After 16 years as a Labour councillor in Blackheath and Westcombe Park, Alex Grant says thank you and goodbye

Out on the doorsteps on Kidbrooke Park Road. From left to right: Don Austen, Jackie Smith, Alex Grant, Cherry Parker, David Gardner, Damien Welfare and Paul Morrissey

Out on the doorsteps of Kidbrooke Park Road, May 2014. From left to right: Don Austen, Jackie Smith, Alex Grant, Cherry Parker, David Gardner, Damien Welfare and Paul Morrissey

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 cyclistsBlackheath 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

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.

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

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

Blackheath: a birthplace of rebellion, not just Golf

William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) giving an election address on Blackheath, General election February 1874

William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) giving an election address on Blackheath, General election February 1874

The Blackheath Societys new digital archive of photos and prints is a reminder that Blackheath is not just a sleepy Kentish village, famous only for the invention of Golf, that became a south London suburb. Blackheath also has a proud radical past.

The archive was subject of a week-long exhibition at Blackheath Halls in late September, which I was lucky to be at the launch of. Though the exhibition is now over, all you need do is go to www.blackheatharchive.org, register with your name and email address and you can browse all 1,500 images collated so far.

The archive is an organic thing and needs to grow further. The Blackheath Society welcomes donations of photos (I am donating some of my own limited archive of photos of places, and political events, in Blackheath and Westcombe Park from the last 15 years). Read more of this post

Coalition Consequences: Benefits Cap hits those in private rented accommodation hardest

coalition consequences logoI have posted before about the impact of the Coalition’s welfare polices in Greenwich, and Blackheath Westcombe ward in particular, and about the cuts in housing benefit which could force many people – including families with children – to have to move out of areas like Blackheath and Westcombe Park.

Since the “Benefits cap” came into force (it is being phased in between 12th August and September 30th 2013), we are beginning to see what the real impact is on families in the borough.

In a nutshell, the government’s new policy is that total benefits cannot now exceed:

  • £500 a week for couples (with or without children living with them)

  • £500 a week for single parents whose children live with them

  • £350 a week for single adults who don’t have children, or whose children don’t live with themold dover road

According to figures from the Royal Borough of Greenwich, about 340 families in the borough are affected by the Benefits Cap. Of these, the council is already advising 110 families – of which 68 (well over half) are in private rented accommodation, not council or housing association homes. Read more of this post