Sunday, 21 June 2009

Impressions from the Hounslow Homes Away Day

I've not long returned from the annual Away Day of the Hounslow Homes Board, of which I am now a member, which this year took place at the Richmond Hill Hotel, just outside the gates of Richmond Park.

Despite it being called an Away Day, it is actually an Away Two Days as proceedings began yesterday (Friday) afternoon, and finished today (Saturday).

Some of my colleagues - both coalition colleagues from the Conservative Group and fellow ICG councillors - regard at least the overnight aspect of the event as an extravagance. Its defenders argue that it is the only occasion on which fifteen hard-working members of the Board, who are unremunerated for their efforts throughout the year, can avail themselves of such an opportunity to bond.

I very much doubt whether there is a "right" or "wrong" view about this, but nevertheless for good or for bad I opted to participate. I ate the lunch, stayed the night and participated in every session other than the "walkabout" at the close of the day, when I had to sneak off home slightly early to take my daughter to a party at the home of a schoolfriend some in some West End backwater.

One recurring theme of the discussions at the Away Day, both formal and informal, was the relationship between the Board and the local authority. It is very difficult for me to consider this question entirely as a new Board member without calling upon my previous experience as Lead Member for Housing for nearly three years. I am pleased that my Board colleagues seem to accept my new role as having the potential to introduce some fresh perspectives rather than viewing me as somebody whose brief is to keep an eye on them.

Prior to my being appointed to the Board I think it's fair to say that my opportunities to interact with the body as a whole had been limited. Regular partnership meetings were held with the Chair and Vice Chairs and with senior officers, and with the latter I also of course had many dealings on routine and sometimes not quite so routine operational matters. On the one occasion during the last year that I attended a Board meeting business was sadly sidetracked by some frankly unnecessary politicking from a very small number of members who unfortunately dominated the session. There are undoubtedly those for whom old habits do die hard.

But at this weekend's session I saw nothing but a group of highly motivated and capable people (and I refer both to officers and Board members) whose singular objective was to map out the future direction of the company as far as was possible against a background of uncertainty and probable change in the whole field of housing provision nationwide. There was no noticeable political agenda at play, even from the politicals (who are now very much a minority anyway) and the discussion was focussed, intelligent and very, very useful.

When I first assumed the role of Lead Member in 2006 things were very different. Even something as basic as arranging a meeting with senior officers presented seemingly insurmountable difficulties, with irritable negotiations about at which level it was appropriate to engage with whom, whether such and such an officer was of such importance that demanded the presence of the Leader of the Council and not a mere Lead Member, and much more besides. Views were exchanged but promises could not be depended upon to be kept, with word reaching us sometimes within half an hour of a meeting having ended that something completely different had been done than had been promised, and so on. And then there had been the small matter of the ill-tempered Hounslow Homes Management Review.

Back in those days I was charged with overcoming a horrible dilemma. There was no way things could have continued the way they were. As a point of principle I disagree with selling off social housing stock. My instinct was to take it back in-house but I recognised that ideologically this may have been difficult to sell to our coalition partners. And so, despite in theory being in control of the situation, I was negotiating from a place in limbo, unable to continue with the status quo but reluctant due to limited options to do anything to change it.

As often happens, fate intervened and the "oppo" gave way. There were important changes in the management team and a good working relationship was established. There were, of course, a few hiccups and flashbacks along the way, but by and large the relationship developed nicely.

Against all this, however, and in the face of what seems to be a very real recognistion of the benefits of a more tenant-focussed agenda, my fear has always been that this new positivism would not survive a return to a New Labour administration, that with a few tweaks the structure remained in place for a swift and seamless return to the bad old days. This weekend I saw the first very real signs that this might not be the case, even in the increasingly unlikely event of a reversion to Labour control next year. People seem to want to open up the organisation, to involve tenants and leaseholders, not because it is being something they are being told to do by the Lead Member but because it is self-evidently right. If anything, any political uncertainties come from elsewhere.

I left the Away Day highly enthused and encouraged about the future of Hounslow Homes. There are some procedural efficiencies that seem to be required of the organisation, but it has its heart in the right place and the personnel to make things work. It was perhaps symbolic that the event should have been held on a hill with a clear and panaromic view over miles around, with Ivybridge staring out boldly from the very centre of it. The late, great Tom Reader would, I believe, be a very happy man.

