Report from Karen Buck MP
As always, it is a pleasure to write a piece for the St John's Wood Society on some of the policy issues occupying my time and attention. The Society continues to do splendid work defending the unique built environment of the area, as well as championing the interests of this diverse community. Specifically, the hard-working Planning Committee handles a huge workload with aplomb, despite the scale (St John's Wood Barracks, Lords) and the frequently controversial nature (basements) of the issues that members must deal with. St John's Wood is fortunate indeed to have such defenders.
Crime and policing
The continuation of the now 20-year long decline in overall crime is extremely welcome, but it inevitably conceals lots of variations- both in types of crime and between areas. Last year's crime figures for Westminster, for example, show another fall in total crime on the year, including burglary and robbery, but a sharp rise in violent crime, which rose from 7,019 offences in 2013 to 8,541 in 2014. This particular type of crime remains rare, and St John's Wood is safer than many other areas, but nonetheless there was a rise from 7.3 violent crimes per 1000 in 2013 to 9.7 per 1000 in 2014 in Abbey Road, and from 10.1 to 14.7 per 1000 in Regent's Park, so there can be no complacency.
Meanwhile, I was very disappointed to hear that the Paddington Green custody suite has been closed, since this means that when the police make an arrest they have to take the suspect right across the Borough (usually to Belgravia) for processing- greatly adding to the time they are off the streets in north Westminster. The pressure on staffing levels remains acute- I previously reported that we lost almost one-third of our total police strength in Westminster between 2011 and last year. All of these facts suggest that we should not be looking at further reductions in policing next year.
The process of tightening up on planning guidance is still underway, with Kensington and Chelsea being in the front line of Councils adopting new rules (K+C councillors voted on these in mid-January). Whilst Westminster has interim guidance in place this is not actually new policy - it reflects current practice by putting all the standards into one document. On the plus side, Westminster is starting to win appeals against applications the Council wishes to reject, but there is some concern that the response to last year's consultation remains unpublished, and I know residents are still very anxious to see tougher restrictions coming in as soon as possible.
Impact of the de-regulation of rules on residential short/holiday lets
I was grateful to all those residents who responded to my survey about the impact of the growing ‘short-term let' industry on residential communities. Drawing from their comments - which were overwhelmingly negative about further re-regulation- I initiated a debate in Parliament in order to try and convince the government not to go ahead with further loosening of the rules. In addition to all the concerns about the consequences for residents- such as increased levels of noise nuisance, rubbish, minor damage and greater insecurity- I raised the fact that in Westminster some 3000 properties have already been turned over to the hospitality industry, reducing the number of homes available for people who actually need somewhere to live. Of course no-one wants to prevent owners doing a holiday home-swap or something similar but with visitor numbers to London continuing to soar, and owners able to charge far more for short lets than ordinary rentals, there is a real danger that parts of central London will be under increasing pressure and lose their character as places where people actually live. Camden, for example, has recorded a leap in the number of properties advertised in short-let websites since the government introduced the De-regulation Bill.
The local NHS
Pressure has been building on the London NHS in recent weeks, and our local hospital, St Mary's, was criticised by the Care Quality Commission in their inspection report at Christmas. Overall, the Imperial Trust was found to ‘require improvement', but the Accident and Emergency service at St Mary's was found to be inadequate, as was the Outpatients service. (The A+E was uprated to ‘requiring improvement' in the week of writing). St Mary's has also fallen below required performance standards for treating patients in Accident and Emergency, and senior managers tell me that at any one time, they have the equivalent of a ward of patients they cannot discharge home because there is not enough support for them in the community. Speaking in Parliament on this issue last month, I asked the Secretary of State why the government has been closing Accident and Emergency units (such as Hammersmith and Central Middlesex, which closed last autumn) in the middle of an A+E crisis.
