Monday 30 April 2012

Private bidder to take over Treetops Nursery

The Save Treetops Nursery Facebook page is reporting that Brent Council has officially  accepted a private bid to run the nursery.  The nursery was designated for closure along with the Harmony nursery but parents swiftly organised a public campaign to keep it open.

An on-line petition to save both Treetops and Harmony gained 235 signatures.

 When the Council were adamant that they were not willing to fund the nursery the parents successfully campaigned for additional time to put a bid together themselves but encountered difficulty in raising the necessary funding

The takeover by a private company obviously raises the issue of affordability of fees as well as how the parents, who have been so involved and committed, will be represented in the new set up.

Meanwhile on Saturday Cllr Ann John leader of Brent Council will be at Harmony Children's Centre, where the Council closed the nursery, to present certificates to parents who have taken part in the 12 week, Strengthening Families, Strengthening Communities (SFSC) course.

I leave it to readers to decide whether Ann John herself would deserve an award for her work in strengthening families and strengthening communities.

Has anyone seen any Tories in Chalkhill?

It looks as if campaigners in the Barnhill by-election are going to have one sunny day before polling takes place on Thursday and I will be out and about all day today.

A certain camaraderie developed yesterday when I encountered Labour canvassers on Chalkhill with us all dressed as if for an ascent of a rain and windswept Welsh mountain.  Soggy leaflets are even worse when printed with environmentally friendly vegetable based ink on recycled paper!

Although I have seen their leaflets I have still not encountered one Conservative canvasser which makes them rarer than a Boris bus.

As always when canvassing in Brent I am struck by the tremendous variation within one ward.  However there are surprises such as the resident in a mock-Tudor villa at the top of Barn Hill who spoke out in favour of squatting as a way of protecting some of the empty properties in the area from deterioration.

On the Chalkhill Estate I encountered some real militancy against the Tories based on national issues and there was often a residual reflexive support for Labour until we got into a discussion about the Labour council's record.

Contrasting images of Barnhill ward

Making the most from  small garden on Chalkhill
Sunday morning waiting for ASDA to open
Mock Tudor on Barn Hill Estate
Fly-tipping on Chalkhill Estate

Front garden, Shakespeare Drive
Bluebells on Barn Hill

The site of the proposed Chalkhill Park

Sunday 29 April 2012

Ann John makes a bid to be Brent's Humpty Dumpty

Ann John, the leader of Brent Council is quoted in the Kilburn Times as saying that the report on licensing of free literature is clear and purely about preventing litter.

It wasn't clear to the Council's communication team who issued an apology to the Times for 'issuing an inaccurate statement' on which the Times report was based. Michael Read, Assistant Director of Environment and Neighbourhood Services had to write to the Times to 'clarify any confusion' about the 'clear' report.

And of course Brent's own 'Mr Confused', Cllr Powney, accused us of 'inventing a campaign' when in fact the Council had misinformed the public with their original 'inaccurate' statement.

What is clear is that the only reference to exemptions in the document is:

3.4 These powers do not apply to materials promoting charities, for religious purposes or for political purposes.

So now Cllr Ann John throws her own interpretation into the ring by saying , in response to concerns voiced by Tony Antonio chairman of Brent Safer Neighbourhoods, that their literature does not not fall into the exempt category because they are a group of volunteers, not a charity, that 'The exemptions include community safety literature'.

This is just not true if you look at 3.4 above which are the only exemptions listed. Nowhere does the document mention 'community safety literature'.  This illustrates the problem and the weakness  that campaigners have been highlighting. It is not good enough for Ann John, James Powney or any officer to make up exemptions as they go along with nothing in writing. This opens the way to political, social, generational or even ethnic bias and potential legal action.

Ann John puts herself in the position of Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass:
  "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."

The housing emergency that will soon devastate Brent families

The entrance to a Chalkhill block of flats
 "They are making the poor, poorer," was the reaction of one parent when Chalkhill Primary School held a briefing about the Coalition's welfare reforms.

The school, recognising that many of its families would be hit in the near future had arranged for Reed in Partnership and Brent Housing to explain what was happening and 50 or so parents attended the meeting on Friday morning.

