May 27, 2014 Leave a comment
After 16 years as a Labour councillor in Blackheath and Westcombe Park, Alex Grant says thank you and goodbye
May 21, 2014 5 Comments
At the local elections on Thursday I’m retiring after 16 years as a Labour councillor in Blackheath and Westcombe Park. I have mixed feelings about stepping down but having just turned 40, and with a young family, I feel it’s time to move on.
Farewell messages from retiring politicians can make turgid reading. Often they’re a final act of spin, trumpeting successes and making excuses for past mistakes. So rather than just go on about what I have done personally, I’ll reflect on how Blackheath Westcombe ward has changed since I was first elected in 1998, what it’s like to represent the area, and the future challenges it faces.
I was first elected for the old Vanbrugh ward in 1998, but in the 2002 boundary changes Vanbrugh was absorbed into the ultra-marginal Blackheath Westcombe ward. Since 2006 I have been the only Labour councillor for the ward (the other two seats are currently held by Conservatives). Blackheath Westcombe ward’s knife-edge election results reflect how mixed the area is, with wealth sitting alongside pockets of poverty. Since I was first elected in 1998, property prices have risen dramatically and it could be argued that the ward has got more gentrified. But as the 2011 census showed, these changes have not benefitted everyone: levels of home ownership have actually fallen, due to the rise of buy-to-let, and less than half of Blackheath Westcombe ward’s residents now live in homes that they own.
The stereotype of Blackheath and Westcombe Park residents as middle-class, white owner-occupiers in well-paid managerial or professional jobs and tuned permanently to Radio Four is, like most stereotypes, wide of the mark. This area is diverse: although 57% of Blackheath Westcombe ward’s adult residents have degrees, less than 70% define their ethnic background as “White UK” and more than a third of households do not own a car. 24% of the ward’s residents now live in private rented accommodation (up from just 16% in 2001) and another quarter – much more than many people think – rent their homes from the council or housing associations.
The Labour council, and the last Labour government, have done much to improve public services in the area over the last 16 years, much of which I can take little personal credit for. Public buildings that were crumbling in 1998 are now refurbished or rebuilt. John Roan and Thomas Tallis schools have flourished, with improving results and excellent headteachers. Both these secondary schools have been rebuilt and hopefully Invicta Primary will follow, though the budget that Michael Gove has allocated for its new building is tight. The council has done much to make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Blackheath Library on Old Dover Road has been refurbished and a new library and leisure centre are now being built on the old hospital site at the bottom of Vanbrugh Hill. Blackheath Westcombe ward has a great community police team, based upstairs from Marks and Spencers at the Royal Standard. Having five or six police officers or PCSOs dedicated to the area has made a huge difference and I hope the team survives the Met police’s ongoing shake-up of neighbourhood policing: back in 1998 there was just one police officer dedicated to Blackheath, who in practice was often called away. Read more of this post
May 15, 2014 4 Comments
Labour’s new proposals to support the nine million people who rent their homes from private landlords would make a real difference in Blackheath and Westcombe Park – where the number of private renters has increased by 50% in the last decade.
With home ownership increasingly out of reach, more and more people now call the private rented sector home and the Tory-led coalition is doing nothing to help make the sector safer, fairer and more affordable.
Labour’s plans, unveiled by Ed Miliband earlier this month, include three-year tenancies (with a six-month probation period), the banning of ‘letting fees’ for tenants, and a cap on rent increases.
The reaction of Tory Party Chairman Grant Shapps – who mocked Labour’s plans as “Venezuelan-style rent controls” – show just how out of touch the Conservatives have become. The Tories have caused a housing crisis in London since 2010: homebuilding is at its lowest level since 1924, London rents are rising at 10% a year, Home ownership levels are falling and the average age of a first-time buyer is, shockingly, 38. More than 55,000 Londoners have been hit by the “Bedroom Tax” and face being forced out of their homes, and Boris Johnson is missing his own targets for building new affordable homes. While Greenwich’s Labour council is doing all it can to put pressure on private developers, this is hampered by cuts in grants for affordable housing: since the coalition started the number of affordable new homes built in Greenwich has plummetted from 1,340 in 2010-11 to 490 in 2011-12 and just 270 in 2012-13.
Police stations closed, police numbers down, crime up: how the Tories are ruining neighbourhood policing
May 14, 2014 1 Comment
The “Safer Neighbourhood” Police teams of six police officers and community support officers in each council ward in London – introduced by Labour Mayor Ken Livingstone in 2006 and widely credited for a sharp fall in crime since then – are now under threat. Police numbers are falling, police stations are closing, there’s more and more centralisation, and the long-term decline in crime levels in London is starting to go into reverse.