I have held two advice sessions for private and council leaseholders in recent months, with expert input from lawyers working for LEASE. Many leaseholders from private blocks in St John's Wood, as well as CWH leaseholders from Carlton Hill, Bronwen Court and Wharncliffe Gardens came along to ask questions about issues ranging from how to ensure financial transparency from Managing Agents, the best way to take a case to the LVT, service charges and Major Works. Although these sessions have been useful to those attending, they flagged up how disempowered many leaseholders feel when dealing with their freeholders/Managing Agents, including, unfortunately, City West Homes.
On the subject of tenure, it is fascinating to note that the growth of the private rented sector in Britain has had a real effect locally. During the last census period, the % of properties rented privately rose from 36% to 45% in Abbey Road, and from 34% to 42% in Regent's Park, and there is no reason to think it hasn't grown further since then. Although a healthy private rented sector is a good thing, a decline in the proportion of long-term residents does have an impact, and can make it harder to build community institutions. Whilst many private tenants are satisfied with their property, it is also true that the PRS is over-represented when it comes to problems, too- ranging from poor energy efficiency to excessive letting agency charges, so it is important to have the right powers and capacity to deal with downsides.
Please do continue to raise your concerns with me, and I will always do my best to respond. I look forward to continuing to work with the Society in future.
Report from Karen Buck MP As always, it is a pleasure to write a piece for the St John's Wood Society on some of the policy issues occupying my time...
Brandon Lewis MP
Minister for Planning
Eland House, Bressenden Place.
February 4th 2014
We write to express our support for the view expressed by Westminster City Council, the Westminster Property Owners Association and many others, regarding the Government's Vacant Building Credit.
The supply of affordable homes is already severely constrained in Westminster. In addition to direct costs (such as homelessness) arising from the shortage of accommodation, the lack of affordable homes for sale and rent risks intensifying an already challenging problem of social and economic polarisation. As the Ramidus report on ‘Prime Value' housing, prepared for Westminster Council last year, set out:
"Westminster has long been an expensive place in which to own a home and there is no reason to expect this to change; in fact our analysis shows clearly that the affordability gap is widening. Westminster is becoming progressively less affordable and its social structure more polarised."
Westminster Council have submitted examples to DCLG of where the Vacant Buildings credit will lead to the loss of affordable homes/a contribution to the affordable housing fund. These include:
20 Grosvenor Square
" the proposed scheme for a residential development of 21,537sqm of residential floorspace (36 flats) generated a requirement for a financial contribution of £29.9 million to the Council's affordable housing fund. Following lengthy discussions between the applicant, the Council and an independent viability consultant, the applicant agreed in early January to pay a contribution of approx. £17.5 million. The application was reported to Committee on 13 January where officers were obliged to advise members that, notwithstanding the applicants offer, taking into account the Vacant Building Credit the requirement would reduce to
approx. £8.5million (using the methodology indicated by the recent CLG advice the figure would be £8,507,778).
As such we are losing approx. £9 million of the contribution which the developer had agreed to pay and which had been tested as being viable"
18-25 Park Crescent
" the proposed scheme for a residential development of 25,715sqm of residential floorspace (71 units) generated a requirement for a financial contribution of £26.7 million to the Council's affordable housing fund. Following viability discussions, Committee resolved in December 2014 to accept the applicant's revised offer of a contribution of £18.65 million on the basis of the independent valuer's advice that this was the maximum viable contribution. Applying the Vacant Building Credit, the requirement would now be reduced to approx. £8.1 million.
As such, £10.6 million of the contribution offered by the applicants, and tested as being viable, would now be lost"
1 Palace Street and 1-3 Buckingham Gate
"The proposed scheme for a residential development of 22,811sqm of residential floorspace (72 flats) generated a requirement for a financial contribution of £21.8 million to the Council's affordable housing fund. It was agreed between the applicant's consultants and the independent viability consultant appointed by the Council that the maximum contribution that would be viable is £9.1 million, and Committee resolved to grant permission on this basis on 11 November 2014.
