Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Questions on cycling, cock-ups and crime

Tonight was the last full Council meeting of 2005 – and for once it was mainly useful (well even Millwall win occasionally). Given this, I’ll do separate posts about the more interesting parts of the meeting – firstly on question time.

Council question time is the most heavily choreographed part of the full Council meeting. There are seven questions for oral answer at every meeting – three Labour, three Tory and one Lib Dem – with two supplementaries allowed to each question. The Party Groups pick the seven questions, which consequently generally have a common pattern – Labour tend to ask about schools, the environment and regeneration ; the Tories major on the potential tram, other anti-Ken questions, and central Ealing issues ; whilst the Lib Dems concentrate mostly on parochial issues for the Southfield and Ealing Common wards that they represent (although I have to confess that I’ve done my fair share of parochial East Acton questions).

I had a question down to Cabinet Member Ray Wall : “Could the Cabinet Member for Transport and Planning Policy report on the recognition and awards given to the cycling promotion and development work of the Borough?”. I asked this question in order to raise awareness of the very impressive record of achievement by the Borough’s cycling team, and Ray outlined some of the praise and awards that they have won including :

- One of the 2004 London Cycling Awards (the ‘cycling oscars’) for the campaign to 'market cycling' in a multi-pronged approach to encourage cycling that includes free cycle training, installing bike parking in streets, and schools, providing cycle lockers on estates, and 'bike buddy' schemes to help commuters on their journeys. This has also been strongly praised by ‘Marketing Cycling’.

- Being rated by The London Magazine as the top London borough for the provision of cycle paths. In a poll of environmental performance, the magazine rated Ealing top for cycle paths and 7th out of 33 overall.

As a supplementary question, I asked about the potential impact of cycling of the proposed tram, and specifically how the Council was trying to ensure that TfL acted on the tram issues raised by the local branch of the London Cycling Campaign. Ray replied that “the tram scheme requires a comprehensive traffic management design for the whole corridor, and is an opportunity to take cyclists’ needs into account in an integrated way … I know that the TfL design team is working to identify the intended route for cyclists all along the corridor, and will be bringing proposals to the Ealing branch of the LCC in the new year.” This is welcome, but it’ll be important to make sure that TfL keep to their commitments – trams and cyclists can co-exist, but this does require good quality sensitive design by the transport planners.

This consensus on bikes was broken by a bizarre attack on cycling in a second supplementary question from an opposition Councillor. He claimed (to general incredulity – such ‘what have you been smoking?’) that promoting cycling means encouraging pavement cycling. To their credit even most Tories laughed at this nonsense, and Ray pointed out that he couldn’t really be expected to answer an incomprehensible question.

Another later question was inevitable – Tory Licensing specialist John Popham asked about the failure of the Council’s public halls to properly apply for licenses under the new legislation. This news had come out at the weekend, leading to endless obvious jokes about organising p*** ups in breweries. In their responses, both Laurence Evans (as Chair of Regulatory Committee) and John Delaney (as Cabinet Member) were admirably honest. John described it as an “indefensible cock-up … for which the people responsible should be held accountable”, whilst Laurence announced that he had made a formal complaint to the Chief Executive (Darra Singh) demanding an investigation into what happened and why. Still, it’s a classic ‘you couldn’t make it up’ moment.

Other questions mostly covered the usual suspects – schools results, car parking and the potential tram. However, there was uniquely one question each from the Tories and Lib Dems on the usually sedate subject of Gunnersbury Park (next to Ealing Common ward). The (unspoken) reason for this interest was obvious – Ealing Common is currently the only ward in the Borough with split representation (two Tories and one Lib Dem) and is already lining up as a battle royal of the leaflets between the two Parties, in the run up to next May’s local elections. We’ll now be on ‘Ealing Common watch’ at every question time.

The Council meeting had started with a very impressive presentation and question and answer session with Commander Colette Paul – the new(ish) Police Commander for the Borough. Colette talked about some the recent achievements locally – such as a drop of 14% in vehicle crime and of 7% in ‘theft and snatch’ offences. LB Ealing is now in the top five Boroughs in London for issuing ASBOs, and also has 55 ‘Acceptable Behaviour Contracts (ABCs) – a scheme that can be used to try to produce better behaviour without going to the lengths of a full ASBO. However, she was honest enough to recognise that some challenges remain – burglary is up over the last year, as is street crime. The recorded rise in street crime is no surprise here in East Acton, where there have been some noticeable problems recently that the local police safer neighbourhood team have been addressing.

