31 October 2007

Disempowering Staff [Updated 05/11/07]

It wouldn't be a blog without a moan about Virgin Trains...they make high claims about excellent customer service justified by all sorts of statistics but then amazingly one's own personal experience of their 'excellent customer service' completely contradicts this.

I bought a ticket for travelling to Preston on Monday evening, intending to collect this from the station. New terms and conditions that are set out in the emails sent to me say you must bring the credit card that you bought the ticket with to collect the ticket. But this is a change from previous practice where any old credit card was sufficient.

You know where this is going...I didn't have the correct credit card on Monday and of course the machine wouldn't issue my tickets...but to compound things further I was unable to get through to the help-line and not one person at Euston Station would offer me any assistance whatsoever.

It was in fact a bit worse than that - the man at the 'Customer Information' point looked at my email said that there was 'nothing he could do' and then lifted the email printout by the corner and held it out to me as if it was a snotty tissue and said something along the lines of "this is yours Sir!". It would have been hard to have had a more sneering attitude - had he been on an expensive 'sneering without being caught' training course?

A follow-up call to Virgin Trains this evening to get a refund of the ticket (but without paying the £5 admin charge) was unsuccessful - however I did get a bit closer to the truth - it transpires that whether this requirement can be over-ridden or not is actually a decision that Euston can take...but frontline staff at the station don't appear to know this. Indeed there appears to be no policy whatsoever for dealing with this possibility.

So what's my point in writing this particular entry on my blog...it would be silly if I didn't admit it's partly giving me the opportunity some of the frustration and anger that I feel about my personal treatment. However I think there is a further point and it's that when large organisations disempower the frontline staff from being able to take common sense decisions by providing no flexibility in policies like this some honest customers are bound to get caught up. For me that means making sure that Lewisham's services don't suffer from the same problems...but for Lewisham's residents there's usually a bit more at stake than a £5 admin fee, hurt feelings and after all that a very comfortable and fast journey to Preston.

To date I've not had a response from Virgin Trains so I have sent a note to London Travel Watch alerting them to the policy in operation at Virgin. We'll see if I get a response and perhaps a slight refinement in policy at Virgin.

28 October 2007

An English Parliament?

Much talk this weekend about removing the right of Scottish MPs to vote on 'English' matters from the Tories. It strikes me that the Tories are cynically pushing their own party political advantage over the interests of the country as a whole. Why do I think this? Simply that if you remove the Scots & Welsh MPs from the Commons then they have a majority. That's the bizarre nature of our first past the post democracy - it's not the party with the most votes that wins but the one with the most seats!

Clearly the Tories are right to address a very real deficit in our democracy, but their solution does not go far enough. In order for the proposals suggested by the Tories to work in any fair sense, we need to back this up with a change to proportional representation for this 'English Parliament'.

Now of course I'll be accused of playing the party political card along with the Tories, since under PR we know that Greens get elected. However to any of the cynics out there, remember that I was elected in a first-past-the-post election where my Party got 47% of the vote and we're working to get Green MPs elected at the next General Election under the current system. But I must admit it would be more straightforward under PR.

27 October 2007

Upper Brockley Road

At last the Mayor has listened to both myself and local people about the problems experienced by residents in & around The Parade on Upper Brockley Road.

For the record I have put questions down for the Mayor (although his Champion for Community Safety, Cllr Crada Onuegbu has formally answered) in September 2006, May 2007 and finally in October 2007. Betweeen those questions I have assisted local people in gaining proper access to Lewisham's anti-social behaviour & crime reduction teams and ensuring that the local Safer Neighbourhood Team (through close liaison with PC Ty Taylor) are aware of the issue and take appropriate action.

The response we had however was a generally a piecemeal collection of individual departments dressed up as a 'strategy' - and as a result there has been no long term solution.

One of the key proposals made in 2007 was a Dispersal Zone, it had the informal support of some of Lewisham's officers but was firmly rejected by Cllr Onuegbu. Apparently many of those causing the trouble lived in the local area and therefore it would be difficult to police - however it is clear that many many of the people travel from outside of Brockley to come here - and this is supported by the checks on the cars coming into Upper Brockley Road!