As the parents realised,that their lives were about to be turned upside down, the anxiety in the room deepened.

Brent Housing admitted there was little good news but emphasised the need for planning ahead of the main impact of the changes which will hit in April 2013.  They offered advice on how to bid for properties and transfers for council and housing association tenants (Call 020 8937 5211) and help for those renting in the private sector (020 8937 5211/4441/2369).

They suggested that the reforms might mean moving to Barnet or Harrow or further afield for some tenants. They were able to offer to help negotiate new rents with private landlords when the London Housing Allowance (LHA) no longer covered the full rent, perhaps with a 9 month protection if the rent was increased pending finding new accommodation.

For many, the combination of the reduced Housing Benefit,. the overall income cap, changes in the hours needing to be worked for Working Tax credit, and the likely charging of at least 20% council tax to all but the most vulnerable,  will bring about a drastic reduction in income The red columns add up to the £500 weekly limit):
Household size
Total Income
(IS/JSA, CTC, CB –approx)
Max HB from April 2013
LHA rate South Brent
LHA rate North Brent
2  adults, 2 children
£290 (2 bed rate)
£219.23 (2 bed rate)
2 adults, 3 children
£340 (3 bed rate)
£288.46 (3 bed rate)
2 adults, 4 children
£400 (4 bed rate)
£346.15 (4 bed rate)
2 adults, 5 children
2 adults,  6 children




It is clear that many families will not have enough to spend on food, heating and necessities after rent has been paid and thus will have no option but to move out of London unless they can find work.

This was where Reed In Partnership came in with its offer to help 'progression into work' , emphasising that it was not 'forcing people into work'. They offered:
  • Individual appointments to make 'better off' calculations comparing income from work with income from benefits. 
  • Opportunities to go on courses, develop English language skills, and help looking for long-term sustainable jobs.
  • Step by step help with housing, childcare, budgeting, connection with appropriate programme
  • Help into volunteer activities that would contribute to a CV
  • Help with interview skills and appropriate clothing
  • Help with public transport , providing travel cards while waiting for first pay packet
A mother who had received help from the programme spontaneously stood and said how much it had helped her. She said that they had helped her buy clothes for her job interview and that now she was employed she was better off than when she was on benefit and less socially isolated at home.

Reed In Partnership contacts: Marilyn Grundy 07534 189 557
Wembley Works, Forum House, Lakeside Way, HA9 0BU
Sessions: May 3, 17, 31 9am-noon

I am sceptical that with the numbers of people involved and with current high levels of unemployment in Brent how many people will be able to benefit but it clearly offered some a glimmer of hope. However for some mothers with very young children at home it does not seem to be an option. For many moving to 'cheaper' areas, probably with even fewer job opportunities (that's one reason why property is cheap after all) will be the only alternative to penury.  While Reed claims it isn't doing the forcing it is clear that the policy is doing just that and agencies such as Reed deliver that policy on behalf of the government.

Overall, the impact of all this must be to increase the number of children living in poverty with inevitable consequences for health and educational progress. If families are forced to move out of London children's schooling will be disrupted and nuclear families will be separated from support from their extended families and communities, finding themselves isolated and possibly facing racism and prejudice from the receiving communities.

According to Saturday's Guardian, back in 1994, Housing Minister Grant Shapps stood in what they call the London ward that represented Chalkhill, then a notorious concrete block estate.  Shapps boasts, "My brilliant slogan was 'Vote for me on Thursday and we'll start knocking your house down on Friday', and I came within 103 votes of taking a safe Labour ward".

I would like Shapps to come back to the Chalkhill Estate and  talk to people whose lives he and his Coalition colleagues are about to wreck.
It appears to me that this government is like the military, making war and killing people in a far away country. by clicking on a computer screen. They are as remote from the lives of ordinary people in places like Chalkhill and the impact these 'reforms' will have on their lives, as those military personnel were from the lives of ordinary people in Iraq. I suppose the question is are they oblivious to the consequences, or is that what they want?

For more on these issues go to this article LINK

The Chalkhill meeting showed the importance of outreach work by the Council at a venue where they can meet families affected by the welfare 'reforms' and rise awareness of the issues. I hope other schools will hold similar meetings.