Colette also said that the police were not seeing any impact from the new licensing system. I took this a cue to ask her a question about the police role in licensing - and in particular the concern of many of us that their central licensing team and their neighbourhood team colleagues don’t seem to always work together. The Borough police have regularly withdrawn objections to even long pub hours extensions, even where residents are reporting concerns from local police about anti-social behaviour. She said that she would look at the issues I raised, and accepted the importance of the police working in partnership and as a team. I’m writing to her to take her up on this offer.

Full Council Debates

My previous post on 2nd December gives the text of the motion that I moved at the Council meeting on Holocaust Memorial Day. Appropriately, the prayers at the beginning of the Council meeting were given by Rabbi Vogel – the energetic Rabbi of the Ealing and Acton synagogue – who spoke of the importance to all faiths of winter festivals of lights like Hanukkah.

In my speech, I started by saying that although I had moved the original motion proposing local commemorations some four years ago, all that I and others remembered of that debate was the speech made by former Cllr Joan Ansell. Joan was the first Jewish Mayor of the Borough, and as a young woman in the armed forces had visited concentration camps soon after their liberation in 1945. Her speech was one of the finest and most moving that I have ever heard in the Council Chamber in my twenty years there. Joan's speech was a perfect example of what Holocaust Memorial Day is intended to achieve – the use of memories and experience of holocaust to learn lessons for the future.

I outlined the background to the motion, and particularly stressed both the centrality of the Jewish experience to the understanding of Holocaust, and its relevance to other groups and nations before and since the Nazi period. For example, we have in our Borough one of the largest Armenian communities in Britain – and the Armenian diaspora in Turkey experienced what most would regard as a holocaust in the second decade of the last century. Hitler infamously sought to justify his holocaust by saying “who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" I finished by saying that Holocaust Memorial Day was ultimately about the moral duty of the Council to challenge and seek to defeat all forms of persecution including anti-semitism, racism, islamophobia, homophobia, and xenophobia – in Boroughs like ours we proudly celebrate our diversity, whilst also recognising our common humanity.

Unfortunately, Tory Cllr Tony Brown who had intended to second the motion was not able to attend. His place was ably taken by Tory Cllr Jason Stacey from Greenford Green ward, who talked about the relevance of holocaust to all ages and particularly those who have learnt it as history rather than as news. Labour Cllr Bassam Mahfouz (Northolt West End ward) outlined his experience of visiting Auschwitz as a school student – my motion specifically welcomed the Chancellor’s announcement of an extra £1.5 million to the Holocaust Educational Trust which will enable two sixth formers from every UK school to undertake such a visit. The all-Party support was completed by Cllr Harvey Rose on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, who described the Nazi holocaust as “a unique event of extraordinary cruelty”.

The motion was of course passed unanimously. I spoke afterwards with Jason and Harvey and we agreed to set up an informal group of members to oversee the arrangements for Holocaust Memorial Day 2006 (which will be commemorated nationally on 26th January as the 27th falls on the Jewish Sabbath). Darra Singh agreed to set up the first meeting of this group for early in January. Sorry about the length of this piece on the Holocaust Memorial Day motion, but it's an issue about which I feel passionately.

The Council meeting also had two other motions of a similar character. Labour Cllr Tejinder Dhami (Dormers Wells) moved a motion on the recent earthquake affecting Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, and spoke movingly saying : “natural disasters do not respect the boundaries of nations or religions … amongst the poorest people in the world have faced the wrath of nature.” Tory Cllr Glenn Murphy moved a motion commemorating the recent death in Iraq of pilgrims from the Dawoodi Bohra mosque in his Northolt Mandeville ward, which was agreed without debate despite a distasteful attempt by the Lib Dems to add party political comments to it.

