Wednesday 1 January 2014

Battling Brent in 2013

Brent was a battlefield in 2013 as campaigners challenged both the Coalition's attack on the welfare state and the Labour Council's 'dented shield' approach to cuts.  Some of these campaigns made national headlines, many were unsuccessful, some won minor concessions and there were a few victories.

 The Home Office campaign to send a van round around areas of high diversity, including Brent, urging immigrant to 'Go Home' aroused immediate opposition which was spear-headed by Brent ace tweeter @PukkahPunjabi using the #racistvan tag. A mixture of mobilisations when vans were spotted, photoshopped parodies, official complaints to tha ASA and EHRC, and protests by politicians including Muhammed Butt led eventually to the vans being dropped.

Following revelations by the BBC that two Willesden letting agencies were colluding with landlords who did not want Black tenants there was another speedy mobilisation by campaigners which was supported by some Labour councillors and some of the Labour candidates for the Brent Central parliamentary nomination. Council leader Muhammed Butt said he would speak to Brent Trading Standards officers about the issue but I have not yet heard of any outcome.

Brent Council was the target for a a demonstration outside Willesden Magistrates Court when the Council summonsed 3,300 people for non-payment of Council Tax. These were low-income people, already hit by benefit cuts, often having to pay the tax for the first time after the Council introduced its Council Tax Support scheme. Council leader Muhammed Butt argued that the summonses were the only way to get to talk to the people affected. The Council later revealed in an under-publicised 'consultation' that it wanted to continue the scheme with just a few tweaks.

The Counihan-Sanchez Family Campaign which began when Brent Council made a local family homeless, broadened out into a campaign on local housing taking up issues regarding the bedroom tax, benefit cuts and evictions. Brent Housing Action was formed to link activists, tenants and housing organisations in a united campaign which also covered Brent's growing private rented sector. The Kilburn Unemployed Workers' group developed  its work of defending and supporting unemployed workers through regular meetings to share experiences and ideas.

Gladstone Park Primary parents formed an action group to oppose the school's forced academisation following a poor Ofsted report. They demanded a democratic say in the school's future and urged the Council to support them in arguing that the school, supported by the local authority had the capacity to improve. Unequivocal support was not forthcoming and eventually governors having argued for the right to choose their own sponsor chose CfBT. The parents' campaign put forward the idea of a federation with an 'outstanding' school in Camden as an alternative but the Council turned this down only for the idea to emerge again last month with the head of that school being appointed as Executive head before CfBT took over in April 2014. Unfortunately that fell through when Camden decided that because of changing circumstances  at her school they no longer supported her appointment to Gladstone Park. The school is left in limbo for the Spring term.

Copland High School was similarly faced with forced academisation following a poor Ofsted.
The school, already suffering financial problems because of the bonus scandal and a very poor building, had an Interim Executive Board imposed on it by Brent Council and a new management that swiftly made staff redundant and life uncomfortable for those remaining. A pupil petition in support of  the school staff brought no response from the Council and lead member for Children and Families, Michael Pavey, declared there was 'no alternative to academisation'.

At a public meeting Pavey later said that the academy sponsor would not necessarily be Ark, despite the fact that pupils had been sent a letter announcing the appointment of Delia Smith of Ark as Executive head teacher.  Copland unions have come out on strike several times against academisation and for a democratic ballot of all involved and will continue the battle in 2014.

The fragmentation of education in the borough continued with the approval by Michael Gove of three secondary free school to open in September 2014. The most controversial is the Michaela Community School, the brain child of Katharine Birbalsingh, who wowed the Tory Conference years ago with her account of teaching in a comprehensive school. In a minor victory Michaela was forced to take down a huge banner on their proposed building for which they had not had planning permission. More importantly an FoI request established that they school had received only 50 first preferences for 120 Year 7 places. The other two schools, Gladstone and,Gateway, whilst recruiting Year 7s for 2014 have still not got premises.

Brent Fightback, sponsored by Brent Trade Union Council, has been active in many of these campaigns and was central to the campaign to save Central Middlesex A&E from closure under the Shaping a Healthier Future proposals. Unfortunately Brent Council failed to rise to the occasion and did not offer the same degree of support as Ealing Council did for their local campaign on Ealing Hospital. Although they joined in the march to Save Central Middlesex they did not advertise their opposition, circulate leaflets or hold public meetings as Ealing had done. They only belatedly came out in opposition and support the campaign that Fightback and Save Our NHS were fighting. The closure of A&E was approved by the Secretary of State and there are currently consultations on the future of the site, including its use as a 'hub' for a variety of activities.

There was also a huge national campaign in defence of the NHS and its privatisation in which Brent campaigners played a part. Privatisation involves out-sourcing service such as Blood Transfusion as well as smaller ones in particular NHS districts. In Brent you can often find yourself referred to a private service by your GP and the battle to ensure that local commission groups procure from within the NHS is a continuing battle.

The Bin Veolia in Brent Campaign challenged Brent Council on ethical procurement. They argued that council tax money should not go to Veolia, a company that profits from its operations in  support of  illegal settlements in Occupied Palestine. Labour councillors refused to make a political decision but instead hid behind legal arguments from officers. Despite support for the campaign from thousands of local residents, the Trade Union Council, Brent Central Labour GC, Hampstead & Kilburn Labour GC and potential Labour parliamentary candidates as wellas the Lib Dem Council opposition, Brent Council approved the awarding of the contract to Veolia.

During the campaign Executive members at times spoke about the possibility of the Council adopting an ethical procurement policy but little has been heard of it since. The Council has continued to out-source services and has refused to answer, on grounds of cost, my Freedom of Information request asking how many of its out-sourced suppliers and services pay the London Living Wage.