From Shelter

Missing, presumed losing...Brent Lib Dems

I asked nearly  month again why the Liberal Democrats were not standing in the Barnhill by-election. This week they broke their silence telling the Brent and Kilburn Times that they did not stand in order to focus their efforts on the London Assembly and Mayoral elections.

Strangely enough I haven't received any leaflets from them on the GLA and Mayoral election. It has been refreshing to fight a by-election without a plethora of Lib Dem leaflets  and their often misleading presentation. The candidates in the Barnhill by-election have been straightforward with more of a focus on policies.

 I suspect that the Lib Dem leadership recognise that in Alison Hopkins in Dollis Hill they had an exceptional candidate with deep local roots and connections but who nonetheless had a narrow win. They have retained Cllr Rev David Clues in Dudden Hill despite his move to Brighton, thus avoiding putting a Lib Dem seat at risk.

Saturday 28 April 2012

No who, what, when, why on breach of standards

At 2pm on Monday the Standards Committee of Brent Council is holding a Special Meeting to discuss an allegation of a breach of the Council's Code of Conduct. A report has been tabled giving the results of the investigation but it is 'restricted' that means only the Committee has sight of it at this stage.

The Committee has five members: Independents -Angela Ruotolo (Chair), Sola Afuape (Vice Chair) and Cllr Beck (Liberal Democrat), Cllr Colwill (Conservative) and Cllr Gladbaum (Labour).

As a citizen very interested in the standards of Brent councillors I would like to report more along the lines of who, what, when and why, but the information above is all that we are allowed to know.

Friday 27 April 2012

Why Labour should not embrace free schools - by a Labour MP

As Brent Labour ponders whether to set up a free school with a partner in the borough they may be interested in this article in the New Statesman by Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for Wigan.

Andrew Adonis’s argument in the New Statesman last month that Labour should embrace free schools is selective, outdated and, in part, simply wrong.

In reality, free schools do not have the comprehensive and inclusive intake he claims. The catchment areas of the first 24 free schools tend to favour the better off, and consequently are populated by "middle class suburban people” according to research by the market analysts CACI. All of them take fewer children on free school meals than surrounding schools. At the West London Free School, for example, 23 per cent of pupils are eligible for free lunches, compared with 32 per cent in the five neighboring schools.

This is not an accident – it is inherent in the free schools model. The pattern has also emerged in Sweden, which pioneered free schools, where evidence suggests that free schools increase social segregation because they are, according to the Swedish Education Minister “generally attended by children of better educated and wealthy families making things even more difficult for children attending ordinary schools in poor areas.”

This backdoor selection is sanctioned by the Secretary of State, who says free schools must adhere to the admissions code, but allows "agreed variations", which have only been made public in response to freedom of information requests.

The problem with focusing only on free schools, as Adonis has done, is that schools are not islands. Tony Blair said a school “belonged to itself, for itself.” But schools are part of their community and what happens in one has an impact on children in another. Adonis ignores the enormous impact free schools have on other children, based on a model of surplus places, where good schools flourish and expand while others wither and die. This is great news for children, unless you happen to be stuck in a school with spare places and reduced funding while it is allowed to wither on the grapevine.

Similarly, the amount spent on free schools cannot fail to impact on other children. The amount spent per pupil in the first free schools is well above average, in part because the schools are smaller and because they are running at reduced capacity for the first few years. The West London Free School, for example, received £12,416 per pupil in its first year, compared to an average of £7,064. In addition, the set up costs are huge.
 The first round of capital funding amounted to £50 million which included £14 million for just one school building. Total capital costs for just the first 24 schools will range from £100-£130 million whilst nearly 100 civil servants are working on the free schools initiative in Whitehall. At a time when other schools are facing a real terms cut to their budgets over the next 3 years this seems shockingly unfair.

Adonis rightfully acknowledges the importance of teachers, as most politicians do, but is anyone actually listening to them? He argues for more centrally driven change, but visit any classroom across the country and teachers will tell you they are sick and tired of central reform.

The international evidence is clear, that autonomy and accountability work. But that points us away from Michael Gove’s free schools model which has taken away local accountability in the form of the local authority and centralised power in the hands of the Secretary of State.

