Labour offers a fairer deal to those renting their homes privately

To Let signLabour’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.

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Police stations closed, police numbers down, crime up: how the Tories are ruining neighbourhood policing

PolicingThe “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).

Privacy markings around cashpoints at the Royal Standard: unsightly but effective at cutting crime

Privacy markings around cashpoints at the Royal Standard: unsightly but effective at cutting crime

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.

Our local police are currently based on Old Dover Road - but for how much longer?

Our local police are currently based on Old Dover Road – but for how much longer?

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.

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TFL gives a masterclass in how not to repair a motorway bridge

CIMG2373Transport for London has just put up ugly temporary fences on both sides of the Old Dover Road and Charlton Road bridges over the A102 – without consulting or notifying local residents or councillors, and with no regard to the impact on local views.

And now TFL can’t even say how long the fences will be up, what work is to be carried out behind them, and how high the bridges’ railings will be once work is complete.

According to one nearby resident, the new fences “look ugly, look scary, ruin the view and make you feel that you are in prison”. Another resident describes them simply as “hideous”. “Monstrosities,” says another.

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Charlton Road shows how cycling can be made easier and safer

CIMG2376Good to see that work by Greenwich’s Labour council to widen the cycle lanes on Charlton Road (and move parking bays so lanes are no longer blocked by parked cars) is almost complete, making cycling between Blackheath Standard and Charlton a lot easier and safer.

Greenwich has not got as many cyclists, or cycle lanes, as London boroughs like Hackney and Lambeth but this is changing. A new Cycling Strategy, agreed by the council’s cabinet earlier this month, includes an ambitious Action Plan for a new network of cycle lanes and Greenways including a new east-west route along Kidbrooke Gardens and Westbrook Road, making Kidbrooke Park Road safer for cyclists, and a new north-south cycle route parallel with Westcombe Hill (exact route yet to be decided).

The percentage of all journeys done by bike has tripled from 1% in 2005 to an estimated 2.9% now. The strategy sets a target to increase this to above 5% by 2025, and to double the percentage of adults cycling weekly from 7% in 2010 to 16% in 2020. Thanks to new cycle lanes and a lot of training in schools cycling has already got a lot safer: the number of cyclist injuries in Greenwich halved between 1999 and 2011. And according to maps included in the strategy’s ‘Evidence Base’, residents of Blackheath Westcombe ward are already cycling more, and are more likely to take up cycling, than most other wards. Read more of this post

New pools and library at Greenwich Square on schedule to open in spring 2015

Greenwich Square - CGI

Along with other councillors I visited the development site at the bottom of Vanbrugh Hill – Greenwich Square – last week to see the new swimming pools and library being built there along with a new health centre, shops and 645 new homes.

Like many developments that were conceived before the financial crash – plans were first drawn up for the site in 2006 and submitted to the council in 2007 – this one has been a long time coming. The development was given planning consent in 2008 but stalled when the developer First Base walked away in 2010, and after the incoming Government cut funds for affordable housing on the site it was difficult to make the development viable. But the plans were then modified, a new development consortium (Hadley Mace) was brought in in 2012 and work finally started on site later that year.Greenwich Square cgi

The good news is that the scheme has been kept alive with only minor changes to Make Architects‘ original plans, and 150 of the new homes will be available to local people at genuinely affordable rents (not Boris Johnson’s definition of “affordable” – 80% of market rents). Make are a great architectural practice founded in 2004 by Ken Shuttleworth, who had formerly been a partner at Norman Foster’s firm, and I am glad their design has not been dumbed down.

Local people could be forgiven for having forgotten the promise of the Greenwich Centre – a new library and leisure centre on the site, to replace East Greenwich Library and the Arches: the scheme has not been well publicised beyond its immediate neighbours so far.

New swimming pool at Greenwich SquareBut work is now progressing rapidly and the new public building going up on the corner of Vanbrugh hill and Woolwich Road, containing the library, leisure centre and a council “contact centre” alongside a new public square, has been topped out. While there is some affection for the Arches and East Greenwich Library, I hope the new building can prove that public services can be as well-built in the twenty-first century as in the twentieth, and be easier to maintain and adapt to future demands.