A strangely retrograde step

Unconfirmed rumours are reaching us that Hounslow Central Labour councillor Nisar Malik has been deselected by his own ward party, meaning that he'll have to look elsewhere for a seat to contest if he is to be in the running for a place on the next Borough Council.

I have made it clear before that in my view Nisar is one of New Labour's better councillors in Hounslow. He has a sincere commitment to building Community Cohesion and has been gracious and measured in his dealing with ICG councillors in a way that is untypical for a member of his Group. One is tempted to wonder whether this was the cause of his undoing.

Whilst the case for his selection or deselection is a matter for the Labour Party and not really any of my business, if this rumour is true this would appear to me to be a strangely retrograde step for a local party which after all isn't exactly overflowing with talent at this immediate moment in time.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Independent community action is the key to freezing out the BNP - but don't tell the politicians!

Old mucker of mine though he may be, I can understand why there are people who would want to throw eggs at British National Party Chairman Nick Griffin. Denounced for years as the leader of a party which can trace its genealogy directly back - via the National Front, John Tyndall's Greater Britain Movement and Colin Jordan's National Socialist Movement - to Arnold Leese, the man who first conceived of gas chambers as the solution to the "problem" of Jewish people living in the world and who rejected Sir Oswald Mosley for his moderation, Griffin is now one of two men representing the BNP at the European Parliament.

The problem with Tuesday's egg-throwing protest of course, quite apart from the public order problem it presented, was not only that it allowed Griffin to emerge as the poor innocent victim making a stand for free speech against an intolerant political establishment, but also that he was granted airtime to talk about the egg throwing which he would otherwise have spent having to explain his confused and contradictory policies.

Rather than allowing him the opportunity to explain to the world why his "non-racist" party refuses to admit non-white members, or how it defines "Britishness" according to skin pigmentation rather than place of birth or length of residence, Nick Griffin was able not only
to present himself as the champion of democracy and free speech, but even to implicate the three major parties in the egg-throwing protest by virtue of the fact they have given in-principle support to the organisation he alleges to have been responsible for it.

As such there can be little doubt that this exhibition, provoked as it may have been by the powerful call of a justified indignation, came across to most as a display of petulance and an own-goal of not inconsiderable proportions.

But own-goals are what the thing once known as the "Labour movement" has become rather good at. Let us not forget that in both the North West and Yorkshire & Humber the number of votes received by the BNP actually decreased. In both cases the BNP was able to scrape home as a direct consequence of traditional Labour voters, embittered by the betrayal and arrogance of their elected representatives, staying away in protest.

As a result of Labour's failure the rest of us are compelled to share the humiliation of having sent two men to Europe to make common cause with all manner of madmen and lunatics, with all the taxpayer-funded financial benefits that will bring to themselves and their organisations.

But if the failure today is Labour's, then at other times and in other places it will be someone else's. The cyclical nature of British politics is such that the big parties take it for granted that they will have their years in the limelight and their periods in the wilderness. Who is to say that after a spell in governement it will not next time be Conservative voters who are sitting at home sulking, while the BNP sends its people to Brussels on the strength of the votes of three percent of those on the Register of Electors?

Allegiance to the big political parties, allegiances which once were handed down from father to son and which centred around whole communities, are breaking down. There is no longer any clear ideological water separating the main protagonists, and it is not today a contradiction in terms to speak of a working-class Conservative or a "socialist" millionaire. With the advance of internet technology which creates a more level playing field between those with the resources to print and distribute millions of leaflets and those without, smaller parties are becoming less small. At last Thursday's Euro elections nearly 43% of those who voted in the United Kingdom placed their cross next to the name of a party outside of the big three.

In consideration of all this, those who would have us believe that the big established parties are our only defence against the relentless onward march of fascism are short changing us. A few more votes for UKIP or the Green Party in the North West and Yorkshire & Humber would have kept both successful BNP candidates out of Europe. Big party politics didn't protect us, it failed us.

In the London Borough of Hounslow we have six political groups on the local authority where once there were two. Our own, the Independent Community Group (ICG), holds six seats and with it the balance of power on the council. In the community we talk about the issues that local people want to talk about. We get things done. With 1,500 members spread out largely over two wards signed up to a program of positive community action, radical but outspokenly anti-racist, imaginative, unconventional and people-centred there is no space in which the BNP or any other racist party could successfully operate.

And yet this is the Politics That Dare Not Speak Its Name. A popular anti-fascist blog on which I frequently post only ever blocks my contributions when I dare to suggest that it is the community itself, not the Labour Party, to which we should be looking in the fight against fascism.

