From the crisis in North Korea to the horrifying behaviour of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, USA to the barbaric terrorist attack in Barcelona, it has been a dark and disturbing August. Here in the UK, the clock is ticking down to a Brexit which remains shrouded in uncertainty and absolutely fraught with social and economic risks. We will return to Parliament in September to consider the EU Repeal Bill, so there will be more to report then, but meanwhile lots of local issues continue to dominate my post bag, so this is a round-up of some local news and what I have been doing over the last few weeks.
Seeking the views of EU citizens resident in Westminster North
Westminster has the largest number of EU citizens of any local area in the country. Many come and go over the course of a few years, coming here to work or study. Many others have built a life here, whether or not that was the original intention- working, building businesses, marrying, raising families. I am carrying out a survey to find out a little more about their experiences since the Brexit referendum and their attitudes to the Government’s offer and negotiating position. There is no fixed cut-off date but I would welcome responses by the middle of September. The survey can be completed here.
The crisis in Yemen
There has been awful news from many corners of the world this year, but the appalling suffering of the people of Yemen continues unabated, and with relatively little attention being paid. I am pleased to add my name to an appeal issued by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Yemen, seeking special consideration of the conflict at the next UN General Assembly.
‘‘Dear Secretary General Guterres,
We are writing today concerning the ongoing crisis in Yemen.
As I am sure you are aware, we face a generational catastrophe in Yemen and all current efforts are insufficient in providing help to the Yemeni people.
19 million Yemeni’s are in need of urgent humanitarian aid however, as a result of the conflict this has been difficult for aid agencies to provide.
According to UNICEF a child dies every 10 minutes in Yemen from preventive causes, 3 million people have been displaced and 6.8 million are one step away from famine.
Cholera cases will reach 500,000 by September and have already caused the deaths of over 2000 Yemeni citizens. It is the children who are hit especially hard by this with 40% of new cases occurring in children under the age of 15.
Public services in Yemen have ceased to be paid in 9 months. Not only has this worsened conditions for ordinary Yemeni’s but it has created an economy where one of the few well paid jobs is taking up arms on one of the sides. Humanitarian abuses have occurred on both sides with war crimes and attacks on civilians.
Despite the UN fundraising that raised $2.1billion the only way in which we can abate the suffering of the Yemeni people is to push for a ceasefire through the United Nations.
I have attached a list of Parliamentary Signatures from the UK supporting adding Yemen and its conflict to the agenda at the next UN General Assembly on the 13th September.
Only placing Yemen on the UN’s agenda at the General Assembly and the Security Council and working collaboratively to end the conflict will save the people of Yemen.’’
‘Reckless language could lead us down a dangerous path’
Those words are from an article published in the joint names of the Vice President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Director of Faith Matters/Tell Mama (the latter is a charity which monitors anti-Muslim attacks). They followed an article in the same newspaper, the ‘Sun’ which ended with a reference to ‘The Muslim Problem’- an attack on an entire faith and community, and one which, in the way it was written, echoed the use of the phrase ‘The Jewish Problem’ in the Nazi era.
I was also amongst the 100 MPs, led by Naz Shah, who signed a letter to the ‘Sun’ last week on this issue. You can read the report of this here.
Local councillors and I are in very regular contact with CityWest Homes over the steps they are taking to inspect high rise properties and make sure they are all safe. We are seeking greater clarity about the timescale for removing cladding on the Little Venice towers, and for other aspects of fire checks such as on Hall Place. We have also been talking to concerned residents on the Tollgate estate. Over the past two months many residents in multiple storey blocks have been in contact with me regarding fire safety, most recently including Tollgate House in Maida Vale, where residents have also raised concerns associated with the ongoing building works.
CityWest Homes have committed to providing residents with fortnightly updates on the works, the first few of which have been sent, and have also released separate assurances in relation to fire safety. I will be meeting with them again soon and would be happy to hear from residents about what has been helpful and what could be further improved.
