Saturday, 28 August 2010

Hounslow's new administration - "helping officers to bring about culture change at the Civic Centre"!

I was pleasantly surprised this evening to see that Councillor Ruth Cadbury, Deputy Leader of the London Borough of Hounslow and Labour councillor for Brentford ward, has finally updated her blog. The previous entry having been made on May 30th, it would have been easy for the cynic to have concluded that her readers had served their purpose and that it was felt there was no longer any cause to be served in keeping us mere mortals up to speed with what was happening in the borough under the "control" of her new administration (regular readers of Ruth's blog will know that "control" is a word that appears with an almost obsessive regularity in her esteemed columns, a feeling of being in "control" is very important and comforting to our Ruth as any who know her will confirm).

But before I comment on the content of her latest offering, let me just issue a little disclaimer lest I be accused of engaging in offensive political posturing. When the election results were announced on May 7th I straight away made clear my position that I felt the new administration should be given a chance. I stated publicly that I personally would not bad mouth the new regime gratuitously but would instead adopt a neutral position, offering praise where praise was due and criticism where criticism was justified.

In my view Ruth's latest encyclical most definitely warrants criticism as its purpose clearly is to soften up local residents for the service cuts which, only a few months previously, she would have had the hoi polloi believe were the sole preserve of non-Labour administrations.

Inevitably said cuts will not be her fault, nor that of her party. They will instead be down entirely to the old administration at the local authority, and to the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat government. Natch.

"I fear we could be returning to an era when homeless families were lucky if they got into a hostel. Local Councils, with less funding, will be expected to up the pieces," she says, somewhat ignoring the fact that such an era has long been with us already as was only too evident to me during my time as Lead Member for Housing.

But the real classic is the following sentence:

"We have told our officers that we will support them in turning round the culture of the Council."

Excuse me? They will support the officers in turning around the culture of the Council? Shouldn't that be the other way around?

It seems clear from the above that the bad old ways of officers directing policy and strategy and elected members merely offering words of comfort are set to return. If, indeed, they ever left us. When I think of how brazenly the Environment Department in particular raised two fingers to the Community Group councillors in response to every reasonable request when we were part of an administration that was allegedly member-led (and would truly have been had the ICG not been so thoroughly undermined) it isn't really difficult to see how this lot are going to be led a merry dance over the next four years, is it?

Ruth has a talent for uttering memorable words and phrases that so characterise the local mentality of the organisation she represents. It was she who happily declared during a council debate a few years ago her party's view that lying to potential voters during election campaigns was simply "politics" and therefore acceptable.

Now it seems she leads an administration which is going to support officers who are going to being about culture change in Hounslow!

I promise I'm not making all this up - take a look for yourself.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Researching my family tree

Like many people I've always been keen to research my family tree, but have never really found the time. Fortunately my cousin Anne, on my father's side of the family, has done some work herself and kindly shared with me some of the fruits of her research.

It's not of course that my family history is any more interesting than anybody else's. Most of my ancestors on my father's side would appear to have been domestic servants of one kind or another. One piece of calligrapher's scrawl seemed to indicate that a particular ancestor had been a writer, but upon closer inspection he would appear instead to have been a waiter.

I was already aware that my paternal grandmother had descended from Welsh stock. For a few generations she and her forebears had been inhabitants of Haverfordwest, in Pembrokeshire. But the name "Burns" is not conspicuously Welsh and indeed the furthest ancestor I can find back in that line was indeed not Welsh but Irish (it isn't an Irish name either so possibly there is a link back across the water to Scotland, but that is for another day).

My paternal grandfather meanwhile had always claimed Scottish roots, but was by all accounts known for the more than occasional conveyance of inexactitudes and so nobody was completely convinced. But it appears he was correct - his own grandfather was actually Scottish and there is a line of Falconers, Grahams and McGlauchans stretching back quite a few generations. There is also the curious name Shesh which I can only find on Google as having its origins in India, although I would doubt there were many Indian people living in eighteenth century Aberdeen so a less exotic explanation is likely.

