Sunday, 26 April 2009

Christians Together in Isleworth - a blueprint for Cohesion?

Caroline and I attended a nice service at St. Bridget's Catholic Church this afternoon organised under the auspices of Isleworth Christians (Churches Together in Isleworth).

It was headlined "A United Service of Thanksgiving", and was held to celebrate the 160th anniversary of the building of Isleworth Congregational Church, 40 years since the rebuilding of All Saints Church and 100 years since the building of Our Lady Of Sorrows & St. Bridget Of Sweden (to give it its full name).

Our Pastor, the Revd. Antony Ball, gave a typically inspiring sermon, contrasting the spirit of unity which exists between the various Christian denominations in the village today with the animosity which probably prevailed at the time of the respective Churches coming into being. He joked about Congregationalists rarely agreeing with other Christians and rarely agreeing with each other, but this light-hearted exercise in self-effacement actually conceals what I perceive to be the strength of the Congregational Church - its democratic ethos and the fact that it is run by the members. Indeed Congregationalism is not in itself a brand of theology, but rather a method of government. I like to think of the Congregational Church as the ICG of the Christian world!

Whatever the respective merits of the various denominations, what is significant about Isleworth Christians is that its strength and success lies in well-meaning people agreeing in good faith to be different together, in a way that recognises and respects the much more important things that we all have in common.

Anyone see where I'm going with this?

An end to two successful seasons

A massive well done to Brentford Football Club for confirming their promotion to League One as champions yesterday with an emphatic 3-1 win against Darlington, who had a man sent off after just ninety seconds. I'm pleased that I've managed to secure some tickets for the last match against Luton Town, who will also be leaving League Two - for the time being anyway - after finishing bottom of the table. Having sustained a 30-point deduction at the start of the season I guess they were never really going to finish anywhere else.

Today my son Joe also played his last league match of the season for Spartans 'B', in the Harrow Youth Football League. His team are the only 'B' side in Division Two (Under 12s), and they managed to finish mid-table after beating Pinnstars 5-3.

Taking the snap below of the players awaiting an incoming corner got me into a little bit of trouble when an over-zealous Pinnstars coach berated me for taking a photograph of the children! In this day and age - and I say this with great sadness - he probably had a point and I should have given the matter more thought, but I didn't like his manner and had to remind myself that I hold a position of responsibility and need to bite my tongue in situations of this kind.

Despite his comments none of the players in this small, grainy photo were facing the camera and I am cool about including it on this blog. Joe is the tall lad in the blue to the right of the Pinnstars forward.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Out and about with the RSLs - Part One

Despite the gout coming back yet again with a vengeance I managed to stay on my feet for most of the day yesterday to tour the borough with Paul Doe, Chief Executive of Shepherd's Bush Housing Group (SBHG) and Chair of the Hounslow Housing Association Forum.

Shepherd's Bush is one of the larger Registered Social Landlords (RSLs) and it owns a diverse portfolio of properties around the borough from individual, restored street properties, through small isolated schemes comprising a dozen or so units, to medium-sized stand-alone developments. In my own back yard SBHG manages a major chunk of the Smallberry Green estate, in Syon ward.

It would be fair to say - and I did say it to Paul at the first opportunity - that my initial experience of RSLs in this borough left me somewhat unimpressed. Indeed it wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that it left me emotionally scarred. As a tenant myself living on Isleworth's West Middlesex estate I spent the first seven or so years trying to make meaningful contact with my landlords to point out to them that the contractor responsibile for putting the buildings up had omitted to install any soundproofing. Three of these valuable years were used up trying to teach them, ultimately to no avail, how to respond to an e-mail.

When I did finally establish proper contact with somebody capable of communicating in polysyllables I spent the next couple of years trying to coax them out of a perpetual state of knee-jerk denial. Many arguments were had, and an embarrassingly fraudulent sound attenuation survey was even conducted to "confirm" the existence of visibly non-existent soundproofing as part of an overall strategy clearly designed to wear us down into silence.