Since the Committee resolution, officers have negotiated the S106 agreement and it is ready to be signed, however the applicants are now refusing to complete the agreement due to the introduction of the Vacant Building Credit, which means that the full agreed contribution of £9.1 million to the affordable housing fund will be lost"
The three schemes outlined above will result in a combined loss of £28.7 million to Westminster's affordable housing fund, and there are many other examples emerging. They are large scale schemes in high value areas which have been tested for viability and where the developer is still getting a reasonable return. It would appear that these types of scheme were not the intended target of the new policy but are caught by it due to the lack of clarity on the scale of schemes involved.
We also have major concerns about the potential for developers to sit on vacant properties or to make them vacant by paying tenants to forgo their leases in order to benefit from the policy (in high value areas such as Westminster many developers can afford to do this in order to avoid providing affordable housing). This will have knock-on implications such as pushing small businesses or temporary uses such as community facilities out of buildings where they are currently on short leases/low rents while developers are gaining permission for redevelopment schemes.
We would be happy to meet with you to discuss our concerns and urge you to reconsider this policy as a matter of urgency. Thank you for your consideration.
Karen Buck MP
Mark Field MP
Brandon Lewis MPMinister for PlanningDCLGEland House, Bressenden Place. London SW1 February 4th 2014 Dear Brandon. We write to express our support for the view expressed by Westminster City Council, the...
The global banking and economic crash six years ago left us with a massive spending deficit, that had - and still has- to be dealt with. It wasn't driven by borrowing too much for pay for police officers and nurses, either - a fact George Osborne once understood so well so that he was committed to supporting Labour's spending plans right up until 2008. Nonetheless, it remains true that a deficit caused by the aftermath of the banking crash has to be cleared- it costs billions of pounds to service in interest payments. The Coalition came in with a cast -iron promise to clear the deficit by 2015, rejecting our plans to go more slowly and carefully with a still weak economy. They failed. They have borrowed £219 BILLION more than they said they would back in 2010. And they failed whilst also making harsh cuts to public spending, wage top ups for the working poor and more. Now they re-make the promise to clear the deficit by 2020, but with more than half of their planned spending cuts still to come. These plans will reduce public spending, as a share of our national wealth, to a level not seen since the 1930s.
Why did they fail, despite deep spending cuts and- to be fair- the creation of many new jobs? The answer lies in the (modern equivalent of) millions of pay-packets. People simply aren't earning enough. The economy we now have is not improving living standards for most people, and it isn't leading to tax revenue coming in. The average person in full time work is £2000 a year worse off than in 2010. Too many new jobs are low paid and insecure. Only today I was helping a mum of 3 employed by a company providing social care in Westminster, whose zero-hours contract means she doesn't know from one week to the next how many hours she will be working for. And even in Westminster a quarter of all jobs are paid below the Living Wage, with London suffering particularly badly from the increase in low pay. If people don't earn enough, they don't pay tax- and millions rely on tax credits and Housing Benefit top up their inadequate incomes. So over the life of this Parliament spending on social security is over £20bn higher than was planned in 2010. On top of everything, growth is now expected to slow down next year.
We have to turn this around. We need the public finances back on a healthy footing, and this will have to include cuts in public spending, such as removing the Winter Fuel Allowance from the top 5% of pensioners, and a 1% cap on Child Benefit for 2 years. We need the economy to grow- if it grew just 0.5% faster than the-now down-graded projection for next year, borrowing would be £32b lower over the next Parliament. It also means we need to raise more revenue.
The Conservatives have made changes to Stamp Duty, raising bills on properties worth over £938,000. Yet this will actually cost money overall- the Government estimates the bill at £800m. It also adds £63,750 to the existing Stamp Duty on a £3m house, according to Knight Frank- which puts Labour's £3000 annual charge for a £2-£3m property in some perspective. However, it does mean they have accepted the need to ask people in high value properties to contribute more. Even the local Conservatives are now also proposing a total re-banding of Council Tax and a new top ‘mansion' band, recognising, as we do, that it is ludicrous for the owner of the multi-million house to be paying the same annual charge as applies to a home worth a fraction of that. The difference between us is not one of principle, but of detail- as they say of their scheme: "(the) big diff between this and mansion tax - money would be ring-fenced locally for councils to build more affordable housing".
