Thursday, 31 December 2009

People Getting Ready

The community movement in Hounslow received another significant boost last week with the emergence of a new popular movement - the Cranford Heston Alliance (CHA).

ICG councillors Paul and Shirley Fisher were the guest speakers at a very well-attended launch meeting which was supported by local residents, traders and even political figures and dignitaries from the Indian sub-continent.

The new organisation is spearheaded by former Labour councillors Sarbjit Gill and Parmod Kad MBE. Its aim is to sweep away the party political domination of community life in Cranford and Heston and to give the community a real voice in local affairs.

Resident Amar Singh Dhaliwal (front, right) said: "Local residents are fed up with not being able to get anything done around here and have even had to resort to contacting councillors from the opposite end of the borough with their complaints. What we need is real local representation which puts the people first".

The CHA has indicated its intention to field candidates in the 2010 local elections, and its campaign will receive active and practical support from the ICG.

Monday, 28 December 2009

The rise of the Indies?

I know from personal experience that independent candidates seldom perform well in general elections. The are of course exceptions - Dr. Richard Taylor in Wyre Forest defied the odds to be elected in 2001, and then again to hold onto his seat at the following election. Then there was Martin Bell, the man in the white suit. And in 2005 the late Peter Law took a seat in Wales, which was held by his agent Dai Davies at the subsequent by-election.

But in most of these cases there were exceptional circumstances. Dr. Taylor was elected on the back of a massive campaign to save Kidderminster Hospital. Martin Bell's election at the expense of former Conservative MP Neil Hamilton, who had been dogged by controversy, was assured when Labour and the Liberal Democrats agreed to step aside. And the Welsh situation came about following a reaction against the Labour Party's policy of all-women shortlists, in other words the split in the vote could be expected to reflect the split that existed locally within the then ruling party.

So some of the odds in the individual constituency betting list issued by the bookmaker Ladbrokes for the next general election make interesting reading. At Castle Point one Bob Spink is quoted at 11/4 to win the seat, behind the Conservative favourite but considerably ahead of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. In Dewsbury Khizar Iqbal is showing as a not impossible 12/1 underdog, well favoured over the Lib Dems at 100/1. An unnamed independent in Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath is reckoned to be the most serious challenger at 16/1 in what would admittedly appear to be a very safe Labour seat. In Luton South TV celeb Esther Rantzen is quoted at 6/1 despite the intervention of at least two other independents. In another Labour stronghold in Mansfield the Mansfield Independent Forum are second favourites at 10/1, as is Steve Kidd - an improbable victor at 33/1 in Normanton Pontefract Castleford. Plus of course there is Dr. Richard Taylor, standing once more in Wyre Forest and reckoned to be a close second favourite to the Conservative candidate at 11/8, and Dai Davies who is 8/11 favourite to retain his seat in Blaenau Gwent. And that's just the independents that have declared so far.

There are a few other battles worthy of mention. In Bethnal Green & Bow Respect are not thought to be completely out of the picture as 11/4 second favourites in spite of all their problems, and they are also quoted at 7/1 in nearby Poplar & Limehouse. In Brighton Pavilion the Green Party are actually 6/4 favourites to win a three-way battle with Labour and the Conservatives (oh, if only they possessed the same political nous in this part of the world!), and are not entirely out of the frame in Lancaster & Fleetwood and Oxford East, in both of which they are showing at 25/1.

The final imponderable is in Buckingham, the seat of John Bercow. Traditionally the big parties do not field candidates against the Speaker, which does of course leave him vulnerable to the challenge of a smaller party, in this case UKIP who are quoted at just 3/1 to take his seat. Given his unpopularity amongst some of his Conservative colleagues he may ironically need to depend upon the votes of traditional Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters to see off the UKIP challenge.

So what does all this mean? How many independents will make it to Westminster?