We should be handing more power to teachers, not to Gove, increasing, not reducing local accountability and improving collaboration, not competition for places, so that children – particularly the most disadvantaged - are not left behind.

In practice this would mean teachers having more flexibility to decide what, how and when they teach. They might, for example, choose to teach by ability not year groups, and other forms of innovation that should be possible in any school, regardless of structure. It should be coupled with investment in lifelong learning and serious thinking about what happens to children outside the classroom, which matters above all to the children who most need our help.

Adonis looks to Singapore for lessons, but on a select committee visit to the country this year, ministers told us they were keen to learn from Britain about how to better equip their children for life and for the workforce. Similarly, Finland, which we visited last year, succeeds because of the status, pay and conditions of teachers, yet free schools can use unqualified teachers and are not required to adhere to national pay and conditions agreements. Michael Wilshaw, who Adonis cites as a champion of this model, was critical of the use of unqualified teachers at a recent appearance before the education select committee.

Adonis seems to have bought into Gove’s vision – that introducing competition, taking away "bureaucracy" and pursuing a relentless academic vision allows the brightest young people to do well, regardless of background. Gove ignores - and indeed has removed help for - the enormous practical barriers that exist for those children.

Free schools are part of that vision. To paraphrase Andy Burnham, it’s a vision for some children, and some schools, not all children and all schools. Labour can do better than that.
Lisa Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan.

Brent Fightback campaigns for free distribution of literature

Brent Fightback will be meeting on Monday April 30th 7.30pm at the Trades Hall, 375 Willesden High Road, NW1O 2JR (nearest tube Dollis Hill)  Among the items for discussion is the Council's scheme to license the distribution of free literature in designated areas of the borough.

Fightback write:
Attached is the report that last Monday's Brent Council Executive rubber stamped. It would require anyone distributing free literature - leaflets or newspapers - to apply for a licence (costing £175 and £75 to renew) 14 days in advance and then pay £65 per distributor per day or either £100 or £110 according to which paragraph you read if leaflets are given out before 8.00 am or after 6.00 pm. Distributors would have to wear an ID badge obtained from the Council and a hi-viz jacket provided by the 'promoter'. There are exemptions for the distribution of printed matter:
(a) by or on behalf of a charity within the meaning of the Charities Act 1993, where the printed matter relates to or is intended for the benefit of the charity
(b) where the distribution is for political purposes or for the purposes of religion or belief

Two Fightback supporters spoke at the executive but the points we raised and the questions we asked were ignored and brushed aside. Councillors insisted that the regulations were purely and simply designed to cut down on litter, but we believe that they could have dangerous implications for free speech and civil rights and that they are far from clear and transparent. This article from the Guardian spells out some of the adverse effects regulations like this have had when imposed by other councils:

See overview of the issue in the Guardian HERE
This pamphlet from the Manifesto Club spells them out in even more detail HERE

We are asking the Council to spell out clearly whom the regulations are intended to target - are they just aimed at commercial firms employing people to give out large numbers of leaflets or free newspapers? If so, that should be made clear in the regulations, if not there will be really harmful effects for small businesses, arts organisations, community groups, jazz and comedy clubs and others who only want to distribute small numbers of leaflets and who could not possibly afford the massive fees proposed in these regulations.

What is included in 'political purposes'? This is the term used in the enabling legislation, but it is extremely ambiguous. It probably includes anti-war, anti-cuts and anti-fascist campaigning and certainly includes leaflets given out by political parties, but would it include leaflets supporting the Palestinian cause, campaigns against library closures, privatisation or climate change, for fairtrade, Friends of the Earth, support for striking workers?

The exemptions spelled out in the regulations as passed on Monday would not apply to community groups organising say, coffee mornings, to parent teacher associations advertising school concerts, to someone drawing attention to a plant sale at the farmers' market, to a newly opened restaurant or hairdresser letting people know that they are there, to a window cleaner setting up in business, pop-up shops the organisers of art exhibitions, supplementary schools, comedy clubs, music gigs ....... None of these could afford the licence fees, so they would either be unable to advertise their events or be forced to defy the regulations and risk prosecution. 
It would also be very unfair on the Council officers or police who will be expected to enforce confusing regulations.