More will still need to be done. Above all, the economy needs to be working for most people- which is clearly is not at the moment. That is why we want to see a higher minimum wage, tax breaks for employers paying the living wage, greater security at work by tackling the abuse of zero-hour contracts, lower business rates for small firms, more house-building and expanded free childcare for working parents- all fully funded. And we will make sure our precious NHS gets the resources it needs. And that is where the choice will lie for the country next spring.
The global banking and economic crash six years ago left us with a massive spending deficit, that had - and still has- to be dealt with. It wasn't driven by...
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and the impact this could have on public services, including the NHS.
Let me start by saying that I support the principles behind TTIP - the free trade agreement that is currently being negotiated between the USA and the EU. These are, of course, the UK's two largest markets and I believe that TTIP has the potential to bring significant benefits, including removing trade barriers, boosting growth and creating jobs.
It is also crucial, though, that the benefits of TTIP filter down to employees, small businesses and consumers, that the deal is open and accountable and that it raises or at least maintains labour, consumer, environmental and safety standards.
I also share the concerns that many constituents have raised about the impact that TTIP could have on public services - particularly the NHS. I believe that the NHS and public services need to be more, not less, integrated and I am concerned at the worrying fragmentation of health services that is taking place under this Government. That is why I believe that the NHS should be exempt from the agreement and that the Government should now push for this exemption.
I know that there is also considerable concern about the proposed inclusion of Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions in the TTIP deal. I believe that governments should be able to legislate in the public interest and that this should be protected in any dispute resolution mechanisms. I also believe there needs to be far greater transparency in this area and that while the EU Commission has recently instigated some welcome changes on this, they can and must go further.
I hope that the Government now listen and respond to these concerns and ensure that TTIP delivers the jobs, growth and fairer deal for consumers that we all want to see.
Karen Buck MP
Dear Constituent, The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and the impact this could have on public services, including the NHS. Let me start by saying that I support the...
I am very happy to confirm that I will be in Parliament this Friday to support Clive Efford MP on an issue that is very dear to my heart.
The NHS and Social Care Act, brought in by this government, has been an expensive, bureaucratic nightmare- and one that even they are now believed to be regretting. I opposed and voted against this Act at the time, however, as I feared it would make the NHS more fragmented, that it would set up the NHS to operate as a full-scale unrestrained market, and that it would lead to a 'postcode lottery' emerging with widespread variation in local NHS treatments.
A future Labour Government will repeal the Health and Social Care Act, reinstate the NHS as the preferred provider and raise £2.5 billion for an NHS 'Time to Care' Fund by clamping down on tax avoidance, raising revenue from tobacco companies and introducing charges on ‘prime value' properties worth over £2 million.
The NHS Reinstatement Bill campaign rightly highlights the full scale of the pressures currently facing the NHS and I agree that the future of our NHS must be at the forefront of the debate in the run up to the General Election. I also agree that the competition regime introduced by the Government's Health and Social Care Act is a barrier to sensible collaboration within the NHS and is diverting resources which should be better spent on improving patient care. This Bill would repeal the Government's section 75 regulations and free the NHS from the morass of competition law that has been introduced by the current Government. I believe it will also help restore the right values to the NHS by putting patients' needs before profits.
So, yes, I will be in Parliament on Friday to support this important piece of legislation, and I will be putting the NHS at the heart of my campaigning over the coming months.
Karen Buck MP
Dear Constituent, I am very happy to confirm that I will be in Parliament this Friday to support Clive Efford MP on an issue that is very dear to my...
Retaliatory Eviction and the Tenancies (Reform) Bill, (due to be debated in the House of Commons on 28th November)
I appreciate and share constituents concerns about retaliatory evictions and I know that organisations such as Shelter have highlighted the growing number of renters who have either been unfairly evicted by their landlords or feel unable to raise legitimate concerns for fear of eviction.