The tragedy of it all was that our landlords had an agreement with their contractor that any faults reported within ten years from the date of construction would be put right at no cost to themselves. Had they worked with us rather than argued with us, they could have compelled the contractor who had ripped them off with substandard work to come back and finish the job gratis, thereby improving the quality of their stock.

The efforts of tenants to launch and sustain a successful residents' association encountered similarly insurmountable obstacles. Earlier in the process there was the usual attempt to politicise us, and when that fell flat due to the vigilance of residents the estate's three landlords all quickly lost interest in supporting us. The community centre ended up as a private nursery for well-healed residents from off the estate, for which payment is extracted both from hirers in the form of a usage charge and - simultaneously - from tenants of the estate who are no longer able to use the premises through service charges.

Shepherd's Bush Housing Group is clearly of an altogether different mindset. Indeed in the field of tenant engagement - in service management as well as simply in community life - it is in many respects ahead of us at the local authority. Paul understood - I mean he already understood, he didn't require me to tell him - that getting tenants involved in such areas as quality control and reporting problems and issues can save the landlord money and enable it to deploy its limited resources more productively as well as being good for Community Engagement in a more general sense.

SBHG encourages tenants' associations, and has a tenants' forum which it funds and supports. Where the establishment of an association isn't feasible, it has a network of Tenant Monitors, three of whom I had the privilege of meeting at schemes in Hounslow and Bedfont. Tenants help to produce the Group's publication and website, and SBHG is currently looking into the viability of creating an e-mail forum for those residents who wish, or are compelled by their lifestyle, to engage differently.

All members of staff employed by SBHG must meet at least four residents in their natural habitat, reminding them in dramatic style of the raison d'etre of a housing provider. And Paul himself hosts a number of "Meet the Chief Executive" meetings, where tenants can come along and ask questions, provide information or simply let of steam according to their wont.

On Monday afternoon I will be attending the borough's first RSL Conference at Hounslow Civic Centre. As the need for social housing becomes ever more acute the RSLs will play an increasingly important role in helping us to bring it about. There has never been a more important time for us and them to find out a little more about how each other works.

Friday, 24 April 2009

On St. George's Day and Every Day, Together is Better!

I have not long returned home from one of the most successful, innovative and ambitious events that I have yet attended in my capacity as Lead Member for Housing & Community Safety.

For me personally, the Better Together event jointly organised by Hounslow Homes and the Hounslow Federation of Tenants' and Residents' Associations (HFTRA) did not get off to a particularly good start. Despite me being Lead Member not only did I have no input into the organisation of the event, but somebody also forgot to invite me. It transpired, I have to add, that this had been a genuine oversight and as it turned out every councillor had been sent a last-minute "reminder" of an event which they knew nothing about, but I would not be human if memories of the Bad Old Days in which excluding ICG councillors was turned almost into an art form did not come flickering back at least momentarily.

But any lingering doubts were quickly dispelled as soon as I walked into the Paul Robeson Theatre in Hounslow Treaty Centre, where a hugely impressive crowd that included my friends and colleagues Councillors Jon Hardy and Paul Fisher was already gathering.

The afternoon event had been masterminded jointly by the Tenant Participation Officers at Hounslow Homes and by HFTRA (chaired by Julie Brooker, pictured above). Its purpose was to bolster participation in the lives of our communities by hard-to-reach groups who, for whatever reason, often find themselves left out of the business of the established tenants' and residents' associations on our estates.

It has to be said that in almost every instance the exclusion of these hard-to-reach groups, in particular newly-arrived communities, is entirely unintentional. People new to our estates, to Hounslow and to the country may understandably feel overawed and a little reticent about joining their local tenants' group, which usually tends to comprise a relatively small number of people who know and have been working with each other for many years. For their part those established groups may desire to reach out and embrace those who are new to their communities, but are unfamiliar with the cultures concerned and sometimes do not know how. If this stalemate is not broken, the association soon becomes unrepresentative of the people it serves and seriously negative implications for Community Cohesion begin to develop.

