30 November 2006

A busy night

Is this a record - four meetings end to end in one night.

First some preparation for the Stronger Safer Communities Scrutiny Committee (see below for a bit more information);

Next one of the few meetings of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee (that is all Councillors who are not members of the Cabinet). The meeting was called to set up an ad-hoc committee looking into the issues raised by the Audit Commission damning report into housing repairs and allied issues in the Lewisham Homes Almo (see post on housing below for a link). Labour brought an amendment to the meeting verbally...that the amendment was 'verbal' rather than 'written' was condemned by the leader of the Lib Dems...however seeing that this was indeed a useful tool in the circumstances the Lib Dem Chair sought later to do the very same...the humour of the situation was not lost. The committee will be made up of 11 members (5 Labour, 3 Lib Dems, and 1 each of the Greens, Conservatives & Socialists - thus ensuring a wide range of views and inputs are fed into the review...oh and the opposition parties have a majority - if they can work together!)

After, chance to catch my breath and attend the Stronger Safer Communities Scrutiny Panel. We're looking at the operation of the Safer Neighbourhood Teams across Lewisham. My particular concern is how well the Ward Panels are working - what role there is for Ward Councillors (well no-one else is speaking up for us politicians!) and how well the Ward Panels have been in reaching beyond the 'usual suspects' for their make-up and engagement.

Unfortunately I have to leave that meeting early to attend the Strategic Planning Committee. As the name suggests this considers applications that are 'Strategic'. Tonight's meeting was preceded by a legal briefing from the Head of Law on members' responsibilities. However, the main business was to consider an application for 270ish studio, 1 bedroom & 2 bedroom flats on the site of an industrial unit very close to Tesco in Lewisham (take a look at the Lewisham Planning Website for 72-78 Conington Road for the details). After a long series of presentations, discussions and comments the application was passed. The application as originally set up, insisted that the site provide 50 car spaces and space for 270 bikes. However TfL and the Highways Officer described the site as having the potential to be car-free. Following on from this, I successfully proposed that the conditions be amended so that the provision of 50 car parking spaces was a maximum rather than a requirement. I will be honest that the spaces were being provided in a basement so it is unlikely that any alternative use for these spaces will be found in this particular development at this stage...however I think it is important to set out that Lewisham is willing to go 'car-free'. The development has a lot of other 'green' features - an efficient district heating scheme with solar thermal water panels which was said to have the chance to reduce CO2 emissions by 10% (in line with current GLA plans but less than I'd like to see), a green roof, rain harvesting, on site handling of some construction & demolition waste, timber from sustainable managed forests. There may be more. However, it appeared that the applicants were very keen to show how 'green' they were...unlike others which simply described 'green' as being 'too expensive' (have you seen how they ripped out the eco-features in the Dome - boycott O2 now!).

In addition the development should provide for a much needed supply of new affordable housing - both flats in this development and much needed family houses on Jerningham Road.

It's now past midnight...off to bed now...the Christmas tree is being lit in Brockley at about 17:30 this evening...it's our first and should add a lovely festive feel to the area.

29 November 2006

Brockley Cross Action Group AGM

I went to the Brockley Cross Action Group (BXAG) AGM this evening. As usual this was a good opportunity to get an update on the projects that the BXAG has been actively working on over the past year or so. These successes included the completion of Phase I of the Brockley Common plan to open up the access to the Brockley Station.

For further information visit the website http://www.brockley.com/bcag.

The meeting was not without a degree of controversy. Ex-councillors for Brockley Ward, Terry Scott & Jimi Adefiranye along with unsuccessful Labour candidate Rosie Fooks in May 2006 had all nominated themselves for the board of Trustees for the BXAG - which is a registered charity. However, the charity's trustees had not accepted Jimi's nomination. The reason given was that Jimi had not played an active role in a sub-committee over the previous year. Jimi did not challenge that particular assertion - but was clearly upset at having been excluded on this basis. Needless to say there were some harsh words from Jimi & others; in the end there was a vote on whether the new rules 'have played an active role in a sub-committee over the previous year' was put to a vote - the meeting decided 11-10 to overturn the rules. The votes of Terry Scott & Rosie Fooks clearly were decisive; myself and Cllr Darren Johnson abstained on this point. Thus Jimi's nomination was reinstated.

The Trustees en-masse were then voted on by the meeting and this was agreed with no votes against.

In his defence I do think that Jimi had an important point to make about the distinct lack of black & minority ethnic involvement in the group (but it must be said that the Group has made positive attempts to address this) and there is a point of principle that it seems whilst the rules surrounding the eligibility of nominees for the Trustees appear to have been established sometime ago, the formalisation of this policy occured after Jimi had submitted his nomination.

I sincerely hope that the new board of Trustees can put some of the negativity of this meeting behind themselves and move forward with all the good projects they have established. For the record, the Brockley Ward Councillors, Cllr Darren Johnson, Cllr Romayne Phoenix & myself look forward to another year working with the group and helping to make this part of Brockley a better place to live in.

27 November 2006

Homeless in Lewisham

My first post – longer than most but after a weekend of helping my ‘homeless’ friends I got to do a bit of thinking.

