Friday, 31 December 2010

Those were the days

As the final hours of 2010 tick away and we prepare ourselves for an evening of merriment, followed just a few hours later by the cold realisation that we have entered another uncertain year, I am chilled by the knowledge that something truly terrible is about to happen.

Something about which no new administration at the council, coalition government nor even Santa can do anything. Something more terrible than the rising National Debt, student fees or the prospect of Boney M topping the first New Year chart on a wave of sympathy.

On a certain fateful day during the latter part of this coming year, 2011, I will be fifty.

That is 5-0 folks. Half a century.

I often find myself reflecting rather too deeply upon these things. Fifty years before I was born the First World War, let alone the Second, had not yet even begun. We had still to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Waterloo. Winston Churchill, at 36, was little more than a lad. The Russian Revolution was six years away, the March On Rome - which was to set in motion a train of events culminating in the horrors of World War Two - eleven.

Even the day when I was born seems such an eternity away. Churchill was still alive. The Beatles had just been formed but nobody had yet heard of them. Her Maj had been on the throne for less than a decade. Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister. England had yet to win the World Cup. Most of McFly's parents had probably not even been born.

I used to tell my kids that until I was about ten the whole world was in black in white. They still don't believe me when I tell them that we had only three television channels to choose from and that it all finished at about 10.30 at night with the playing of the National Anthem followed by a white noise and a fading spot of light in the centre of the screen.

I cuss when the disco boy arrives on my estate at three o'clock in the morning, car windows wound down in the height of winter so as to enable the entire neighbourhood to share in the delights of his repetitive, crappy "music". Then I find myself wondering whether I have started to become my father, who used to come up to my room and shout at me whenever I played my Slade, Sweet or that bloke whose name we're no longer allowed to mention at a volume that he considered excessive.

For many years I've told myself that I'll see the world, get some security and a decent roof over our heads, things that normal people think about doing when they are in their twenties. Sadly when I was at that age I was clowning around involving myself in extremist politics, which even when I had renounced it led in turn to a "career" in community activism which, whilst entirely fulfilling, has kept me and my family in poverty in a way to which even my very closest friends appear utterly oblivious.

I don't feel fifty. Twenty years or so ago I would walk over to the gym at Isleworth Recreation Centre and would feel really freaked out when I saw men in their forties and fifties working out on the weights. One of the guys whom I used to feel this way about is still at it, in his mid-seventies. I don't know whether people are just staying young for longer, or whether my view of what constitutes an "old" person has changed instinctively as I head relentlessly towards becoming one myself.

Some people try to reassure me that 50 is but a number. Most of them, being over that age themselves, could be said to have a vested interest in believing that. But I find myself looking at some of them and thinking, well, he or she may be 51 or 52 but now I think of it they don't look that old.

But then maybe a person of 100 won't look that old when I am 99? In the extremely unlikely event...

I probably spend too much time thinking about these things. But what is inescapable is the fact that time "accelerates" the older one becomes. When I was fifteen I would think back to things that happened when I was fourteen that seemed to belong to some blissful, bygone age. Now whole decades seem to pass by in the blinking of an eye.

If you are a youngster and you are reading this, please take my advice and use your time wisely. Get some security behind you and then, if you like, set the world to rights. If only because you will then be in a stronger position to do so.

If however you are an old-timer like myself then you'll have all the time in the world to read blogs, write your memoirs and plan out your career.

If, like me, you've ever wondered why 17-year-olds with their first car whizz around fearlessly like there is no tomorrow whilst old people at the wheel trundle nervously along the middle of the road like they have all the time in the world you will appreciate the paradox that is modern life.

Happy New Year.

Charity chief warns cuts could 'kill off' Big Society

Reproduced with acknowledgements to BBC News

A leading charity figure has warned David Cameron that the pace of cuts could "kill off" the groups he needs to build his "Big Society".

Community Links co-founder David Robinson was invited to Downing St in May to discuss the social policy idea.

But in an open letter he urged the PM to "allow us to draw breath" and phase in plans to remove Legal Aid funding.

The government said charities could not be immune from cuts but it aimed to open up new funding sources.

Mr Cameron has championed the concept of the "Big Society", which encourages greater personal and family responsibility and community activism.

Community Links, an east London-based charity which provides welfare services, such as housing and debt advice, employment support and youth clubs, was praised by Mr Cameron as an "inspiring" organisation.

Mr Robinson was among charity representatives invited to Downing Street to discuss it with the PM and Deputy PM Nick Clegg after the general election.