If you have any specific concerns as a tenant or leaseholder, do please contact me directly.
Every new piece of research into short-lets suggests a continuing rapid growth in the sector, especially here in Westminster. As I keep emphasising, this is not to object in any way to owners letting spare rooms or making some extra money by renting their home for a few weeks whilst they are away. The problem is the growth of whole property lets, increasingly commercial in nature – as we know from the fact that so many short-lets are owned by people or companies with multiple properties. The rapid growth of the short-let sector reduces the supply of homes for traditional lets (for people to actually live in), costs Westminster Council (and hence, taxpayers) considerable amounts in enforcement when rules are broken or nuisance is caused, and effectively extends the hospitality industry into residential areas with almost no regulation and no social contribution to compensate. Having raised this in Parliament and in the media on a number of occasions, I have now written to Westminster Council again for an update on the impact and measures we need to take in response.
St John’s Wood Post Office
Last autumn, local residents packed into a public meeting to discuss the future of the St John’s Wood Post Office in Circus Road, NW8. The Post Office want to continue the service as a franchise, raising a number of questions about staffing and service levels, but it is also clearly important that a full service is maintained on that site, which is owned by Westminster City Council. As is often the case, there are commercially confidential aspects to the negotiations, which I will respect, but I am very concerned about how long this is dragging on for, and wonder in whose interests it may be for it not to be sorted out. I am in discussions with the Council and have now met with Post Office Ltd to try and find out why the delays are occurring and what can be done to move this forward and settle the future of the Post Office.
Stronger action needed to keep our streets clean
I can’t remember a time when I had more complaints coming in about dumping, fly-tipping and the state of the streets generally.
One resident from Little Venice wrote to the council- copied to me- to say:
"My street is a perpetual rubbish dump and for years and years you persist in doing absolutely nothing about it I suspect that the offenders are the same people and so year in and year out they are not being prosecuted. As you can see from the picture, putting signs on trees is not a serious deterrent. The only course of action that will work is a serious fine and prosecution. You are evidently not doing this and so the residents of my street will have to continue to be surrounded by rubbish when they step out of their door. It is quite simply an absolute disgrace."
Another, also from Little Venice, has complained about abandoned bicycles near Warwick Avenue tube- removed a few months ago at my request, but now a new set lot are there, rusting away.
We'd agreed with 'Westminster Council' that there would be regular visits to tag and remove the abandoned rusting bicycles. These bicycles limit the spaces available for genuine users. I imagine a lot of people have moved abroad etc I purposefully didn't report for six months, from Feb - July 2017. Unfortunately the situation hasn't improved after all. The bicycles have flat tyres and rusting chains. It takes around 5 months for a bicycle to get into this state. I do feel surprised that the Westminster team aren't keeping track of these. All the other racks are the same. I found another 10 abandoned rusting bicycle frames within 20 mins walk down to Marble Arch from Little Venice.
In Harrow Road, a resident says:
"Recently in the vicinity of Fernhead road and Fordingley Rd there has been a regular spate of people dumping their rubbish on the street. Often one has to manoeuvre around fridges, sofas, clothes, pans, clothes horses, mattresses. It is becoming a real problem in the area. What can be done about this?"
I take these complaints up with Westminster Council, and staff do their best to help, but as the problems have been getting worse, there needs to be a more visible effort at enforcement against people (including those who have clearly been doing building or house clearance works) who fly-tip and dump rubbish in breach of the rules.
It’s good to see some work finally starting on the illegally demolished Carlton Tavern. The former Chippenham pub may be less dramatic but is still an eyesore and a blight on the area. Together with Cllr Tim Roca, I have been pushing for enforcement action, and have been concerned as to how long it has taken Westminster to move. However, I am pleased to see that a formal notice ( under Section 215 of the Town and Country Planning Act) has now been issued and the owners have to remove the steel shutters and improve the condition/appearance of the building.
