Karen Buck

Working tirelessly for Westminster North

News

A total of 818 basement excavations have been applied for in Westminster since 2008 - with the overwhelming majority being granted. Updated figures confirm that, while we wait for the introduction of a new policy to strengthen planning controls, the proportion of applications being refused continued to fall.

Year (Apr-Mar) Approved Refused Total

2007-2008 65 21 (32%) 86
2008-2009 62 17 (27%) 79
2009-2010 67 25 (37%) 92
2010-2011 70 28 (40%) 98
2011-2012 161 22 (14%) 183
2012-2013 121 19 (14%) 140
2013-2014 123 17 (12%) 140

Westminster Council confirmed to me last month:

"The basements SPD/guidance is currently with the Cabinet Member for Built Environment to agree for formal adoption. We have an officer attending RBK&C's basements Examination in Public, which is currently underway. A few issues have come out of this which we are considering and these may have a bearing on our emerging approach to basements".

On the issue of approvals/refusals, the Council tell me:

"As before, the refused permissions are not necessarily refused on the basis of a basement excavation but could be for other factors such as height, massing, design etc. Similarly, those approved will include schemes that are not solely basements but include other works to a residential property".

No-one is, of course, objecting to the idea of any and all basement excavations. Concerns relate to the number of developments, cumulative impact within a neighbourhood, individual schemes according to size and associated nuisance. And in some cases, the difficulties in dealing with owners/developers to enforce Party Wall agreements, building control and so forth.

Basement excavations - the story continues

A total of 818 basement excavations have been applied for in Westminster since 2008 - with the overwhelming majority being granted. Updated figures confirm that, while we wait for the... Read more

I continue to pick up many concerns about criminal and anti-social behaviour, despite the long-term (and very welcome) fall in overall crime over many years. So it is surprising to note the very significant fall in police numbers in the last four years.

In the summer of 2011, there were 1902 police officers and PCSOs in Westminster. This figure has dropped to 1269 by April 2014. This represents a reduction of 633- or almost one third! The number of police staff has also fallen by 60 over the last two years, which can mean uniformed police having to cover work previously done by support staff.

We have been promised an uplift this year, which if fulfilled in total, would return us to 1364 officers - or around what we had in 2012 and still 268 down on the 2010 figure. But so far, additional recruits have gone into a new West End team to deal with crime and nuisance in the West End economy - all fine, but not very much help to the neighbourhoods in Bayswater or other residential communities. Two of our police stations closed in the summer of 2013, and were promised extra front line staff as a result of a shift from buildings to boots on the ground. Despite the best efforts of many dedicated officers, we are still waiting for the improved service levels which were meant to be part of the package.

Police numbers drop by almost a third

I continue to pick up many concerns about criminal and anti-social behaviour, despite the long-term (and very welcome) fall in overall crime over many years. So it is surprising to...

Rosh Hashanah Card 2014

Rosh Hashanah Card 2014

Even though it did not go far enough, I was happy to be in Parliament on Friday to back the ‘Affordable Housing Bill' which makes improvements to the hated ‘Bedroom Tax'. Better something than nothing, although I want to see this ineffective and unpleasant policy dumped once and for all.

The ‘Bedroom Tax' cuts housing support from low income households deemed to have a spare bedroom. For someone like Jean, a 60 year old constituent with severe mental health problems, she has to either leave her home of 30 years, close to relatives and support, or lose almost £30 a week from the £100 disability benefit from which she has to cover all her living costs. Andrew, who lived with his brother for decades until the brother's death, is crippled by agoraphobia and can no longer leave his 2 bed flat. His anxiety about being force to move is so severe he has contemplated ending his life. Unable to pay for all his heating, water, food and other costs, his arrears are now mounting and with it, his stress. Maria saw her housing support cut because her children, aged 8 and 9, were considered not to need separate bedrooms after their older brother went to university. Yet a few months later, and several hundred pounds poorer, the family became entitled to the extra room again as the 9 year old reached 10.

The bedroom tax undermines the right of those on lower incomes to security and stability in a modest but decent home. It ignores how long someone may have they have lived in their home and how strong their network of family and community. Helping to look after the grand-kids? Irrelevant. Being cared for by a neighbour or grown-up son or daughter? Doesn't matter.

