Wednesday, 1 April 2015

WHAT IS PRECIOUS: life, and Portobello Market


For reasons I won’t bore you with, I had to subject myself to two Mother’s Days this year. I am a doer, not a ‘done-to-er’. I find it difficult being looked after and spoilt for a day. But I love it. Lying on the sofa and READING A BOOK while meals are cooked and tidied up after is an unimaginable luxury that I treasure.

Swimming in waterfalls, aaah!
At such times I consider, what is precious to me? I hope my children know it is them of course, and my ‘Mummy-drawer’ (selection of treasures above). This is stuffed with home-made cards, messages, funny photos, wacky art, baby teeth (sshh!), first locks of hair, swimming medals – plus half finished photo albums from yesteryear. If I succumb to dementia and anyone thinks I need a memory reboot – the work is done.


In my day to day work as a Councillor I regularly come across people so furious about what ‘THEY’ are trying to do to their neighbourhood, area, estate, school, job, nursery, tree that they become half crazed. And not always in a bad way.

The latest manifestation of this rather awesome and precious fury is directed towards an ill-conceived first visual of a plan to ‘tidy up’ and reap profit from part of Portobello Market. The supposed purpose of this - to preserve the legacy and pave the way to the future - is irrelevant to those who feel ignored. Part of the market that has evolved, that is scruffy but loved, that has been cared for and used for many years when it seemed as if no one else cared at all, is under threat. Where some unlovely, and some very lovely events - foodie, cultural, musical, filmic, messy and often gorgeous and very locally embedded - have flourished, among the pigeon crap, weeds, more-or-less-excellent graffiti, and street drinkers. This place is precious.

A plan to tidy, sanitise, control, change and monetise such a glorious mis-match of needs and spontaneous creativity is going to come very awry unless sympathetically managed.



It hasn’t been. So let’s start again.

First of all, ask people what is precious, what is valued, what is special and idiosyncratic, what is utterly and unquestionably not to be messed with. Then preserve it. Save it. Improve it. Grow it. Make it better and more profitable to the people who run it.

Preserve, nurture, focus on and intensify what is good.

When you’ve done that, you then have permission to nibble around the edge. Don’t be greedy. Do enough, not too much. Work with local people. Don't rush it. People will know if you take short-cuts.

If you save, grow and intensify all the things that are good, you are helping a place become more of itself, not less. And you won’t kill the very thing you hope to profit from.

Being too ambitious, too self-serving, and being or appearing to be too financially greedy is the path to destruction and community annihilation.

Your choice.




Tuesday, 24 February 2015

‘ILL FARES THE LAND’ in Kensington and Chelsea


It is enlightening to recognise where political figures and movements embrace pseudo or recreated traditions, and impose self-serving hierarchies and power structures to ‘authenticate’ their right to rule.

I often referred to Eric Hobsbawm’s excellent ‘The Invention of Tradition’ while researching for my MA on architecture and politics in post-civil war Spain. My thesis looked at Franco’s adoption of the Spanish Imperial architectural ‘style’ (and I use that term carefully) to fill the post-civil war longing for stability. He spoke of Spain’s return to international status, while he drew up fictitious family trees claiming descendence from the royal line. He embraced classical art forms as representing 'eternal beauty', and denigrated modern art and its meaning. For ten long years, Franco built neo-classical monuments, memorials, stately public buildings, and created processional routes in the capital – while a million people are said to have died of starvation.

The imposition of fixed rules on architecture, the arts - and social mores – is a well-documented means to exclude those who ‘don’t fit’ the picture. This establishes a hierarchy that ‘authenticates’, justifies and benefits those who have put themselves at the top, and more importantly discredits and disenfranchises those with other values, aesthetic or social. 

Bizarrely, this process is often accepted without question by the population they wish to subjugate.

A social anthropologist would tell us that it is a very common predilection of the conquerors or would-be conquerors to subjugate the populace by means more subtle than physical force. Creating hierarchies and persuading the ‘lower orders’ to accept them has happened throughout human history, where societies have passed from an egalitarian co-operative community necessary for survival, to a self-serving, introspective and hierarchical system. If you can make the populace accept their inferiority and the superiority of their ‘betters’ then almost anything is possible.