So the purpose of Better Together was to try to break through those barriers by bringing established tenants' leaders and representatives from hard-to-reach communities together, to introduce one to the other, and to celebrate - appropriately, on St. George's Day - our common citizenship and those things that unite us as tenants and indeed as human beings (please click here for some earlier thoughts of mine on this particular concept).

As Lead Member I have long argued that a powerful tenants' movement on our estates and in our communities is singularly the best vehicle there is for improving Community Cohesion. People and groups of people who are unfamiliar with each other and possibly even a little fearful suddenly discover that the problems which concern them in their everyday lives are the same problems which concern their new neighbours. When residents are brought together to discuss these problems, barriers just disintegrate before everybody's eyes.

By some this message was never completely grasped. To others it represented a threat, because it meant that improved Community Cohesion came about only by virtue of an empowered tenants' movement, which has a propensity to ask awkward questions and to make demands that are sometimes incompatible with the path of least resistance and a quiet life, and always incompatible with the control agenda favoured by some.

What inspired, enthused and excited me about Better Together wasn't just the massive turnout (250-300 people), the excellent food or the wonderful dancing. It was the fact that here was a really radical initiative to empower tenants by aggressively promoting cohesion that had been organised by Hounslow Homes and HFTRA, not only without any pressure from me but even without my knowledge! It wasn't simply like receiving a surprise birthday present, it was the pair of socks that I'd always wanted.

I cannot describe my feeling of sheer satisfaction at having witnessed such an event being driven by Hounslow Homes and HFTRA, two groups of people who had fought me tenaciously thoughout every minute of the Hounslow Homes Management Review in 2006 as I ploughed on stubbornly with my plans to improve and democratise the process of Tenant Participation in our borough. Back then some harsh words were spoken. I hope and believe that much of the innocent mistrust that had inspired the opposition to me back then has since melted away, but in the overall scheme of things that is not really that important. What is most important that even those who would still probably like to see the back of me next year are now singing from the same democratic hymnsheet. I feel I can declare with supreme confidence at long last that it is now official - working together really is better!

Thursday, 23 April 2009

The New Labour selection circus comes to town

According to an article in this week's Hounslow & Chiswick Guardian there is some bad stuff going down in the Hounslow Labour Party yet again as it sets about selecting its candidates for next year's local elections.

Locals and regular readers will be familiar with the shenanigans of New Labour on our estates and in our communities, with the perpetual scheming, plotting and factionalising as they beaver away likes ones possessed to establish control of everything from the Neighbourhood Watch to the village philatelic society while the rest of us are working to build a more harmonious and cohesive environment in which for us all to live.

Once every four years, however, the sharks turn upon each other and in so doing provide the rest of the local political world with a feast of free entertainment. We frequently read and hear of selection meetings with more votes cast than people present, and half-decent councillors deselected and banished to a far-off ward - if they're lucky - because theirs is not the faction that is presently in the ascendancy.

The current row is about female representation. For a party that presumes to lecture the rest of us about equalities it is worth recording that the Labour Group in Hounslow has almost the lowest proportion of female members of any group on the council. The Community Group is 50% female, the Conservatives 43%, the West Area Independents 33%. And yet the Enlightened Ones of the Labour Group have just 25% women amongst their councillors - six from a total of 24.

It would appear from the article that Labour in Hounslow is in a mood to ignore party policy by not standing at least one woman in each ward, having selected all-male slates in the "safe" Labour wards of Hounslow West, Heston Central and Heston East. Preferred candidates would seem to include such political giants as former council leaders John Chatt and Colin Ellar. Now the London Labour Party has intervened and seems to be suggesting that the selections are all to be considered null and void.

Meanwhile there promises to be much more fun to come as the displaced ones search desperately for another home in progressively less winnable wards. We could end up with a flurry of distraught female wannabe councillors led by Peta Vaught, currently of Heston but now deselected, fighting it out for the right to do battle with us here in Syon and Isleworth. Voters in this neighbourhood could be spoilt for choice.