Queen’s Park Festival
Even though money is getting tighter year after year, neighbourhood organisations like Walterton and Elgin Community Homes, Westbourne Neighbourhood Forum and the Queen’s Park Community Council (amongst others) still put on summer events to build community links and offer something for children and families.
Concerns about moped-assisted crimes
I’ve discussed the rising level of concern about muggings/phone/bag snatches and moped-assisted crime before- and have been raising it with the Met Commissioner and the Borough Commander. This month I have had further complaints from residents in St John’s Wood and Maida Vale, with a lot of unhappiness being expressed about the absence of CCTV. Sadly there has been a rise in violent crime across London in the last year, but the Westminster Borough Commander has told me:
“We have been targeting moped criminals and hotspot areas with some good success. Where other boroughs have seen little improvement, Westminster has enjoyed a significant reduction in moped enabled crime. My Crime Squad have arrested and charged some of the most prolific individuals in London”.
Please do make sure all crimes are reported, calling 999 in an emergency of course, and 111 in other cases. The MPS website contains lots of useful information on your local Safer Neighbourhood Teams, local crime statistics and contact information, as well.
Police latest on Carnival and on crime
Notting Hill Carnival is an important piece of our local history and loved by many, but we all recognise that it can be difficult (and sometimes an awful) experience for those who live on the route. This year, of course, the Carnival will take on a different tone, with a minute’s silence at three on both afternoons in memory of the Grenfell tragedy. Those attending are also being asked to ‘Wear something green for Grenfell’.
The Met have carried out a number of raids, as they always do, in the run up to Carnival, to take criminals off the streets and reduce the risks of trouble. They have also issued this note about both Carnival and London crime concerns more generally:
I wanted to update you on a few matters.
This weekend the Met will join with partners on the ground to help make Notting Hill Carnival as safe as possible. It is always a very challenging operation due to its scale, requiring us to draw on local officers from every borough.
We’ve worked hard this year with the organisers and others to try to develop the plans - taking into account the threat our city faces from terrorism and kind of criminals I'll talk more about below.
We want people to enjoy the weekend and so one tool we are trialling is facial recognition technology which we hope will alert us to known trouble-makers as they head towards the event so that we can intervene early.
We know that there are concerns about the use of such technology but I’m sure you would agree that we have to look at all possible approaches to make the event as safe as we can.
It has been a busy few month for us and much has already been said about how stretched the Met is following recent major incidents.
It is certainly true that the terrorist attacks at Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park, together with the Grenfell Tower Fire in Kensington have put pressure on the Met in ways few serving officers have ever experienced.
And this pressure is not confined to specialist areas of the Met. Our response to both Westminster and London Bridge drew thousands of officers from across all parts of the Met. Indeed, your local officers will have felt the impact and many will have been involved themselves.
However, you will also be aware that over the past several months we have also been experiencing increased demand in many other ways that greatly concern us, our communities and no doubt yourselves.
First among these is the steady rise in knife crime. In the 12 months to the end of June we saw a 34% increase in knife crime. Knife enabled murders have increased by 40% from 60 to 84 over the same period. These figures include the victims from the attacks on London Bridge and Westminster but violence, in all its forms, is something we are tackling with urgency.
Although two-thirds of knife offences do not involve injury it remains very worrying. Particularly troubling is that one in ten knife crimes involve a child aged between 14 and 17 being robbed.
The Met is taking sustained and determined action. We are arresting tens of thousands of people and seizing thousands of knives every year. Over recent weeks we have started to see some reductions in offences and we are identifying those responsible for more of these offences than last year.
Nevertheless, we simply will not arrest ourselves out of this problem - we need everyone to play their part.
There is an important role for all partners in prevention and diversion and a shared opportunity to shape changes for the better in our society. Only by addressing the wider social reasons for the increased willingness of young people to carry knives can we effect a long term change in behaviours.
Our approach is rooted in London’s communities with borough police working closely with local partners, community groups and education but this need to be a broad approach, with London’s most affected communities working with police.