If you think I’m about to make a parallel between the 1940s in Spain, and Kensington and Chelsea now, you are quite correct.

So we are persuaded that the taxpayers’ money is well spent as the Mayor needs a Bentley to ‘maintain dignity’, Holland Park needs an opera as ‘high culture’ benefits the local economy, the streets of South Ken must be paved with pink granite 'to attract tourist money', Holland Park School must be the most expensive in the western hemisphere because somehow that will improve education. We are told that the ‘Royal’ borough demands the best and it is money well spent.

However there is no evidence whatever that people care if the Mayor arrives in a taxi, that opera improves the local economy or life chances, or that spending £100m on a school will benefit students three times more than spending £33m.

Let's should stop accepting the PR. Let's demand the evidence.

Some months ago we asked 100 people on the street to pick their MP from a choice of eight; only 17 could do so. The past few days have revealed our MP’s sheer avarice, sense of entitlement and lack of compassion. How ironic that he is paid £60k/year by Adam Smith Institute. The Honorary MP is a totem of how some influential figures in our Council conduct themselves, and reflects their world view. 

But what has become very clear in the past year or two is that across Kensington and Chelsea there are values that many hold dear and share, and that there are people of all backgrounds and beliefs who are no longer content to be represented – in the Town Hall or in Westminster – by those who have created a world of self-interest that we are supposed to respect and subjugate ourselves to.
  
And this is how The Deserted Village ends:


Your choice, but I say, no more pot plants in politics. Vote for someone who will work hard for what we call ‘One Kensington’, and that means everyone.




Further information on inequalities in K&C here:





Sunday, 1 February 2015

STOP SHOUTING AT THE TELLY: time to show you care


As somebody born and bred in our wonderful and diverse borough (I was genuinely ‘Made in Chelsea’), I am very aware of the huge inequalities in Kensington and Chelsea. We know about the extremes of wealth, but the extremes of poverty in some areas are a surprise to many. As a local Councillor I cannot escape the harsh realities of my inbox, and the problems that come into Surgery in Golborne Ward, the joint poorest ward in London. Some days it’s heartbreaking.

The Independent has just published an excellent article on the subject: [link to Indie article]

Leading an Opposition Group on a very Conservative Council, I am thoroughly acquainted with the annual Statement of Accounts, and know that these extremes are not only severe and affect people’s lives – in our borough they are unjustifiable.

The daily battle for food on the table, credit in the gas meter, and a place to do your homework, is a war of attrition that affects many struggling and overcrowded families, with 26% of K&C children living in poverty.

And it is a world away from subsidised opera, Pre-Raphaelite art collecting, frog-hunts and the delights of long-horned cows grazing in Holland Park that are the experience of some in the self-professed ‘richest Council in the universe’.

Yes, Kensington and Chelsea really is the Marie-Antoinette of all Councils.

If you want to witness these disparities in action, I invite you to attend a Full Council meeting (next one 4 March), where you may be amazed and even shocked by the conduct of some Conservative Councillors who are supposed to represent you. Sometimes we have a packed Public Gallery of people attending Council for the first time. Yet TWICE in 2014 a Cabinet Member has told the people in the Public Gallery, who they are supposed to represent, to ‘SHUT UP!’.

So there is proof of the disdain they hold for the electorate, the residents whose vote put them there, and whose Council Tax pays their allowance.

A good Councillor represents all their constituents as best they can, and does not favour one group over another because of presumed political allegiance. A good Councillor stands for office to represent and help others, not to help themselves. And yet K&C Council is stuffed with self-servatives.

It is clear that the majority Conservative Group view the Council as a corporation and residents as shareholders, so they can then without conscience favour residents who are self-interested and may simply wish to park money here and leave, and contribute nothing (often not even tax).

What happened to our values along the way?

The Council is not a business, we are public servants and representatives; some Councillors would do well to consider just whose interests they are representing and what outcomes they are encouraging.

We tried trickle-down; it is a fallacy. We tried to ‘cut red tape’ on planning and development; it is ripping the heart out of our borough.