Supporters do make an argument in defence of the bedroom tax. They say that over-crowding is a serious and growing challenge and we should make best use of the scarce resource of our housing stock.

Yet this analysis offers the wrong solution to this genuine problem- a fact of which the government were only too well aware when the policy was designed in 2011. Their own impact assessment admitted that " the highest rates are over-crowding are association with the parts of the country with the lowest rates of under-occupation. They admitted even in 2011 that there too few 1 bedroom homes to move people to- and that it is London where the biggest mismatch occurs. It is no good penalising people for not moving if you don't have anywhere to move them to! All that has happened since was both predictable and predicted: increasing debt, bigger arrears to landlords, a great deal of misery.

Even in somewhere like Westminster, where it should in theory be easy to swap people around, only 6 tenants have been able to move each month since the bedroom tax came in in April 2013, out of the 400 households affected. It will take years for everyone to be made an offer. 2 out of 3 are disabled. Many are in their 60s, but are affected until they reach pension age, when they become exempt. What are people supposed to do in the meantime?

If bedroom tax supporters were really so keen to relieve over-crowding, they wouldn't be so willing to allow developers off the hook when it comes to building affordable homes. They wouldn't stand by while Housing Associations sell off much needed properties at auction. They wouldn't be silent when ex-council flats are marketed as exciting Buy-to Let opportunities, with rents many times the previous level. They would support, as I do, incentives and practical assistance to encourage tenants of all ages to move to more appropriate homes.

Let's hope the defeat we inflicted on the government last week brings everyone to their senses, and if it doesn't' , a future Labour government will act. Housing need is a real and serious issue that deserve better than ill-thought out, unworkable and nasty policies like the bedroom tax.

End in sight for the Bedroom Tax

Even though it did not go far enough, I was happy to be in Parliament on Friday to back the ‘Affordable Housing Bill' which makes improvements to the hated ‘Bedroom...

Responding the to the humanitarian crisis continuing to unfold in Iraq which has displaced more than one million Iraqis from their homes- Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, has said:

" Labour supports the decision to make UK military assets available as part of the wider international humanitarian efforts, and the UK must continue to play its part, alongside other EU and international partners, in contributing to the efforts already underway to bring safety and help to those civilians fleeing from ISIL's murderous advance.

Clearly the forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government have played an important role in recent days in both holding back ISIL's advance, and in supporting that wider humanitarian effort.

ISIL has already captured a great deal of heavy weaponry from the Iraqi Security Forces. In the wake of recent advances by ISIL forces Iraqi Kurdistan now shares a 600-mile border with these terrorists, and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces are well positioned to try and protect the Kurdish population.

Since this crisis began, the UK has already assisted these Kurdish forces with technical and logistical military support. So as the Foreign Secretary meets with his EU counterparts in Brussels today, Labour believes the UK Government should work with European and other allies to ensure the Kurds have the military equipment they require in the days ahead.

This equipment is needed not simply to allow the Peshmerga to protect the Kurdish community in Iraq, but also needs to be part of a wider strategy for tackling ISIL.

That is why the EU should consider further steps to support Jordan which shares a border with the ISIL-held areas in its south, and to work with Turkey's newly elected President Erdogan to provide support to the hundreds of thousands of displaced people now seeking refuge inside Iraqi Kurdistan.

"But ultimately, these broad steps to enhance security in Iraq will also have to be matched with determined will on the part of Iraq's leaders to bring all the peoples of their country together, not drive them further apart. The acceptance of Haider al-Abadi as Iraq's prime minister-designate potentially offers a new direction. His challenge is now to promote an inclusive, sovereign and democratic Iraq that can push back on ISIL advances and restore stability and security across the country"

Labour’s position on the Iraq crisis

Responding the to the humanitarian crisis continuing to unfold in Iraq which has displaced more than one million Iraqis from their homes- Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, has said:...

Like you, I am horrified by the violence engulfing Gaza. As of today, more than 1700 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, most of them civilians, including hundreds of women and children. Hamas rockets have also killed civilians with over 40 Israeli soldiers also dead. With half the population of Gaza aged under 18, children inevitably bear the brunt of this conflict. (I made this point when speaking in the Gaza statement in Parliament, the full text of which you read in the link).