Friday was the moving day. I assumed it was all going well until I got a call. J was 'feeling sick' - a typical reference of his to feeling acutely stressed. I got there and quickly J came out to tell me how suitably embarrassed R was feeling about having sold a flat without buying a house at the same time...an easy error to make, especially if up a Guatemalan mountain on a very expensive mobile phone call - J is so understanding in a way that I am not! J went back in, R came out to tell me about 'the wardrobe' - which I think had been part of the 'feeling sick' so I was interested. R couldn't say just then...later I was told that the removal men had been convinced by R that the heavy & bulky hand-built wardrobe had been brought into the house through the front door...and R was not lying...but had not told the whole truth...R had forgotten that when the wardrobe had been delivered they had backed the item into the neighbour's flat before easing through the front door of their flat. The result of R's poor memory was the farcical sight of three strapping removal men trapped in a small lobby of the house and no prospect of the item being moved. Anyway you'll be pleased to know that taking the door off the flat gave enough room to allow the men to get the furniture out. I picked up the computer and some plants and got away. I was beginning to 'feel sick'.

J & R arrive at about 5 o'clock...I could go on about what we did, who was there, what we ate, what we drank...but I won't.

We've known J&R for sometime now...even been away with them...stayed over at each other's in the past...but this was a bit different. They had no home to go to...instead a wedge of cash in the bank and a mortgage offer ready to buy the new place. We ate together, drank together, they did the washing up, paid for dinner, we provided fresh bed linen, clean towels, and tried to make them feel at home. I suggested that if the house purchase fell through they could buy half of our house and we could all be debt-free...we could see it made sense in one way...but had its drawbacks.They have left now...gone to a hotel for a few days...hopefully things will speed up during the week and they'll be able to move into their own place very soon. They're planning to stay with family next weekend, and may come back next week.

However the story of J&R has got me thinking...obviously 'homelessness' for J&R should be a very temporary affair. More unsettling than anything else. I hope they enjoyed their time with us (I'll find out from J over a pint or two). Yet it was obvious that J in particular felt uncomfortable about the situation.

As a local councillor, when a resident asks for help with 'housing' or 'homelessness' it is frequently accompanied by a distressing story and more often than not compounded by bureaucratic bungling - that's usally why the resident has come to see me. There are many reasons why the 'official view' of a resident's case is different to the reality. Highlighting errors in the 'official' account can help move things forward.

However, dealing with the issues of homelessness on a case by case basis is not really good enough. As a Councillor I need to be sure that the issue is also addressed at a political level. I recently received some figures whereby the numbers classed as 'homeless' in Lewisham jumped in August 2006. This jump was not due to an influx of rough sleepers in Lewisham but due to work undertaken by the Council to address a backlog of cases. In other words these were people who had approached the Council for help but whose 'cases' (personal tragedies) had not been 'processed'. Being 'processed' is of course the first step to having a 'home'.

Ultimately it comes down to 'resources'. Not just having the staff in place to 'process' cases but also the actual homes to offer people. A dwindling stock of available homes and a limited ability to provide additonal affordable housing either through the planning process or other means continues to ensure that homelessness will continue to be a problem in Lewisham for some time to come. However it is outrageous that Lewisham adds to these problems by failing to handle 'voids' properly. 'Voids' or empty properties are precisely the homes offered to the Council's homeless. A recent independent report by the Audit Commission said this about the managing of void properties in Lewisham:

"This is an area where weaknesses significantly outweigh strengths. The Council is not meeting its turnaround target and performance is marginally worse than last year, the agreed lettable standard is not being applied effectively and there is poor performance management of the service with variable approaches being taken in different management areas. Standards of 'lettable' properties we inspected were poor and the Council's own survey results confirm this."

So in other words - Lewisham is failing in this area and actually knows about it too. Little has changed then over the past four years when I was personally involved in assisting a young homeless mother find a home through Lewisham. The flat offered was in an appalling state:

These pictures were taken by me early in 2003 in a Lewisham Home in Perry Vale. They were sent to the Mayor. At the time I was horrifed that Lewisham offered this flat as being suitable for rent. My guess is that flats like this are the ones referred to in some detail in the Audit Commission Report. It's not good, it's not right and needs to be addressed.

The Audit Commission report itself was discussed at a Council meeting recently - Lib Dems calling for Cllr Susan Wise to resign, Greens calling for the Mayor to place the housing portfolio with another cabinet member. In the event Labour closed ranks with the Conservatives and Cllr Susan Wise retains the housing portfolio.

I brought the report up for discussion at the Housing Board - a borough wide committee looking at issues of strategic concern for Lewisham's housing as a whole. Apparently it was not suitable for discussion at this meeting. What next? Cllr Susan Wise explains that to discuss the report would be to 'take work away from the ALMO' - given that the political leadership in the ALMO is three Labour Councillors appointed by the Mayor and ever keen to suppress legitimate criticism of her time in office, I'd be more than happy for this.

So the cabinet appears unwilling to permit an open and honest discussion of the problems highlighted in the report by elected Councillors. Yet it is essential that Mayor and Cabinet show themselves to be always acting as a 'responsible government'. Personal attacks on Cllr Susan Wise’s ability to manage the whole of her portfolio by the Liberal Democrats were unfounded, and I hope they have learnt from that. I am hopeful that at the forthcoming meeting of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee, opposition & Labour councillors can agree to a sensible remit for a sub-committee to look at housing services in some detail in Lewisham...and through that review Greens can continue to play their role in 'responsible opposition'.