That’s why we have held a number of partnership events this summer - bringing together as many people and organisations as possible to co-ordinate effort. We are grateful to all those that took part.
Some commentators have linked another criminal trend; that of so called “acid attacks”, to our increased enforcement and tougher sentencing for knife offences. I don’t think the evidence is there to draw the link but there are undoubtedly some similarities.
Certainly the profiles of some of the criminals is similar, as is their willingness to resort to violence. However, there is little to suggest that people arm themselves with a bottle of bleach or acid out of fear.
To carry a corrosive substance without good reason shows, in my view, an undeniable degree of intent to do someone harm or to coerce them in some way. There are few, if any, examples of such a weapon being used defensively.
I was therefore pleased to see that our colleagues at the Crown Prosecution Service issued strong guidance this month which emphasised the importance of the circumstances in which such a potential weapon is carried when determining charges.
In the past 12 month this crime involving corrosive substances in London have increased by 16%, from 386 to 446. Most victims (80%) and most suspects (82%) are male. About two thirds are assaults, a quarter robberies and the remainder criminal damage. What is also clear is that very, very few of these offences are hate-crimes.
However, I think that there is more information we can capture about the use of corrosive substances and so we are beginning to implement better recording processes to allow us to more easily differentiate between offences where the substances is actually used, and those where it is carried or threatened – at the moment the offence data includes both and that doesn’t give us as clear a picture of the problem as we’d like.
We are also working with the Government and many other partners to find ways to make these substances harder to obtain and to shape future legislation in respect of offences. It is a complicated area; there are many substances which, like knives, are available to the public and businesses for very good reasons – they are useful in everyday life and in many professions. But like knives, they can also do terrible harm when misused.
Immediate and practical measures we have taken include kitting out our vehicles with large bottles of water and other equipment to allow our officers to help those who are attacked in this way. Further training will also be rolled out as we are frequently the first emergency service to respond to these incidents and time is a critical factor in minimising the harm these substances can do.
Last month we saw a series of offences which linked the use of corrosive substances to another worrying trend – moped enabled crime. Whilst I cannot say too much about these specific offences as criminal proceedings are ongoing I recognise that moped crime has been a matter of great concern for some time.
Criminals clearly find these vehicles attractive, both for committing offences and for fleeing the scene. It undoubtedly presents challenges for us in terms of catching and arresting them as we balance public safety with a duty of care to those who often ride with reckless abandon as to their own safety.
There are no easy answers in this regard. We do not have a “no pursuit” policy but equally we cannot disregard the dangers to those we are pursuing – even when the dangers are very much of their own making.
One measure we can all work towards is to improve the security of the vehicles themselves so they are harder for criminals to get hold of in the first place. We are working with bike manufacturers, as well as rider training centres. We recently launched a publicity campaign to encourage moped owners to lock up their bikes more effectively.
This is clearly needed. Nearly 15,000 were stolen last year representing a 30% rise. During the same period moped-enable offences nearly doubled to just over 9,000.
In simple terms, we recommend chaining bikes through the back wheel and taking at least one additional security measure. I’d ask you to think about whether there are steps you could take help bike owners make their vehicle less vulnerable such as more secure parking, better lighting or providing more ground anchors.
Stolen bikes are often used to grab phones from victims in the street, so we are also trying to encourage the public to make sure they are aware of their surrounding and take care when using their phones. At the same time we are building an intelligence picture of offenders, taking action against them, and trying to close their access to the market in second-hand phones.
I’ve said a lot here about partnership. This is quite deliberate. No part of the Met is more reliant on our relationships with other organisations than local policing. No area of policing is more important. It is the bedrock of our organisation and leading it makes me proud every single day.
But we really do need to work together. Our communities cannot succeed without effective and responsive policing. It is equally true that we will not be the police force London deserves unless we are deeply rooted in our communities. We share a responsibility to help shape our city, to make it better for all Londoners and I hope you will continue to help us do just that."
