Information about my work as a Labour Councillor for East Finchley in the London Borough of Barnet

Monday, 21 October 2013

Report from Andrew Dismore AM

My report from City Hall
No14: 25th July to 9th October 2013
Firstly, a big thank you to the many of my readers who sent me details of their experiences and suggestions for questions to raise about accident and emergency services and about public transport. These first hand comments were very helpful in backing up my work on the City Hall Health Committee and at our full Assembly Plenary session with the Mayor and Transport for London: more details below.
If you have any questions or comments you would like me to put to the Mayor at a future Mayor’s Question Time session at City Hall, please do not hesitate to send them to  me and I will do my best to use them for you, to hold the Mayor to account.
Secondly, congratulations to Sarah Sackman, on being selected as Labour’s prospective candidate for Finchley and Golders Green at the next General Election for Parliament. Sarah is an excellent choice as candidate and more importantly, will be an excellent MP after 2015, when she is elected as I am confident will be the case.
In this report I will cover what I have been doing on:
·         Fire Brigade Cuts
·         NHS accident and emergency services for the winter
·         Low pay, zero hours contracts and cost of childcare
·         Transport and fares
·         Environment and biodiversity
·         Policing
·         Housing
·         Written questions to the Mayor
·         Press releases, letters for publication
·         Problem solving and casework
Please go to the sections you are interested in, as I realise this is quite a lot to cover!
Fire Brigade Cuts
This issue has now come to a head, with Mayor forcing the Fire Authority to implement his cuts package under the very heavy threat of legal action from him to force them to do so. The Authority’s  legal advice was such that they  had no option but to comply, even though this was clearly against their wishes, having voted against these cuts ( against  Conservative opposition) on four previous occasions..
At September’s Mayor’s Question Time, I reminded Boris Johnson of his pledge just before the 2012 Mayoral election, that there “will be no reductions in fire cover under this Mayor”: his reply was “get stuffed”. So much for him honouring a clear and unequivocal promise to Londoners, as he is now doing the exact opposite.
The cuts are planned to take effect in January and include 10 fire station closures including Belsize and Clerkenwell, and the loss of  14 fire engines and 552 front line firefighter jobs.
This may not be the end of the story though, as seven London councils, including Camden, have now made an application for permission to apply for judicial review of the decision. This is likely to proceed in the courts pretty rapidly.
On a separate front, you may be aware that the Fire Brigades Union went on strike for 4 hours over the Government’s refusal to negotiate with them, over their plan to weaken firefighters’ pension rights. The coalition Government is trying to force firefighters to work until they are 60. Currently firefighters can retire on ill-health grounds before 60 and retain their pension. Under the Government’s plans, if a firefighter is deemed unfit before turning 60 he or she will lose part of the pension. The government is being cynical as it knows from its own review that two thirds of firefighters will have to retire due to ill-health when they are 55 as they won’t meet the high fitness standards you would expect for such a physical job. Forcing firefighters to work longer and then taking part of their pension off them if they can’t physically cope when they are close to retirement is unfair, in my view.
NHS accident and emergency services for the winter
The Assembly Health Committee held a hearing with London NHS chiefs into the preparedness of NHS emergency services for the winter. The picture looks pretty bleak, with the Mayor’s health advisor, former head of NHS London,  Dame Ruth Carnall,  agreeing with my analysis, that they only have a ”sticking plaster” solution for A and E.
Apart from a probable winter crisis, we already have had a “summer crisis”, (when demand is traditionally lower than winter), with London’s A and Es missing their targets for the 12 successive weeks up to mid September. Our local A and Es have consistently missed their targets too: Barnet and Chase Farm missed target for 39 of the last 52 weeks, UCLH for 19 weeks, and Royal Free for 10 weeks. The target itself is to treat 95% of patents within 4 hours, which is less challenging than the target of the last Labour Government, which was 98% and which was being met.
This sorry underperformance was borne out by the examples I received from my readers, with details of recent experiences. They praised the hard work of the staff, but the general view was that they were overwhelmed by demand.
On my further questioning, the head of NHS London said that the expectations would be shifted, effectively massaging their figures to make the performance look better, if targets were still going to be missed.
It seems to me to be plain wrong for the Government, in breach of their promise before the election, to close Chase Farm’s A and E  and especially so in the run up to winter, it now being scheduled to close in mid November.
It is clear that we are seeing the results of the Conservatives broken promises on the NHS, with billions wasted on the top down   reorganisation they promised not to make before the election, money which should have been spent on patients.
Low pay, zero hours contracts and cost of childcare
I challenged the Mayor at September’s Mayor’s Question Time over the abuses of zero hour’s contracts. He does not see them as a problem, unlike the many low paid people who suffer as a result, for example the specific case I raised with him.
This was a them we also followed up in our sessions on low pay and zero hours in the Economy Committee; we also have been looking into the high cost of childcare in London.
Transport and fares
This month’s Assembly plenary session was devoted to questions to the Mayor as chair of Transport for London and to Sir Peter Hendy, the Transport Commissioner.  
I was overwhelmed with suggestions for questions to put to them, so I focussed on the Northern Line (for which I had more suggestions than any other issue, and most of which were not complimentary!) and on the need for a bus route between Golders Green and Stamford Hill. I have tabled all the other questions too and replies are awaited and will be reported in my next edition.
I was amazed that the Mayor could not remember when he last travelled on the Northern Line. The modernisation is two years behind schedule and it will not be till 2015 that train frequency is expected to increase, after the new signalling system is in place. in the meantime, it looks like little is going to be  done, to deal with the frequent  failures that cause such disruption to passengers’ journeys.