What has become very apparent over the past two years is that the thousands of small ‘c’ Conservative residents are also very poorly served by our Council. Left and middle have a great deal of common ground and we do work together effectively on matters we all care about: protecting our mixed communities, not just in words but action; keeping the borough’s special character, avoiding pastiche and Disneyfication; caring for our vulnerable residents, old and young; ensuring public funds benefit the public; a sense of value and good citizenship. The list of Lords, Ladies and high earners queueing up to save the Sutton Estate in Chelsea epitomises this community spirit, and the fear that we are in danger of losing it.

So I say to K&C Council: ‘Time to show you care’.

Kensington and Chelsea is not a corporation but a place, full of life and heart and soul, and should be governed to benefit people who wish to live in it and help the borough thrive.

Vote - so you don't need to protest! 
Let’s say it out loud, let's hashtag it: #itsmykensingtontoo.


Our parliamentary candidate Dr Rod Abouharb [website] stepped forward, he says, as he was fed up with shouting at the telly. So stop shouting at the telly, get out there and tell people to vote.

Here are some tips to help you decide where to put your cross at the General Election on 7 May:


1. Make sure you’re still on the electoral register, and use your vote. People died for your right to vote.

2. Do your homework. Look at your candidates, who they are, what they are, what they think and how they will serve you.

3. Vote for the person, not just the party.



That is all.


If you want to find out if you are still on the register email: elect@rbkc.gov.uk or call: 020 7361 3931.
Information on electoral registration:


Thursday, 11 December 2014

'SHAMBOLIC' #2, RBKC confuses 'want' with 'need'



We know there are homeless people out there, thousands upon thousands of them, and we know there are rough sleepers. I have seen more and more tucked away in quiet corners of the borough over the summer, and left them to it; in warm weather it may be tolerable. Some rough sleepers have work of a kind (manual labour at a certain building site), some have come to the UK to work and found none, others have simply fallen off the edge.

So I shouldn’t have been shocked by this photo, sent in by a resident, of a rough sleeper on Portobello Road, with one layer of wrapping, lying on concrete on the coldest night of the year, Friday 5 December.

But I was.

Now sensitised, while I am out and about I look out for bundles of blankets and cardboard, and see quite a few. Sometimes there’s a poor soul hidden inside. How many will survive this freezing weather?

In a civilised society, in the self-professed ‘richest borough in the universe’ this is unforgivable. I have sat at meetings when Council officers backed by a pinstriped Cabinet Member have painstakingly explained how night shelters, lunch clubs, even food banks, encourage the hungry and un-housed to hang about in the borough. How unseemly! ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ and never mind where they will end up, half starved and rough sleeping.

So, the churches fill in where they can, and thank God and all the gods for that.

So reflect on this for a moment:

The ‘richest borough in the universe’
is CUTTING £150,000
from its homelessness prevention scheme this year.

Yes, the Council that can justify handing over, no strings attached, £5m to a loss-making business, Opera Holland Park, that some say has cost us cc£20m since inception - a ‘business’ that loses up to £125,000 per week on its eight-week summer run – is CUTTING the price of a week of opera (if you add in the cost of renting the location at Holland House, which is given free), for a year of homelessness prevention.



As we go about our rounds, we find the message of financial incompetence and tortured priorities by the Council is getting through. So, for the sake of absolute clarity and accuracy, here are some figures to feed your outrage this wintry season. So, when you are wondering how a civilised society and ‘fabulously’ rich Council can walk by someone sleeping on a pavement in below-zero temperatures, this is how:

Short course
‘SQUEEZING THE VULNERABLE TO FUND INDULGENCE’

Any organisation that has been run inefficiently for years can make savings through better planning and tightening up on costs.

But RBKC has taken this to a new level. While bleating ‘austerity’ and ‘tough decisions’ they have cut back on services, particularly focussed on  the most vulnerable who cannot speak for themselves.

And yet, most of this is simply unnecessary. Here’s why. Below you will see a table of government funding cuts to RBKC since 2010 (cuts = savings). In the third column is the total of UNDERSPENDING across the Council in the same year. All these sums have been taken from the Council’s own documentation:

Year
Government funding cut
Total underspend

2010/11

£11.6m

£9m

2011/12

£23m

£19.8m

2012/13

£13m

£24.3m

2013/14

£10m

£30.6m

TOTAL

£57.7m

£83.7m

A large chunk of the underspends every year are put into the Capital Reserve, to fund major projects such as the cc£100m Holland Park School.