There are also inconsistencies and  mistakes in the drafting of these regulations, and an assertion that there are no diversity or equality implications, which is questionable - some minority groups will be prevented from advertising their activities and their free newspapers will be banned.
We believe that unless they are drastically revised and clarified, these regulations should be opposed. We think ALL voluntary small scale literature distribution even if it is not for charities, religious or political purposes, should be exempted from the regulations or they should be dropped altogether. 
If you are among the groups that could be affected by the regulations as they stand PLEASE CONTACT YOUR LOCAL COUNCILLORS OR ALL THE COUNCILLORS (their email addresses are on the Council website .
The Kilburn and Brent Times alerted us to the dangers posed by these regulations and will continue to carry the story. We are grateful to them, but please spread the word to anyone you know who is involved in groups or activities that could be affected. If they persist in bringing these regulations in unchanged, we need to launch objections but also to take united action to challenge them.
Come to the Fightback meeting to discuss how to continue the fight against these proposals.

Green Party saw the double dip recession coming

The Green Party was the only one of the main political parties to question the basis of the policy to implement cuts Economic Voice said today. The Green Party's  economic adviser Dr Molly Scott Cato argued that cuts would be counter productive.

Economic Voice writes:
Molly argues that politicians are looking at the ‘economy’ in the wrong way. They see council or government spending as an ‘expense’ that must be minimised. For many politicians who have run businesses cutting back on these expenses would seem to be the logical and understandable thing to do as it is exactly what they would do for their own business.

But the problem, says Molly, is that when making cuts you should understand the ‘boundaries’ of your business. For a small business this is relatively easy to define and understand. But when dealing with local government for example, your business boundary encompasses all the businesses and household etc within the local economy.

Any money that is spent within the local economy should therefore be looked at as an income, rather than as an expense. What politicians should be doing is minimising leakage from the local economy, not strangling spending within it. “To cut your own budgets to the bone, or not to spend money budgeted in this period, is like cutting your own income rather than cutting your own outgoings,” she says.

By cutting back on local and central government spending within the ‘boundaries’ we are adversely affecting the circulation of money she says. This then leads to shrinkage, a lower tax take and a growing deficit (sound familiar?)

Full article HERE

Thursday 26 April 2012

Now it's time for James Powney to apologise

The Brent Executive approved plans to licence leafleting in designated areas, along with a hefty overall free and additional charges per leafleter, on Monday evening. Sarah Cox and I both spoke against the proposals pointing out the lack of clarity about exemptions, the impact on small businesses and those organising events, the absence of any substantial research on the success or otherwise of such schemes in the past, and the failure to give any information on how the policy would be enforced. Sarah even pointed out discrepancies within the document on charges.

Sarah Cox, speaking for Brent Fightback,  challenged Cllr James Powney's attack on the Brent and Kilburn Times in his blog LINK which implied that the campaign against the scheme  was an invention.  Sarah quite rightly pointed out that the BKT story was based on the Council's own statement to a journalist and said, 'It is absolutely right that the local press has been vigilant and brought this to the attention of the people of Brent".

However in his response to our speeches, Powney again had a go at the reporter about inaccuracy, despite her waving a copy of the Council's e-mail from her seat.

Now in today's Brent and Kilburn Times there is a letter from Michael Read, Assistant Director of Environment and Neighbourhood Services, which seeks to 'clarify any confusion about the powers the council has just agreed' and confirms that the exemption will cover campaigning for political purposes, such as local library campaigners'.

He does not admit that the 'confusion' arose from the council's own e-mail to the reporter, which followed the reporters request for clarification.

There is an Editor's note at the end of Michael Read's letter stating:
Brent Council's communication team has issued an apology to the Times for issuing an inaccurate statement on which our original report was based.
It is obviously up to the BKT to decide what to do but my personal view is that Cllr Powney also owes the paper,  and its senior reporter,  an apology.

Below are notes from the speech I made on Monday:
 Talking to people about these proposals over the weekend I was told both that they were a 'farce' and that they were 'fascist'. I think the truth lies somewhere between the two!

