Yesterday it was my turn to cover our monthly councillors' surgery at Isleworth Library, and I think this month the attendance set a record for this particular venue.
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.