In his letter, he said he admired the prime minister's "big hearted vision" and respected his "clear sighted perseverance" in pursuing it.

But he said he was worried about the impact of spending cuts and that organisations like his, which should be the "bedrock of the Big Society", were "wobbling".

Legal Aid

Mr Robinson drew particular attention to changes to Legal Aid and the New Deal which, he said, put most of Community Links' budget for 2011-12 at risk.

With big changes to the welfare system due to come in, he said the government had acknowledged there would be initial confusion - and expected agencies like his to provide support.

"Removing legal aid funding for advice on welfare benefits will wipe out agencies who would otherwise resolve these problems and there is next to no chance of local councils picking up the tab when most are stopping funding, not increasing it," he said.

He said many of the disadvantaged - particularly the elderly - would instead struggle on until they reached crisis point - illness or eviction.

Warning against a "barrage of uncoordinated cuts that hit the poorest hardest" he urged the PM to phase in planned cuts and do a "serious and urgent impact assessment", giving groups more time to adjust. He proposed allowing Legal Aid to support groups giving advice until welfare reforms were "bedded down".

"Allow us to draw breath or you will kill off the agencies you need to build the society you seek," he said.

"You've staked your political future on the prospect of a stronger, more compassionate society. Don't let your own government's policies undermine it."

'Appalling financial mess'

Plans for a Big Society Bank were announced by the prime minister in July. The independent organisation would help generate income for voluntary groups and social enterprises, using funding from money reclaimed from dormant bank accounts - the aim was to have it established by April 2011.

Mr Robinson said £5bn was needed for the sector, not including the unclaimed assets, to fund preventative work with people "at risk" from social problems.

The Cabinet Office said Britain was "in an appalling financial mess" and charities and social enterprises "cannot be immune from the necessary reductions in spending".

But a spokesman said: "Despite having had to take difficult decisions, the government is determined to open up new sources of funding for charities and voluntary groups to give them independence from state hand-outs and cut away the red tape that holds them back.

"The Big Society Bank will use money from dormant bank accounts to help capitalise the sector and we have worked quickly to open up a £100m short-term fund to help charities and voluntary groups through this transition period."

He added that a total of £470m would be invested in the four years to 2014-15 to support charities and voluntary groups and money would be "targeted where it is needed most" - including a £50m Community First Fund for the most deprived areas and, £10m to match fund private donations.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Merry Christmas Everybody

I would like to wish all this blog's visitors, readers and contributors a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Evans Above!

When I was first elected to Hounslow Council on 7th May 1998 as a community councillor there were a number of individuals who tried to make capital from the fact that I had been a member of the National Front back in the 1970s and 1980s.

Of course having a history as a senior activist in a fascist party is a cause for concern, but only if there is any reasonable suspicion that the ex-activist in question still holds views of that kind. My renunciation over several years of racist and fascist opinions on the other hand had been very, very unambiguous and very, very public. Anybody who knew me even at that time knew full well that by 1998 I was about as far removed from being a racist or a fascist as it was possible to be.

This is precisely why most of my critics emerged from within the ranks of those people who didn't know me. And this in turn is the reason why I had, and still have, no respect for those individuals who tried to use my history either for political advantage, or just for a soundbite.

Amongst the ranks of the latter was the broadcaster Chris Evans, who for some reason best known to himself felt the need to express an opinion on the "real" views of somebody he had never met and about whom he knew absolutely nothing.

I am not a person who particularly holds grudges, but try as I have I have found it difficult to like this talentless, pointless and opinionated pillock ever since his completely unnecessary intervention in the political discourse of a borough he had nothing to do with and which he had probably never even set foot in.

So when he appeared tonight on a live celebrity version of the excellent TV Quiz Show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? I braced myself for two and a half minutes of undiluted embarassment, and the ginger whinger did not disappoint.

However even I didn't expect a radio disc jockey to fail on a question about the lyrics of a hugely successful Christmas song, Fairytale Of New York.

After having asked the audience which words followed "And the boys from the NYPD choir were singing...", and after having been told by 69% of said audience that the correct answer was "Galway Bay", he then decided the plebs obviously didn't know what they were talking about and instead went 50/50.

Needless to say he went out on the following question, having raised just £1000.

Sad though I feel for his charity of choice, I do feel strangely reassured by the fact that the man who made some inane and ill-informed references to me on his radio show over twelve years ago is still just as big a moron today.

Apparently this waste of space celebrates his birthday on April 1st. Why am I not surprised?

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

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The dilemma of having a nuclear option without a gun

Of all the big party politicians (that's big parties, not necessarily big politicians) my favourite by some margin is Dr. Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for nearby Twickenham and currently the government's Business Secretary.