More than nine million people - including two million children - are now living in rented accommodation in the UK and I know that the combination of rising rents and a lack of affordable housing means that many renters feel they lack the power to challenge the small minority of landlords who are exploiting tenants or treating them unfairly.
I agree that more needs to be done to address this and the wider insecurity and uncertainty that many renters are experiencing.
A Private Members Bill, the Tenancies (Reform) Bill has been introduced to the House of Commons. Shelter are supporting this Bill and believe it will help tackle the scourge of unfair evictions. I welcome any measures to tackle this very serious problem and I will support it when it is debated in the House of Commons next Friday .
More widely, I believe there needs to be radical reform of the private rented sector to make it more secure and affordable for renters. I believe there should, for example, be a ban on letting agent fees on tenants and the introduction of a National Register of Landlords to enable local authorities to clamp down on the small number of 'rogue' landlords. I also welcome the commitment by the Shadow Housing Minister, Emma Reynolds MP, that a future Labour Government will legislate to make three year tenancies the norm, thereby providing greater security and preventing landlords from evicting tenants without justification.
Karen Buck MP
Dear Constituent, Retaliatory Eviction and the Tenancies (Reform) Bill, (due to be debated in the House of Commons on 28th November) I appreciate and share constituents concerns about retaliatory evictions...
Our national identity is an important part of who we are. Most of us, of course combine multiple identities during the course of our everyday lives-our sense of self being shaped so many different elements: from faith; gender and politics to work, sexuality and the deepest elements of our personal lives and history. But our national identity remains part of us, and it, too, is multi-layered. The Scotland I visit and love feels like part of my country. The United Kingdom that Scotland will now remain part of- that is my country. I feel a strong sense of Englishness too, partly rooted from growing up in an Essex village. I feel an awareness of my Irish heritage. I am a Londoner to my toes, and my home is the slice of London that is north Westminster. I have a strong sense of our shared global humanity. None of these things are unusual- we are all rarely one thing or the other. Government must enable us to live with this complexity, this fluidity.
Like many people, I welcomed the decision of the Scottish people to remain part of the UK. Yet while the implications of the Scottish ‘No' vote and what happens after are still being digested, politics is moving on. The Scottish vote is turning out to be not an end but another stage in a process of change. The same must now be made true for the other parts of the UK and that does, of course, include England.
One immediate response to the Scottish settlement has been a call for an English equivalent, and indeed we should look carefully at any proposals that are brought forward to give English MPs more powers to scrutinise legislation that particularly affects English constituencies. However, some of the ideas now being discussed throw up serious problems that have not yet been worked through. I get no sense of a public appetite for a new ‘English' Parliament, for example, with more politicians and all the associated costs that would entail. Nor is it so simple to just give ‘English laws to English MPs'. Neither legislation nor taxation powers lend themselves easily to such neatness. How would our second chamber- the House of Lords- fit in? It is not currently organised on national or regional lines, but is part of Parliament, with the power to amend the law. Potentially, members of an unelected second chamber could vote on issues that an elected member of the House of Commons could not. Would Scottish MPs in future be barred from being government Ministers? If not, a situation could arise where a Minister was unable to vote on a law he or she was responsible for introducing. How would a government work if, once elected with a national mandate, able to carry a majority for some of its programme, including economic and foreign policy, it could be blocked by a sub-section of Parliament on other issues? As constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor explains:
"A bifurcated government is a logical absurdity....A government must be collectively responsible to parliament for all the policies that come before it, not just a selection of them. Bifurcated government would become deadlocked government...."
There may be answers to these and other questions but answers there have to be. Answers, too, that don't seek to divide the UK in the aftermath of a popular decision to keep us ‘better together'. One way forward lies in far greater devolution of powers to well below the national level. I can see a strong argument for greater freedoms being passed down to cities and city-regions, including London. Indeed, Labour has already proposed taking £30 billion of spending decisions away from central government and to cities and city regions in England, so decisions can be taken in line with local needs.