All of this said, for most people, the best speech of the night was made by Labour Cllr Kieron Gavan (Northfield ward), in a debate about a recent auditors report into the ‘Response’ scheme. This report – commissioned by Leader Leo Thomson and Chief Executive Darra Singh – stressed benefits flowing from the ‘customer first’ Response programme, whilst criticising its governance by former senior Council officers. Kieron’s speech was a unique combination of thoughtful analysis and glorious rant. He said that there should be “no shame in the bold vision of the programme” but that there were “clear operational failures”. Warming to this theme he said of former senior Council officers “there are some people that I’d like to bring back just to sack them … particularly three former members of the corporate board … when I heard that they were going, I was sitting here thinking ‘whoopee’ while you lot (the Tories) were saying that it was a shame that they were going.” Kieron (just) avoided naming the people in question, but every Cllr knew who he meant.

Christmas drinks and mince pies afterwards in the Mayor's Parlour were very welcome - even if the London Pride was only in cans.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

A Walk Through Acton Cemetery

Walked to the North Acton advice surgery at St Gabriels Church. More people attended than normal, given that it is one of the first local surgeries since we delivered the latest edition of East Acton Labour News in the area. This has got an unusually good reception, largely because it gave local residents the welcome news that the residents-only parking scheme has been agreed. I'd already had a number of phone calls during the week thanking us for the news, and four more people turned up at the surgery to talk about parking and traffic issues locally.

The first world war memorial in Acton Cemetery

I walked back via Acton Cemetery. The Cemetery lies between Park Royal Road and Chase Road in the ward, and is probably unique amongst London cemeteries in having a tube line run through it. The original cemetery dates from 1895, and includes a fine first world war memorial and an attractive chapel. It’s now largely closed to new burials, although there clearly have been a couple this year in plots bought before closure. The most notable grave for Actonians is probably that of Joseph Sparks – who was MP for Acton from 1945 to 1959, and an Acton Councillor or Alderman from 1934 to 1965. The old cemetery (south of the tube line) has many fine gravestones from the time when Acton was a suburb, whereas the newer section to the north has a number of unmarked graves. One of these is that of my great-grandmother Margaret Hunter Portwood, who died in 1933 in the house in which I now live.

The grave of Joe Sparks and his wife Dora - Mayor and Mayoress of Acton when I was born

I was impressed with the continuing high quality of maintenance of the cemetery. Back in 1992, the then (Tory) Council proposed to heavily reduce the maintenance, and I led one of the largest lobbies I have ever seen locally to defeat them. Ever since, I’ve kept a keen eye on this issue, given what the 1992 campaign showed about the affection and respect in which Acton Cemetery is held.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Remembering the Holocaust

Held my regular monthly surgery at ASDA from 11.00 to 12.00. This was again very successful, with people raising a wide range of issues including housing, youth provision, planning and even a health issue to take up with my PCT responsibilities. Only about half of the people seem to come from East Acton ward, but that’s more than enough to make this comfortably my busiest advice surgery.

All credit to ASDA for allowing me to do this – their only (very reasonable) condition is that I don’t say or give out anything party political. This is easier than people outside the Council might think – it’s a pretty sad individual who can find a lot of party politics in much of the byways of local government (although some do – no names, no pack drill – but we all know who they are).

When I went to their back office to register as a visitor, I was very impressed with the ASDA notices to their staff warning them not to sell alcohol to those underage. This has been a real problem, particularly in some off-licences. The Council have recently been running some ‘mystery customer’ test purchases at both large and small stores to test out whether they follow the law. In contrast to ASDA’s firm stance, at least one major superstore was caught breaking the law and given a warning (I’ll check if I’m allowed to name them on this blog).

Went on (still bikeless) to meet with Conservative Cllr Tony Brown, to discuss and agree a motion on Holocaust Memorial day that we’re putting to the next full Council meeting on 13th December. The fact that Tony and I are happy to work together like this is another example of where this Borough doesn’t let party politics get in the way of sensible partnership.

I was very concerned earlier in the year to see suggestions in some of the press urging that that Holocaust Memorial Day should be downgraded or changed in name. Thankfully, Charles Clarke as Home Secretary issued a very firm statement rejecting any such suggestion. Our Council was one of the first in British local government to organise a commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day, following a motion that I moved with all-party support. Therefore I thought it would be important for the Council to recognise and welcome what Charles Clarke had said, together with other recent developments, and to make a reaffirmation of our commitment to Holocaust Memorial Day and the principles upon which it is based.

The motion which we’ve drafted, and which I will move and Tony will second, reads as follows :


The Council recognises its role as one of the pioneers of local government commemoration of 27th January as Holocaust Memorial Day, and strongly believes in its continuing importance.

