Sunday, 28 February 2010

MPowering Youth Through Education and Experience

I spent a hugely constructive couple of hours yesterday (Saturday) afternoon at the Hounslow Community Centre as a guest at a workshop for young people organised by the MPower Hounslow Youth Project.

About fifteen youngsters - boys and girls mostly from a Muslim background - discussed a host of topics relating to political and social extremism, not just on the fringes of Muslim society but also street gangs and football hooliganism.

I was invited to the meeting in time to give my own presentation about my experiences as a National Front organiser in the 1970s and 1980s, but I arrived early enough to hear some of the earlier presentations and was amazed by the quality of the information that was being imparted. It occurred to me instantly that this project was deadly earnest about trying to keep potentially vulnerable young people who might otherwise find themselves receptive to extremist ideas on the straight and narrow.

When it was my turn to speak I simply gave it from the heart. Many of the people there were so young they had never even heard of the National Front, but most had heard of the BNP and I circulated some photos and written material demonstrating the extent to which I had been involved, including a fading snippet from a local newspaper showing myself and Nick Griffin, now leader of the BNP, addressing a rally in Isleworth and a letter I once received whilst in prison from an outspoken Ulster loyalist friend (writing from another prison) literally a few months before he was shot dead by members of a fringe Irish republican group.

I spoke of the way in which one becomes "ghettoised" when joining up with an extremist group, rightly shunned by normal society but with the result that one finishes up only speaking to and listening to others who share one's own prejudices, and sliding deeper and deeper thereby into an extremist mindset and way of life.

I think it fair to say that most of these very young people were ever so slightly taken aback to suddenly find themselves being lectured by this middle-aged, greying and nondescript old scruffpot and hearing about a way of life in which guns and bombs, whilst not perhaps a feature of everyday life, certainly existed as a feature of the political dialectic at the time.

I think I have said before on this blog that this is the kind of work, more than anything else, that I really want to be doing. I deeply regret my past as a right-wing extremist, but accept that it happened and believe that I am uniquely placed to offer warnings, advice and guidance to young people who may in the wrong circumstances found themselves being led along the same destructive and dangerous path.

MPower is a superb resource for vulnerable young people and I have already expressed to the organisers my willingness, indeed my eagerness to assist them in their future work should they wish me to do so. My respect for those who dedicated themselves to working with and helping young people in this way really does know no bounds.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Approaching the budget for 2010/11

This week the Community Group on the London Borough of Hounslow put out the following statement to various local news media:

Community Group seeks
"aspirational" budget next week

"THE Community Group on the London Borough of Hounslow wants to deliver an “aspirational” budget that combines low tax with opportunities for increased engagement with residents.

"This week the Leader of the Council Peter Thompson announced his intention of delivering a fourth consecutive Council Tax freeze for the year 2010/11. The Community Group, which runs the local authority in coalition with the Conservatives, expressed its delight at being able to present another low tax budget but called upon the administration to be 'bold and imaginative' in using available funds to strengthen local democracy and empower communities.

"Community Group Leader Phil Andrews commented: 'The Leader of the Council deserves a lot of credit for spearheading this administration’s successful efforts to produce a zero increase budget under such difficult circumstances, and it is to his credit that he has taken on board concerns about some of the proposals that were floated in December, and which following discussions have now been withdrawn.

“'We are proud to be associated with such an achievement and it is our hope that it will be accompanied by some bold and imaginative measures to direct resources towards empowering our community.

“'We want to see an aspirational budget that does something tangible to demonstrate our commitment to strengthening local democracy rather than just cutting tax. We are still discussing a few options and are likely to support the proposals if we can incorporate some of our objectives into the end product.'”

We mean everything we said in the statement. We have supported 0% budgets for the past three years and are happy to do so again. We recognise that, particularly in times of recession, even a small increase in Council Tax can penalise those on low incomes disproportionately.

But when all is said and done I personally do not find myself getting all excited about tax cuts. Some seem to derive an almost sexual relief from making savings and seeing a lower figure at the foot of a balance sheet. Such people have probably got a lot more money than I have, and it's not difficult to see why.