The joys of membership of such an organisation really are difficult to imagine.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Bees thrash Accrington, but promotion must wait

The family and I spent a thrilling afternoon at Griffin Park on Saturday watching Brentford FC comprehensively demolish the legendary Accrington Stanley 3-0, but sadly the promotion that would have been assured had the matches involving Bury and Exeter gone our way was not to be and we go to Dagenham & Redbridge on Tuesday looking for three points which would secure our passage back to League One.

After the match we had the opportunity to help select the Man of the Match, and the accolade deservedly went to 21-year-old loanee striker Sam Williams. He must have been pleased as he kindly consented to have his photo* taken with Joe and Rosie (above).

* Photograph by Jim Wong, to whom my sincere thanks.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Down and gout in Isleworth

Incapacitation is seldom to be welcomed but this week, having of necessity cancelled a number of meetings, it did at least give me an opportunity to catch up on some private work from home.

Said incapacitation mainly took the form of an excruciatingly painful attack of "gout" in my right foot. I write "gout" because it has never been diagnosed as such with any certainty. My doctor, and his colleagues who work alongside him at his surgery, seem obsessed with measuring my blood pressure even though they concede there is nothing actually wrong with it, and any other malady that I complain of is usually discussed only superficially, and inconclusively, before the subject is changed and the strap is tightened once again with an almost manic enthusiasm around my arm.

Unusually, this week's "gout" attack appeared on Monday, subsided a little on Tuesday, then mysteriously returned with a vengeance on Wednesday. To complicate matters my left foot was simultaneously assailed by plantar fasciitis, a condition probably brought about by a combination of too much walking and leafleting, and having small feet.

Whatever the causes of my woes earlier in the week I was able to hobble along yesterday (Friday), penguin-style, to the Thai Restaurant at the Bridge Inn in Isleworth where our departing Principal Community Cohesion officer Sabin Malik (right) was enjoying her last afternoon with some of her colleagues before moving on to her new job at the Home Office.

Sabin will be hugely missed by her friends and colleagues at Hounslow, both on a personal and
a professional level. She was not just a Community Cohesion Officer, her expertise in the field was a massive asset to us as we set about our ultimately successful bid to win Beacon Status for Cohesive and Resilient Communities. She possessed a sound knowledge of Islamic theology which enabled her to challenge some of the myths peddled by minority elements within Islam who would threaten cohesion in our society, and to do so from a position of knowledge and authority. She was also something of a champion for Muslim women through her work with the National Muslim Women's Advisory Group.

Sabin's recruitment by the Home Office or suchlike was always an unfortunate inevitability. Working with Sabin was for me like being the manager of Brentford FC and having a Brazilian international playing in the team (without any disrespect intended either to her fellow officers at Hounslow or to the Bees, whose promotion to League One will hopefully be confirmed this afty). There was always going to be a Ferguson or a Benitez lurking somewhere in the stands.

I wish Sabin all the very best at her new job - she will without doubt be a tremendous asset to her new employers - and I know she'll keep in touch with all her many friends and former colleagues in Hounslow.

Monday, 6 April 2009

At the Coach & Horses on Sunday afternoon

The Mayor, the Deputy Mayor and other Isleworth councillors joined scores of local residents at the Coach & Horses, London Road at the new landlord Kevin's funday this weekend.

The event was held to promote the new management of the pub and to encourage people to support their local pub.

Although the stalls, the free hog roast, ice creams and candy floss, and real ale at £1 per pint may have been a contributing factor in the decision of some to pay a visit, the size of the turnout from the Syon estate - leafleted on the pub's behalf by ICG volunteers - suggests that hopefully the Coach & Horses is on course to become a real local's local once again.

The Coach & Horses has always been a popular pub, with live music, good beer and good food, but in recent times its popularity had been on the decline. Isleworth man Kevin hope to reverse its fortunes by restoring its customer focus. As a local man Kevin has been helpful to the ICG, providing a home for our councillors' surgeries following the recent fire at the ROSE Centre across the road.

