25 February 2010

Boris will face a fight if he proposes reducing the Safer Neighbourhood Teams in Lewisham

Chief Inspector Barham came to the Stronger Safer Communities Select Committee this evening to give evidence on the Safer Neighbourhood Teams that he heads up. During our quizzing Cllr Parmar asked whether there were any cuts planned in the level of Safer Neighbourhood Teams (SNT) in Lewisham following the London-wide reduction in policing numbers by Boris Johnson and his steadfast refusal to rule out reducing the size of the SNT teams. CI Barham said there were no plans to change from the current basic complement of a SNT is 1 x Sergeant, 2 x PCs and 3 x PCSOs. How I pressed CI Barham to explain whether in policing terms the structure of the teams was effective - he agreed it was.

So, it's clear that if London's Mayor, Boris Johnson, is planning to cut SNTs then he'll be dismantling an element of neighbourhood policing considered to be a good working model. What's more with this type of support from within the Met and the cross-party support in the Council, Boris would be up for a major fight if any of his cuts led to smaller less effective SNT in Lewisham and elsewhere.

The Inspector was also quizzed on the priority-setting of the Ward Panels that support the work of the SNTs. He was clear that ultimately the Ward Priorities were set by the Panel - but that he considered that some of the priorities that had been adopted by some Panels were in fact part and parcel of the day-to-day job of policing in the wards. Two examples given of this were establising neighbourhood watch schemes and cycling on pavements.

Heathside and Lethbridge Estate Update

Within a few days of contacting CABE I received a response - and not one that I was expecting. CABE had no knowledge of Lewisham's plans for this estate. CABE duly called Lewisham and updated their contact details but at this stage in the development's plans CABE did not consider that they should have any further involvement. I sent the email to the Head of Planning for comment and he confirmed that they will look again at how they might involve CABE in the future.

Quite apart from the possibility that we might have given planning permission to a large estate that could produce social problems at least as great as any coming from 1960s council estates we really need to be sure that good design when rebuilding estates is at the heart. There are swathes of estates in parts of Lewisham that could be redeveloped at some time over the next few years. Unless we work with organisations like CABE, listen carefully to bodies such as our own Design Panel and get the residents involved at a stage where they can have a positive impact we will risk as a corporate body encouraging the redevelopment of our estates in spite of local people rather than with them.

I contrast this with the plans for the redevelopment of one of the estates close to New Cross gate - residents came along to SUPPORT the plans - not oppose. A lesson for us all.

An extreme example of the failure of targets culture?

I have blogged about the effect that 'targets culture' can have on public services. The extremely distressing news from Mid Staffs Hospital, see here on this BBC article should help those who run and are accountable for public services to stop and think again whether the 'targets approach' is the right one.

The BBC article states:

"The trust had been climbing the NHS ratings ladder during the period in question and was even given elite foundation trust status."

The Guardian refers to :

"Staff were equally critical about the hospital's management, and described bosses who bred "an atmosphere of fear of adverse repercussions", stressed NHS targets were the top priority and were secretive when things went wrong.

The trust's board, which was meant to hold managers to account and ensure high clinical standards were maintained, were aware of the weaknesses but failed to ensure improvements were made, the report says."

Health Secretary Andy Burnham said there could be "no excuses" for the failings.
But he added: "This was ultimately a local failure, but it is vital that we learn the lessons nationally to ensure that it won't happen again - we expect everyone in the NHS to read the report and act on it."

I am not so sure that the human failings and above all the desire to hit targets based on not clinical and medical demands of running a modern hospital but instead by distant managers and others can have a corrosive impact on the actual service itself. Appropriate targets set locally as part of the range of management tools fine - centrally driven targets which can erode the professional judgement of managers and clinicians, lead to false reporting (Baby P) and undermine the proper functioning of the services not fine.