The ‘usable Reserves’ from which capital and other projects are funded look like this:

10/11 - £206m
11/12 - £224m
12/13 - £241m
13/14 - £267m
at September 2014 - £283m

You would think that having large Reserves means you would get some interest on that to ‘soften the blow’ of savings; in fact Council policy states precisely that. You would be wrong.

These Reserves are kept almost entirely in the Debt Management Office (very safe but can be accessed quickly), whose return on investments is .25%pa. Given that inflation has been cc2.5%, the loss on say £100m of these Reserves (the sum the Council states they have not earmarked for capital projects) is cc£4-5m/yr. So we are actually LOSING money. If that £100m was invested, we could GAIN cc£4-5m/yr. So you could say that we are forgoing cc£10m/yr.

Now let’s look at some of the Council’s PRIORITIES. In 2010/11 (election year) £4.2m was spent on an ‘efficiency dividend’ of £50 each to all registered for Council Tax. In 2013/14 (election year) £7.5m was spent on an ‘efficiency dividend’ of £100 each to all Council Tax PAYERS (ie not in receipt of Housing Benefit).

Here are some more ‘priorities’:

Opera Holland Park – underwriting loss of cc£1m/yr
Leighton House – this year alone £2.6m refurb costs
National Army Museum – ‘loan’ of £2.5m for refurb
Kens Academy artwork - £150k
Holland Park Ac artwork - £120k

In the past six years, the Council has spent an incredible £1m on Pre-Raphaelite art:
-      Clytie (lady in a nightie)
-      Cimabue’s Madonna ( lady in a nightie)
-      Nymphs in a Landscape (shockingly, ladies without nighties)

Now let’s look at ‘underspends’ in services, using 2013/14 as an example:

Adult Social Care                      £6.4m
Children’s Services                       £641k
Env Leisur and Res                      £2.3m
Housing                                     £638k
Libr, Arch, Heritage                     £238k
Planning, boro devt                      £1.6k
Transp & Techn                         £6.4m
Corp Servi                                £3.8m
Adult, Family Learning                    £44k

As you can see for yourself, ‘tough decisions’ are in truth IDEOLOGICAL.

And people, if the Tories get into government again and are allowed to kick off their destructive ‘deficit balancing’ budget, make no mistake, people will die.

Which is why. given that RBKC is a microcosm of all that is very wrong in the country at present, we need to understand how our Tories in RBKC make their decisions, where the money is, and just how the process is driven by wrong-headedness, incompetence and ideology. 

----------------------


Far be it from me to tell anyone how to spend their money, so I would just like to say 'thank you' to whoever sent me these gorgeous flowers, an extravagant but very touching anonymous gift with a very flattering message attached. Times are tough, and gratitude is rare; you made my day.


Monday, 1 December 2014

‘SHAMBOLIC’ RBKC CONFUSES COST WITH VALUE

Children at Venture Centre Adventure Playground face fears of closure

In yet another utterly shambolic and logic-defying decision by the self-professed ‘richest borough in the universe’, RBKC Council is at the point of rubbishing years of excellent work by closing its Play Services. Children of low-income working parents are to be hit hardest, as the result of what is feared to be a pre-determined ‘Review’ is proposing that the after-school and holiday play services that so many rely upon are to be effectively privatised. Cut off from any form of Council subsidy, the cost of this service is destined to go through the roof and be unaffordable for many.

All this to save a measly £500,000 over three years.

A measly £500,000, regarded as a ‘tough decision in times of austerity’. This is in addition to the £500k already cut from Youth Services as youth crime and violence rises, the £340k cut from Special Educational Needs Transport that caused huge upset and allegedly put our most vulnerable children in danger, and the upcoming reorganisation of Children’s Centres and Nurseries to save £500k, that will ‘amalgamate’ services and is feared to reduce numbers of places and increase costs to an unaffordable level.

Where precisely is the logic of NOT making work pay for hard-pressed parents and carers? What will be the human cost of families no longer able to work their hours, of children stuck in an overcrowded home after school and during holidays, losing out on the very creative and physically healthy activities offered at after-school and holiday play centres?