Not only is he a brilliant economist and a political big player by anybody's standards, but the man also has a likable manner, exudes honesty and integrity and generally comes across, in the simplest of parlance, as being "a nice bloke".

It is not only his televisual persona that persuades me of this. I have met Vince Cable on a few occasions, chatted to him in Marble Hill Park when I happened upon him on a family outing, and also had the chance to exchange a few brief words when he came to offer local residents his support at two brief public gatherings outside West Middlesex Hospital and Mogden Sewage Works earlier this year.

What really warmed me to him on those occasions was his very genuine humility. The body language was that of somebody who considered himself to be a guest on our turf and, whilst of course not deferential, his manner was respectful in a "thanks for inviting me into your living room" kind of way.

It didn't have to be like that of course. A man of his political stature could have strutted into focus, stood in front of the residents who had gathered to meet him with a pretentious "look at me" kind of grin as the cameras clicked away, then hopped into a big black car and been whisked off with an insincere royal wave to his next photo opportunity. Let's face it, it's been done in these parts before and not so very long ago.

Instead once the formal business had been done he hung around and chatted to ICG members every bit as much as to his own party folk who had turned out for him.

Today it would seem he is to be found wiping a little egg from his face. Not in the literal sense in the manner of a John Prescott or a Nick Griffin, but egg of a metaphorical kind following a report in the Daily Telegraph that he has allegedly made comments to the effect that he has the power to bring the coalition down and could walk away should the relationship between his party and the Conservatives begin to go rotten.

His exact comments, which he seems to admit to having made, include the following:

“Can I be very frank with you ... I have a nuclear option, it’s like fighting a war. They know I have nuclear weapons, but I don’t have any conventional weapons. If they push me too far then I can walk out of the Government and bring the Government down and they know that.”

Speaking personally, I don't feel there is anything particularly dishonourable about what Dr. Cable has said.

I can of course understand why, as a member of the government, he is a tad embarrassed. But my immediate feeling was one of "I know just how the man feels".

Not that I am making a comparison of scale or importance between the coalition of which I and the ICG were a part when managing Hounslow and the one that governs our country today, naturally. But whilst the scale might be vastly different, the principle remains the same. It is a peculiar feeling indeed to have at one's disposal the means to cause a nuclear explosion without being in possession of the necessary tools to swat a troublesome fly.

I have related before how the senior officer team during the 2006-2010 coalition administration in Hounslow was mobilised to action the demands of the senior coalition partner and to frustrate those of the junior partner (the ICG). Whether this situation was deliberately inspired by our partners, or whether it was officer-driven insubordination that our partners simply ignored, is largely immaterial. Historically speaking the only fact worthy of record is that it happened.

It was 12-18 months before the local elections that the first signs of this bad faith began to make itself obvious to us. It was probably less than twelve months before we went to the polls when it had become a problem of such magnitude that ICG members began to speak openly of walking away.

We had the nuclear option, and more than once we considered using it. We knew our partners were desperate to deliver a fourth 0% budget in 2010, a few months before a general election at which they had high hopes on both a constituency and a national level. We knew we could damage these hopes and dent our partners' aspirations within the borough.

On the other hand we had a responsibility to those who had elected us to exercise power wherever we could. We were making some good progress in our own backyard, and on the Area Committee, in spite of the quite brazen and blatant non co-operation of the Environment Department at and between its meetings.

My colleague Paul Fisher had just completed a year on the Executive in which he had performed magnificently and had every reason to look forward to a second. Another colleague, Jon Hardy, had just joined the same body and both I and he were keen to showcase his undoubted talents. Call it poor leadership if you will, but it just did not seem right to me to pull them away in their prime, and that is even assuming I could have done so.

As the months rolled on the nuclear deterrent failed increasingly to deter. The closer the election came, the more cynical it would have appeared to have pulled out. Chief officers made noises to the effect that it was all a misunderstanding and that they would like to talk through our difficulties with us, although clearly they were simply playing for time and we knew that was the case. If I had had a political pistol I could have held it to certain people's heads and had a good chance of achieving some justice. But all I had was a nuclear trigger which, if detonated, would have blown us up along with the quarry.

Fortified by the belief that the local elections of 2010 would once again result in No Overall Control and that there was a good chance we would be in a position to return to the negotiating table with a much stronger hand than we had played before, we let it ride. In the meantime our partners and the chief officers both impatiently counted the days until the election of the Conservative majority administration they both assumed was on the cards had come about.