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmhansrd/cm140714/debtext/140714-0001.htm#14071411000001

The clashes occurring inside the West Bank demonstrate that violence is not restricted to Gaza either, and it is obvious that there will be a huge impact more widely within the Occupied Territories.

I have visited Gaza, the West Bank and Israel on several occasions, most recently last summer, and I am deeply aware of how small the space is within which this war is being fought. I have described Gaza as being an ‘open prison', within which more than 1.7 million people are living in conditions that were virtually intolerable, even before the war. There was never any doubt that bombing and a ground invasion would rapidly lead to many civilian casualties. That is why Labour's Foreign Affairs spokesman warned in advance that "a full-scale ground invasion would be a disaster for the peoples of both Gaza and Israel, and a strategic error for Israel" and Labour have opposed the escalation that has followed the deployment of Israeli troops. The Shadow Foreign Secretary has also stated that "as in the past, this incursion will end with an agreement" and that "the question is how many more children and civilians need to die before such an agreement is reached?"

Ed Miliband has made clear "As a party we oppose the further escalation of violence we have seen with Israel's invasion of Gaza. I defend Israel's right to defend itself against rocket attacks. But I cannot explain, justify or defend the horrifying deaths of hundreds of Palestinians, including children and innocent civilians."

I fully understand that southern Israelis have lived in fear of indiscriminate rocket fire from inside Gaza - I have visited and seen this for myself - and rocket fire has extended into other parts of Israel in the recent weeks. I condemn such attacks without reservation - they instil terror into the civilian population, cause considerable damage and have claimed innocent lives. Israel has a right to self-defence and to protect her own citizens.

But Palestinians generally, and Gazans in particular, have suffered massively disproportionate casualties as a result of bombing and military action, both in recent weeks and during previous clashes, such as Operation Cast Lead in 2008, which resulted in 1400 Palestinian deaths. Palestinians, especially those trapped inside Gaza, feel themselves to be being collectively punished for the undoubted crimes of extreme militants both inside and beyond the fringes of Hamas. They are at exceptionally high risk from military action in Gaza, due to the high urban density and lack of shelters. Even in periods of relative peace the conditions they have endured in recent years as a result of the blockade have been unacceptable - a shattered economy, dependence on food aid, the near total loss of freedom of movement, polluted water and danger of death for those getting too close to the Israeli security wall. These are all issues I have raised in Parliament and I will continue to do so.

The failure of the latest attempt to restore the peace process generated understandable despair across the Middle East, and the continuation of the settlement-building programme in the West Bank undermines confidence in the possibility of progress to a two-state solution. We desperately need a ceasefire, to relieve the immediate suffering. But there has to be progress towards a lasting peace settlement, based on the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Without a settlement, conflicts such as the one we are now witnessing are likely to re-occur.

Douglas Alexander, Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary, has rightly said:

" Israel's military action will increase the future threats to its security rather than countering them. Israelis rightly want security, yet their government's present actions instead risk simply growing a new generation bent on revenge.".

I will, of course, make sure that the present Government/Foreign Secretary knows of the strong feelings held by you and the many others who have written to me on this issue ( from different perspectives) and I will continue to press the case wherever I can.

Kind regards

Karen Buck MP

Gaza: my response to constituents

Like you, I am horrified by the violence engulfing Gaza. As of today, more than 1700 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, most of them civilians, including hundreds of women...

As I write, it will have been more than a whole year since the target time for Accident and Emergency was met across the country. Record numbers of people are visiting A+E units, emergency waiting times are higher and ambulance response times longer. It is clear the £3 billion re-organisation of the NHS has not changed the NHS for the better, but wasted scarce resources, accelerated privatisation and left London in particular lacking the strategic management we desperately need.

It seems a strange time for a programme of Accident and Emergency closures to be taking place across London- in the midst of an A+E crisis. Yet that is exactly what is happening. Hammersmith and Central Middlesex A+Es will close in September, and now the plans for the down-grading of Charing X A+E have been confirmed. Demand will now shift to St Mary's, which has been making plans to deal with the additional patients from elsewhere in West London.