The need for a Golders Green / Stamford Hill bus route was identified as long ago as 2009, by London Travel Watch. The Mayor has made repeated commitments about this, but nothing has happened, so I raised this with him yet again. I am promised a detailed response which I will report back on in the future.
I also seconded and spoke to the motion adopted by the Assembly on fares policy, and the need for the Mayor to honour his manifesto promise by limiting fare increases to inflation. Tube fares have risen six times faster than wages and three times as much as inflation under Mayor Johnson.
Environment and biodiversity
The Environment Committee continued its inquiry into green infrastructure and biodiversity at our last meeting. I particularly  focussed, as an example, on the threat to the  Welsh Harp SSSI, as a result of a planning  application approved by Barnet  Council and the Mayor, which will see 29 storey tower blocks built right on its edge.
I was amazed to hear that Natural England, the environmental “ watchdog”, does no direct assessment of its own when asked  to comment on planning applications, but relies  exclusively on information provided by the developer and the council, which in this case amounted to the same people.  This I believe is open to exploitation, as I believe happened in this case. We will be conducting a site visit to the Welsh Harp later this month.
I have been pursuing the consequences of the so called “new policing model” through questions to the Mayor.
The official police numbers, statistics and predictions I have obtained confirm there will be fewer police in both Barnet and Camden by the time of the next election.
For Barnet, we now have 42 fewer police officers than we had at the time of the last general election in 2010, when Labour was last in office. By the time of the next election in 2015, there will still be 31 fewer. We have lost 17 sergeants, the most experienced of our officers on the streets, who provide important training and supervision to new officers. We now also have 91 fewer PCSOs, patrolling our neighbourhoods.  Before, we had 9 officers and PCSOs in each of our 21 wards’ Safer Neighbourhood Teams, a total of 189. By 2015, there will be only 135, a drop of 54.
For Camden, we now have 179 fewer police officers than we had at the time of the last general election in 2010.  By the time of the next election in 2015, there will still be 135 fewer. We have lost 27 sergeants, and also have 60 fewer PCSOs.
I have also established that calls to the 101 on-emergency number are not free, like they are for 999.  As an alternative to calling 101, the Mayor suggests crime can also be reported by attending a local police station - except of course, he has closed most of them! The police are still struggling with the alternative “contact points”. Some have yet to be set up, like the desperate suggestion of an occasional police stall in Starbucks to replace Hampstead Police Station. Others have seen little traffic and seem to me doomed already.
The Safer Neighbourhood Ward panels which feed into the police at the local ward level are also to be abolished and replaced with much larger panels covering clusters of half a dozen or so wards, which will inevitably be further from residents on the ground.
And all this at a time when the Mayor is cutting the police budget by 20%, he thought it was right to spend £660 on a female senior officer’s “Napoleon style” ceremonial hat!
The Mayor has decided to ignore the recommendations of the independent planning inspector over his amendments to the London Plan. The effect of the Mayor’s decision is to make “affordable homes” less affordable. Developers are normally required to set aside a proportion of homes in any major development for social rent (usually through housing associations) or for shared ownership, part rent, part purchase. The result is that rents will be charged up to 80% of open market rent, putting these new homes beyond the reach of the many families who they were supposed to provide for.
Barnet Council, at the same time, is relaxing existing planning consents by reducing the previously agreed number of affordable homes, for example at Beaufort Park in Colindale, where there will be 238 fewer affordable homes. The Barnet cabinet member for housing has made clear he wants rich people to move into the borough in preference to poor people, and is relaxed about providing homes for oligarchs and oil sheiks!
We are also now seeing the early signs of the consequences of the Government’s policy to cut housing benefit. over the 6 months to November last year, private  sector housing benefit claimants in Barnet  went up by 41% and in Camden fell by 1% In Westminster, the fall was 20%, in Kensington the  fall was21% and in the City, 33%. What this means is that people are being forced out of central London into outer London boroughs like Barnet. This creates pressures on Barnet’s own housing supply, putting up rents for local Barnet people as they face increased competition from people moving from the centre. This also puts more pressure on local services. Whilst school places in Barnet come under pressure, in Westminster schools are losing pupils. This is social engineering at its worst.
Written questions
I tabled a full range of written questions: for the replies click here.
Press releases, letters for publication
London Assembly demands apology from Mayor over Avanti free school
Barnet Council Planning Department faces Government “special measures” for underperformance
“Boris is wrong to push through fire station closures”
Eid Message from Andrew Dismore
Inflation-busting fares rises “a tax on workers”
Public Accounts Committee on HS2: Government “not yet presented a convincing case”
450 years until all low-paid Londoners on living wage
Launch of London-wide School Christmas Card Competition in Camden
Forthcoming inquiries at City Hall: have you any questions?
Health Chiefs admit London A and E plans for Winter is short term “sticking plaster” under questioning from Dismore
Camden Labour defending Belsize Fire Station
Local Assembly Members welcome North London Waste Authority decision on Pinkham Way
Mayor’s bus running four years late
Dismore questions “Where is Boris on the Northern Line?”
Letters for publication
Beaufort Park: Cllr Davey suggests poor people not welcome in Barnet
Letter for Publication: Syria
Letter for publication: Boris Johnson’s “get stuffed” comment
Letter for publication: Anti-Immigrant Van
Letter for publication: Trade Unionists
Problem solving and casework
Adam Langleben my City Hall assistant, managing incoming correspondence, casework and my diary:
Best regards
Andrew Dismore