Elsewhere on the site the first 36 housing units – affordable homes to rent through L&Q housing association – are almost completed and are being handed over in April. A small Sainsbury’s on the site will open in July. A gym, dance studio, 25-metre Fitness poll, a 20-metre learning pool, creche and an 820 square metre library – three times bigger than the current East Greenwich Library – should be handed over to the council in November 2014 and open by the end of March 2015. A new NHS health centre, which will replace the Vanbrugh Health centre operating at the southern end of the site, will also open upstairs from the library next spring, and all the housing on the site should be completed by 2018.

Unlike many PFI developments, the council will have control of these buildings through a 999 year lease, and a seat on the management company that will own the freehold of the site.

Swimming pools under construction at Greenwich Square

The council now needs to seek appropriate new uses for the (locally listed) Arches building and the East Greenwich library building (which is statutorily listed), which will be replaced in spring 2015 by these new facilities. I would be keen to hear local people’s thoughts about how they should find a sustainable future (Blackheath Library on Old Dover Road, which was refurbished and had its opening hours extended in 2010, won’t be affected).

Deep within the site we were shown the two new pools under construction – the larger one is under a wooden hoarding but the smaller children’s pool is beginning to look like somewhere you could swim in (the steps into it are already in place). It is already just possible to imagine what the pools will look like when they are open (compare the computer-generated image above with the photo of the same part of site under construction below). The new library will be upstairs, in a prominent position right on the crossroads of Vanbrugh Hill and Woolwich Road. Read more of this post

TFL’s Sun-in-the-Sands adverts given the go-ahead

Sun in Sands from north - showing ad position

This is the view that drivers will have from the A102 later this year. Despite objections from local Labour councillors, the Blackheath and Westcombe societies  and the Greenwich Conservation Group, a planning inspector has just allowed Boris Johnson’s Transport for London to put up huge electronic advertising panels, 3m high and 12m wide, on the Sun-in-the-Sands roundabout. A mock-up of the north-facing one is shown here, with the south-facing one below.

The plans were turned down by Greenwich Council in 2013 but TFL wouldn’t take no for an answer and appealed to the Planning Inspectorate, which held a hearing on January 7th to consider the appeal. (For previous posts on the story see here and here).

The Planning Inspector’s judgement, published on January 29th, can be read here. The inspector has added some conditions limiting the brightness of the illuminated adverts, ordered that images should change no more frequently than every ten seconds, they the images should not move, and that it should not take more than  a second to change from one image to another. But generally this is a bad day for drivers on the A102, who may well be distracted by flashing adverts, and the roundabout’s neighbours who will now have to live alongside them.Sun in Sands from south - showing ad position

The inspector’s report is a dry read, but tucked away in the text are two intriguing details.

Firstly, the inspector seems to have been swayed by the fact that Transport for London had, funnily enough, not objected to their own planning application:

In reaching this conclusion, I have given considerable weight to the lack of objection to the proposal from the highway authority and to the compliance of the advertisement displays with the guidance adopted by the highway authority in relation to proposals of this nature. Whilst I note that, in this case, the highway authority is also the appellant, the evidence before me indicates that the highway safety assessment of the proposed advertisements is undertaken separately to any commercial assessment of site suitability and is subject to a safety audit. In the light of this lack of objection, whilst I have had careful regard to the concerns of the local planning authority, including those relating to drivers potentially breaking the speed limit, I have not found the evidence presented by the Council in this respect to be compelling and, as such, I am not satisfied that it would be appropriate to find against the proposal for this reason.

Translated into plain English, this means that the planning inspector thinks that TFL are the best-qualified people to judge whether flashing adverts are safe on a road run by, and bringing revenue to, TFL itself. Hmm. Read more of this post

TFL take seven weeks and counting to fix a broken bridge

Charlton road - broken bridgeLate on Saturday October 26th a car veered off Charlton Road, struck the railings on the bridge over the A102 and knocked part of them onto the motorway below (causing a major traffic jam I remember well – I was stuck in it on my way home from a family outing to celebrate my 40th birthday).

Nearly two months after the accident Transport for London (which is responsible for the A102 and the bridges over it) have still not fixed the bridge.

Thankfully, no-one was injured and the railings were made safe by the council that night. The gap is now cordoned off with concrete blocks, metal fencing and red plastic guard-railing to prevent anything falling through. But these temporary repairs are unsightly and clearly not a long-term solution. Read more of this post