During the summer we had a 'week of action' - a bus stuffed full of police officers and leaflets. Officially this was an attempt to 'engage' with the people causing the problems. However Lewisham Council's officers either failed to turn up to support the Police or even leave the bus to 'engage'. Recent events on the Parade confirm that it was only the appalling weather that gave the residents some respite from the harassment it seems that little 'engagement' actually took place!

Now that the Mayor has decided to take a personal interest in the issue (I think this is because Labour leaflets distributed along Upper Brockley Road which highlighted crime as a key issue in the run-up to the non-election caused a bit of a fuss amongst local residents) I wonder what role there is now for Cllr Crada Onuegbu?

18 October 2007

Report of Full Council

Bullet points only - it's late!

* Series of questions from public & myself on ongoing anti-social behaviour problems of Upper Brockley Road - the Mayor himself has appears to have taken control of this particular problem

* Cumulative Impact Zones in New Cross & Blackheath agreed - there will essentially be a presumption against new licensed premises in these areas

* Mayor's 'Strand 1' Efficiency savings agreed - we were assured that these are genuine efficiency savings and not cuts - but watch this space as I will want to monitor the impacts of these so-called efficiencies on front-line services

* Agreed to promotion of new 'London Local Authorities Bill' (download the Agenda and look at Items 9 & 10 for more detail - a range of interesting powers requested including the right to raise a levy on plastic bags, chewing gum & to request a deposit from developers to ensure that roads etc can be made good when they have built their development - again watch this space

* Motion on 'Planning Brief' for 'Green Man, Tigers Head, Courts' site in Whitefoot Ward - essentially an election pledge made by Labour, but brought to full Council. One of my earlier posts on this blog was about the Green Man (interestingly Lewisham won the appeal despite officers' advice on this one) - AGREED

* Motion on fair-banding in schools - watered down by Labour amendment but AGREED

* It was very unfortunate but our motion on Adult Social Care as amended by Labour fell off the agenda due to lack of time - we resubmitted within seconds of the end of the meeting so that it will be first next time...more on this soon.

* New member, Cllr Pete Pattison, made his maiden speech in the chamber tonight and also an audacious bid to represent the Council on a Deptford-based charity on account of him living in Deptford. I supported Cllr Paul Maslin on account of him being a councillor for a Ward in Deptford, Cllr Pattisson of course representing Whitefoot right at the other end of the borough.

13 October 2007

News Shopper Green Guardian Awards

I received a bunch of forms for the News Shopper Green Guardian Awards today.

Clearly I'm not touting for someone to nominate me (I'm Green already - well I wear a green rosette at election times), but it would be good to have some local schools, groups, associations, businesses or people nominated.

11 October 2007

Planning History in Hither Green

Betting Shops Under Attack?

A new commerical premises had a condition slapped on it by Planning 'A' this evening preventing its use as a betting shop. During the discussion it became apparent that the intended use class was 'A2' but there was no mention of 'betting shops' in the list of possible A2 uses read out by the applicant. Quick-witted I raised the question of betting shops and the applicant's representative sensing that these were something of an issue in Lewisham rapidly stated there was no intention of opening one on this site. The Committee then proposed a condition on the application that use as a betting shop should not be permitted. The solicitor agreed that would be 'OK' and the planning officer was happy too. Thus it was that 232 Hither Green Lane has quite by accident stepped into Lewisham's planning history as possibly the first such condition.

Following the Homeview application for 'Change of Use to A2' the opinion of officers was that there would have been no grounds for such a condition anyway, even if it had been known that there was a possibility for that a betting shop was planned for the site. However this decision is not the one that'll test either of these points of planning law.

However, as an exercise in allowing the community to speak out against the creep of betting shops which are rapidly becoming a symbol of the decay of our local shopping parades as potent as the chicken-shop, it was to my mind a good call.

Finally, it'll be interesting how the big book-making firms react if at all.

9 October 2007

Comprehensive Spending Review

The future financial health of Lewisham was embedded somewhere in today's Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR07). In particular the section for Local Government is interesting.

Headline figures from the CSR include:

Departmental Expenditure Limit to grow by 1% per annum in real terms (ie after inflation) for the next five years - unfortunately this has already been planned for so does not really give additional cash for local services

Proposals to promote independence for old & vulnerable people - this is a real issue since Lewisham is looking very closely at its Adult Social Care provision at the very moment.

