What’s to be afraid of at St Paul’s?

Walking through the ‘Occupy London’ protest at St Paul’s one evening last week, what struck me was not how large it was but how small – a small crescent-shaped areas around just one corner of the cathedral. Smartly dressed in a new suit, I could easily have been mistaken for a banker. But I encountered no hostility or abuse, and saw no aggression of any kind – indeed the Camp is a place of bookstalls, neat tents. The only raised voices I heard were an animated discussion between two Rastafarians about whether or not the Occupy London protest was on a par with the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989.

I could see no graffiti – only posters tidily sellotaped up on the columns on the shopping arcade of the Post-Modern development alongside,Paternoster Square. Apart from some ordure left by a police horse on a pavement, I saw no rubbish, heard no loud noise, and saw no sign of access to and from the cathedral, or any other adjacent building, being impeded. City workers and Vergers in white tie from the cathedral walked by without any impediment. Just yards away from the tents, a sports retailer and a branch of an upmarket deli (called Paul, oddly) were trading as normal (so much for shutting down the capitalist system). Read more of this post

Two cheers for journalism

I hope that politicians come to realise that, with the appalling massacre in Norway in July, and the riots in the UK in August, the first big news story of the summer – the phone hacking scandal – needs to now be put in some perspective.

There are, of course, aspects of modern society even more unpleasant than tabloid journalists. The focus of public attention has moved on – much to the relief of the tabloids.

As an ex-journalist (who still dabbles in the blogosphere with contributions such as this one) I have as a councillor met good people locally who have been badly treated by the media.

Two particular cases come to mind: firstly, a local family unfairly maligned as irresponsible dog-owners when a family pet unexpectedly attacked and killed another dog. The second case was the sensationalist and inaccurate reporting of the suicide of a shopkeeper, some years ago, which did little to help his family and colleagues recover from the shock. Read more of this post

David Gardner’s campaign week

What a weekend of intense campaigning all around Blackheath Westcombe from Blackheath Village in the south down to Maze Hill station in the north.

My eldest daughter came out with the team on Saturday morning (actually we had three teams out that morning) enjoying the sun and meeting people in Vanbrugh Park and Ulundi Road. Many good conversations and one woman who only spoke French, no English. So my daughter put her best A-level French to use only to find that the lady was a visitor and it was her daughter who was the voter – and she was out. On Saturday evening, we all went to the excellent Westcombe society hustings at Mycenae House to set out our stall and face questions from the good citizens of Westcombe Park. Very positive feedback from people and trust we answered all the points fully. Very pleasant Liberal Democrat candidates at the hustings, but no evidence of them around the roads and avenues of the ward whatsoever. The Conservatives went on a bit about controlling immigration and fatherless families which I think almost stigmatised those migrants fleeing persecution or who have come here to make a great contribution to our health service as doctors and nurses etc. or care workers or indeed many as teachers let alone the many single mothers who have been abandoned by their partner or, worse, abused by them. I do think that while I am married with children, it is extremely important not to sit in moral judgement about the way other people live their lives and their family circumstances and certainly not to build our tax system to favour one type of family over another as the Tories propose.

On immigration, obviously we need some fair controls and people should not be in the UK illegally but at the same time we must recognise that Blackheath Westcombe comprises people from all corners of the world – from Australia to Zimbabwe and most in-between. Many have key roles that provide London with its global position as the leading world city and some have roles that keep vital services going – all make an economic contribution that benefits everyone. I think this richness is part of our character in Blackheath and Westcombe Park and in the wider Borough. One house can be a well-to-do Dutch banker and next door there might be a couple of Indian students in a basement flat with a Polish care worker above and a Scottish family on the upper two floors. What is essential – and here the Westcombe and Blackheath society and our countless more local resident groups – play a huge role is that we all pull together to help each other out regardless of our nationality or colour.

On Sunday after my run, we managed a coffee morning in The Keep (some new volunteers to help) followed by some Open Gardens, then afternoon tea and a walkabout of the Vanbrugh Park estate in Combe Avenue. Looking over from the raised Combe mews terrace over the Heath on such a sunny afternoon reminded me just how tranquil the area was. Some good ideas on how the are underneath where there were once garages could be better used for local residents and how the estate needs some adapting to modern recycling needs. Then back home to welcome back my middle daughter who had spent the week on an immersion French course before her GCSE. Luckily, she was not flying but being driven down by parents of her friend.

And just to tail things off nicely, when at maze hill station this morning, a woman approached me said she had seen my photograph what a great job we were doing and well done getting the Olympics to the Park! Which after having been on the receiving end of so many understandable concerns (and quite a few myths about the Olympics) was very refreshing.

David L Gardner

New or Old Dover Road?

David, Pat, Nick Raynsford and I visited the windows of Blackheath library last week – the library is not due to reopen until April 26th so we could not go inside, but we could clearly see through the windows the transformation that has gone on inside with new shelving, lighting, décor and ceilings.