In the event of course we had miscalculated, and our partners had miscalculated even more so. The rest is history, but valuable lessons have been learnt.

In the meantime I find myself reflecting upon the fate of the Liberal Democrats in the current government coalition. The equivalent situation, I suppose, would be the Civil Service openly undermining the Lib Dems but I don't think the comparison is an exact one. There is too much scrutiny around the place for this to be permitted to happen.

Instead the Fifth Column the Lib Dems need to be looking over their shoulders at is, in my view, the national press. There is a strong Conservative bias in these circles and, if the same tricks are used against the Lib Dems as were used against us, this is whence the real poison will come.

It would appear that the big man from Twickenham was deliberately set up by the guttersnipes of the Telegraph. It is going to be a long four years.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Axeman Cometh

We are fast approaching that time when the London Borough of Hounslow delivers its budget for the coming year. In early March 2011 Borough Council will debate and vote upon a series of proposals that will, it hopes, enable it to reduce the local authority's annual spending by £18m. Inevitably valuable provision will be cut and the public will see a reduction in the services it receives.

The Axeman is an avowedly non-party political being. Up until 2006 he slashed services under a Labour administration, causing much angst as he closed John Aird House (a residential care home in Brentford), threatened to privatise vital health care services and hacked £1m in a single blow from the Education budget at a time when monies provided by the government for that very purpose were not ring-fenced. I attended more than one demonstration against what appeared to me to be acts of almost gratuitous inhumanity.

Then in 2006 a new administration took office of which the Independent Community Group (ICG) was a part. Almost immediately our Conservative coalition partners announced the launch of a drastic cost-cutting initiative called the Performance Improvement Programme (PIP) and declared its intention to freeze Council Tax levels, which we generally supported and between us actually managed to do for four years in a row. But there were casualties, not least the Hounslow Language Service, and from opposition Labour opposed many of the savings made by the coalition Axeman, campaigning against cuts in public services as we ourselves had done in opposition.

Now Labour is back in office, and the Axeman is once again playing for the team in red. Granted the impetus for the drastic programme of cuts upon which Hounslow is about to embark comes from central government and its savage Comprehensive Spending Review, but nonetheless the Labour administration has to deal with the same reality as the coalition administration before it and the old Labour administration before that. That reality is that the level of central government support for local councils declines year upon year no matter who is in charge at the Exchequer.

What happens at the stage we are at now is that Lead Members will have asked Chief Officers to identify potential savings in their own departments. Some of those suggested savings are included in this document, which will be discussed by the Executive next week.

The flaw in this process, and which has always been the case, is that Chief Officers will invariably identify those savings that they themselves are comfortable with, and omit those that they are not. For instance, rarely if at all will Lead Members be presented with a proposal to reduce Chief Officer salaries, or to merge departments so as to reduce their number. Unless the Lead Member is unusually hands-on, he or she will almost always accept the options presented as being the only ones realistically available.

The ICG has not had the opportunity to formally discuss these proposals as yet, but what I imagine will concern my colleagues in particular are the various implied assaults on local democracy. In particular the suggestion that Area Committees could be abolished or curtailed. My guess is that these were probably amongst the first proposals to have been mooted by certain of our Chief Officers and I would be surprised if much sleep was lost as they found their way onto the list.

It would be tempting, of course, to consider Area Committees as a luxury by comparison with frontline services to the really needy such as Older People or Children's Services. By that logic we might just as well do away with elections to the council as well - the potential saving involved would be considerable.

But the whole rationale of local government is that it enjoys a democratic mandate. This is precisely why elected members, as opposed to the more "expert" officers, are ultimately responsible for making decisions. Once that principle has been compromised we are embarked upon a journey down a very slippery slope with no handbrake. One cannot put a price on democracy.

I am also concerned by the suggestion that local community centres may be cut adrift. Sure, I do note from the document that the need for local community groups to be given time to build the capacity to take them over is acknowledged, but knowing as I do the complete lack of interest in resident involvement or even opinion that exists in certain departments there is little doubt in my mind that, were such a proposal to be taken up, our community centres would be abandoned with indecent haste and indeed closed down as soon as it was felt it could be got away with.

This is not about empowering communities, this is about certain senior officers seizing a perceived opportunity to remove themselves forever from meaningful public scrutiny.