Whatever the specifics, change is essential, it is coming, and public opinion must be heard. One lesson from the Scottish referendum is that solutions imposed directly from the national government at Westminster will no longer be tolerated by the people. Personally, I regret the decision not to change our electoral system from ‘First past the Post', which I think is ill suited to the modern age, but although we can't revisit that, there are other ways we can adapt our politics to the times. The debate about how we are governed can't be restricted to the organisation of votes in Parliament.
That is why it is right to establish a Constitutional Convention, so we consider how best to resolve these issues and to look at how we can improve the political system without dividing or driving our country apart. Over the next year, there must be a vigorous consultation at local and national levels, in which citizens and communities are properly engaged. As Bogdanor says, this will be ‘political...but should not be party political'- the way we are governed can't be constructed to suit any particular party or agenda. Whatever we do next will shape our country for many decades to come and we must get it right.
Our national identity is an important part of who we are. Most of us, of course combine multiple identities during the course of our everyday lives-our sense of self being...
Thank you for getting in touch with me about the Government's proposed legislation on the recall of MPs.
I support the principle of recall. We need a system that improves accountability and gives more power to the public to hold their representatives to account between elections where there has been serious wrongdoing and misconduct. I am not in favour of a system of recall that simply enhances the House of Commons' internal disciplinary procedures. There needs to be far greater transparency and what we emerge with at the end of this process must have and hold public confidence.
However, I would make two key points:
1. The Government bill as it stands needs strengthening.
In respect of recall following on from misconduct or abuse of office, the length of suspension from Parliament which the Bill proposes in order to trigger a recall petition is currently too high, and it fails to catch some of the cases that we have witnessed in Parliament over recent years. We also need to improve the process that would lead to recall, such as by rebalancing Parliament's Standards and Privileges Committee so that it does not reflect a Government majority, whoever is in power, and by increasing the lay membership of the Committee.
2. In my view, the recall process should relate to the misconduct of Members of Parliament, and not their political views or priorities.
My worry in respect of Zac Goldsmith's amendments is that they could easily have the opposite effect to those intended. By having a recall process, starting with a ‘Statement of Intent' that requires just 5% of a constituency and that can be triggered on any issue - an advantage will be handed to well-funded interest groups, or politicians, who have the resources to mobilise and gather signatures. It is hard to see how this would help representatives to take difficult decisions in the long-term or in the national interest (and MPs are representatives, not delegates, sent to Parliament with a specific mandate on one or more issues). It could limit the ability of some MPs to vote for social legislation opposed by a well organised minority. It could mean an MP securing, say, 15,000 votes at a General Election, facing the start of a recall process, perhaps even within a few months of an election, because 3500 people support a ‘Statement of Intent' in opposition to a contentious law: Same Sex marriage, for example.
I suspect it would have made it hard to an MP like Chris Mullin to champion the then highly controversial case of the Birmingham 6, subsequently released after their convictions for the Birmingham pub bombings were overturned. During his campaign, a national tabloid ran a front page calling him ‘The most odious man in Britain', and it isn't hard to see how, in the heat of such a campaign, a recall ballot could be got going. It strikes me as taking us a step closer to the US model of politics, which is not one I admire. Even if spending limits applied on any single trigger or petition, there remains a huge potential imbalance- having spending limits doesn't necessarily mean any MP or local party has the money to actually spend on the face of determined, possibly even successive, political challenges.
So it is right that a stronger mechanism should exist so MPs who abuse their position can face the consequences between General Elections. The right to recall could play an important role in giving people more confidence in the Parliamentary system under such circumstances, and I am very happy to back it, but we have to get the balance right and ensure that the outcome genuinely strengthens democracy.
I hope this is helpful and thank you again for writing.
Karen Buck MP
Thank you for getting in touch with me about the Government's proposed legislation on the recall of MPs. I support the principle of recall. We need a system that improves...