To think the Council are supporting a study on childhood obesity, at the same time!

Simply insane.

So while the Council is trimming costs and services left, right and centre in the name of austerity, they are simultaneously proposing handing over a whopping £5m to cut loose from its loss-making Opera Holland Park, which some calculate has already lost the Council cc£20m. The season is just two months a year, which equates to a loss of cc£16,000 A DAY. And the current director, who has presided over this loss-making fiasco, is to be guaranteed his position in the new, taxpayer-funded venture.

Some Councils are genuinely struggling financially. Ours is not. It has stashed £283m of YOUR money in an ‘under-the-mattress’ fund whose return is so low that, taking inflation into account, it actually LOSES £12m/year.

So. Cuts for Play Services, that help nurture children in their early years, add immeasurably to their safety, social skills, health and well-being, and help parents work, study, or care for others. And £5m for Opera.


*Sometimes* services that cost money are excellent value; this is certainly the case with our Play Services. Our Council knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. And this terrible, illogical and dangerous situation could blight an entire generation of children.

STOP PRESS: This issue will be debated at Full Council on Weds 3.12.14, from 6.30pm in the Council Chamber. Come to the Public Gallery and show your support for parents and children in the borough.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

'Everything must go' in K&C/Farewell to Chelsea?


Quentin Crisp, part of 'old Chelsea's DNA
For many years Chelsea has represented what is excellent, appealing and good in the English psyche – tolerant, diverse, quirky, eccentric, arty, where the famous can walk the streets in peace. There have always been some residents with lots, and others with less or little. There have always been people with ‘class’ but no money, people with both, and people with neither. There have been migrants and refugees whose background and education might bear no relation to how they end up earning a crust for their families. Above all, dear Chelsea, you have been an open friendly place for families. There have always been children with little or no English at local primary schools, and the most patient students are tasked with helping them through the first difficult months, and they become friends.

While much of that tolerance and character remains, along with a diminishing colony of impecunious artists, the beautiful buildings and spaces of Chelsea have attracted those who wish to monetise and pimp out your charms. Thus the vacuous, humour-free, talent-free, Barbie-Ken fake-tan line-up of ‘Made in Chelsea’ display their wares in a devalued market, and are disappointed NOT to be recognised in the street. They have ‘classy’ voices and pots of money and designer clothes, but no values; they have confidence but no integrity. They have shiny hair and luminous teeth, and are made up and photoshopped, or even go under the surgeon’s knife, to turn themselves into bland homogenous factory produced clones; but they are unattractive.

This is Chelsea now, proposed development
Similarly, the diversity and richness of Chelsea’s streets and buildings are losing their beautiful patina of time, and are photoshopped, replicated and Disneyfied, losing all character, as the vultures move in. Cookie-cutter modern developments, with brick cladding and reconstituted Yorkstone window surrounds, claim ‘sensitivity’, ‘sympathy’ and ‘harmony’ but barely achieve a level of banality.

Thus, Sutton Dwellings residents may be sold down the river, while their landlord Affinity Sutton claims no more than to be:


- and have no shame in stating at their first consultation with residents, that they wish to ‘maintain the sense of community’ while, with no sense of irony or shame, proposing private gardens for private homes.

Most sickening of all, the Council – while crying wolf - is following the tribe of property developers and cannibalising the borough.

The Council Leader recently blogged on the subject:

‘Now I’m far from against wealthy people from overseas coming to live here in Kensington and Chelsea.  If they obey the law, bring high level skills to our economy, shop in our shops and pay their taxes, that’s all positive I think.  What isn’t so positive however are foreigners using the assets of the UK as a sort of stuccoed safety deposit box, thereby sucking the life from our streets and plunging into cold storage homes that might otherwise be lived in by people who would actually contribute to the UK rather than simply profit from it.’

Fair enough you might say, but while noting the problem he is, with no sense of irony or shame, heading a Council hell-bent on monetising or selling off every square inch of the borough, thereby forcing prices ever upwards and exacerbating the problem.