Personally, I think no more than two or three. Dai Davies seems likely and if I were a betting man (!) I'd probably back Dr. Taylor ahead of the Conservative favourite in Wyre Forest. The ex-Conservative, ex-UKIP Bob Spink is clearly not without a chance. And Esther Rantzen?

It may not seem much, but when one considers that prior to Martin Bell in 1997 the last independents to be elected from England, Scotland or Wales were Dick Taverne and Eddie Milne in the first election of 1974 the Stone Table would certainly appear to be cracking, albeit frustratingly slowly. Bear in mind the massive advantage that the major political parties enjoy in terms of organisation, publicity and finance and the fact that independents would appear to be making some headway seems more remarkable still.

This trend is certainly reflected in our local politics. In 1998 Yours Truly was the first candidate ever to be elected to the London Borough of Hounslow on an independent ticket. In 2002 there were four - three ICG members and the excellent Luke Kirton from ABeeC. Last time it was eight, and currently there are nine (ten if you count the enforced whiplessness of Bedfont's Councillor Jiwan Virk).

I am aware of course that there is a feeling in some quarters that we are all about to be washed away come the next local elections. I wonder what odds Ladbrokes would like to offer me on there being more indies elected in 2010 than there were nearly four years ago?

Friday, 25 December 2009

Sunday, 20 December 2009

A cold weekend away

Actually it is coldish, as befits the time of year, but there is no snow and indeed not a little sunshine on the north coast of the Isle of Wight. We're staying at Gurnard Pines, for the first time, and I'm taking advantage of a rare moment of connectivity for my mobile broadband in this remote backwater of the world to deliver a brief update on my Whickeresque travels.

I've sustained a bit of criticism for my holidays of late. One or two people who themselves think nothing about boarding a 747 for Australia or the Far East or spending an all-inclusive week at the Hilton in some fashionable resort seem not to think twice before drawing the conclusion that my family and I have a mysterious cache of hidden wealth which enables us to set sail so frequently for the Island on a £9.50-a-head Sun holiday, or to make our almost-annual, one-week-only, off-season easyJet pilgrimage to Portugal.

No matter, I reassure myself that a little bitterness on the part of political opponents and failed (and in one case positively barking) ex-councillors is a small price to pay for having overseen another four years of relentless progress towards empowering our local community and I invariably return from these short breaks reinvigorated and generally up for it.

The ICG had a very interesting meeting last week at the Isleworth Royal British Legion at which plans were made for the forthcoming local elections. I won't go into too much detail but it was extremely well attended and there is a real feeling of enthusiasm, with several new faces on the team committing themselves to mucking in. That is probably why, much as I enjoy my short breaks, I find myself impatient to get back and get on with it.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

The girl upstairs

As I sit here in my kitchen, trying to get some work done, the girl upstairs is playing her "music". From where I am sitting it seems as though she only has the one record, which she puts on time and time again over a period of several hours. The record, as far as I can tell, consists of four consecutive beats, followed by a half-second pause, followed by the same four beats again. Right now I feel resigned to having to listen to it for the rest of my life.

My family and I live in a block of flats which was constructed in the mid 1990s, and is "managed" by Notting Hill Housing Trust (NHHT). Soundproofing is non-existent. The building certainly doesn't meet the minimum required standard of insulation that applies today. We believe it doesn't meet the standard that applied at the time of construction, we have the sound readings to prove it, and we intend to pursue action through the criminal court when we have the time to do so, having been told by Brentford County Court after a case which dragged on for nearly a year that there is no civil remedy. It is possible that our own local authority's Building Control section was negligent in approving it.

Of course tenants, when faced with the problem of poor soundproofing, can take one of two approaches. They can try their hardest to lead as quiet a life as possible, as we do - keeping our television low, not playing music and so on. Or else they can satisfy their conscience with the knowledge that the structural defects are no fault of theirs and adopt an "Up Yours!" attitude towards their neighbours and to the discomfort that they suffer. The girl upstairs is very much from the "Up Yours!" school of thought.