The other significant discovery was that of a strong Yorkshire connection stretching back for eight generations. The names Davison, Blyth, Hunter, Tiplady, Sidgewick, Harpley and Nicholson are all those of my Yorkshire forebears, although I don't seem to be able to place whereabouts in that huge county they originate from. The Davisons moved to Middlesborough in the early nineteenth century and it was there that one of my Yorkshire ancestors married into the Scottish line, who had moved south at around the same time. This Scottish/Yorkshire match-up produced my great-grandmother Jessie, who in turn moved down to Hounslow where she was to marry into the Andrews side, whose roots we have traced back to a village called Finchingfield in Essex.

What fascinates me more than anything is just how mobile many families and individuals were even before the advent of cars and aeroplanes. It must have been quite a wrench to up sticks from within a settled community in Aberdeen, Yorkshire, Haverfordwest or Essex, presumably in most cases to find work.

When I get the time I intend to look into my mother's side. This may prove more difficult as I'm aware much of her line is from Ireland, but research of this kind is an addictive and compelling pursuit and I doubt now whether I'm going to be able to stop until I find everything that is out there.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

ICG Committee needs to readjust to new circumstances

It is now over three months since the local elections, and the loss of all six of the seats on the local authority that we had previously held.

Even before that fateful day the ICG Committee was the source of all power within the organisation. But in practice, at least before the last AGM in January 2010, it was so heavily dominated by councillors that its two non-councillor members were never in a position to override the predominant councillor input even if they had wanted to.

Things have now changed on two fronts. First of all the majority on the ICG Committee (which currently has eleven members as opposed to the eight it had for most of last year) have never been councillors. The source of real power has changed.

Secondly there have never been so many relative "newbies" all at once at the centre of the decision-making process within the group.

Dealing with this, along with our expressed desire to regroup and reshape, has obviously meant that a lot of deep discussion - sometimes impassioned discussion - has taken place. Sometimes some of the newbies don't completely understand what is required of them in terms of keeping up with the situation within the ICG and the wider community on a day to day basis. Whilst I have defended those people on the grounds of their inexperience they will need to learn, and soon.

At the same time us former councillors are having to come to terms with the fact that we are no longer ruling the roost on the Committee in the way that we undoubtedly once were. Interesting times.

What is important is that the ICG identifies the areas in which it has been underperforming and uses the relative sanctuary that the next two or three years will provide to address those issues. We need also to address them at an appropriate and sensible pace, risking neither burnout nor prolonged inactivity.

We have always said that irrespective of whether or not we decide to contest the next local elections in 2014 we will be prepared for them, enabling us to take such a decision when the time for it comes from a position of strength. This is why the coming two or three years will be so important to us.

Whatever happens the key to our long-term stability and success will be new blood. Some of the established leadership, myself included, may not necessarily be the best people to be taking us to the next level. We need new people helping to run the organisation so that it may remain fresh, and infused with new ideas and an up-to-date approach to campaigning.

If you are an activist or even at this point just an inactive member or supporter, it is time to consider whether you might not wish to make a bigger contribution than is the case at present.

Syon flood victims may be entitled to compensation for disruption and inconvenience

Hugh James Solicitors have been acting for residents of Richmond and Hounslow in relation to claims against Thames Water concerning the Mogden Sewage Treatment Works. Residents who are victims of the recent Hounslow floods who are seeking advice* should visit

http://www.hughjames.com/news_centre/news_library/2010/august/flooding_damage.aspx

Even if residents are insured, there may be some expenses that won’t be recovered from the insurance company. There will also be a significant level of disruption and inconvenience caused over the next few weeks and months whilst repairs are carried out and residents may be entitled to compensation for this.


* Information provided courtesy of Mogden Residents' Action Group (MRAG).

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Ziggy Stardust came from Isleworth...

...apparently!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00tdpz8.


Syon under water

Acknowledgements to Leo Vermeulen for the photograph
____________________________________________

Needless to say I've been picking up lots of horror stories from the Syon estate, which has suffered the full impact of the flood caused by a fractured water pipe.

Several people I know have been decanted to nearby hotels and word is that some dwellings will be uninhabitable for quite a few months.

