Thursday, 26 March 2009
It was particularly useful having major service departments represented at the meeting. There were perspectives that were unique to Children's and Adult Services which they brought to the meeting, and Cllr. Lynch's sterling work with the Gurkha community provided a fine example of how we were endeavouring to improve Community Cohesion by understanding the particular difficulties faced by newly-arrived communities.
Area Committees featured prominently in a discussion on improving local democracy. It was brought to our attention that the London Borough of Southwark had eight such bodies (it calls them Community Councils) where we have five, and that they are provided with a total budget of £3 million. Now three million pounds is a lot of money, even to Paul Fisher, until one considers that much of this spend is simply passported to the local groups as opposed to having to be committed centrally, often to the same areas of the council's operation. By giving the money to the devolved groups to spend, however, it is more likely to end up where it is truly wanted and needed by Southwark's local communities. Food for thought, surely?
The IDeA team will be presenting a summary of its findings tomorrow afternoon, and I look forward to having more to report following that event.
Wednesday, 25 March 2009
Dr. Cable told the Hounslow Chronicle: "After the big environmental improvements at Mogden we have been less seriously affected in the last year or so.
"I am now concerned that the good work could be undone by a massive expansion programme on which there has been minimal consultation with local residents. This is a predominantly a Hounslow issue as it is Isleworth residents which are worst affected, but there is nonetheless some anxiety in our borough."
Marianne Welsh, a resident of Whitton and a member of the Mogden Residents' Action Group (MRAG), added: "I can't understand why they want to forge ahead with this expansion without finishing what they were suppose to do, such as covering the storm tanks.
"Thames Water say there will be an odour, but it will be odourless. Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous?"
Meanwhile ICG and MRAG activists are preparing for a major campaign on the Mogden issue in the very near future. Contacts are advised to keep their eyes on their mobile and e-mail Inboxes for imminent further information.
Before lunch I accompanied the indefatigable Christine Diwell, Secretary of The Isleworth Society (TIS), at a lengthy meeting with a senior officer of the council to discuss a matter of serious import to the Isleworth & Brentford Area Committee (IBAC), of which she is a co-opted member.
It is by no means unknown to me that there are still officers who resent having to interact with and explain themselves to "ordinary" members of the community - be it TIS, MRAG or whoever - but at a council which takes Community Empowerment seriously this mindset is shortly to change, drastically and for the better. Following a long discussion Christine and I were able to gain a better understanding of the issue at hand, and at the same time were able to express some valid concerns about process.
Then after lunch I had the pleasure of a frank hour-long discussion with two ladies who were part of a team provided by the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) to help assess our approach to Community Engagement as a local authority. The team will be interviewing councillors from across the political spectrum who volunteer to take part in the project, and its findings will be published in a few weeks' time.
It will be interesting to have an outside perspective on what we already do to consult and include the people who elected us to office in the process of local government, and how we can improve things in this respect. Any advice received will be fed into what already looks to be shaping up as an exciting and innovative programme under the portfolio of my Community Group colleague Councillor Paul Fisher.
I am very much looking forward to the year ahead and to the opportunities which at last seem to be falling into place to change the culture of our local authority and engage with our communities in a way that we've never done before.
Saturday, 21 March 2009
This week's itinerary began on Monday with a briefing by a consultant on housing allocation policy. The LOCATA system which we current use has been heavily criticised, sometimes rightly so, but still seems more fair than the old "not what you know but who you know" system. There is though a need to make it more transparent, better understood and in places more logical.
After a spot of lunch it was across to Feltham Town Centre to link up with Amolak Tatter, my superbly innovative and dependable Criminal Justice Programme Manager who along with his team was launching the Controlled Drinking Zone from a well-populated stall outside Asda. Whilst there I bumped into many old friends including former councillor John Murphy and his wife Pat.
Tuesday morning was my regular meeting with Mimi Konigsberg and Sue Witherspoon, respectively Director of Community Services and Assistant Director for Housing. As always there were a number of projects, problems and live issues to talk about. Then in the afternoon it was a discussion with Celia Golden and Permjit Chadha who have been so helpful to me in all my work as Chair of Hounslow Against Racial Harassment (HARH) and, more latterly, the Race Crime Stakeholders Group.