As a councillor, of course, my role is to try to tackle the problems of others, not whinge about my own. However noise nuisance is one of the issues that I most frequently encounter at my surgeries and in my casework. It is clear that many people suffer far worse abuse than we do. The girl upstairs is inconsiderate, but probably not in breach of her tenancy agreement. It is the management company, which could have called back the contractor that undertook the work on its behalf and got the defect remedied at no cost to itself had it been inclined to do so a few years back
(it was the contractor's obligation to repair any faults that were identified within ten years of construction) rather than needlessly and stupidly arguing with us, that is at fault. But its natural, corporate instinct was to argue with its tenants rather than to support them.

Witnessing these people in action, if action is the right word, provided me with a valuable insight in my former role as Lead Member for Housing, and continues to do so in my duties as a councillor today. The belief that the residents are a nuisance without which the council would run smoothly is undeniably present in some areas. The "say no" culture, in which a councillor or a member of the public will come up with an idea and the task of the officer to whom it is suggested is to find a reason why it cannot be done, is still with us.

The four-beat-and-a-pause song still plays on, and still disturbs me from my work. All because somebody at Notting Hill Housing Trust, several years back when we and other residents first complained, lacked the wit to pick up a telephone and the inclination to listen to his own tenants.

Friday, 11 December 2009

It's all fundamental

Over recent months it has become increasingly obvious to us as community councillors that we have not been enjoying the co-operation of some chief officers and other senior officials at the London Borough of Hounslow that we feel entitled to expect.

As is so often the case it begins with little more than a hunch, often tempered by a worry that one might be making too much of a casual remark, of an e-mail not responded to or a question not properly answered. We are all capable of letting people down on occasions and even the most competent local authority employee is not beyond the occasional lapse. For some reason whenever I protest about some or other failing within the organisation I find myself greeted with the "c" word. Not that "c" word, I hasten to add (none of our chief officers has become quite that brazen - yet!). But the word "conspiracy" has the potential to instantly transform a valid complaint into some psychological maladjustment on the part of the complainant, rubbishing both at a simple stroke. "It's not a conspiracy," goes the argument and, despite the fact that nobody had suggested it was, the substance of the complaint becomes lost in the fog.

The ongoing Mogden discussion is a very good case in point. E-mails will be sent in by community representatives asking legitimate questions about our monitoring operation. Then a reminder will be sent, then a reminder of the reminder. In one instance a senior officer had to be asked thirteen times for a substantive answer to a question. The officer complained that he was being harassed. I just didn't have the willpower or the energy to point out the obvious fact that, had he responded to the first e-mail, the twelve reminders would not have been necessary.

The passing of the Motion on Community Engagement by Borough Council on 21st July 2009 was in the view of us community councillors a milestone along the road to transforming our local authority from a perfunctory bureaucracy into an outward-looking, community-driven vehicle for positive change. Whether the other Groups on the local authority, all of whom supported the Motion, saw it in the same way is of course a matter for speculation. But for the corporate council it would have appear to have been received more as a challenge than as an opportunity.

One department in particular seems to be resisting the new mentality with gusto. Word coming across to us from frustrated subalterns, combined with the occasional (but by no means isolated) outburst of rudeness or sarcasm in correspondence with community leaders, suggests a view of the community activist's role in the process which is quite fundamentally at variance with our own. Getting something done about the mindset that seems to prevail is a little like extracting teeth, promises to try to do better without any attempt to drill down into the root of the problem and the occasional invitation to a private, unminuted, off-the-record chat as the days between now and the next local elections tick away being the favoured line of approach.

Last week a member of my Group received two items of correspondence from a senior officer for whom I have a lot of time and respect which rather summed up the standoff that seems to exist. I say two items, though in reality it was one and a half as the officer clearly thought twice about sending the e-mail and stopped in mid-sentence, although - it would appear inadvertently - he sent it anyway. In the first he protested that he didn't "take instructions from residents", and in the second he delivered himself of the view that "as a councillor you are a representative, not a delegate".

