Thursday, 25 July 2013

Time for Union Bosses to Get Real

I haven't had much that is positive to say about Labour recently. In Ed Miliband's quarrel with Len McCluskey over candidate selection in Falkirk my instinct is to side with the latter - up to a point. What really is such a big deal about a party with socialist roots fielding a working class candidate selected primarily by working class party members? And why is the presence of a significant working class element in any constituency party automatically considered to be cause for suspicion?

And yet when the Labour leader talks of changing the rules of the relationship with the unions by asking union members who support Labour to opt in rather than expecting those who don't to opt out he is speaking so much good sense.

Perhaps as somebody who is both a trade unionist and a community activist I am biased on this question. But why is it that I am expected to pay a levy towards a party that hates me for what I am and what I do when outside work, just because I happen to be a member of a union when in wage-slave mode? We work for so many hours a day, and do other things with the remainder of our time. Are we all to be classified merely by what we do whilst selling our labour?

The time when I had a duty to support the Labour Party solely by virtue of my being an unskilled worker is very long past. I respect the right of union leaders to support the Labour Party if they so wish, but they have no right to impose their views on me.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

HFTRA's Response to Hounslow Council's £12,000+ Propaganda Mailout

As I explained in my previous article Hounslow Labour's All-Out Assault on Community the London Borough of Hounslow has withheld funding from the Hounslow Federation of Tenants' and Residents' Associations (HFTRA), effectively preventing it from operating.

In the meantime the Lead Member for Housing and Lots of Other Things spared no (public) expense in circulating his version of events to the borough's 24,000 tenants and leaseholders by means of an unnecessarily expensive postal mailout.

Obviously without the benefit of funding HFTRA does not have the means to respond in kind. However I have reproduced below its reply to the Lead Member's allegations, send to elected members and various news media:

Dear Councillor,

Subject: Hounslow Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Association Partnership with London Borough of Hounslow Council

We are writing to you all to appraise you of our serious concerns at decisions that have been made by LBH to withhold grant aid and service support to HFTRA. The rationale and grounds for such decision we are not party too. We are aware of our need to both revisit and develop policies for HFTRA and we are dealing with such matters with the assistance of NFTRA, Community Matters, Council for Voluntary Action, external community development and legal advisers offering pro bono services.

In order to move forward we seek your support to maintain the” status quo” of our organisation in continued grant aid and service support partnership with LBH. This will ensure stability of your primary networking community sector organisation whilst meaningful discussions between LBH and HFTRA take place.

1. HFTRA has had discussions with Cllr Curran in regards to his concerns with our weakness in Financial Management recording. At no time has the London Borough of Hounslow expressed concern of any impropriety. We have agreed the need to have a clear Financial Management Policy and to move from traditional and outmoded Book-keeping to computer programmes appropriate and simple to operate, designed for small lay managed organisations. We looked at the Sage package, but we considered the less onerous package of “Quickbooks” to be best suited.

2. We seek to appraise you of what we understand are issues that it is suggested are included in a decision to withhold grant aid and services. There has never been an opportunity to jointly look at, and address such issues. It seems that LBH require us to become a registered charity particularly so that we are in a better position to bring in grant aid from grant giving charity trusts.

2.1 We were told that a grant would be dependent on our becoming a registered charity.

2.2 We are, as many thousands of local groups, a “voluntary not for profit organisation” but are open to consideration of becoming a charity. However HFTRA is concerned that this could lead to a permanent withdrawal of grant funding by LBH in the future.

2.3 We do consider it to be both wrong and misguided for a local authority to force any organisation to become a registered charity, such major change in structure, management and status bringing with it many onerous duties on lay volunteer trustee managers in the community.

2.4 HFTRA would seek specialist advice from professionals who are knowledgeable on the advantages and disadvantages of becoming a registered charity. They would be very aware of the Charities Act of the 1990’s and the Charities Act 2006. They would know that the simplicity requirements of becoming a registered charity have radically changed.

2.5 As to increasing our ability to bringing in grants because of charity status, everyone needs to be mindful of the financial impact on all sectors of our economy in the devastating Banking and Financial Services led recession. In reports from the Charity Commission the following analysis identifies a general lack of understanding of the impact on charities and charity trust grants:

2.5.1 There has been a major downturn in the annual £2billion in grant trust made by some 7,500 Grant Making Charity Trusts in England and Wales.

2.5.2 Charity Commission surveys show that 59% of charities report having been affected by serious drops in income from absence and growing competition for Charity Trust Grant aid.

2.5.3 It is evidenced that small Community sector lay volunteer managed Charities most often do not have either the resources or skills of the highly sophisticated and complex requirements in applying for grant aid. Grants available are now most often small and certainly not available for core expenditure requirements.