The much-cherished shopping parade on Old Dover Road (which is owned by Greenwich Council) has been something of a political football locally for the last four years. An unpopular rent increase in 2006 – albeit much less than first feared – was followed by a rent freeze in 2009, which will last until at least 2012. The much loved greengrocers, cafes and butchers have survived the economic downturn though I am sure it has not been easy. The reopening of the library will help, as will the council’s current review of parking rules on Old Dover Road – currently parking spaces are a free-for-all, which mean that they often get filled early in the morning by long-stay parking meaning no space for shoppers during the day.

The rent freeze did not just happen by accident, or because residents and traders asked for it – though the campaign for one was a big factor, the Labour council was able to deliver the freeze because it had created a “Economic Initiatives Fund” of £1.6m when the economic downturn stated, to shield council services from the downturn and the likely reduction in rent, council tax and fee income. In my own area of expertise, planning, planning application fees have decreased markedly.

This fund allowed the council to hold down fees, freeze council tax, and freeze shop rents on many parades including Old Dover Road. The Conservative Group on Greenwich Council voted to cut the fund by 20%, which would have made a freeze in shop rents on Old Dover Road impossible, or at very least very difficult to afford. The Tories locally are now calling for a temporary rent cut for shops to compensate for the temporary closure of the library which has reduced footfall – a rent cut which would have to be followed by a steep rent increase under the Tories’ plans, given that they had already opposed the budget provision that allowed rents to be frozen here in the first place. The question came up at a very successful hustings meeting the Westcombe Society organised on Saturday night, and I did not hear any clear explanation of why the Tories voted to cut support for the traders here, and then claimed to be on their side.

Labour has bold plans for the Royal Standard area – not just to review parking rules, freeze shop rents and improve the library, but also to rejuvenate paving, making the area easier for pedestrians and cyclists and make it into a worthy “second town centre” for Blackheath (the Standard has always played second fiddle to Blackheath Village ) that everyone living locally can be proud of.

It is a pity that Transport for London have , for the foreseeable future at least, announced that they are unwilling to fund such an overhaul. The council is looking at some smaller-scale changes it can fund from its own resources, and in the longer term we will fight for a better deal for the Standard. In recent years Blackheath Village has been transformed with new paving, better street furniture and so on, and it is high time the Standard gets a similar makeover.

Keeping people in work

Amid the relatively gloomy news, there was a very significant ray of sunshine – unemployment was down again. Whether the total number out of work or those claiming benefits – both measures took another step in the right direction.

Which – as I was discussing with someone on the doorstep this morning who had lost her job in financial services – is obviously not too much comfort for the many that have been made redundant and are still valiantly seeking work. But it does show what a difference a Labour government has made – as predictions of unemployment in the deepest global recession since the 1920s were between 3-4million, and in fact it has not peaked above 2.5 million. Furthermore, in Greenwich & Woolwich constituency, unemployment has fallen a whopping 42% (3 in 7 people) since Labour were elected in 1997. Not everyone will remember the 3.5 millions out of work under Mrs Thatcher’s uncaring Government when ideology ruled supreme and people were just statistics.

And why has Labour made a difference? Well we have not gone for the jugular cutting public sector jobs. Despite some headlines the numbers in the pblic sector has inched up to provide the improved education, health and police services we enjoy. Second, more people than ever are in higher education giving us the graduates we need for our knowledge-based economy (and Blackheath Westcombe has the highest graduate population in the Borough) and this is despite some recent over-egged headlines about some funding cuts are 12 years of sustained growth. Thirdly, employers like mine have responded sensitively to the recession, preferring to keep their talented staff by asking them to tighten their belts with a variety of inventive means such as sabbaticals, part-time working and in some cases reduced pay (better that than no job though). Fourthly, the Government has really invested in jobs and training to help people off the dole and fifthly, parts of the economy are already turning around.

Our creative sector remains very strong, tourism and theatres are booming and London is very much a global hub in so many areas. Being part of an EU-wide single labour market has really helped – the influx of those from Eastern Europe was important in the boom years, but has eased off as many returned home thus acting as a stabiliser. So UK unemployment is now lower than the EU average and much lower than France, Spain, Italy or even the United States.

We have all shared the pain of the global downturn, but the public services and support we have now in this country – together with the economic stimulus – have helped us through more than most. With the Olympics, Crossrail (unless a Conservative Government cancels it), Labour’s Decent Homes programme and schools’ transformation – as well as the confidence returning the Canary Wharf and the City and the exciting developments now taking shape on Greenwich Peninsula – Blackheath and Westcombe Park residents have some significant job and enterprise opportunities. We all need to be able to share in this economic prosperity. All setting the scene or Budget Day on Wednesday.

David L Gardner