In the evening I had the choice of a private Executive meeting or the monthly meeting of the United Residents' Association of Ivybridge (URA). It was at the latter that it occurred to me just how far we had come and how much had been done just to reach a situation in which a few ordinary people who care about their estate could actually sit around a table with officers of Hounslow Homes and discuss such everyday issues as security, repairs, the concierge service, service charges and so forth. Less than three years ago such a benign scenario would have been deemed totally unacceptable and only those residents who were considered to be in good standing with the political establishment of the time would be afforded such a privilege, with officers effectively under orders not to communicate with those lesser mortals from outside their number. Today a very dedicated and efficient officer team are able to engage without fear with a comparatively small but well-organised and - most importantly - representative group of residents.
On Wednesday I accompanied Caroline to the doctor's surgery for a routine appointment, before having a pleasant and enjoyable lunch at a Southall restaurant with an officer with whom I have been working closely on Community Cohesion. Then in the evening the LBH Community Group held a Special Group Meeting to discuss some recent issues, not least how to deal with the fallout from the recent decision by the Sustainable Development Committee to approve the Mogden expansion plans. I am pleased to say that the Group reached a consensus view on this and some other recent concerns that were robust, proportionate and reasonable in equal measure.
The next morning Councillor Paul Fisher and I met with other members of an ad hoc Community Payback Joint Action Group to discuss how to take best advantage of the excellent service provided by the Community Payback Team under Bridget Klempner in a more joined-up way than has been happening of late. Sadly in places the "can't do" culture still prevails in areas of our corporate operation and Paul, I and other members of our Group are resolved to confront this mercilessly without any quarter being given over what is about to become the last year of the present administration.
In the evening the Isleworth & Brentford Area Committee (IBAC) met to consider, amongst other things, a request by residents of Isleworth's Hillary Drive to close the footpath which runs through the development and has created crime and security issues for residents there. The request for outright closure was opposed by The Isleworth Society (TIS) and eventually rejected, but it was also agreed that the residents of Hillary Drive deserved some protection and that safety and lighting issues would be addressed by a working party comprising councillors, TIS, the police and residents. Yet another excellent example of a community working together outside of the realm of politics to resolve everyday issues and problems. A motion tabled under Any Other Business seeking to protect the Area Committees from any attempt by anybody to weaken, merge or reduce them was supported unanimously.
Today (well I guess it's yesterday now) I had the morning to myself to catch up on some casework, but in the afternoon I travelled across to the Bridge Link Centre on Ivybridge to meet a resident to discuss an ongoing local issue, then back to Isleworth Public Hall for the first part of a meeting of Old Isleworth residents concerning traffic issues in and around Church Street.
It is with some amusement that I sometimes receive advice, usually from predecessors who failed residents during their time in office and who were subsequently rejected, that I should find myself a 9 to 5 job and only give the remainder of my time to my constituents and to the public who elected me. Even without such a burden there don't seem to be enough hours in the day, and important work does from time to time get overlooked.
So much so that at nearly three in the morning I find myself recording my week's deeds for posterity.
Sunday, 15 March 2009
Housing is always a big issue, and probably the most depressing as there is often an expectation, especially with me being Lead Member for Housing, that I can help applicants up the waiting list. All I can do in actual fact is to ensure that their applications have been handled correctly and, if they haven't, to rectify the situation. As somebody who is myself stuck hopelessly down the list in the "one day, some day" category (no dodgy "one extra bedroom" arrangements for me, but I digress) I know better than most that like all local authorities in this part of the world we can only stem the flow. The housing shortage is chronic and the only long-term solution must rest with some really bold strategic thinking on the part of our national government, now and in the future.
Service charges for tenants remain a concern. Despite my insistence at the time when they were introduced that they needed to be explained properly, thoroughly and repeatedly to our tenants along with their rights of appeal I don't believe we have fully grasped the spirit of my request, and this is an issue I intend to have addressed as a matter of great urgency.
One guy came along to complain about immigrants, despite him being an East African Asian. Whilst I couldn't empathise with his prejudices, it was difficult not to have some respect for the fact that he had worked all his life, paid his taxes and never claimed from the State. It occurred to me that perhaps he too was entitled to a little help in his advancing years, and I explained a few options which might be available to him.