19 February 2010

POWER TO THE PEOPLE!!! or “Report from the Constitution Working Group Meeting 17 February 2010, Civic Suite, Lewisham Town Hall”

I have written about the Constitution Working Group (CWG) before – it is an ad-hoc group used by councillors and officers to explore changes to Lewisham's constitution prior to formal motions put before full Council for adoption, hopefully by consensus. There were three main items this week – my proposals about the appointment of the Directors to the new council-owned company which owns and runs the Catford Shopping Centre, a review of the scrutiny committees and the issue that I think is likely to be of most interest to bloggers – petitions.

When the final legislative hurdles have been overcome, Lewisham will be introducing a formal petitions scheme for residents to bring matters to the attention of Councillors, officers and the Mayor. This will mean that in general, if a significant number of people living in Lewisham call for a matter to be debated by the Council or one of its committees it will be. There are also provisions for certain senior officers to be called to give evidence on issues to again the Council or one its committees.

The CWG discussed the merits of how many signatures a petition needs to trigger a debate. The range discussed varied from 3,000 to 13,000 (5% of our population and the legal maximum we would have been allowed to set). A concern raised at the meeting was that if the threshold was set too low far too many issues could be brought forward creating a logjam at Council or our committees. I was not particularly convinced by this argument for raising the threshold above 3,000. For me, it was important to understand what Lewisham's residents might expect the threshold to be. I was far more concerned that residents understood what the purpose of the threshold is – it is not to limit the workload of the Council or its committees – for me it is convey to the residents that this is a mechanism whereby Councillors and the Mayor can confidently assert that this is an issue that warrants serious consideration and that ultimately it may mean that we have to do things differently. It is part of listening to and understanding what a significant proportion of our residents think are important.

This was why I was in favour of adopting a threshold of 10,000 – 10,000 as with any figure we could have chosen without further evidence is arbitrary. 'Ten thousand' is a number that people can understand as being 'a lot' – in voter terms it's about the size of an electoral ward in Lewisham. Some members thought the statutory maximum of 13,000 (5% of the population as a good figure) was appropriate, others believed a lower figure was better. In the end, as this is very friendly CWG we compromised on 8,000.

The threshold can and should be reviewed in a few months – then we'll have a better idea as to how it is used in Lewisham.

There will be no change to the way in which smaller petitions typically presented by a smaller number of residents in a tighter geographical area will be dealt with – these won't be downgraded – and of course it needs to be added that Lewisham will be developing a way whereby petitions can be held on line. With Lewisham's active bloggers and other online activities this will become the main way that petitions are fed into the Council.

UPDATE

An about turn from the Lib Dems caused this discussion to descend into chaos. We noted that the consensus on the issue had clearly fallen down when the Lib Dems changed their position quite dramatically to reducing the threshold to 1500 (I think that was their proposal but can't recall) we called for the issue to be referred back. In the end the proposals were passed as proposed in the paper on account of Labour's majority.

16 February 2010

Campaign Update

My candidacy has been covered in the local papers (Mercury, Newshopper and South London Press) and local blogs. Yesterday, in my first appearance on radio, I was called by Lewis Schaffer, who hosts the Voice of Americans on Resonance FM to participate in his show. He's already had Steve Bullock and Chris Maines so I was a natural choice. Lewis did announce on air that he'd wanted the Tories but despite many calls and emails they had no got back to him. As I reminded his listeners I was very happy to be there, and in fact the results of the 2009 European Elections when the Greens beat both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems in a Lewisham were instructive.

It was good to talk about the campaign including support for local shops and services within walking distance and the need to provide cycle facilities there. Lewis's main gripe was the failure in his borough (Southwark) to provide short-term parking facilities at local shopping parades and as a consequence he considers they miss out on a lot of passing trade. Recent experience from Crofton Park has shown that short-term parking can facilitate this type of shopping, but all day parking can merely be filled by the trader's vehicles themselves which rather defeats the point...

12 February 2010

A missed opportunity for affordable housing in Lewisham?

Last night's meeting of the Strategic Planning Committee concerned the entire regeneration of the Heathside and Lethbridge Estates. The estate is in a poor condition and residents on that estate have waited for a long time for this project. Many of you will remember that the subsidence on the A2 caused serious problems a few years ago. The project also has wider implications as it will lead to far more homes on the estate than there are now - over 1,100 new homes built in six phases over an eleven year period.