Cllr Powney will say we've got it all wrong - it always was meant to be 'political purposes' and not 'political parties' but the Brent and Kilburn Times reporter stands by her quote from the Council and is circulating the council's e-mail here tonight.
“Licensing will only apply to certain streets in Brent.  Charities would be exempt from these new rules and political parties would be exempt during election times."
This is not semantics. The danger is that the Council's interpretation is so narrow that it will affect campaigns. There needs to be precise definitions in the documentation.
Cllr Powney will also say that this is not new and is merely updating of powers but this is not stated in the report and there is no detail or assessment of effectiveness of previous policy.
Cllr John has said we've got it all wrong and it is only about commercial leafleting but again this is not stated  in the report.
Putting aside the political dimension what about small businesses?
Can you imagine the poor contestants of the Apprentice setting up a small shop on Wembley High Road and trying to drum up business?
Let's give out some leaflets... Oh, we have to give 14 days notice....and apply for  licence....and we have to wear a high visibility vest...oh, we have to have 'Authorised Distributor' printed on it...and a badge with our licence number...and pay £175 upfront plus £75 daily for each distributor...and check whether our distributor has been done for littering in the last year.
The Council is in danger of making itself a laughing stock. The Executive should send this poorly written report back to be properly researched and rewritten - they cannot vote for such an unclear policy.

Jenny Jones back in top three Mayoral candidates

Jenny Jones is again polling third in the London Mayoral elections, according to Comres figures released this morning.

The Green Party candidate received a total of 6% of the vote in the poll, behind front-runners Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson.

Jones said: “The Mayoral contest is still open and I’m pleased we are being counted in the top three parties this year.

“Polling is of course volatile, unpredictable and often unreliable, but I’m pleased that this election gives the Green Party an opportunity to provide an alternative vision to the Punch and Judy politics that have dominated the race—and British politics in general.

“We’re showing ourselves to be the only party willing to stand up for the people of London, their health and their homes, the principles of equality and fairness and helping to ensure London leads the way on the environment and the economy.

“This election is not just about who becomes Mayor. The most important decision Londoners can make next week is to vote Green on the Assembly to ensure whoever becomes Mayor is held to account and City Hall can build a better London for all.”

The results can be found HERE  (table 5)

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Scrubs Lane fire adds to Brent's air pollution

Local people were advised to to keep doors and windows closed yesterday to keep out toxic fumes and smoke after a scrap metal recycling facility caught fire in Scrubs Lane. As well as the metal itself the scrap also contained oil.

The fire highlights the potential problems involved in having so many scrap and recycling sites in Brent with several around Neasden and Park Royal. The Green Party is currently campaigning on the issue of air quality in London.

Powney, Prague and Democracy

Cllr James Powney
I have crossed swords with Labour Councillor James Powney often but I gladly acknowledge that my comments on his blog  have alway been published. This is democracy in action and welcome but there are concerns about the Labour Council's broader attitude to democracy.

In a recent post LINK he said:

'Recently, as part of the entirely artificial concern over regulating leaflet distribution, Brent Council has been accused of being Stalinist.  I thought this was a term of abuse, but given that the accusation came from someone on the extreme left perhaps it was intended as a compliment.'

In fact I think the most recent comment came from an ordinary 'non-political' member of the public but I believe in the broad political sense of top down, controlling, intolerant of dissent, knowing better than the 'people' what is good for them, that it has some justification when applied to Brent Council. I am not suggesting that Ann John will be sending dissidents to the salt mines of South Kilburn.

Rather than comment on James' blog about this I thought that a posting here, at greater length would help explain where I am coming from. His remark ignores the long battle between Stalinism and other leftwing currents, culminating of course in Trotsky's death by icepick but continuing into the late twentieth century with echoes still.

I started work at 16 and after a spell as a messenger in an advertising agency moved to Reuters News Agency and joined the print union Natsopa (now defunct). Union membership helped politicise me and I did a TUC postal course in economics.  As a union activist I soon found myself in conflict with the Communist Party dominated National Executive and the General Secretary, Richard Briginshaw (known as 'the Brig').