Let's hope all the parties and agencies responsible for dealing with the situation are on top of their game and that normality can be restored in the quickest possible time and with the minimum hardship to local residents.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Residents are increasingly setting up their own "hyperlocal" websites - should councils be worried?

By Ian Tucker and Chris Arnot

William Perrin was looking out of the window of his flat on a chilly November night when he had his "Damascene moment". About 20 young people had broken into a Renault 5 dumped in his street in King's Cross, north London, stuffed it full of fireworks, and set light to the car, which exploded as he watched on.


He called the police but they didn't come. This confirmed what he suspected: that the area wasn't heavily policed and was "almost a no-go area". At the time, a combusting car was not an exceptional occurrence, sometimes youths would even add a stolen gas cylinder for an extra explosive kick. "At that moment I thought I had a choice: either move to the suburbs like most middle-class people or get stuck into community action." He chose the latter. That was nine years ago.

A particular irritant for Perrin was the number of broken streetlights in King's Cross. One winter's evening he found 50 broken lights in his area and reported them all to the various departments of Islington council responsible. "As a result of me making a lot of fuss over the months, we were one of the first local areas to get new lights," he recalls.

Next, Perrin turned his attention to abandoned fridges. But the phoning and emailing was taking over his free time. "I wanted to find a way of co-ordinating what was going on, of exchanging information," he says. His interest in improving his local neighbourhood led to him helping with the design of FixMyStreet.com, a website built by not-for-profit company MySociety. So maybe it was only a matter of time before he struck upon blogging as the solution to solve problems at a local level, and started his own site: www.kingscrossenvironment.com. Initial posts were about abandoned mattresses and white goods, uncollected refuse and burnt-out cars. Perrin found that blogging was more effective than sending emails and phoning council departments. "An email can be like a tree falling in a forest: if you don't know an email has been sent, you don't know about it. Whereas on the web it's always there," he says.

Five years on, his site is a substantial archive of local planning campaigns, environment issues, crime and antisocial behaviour – as well as information about new local shops and caf├ęs.

Perrin found that, over time, a different local audience began to contribute. "This was partly due to the demographic changes happening in King's Cross, but also because previously people had found civic action too hard to engage with. Attending evening meetings, reading stacks of papers, listening to people talking in a Latinate language for several hours feels totally alien to modern values," he says. "The site gives a 21st century interface to a 19th century system. People have got involved because the time cost to them is so much less."

The website gets 400 to 500 views a day, has a network of 20 local people who send in local information, and a handful of core volunteers who do most of the blogging.

A year or so after starting the site, specific campaigns were beginning to dominate, and some campaigners wanted to set up breakaway sites. Perrin, who has never written a line of computing code, says people didn't realise how easy it is to set up a website. He produced a simple six-page guide to help.

In June last year, during a year-long sabbatical from the civil service, where he works as a government policy adviser, he set up TalkAboutLocal (talkabout local.org), which aims to give people across the UK a powerful online voice on community issues. "We want to help people communicate and campaign more effectively to influence events in the places in which they live, work or play," says the website.

Perrin, with funding from Channel 4's 4iP project and Screen West Midlands, employs two staff and some freelancers who train people at UK Online centres to teach aspiring local bloggers. As a result, dozens of hyperlocal sites are up and running, including by communities in Florence in Stoke-on-Trent (florencera.org.uk), Kington in Herefordshire (kingtonblackboard.org) and Heeley in Sheffield (heeleyonline.wordpress.com).

Perrin's work with TalkAboutLocal earned him a place at Downing Street's table last month, at a seminar on the coalition's "big society" plans. Perrin says he is "quite optimistic" about the concept. "One of the greatest prizes is a massive increase in civic action and people taking responsibility for working with public services in their neighbourhood instead of having public services do things to you," he says.

In King's Cross, he believes that local residents are more likely to get things changed than in another ward in the borough. "That's because what we have created through community action, through sheer hard work, is a very effective campaigning network," he says.

He admits, however, that a website on its own won't magically transform a neighbourhood. "But a neighbourhood that already has some effective social capital can benefit from having some sort of web resource that helps people network, understand what's going on locally and project their voices beyond the immediate physical boundaries of their estate or village," he says.