What I as a community advocate want to see is a budget that uses itself as a good excuse for rolling out the Community Empowerment agenda further. It needn't cost much, or even anything, to do but it sends our constituents - the people who elected us in preference to the politicians in the hope and expectation that we would effect positive change in our communities - the message that we are doing what we promised local people when they entrusted us with their votes. Without this aspect forming part of the budget proposals, I would be inclined to stay at home and watch telly.

The feeling I have is that our case is being heard. After all, at the end of the day those whose interest in the budget proposals begins and ends with a series of digits after a pound sign are unlikely to be fazed by a shopping list which doesn't involve shelling out a lot of money. Everything we bring to the process has a Buy One, Get One Free label affixed to it.

Monday's Group Meeting will be when we finally decide what we are going to do. But I am hoping my community gets a double result on Tuesday night - more say and less tax.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Community voices in the wilderness

I was very disappointed by the response Councillor Jon Hardy's motion to Sustainable Development Committee (SDC) on the failure of Hounslow's Environment Department to address community concerns over its Electronic Data Management System (EDMS) received from fellow members this evening.

We are blessed in Isleworth and Brentford to have so many community groups that are familiar with the planning process and able to offer advice and constructive criticism when things aren't running perfectly. As a local authority that is publicly committed to Community Engagement one might have thought there would be a willingness to engage with members of the public on a matter of some importance, and on which it is in everybody's interests to get right, but rather the attitude from the Department has been defensive and antagonistic.

A planning expert who sits as a co-optee on Central Hounslow Area Committee, Brentford Community Council, Campion Concerns, The Isleworth Society, the Four Roads Residents' Association and the St. John's Residents' Association - all of these, as well as obviously the ICG, have been involved in the work. But tonight the two Labour members of the SDC who were present, both of them awkward and I would say a tad sheepish in disposition as they delivered their comments, sought to have the community motion struck out on technical grounds (one of them referred to it as "political"!), and most other members of the Committee, to me, gave off an impression that they hadn't really grasped what was going on.

Other than Jon and I only Brentford Lib Dem councillor Andrew Dakers supported the motion, and more precious time was stalled for as we head rapidly towards the local elections and the possibility, if we are not re-elected and back in office, of it being lost for good.

We must accept of course the democratic verdict of the Committee, and consider other ways of getting the problem resolved. At the moment we as a community feel we are being challenged to do our worst rather than co-operated with, but there are signs that the mindset is changing gradually.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

It's a bit rich, but I sure ain't

As I write I'm taking a little bit of time out in Portugal. For a short time today the weather was actually quite fiercely warm, then the sun disappeared behind a series of clouds and suddenly it was February again, albeit a Portuguese February.

I've received a few negative comments about the fact that I spend a week here most years during the low season, even one or two from people I like to consider friends. I think I've remarked before that others seem to be able to tour the world month in and month out and yet when I board my humble easyJet A319 all of a sudden I am Roman Abramovich. If only they knew!

In actual fact this year has been particularly spartan. Thus far, since Saturday, I've ventured from the complex twice. Once to the supermercado to spend €20 on my provisions for the week (trust me, it's not easy being a skint vegetarian in this part of the world) and on the second occasion to purchase some credit for my local broadband connection. Other than that it's been just work, work, work - no restaurants, no souvenirs, no excursions, no beer.

Okay, skip that last one. When one spends all day punching a keyboard trying to catch up with casework, organising election stuff and attempting to eke out a living there is no way I'm not going to enjoy a caneca or two at the end of the evening. It's when I do most of my thinking. The difficult part, of course, is remembering the next day precisely what it was that I had thought.

For some peculiar reason I like the familiarity of seeing some of the same people year upon year. There are a couple of guys here who like to get up onto the stage and sing. I've barely said half a dozen words to either of them in the four years that I've been coming here and yet I feel reassured by the fact that they keep coming back. It can't be my imagination, this must be a nice place.