Another gentleman took the trouble to come to see me to thank me for the fact that Council Tax had been frozen for the third year running. This was in some respects unusual - many people appreciate the efforts we are making to ensure that the burden of taxation is kept to an absolute minimum but in my experience it is not something that people tend to be particularly vocal about, possibly for fear that they might come across as being selfish or greedy.
There were some very valid concerns expressed about some overgrowing vegetation, owned unfortunately by our old friends at Thames Water whose dismissive attitude towards their neighbours is the stuff of legend, and a complaint about somebody who was allegedly operating an instrusive business operation from a property in a quiet, leafy residential street.
Some not insurmountable problems concerning removal of household waste were brought to my attention, while another resident had some issues with Hounslow Homes allegedly not honouring appointments. An alleyway to the rear of some houses on a local estate had apparently not been cleared, according to yet another resident. I was pleased to be able to inform him that I was already on the case, having discussed it at some length with the truly excellent Hounslow Homes team based at the Langdale Centre on Ivybridge.
Inevitably though the majority of the complaints related to the shameful decision by Hounslow Council's Sustainable Development Committee to approve an application by Thames Water to expand its capacity at Mogden by over 50% in defiance of concerns expressed by thousands of residents through petitions, legal action and well-documented popular protest. As has already been pointed out on this blog, this decision was taken following a claim by the applicant that the regulator OFWAT would not permit the covering of the storm tanks, a claim which despite being completely untrue was not challenged by officers whose job it was to advise the Committee. Residents will be able to judge the extent to which this part of the local authority's operation is truly "member-led" by the action that follows, or does not follow, this self-evident failure on the part of officers of the council whose duty it was to ensure that those advising the Committee were properly briefed. Whilst most of my visitors understood that we as ward councillors had always supported them and will continue to do so, it was quite hurtful to have had one finger pointed at my face along with a suggestion of betrayal.
Amid all the private meetings, presentations and formal decision-taking, the councillors' surgery provides a sobering reminder of why one was elected to the council in the first place. And councillors of any political hue or of none ignore the aspirations of those who put them where they are at their absolute peril.
Thursday, 12 March 2009
At the Isleworth and Brentford Area Committee meeting held on the 5th March 2009 a request was made by Councillor Paul Fisher for £60,000 funding to implement a 20mph speed limit on the Ivybridge Estate and this was unanimously agreed by all councillors present.
Sunday, 8 March 2009
In the past the "ICG roadshow" has sprung into operation six or seven weeks before an election. This time we have begun fourteen months before we go to the polls.
The purpose of the event is simply for active ICG members to talk, socialise, swap ideas and discuss recent activities. Traditionally some of our best strategies have emerged from these gatherings.
Our next such gathering will take place on Friday, 3rd April at a venue to be announced. If you are an ICG member or supporter and you'd like to come along, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, 6 March 2009
There is not a word in the English language to describe the way I feel right now. Officers, at best, were remiss in failing to share crucial information with the Committee regarding possible funding options for the covering of the storm tanks, but frankly I don't envisage that any action will be taken nor even any questions asked.
There is much that I would like to say right now but will not do so, for reasons of discretion and (possibly misplaced) loyalty. I am awaiting a response to an e-mail.
But in the meantime I would like to sincerely apologise to my constituents and to ask them to bear with us, for I promise that whatever happens over the coming weeks and months Isleworth residents will not be the sacrifice.
Thursday, 5 March 2009
"The London Borough of Hounslow has received the highest rating possible for its performance from a government watchdog.
"The council received the top “four star” rating in the Audit Commission’s annual Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA), and was found to be “improving well.”
"Hounslow has moved up from its previous three star rating thanks to high performance for adult social care and improvements to leisure and environmental services. The Audit Commission also noted improvements in school results, the amount of social housing provided and rates of youth crime.
"Cllr Peter Thompson, leader of the council, said: 'To get the highest possible rating is a fantastic achievement for everyone who works at the council, and I’d like to congratulate them for their hard work.
"'But this won’t make us complacent as we know local people want us to do better in some areas that are important to them.
"'That is why we’ve made 10 promises to local residents to make the borough a place where people are proud to live - from keeping the council tax down, to cutting the amount of graffiti on the borough’s streets.