The concept is not restricted to my own neighbourhood. There are residents' groups and action parties springing up all around the place which strike the same chord as we do with voters who are fed up the mainstream politicians and their parties. They are organic, supported and often joined by those whom conventional politics could never reach, and are fairly much insulated against the ebb and flow of political trends. There is not the slightest shadow of a doubt in my mind that they are, by some considerable margin, the most effective defence against organised fascism taking hold in our communities.

The problem for us for the moment is that, anti-fascism nothwithstanding, we still have more eggs thrown at us than the leader of the BNP does.

Groundhog Day

On March 4th Hounslow Council's Sustainable Development Committee infamously gave planning permission to the water giant Thames Water to expand its foul-smelling Mogden sewage plant, allowing for a massive increase in capacity.

At that meeting, officers of the London Borough of Hounslow recommended approval of the application on the grounds that to so do would give the local authority more "control" over Thames Water's operation and in particular would enable us to challenge the company's notoriously dismissive attitude towards the protests of long-suffering local residents. Whilst doing so they omitted to explain to Committee members that the local authority already had all the power it needed to exercise such control as a result of Abatement Notices which it had secured previously, but lacked the will or desire to enforce.

There followed a presentation by the officers and some slick patter from Thames, who misled the Committee by quite falsely claiming that it could not agree to residents' requests to cover its storm tanks - a necessary precondition of meaningful odour reduction - because it required permission to do so from the water regulator OfWAT. Despite knowing this to be completely untrue, officers at the meeting chose not to point out to members that Thames was not telling them the truth.

When the officers and Thames were done a well-briefed duo of New Labour councillors rushed forward to respectively propose and second approval of the officer recommendation. At first other councillors resisted, even at one stage voting for refusal, but after being subjected to a relentless and unprecedented barrage from Thames, the Labour duo and council officers the majority, with the honourable exception of ICG councillor Jon Hardy, cravenly relented and gave the Thames Water bullies everything they had asked for.

Reassured by Hounslow's moral cowardice Thames' next move, rather than thanking their luck and getting on with the job, was typically to stall for even further concessions. But, having procrastinated over even the useless conditions attached to the permission given to them on March 4th, they created a problem for themselves by so doing because they had effectively talked themselves out of the deal, and consequently the whole application came back to SDC yesterday evening.

During the intervening period we in the ICG have done much to try to raise the profile of this whole disgraceful episode. Following idiotic comments to the effect that as the Mogden Residents' Action Group (MRAG) had only send one speaker to SDC on March 4th the wider public were therefore not bothered by the proposed expansion, MRAG and the ICG called a Day of Action on April 1st during which thousands of leaflets were distributed in Isleworth, Hounslow South and Whitton and close to 100 protestors came out at a few hours' notice to demonstrate the public's disgust over the conduct of the SDC.

Perhaps more significantly, we forced the appointment of Councillor Jon Hardy to the specific portfolio area of liaison with Thames Water.

Traditionally, dealings with Thames Water had fallen within the general remit of Environment. Aware that we had been getting nowhere back in 2008, we informed the Leader of the Council at the time that we would like Mogden to become a specific responsibility under the leadership of an ICG councillor, and Councillor Paul Fisher was duly appointed to the role. Within hours of hearing the news, officers had lobbied the Borough Solicitor who pointed out, perhaps not unreasonably, that as a participant in the residents' litigation against Thames Water Paul could be perceived to have a conflict of interest, and was thus effectively neutered. The indecent haste with which Paul's appointment was scuppered however gives some indication as to how relatively protected senior officers had felt under the previous set-up.

This year things were different. Jon is not a litigant and as such his appointment to the portfolio cannot be challenged. Nevertheless, there was the small matter of the planning application which was now being brought back to SDC, giving those who had been played for mugs at the previous meeting an unusual second opportunity to get up off their knees and strike a blow for the residents of Isleworth and neighbouring areas.

Sadly it was not to be. Deja vu all over again - officers recommending approval, New Labour members of the Committee proposing it and the Muppet Show giving a virtuoso repeat performance after a few worthless token words of disapproval about the excesses of the plant's operation. Thames Water must be laughing hysterically, but the residents are unlikely to see the funny side.