The question for local government is how it chooses to engage with these sites. Once a site begins to grow in popularity and is campaigning on local issues, should the council have a formal relationship with it – should it consult with it in the same way as it would a residents' association, for example? "The challenge for people who run councils is to respond to modern communications values. To make democracy respond as if it was any other modern good or service," says Perrin.

The Leadership Centre for Local Government has, with the Improvement and Development Agency, produced a guide and website (socialmedia.21st.cc) for councillors on how to use social media. Joe Simpson, director of politics and partnerships, says the question for councils is how do they move from communicating with their residents to having a conversation.

"Local authorities are at the beginning of that journey," he says. "We can't hide behind the facade that we're the professionals and can tell people what to do. The vast majority of people don't expect to get everything they ask for, but they want to know their views have been heard and understood. The key issue is going to be cuts. If people feel we are listening to their concerns we will get some buy-in."

In Birmingham, the council has so far failed this test, according to Stef Lewandowski. His website (bccdiy.com) set out to simplify and enhance the city council's new website unveiled last year. Lewandowski discovered through a freedom of information request that the cost of the city council's website was £2.8m. "We thought the figure was rather a lot," he says, "especially as the process for paying your council tax was nothing short of labyrinthine."

After he believed that his concerns were rather airily dismissed by a councillor at a public meeting, Lewandowski sat down the following morning and began downloading the site on to his laptop. The download took three hours.

Transforming the site into something that he regarded as more user-friendly entailed involving as many potential users as possible. He staged a Hack Day at Moseley Exchange, a cross between a community centre and a co-working space. More than 60 people turned up, including students and pensioners as well as computer programmers.

"Above all, there was a requirement for really fast access to the services that people need – bin collection times, for instance, and the opening times of your local library. So I built in a facility called 'Near me'. You tap in your postcode and find a page of useful services and events in your immediate neighbourhood."

Tap in the postcode B31 2LP on bccdiy.com and it reveals that a street lamp is out of order. "Again," it says. There is a map pinpointing the offending light, along with the date and time of a complaint by a woman who writes that her husband has just undergone a knee operation and had to use a torch to avoid broken paving slabs. From other postings we learn the exact location of potholes in roads – some fixed, some not – and the dumping of a shopping trolley in a pond. There is a list of planning applications, many of which will elicit instant objections.

"I like the idea of holding power to account, getting people more involved with decision-making in their area and making them feel part of the process, not separate from it," says Lewandowski.

Birmingham city council declined to comment on bccdiy.com but a spokesman pointed out that the £2.8m figure was for more than revamping the website. It covered a larger remit that he claimed had massively improved the council's relationship with residents – face-to-face, by phone and via the web.

Having taken on Birmingham council, Lewandowski is engaged in providing a similar service for every other council taxpayer in the country through diycouncil.com, which he built by downloading the contents of another site and adding content based on his work with bccdiy.com.

"In just a few hours – so far I've spent 20 hours on the diycouncil.com site – someone can make very interesting things happen with these tools. And with the coming push to have all public sector data in the public domain, we're going to see some innovative, surprising and exciting things being done very quickly outside the usual tender/commission/report cycle that the public sector is used to," he says.

"What comes next is that we collectively find ways to make that data meaningful to people in unexpected ways, some of which will work, many of which will fall by the wayside," says Lewandowski. "But the end result will be a smoother interaction between people and government. At least that's my hope."


Reproduced with acknowledgements to The Guardian.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Ray Ferguson

I've just been informed by a mutual friend that Ray Ferguson, of Bedfont, sadly passed away on Friday. He had been suffering with lung cancer.

I first met Ray back in 1996. Having fairly much established itself in the south of Isleworth the ICG had had a letter published in a local newspaper inviting other independently minded individuals from around the borough to get in touch with us with a view to working together.