Over the longer term, as Charing X emergency services are also down-graded, St Mary's will re-build, aided by the sell-off of almost half the land the hospital currently occupies (as well as more than half the land now used by Charing X hospital, and the Western Eye and Samaritan hospitals).

There had been concerns about what this will all mean to Westminster residents, as trade-offs will have to be made to allow for the fact that St Mary's become a ‘major hospital' for the whole of West London. There have already been some service reductions in routine areas at St Mary's relating to particular specialties so Westminster patients are being treated at other sites, like Charing X- and there will be more in future- particularly in respect of day case specialist medicine and day case surgery. What is essential is that support services, including transport, are available for people who find it difficult to travel further afield- this is something I have been pushing on for the last year!

Similarly, the expectation is that a smaller number of Accident and Emergency units should also be reducing the number of patients admitted through A+E- which itself depends upon a significant raising of capacity in GP and other community services. This, though, comes at a time when there are real concerns about the strain upon the GP service. Exactly when council, primary and community services should be expanding to take the pressure off hospitals, keeping people out where possible, and enabling patients to return to their homes swiftly after treatment, they are the areas where the squeeze is on.

It is now crunch time for the NHS locally, and my fears are not that the direction of travel is wrong, but that change is taking place in the wrong order- with hospital closures happening before the alternatives are in place. Services are too fragmented and everyone's eye has been off the ball due to the massive, costly re-structuring imposed in the last three years. We need to scrap this NHS Act and get focused on what really matters, for the sake of all of us who rely on the NHS.

My latest article: West London Accident and Emergency closures agreed

As I write, it will have been more than a whole year since the target time for Accident and Emergency was met across the country. Record numbers of people are...

Our job, as local politicians and those concerned with the community, is to strive to maintain the unique character of London's ‘ villages' , and the quality of life for residents, whist accommodating the changes essential in a healthy city. Locally, that has meant keeping a very careful watch on the trend towards de-regulated planning (such as the relaxation of Permitted Development rules allowing the conversion of shops to residential use), and its impact on areas such as Bayswater. Attending the Bayswater Residents' Association AGM recently, for example, it was clear that the problem of massive basement excavations remains extremely topical throughout the area, and such developments continue to cause misery for many residents.

Change of rules on short-term property lets

One particular issue which has caused concern is the floating by a Government Minister of relaxing the rules allowing short-term property lets. At the moment any Londoner wanting to rent out their property for less than three months has to seek planning permission, as this is considered a change of use under the 1973 Greater London Powers Act.
Recently, the Housing Minister Kris Hopkins said: "London is a holiday hotspot, with thousands of people visiting every year looking for somewhere comfortable and convenient to stay. Yet the capital's homeowners get tangled in red tape each time they look to offer their homes. This, and the wide range of property websites offering opportunities to advertise homes for rent, makes this law increasingly outdated and unworkable"

In areas such as ours, such a rule change could have a devastating impact. We already have the country's largest private rented housing sector and a significant problem with unauthorised short term lets and an explosion of (official) short-term lets risks undermining the residential communities in areas like Bayswater and Lancaster Gate. Of course, most short-term visitors are not in any way anti-social, but it is still true that neighbourhoods change when a very high proportion of people living in them are transient, and too many short-term lets can add to pressures on everything from noise nuisance to rubbish collection, as well as being closely linked to lower levels of civic participation.

I have been briefed by the Westminster Amenity Societies Forum on these issues and have written to the Department of Communities and Local Government to press their strong objections to any such relaxation of the rules.

Incidentally, I was very interested to see from a recent report by Knight Frank, the property agents, that there was a 7% rise in demand for corporate residential lettings in London last year, as multi-national companies bring skilled workers from abroad. Whilst we want to see business thriving, all this adds pressure to an already over-stretched property market, and reinforces the need to increase housing supply to meet domestic need.

Councils get powers to curb growth of betting shops

Although complaints continue to come in about the impact of massive basement excavations, and with Westminster's new guidance not due to come in for some time- there is come positive planning news, as new powers have been introduced to curb the numbers of betting shops. The government is creating a new planning class which allows Councils to vet applications more rigorously than is the case for other retailers. As is the case with basement excavations, the argument here is not against betting shops in principle. It is that Councils need the powers to protect their neighbourhoods and consider the cumulative impact of such developments.