These are difficult times, and I am reluctant to try to score points by blaming the current administration for the predicament it finds itself in (although it has to be said, under the circumstances, that some of the ruling party's election promises were reckless to say the least - everyone knew there would be cuts whoever triumphed at the general election). However I do believe that the organised community must lobby hard to protect itself from any attempt to use government cuts as a convenient excuse for curtailing its freedoms and its ability to organise.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Isleworth residents brave the cold

There was a fairly good crowd at the annual Carols in The Square event, organised by The Isleworth Society (of which I am proud to be a Life Member), in Old Isleworth last night despite the treacherous cold. The Mayor of the London Borough of Hounslow, Councillor Colin Ellar, was there and stayed until the end in spite of the weather.

After the event my ICG colleagues Paul and Shirley Fisher and I had the opportunity of a long chat over a pleasant drink with two of Isleworth's three ward councillors (Councillor Mindu Bains has by all accounts suffered a dislocated shoulder after a fall, I wish her a speedy recovery).

It was really useful to get a perspective from the new administration, and in particular to see how these two "newbies" were settling in to their respective roles. It is clear that they are both very keen to succeed and to do a good job on behalf of their constituents, and my feeling is that they will succeed in spite of the difficult situation in which the new administration finds itself with the central government cutbacks.

All in all a good, constructive evening on every front.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Some boom amid the gloom

Andrew Stunell: "The Localism Bill presents a lot of positive news for local government. We are devolving power back to local authorities, communities, and individual people up and down the country. Lib Dems have long campaigned for power to flow from the bottom-up not top-down. The “Man in Whitehall” doesn’t know best, and the publication of the Localism Bill marks the end of Labour’s top-down presumption they know more than local people about how their area should be run."

Andrew Stunell is the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Communities and Local Government. The above is reproduced with acknowledgements to Liberal Democrat Voice.

Monday, 13 December 2010

D'oh! (Part two)

Now that I've discovered how to set the text size on this new Blogger format, I'm going back to Trebuchet.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Q: When is a racist not a racist? A: When he is in your party

Liberal Democrat MP Mark Hunter has challenged Ed Miliband to condemn the racially divisive tactics used by Phil Woolas in his General Election campaign in Oldham East and Saddleworth.

Mark Hunter said:

“It is becoming more and more apparent as the weeks pass that Ed Miliband just doesn’t have the clout within his party to show some leadership and admit that Woolas was wrong. If he did he’d be shot down in flames by other Labour MPs.

“I was genuinely shocked that Miliband didn’t make a statement as soon as he became leader that this sort of racially divisive politics will not be tolerated.

“For him to then make the monumental misjudgement of appointing Woolas to his frontbench team speaks volumes.

“If Labour is to draw a line under this scandal, then Ed Miliband needs to shout from the rooftops that the kind of campaigning used by Phil Woolas - intended to ‘get the white folk angry’ - can never again be any part of Labour politics.

Reproduced with acknowledgements to

Saturday, 4 December 2010


This made me laugh:

A trail of footprints in the snow led police to catch a burglar shivering in a bush.

The 17-year-old was spotted by a homeowner stealing a bicycle from a garage in Sutton, south London.

Police noticed his footprints and followed them for several streets until they found him cowering under frozen foliage.

The officers then followed the trail back - to discover several other garages had been targeted.

Insp Colin Baker, of Sutton Police, said: "This burglar left great big footprints for officers to follow.

"So, despite the difficult weather conditions, officers were able to track him down, following the tracks in the snow."

The teenager was arrested on suspicion of burglary at about 0300 GMT on Friday and was released on bail pending further inquiries.

It is not the first time snow has helped police in Sutton defeat criminals.

Two teenagers were caught stealing electronic goods from a garage in January after officers followed their footprints.

Reproduced with acknowledgements to BBC News.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

United in celebrating a wonderful community effort

Two years ago, when my father Ron in his capacity as Poppy Organiser for the Isleworth Royal British Legion organised a social evening to thank those who had sold poppies, not even the lure of a free bar persuaded more than about seven or eight people to come out and join in the celebration.

However last Saturday scores of people came out to the Legion to enjoy a great evening at which it was announced that in 2010, for the first time, the local community had collected over £22,000 for the Poppy Appeal. Two Isleworth ward councillors joined us and stayed for most of the evening (certain of them had helped us to collect money outside supermarkets in the build-up to Remembrance Sunday), and the Mayor made a welcome speech before himself joining local community activists at the bar for a drink and a pleasant chat.

There is nothing to be feared or ashamed of on the part of people in positions of office supporting and encouraging community-led activity such as this. Everybody wants to do well by those who have given their lives, those who have suffered injury, their families and their loved ones.

This year, once again, I like to think the community did those people proud, and we are very grateful and appreciative for having received the support of all those who gave up their free time to help.