2.5.4 There are grants available to “not for profit organisations” and HFTRA seek the assistance in continued identification of such resources and training support in progressing such applications.

3. It seems that the fact HFTRA is not a registered charity is not in line with a requirement that any grant aid would be contingent on HFTRA becoming a charity. We know nothing of such a LBH policy.

4. It seems to be suggested that as an organisation we have no right to allow other organisations to use the Alf Chandler Centre. Surely, as a community development networking organisation, support to other local primarily voluntary managed community sector is our duty and entirely supportive of respective government policies and LBH Council. We have often been congratulated by LBH for our work.

5. It seems to be suggested that we are in breach of LBH requirements for use of the premises. We would argue that at best we have a common law unwritten Occupation License thus we do not understand how we can be in breach of an unwritten article nor do we understand why after all of our years of service provision as a networking organisation this matter should be raised in this way.

6. It seems to be suggested that our constitution makes no provision for the management of community premises. We are advised that whilst the constitution currently does not have a written objective on Community Premises Management, silence on the matter does not inhibit us legally nor constitutionally from managing community premises.

7. Whilst HFTRA has no formal lease on The Alf Chandler Centre nor a written “Occupation License” nor a written “Community premises Management Agreement” HFTRA management are concerned that this organisation has recently been treated as if invisible and certainly with disrespect. We were not informed or consulted with in regard to the visit to the site from LBH surveyors, you must understand that this has caused some concern, being left outside agendas for the possible re-development of the premises.

HFTRA is aware of the need to return to and develop its “Mission Statement”, Governing Instrument, Policies, management and Training. What we do not understand is why LBH has stepped outside a consultative and partnership approach and decided to remove grant aid and service support to what has been a good partner and previously well respected for its work.

We are sorry for the length of this communication but felt it essential to draw many issues directly to the attention of our Councillors. HFTRA is a strategic “cog” in community development and networking with community sector organisations rather than individual members of the public, the latter being the responsibility of all respective organisations we serve in the network.

We ask all Councillors to consider the matters we have drawn to your attention individually. Whilst HFTRA attempt to achieve wider financial support in advancement of “sustainability”, the removal of the core grant by LBH will herald the demise of the organisation and its services. We ask you to support our request for the “status Quo” in LBH Grant Aid and support services, and a return to a consultative process between partners.

Yours sincerely,

David Cox


Hounslow Labour's All-Out Assault on Community

"In for a penny, in for a pound," goes the old saying. The concept is that if one has decided to commit to a particular outcome in any given situation then one should focus entirely and unrelentingly upon that outcome and not dither along the way.

Hounslow's ruling Labour Group would appear to be embracing this concept with gusto as we approach the local elections of 2014. Not unreasonably confident of a rout in its traditional quarrel with the Tories, Labour has quite clearly decided that the time is right to try to face down what it considers to be its real enemies - the organised community and residents' groups around the borough amongst which the Independent Community Group (ICG) almost certainly enjoys pride of place at the very summit of the hate list.

I have related elsewhere how Hounslow Council's Planning Committee, now safely returned in one piece to the Stone Age under the stewardship of Councillor Ruth Cadbury, eagerly endorsed the decision of the former Lead Member (Councillor Ruth Cadbury) to reject a series of amendments to the statutory Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) which had been drawn up by residents under the auspices of the expanding Group of 15+ and which would have given the SCI real meaning. The amendments had previously been adopted by the Planning Committee when it operated under the leadership of the unusually forward-thinking Labour councillor Theo Dennison.

Following on from this decision we have news that the current Lead Member for Planning, Regeneration, Housing, Celebrity Come Dancing and Virtually Everything Else is seeking to put an end to all formal contact between officers of the Council and G15+ and to replace it with a "forum", chaired by and with terms of reference drawn up by the local authority as opposed to the residents themselves as is presently the case. In other words a classic manifestation of the old "control or destroy" approach that has informed local Labour's relationship with community groups for at least a quarter of a century.

Meanwhile here in Isleworth the message we in the ICG are picking up amounts, essentially, to the old football supporters' invocation to "come and have a go if you think you're hard enough". In particular the threat to Isleworth Public Hall has begun once again to loom large, with sham consultations announced to coincide with the busy holiday period and timed to conclude after a decision has already been taken.

Council turns its guns on tenants

One area in which the gauntlet really has been thrown down is in respect of the 24,000 rented and leasehold properties which are owned by the local authority and managed by Hounslow Homes. Here the various resident groups come together under the umbrella of the Hounslow Federation of Tenants' and Residents' Associations (HFTRA), which has historically received and is entitled to expect funding from within the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) - the account to which rents and leaseholder charges are paid.