Residents of Isleworth, and their delegates in the form of the ICG, have once again been served notice that we stand alone. Increasingly cocky officers who think they only have a few months longer to put up with us find common cause with "allies" whose interest in Isleworth wanes with every day closer we get to the end of our term of office and opponents who, just as they did when they held sway in Isleworth, simply seem to derive some kind of perverted pleasure from making our residents suffer.

Councillor Hardy, who has already proved to be a fearsome campaigner for the rights of the Mogden residents, takes a very gentlemanly approach to fighting these battles. At the end of yesterday's meeting he even thanked the Chair of the Committee for giving him a fair hearing. Our civility and manners cannot be held against us, and our response now and in the future to the hammering that we continue to receive from friend and foe alike over Mogden should not be taken personally by anybody concerned.

But anybody who doubts that that response will be a very, very vigorous one indeed had better open their coffee jar and take a deep, deep sniff sometime extremely soon.

LATEST - Today's Hounslow Chronicle (12th June 2009) has wrongly reported Councillor Paul Fisher as having voted in support of the expansion of Mogden. This is completely untrue. Paul is no longer even a member of the SDC, and has made it clear he would have supported the residents by opposing the recommendation had he been in a position to do so.

The Chronicle has agreed to print a retraction in its next issue.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Two weeks in the life of an ex-Executive member

Incredibly it's over two weeks since I last posted on this blog. I recall a time as a kid when Crossroads was off the air for several months, and when it returned the cast had to narrate the events which had passed before bringing the story up to date. I guess I'll need to do something similar here.

May 21st - I had the pleasure of accompanying the new Mayor Councillor Paul Lynch, along with the Leader of the Council Peter Thompson and colleagues Councillors John Todd, Gerald McGregor and Paul Fisher on a tour of Fuller's Brewery in Chiswick (below). Some of the complexities and specialist knowledge involved in brewing defies belief. Apparently London water has a consistency which makes it ideal for brewing dark beers such as porter and stout, and is the reason for Guinness locating itself into this part of the world when it opened up its operation in the UK. The best water for bitter production on the other hand hails from Burton-on-Trent, and Fuller's physically alter the consistency of our London water (a process known as "Burtonisation") before using it in its bitter production.

Then it was back to West Mid for a private meeting with the consultant who had looked after Caroline's stepfather Jim before he sadly passed away on December 29th. Nobody seems certain at this stage as to what was the cause of his death.

May 22nd - Councillor Paul Fisher and I joined representatives of The Isleworth Society (TIS), The Four Roads Residents' Association, Hounslow Homes and Isleworth Youth Action Partnership (IYAP) for a photo-shoot to celebrate the launch of the excellent Windows on Isleworth project, which has seen students from local schools producing some phenomenally good artwork to help brighten up Ivybridge, as well as the King's Arms site in South Street (see below).

Then it was across to the ROWE Centre on the Worton estate to discuss the residents' association's application for a grant from the Rainbow Project to develop the Community Centre into a more multi-purpose resource.

May 25th - The Bank Holiday marked the beginning of half-term week, during which I struggled determinedly to catch up with some work while the children (and others!) screamed relentlessly in the background like ones deranged.

June 2nd - The Worton surgery, some housing problems and ongoing issues relating to estate matters. The residents' association at the ROWE Centre always make us feel at home, sustaining us with tea and all the latest info from around the neighbourhood.

June 3rd - The day before the elections to the European Parliament, and five of us ventured out to the Syon estate to distribute an ad hoc ICG leaflet urging residents not to vote for the BNP at the following day's polls. As always we were received with enthusiasm by the locals. On our travels we managed to liberate a leaflet that had been sent out by Ann K££n, our alleged Member of Parliament, informing potential voters that the BNP could only be kept out by voting for her party. A blatant lie as the d'Hondt system places more or less equal value on a vote for any other candidate, but this is the kind that of thing that we have become accustomed to.

June 6th - Ivybridge surgery, more housing issues and more hospitality from the girls at the Bridgelink Centre café. This time I had to be away early for an important meeting at my son's school, and in the absence of Paul (away in Kazakhstan) his wife Councillor Shirley Fisher kindly deputised for the last 45 minutes of the session.

June 8th - A meeting of the Members' Constitutional Working Party and then on to next door for my first ever meeting as a member of the Sustainable Development Committee. I must have broken a record for brevity - having entered the meeting mid-way through a debate on a proposed Chiswick development I was unable to vote, and when the second and last item - Mogden - came up I was required to leave the room as an interested party. More on this shortly.