Assuming his view to be one that is shared by his colleagues, he would appear to have captured in two short sentences the essence of the corporate council's difficulty with us as a Group. Because it is fundamental to our outlook that we are - within reason - delegates rather than representatives. We were elected on the understanding that we would articulate the community's view and defend the community's interests, be it at Borough Council, at IBAC or at any other forum.

Our predecessors of course were of a different view. They clearly believed that they knew better than the "ordinary" people in the street and that their role was to pursue their party's interests rather than the community's - indeed on many occasions they seemed to take an almost revolting delight in "stitching up" the people who had elected them. They were voted out.

We were elected with a completely different mandate. A mandate to empower.

The words of the officer to whom I refer would seem to question the right of my electors to inform the work and deeds of their elected members. In so doing, they spell out the corporate council's actual rejection of the political programme of one of the parties to the coalition. It is little wonder that as the local elections approach and our time on office (they believe) draws rapidly to a close they should become more and more defiant, and obstructive, in their dealings with us.

With the rise of the Community Group, and even outside of our Group of a new way of thinking, the clash of the old fundamentalisms of free-market conservatism and dogmatic socialism, along with all the pragmatisms and compromises that exist between, pale into insignificance. The corporate council is able to adapt to either of these old systems because they both operate on common assumptions as to the role of the bureaucracy.

We, of course, are fundamentally different.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Out and about with our community

Well actually it was too cold to be out and about, but last night Councillor Paul Fisher, myself and some officers from Hounslow Homes hosted a very small but useful meeting of residents from Isleworth's Worple estate at the Bridge Link Centre on Ivybridge to discuss some ASB and other problems they've been experiencing on the estate.

One hears surprisingly little from the residents on the Worple. Percentage wise, little of our casework comes from there and attempts to form residents' groups amount to so much hard work. And yet at the 2006 local elections the polling district comprising the Worple estate was the most solidly pro-ICG in the whole of Isleworth ward, out-performing even the loyal Worton. One likes to think they are contented and that they trust us, but it is never wise to take people for granted and the estate needs and deserves the same TLC as anywhere else in the village.

Once that meeting was over we drove across to Boston Manor to join another gathering of residents. Boston Manor is in Brentford ward - not represented by ICG councillors - but Councillor Andrew Dakers, with whom we enjoy a good working relationship, was there are we are always happy to lend our support to Linda Massey from Friends of Boston Manor (FOBM), who does a fabulous job as a volunteer and is always so gracious and level-headed in her dealings with the local authority even when she is feeling let down. The meeting was chaired by John Bradley, of Green Party fame. I'd never seen him chair a meeting before and he is actually quite fearsome!

Then this afternoon it was back to the Bridge Link where Councillors Jon Hardy, Paul Fisher and Andrew Dakers joined officers from Housing and myself in a meeting with a large contingent of Somali residents. One can understand the frustration of families of six, seven and eight living in two-bedroom flats, but that is the reality of the housing crisis and they were surprisingly understanding under the circumstances.

On the whole I find meetings with residents more enjoyable and productive than meetings with politicians. If nothing else, it helps remind me why I am a councillor. Meetings of the Area Committee have become much more enjoyable and dynamic since the community began to play a bigger role, and this is a development that we want to encourage still further in the months ahead.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

A month flies by

I've done it again, haven't I?

This time virtually a month has flown by since I last got around to updating this blog. Again this has been purely down to pressures of work, not just in my councillor role but also the need to make a living and keep the kids in food, pocket money and everything else they seem to have become expert in demanding at strategic times when they know my resistance is not at its best.