A big well done and thank you to Kevin and his staff, and the very best of luck for the future.

Confronting problems, embracing opportunities

I may have encountered pockets of resistance along the way as I've sought new means through which to empower tenants on our estates, but tonight when the Rainbow Project Panel was deliberating there was nothing but enthusiasm from all quarters when the Round 2 Expression of Interest Assessments took place at the Civic Centre this evening.

The Chair and Chief Executive of Hounslow Homes, the Chair of the Hounslow Federation of Tenants' and Residents' Associations (HFTRA), LBH's innovative Principal Community Development & Area Initiatives Officer Kate Tomkinson and myself spent two highly productive hours sifting through a new round of applications from several of the borough's active tenant groups, contemplating funding applications for landscaping, play areas, improvements to community buildings, community cohesion initiatives and educational projects for both adults and children.

The magic of the Rainbow Project is that it provides a mechanism for identifying not only where funding is needed, but also where there are particular issues which may potentially be resolved through other means. For instance a request for CCTV cameras, although not always practical due to ongoing maintenance costs, flags up crime concerns and possible hotspots for anti-social behaviour which might possibly be addressed through other channels. Follow-up work is the rule rather than the exception, few applications are rejected out of hand.

Earlier today an equally productive meeting was held between Isleworth ward councillors, representatives from The Isleworth Society (TIS), Hounslow Homes officers, local authority planning and street management officers, and the council's Head of Customer Services Robert Della-Sala. Several issues of importance to us as a local community were discussed, and it was truly useful for every party to have the opportunity to see the issues at hand from the point of view of others. Although as a council we can sometimes be defensive and opt instinctively for the path of least resistance, what emerged from the meeting was a proposal to come together on a quarterly basis and monitor progress, a completely new opportunity for civic leaders in Isleworth who before today had only the sometimes frustrating option of complaining to or through councillors and engaging in endless and often fruitless exchanges of e-mails.

Once again engagement is demonstrated to be the way forward. I am looking forward to our fourth year as part of the governing administration at Hounslow and to the opportunities yet untapped that it promises to bring.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Just like the old days?

On Wednesday morning, when ICG and MRAG members ventured forth to distribute over 6,000 leaflets announcing that evening's well-attended Mogden demo, I made the conscious decision to volunteer to leaflet the Ivybridge estate by myself. I always feel it is a bit of a cheek to ask our usual leafleting teams to commit when the notice is so short, and that to annoy them by so doing might put their long-term commitment at risk.

With around 110 individual four-storey blocks of maisonettes and four eighteen-storey tower blocks, and with me being a tad overweight, out of shape and - erm - thirty something the prospect was a daunting one. Did I also mention that I suffer from a foot condition which makes even walking painful?

Well, I set off on my expedition after breakfast and laboured around the first fifty or so maisonette blocks before deciding to call upon a member on the estate for a drink of water (typically I had forgotten to take any with me). Also at her home was another former activist from the estate who had fallen out with us over a local matter. Over a fifteen minute chat we were able to resolve most of his issues and he pledged his restored support for the cause (later that day he was to turn up at the demo). During that time we were also visited by another member, who volunteered to distribute leaflets to two of the four tower blocks, an offer which wasn't refused.

When I left the member's flat I happened across one member or supporter after another. Two took small quantities of leaflets for their own blocks - every little helps. A third contacted me by telephone after having received the leaflet, and a fourth by e-mail. All four promised to turn up at the gates of Mogden later that evening, promises which all four of them were to honour. A resident who stopped me to report some outstanding, unperformed repairs did likewise. I also had the opportunity of a long chat with some of the girls from Hounslow Homes at the Langdale Centre - a really great team of officers of whom I am intensely proud, met one of the caretakers with whom I regularly exchange news and, a little later, was able to touch base with Councillor Paul Fisher, who had himself been leafleting elsewhere, over a coffee at the Bridge Link Centre.