Last night I found myself reflecting upon what kind of courage it requires to do a thing like these fellows do. I have spoken at meetings with two or three thousand people present and I've not been in the slightest fazed. I mean not nervous at all, it's as perfunctory as cleaning one's teeth or taking a bath. I knock on the doors of complete strangers and talk to them about things they often don't want to talk about, until the "Go away I'm watching telly" vibe overwhelms. And yet could I climb onto the stage in Amanda's Bar at the Clube Praia da Oura and sing a song in front of fifty people? Not a chance mate.

Tonight is Happy Hour but if anything I'm feeling slightly morose. I've had half my time here and yet 95% of the work I'd intended to do still seems to lie ahead of me. I guess it's time for me to do some thinking.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Thames Water to fight Mogden abatement notices

Reproduced from his blog with acknowledgements to Councillor Andrew Dakers.

Just before Christmas the battle for a fair deal for residents over Mogden entered its latest phase as three Abatement notices were finally issued. This was a key milestone in the battle for better treatment of local residents by Thames Water. MRAG and Cllr Jon Hardy are to be congratulated in their persistence. It was good to see Jon get the
recognition he deserves in the Hounslow & Brentford Times as Thames Water, unsurprisingly announce they will be appealing against the Abatement notices. In my view the Leader of the Council was unduly credited for Jon's work in the local media before Christmas.

Along with my colleague Vince Cable MP I have argued that alongside the expansion of the plant approved last year it is essential the six storm water tanks are covered.

For residents that witnessed the Mogden expansion S106 agreement coming back to the Sustainable Development Committee it would have been a depressing experience. Some days after the meeting I am pleased to say that one of the concerns that Cllr Hardy and I pressed on was addressed with the agreement text being revised to read: "......which will be undertaken by an external INDEPENDENT specialist consultancy TO BE JOINTLY AGREED BETWEEN THAMES WATER AND THE LONDON BOROUGH OF HOUNSLOW."

This revised text seems like a good step forward. In implementing this clause though it is vital is that the procurement process is open and transparent and that a cross section of local councillors are involved. I wonder how quickly the Terms of Reference will be drafted?

Cllr Hardy is rightly - at times against the odds - trying to get the different stakeholders to work together to control the blight that is the Mogden stench. It is tough, but thank goodness someone with his tenacity is ensuring residents concerns are heard within the council.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

St. George's Day - the "Bigger Picture" comes into focus

Back on 12th August 2008 I commented on this blog in an article entitled "Seeing the Bigger Picture", following a visit to the London Mela in Gunnersbury Park: "Imagine 75,000 people attending a St. George's Day festival, bedecked with English flags and populated by British people of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds, with food, music and dance from South Asia, China, the Caribbean, as well as from the UK. A festival which would flaunt the proud Englishness of the diverse society which we enjoy today. What better way could there possibly be of putting across the message that we are an integrated community, contemptuous of prejudice and disharmony, diverse yet cohesive, brought together by the common values that unite us in a society in which Everybody Matters?"

Almost two years later, thanks largely to the efforts of my dynamic ward colleague Councillor Paul Fisher who is also the council's Lead Member for Community Engagement, residents of Ivybridge will be one of several communities in the local area that will be staging parties to celebrate St. George's Day with the support of the Isleworth & Brentford Area Committee (IBAC).

And here's the exciting bit - the Somali community, now thoroughly integrated into the residents' movement on the estate, has offered to play a leading role in the celebrations, which will stress the sense of common identity that people from different backgrounds enjoy on the estate and throughout our local area.

It is a source of great pride to me that these relatively recent arrivals to our village have become organised and contribute vociferously to our local community life. Their leaders pull no punches in highlighting areas of specific concern to Somalis as a group, but what really is encouraging is their desire and determination to play a full and active role in the life of the wider community also. Their ethos is one which strikes at the very heart of what Community Cohesion is about - eradicating disadvantage whilst encouraging responsibility and a sense of citizenship amongst their own.

The old ways, which encouraged separation and suspicion with a view to garnering votes from perpetually weak and frightened minorities, have been well and truly consigned to the scrapheap.

The key to reclaiming St. George's Day from the far-right is not to suppress it, but to re-present it an the image that is appropriate to the age in which we live. As a celebration of a diverse and tolerant England it provides us with a powerful tool for driving the Cohesion agenda forward.