When we sought to make the union structure more democratic Briginshaw called us 'anarchist outriders' but we continued to struggle despite having the rule book hurled at us on numerous occasions.One of the main protagonists in this battle was a man called John Lawrence who had made the journey from Communist to Trotskyist and by the time I met him to socialist libertarianism/anarchism. He worked for the Press Association which shared the same building, 85 Fleet Street, as Reuters. 

Lawrence was one of the few truly charismatic people I have met and was a great influence. His political and activist history is incredibly rich and you can find out more HERE As a child back in 1956 I had taken an interest in news reports about the Hungarian Revolution as a consequence of seeing the arrival of refugees from Hungary and my interest in Eastern Europe continued.

At Reuters I had a good and politically stimulating friendship with Kurt Weisskopf,  a Czechoslovakian journalist who had lost family and friends in the German invasion and the Holocaust as well as under later communist purges.  Despite, or perhaps because of all this, he was passionately committed to social revolution and democracy and as the Stalinist regime began to crumble he dared to hope for liberalisation in Czechoslovakia and had many contacts in Prague.

I made an overland trip to the Soviet Union in  1968 days after Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Prague. I took some western newspapers into East Berlin having passed through Checkpoint Charlie after delays caused by troop movements. I was soon surrounded by youth hungry for news of what was happening in the West and events in Prague. Their eagerness had a dark edge and as they talked they kept looking around fearfully to see if our conversation was being observed. Suddenly, as police were spotted they scattered. 

The ending of the Prague Spring
Returning to London I found a devastated Kurt who despite everything was still continuing to debate in the Old Codgers (the pub that formed part of 85 Fleet Street) with a journalist from Tass, the official Soviet news agency, as well as members of the British Communist Party who sought to justify the Soviet intervention.

For us, 1968 was much more about Eastern Europe than the events in Paris or even those at the LSE, just down the road from Fleet Street.
The battle against the 'Tankies' in Natsopa intensified.

In 1969 I travelled to Prague, now under Russian occupation, with a list of names and addresses provided by Kurt. These were members of the Czech Communist Party and others who had supported liberalisation. In  January 1969 Jan Palach had set fire to himself in Wencelas Square in protest against the suppression of free speech and the atmosphere in Prague was very tense.

My attempts to trace Kurt's friends gave me a small taste of living under an authoritarian regime. It made a profound and disturbing impact on me, which helped shape my attitude to human and civil rights and championing of democracy. I was young and rather naive at the time and seeing the terror on a journalist's face when I called at his office shook me. 

"There are informers here," he hissed as he roughly grabbed my arm and marched me out the street to a cafe, looking behind him anxiously all the time to see if we were being followed. It became clear in an accidental way that the authorities were aware of me when a hotel reception called me 'Mr Reuter' when I had not given any information about my job.  Visiting one contact 20 miles outside of Prague I got up early to take a 5.30am bus so as to shake off anyone trailing me.  When I left the contact asked me to take a bulky parcel of manuscripts with me to post in the UK. When he told me that this was the script of a children's book by his daughter, destined for a publisher, I accepted that was what I was to tell the police or the Russian military if I was intercepted.

Back in London Kurt was keen to hear the news and long after the events, I still feel guilty that I was so disturbed by  the experience, as well as not always fully understanding some of the conversations because of the 'code' in which they necessarily had to take place because of the fear of eavesdroppers, that I could not satisfy his desperate need for both news and analysis.

I was reporting the London Stock Exchange at the time, but was also a union representative and the contradictions of the two roles led me to an interest in ideology and consciousness, which it turn stimulated an interest in teaching . I left Reuters and became a mature entrant to teacher training . I entered the profession in 1975 where once again I found myself in battle with a CP dominated union leadership that wanted to maintain control and squash any alternative voices.

So what, you may well be asking if you have stayed with me this far, has this got to do with Brent Labour Council?  I am committed to transparent and open democracy, from the bottom up rather than the top down. I reject the concept of democratic centralism. I want to work with others on campaigns because of shared aims, not because I want to recruit them to a political organisation. I challenge ideas such as 'leaders know best what is in the objective interests of the people' and attributions of 'false consciousness' or 'bourgeois individualism' to opponents.

