this – it is a splendid initiative and I wish Le Tiss and La Keen every success with it.

But that does not disqualify me from privately hoping that the voters of our constituency will be washing their hands of their own nasty bug sometime very soon.

Reflections on the English abroad

There is a holiday apartment complex in Margate where all the staff, although English, are required under the terms of their employment to speak fluent Portuguese.

All the guests at the complex, and I mean all of them, are Portuguese. No Spaniards, no French, no Germans. All the entertainment is in Portuguese, and for those for whom the stage act holds no appeal a wide-screen TV at the rear of the bar beams out Benfica versus Sporting Lisbon and other offerings from the Super Liga.

Along the Margate seafront every other retail outlet is a restaurant offering Chicken Piri-Piri "just like home" and, during Happy Hour, dois canecas can be purchased for the price of um.

Actually I made that up. Margate, like any other English resort, speaks only one language. Almost all the visitors are themselves English, and cockle and jellied eel stalls abound.

And yet at the Clube Praia da Oura in Portugal, where I am away on a (very heavy) working holiday, everybody is trying their hardest to make me feel at home, even though I flew hundreds of miles for the express purpose of getting away from the place for a week.

On a short stroll into town this morning I must have counted twenty outlets (out of no more than a hundred shops) offering a "Full English Breakfast". One proudly advertised its own ethnic speciality "Chip Butti" whilst another tried to tempt me with a "Cheese & Ham Sandwich and Chips" (I promise I am not making this up). Worryingly, at one stage I found myself pining for the Civic Centre canteen, where at least one can sometimes get a half-decent curry.

Last night’s entertainment was Johnny Cochrane, an admittedly classy fifty-something singer and guitar player who belted out a succession of ‘50s and ‘60s (English language) rock’n’roll songs. When I went to the bar and asked for a caneca the Portuguese barman looked at me a little strangely (it could have been my pronunciation) before responding with a knowing smile: "Oh, you mean a pint!"

Every time I walk into a shop, and before I even venture to speak, I am greeted instantly by the proprietor with a "Hello". I don’t wear a knotted hankie on my head, roll up my trousers to the knee or carry a can of John Smith’s, and yet instinctively my Englishness is recognised within a split second. Either those Portuguese who are not shopkeepers have all moved out of this place, or else they just boycott the shops. I can’t think of any other explanation.

I don’t know whether I’m the only person here who feels slightly guilty walking into a bar or a shop and expecting everybody there to speak my native tongue. My sorry efforts to converse in Portuguese are usually greeted with either hilarity or impatience. The last time I came here I stopped off at a well-known bar along The Strip. There the barman listened attentively as I tried to order a beer then, thinking I was a local, went off to fetch a Portuguese colleague because he couldn’t speak the lingo himself!

What really strikes home is, by comparison, how intolerant we English are with others who speak our language with anything short of total fluency. Only an Englishman could, without any hint of irony, contemplate emigrating to Spain to get away from the foreigners.

I refuse to eat a Full English Breakfast, far less a Cheese & Ham Sandwich and Chips, for the remainder of my time here. And now I must away, as there seems to be something going on down at the bar. Does anyone know the words to "Here We Go"?

In English, of course.

A month of meetings

One of the thus far unblogged about features of the month just passed was the number of very fundamentally different meetings I was called upon to attend.

Meetings are both boon and bane when it comes to getting things done. Without meetings decisions don’t get taken, policies don’t implemented. But the more meetings that one is required to attend, the less one actually gets done in the field.

Probably the most significant meeting, if you call it that, that I was called upon to attend in January had nothing to do with council business. It was a weekend spent in Nottingham as part of my Congregational Federation foundation course. Caroline is also taking the same course, which meant the twins were forced to endure the 260-mile round trip with us, much to their obvious chagrin. One saving grace was that the accommodation at the Congregational Federation headquarters, in which we would normally have stayed, was occupied by students, so we and the others on the course were billeted at the Ibis Hotel, which of course is much more practical for a family group. A very productive and fulfilling weekend in which many new faces were seen and new friends met was rounded off splendidly by a group viewing of Match Of The Day in the small hotel bar.

Many of January’s meetings inevitably featured the Housing Revenue Account budget, with both the government-induced rent hike and the controversy surrounding my recommendation, passed by Borough Council, to use housing reserve funds to help facilitate tenant empowerment on our estates. Meetings with LBH Housing officers, finance bigwigs, Hounslow Homes and HFTRA, as well as with our coalition partners in the Conservative Group, presented me with the opportunity to explain the rationale for embarking upon such a radical venture.

Much was talked about at meetings in the local community too. A consultation exercise over plans to dramatically improve Isleworth Recreation Centre and Isleworth Library by bringing them together into a modern leisure hub were enthusiastically received, despite some initial, and in my view unnecessary teething problems in the consultation process. Meanwhile residents of Old Isleworth heard of the slow but continuing progress being made on the introduction of traffic reduction measures down by the river, and much liaising with residents continued to take place in connection with the proposed footpath along the bank of the Thames in the grounds currently occupied by Nazareth House.

At the Annual General Meeting of the ICG members showed great determination to step up our communication with those we serve, and to raise funds and expand membership still further in this most crucial year. And the point was agreed by everybody present that the most important meeting that any ICG activist will ever participate in takes place on the doorstep.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

AGM re-elects Committee

A modestly attended but very optimistic and businesslike AGM held last night (Friday) at the Isleworth Royal British Legion saw the existing eight committee members - Caroline Andrews, Paul Fisher, Shirley Fisher, David Freeman, Jon Hardy, Maggie Hardy, Dr.Genevieve Hibbs and myself re-elected to serve for another term. A ninth member who hadn't submitted his nomination before the deadline expressed an interest in coming on board, and his application for co-option will be discussed at the next committee meeting.

In all the frantic activity of having six elected members involved in the council administration including two Executive members, the Mayor and the Deputy Mayor it is often easy to overlook the grassroots work of the group itself, especially as our local community in general is obviously more mobilised and active than it had been when we were in opposition. However we recognise that we'll not always be in our current position and may quite easily find ourselves outside of the administration again and taking on community issues without the benefit of being able to direct events at the other end.

An ambitious organisational programme looms for the year ahead, but thankfully we have a keen and robust team steering the ship.

Hounslow Labour Party responds to community empowerment challenge

My efforts to begin a reasoned debate with the Hounslow Labour Party on the subject of community empowerment following last Tuesday's victory at Borough Council have resulted in the following response, posted on the BrentfordTW8 community forum by party spokesperson and former Council Executive member David Hughes.

I have reproduced it without alteration as I believe it captures perfectly the mindset of New Labour in Hounslow, and gives the reader some indication of what we are up against:

It seems you still have the common tactics of your past friends of the BNP which is to divert people away from the truth..

"A bit like Griffin who come's out with loads of holocaust denile then he claim's the BNP are freinds of the jews...

"Andrews trys to use the same tactics one of painting a picture of socialists as demons and anyone of the left is criminal while he positions himself as a moderate voice defending the values of political honesty...Ha ha ha what joke you are...

"what people have not cotton on to is that you are very very far from being democratic and democratically accountable...just like Griffin anyone who say's NO is automatically branded as labour socialist and a criminal in your world..everything is ok so long as its your voice that everyone obays and only then are you happy poncing about like a little Hitler.

"Take a look at all the abuse you have given your own supporters when they have disagreed with you...

"At the end of the day and like some who can remeber you from school I will agree with them that you are little braggart who cant evan fight his own battles....with out having to run off to get support."