Since I last posted I have had the honour of attending the annual Remembrance Day parade in Isleworth, which in terms of public support was certainly the most popular that I have ever witnessed. Councillor Paul Fisher laid the wreath at Isleworth War Memorial on behalf of the community of Isleworth whilst Councillor Shirley Fisher represented the Mayor in the absence of Councillor Dr. Genevieve Hibbs, who was unwell (Councillor Jon Hardy meanwhile laid the wreath on behalf of the Mayor at Brentford War Memorial). It is was a pleasure to see the Mayor, Councillor Paul Lynch, arrive at the Isleworth Royal British Legion after the event and spend some time speaking to ex-service people, councillors and other members of the public, and he made a return visit some days later to present the Poppy Organiser Ron Andrews ("Dad" to some!) with a badge of recognition for all his hard work at a special event for those of us who had assisted with poppy selling, which this year saw yet another record collection (an achievement repeated over the last several occasions), this time in excess of £21,000.

One activity which I took part in later in November and which is worth mentioning was a canvassing exercise on the Worton estate. Not canvassing for votes (this time), but calling on locals on behalf of the residents' association - Residents of Worton Estate (ROWE) - seeking their views on what improvements they would like to see at the Community Centre. I found people by and large surprisingly receptive and positive. Whilst as a seasoned canvasser the patter tends to come naturally in any event, I was ably assisted by the indefatigable Kim Dobson, who first asked if she could stick with me because she was nervous and then barely let me get a word in once the doors had been opened!

Kim is a truly dynamic example of the kind of community activist who has been let off the leash by the election of community councillors and the emergence of a local Area Committee dominated by a community leadership ethos. I'm biased of course, but I really do believe it would be a tragedy to throw all this energy and positivity away by reversing these exciting advancements when we go to the polls in May 2010.

On the 24th it was Borough Council, and I felt compelled to make what had probably been the most difficult speech that I'd ever given there when the time arrived to discuss a raft of budget proposals which had been submitted for consultation. It is to the credit of the Leader of the Council and the Lead Member of Finance that these proposals were being presented early in the process for consideration - under the old Labour administrations they usually came to us on the night in March that the decision was to be taken! Nonetheless due to a combination of what I believe to have been the understandable over-zealousness of our Conservative coalition partners in wanting to publicly promote their low-tax agenda in the run up to both the national and local elections and, I suspect, a certain amount of mischief-making on the part of some senior officers and chief officers of the council, the process had bypassed the Community Group entirely and thus I argued that, under the circumstances, it would be unreasonable to expect us to take joint ownership of it.

Bizarrely the opposition Labour Party would appear to have stepped up its attacks on us since I delivered my speech, suggesting that they would probably prefer the Conservative budget to pass through unhindered, I suspect both for propaganda purposes and also because they fear the challenge of having to present a credible alternative budget which somehow manages to reconcile their expressed concern for the well-being of our public services with their own new, imposed low-tax position. With the demographics at the council chamber being as they are it will be interesting to see how this all pans out.

At the Annual Meeting of my Church the following evening I was re-elected as a Deacon, for which I really am grateful as with my various duties I have not been as active with the Church in recent times as I would have liked to have been in. It truly was humbling to be reassured by my fellow members that they still considered my contribution to be worthy of acknowledgement in this very important way.

On Tuesday this week Councillor Paul Fisher and I were with a gathering of residents from Heron's Place as well as representatives of various local civic and amenity groups discussing the proposed extension of a footpath along the river with planning officers from the council. Many of the same residents and activists were also present at the meeting of the Isleworth & Brentford Area Committee (IBAC) two days later at which a frank and vigorous debate took place on the local authority's plans to move towards electronic-only access to planning documents, a laudable objective in an environmental sense but one which has sold residents short by being so clearly money-driven.

Last night a goodly number of us met at the recently reopened Magpie & Crown in Brentford to take stock of where we stand with friends and enemies, opponents and colleagues as we drift closer to the confused scramble that will be the May 2010 local elections. Judging from the mood of colleagues - old faces and new recruits, several of them former adversaries - I believe we will be ready for whatever is thrown at us and will emerge from the contest stronger, more knowledgeable, better organised and more streetwise than we have ever been before.