By the time I had completed my assignment and hobbled home along the Twickenham Road the pain of my immediate predicament was more than offset by a feeling of elation from the sense that, just like before when I spent less of my time at the Civic Centre and probably more of it pounding the streets of my ward, there was a feeling of warmth and affection towards the Community Group and the cause it represents. On top of all that, the relationship we enjoy with the Hounslow Homes officers on Ivybridge is now a good and positive one, and they liaise constructively with us and with the one, united residents' group without fear of reproach. The spirit, as one of the members I spoke to that afternoon, was "just like the old days", but with new opportunities which simply weren't around when we seemed to be fighting the whole world.

The superb turnout at the demo itself was simply the icing on the cake. After that highly successful event I enjoyed a drink with one of those old members who had become a little disengaged but who was now once more raring to go and was volunteering for canvassing duty, a role for which he has an obvious talent.

Last night our monthly "Roadshow" social drink at the Isleworth Royal British Legion was quite well supported. There was a really good "feel" amongst those present, who included former active Labour Party members and Conservatives who support the ICG at a local level. We are recruiting not only numbers, but people of real quality and experience. As for the Legion itself, other than dispensing free beers for the duration of the evening it would be difficult to imagine what the people running the operation on both sides of the bar could have done to make us feel more welcome.

There is high morale amongst members of the ICG and a sense that we are ready to get out there and do a job. Just like the old days, in fact.

Bandits at twelve o'clock

STOP PRESS ... Ruth and a New Labour sidekick canvassing in Linkfield Road, Isleworth (Syon ward). Are they serious?

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Thames Water conned LBH's planning committee - but WE'RE no April Fools!

April Fools' Day in Isleworth saw nearly 100 local residents come out at short notice to register their disgust at the decision by Hounslow's Sustainable Development Committee to approve an application by Thames Water to expand capacity at its Mogden plant by over 50%.

The demonstration, organised the same morning, took Thames bosses completely by surprise as they hosted a meeting of the "Mogden Residents' Liaison Committee", a talking shop organised by the water company at which council officers from Hounslow and Richmond along with a small, select group of actual residents are given the opportunity to marvel at Thames' commitment to eradicating the odour and mosquito nuisance that it has inflicted upon the neighbouring community for decades and to watch slick slideshow presentations over sandwiches and fruit juice.

Richard Aylard, Thames' Environment and External Affairs Director, left the meeting to come to the gates and engage residents. During our brief conversation he invited me to walk around the site with him (something I've already done countless times before) and see for myself the good work the company is doing. If I did so, I asked him, would he try to tell me that OFWAT would not permit Thames to cover the storm tanks, which are the source of most of the odour, using its own funds?

"Of course I wouldn't," he responded indignantly, "that would be completely untrue".

Why then, I asked him, did he make this same claim to members of the Sustainable Devlopment Committee at the meeting at which this application was approved?

Earlier in the day volunteers from the Mogden Residents' Action Group (MRAG) and the ICG had leafleted 6,000 local properties alerting them to the decision and its consequences.

When engaged by angry residents, Mr. Aylard gave them the "official line" - that the increase in capacity was to treat existing sewage flows which would result in a reduction in the use of the storm tanks and hence less odour. As he knows, as the residents know, and as the majority on SDC will know when they finally catch up with the rest of us, a few months along the line there will be "unforeseen circumstances" which will necessitate the importation of sewage from outside the current catchment area and odour levels, along with Thames Water's profits, will be up. Thames bosses will already have figured, probably correctly, that on the evidence of past performance no action is likely to be forthcoming from officers at the London Borough of Hounslow's Environment Department to prevent this from happening. Remember - you read it hear first!

There will be more activities by Isleworth residents and their Hounslow and Twickenham neighbours over coming months to draw attention to the scandal that is the expansion of Mogden. We will leave no stone unturned in our fight to protect the rights of our local residents. Isleworth will NOT be the sacrifice!