Extra funding to push recycling to 40% by 2010. Lewisham has a long way to go to acheive this so it's to be hoped we're in for a good settlement on this budget line.

Removal of ring-fencing from £5billion worth of grants - very much as much of an oportunity as a threat. An opportunity to spend cash in line with local priorities; a threat to our finances since it means that Central government can always refer to 'local priorities' if Lewisham is short of cash as a result of new initiatives.

5 October 2007

Gateway Gets Go Ahead

The Lewisham Gateway got the go ahead from the Strategic Planning Committee yesterday. It was a lively debate that explored a number of issues - the main ones being whether the 'low-H' (a new road layout replacing the existing roundabout in Lewisham town centre) traffic system would work, air pollution, the economic benefits, the 500 parking spaces on the scheme, the economic benefits...the scheme was granted permission on a 4-2 vote so fairly decisive.

How did I vote...I was against this application....why?

(1) Air pollution - the report stated quite clearly that there would a significant adverse impact on air quality as a direct consequence of this development - stay away if you have asthma. It is really quite worrying that in 2007 we are willing to undertake developments that are pretty much guaranteed to cause significant degradation in air quality...

(2) Affordable housing - this scheme is hoping to bring forward just 15% of the 800 units as affordable...and more so these will be '50% shared-equity' units not the most needed social-rented...the Lewisham Gateway is not for anyone on a moderate income or less;

(3) The importance of the jobs that will be created has been overstated - in the 'inner zone' roughly the Parliamentary constituencies of Lewisham Deptford & Lewisham East - there will be 7 jobs per ward. The scheme has the scope to reduce unemployment - but as a way of tackling the relatively high levels of unemployment in these areas spending £250M seems quite a difficult way to go;

(4)The NHS in Lewisham will be short-changed by about £4.8M. This is funding that will need to be found to deal with providing healthcare prior to the strategic funds following the new residents. We'll pay for that by increased stress on healthcare facilities and calls for cuts in other budgets.

(5) A genuine opportunity to create a good cycling route through Lewisham has been lost.

It is useful to point out that, contrary to the opinions of many of the objectors I have been persuaded that the 'low-H' will work. However, to have objected on the basis that I thought the 'low-H' wouldn't work would have given officers real headaches if the application had been rejected - however & more importantly it would have been inconsistent with an newsletter article I wrote in 2000 calling for the roundabout to be scrapped. Further I think that high-density housing has a place in Lewisham centre - particularly adjacent to railway stations and public transport thereby reducing the need for cars.

Though it's not a planning matter, great play was made by some members of the committee that this was a 'great opportunity' and that such a scheme will not be able to be developed for quite some time. However as the planning officers pointed out the scheme was so financially sound that the applicants were happy to put £25M up front...perhaps another scheme available to all income groups, constructed with sustainability at its heart, low or zero-carbon, and properly fitting a society that needs to address the challenges of climate change might just have been around the corner. We'll never know.

Finally, I accept the decision of the committee tonight and feel privileged to have played a part in shaping Lewisham town centre for more than a generation. Over the coming years the various elements of the scheme will come back to the committee for approval and at that stage I hope to have the opportunity to hold the applicant to the pledges made in this scheme.

1 October 2007

£10,000 for Brockley

How should it be spent?
Like last year, Brockley has been awarded £10,000 to spend on community projects. The money can be spent on activities that will help improve your area.

Last year the Brockley Councillors allocated the cash to provide solar panels at two local primary schools, financial support for the Brockley Max Festival, improved gardens on the Wickham Road estate and tree planting in Tanners Hill.

This year the Councillors are particularly looking for good ideas along the themes of:

· activities for young people
· improving our parks & open spaces
· tackling crime & anti-social behaviour

However we will be more than happy to consider other good projects that will be of direct benefit to local residents.

If you have an idea for an activity or project you would like to receive funding for, please contact Cllr Dean Walton by Friday 16 November 2007.
E-mail: cllr_dean.walton at lewisham.gov.uk
Phone: 020 8691 1046
Write to: Cllr Dean Walton, Lewisham Town Hall, Catford, SE6 4RU.