I honestly believe that in a low key sort of way that is how Brent Labour works. Ann John's control is rigid.  Despite a comfortable majority and  the controversial decisions that have had to be made, there has not been a single, even minor rebellion. We can expect the Executive to maintain silence because of 'cabinet collective responsibility' but not one councillor backbencher has stood up publicly against a single policy except perhaps Claudia Hector on the Old Willesden Library. Privately Labour councillors have told me that pressure is put on them with the message that if they step out of line they cannot expect preferment. A similar message is given to Labour Party members seeking candidate nomination for by-elections.

So we get messages that some councillors and occasionally members of the Executive disagree with particular policies but there is no open debate. This contrasts, and I know it is only a small example, with the way  opposing views of two Liberal Democrat councillors were put forward, in front of the public, at the recent Executive discussion on the Willesden Green Regeneration project.

In addition we have cuts presented in guises such as 'transformation', consultations that tick boxes rather than change anything,  partial information and a general approach of 'we know best' with opponents stereotyped as middle class, nimbys or special interest groups. Cllr Powney's recent attack on the local press has added a further and dangerous dimension as also the 'innocent' leaflet licensing proposals which we are told is nothing to do with control but just about litter.

In my formative years there were still fascist regimes in Europe in Spain and Portugal, a racist one in South Africa, military dictatorships on several continents as well as Stalinist regimes. In the UK there was even a shadowy plot in 1968, ridiculed at the time,when Cecil King owner of Mirror Group Newspapers met Lord Mountbatten and others to discuss the overthrow of Harold Wilson's government to be replaced by one headed by Mountbatten.

We must be vigilant and if this means being a 'pain in the arse' as apparently I am seen by some in the Council, so be it. Democracy is too precious to be surrendered, even at the local level.

At the Executive on Monday  I did not have time to read out the quote I had prepared  from the Czech human rights activist, playwright and President,  Vaclav Havel.  I wanted to remind them about the role of politics:
Genuine politics-even politics worthy of the name-the only politics I am willing to devote myself to- is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community and serving those who come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is a responsibility through action, to and for the whole.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Cheers as Keep Willesden Green petitioners refuse to give up

Outside Brent Town Hall yesterday evening
The public gallery

There was standing room only at Brent Town Hall last night when the Keep Willesden Green Campaign presented  their petition to the Brent Council Executive.

Miki Berenji, in a speech frequently interrupted by prolonged applause, accused the Council  of treating residents as if they were little children who didn't know what was good for them. After detailing the issues including poor consultation, loss of the old Victorian Library, public space and the the Willesden Bookshop she said that residents wanted a say in what was to be their Cultural Centre. Compared with the current library centre there was no gain for residents.

Miki said that campaigners knew that as far as the  Council is concerned it is a matter of come along, say your piece, but our minds are already made up.  Clearly the Campaign was not going to let the matter rest there.

The audience was infuriated when Cllr George Crane, lead member for Regeneration n Major Projects, said that his personal view was that the Victorian Library had no architectural merit. His concessions on the possibility of a 'bookshop space in the cafeteria' , a small increase the outdoor space, and a 'celebration of the Victorian building' within the new building were greeted with derision.

Crane said that he saw no useful purpose in stopping and reflecting (he missed out the word 'listen') and said that the planning period would give an opportunity to reflect. 

Two Liberal Democrat Councillors spoke on opposite sides of the debate. Cllr Gavin Sneddon supported the petitioners and said that the current disillusion with the Council could happen under any administration. He contrasted the fait accompli regarding Willesden  Green development with the grass roots, from first principles involvement of local people with the  Harlesden Town Plan.

He asked Ann John, as Brent Council has instigated the project, that no pressure (which is illegal) would be put on councillors on the Planning Committee to approve the developer's planning application.

Cllr Ann Hunter said that the petitioners represented only one side of local opinion and that there were other residents who were in favour of the scheme and wanted to look forward to the future.  She had been told by previous councillors for the area that the 1980s building was itself a compromise because of the strong feelings local people had over the retention of the Victorian Library.

Ann John did not take the opportunity to give the assurance requested by Cllr Sneddon.