Police numbers continue to fall

The ‘Local policing model' ,which replaced Safer Neighbourhood Teams last year, remains controversial, not least because it is much harder to get a clear sense of how local teams are resourced. Previously, each ward had a fixed number of police who could not usually be move away from the area, but this has now been largely replaced by a much broader ‘sector' team. All of this inevitably reflects the fall in police numbers generally. London currently is down by 3,111 (9%) compared with 2010, with Westminster down by 463 (28%) fewer than in 2010. Residents are clearly noticing that they see fewer police on patrol , which is particularly sad as we were told that the closure of our police stations was going to mean the opposite!

‘Walk away from the kerb' to protect yourself from air pollution

So serious is the problem with air quality in London that the Government's advisor has just suggested that Londoners should keep away from the kerb as they walk along busy roads to avoid traffic-polluted air blamed for thousands of premature deaths,.
Bayswater and Lancaster Gate are at the heart of a borough with exceptionally heavy traffic and we have a real problem with our air quality, which is linked to a number of health problems and causes of premature death. I am backing calls for the whole of Westminster to be included in the ‘Ultra-low' emission zone' and would like swift action to bring this into effect.

Hallfield estate- Major works problems continue

I attended the Annual Meeting again this April, and understandably, found the meeting dominated by various concerns about the aborted Major Works programme being carried out by the Council's housing arm, City West Homes. As is the case on almost every estate where works are taking place, residents (leaseholders and tenants alike) are hugely concerned about cost escalation, the consequences of further delays- especially for those properties plagued by condensation and extreme cold, and the quality of the works when they actually get started, including the effectiveness of project management on the ground. . This latest round of Major Works was being planned as long ago as 2009, so it is no surprise that residents are concerned and upset about the delay. Also, as in every other estate, not all residents have the same view as to what needs to be done, or to what specification, but it is surely the job of the Council to ‘hold the ring' and make sure a decision gets made?

As always, I look forward to the SEBRA summer party in a few weeks (Parliament permitting).

In the meantime, please let me know your thoughts on these or any other issues or problems:

Karen Buck MP, House of Commons, London SW1A0AA
buckk@parliament.uk
02089687999

 

My article for the SEBRA spring magazine

Our job, as local politicians and those concerned with the community, is to strive to maintain the unique character of London's ‘ villages' , and the quality of life for...

Dear Constituent

Thank you very much for writing to me.

Firstly, I share the widespread regret that this emergency legislation has been brought forward so close to the Parliamentary recess, so that there is not the usual time to consider it. This follows the European Court of Justice ruling in April which, unless responded to by Parliament, means that the police and intelligence agencies will suddenly lose the ability to us vital information and evidence which is applied in 95% of serious and organised crime investigations. Yet whilst the judgment itself was in April, the legislation has been published just seven days before the end of the parliamentary session. As Yvette Cooper has said:

"The government should not have left this legislation until the last minute...by ducking the debate about what powers should be available to the police and security services and what safeguards are needed for privacy...they are undermining trust".

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/jul/14/yvette-cooper-tables-amendments-surveillance-legislation

There are two issues which have to be considered in the aftermath of the European Court ruling.

• First, the European Court of Justice has struck down regulations enabling internet providers to retain communications data for law enforcement purposes for up to 12 months. Unless they have a business reason to hold this data, internet and phone companies will delete it, which would have serious consequences for ongoing investigations by the police.

• Second, some companies are calling for a clearer legal framework to underpin their cooperation with law enforcement and intelligence agencies to intercept what terrorists and serious criminals are saying to each other. This is the ability to access content with a warrant

Although I regret the tight timetable, and want the opportunity to have a much wider debate about the proper balance between safeguarding individual liberty and maintaining the capacity to protect ourselves against serious crime, I accept the immediate need to bring forward legislation in response to these points, which will enable agencies to maintain existing capabilities, responding to the ECJ judgement on data retention and bringing clarity to existing law in response to CSP's requests.

However, Labour have also:

• Secured agreement from the government that this emergency legislation will be temporary - it will expire in 2016.