"'These are things local people have told us will make a difference to their quality of life, and that, at the end of the day, is what we are here to do.'
"The Audit Commission found financial standing and value for money were both good at the council.
"The council has successfully bid for significant sums to improve the borough’s streetscene and rebuild schools. The innovative performance improvement programme, which is about service transformation, has identified savings of £53 million over three years to plough back into priority services."
I should add that much of the credit for this excellent result must also go to my ICG colleagues Councillor Paul Fisher and Councillor Dr. Genevieve Hibbs, respectively the current Lead Member and the former Lead Member for Service Improvement.
The news came as a relief but if I may be so arrogant not particularly as a surprise. The team we have at Hounslow led by Uttam Gujral (above, second left) and Sabin Malik (above, third left) is so steeped in innovation, professionalism and knowledge that it was difficult to see them being upstaged. The Leader of the Council, Peter Thompson has marshalled the whole project superbly and I am very proud to have been a player in the team he has led in taking our work forward.
It would be churlish not to pay tribute to the work which was already happening in the field of Community Cohesion before the current coalition took over. I would also like to express my sincere thanks and gratitude to Labour councillor Nisar Malik, whose kind words of support at an earlier presentation to IDeA can only have helped our cause.
Hounslow is now likely to be called upon to share its ideas and experiences with other authorities who wish to promote cohesion in the communities they serve. All in all receiving this news was the most perfect end imaginable to what had been something of a difficult night.
Wednesday, 4 March 2009
The economic case was fairly much unarguable. Government funding to schools had been increased by 7.5%, whilst funding to the London Borough of Hounslow had grown by just 1%. The reserves held by Hounslow's schools total £11.5m, whilst those held by the whole of the rest of the local authority put together amount to just £9m. Nonetheless the Head Teachers and Deputy Heads who had lobbied us had been persuaded by the usual dishonest and pernicious political suspects (and I have to say there is a small but vociferous minority amongst their number who require little persuading) that twenty teachers were about to lose their jobs, hundreds of children who do not speak English as a first language were going to suffer, and so on.
"You call it dishonesty, we call it politics," as Councillor Ruth Cadbury once smirkingly observed at a Borough Council debate on the morality or otherwise of wilfully deceiving the public in pursuit of political gain, defining at a stroke the essential difference which exists between her and her party's approach to political engagement and ours.
I don't like being demonstrated against. I feel much more at home standing amongst the crowd, persuader rather than persuaded. What made it particularly difficult was those who had been whipped up to come along and demonstrate were wholly decent people, polite as they engaged me as I entered the Civic Centre, respectful and dignified throughout the Borough Council meeting itself. I look forward to being able to meet some of these people in a few months' time, when the realisation comes to them that they have been had, and to speak them about their ongoing concerns and issues and how we as an administration can help address them.
The demonstration brought back memories to me of 2002, when the then New Labour administration had let it be known that it proposed to cream off no less than £3m from the allocation that had been intended for Education (this was before the days of Direct Schools Grant, which now ring-fences the government contribution to Schools) to spend on other priorities. After much marching, campaigning and demonstrating by members of the community the New Labour administration "changed its mind", having "listened to the people" and "only" filched £1m from the Education pot. The demonstrators went home happy!
In my honest opinion our presentation of this year's budget lacked the political guile that had accompanied that particular piece of skullduggery back in 2002. Perhaps because we are honest by nature, we expect others to be equally so and as such we hand our opponents, who are not bound by such constraints, an automatic advantage.
Neither I nor any other member of the Community Group spoke at last night's Borough Council. There were reasons for this which I will not go into here. In the event we delivered five votes for the recommendation and one abstention. All six of us had taken a carefully thought-out and responsible decision on the strength of the information available to us.
After a dismal two and a half years the Labour opposition had a little flash of glory last night albeit, typically, on the back of a campaign of misinformation and then tempered quickly by news which came across from London towards the end of the meeting (of which more soon). But one must not deprive them of their moment.
I will be revisiting the question of the Hounslow Language Service on this blog in a few months' time. If my decision to support last night's recommendation is proved to have been mistaken I will admit as much. If it proves to have been correct I will be asking the Leader of the Labour Group for an apology for his party's shameless scaremongering.