We were consequently concerned about suggestions from the media urging a downgrading of the national status of Holocaust Memorial Day, and warmly welcome the statement made by the Home Secretary in a letter to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust that “The Government remains totally committed to the commemoration as an annual national event, and has no plans to seek a change in its name or nature.”

The Council welcomes other recent national and international initiatives to further recognise and increase the role played by Holocaust Memorial Day, including :

* The designation by the United Nations General Assembly of 27th January as an annual International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust

* The announcement by the Chancellor of funding of £1.5 million to support the Holocaust Educational Trust's ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ course for teachers and sixth form students, which will allow the Trust to facilitate visits to Auschwitz for two students from every school in the UK

* Her Majesty the Queen becoming the Patron of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

The Council agrees to continue to see Holocaust Memorial Day as an occasion to raise awareness that, whilst the suffering of Jewish people in the Nazi Holocaust is and must remain central to the commemoration of Holocaust, the experiences of the Armenian diaspora and more recently in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo and Darfur are of crucial importance in understanding and preventing future holocaust. Above all, the Council recognises its moral duty to confront and seek to defeat anti-semitism, racism, xenophobia and all forms of persecution.

The Council resolves to continue to play its role in the commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day, recognising that events in 2006 will be centred on Thursday 26th January given that the 27th falls on the Jewish Sabbath”

Thursday, December 01, 2005

East Acton Pedestrians (now including me)

Tonight was the latest meeting of the East Acton Steering Group – which brings together East Acton Councillors, Residents Associations and Council Officers from across the LB Ealing/LB Hammersmith and Fulham boundary.

The really good news from the meeting is from the consultation with local residents about a much needed pedestrian crossing across Old Oak Common Lane from The Fairway to Fitzneal Street. I and local residents have been arguing for this for some time, and the money has now been made available by Transport for London. Residents have voted 86% in favour of the crossing, with a higher than usual response rate of 30%. This means that the works to create the crossing will start in the next few weeks, and should be finished by the end of January at the latest

Most of our work over the last year has been related to road safety works at the junction of Old Oak Common Lane and Du Cane Road. This has involve removing a mini-roundabout with uncontrolled crossings, and replacing it with traffic lights and light-controlled crossings. This scheme got over 80% approval on consultation, although has subsequently been subject to some complaints particularly about the length of the ‘green man’ phasing on the pedestrian crossings. Our ideal situation was to also have a pedestrian crossing roughly between the Iceland store and the Post Office – however Transport for London (TfL) would not allow this as it would be too close to the Western Avenue

At the recent Annual General Meeting of East Acton Residents Association, most people felt that the new arrangements were not perfect but better than the previous uncontrolled situation. There is a minority view against this, particularly from local businesses, although most people at the Residents Association meeting felt that the problem with local shops was with their quality and lack of choice rather than the traffic.

At the Steering Group meeting we moved on from the junction issue, to look at smaller scale improvements that could be made to the shopping area. This will include new bike parking stands at road level, new road markings to particularly assist buses, and environmental improvements.

Cycled off up Long Drive to get to Ealing Town Hall, and suddenly heard a painful crunching sound. The chain had come off its’ sprocket on my bike, and I couldn’t get it back on. Pushed the bike home in the rain, and rushed off to the East Acton tube station. Having not been able to cycle for over three years until July due to a knee injury, it’s very frustrating to lose the use of the bike even if only (hopefully) temporarily.

I was consequently late for the last meeting of the Flooding and Water Pressure Scrutiny Panel. We had a very useful discussion, making recommendations arising from our previous meetings (see previous posts), which I’ll summarise later when we agree our final report.

Went on afterwards for a chat with Paul Woodgate at the Kings Head. After Paul left, I went to the bar and suddenly realised that it was 11.15 and their new extended hours had come into operation. No bell at 10.50 had meant that I hadn’t rushed for my last pint. Something which I’ve spent a large part of the last year planning had happened without me noticing ! A leisurely and pleasant session followed, in total contrast to the Daily Mail image of mad binge boozing. Had to get the 207 home, which at least allowed me to inspect Bromyard Avenue at night, but I need to get the bike fixed for future later drinking.

The Kings Head in Acton (also known as 'Committee Room 3"
because of the number of Councillors who drink there)