• And secured agreement to a major independent review of the legal framework governing surveillance (as we called for four months ago) so that there can be a proper public and Parliamentary debate over what the longer term legislation and arrangements should be. The Government has also agreed to a new Privacy and Civil Liberties Board.

Is essential is for the Act itself to have a strictly limited life- it automatically falls in 2016- and for there to be adequate safeguards on the powers it proposes. I welcome the commitment to conduct an independent, expert, review of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which we have been calling for for some time. This legislation was drawn up in 2000 and is clearly now out of date. New technology is blurring the distinction between communications and content and between domestic and international communications, and raising new questions about data storage. We need to reconsider, therefore, what safeguards are needed to make sure people's privacy is protected in an internet age, and we need stronger oversight, too.

Previously the Government have resisted the proposal for a RIPA review, and I am glad that they have now agreed, although on our side we will continue to press for the review to be carried out with adequate resources and capabilities and expertise to be able to produce a thorough report which can recommend the kinds of reforms that we need but that can also give confidence to the process.

We also want to have reports every six months on the operation of this legislation while it is in force; a strengthening of the Intelligence and Security Committee so that it has the same powers as Select Committees to call and compel witnesses and by having an Opposition Chair, and for longer-term reforms to overhaul the commissioners to provide stronger oversight.

Over the longer term, I recognise that there is understandable concern that our personal privacy and freedom is not compromised by levels of actual or potential surveillance- surveillance which was inconceivable not much more than a decade ago.

Revelations about the scale of data collection undertaken by security agencies have underlined how vital it is to hold those agencies to account; and continually test their activities against other aspects of the public interest relating to civil liberties.

That is why I am my party were so critical of the Government's (subsequently withdrawn) Communications Bill. This was far too widely drawn, gave too much power to the Home Secretary and provided too little protection for people's privacy.

There can be no doubt of the strong public commitment to measures which enable the police and intelligence services to prosecute criminals and where possible, disrupt and prevent serious criminal activity.
Yet whilst an urgent, temporary response may be justified now, we need to take this opportunity to have a more wide-ranging public debate about the balance we need to strike between civil liberties and privacy, and the essential work of the police and intelligence services.

I appreciate all the comments being made on this important issue.

Yours sincerely

Karen Buck MP

 

My response to the proposed emergency legislation on Communications Data and Interception

Dear Constituent Thank you very much for writing to me. Firstly, I share the widespread regret that this emergency legislation has been brought forward so close to the Parliamentary recess,...

Dear Constituent

I sympathise profoundly with anyone who is affected by breast cancer and I know that organisations such as Breast Cancer Campaign work tirelessly to help support people with breast cancer and to reduce breast cancer rates.

The previous Labour Government rightly made tackling cancer one of its priorities and in the last decade five year survival rates for nearly all types of cancer improved much faster than many other European countries. That progress was due to good planning based on the evidence about what worked and on investment in both prevention and in cancer treatment services.

However, while there has been some progress in the last decade, it is clear that much more still needs to be done to improve diagnosis, treatment, support and awareness. As the Spread the Word campaign highlights, around 12,000 women die from breast cancer every year in the UK and we lag behind much of Europe in key areas such as early diagnosis and the treatment of older people.

That is why I believe the Spread the word campaign is absolutely right to call for politicians to keep the focus on the fight against cancer and to put breast cancer on their agenda as the General Election approaches.

I know the Shadow Health Team are looking closely at how best to improve cancer diagnosis, treatment, research and outcomes as part of their policy review. The Shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, has also stated that a future Labour Government will be bold and ambitious when it comes to fighting cancer.

I hope that the current Government also listen and respond to the very serious concerns that have been raised about this issue and the recent rises in cancer waiting times. Indeed, progress on early diagnosis is stalling under the current Government and the Government is now missing its target for cancer waiting times, which means that families are facing longer waits for treatment.

I can assure you that I will continue to bear in mind the points raised by the Spread the Word campaign and thank those of my constituents who have raised this important issue with me recently.

Yours sincerely

Karen Buck MP

My response to the ‘Spread the Word’ campaign by Breast Cancer Campaign

Dear Constituent I sympathise profoundly with anyone who is affected by breast cancer and I know that organisations such as Breast Cancer Campaign work tirelessly to help support people with...

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