Tuesday, 3 March 2009
According to FOTW, the party's plan is to "throw" the next local election and allow the election of a majority Conservative council as a means of prising the ICG out of office, an interesting scenario which I must confess had not completely occurred to me before the discussion began.
FOTW further alleges that the Conservatives are "in on" this cosy arrangement but provides no evidence, and the accusation is unambiguously refuted by local Conservative Chair John Davies, a man for whom I have a great deal of affection and respect.
As was pointed out by another poster in response, if New Labour wished to throw an election they would not need the co-operation of the Conservatives to do it. The Conservatives, one imagines, will be doing whatever they can to maximise their vote and their representation on the local authority quite irrespective of whether their New Labour opponents choose to put up a fight.
So what of FOTW's bona fides? Well, he/she is certainly privy to the knowledge that Hounslow is not on Labour's list of target boroughs for 2010. This I know to be a fact - and an extraordinary one at that, considering the borough's demographic make-up and the fact that prior to 2006 it had "enjoyed" 35 years of unbroken Labour rule.
It may also be that the declining and demoralised party has decided to prioritise the re-election of the awful Keens ahead of trying to win back the council, which would help to explain their embarrassing volte face over Council Tax.
I tend to believe there is some substance in FOTW's comments, whilst rejecting his/her implication of the Conservatives as a conscious partner in such a strategy as being unlikely (although for us it would be irrelevant in any event). My only reservation would be in wondering quite how Labour Party bosses would manage to sell such a negative strategy to existing and wannabe councillors. Possibly this might just explain FOTW's obvious chagrin?
I'll bring readers more on this if and when the plot unfolds further.
Sunday, 1 March 2009
Colleagues recognised the increasingly important contribution of Councillor Jon Hardy (left) by electing him to the top spot in his own right for the first time, having for the previous year been joint Chair with Councillor Caroline Andrews. Councillor Shirley Fisher was re-elected Treasurer for another year, whilst I formally reclaimed my old post of Organiser as it was agreed that the previous year's division of the role had not worked as we would have hoped.
For us in the ICG it is not sufficient to recognise that we have been consistently hard-working in our community while our opponents and critics would seem to have gone to ground other than performing occasional ghost-writing services for our alleged Member of Parliament for the benefit of the local press. We believe that we should be working to full potential at all times, using the position we find ourselves in to the full benefit of our own residents and ensuring that they know at all times what it is we are doing.
Assuming that we will be involved once again, as looks increasingly likely, we will soon be seeking nominations for candidates for the 2010 local elections and will be looking out into our community to see who might be up to such a task. And we have drawn up a full schedule of activity for the forthcoming year and beyond.
Beginning next Friday (March 6th) we will be organising monthly social evenings and any members, supporters or well-wishers who would like to attend should contact me for details of the time and venue.
More on the ICG's latest activities will follow soon.
The event had been organised by the government-owned Tenant Services Authority (TSA), and was part of a roadshow organised by same under the title The National Conversation.
This particular conversation, it would seem, is about raising standards of service for tenants, be they with a local authority, an ALMO, a co-op or a housing association. So far so good, but what is particularly appealing about the project is that the TSA appears to recognise that delivering service improvements must necessarily run alongside a far more deep and meaningful engagement with tenants than is currently the case in most areas.
To this end the two-hour session concentrated largely on discussing what community engagement and participation actually mean.
Many of those present were themselves representatives of tenants' organisations, and I have to say that what really struck me was what little understanding many of these people actually had of the core principle of tenant participation. I formed the view that whilst many of them had achieved a good working relationship with their own landlords, the extent of the relationship that many of them retained with the very people they were supposed to be representing was often questionable.
It is too easy to conclude that a landlord has a good understanding of the needs of its tenant base because it enjoys a good relationship with a handful of individuals who have climbed to the top of the tree (itself often planted by the landlord) of the local tenants' movement. But in this modern day and age, there are a raft of alternative mechanisms available through which closer contact can be maintained by the landlord with the tenants themselves, whilst retaining the traditional structures through which the tenants' elected representatives can negotiate with them. We need to be thinking intelligently about complimenting, not replacing, existing channels of engagement.
Am I suspicious that such a forward-looking initiative could have emanated from a New Labour government? Of course I am. But let us accept this apparently excellent initiative at face value until it proves to be otherwise.