Here in Blackheath Westcombe ward we have an excellent police team led by acting sergeant Tom Button and based upstairs from Marks and Spencers on Old Dover Road, at the very heart of the ward it serves. The team is held to account by an active Safer Neighbourhood Panel, with representatives from community groups and neighbourhood watch schemes across the ward, which meets quarterly. Since it started in 2006 Blackheath Westcombe ward’s police team has done a great job at reducing crime, tackling anti-social behaviour at the Royal Standard and elsewhere, giving out advice to householders to prevent their homes and cars being broken into, and recently putting in painted markings around cashpoints at the Royal Standard (the yellow boxes labelled “private” may be unsightly but are very effective: the number of robberies and distraction thefts has fallen to almost nil since they arrived).
Boroughwide, the police and the Labour council work together closely and have jointly funded a Violent and Organised Crime Unit (VOCU) which has helped cut crime in Greenwich by 10.5% from 2007 to 2013 – a faster fall in crime than most other London boroughs. The police, council and other agencies have also started a new project to tackle domestic violence, which is too common in Greenwich and which has not always been tackled as effectively as it should have been.
But after a long period of decline crime has recently started rising again: the Met’s latest figures show that there were 1,640 crimes in Greenwich in March 2014, up 8.5% on February (in Blackheath Westcombe, the increase was even higher: crime rose by 18% from February to March). In both February and March 2014, the number of crimes in Blackheath Westcombe ward was more than double the same two months in 2013.
While it may be unwise to draw too many conclusions from a short-lived rise in crime, it’s time to look at whether Boris Johnson’s decision to cut police numbers, close police stations and centralise many of the Met’s functions is to blame.
Although ward panels can still set three key priorities for their local neighbourhood police team, the “MOPAC seven” London-wide priorities take priority. Under Ken Livingstone, the police defined a “neighbourhood” as a council ward (about 10,000 residents): under Boris, a “neighbourhood” is now at least four wards (40,000-plus residents). Since local police teams were given less flexibility over overtime and shift patterns back in 2010, policing has got a lot less local.
May 10, 2014 3 Comments
Labour’s candidates for Blackheath Westcombe ward – Paul Morrissey, Cherry Parker and Damien Welfare – have started a petition demanding a better deal for passengers during the rebuilding of London Bridge station.
The petition at change.org, which can be signed here, welcomes the rebuilding of the overcrowded and dingy London Bridge station, as it will improve the overall punctuality and reliability of trains into London in the long term.
But the rebuilding will have a major impact on passengers using Westcombe Park, Maze Hill, Blackheath and Kidbrooke stations: between 2015 and 2018, many trains will pass through London Bridge without stopping. As a result many passengers will need to drastically alter their journeys, starting from different stations and using buses and tube trains to reach their destinations.
May 9, 2014 3 Comments
So now we know the line-up: the OnBlackheath music festival being held on the Heath on September 13-14 will be headlined by Massive Attack, Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls, Imelda May, and the Levellers.
Up to 30,000 people are expected to come and enjoy a weekend of music, a Kid’s Stage, a farmer’s market, Street & Fringe Theatre, ‘Walkabout Entertainment’ and a ‘Food Village’ featuring Gizzi Erskine’s Chefs Club, at the western end of the Heath just south of the A2.
This festival, sponsored by John Lewis and promoted by the legendary Harvey Goldsmith, has had a long and controversial birth: in 2011 the Blackheath Society unsuccessfully challenged the license it had been granted by Lewisham Council in the courts. Originally due to be held in the midst of the Olympics, it has been postponed twice, from 2012 to 2013 and then again to 2014. Greenwich councillors have expressed concern to Lewisham Council (on whose side of the heath OnBlackheath will take place) about potential noise problems and the cumulative impact of OnBlackheath taking place in September, shortly after the Good Hope Festival, which was to be held on the Heath on 2-3 August. Although the Good Hope Festival was granted a license in March, its organisers announced in April that it would be postponed until 2015.
The OnBlackheath Festival had aroused more concern than the Good Hope Festival had. Some local people regret Lewisham’s decision to grant a commercial music festival a license in the first place, although others welcome southeast London’s first major music festival.
There’s a big difference between the commercial OnBlackheath (which is promoted by Harvey Goldsmith and sponsored by the John Lewis Partnership) and the Good Hope festival, which is organised by the Jimmy Mizen Foundation, set up in honour of Jimmy Mizen, a teenager who was tragically murdered in Lee in 2008.
But whether we like it or not OnBlackheath is definitely now going ahead. Following discussions with the organisers the Blackheath Society is now largely happy with the way the event is being planned, and Lewisham has attached a number of new conditions: no more than 15,000 people can attend each day (the organisers orginally wanted 25,000), noise reaching nearby homes can’t be any higher than 70 decibels, everyone must go home by 1030pm, and no alcohol will be served after 930pm. A recent Blackheath Society statement says that the society is now “looking forward to being part of the process taking this event forward, engaging constructively with London Borough of Lewisham on the detailed plans (which we are still awaiting) and addressing local residents’ concerns.” The society adds that they are pleased that there is “a commitment to a full review” after the festival closes.
May 2, 2014 1 Comment