On the ground at Grenfell
I attended a screening of the new film "On the ground at Grenfell" at Paddington’s Frontline Club. It was made by a group of young people from, and around, the tower. A number of them had previously attended the Stowe Club in Harrow Road, and it was particularly harsh to realise that this important facility has now lost all its funding, given the amount of talent it nurtured and the important role it played in these young people’s lives. The film itself, including quite a lot of mobile phone footage, was very hard to watch, but it is essential that we don’t allow the terrible events of June 13th to slip out of our minds.
Building a city for all Londoners
The shortage of genuinely affordable homes is an acute problem locally, but it is made even more offensive by the fact that luxury housing developments get given the green light, often against the wishes of local residents, and with scarcely a nod towards affordable housing obligations. Here are a couple of shocking recent examples:
The ‘Evening Standard’ reports:
“The much-vaunted £1 billion regeneration of Queensway is shaping up to include almost no “affordable” homes for young Londoners or key workers.
In the latest example of a developer wanting to go against rules requiring affordable homes to be included in multimillion-pound developments, GMS Estates’ plan for an entire block next to Bayswater Tube is awating approval from Westminster council.
The developer is promising to transform a shabby street with new shops, offices, and 58 flats.
The council’s policy is that about a third of all new homes in the borough should be affordable and aimed at beleaguered first-time buyers and squeezed renters at below-market levels. But GMS Estates says that including any affordable homes at all would make its project financially unviable.
Westminster disagrees — but is asking that the developer builds four affordable homes — only about seven per cent of the total. Instead, it wants the company, which is spending £30 million on the project, to pay £282,000 into the council’s affordable housing fund.
GMS Estates says it has agreed to four affordable homes in the development and added that, since the homes will all be rented rather than sold, they will not go to absentee owners.
“With a private rented model we can be certain we will not be faced with the ‘dark flats’ that far too many new developments suffer from, and make a positive contribution to the redevelopment of Queensway.”
However, the level of affordable housing being discussed for this project flies in the face of a recent pledge by Nickie Aiken, leader of the council, to strictly enforce affordable housing quotas in order to stop Westminster becoming a “ghetto of the rich”.
Fergus Coleman, head of affordable and private sector housing at Westminster council, pointed out that to comply with council policy 16 or 17 of the flats should be affordable.
John Zamit, chairman of the South East Bayswater Residents’ Association, believes GMS Estates should be forced to include more affordable homes in its project. “They should not be allowed to get away with it,” he said.
Westminster recently gave Berkeley Homes permission to build 200 new flats at Paddington Green in W2 with only 32 designated affordable, or just 16 per cent of the total. The developer initially offered none at all, saying the scheme, an extension of its West End Gate development, would not be financially viable with cheaper homes.
The GMS Estates project is proposed at a time when massive regeneration is planned for Bayswater, currently a relatively affordable tranche of central London.
In the light of this, my Labour council colleagues are asking Westminster to urgently adopt the recommendations of the Mayor of London’s new Homes for Londoners: Affordable Housing and Viability Supplementary Planning Guidance (SPG) 2017. The Mayor’s approach requires that new housing developments which fail to provide at least 35% social or genuinely affordable housing on site, must produce publicly accessible viability information that is open to scrutiny. At present developers far too often erroneously plead commercial confidentiality and make it very difficult to challenge their dubious claims to unprofitability of schemes that subsequently generate them millions in profits.
Irrespective of what the council, Westminster Labour or others may like to see in terms of national Government reform of the viability system, Sadiq Khan’s approach provides a solution that can be implemented now. Especially given that Westminster will be required to adopt this approach in 2019 at the time of the new London Plan, the Council should get on and implement this approach to put real pressure on developers to meet their basic obligations to provide social and genuinely affordable housing.
Thank you for reading and your comments are always welcome.
Karen Buck MP