By any measure the proposals are a significant development worthy of being termed 'strategic'. It is not simply the size of the development that demands attention but also many of the comments that arose during the consultation were damning. In particular Lewisham's own Design Panel were scathing. Calls for the plans to be reviewed by CABE were made - and the plans/application were sent to CABE. By the time of last night's meeting, CABE had not replied - but no-one from the planning department had been able to confirm whether there was going to be a response. CABE's services are in great demand (either a desire to want to promote good design and development or as a consequence of the number of poor designs coming forward across the UK - you decide). At the meeting, the head of planning confirmed there was no reason why a call could not be made. To be fair I put the same question to the person speaking on behalf of the objectors and whilst she supported the call for the application to be submitted to CABE had not followed this up with them either. So despite many people requesting the input of CABE, this had not happened and no-one really knew why CABE had not bothered to respond to this development of over 1,100 homes in our borough - overwork, indifference, oversight or so overwhelmed by the quality of the deisgn they had no reason to respond. For the time being we don't know. I have sent an email to CABE this morning to find out. There's no point in asking for CABE to be involved if they as a matter of policy don't.

Moving on to the issue of affordable housing - a subject I have written about before. It's a bit complicated but as the proposals replace something like 550 existing homes (of which about 110 are now private under the right to buy policies) these are rightly discounted from the equation - leaving us to consider how much of the genuine new homes (the 'uplift') should be affordable. The financial viability study demonstrated that the scheme could support no more than 35%. As a result of this the application proposed that a fixed number of private and affordable homes be agreed at this stage of an 11 year demolition and new built project.

However there are two main problems with the financial viability study. First it relies on making projections as to the land values over an 11 year period and secondly these land values were not independently verified. As the Head of Planning explained Lewisham, as the landowner, would know how much it was planning to sell the land for. A good point well made, but does not take account of what the District Auditor might say as to whether these values represent good value for money for Lewisham as a corporate body whose aim would be to sell to the highest bidder and/or clearly demonstrated public benefits. Without that assurance there's a risk of a covert subsidy to our 'preferred developer'. In terms of getting a view on the land values within the study, I was hoping that we could wait until City Hall's planners had reviewed the financial viabilty study.

There was a more elegant way of ensuring that the number of affordable homes being built on Lewisham's own land using public money from the Housing and Communities Agency was higher - that was to use a review mechanism throughout the 11 year development at each phase of the development. This review would take account of the changes in funding available and any changes in policy. One change in policy that is supported by all political parties in Lewisham is that new larger developments should have at least 50% affordable housing. A policy that will never be applied to this application using Lewisham's land and public money from the HCA. But also, remember this, the application was driven and negotiated by Lewisham - in other words read Mayor and Cabinet.

The Chair of last night's meeting, Cllr Alan Smith, dismissed my suggestion of a review mechanism. Yet the Head of Planning explained that such a review mechanism had already been discussed between the applicant and the planning officers. The Head of Planning reported that whilst this approach been rejected by the applicant it was open for us to discuss. Given that this was a significant change to the application I would have been quite happy for the application to have been deferred to seek better advice on this point. The other members of the committee disagreed.

On the plus side a similar review mechanism was put in place to guarantee that the project as a whole was consistent with present and emerging policies in relation to the reduction of CO2 emissions and on-site renewable energy despite the fact that Phase 1 by itself was very clearly inconsistent with policy.

On account of all of these outstanding problems I proposed that we deferred the consideration of the application and take advice from our officers on what the impact of such a deferral might be. However Cllr Smith did not wish to 'waste the time of our legal officers' and confirmed that none of the other members present - himself, Cllrs Klier and Paschoud were prepared to support my proposal.

The application was approved by Lewisham 3-1.

The next stage is for Mayor of London to consider the application. We'll see how this turns out in due course. I will follow this up with City Hall.