Ray was one of those who responded. Although a right-of-centre Conservative by disposition, Ray was a man of his own mind and was not completely happy with the direction his own party was taking. ICG founder Tom Reader (himself a Conservative) and myself visited Ray at his modest Staines Road home and we agreed to pool some ideas and resources. Ray and a couple of his associates attended an ICG meeting held at the old Jolly Gardeners pub in Twickenham Road, Isleworth and I even hand-delivered a few thousand leaflets for his newly-formed Hounslow Residents' Group (HRG). Ray lent us a PC, then a rare commodity, and a printing press but in the event I couldn't get either of them to work.

The HRG concentrated heavily on opposing the then rather substantial package of grants issued by the London Borough of Hounslow, then as now under Labour control, and it was indeed the case that many of these seemed to serve no purpose other than to sustain organisations that had delivered electoral and political support for the Labour Party. Indeed in one case it seemed likely that Labour was actually diverting public money to a group of activists in an unsuccessful attempt to arrest the growth of the ICG in Isleworth under the completely fictitious guise of an "anti-fascist" operation.

However the HRG's emphasis on opposing more or less all grants, and in particular its focus on single issue organisations, left some of us feeling uncomfortable and fairly soon the two groups effectively agreed to differ and to function separately. The goodwill between us remained but, in the view of many of us, there was no real common ground between the HRG's conservative ethos and the ICG's progressive communitarianism.

But whatever similarities or differences Ray and I may have had at certain times, one thing that always stood out for me was Ray's absolute honesty. In disagreement he was civil, but Ray was never two-faced or duplicitous. He was clear and open about the things in which he believed, and always took the trouble to call and offer his congratulations when I and my colleagues had experienced triumph, and his commiserations when we had experienced defeat. He called me on the telephone only a couple of months ago to express his displeasure both at the outcome of the recent local elections, and at some of the elementary political miscalculations by others, some of whom he considered friends, that had brought it about.

For those who knew Ray it was not possible to dislike the man. It was easy to disagree with him, but that is what honest discourse is about. He always demonstrated respect regardless of whether one agreed with him or not.

My sincere condolences go out to his family, friends and all who knew him.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Dr. Who Fun Day on Worton - Community Spirit Alive and Well


It was at 12.10 this afternoon when I rolled up at the ROWE Community Centre on Isleworth's Worton estate, straight from Church. Usually ten minutes after the start of an event like this little would be going on beyond a few late arrivals hastily setting up their stalls.

And yet the ROWE Fun Day, with its Doctor Who theme, was already in full swing, with many kids outside enjoying the rides and others having their photos taken inside the Community Centre. Teas, coffees, cold drinks and hot dogs were being sold and members of the Committee were walking around the site selling raffle tickets (I was later to win a meal for two but I can assure everyone it was kosher - I'd left by the time the raffle was drawn!).

MC Andrews announces the raffle
______________________________

ICG Committee members Tricia Doran and Cheryl-Ann Khan had set up a stall selling clothes, a tombola and a "prize every time" duck-fishing thing. Another few quid for the group's coffers, always welcome.

Back inside the building I made a new friend (photo to follow as soon as my daughter gets time to show me how to transfer it across).

Even cybermen were welcome at the event
______________________________

Organising a vibrant residents' organisation has always been something of a challenge for the Committee of ROWE (Residents of Worton Estate). There have always been good people there to do the work, but usually just enough of them to achieve critical mass. However, possibly as a defensive reaction to the local political situation, ROWE seems to becoming more proactive and determined than ever before. The dozen or so people who were circulating around the event selling raffle tickets, providing food and drinks and generally marshaling events worked hard, and the very reasonable turnout was just reward for their efforts.

One of the many stalls at the Fun Day
________________________________________

Although I don't actually live on Worton I have a long historical association with the estate. My father was raised in Octavia Road, opposite the Green, and my aunt, uncle and cousins lived there until the middle of the 1990s. As a teenager I would encounter many of the youths from the estate, not always on friendly terms, at the youth club that was held every Monday night in the Hall at Isleworth Congregational, which I now once again attend.

Great food and drinks were on sale in the Community Centre
________________________________________

I feel honoured to have been asked to continue my association with ROWE after ceasing to be a ward councillor in May, and was pleased to have the opportunity to help out around the place today.

Events like this reassure me that the spirit of the community in Isleworth will survive whatever short-term challenges are thrown our way.