It was recently announced by the seemingly all-powerful Lead Member that funding to HFTRA had been withdrawn under what would appear, at least from the outside, to be highly dubious circumstances. A proposed meeting between HFTRA and the Lead Member to discuss the matter was cancelled by the latter as a punishment for HFTRA having the audacity to speak to the local press, although this publicity-shyness did not prevent the Lead Member from exploiting his advantage of office by widely circulating a £12,000+ propaganda mailout attacking HFTRA at the expense of the very tenants it represents.

Battle lines

Shocked and angered though we as a community may be we should at least be grateful that this most authoritarian of Labour administrations is setting out its stall in a more or less honest fashion, leaving absolutely no room for doubt as to where it stands on the question of community empowerment and in so doing clearly defining the battle lines for the forthcoming local elections in those areas in which the community is sufficiently well-organised to be able to make a challenge.

Activists should not fear a "trap" as such, this is simply about Labour trying to deal with its potentially more dangerous enemies in the organised community at a time when its conventional adversaries are at their weakest.

From their perspective it makes sense, but that does not mean it is a challenge we should walk away from. A handful of community, other independent and small party councillors, even operating in opposition to a large Labour majority administration, would set us up nicely for the much more favourable situation that 2018 is likely to present.

Friday, 19 July 2013

A Welcome Break in Ardgour

Not for the first time I found myself with a mountain to climb last week. This time however it was the highest mountain in the United Kingdom, having inexplicably allowed myself to be talked into a trip to Ben Nevis, which Caroline has always wanted to climb in celebration of a certain special birthday.

Thankfully at the time of said birthday, in early April, I wasn't able to get the time off work. This was particularly fortunate as the weather at that time was horrendous even in London, and I did not relish the prospect of trying to ascend Ben Nevis in snow and sub-zero temperatures.

Not that there was much danger of that happening this time around. Having heeded advice to go equipped with several layers of clothing and sundry waterproofs I ended up making the ascent shirtless, in what transpired to be 30-degree heat even at the top of the mountain.

It could have been different though. Having woken up at about 8.00 on an otherwise glorious Tuesday morning we were astounded to look out of the window only to see a heavy mist obscuring our view of more or less everything. Apparently this is quite normal in this part of the world, but had it lingered for half an hour longer than it did we would have been compelled to call off our mission.

As it happens I was surprised to make it to the summit. Although as a family we are quite good at planning events in the abstract, in practice we tend to leave everything to the last minute and travel unprepared. Even on this occasion we left half our water supplies back at the room and forgot to make good the deficit when we arrived at the store which is so conveniently located at the foot of the mountain.

But we did it, somehow, and I owe a big thank you to Caroline for persisting with this mad idea in the face of several unsuccessful attempts by myself to discourage it.

The climb itself occupied only one of four wonderful days in the Highlands. Having flown into Inverness on the first day we took a look around the city before heading off in our hired car to Ardgour (pronounced Ar-gower), which we reached with the aid of a car ferry some eight miles south of Fort William.

We stayed throughout at a marvellous little place called the Inn at Ardgour. I had feared that both the Inn and Ardgour itself would be too remote and unadventurous for our 16-year-old twins, but they loved it every bit as much as we did.

We were very fortunate to have had the weather we did, and I can imagine that Ardgour and indeed much of the region would be somewhat bleak when it is cold, and wet, and covered in snow. One minor disappointment was that I had been looking forward to undertaking my own personal "pub crawl" between the Inn and the Corran Inn, on the opposite side of the ferry crossing, but as fate had it the latter was closed for refurbishment.

All the same I would recommend the Inn at Ardgour to anybody for a nice break away from it all. The food is excellent, the bedrooms are clean and spacious and the hosts (English as it happens) are friendly and welcoming. The location is very much "away from it all", with scenery that is in places quite breathtaking. During our stay we took a pleasant boat cruise on Loch Linnhe, though I suspect the seals and porpoises which adorn their advertising material are as conspicuous by their absence as their monster.

And now, once more, into the breach.

The Summit of the Ben
Joe, Caz and Rosie at the Summit
Leaving Ardgour

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Bringing Out Faith in Humankind

In the short month that has passed since I posted up the article Why Does Labour Want the ICG to Contest the 2014 Local Elections? the organisation has probably received more attention and enquiries than it had done for the previous twelve months.

Reporters have asked to meet us with press photographers in tow, new residents' groups and old ones have been linking up with us, borough-wide bodies representing various interest groups have been keen to establish common ground, and other independents and small parties have looked to discuss strategic alliances or even just to ask for advice.

Of course we are only too aware that, should we decide to run for office again in 2014, no number of alliances or private discussions will benefit us if we don't do the hard but really vital work on the doorsteps. But the volume of telephone calls and e-mails certainly puts paid to any ideas anyone may have had that the ICG is a spent force that can safely be discounted at the ballot box.