Brent Green Party consistently opposed the building of a new £100m Civic Centre as a grandiose and wasteful vanity project. It is now open and has encountered problems with IT and its telephone system. In a fairly typical PR failure the Council spent more than £90,000 on an opening ceremony claiming this was a tiny drop of expenditure amidst the millions of pounds cut from their budget by the Coalition.

Brent Council has a policy of selling off its land to developers to help finance new facilities which they then claim are 'at no cost to residents'. They approved the redevelopment of Willesden Green Library which involved a land transfer to Galliford Try in exchange for a new Cultural Centre to replace the Willesden Green Library Centre.  The Cultural Centre  will have a smaller foorprint than the Library Centre and will not include space for the Willesden Bookshop.

The luxury flats built by the developer went on sale in Singapore with a unique selling point: assuring would be purchasers that they would not include keyworker housing or affordable housing on the same site - poor people on site.

The Keep Willesden Green campaign were defeated in their  valiant attempt to keep the public space in front of the library but did retain the historic Victorian library.

An independent campaign for the 2014 local elections has emerged from the struggl, and the resulting community solidarity, in the form of Make Willesden Green which is standing Alex Colas as a candidate.

Library campaigns have been particularly resilient and good at building social solidarity in their areas through a variety of activities including pop up libraries, reading festivals, pub quizzes, 'Light of Learning' runs between the closed libraries as well as taking on the Council, All Souls College, developers and the Secretary of State.

An issue that needs resolving early in 2014 is the alleged fraudulent submissions to the planning department supporting developer Andrew Gillick's plans for Kensal Rise Library. Brent Council has passed the details to the police but no action has yet resulted.

Another development issue to be resolved in 2014 is the future of Willesden Green's Queensbury pub. The Brent Conservative Party sold the building off to a developer who plans a 10 storey block of flats. After a concerted campaign the Council granted the pub Asset of Community Value status, not least because of its use by toddler groups. The developer has revised plans to offer a smaller pub/wine bar/community space but opposition continues on the basis of the inadequacy of the offer and the inappropriateness of the new building in the local context.

One of my great regrets of 2013 is our failure, despite an energetic cross-party and cross-borough campaign to stop an enormous development on the Barnet side of the Welsh Harp. Luxury tower blocks (again!) will loom over the reservoir, bird sanctuary, nature reserve and SSSI.  Campaigners addressed the Barnet Plannning Committee to no avail, protested about hat appeared to be a very biased presentation by the planning officer and took the issue to Boris Johnson's planners at the GLA. The development will go ahead in 2014.

The campaign against the Harlesden Incinerator had similarities in so far as it was again just across the border from Brent, this time in Ealing, but affecting Brent residents. It also involved some cross-party support and local residents.

The campaign was successful in getting the decision deferred for further investigation about the dangers posed by emissions.

At the turn of the year it appeared that the proposal is unlikely to go ahead because the site is needed for the HS2 project, which in the broad sweep of things may not represent a victory for the environment but may relieve the local residents.

My favourite positive story of the year has to be the opening of the new Chalkhill Park in Wembley. A lot of pressure had to be exerted to bring the project to fruition but it is transforming the estate through providing a public and social space for all ages.

The picture shows the official opening with the Chalkhill Primary School Carnival but in reality children had opened the park themselves weeks previously, unable to resist the swings and climbing equipment.

Next year is going to be hard but it does give us an opportunity in the local and Euro elections to use the ballot box to register our views on what has been going on. Of course I hope that many will choose to vote Green but I also hope that all readers will continue to campaign energetically for environmental and social justice - locally, nationally and internationally.


trevor said...

So The Impression I Have Is That Brent Letting Agencies Do Not Value Tenants With Dark Brown Skin?
I Am Well Aware Of The Fact That Brent Is a Borough That Thrives Upon Exploiting The Public Regardless Of Skin Colour and That The Public Are Getting a Bad Deal Regarding What They Get In Return for Payment of The Council Tax.
The Deal Seems To Be That The Public Pay Full Price But Only Get Half The Service In Return?
I Mean How Is It That Street Drains Are Left Blocked Solid And Yet The Tax We Pay Is What Is Meant To Be Used To Unblock Them?
I Bet If I Took A Walk Along Chalk Hill Road Later, There Would Be The Drains Blocked Solid As Usual, Along With The Dirty Pavements Covered With Litter.
And Then You Have Also The Poor Quality Social Housing (Which Are Really Havens Of Torment Rented Out By Landlords In Return for Rent That Is No Way Worth Anyone's Money In My Opinion)
And Of Course Mr Butt Would Miss An Opportunity To Blow His Own Trumpet By Announcing That Quality Social Housing That Is Also "Affordable" Is To Be Built!
And Of Course That Is Meant To Inspire Confidence!
Despite The Fact That It Is A Fact That Social Housing In Brent No Matter How Much It Is Talked Up and Dressed Up Is Never Worthy Of Being Described As Quality.
You Would Find More Quality In A Bee's Nest Than In Any Social Housing In Brent.
Don't Allow Yourselves To Be Mislead Because You Will Live To Regret It Once You Move Into a Council Or Private estate.
If The Shops All Thrive On Exploiting You and Expecting You To Give Hard Earned Money In Return For Rubbish, Then You Can Be Absolutely Certain That The Housing Will Be The Same.

Anonymous said...

Trevor, I'm announcing the formation of my new Apocalypse Now Party later this year and when we come to power I'd like you to be my first Minister of Doom.

trevor said...

Why How Kind Of You Anon!