A senior Tory said recently on reading the Cabinet papers: ‘Where is the policy? Where is the ideology? This is all about property.’

To which I responded: ‘That IS Council policy. It is all about property and making money from property. That is IT. We are now property developers’.

We are: Realty Brokers of Kensington and Chelsea.

With every square inch of land or property up for grabs, whether owned by developers, social landlords or the Council itself, we have become embroiled in a fire sale, a desperate effort to dispose of anything realisable before prices – inevitably – drop off a cliff.

Thus, riding on a tidal wave of bluster, contradiction and misrepresentation (that some would call ‘lies’ but I would not dare) the Council paraded Cremorne Estate for possible sale before the world – but was repelled by an immovable and united Chelsea, old and new, of all classes and none.

Thus, propelled by a tornado of what we are told is misrepresentation and distrust, Thamesbrooke Residential Care Home was hurriedly emptied of its vulnerable residents on the presumption – or pretence – of the presence of Legionella, which some experts have insisted is easily fixable and of no risk - while the Adult Social Care budget is UNDERSPENT by over £6m.

Thus, the property development company that my Council has become is looking at its entire portfolio, and trying to pick off ‘low hanging fruit’ buildings of the vulnerable, in the false belief that there will be less protest.

How very wrong they were. Instead, they have provoked their own voters to near riot. And they don’t even need the money. Because, with £283m in usable Reserves, we are also:




Thursday, 14 August 2014

Democracy vs Aristocracy in Kensington and Chelsea



The very peculiar world of Kensington and Chelsea Council barely reflects the reality of everyday life in the borough.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the pantomime of Full Council meetings. The idea that this is somehow part of a statutory decision-making process is simply depressing. When residents hand petitions to their ward Councillors, they often attend Full Council and sit in the Public Gallery to witness democracy at work; this may be the first and last time they ever attend. The petition is read out and the moment is quickly over. Then they stay to watch the debates. Several Council members, despite warnings, continue to play computer games or read the papers, with no pretence that it is work-related. Visitors find this shocking. Then when the debates start, they hear the bickering, name-calling and blatant disrespect. To top it all, despite the hours of work they have put into getting signatures, the petitioners may not get any response whatever.


Democracy at work, K&C style. 

To make it worse, while Labour and our single LibDem Councillors research and write their own speeches, it is clear that Cabinet Members often read out texts written by officers. They are not familiar with them, and cannot ad lib if challenged. So if they have misjudged the Labour Group position they are quite unable to alter their speech to fit; they just plough on anyway. At times the Tories are quite unable to hide the disdain they feel for their electorate; we record and date every incident.



The ‘Cllr Shut-Up’ [link to Evening Standard] episode was appalling, but not unusual. The only difference was that the offensive comment was directed at members of the public rather than the Labour Group; total disdain plus a hint of venom directed at a Public Gallery full of parents and carers who had been very badly let down by the Council, and their children put in danger.

This attitude comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what democracy means:




They seem to think they are some kind of elected aristocracy, born, or elected to rule.


So they see the borough as a mini-state and treat residents as troublesome subjects, and the Council as a humungous business, and treat its staff as their own employees.

Then they justify expense on unjustifiable items and projects in terms of ‘prestige’, as if the Council were a huge corporation or brand touting for business and placating its shareholders. 

No. We are all public servants, together, in our different roles, some of us are appointed and some are elected. The borough is a geographical area under our care. The Council is a public service that should serve the public, first and foremost.

Residents of all political persuasions, and none, are increasingly frustrated and angry that their concerns are very poorly represented by their Tory representatives. They keep residents at arm’s length, and wash their hands of the more difficult issues, such as planning matters that are changing neighbourhoods forever, or basement excavations that blight their residents lives and create a living hell for our families and older people. These are the people holding our borough together by creating networks that form communities; the very people we should treasure and respect.


Policy should be formed from residents’ concerns and priorities. These are very clearly laid out in the Annual Residents’ Survey, which reflects a far kinder and more humane and fairer and more inclusive approach to Budgeting.





Instead, without mandate and increasingly without even a pretence at meaningful consultation or democratic process, the Cabinet makes ‘difficult decisions’ to cut services that residents value and need the most, while spending to excess on pet projects and frivolities.