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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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

Safe in their hands? Coalition changes law to make it easier to cut services at Lewisham Hospital

Lewisham_Hospital_Victory - July 2013In 2013 proposals to savagely cut services at Lewisham Hospital –  downgrading Maternity and A&E services and selling off a large chunk of land – were twice defeated by the High Court, which ruled that the Government was acting outside of its powers with its plans, thanks to an energetic community campaign.

But damaging cuts to Lewisham may yet emerge by the back door, and this is a threat we need to remind voters of in the run up to the May elections. Clause 119, hastily tacked on to the coalition government’s Care Bill, will make it easier for Trust Special Administrators (TSAs) to  close down hospital departments with little meaningful consultation on proposals until it’s too late.

The clause was voted through on Tuesday evening (March 11th), opposed by Labour but with only six Conservatives and one Liberal Democrat MP voting against. As the Save Lewisham Hospital website reports: “The vote was lost in Parliament this evening – with Labour’s amendment of a strike out of the clause being voted down and with Lib Dem Paul Burstow withdrawing his support for his own amendment in weasly fashion at the last minute”.

Some concessions have been made – GP-led Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) will have more of  say over hospital closures than the clause originally proposed – but it is now a lot easier for the government to close down hospital departments in the teeth of huge local opposition, as a good report on the OpenDemocracy website explains. If the new clause means that cuts to Lewisham are pushed through again, local Lib Dems and Conservatives will have a lot of explaining to do.

The Greenwich Labour banner on the march to save Lewisham Hospital,  January 2013

The Greenwich Labour banner on the march to save Lewisham Hospital, January 2013

While the clause was being debated in Parliament on Monday night, Labour held a public meeting in Greenwich to discuss the ongoing Tory threat to the NHS. All the meeting’s speakers – including two who work in the local NHS, QEH Midwife Debbie Jordan and Lewisham GP Brian Fisher  – said that the huge improvements that Labour made to the NHS between 1997 and 2010 are now under threat. When the Tories were last in government in the 1990s, they introduced a 18-month target wait for hospital treatment which the NHS struggled to meet because of a lack of resources: even a two-year wait for a heart operation was common. Under Labour, the maximum wait for hospital treatment was reduced to just 18 weeks. Read more of this post

The Greenwich Foodbank: helping those who the Coalition forgot

Foodbank 4

Just before Christmas a group of eight councillors visited the Greenwich Foodbank‘s headquarters in Eltham. We were all impressed by the hard work and determination of its volunteers, led by Alan Robinson who showed us around.

Although a foodbank had been set up by two churches  in Thamesmead in 2009, demand shot up after the coalition’s welfare cuts started in 2010, with people from all over Greenwich and Bexley boroughs beating a path to its doors. With help from the Trussell Trust, the Christian charity that helps foodbanks across Britain, a new borough-wide foodbank was set up in October 2012 by 45 Greenwich churches (including St John’s in Blackheath, which acts as a collection point for donations).

The Greenwich Foodbank is a very well-organised operation that gives out three-quarters of a ton of food and other goods each week. Increasingly, toiletries are given out as well as food: Office of National Statistics figures show that unemployed people on the breadline  are going without soap and shampoo to afford to feed themselves. People can only receive a week’s food if they have been given a voucher by an authorised person working at the sharp end: in Social Services, the NHS, Police, Probation service, or the voluntary sector (need is the only factor: the Foodbank helps people regardless of their religious faith).Foodbank 2

Normally, no-one is allowed to redeem vouchers more than three times: the Foodbank is determined to help people out of poverty, not make them dependent on handouts. As well as giving out food, the Foodbank has put together a cookbook (many of its clients are used to fast food, and find it hard to make a nutritious meal out of the ingredients the Foodbank provides). Giving out food helps alleviate some of the immediate effects of the cost-of-living crisis, but it is not a long-term cure on its own, which is why the Foodbank acts as a “signpost” to other services so its clients can find a long-term solution to whatever problems they face.

But no-one should be pleased that more and more Foodbanks are starting in Britain in 2014: everyone should afford to feed themselves and their families without the indignity of going to a Foodbank. Dave Wilcox, a veteran labour councillor in Derbyshire who helped his local foodbank get lottery money, recently wrote of his “sadness in success”. Like many, he hopes that one day foodbanks will run out of customers, return their money to the lottery, and that everyone will have enough money to buy their own food rather than need handouts. How right he is. Read more of this post

Coalition consequences: soon Greenwich Park visitors will have to pay to use the loo

coalition consequences logoThe Royal Parks – the government body that runs Greenwich Park – is having to make difficult choices. Their annual budget has already been slashed by 25% by the Coalition Government, and is likely to be cut by another 10% in 2015. To help balance the books, visitors will have to pay 20p a time to use the toilets in Greenwich Park once turnstiles are installed next summer.

Disabled toilets, and toilets in children’s playgrounds, will apparently be exempt. But the charges will stick in the throat given that visitors have already paid for the Royal Parks through their taxes.

One of the toilets in Greenwich Park: currently free, but soon it will cost 20p a visit

One of the toilets in Greenwich Park: currently free, but soon it will cost 20p a visit

After the Coalition Government was elected in 2010, the Royal Parks were told that their annual grant from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) would be reduced from £17m in 2010-11 to £15.3m in 2014-15 – a cut of 25% in real terms. In fact the cuts have been even steeper than feared – the grant for 2013-14 is only £14.3m.

Ten years ago, the annual  grant given to the Royal Parks was £22.1m – equivalent to £29.4m today. That means the Parks have had a real-terms funding cut of more than 50% over ten years, with more cuts expected in 2015-16 – not just a bit of prudent belt-tightening. No organisation could withstand this kind of cuts without making difficult decisions. Read more of this post

Great news about Lewisham Hospital – but what’s happening to GP services in Greenwich?

Lewisham_Hospital_Victory - July 2013Well done to the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign. Earlier this year they got the High Court to rule that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s plan to downgrade Lewisham’s Accident and Emergency and Maternity services was unlawful. Now they have also faced down Hunt’s appeal against this High Court judgement.

This means the Health Secretary must go back to the drawing board and properly listen to patients and doctors in reviewing hospital services in south-east London. See here for the press coverage of the victory on October 29th, in case you missed it.

The campaign, which Labour in Lewisham has actively supported but not led, has been fantastic – with two large marches (one of them in the pouring rain) attracting 15,000 people each time to march down Lewisham High Street, and a number of smaller events. The campaign has captured the popular imagination across south London, and channelled the anger of local people into a David-against-Goliath legal victory that will go down in history.

It has been claimed by some parties that Labour in Greenwich has not been as supportive of the save Lewisham Hospital Campaign as it could have been. Try telling that to the hundreds, if not thousands of people from Greenwich – many Labour Party members included – who have marched in the rain, collected signatures on petitions, fund-raised and organised meetings on the subject for the last two years. For people in Blackheath, Lewisham is as much their “local” NHS hospital as Queen Elizabeth Hospital is.

But it is not just hospitals that are under threat from the Coalition’s health policies. There are concerns about primary care – such as GP surgeries and health centres – as well.  Read more of this post