Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Community - Just How Far Has Hounslow Moved?

Today I was asked by two very prominent and influential members of the active community in Isleworth whether the Independent Community Group (ICG) would once again be fielding candidates at the next local elections in May 2014.

It’s not the first time that I have been asked this question in recent weeks, but the answer I gave them was the same as I have given to others who have inquired from a less favourable perspective. That answer is that it is not my decision to make and, to the best of my knowledge, those whose decision it will be have yet to make it. And that it is the very truth.

It was a useful and constructive meeting over coffee and cakes. For the most part we discussed the wider question of community involvement, the differing attitudes towards it between various individual councillors, and between councillors in general and officers. I would like to stress that it was noted in particular that one councillor – Theo Dennison (Syon) – has quite consistently demonstrated what we all believe to be a really sincere commitment to the cause of our community’s emancipation and would appear to have paid the price within his own party for doing so.

Theo was one of three local councillors whom I got the opportunity to speak to last Sunday after the fantastically well-supported Remembrance Day Parade in Isleworth. The others were Ed Mayne and, more briefly, Sue Sampson. Both Ed and Sue have been very supportive of the Isleworth Royal British Legion and of the efforts of the local Branch to raise funds for the Poppy Appeal each year. I understand that the third Isleworth ward councillor, Mindu Bains, was representing the Mayor at another parade on the same day.

I have been disappointed that in spite of the obvious goodwill that exists amongst all concerned our efforts to heal old wounds and eradicate any lingering divisions remain hampered by the self-centred activities of an outsider to the ward (and to the borough) about whom I have written previously. In spite of Theo’s optimistic pleas to the contrary, this man retains the ear of some of our elected members, and has clearly been the driving force behind some of the negative activity, at least in Isleworth ward, which has taken place since the 2010 local elections and which is quite obviously designed to scupper any attempt by us to try to find an honourable consensus with our current elected members. In the words of one councillor with whom I spoke a few weeks back, “we can’t let him go”.

As I have said before, it is not this ridiculous man that is important but the relationship and the reaction of others to him. Isleworth councillors may have binned a particularly poisonous and defamatory post-election leaflet after having second thoughts once a relatively small number had gone out, but by whose authority is an outsider producing such material in the name of our local Labour Party and what were councillors thinking of by even venturing to deliver them in the first place? How can the strategic direction of a group of intelligent and enthusiastic new councillors reasonably be influenced, in whole or even in part, by the consistently ill-informed and irrational prejudices of an unelected individual from another borough who shows serious signs of mental and emotional imbalance?

But when all is said and done it would be wrong to base our whole approach on the self-serving activities of one obscure individual. We need to take a wider view. We need, above everything else, to consider how the current administration at the London Borough of Hounslow is dealing with the question of Community Engagement, and to do so in recognition of the fact that past election defeats at the hands of the organised community and the “threat” of an ICG electoral resurgence is likely if anything to artificially distort the Labour regime’s current approach to the subject in a more pro-community direction than might otherwise have been the case.

Or to put it another way – if they are not “doing it” now, what chance is there that they will be doing it when and if, to adopt an Irish analogy, the ICG has decommissioned its electoral weapons?

I have already related how long-time Brentford councillor Ruth Cadbury, still a hugely influential figure within the Labour Group, quite shamelessly attempted to take the credit for her party for a commitment of funds to the St. John’s Community Centre in Isleworth which had been made by the ICG when we were in office and which she and her party had actually voted against.

This morning (Tuesday) I am advised that Councillor Colin Ellar, now once again Deputy Leader of Hounslow Council, regaled amused residents’ leaders at a community event with his account of how the current council leadership is supporting them (whilst trying to corral them under his party’s strategic leadership of course) and the previous administration wasn’t. There can surely be nothing more perverse than a Hounslow Labour politician pleading that an administration in which the ICG took the lead on Communities was less of a friend to organised residents than one in which he and the likes of Councillor Cadbury are involved!

Overall, Councillor Dennison excepted, I have to say I do not see an administration champing at the bit to relinquish its power to the residents’ associations and amenity groups, to the voluntary organisations and the civic societies. Its continued coolness towards the ICG even after we had offered the hand of friendship is in itself testimony to this. I don’t think I am assuming too much of a sense of our own importance when I aver that an administration that truly wanted to embrace the community ideal would have reacted to the new reality that followed the 2010 local elections by seeking to incorporate our knowledge and experience – if only to neutralise a potential rival – rather than by circulating scurrilous leaflets commenting on the private financial affairs of individual ICG members and making wholly false claims about alleged holiday homes. By these actions they simply made it clear that it was the whole community concept, rather than just our organisation, with which they felt they had an issue.

I must confess I feel my scepticism became apparent to the two community champions as I sipped my medium Americano with a small dash of milk. We regretted the abolition of the Area Committees and the reclamation of planning powers by officers. We shared a sense of dismay over the loss of the Brentford Festival to the borough, and over the administration’s instinctive response to the news by trying to blame their predecessors rather than dedicating their efforts towards reversing this sorry and quite unacceptable situation.

This evening I received a document from a community leader in another part of the borough referring to the local authority’s “Statement of Community Exclusion” (it is supposed to read “Involvement”). I know what he meant.

I recognise, of course, that if the ICG is involved in the 2014 local elections it is compelled to contest those areas in which it has a reasonable chance of success, and that in so doing the councillors we will be trying to knock out will not necessarily be those with whom we have much of a quarrel. This is regrettable, even a tad ironic, but sadly unavoidable. With a bit of luck they will be able to find safer seats elsewhere, as others have done rather than face us in the past.

Nevertheless I feel that unless an unambiguous sign is forthcoming shortly from Labour (and it has to be Labour, as they are in office) that real Community Empowerment and not more inane political gamesmanship is on the agenda the ICG’s committee should take the plunge and commit to continued involvement in the electoral process in a once and for all conclusion of sadly unfinished business.