The horrific events at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington have shocked the country. We have been united in grief and so many have been moved to acts of great generosity and compassion. These events however have underlined deep social divides that are clearly recognisable here in neighbouring Westminster, and that are now, finally and rightly, becoming part of our national conversation.
The first priority is to make absolutely certain of the safety of the many thousands of people living in other tower blocks, and to reassure those residents who are understandably anxious.
Since last Wednesday, I and local Councillors have been talking to Westminster Council officers and City West Homes (CWH) staff about a number of key issues and focusing on getting answers communicated to residents by the Council and CWH.
1. Seeking clarity on the advice about whether to stay or go in the event of a fire
At present the advice to residents of high-rise blocks from the fire service and Council remains unchanged but this must be resolved and clarified as a matter of great urgency across the country. If the advice changes then the Council and CWH must rapidly install communal fire alarms in all its blocks.
2. Getting answers about the cladding of Westminster’s tower blocks
As events unfolded it quickly became clear that the cladding at Grenfell may have been contributed to the disaster and that the same company was involved in installing cladding on the Warwick and Brindley Estates in Westbourne Ward. The Council must urgently investigate the safety of the cladding on all Westminster’s tower blocks, and residents, councillors and I told which independent investigators are appointed by Westminster to do this work.
Westminster Council has informed residents that all fire and building regulation standards have been met regarding the Warwick and Brindley cladding and that the type of cladding used appears to have been different to that used at Grenfell Tower. However, it is imperative that independent investigators confirm, as a matter of urgency, that the materials used on these towers and other blocks are both safe and correctly installed. This includes confirming that there is no cavity between the cladding and the concrete, and examining the safety of external decking put up on some of the blocks. These checks must be done as quickly as possible to provide reassurance or facilitate urgent action to help ease the worries of residents. If action is required to alter or remove the cladding on the Warwick or Brindley towers or any others in Westminster it is important that leaseholders, who faced huge bills for the installation of the cladding, are not made to pay yet again.
3. Improving fire safety: The provision of sprinklers and secondary means of escape
We need clear information about whether any of Westminster’s council-owned tower blocks currently have sprinkler systems installed. From what is known, and the fact that such systems were not mandatory on new buildings until after 2007, it is clear that there needs to be work urgently done to retrofit sprinklers to all of Westminster’s tower blocks. The council should move forward with such plans (as Croydon Council have already announced) and they have said they are looking into this. It must be done as a matter of urgency. There needs to be further work done to investigate the feasibility of the installation of secondary emergency staircases in blocks to provide an alternative method of exit. I have written to Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, to call for the government to provide resources to assist Westminster and other local authorities to do this.
Understanding who is living in our blocks
Over recent months Councillors have raised concerns about the lack of information the Council and CWH hold about the people living in their blocks, while I have been actively campaigning against illegal short-term lets. Many flats in CWH blocks are owned by Housing Associations and private landlords who often fail to provide CWH with up-to-date information about their tenants. The tragic events at Grenfell show that this is extremely important work which must be prioritised. Housing associations must improve their reporting and the Council’s legal team must look at what can be done to require private landlords to provide accurate information.
4. Fire safety standards in leasehold flats
Many flats in Westminster blocks are privately-owned and then let out as private tenancies. Issues around the enforcement of fire safety standards in leasehold flats, including those that are short-let, have been raised for some time. Questions have asked about what can be done to ensure all leaseholders comply with the safety standards expected of tenanted properties- in particular, whether action can be taken to ensure that appropriate fire doors are fitted in these flats, required by law in Council-owned properties. The Council must provide advice and support to leaseholders about some of the long-term implications of the tragedy for their properties.
5. Rubbish dumping
While the issue of the dumping of potentially flammable material does not seem to have been a factor in the Grenfell tragedy it remains a significant fire risk on our estates. In recent months, local Councillors have been working with residents to push for a swifter response from CWH cleaning teams to remove hazardous materials that are dumped, particularly at weekends, when most CWH staff are not on duty.
6. Meeting housing need
The immediate priority is to get answers to these and other questions to ensure our residents are kept safe. However, far too many people are living in over-crowded or unsuitable, and in some cases, poor quality, homes in inner London. Increasingly, homelessness now means being moved many miles away from local schools and community support. After the immediate crisis is over, and safety is guaranteed, the Government must look again at what is causing inner London’s housing crisis and commit to providing the help needed to resolve it.
I hope this is helpful and I will do my best to keep you informed of any developments.
Karen Buck MP
020 8968 7999
Dear Resident The horrific events at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington have shocked the country. We have been united in grief and so many have been moved to acts of...
I'm thrilled to have the support of the amazing Tony Robinson before tomorrow's election. pic.twitter.com/BJM3E5Ca3i— Karen Buck (@KarenPBuckMP) June 7, 2017
I'm thrilled to have the support of the amazing Tony Robinson before tomorrow's election. pic.twitter.com/BJM3E5Ca3i — Karen Buck (@KarenPBuckMP) June 7, 2017 Read more
It’s about our future relationship with Europe- but much more besides
Many people have been horrified by the plight of EU residents here and Britons living in Europe, who have built their lives on a foundation that’s now been removed from under them. These people should not become ‘bargaining chips’ in the EU negotiations. They deserve to have their positions settled as a matter of urgency. Sadly, there has also been a rise in hate crime and intolerance since last year; totally out of keeping with our values as an open, safe and diverse city, and that is something we can unite against and declare wholly unacceptable.
I voted against the triggering of the Article 50 Bill in Parliament because I was not prepared to accept the risks that Brexit poses for local people, who had, after all, decisively rejected this outcome.
Since the referendum I have also been supporting the case for:
- Maintenance of barrier-free access to the single market;
- Retaining all the rights - workers’, environmental and human - we currently enjoy as members of the EU;
- The rights of EU residents in this country;
- A close, collaborative future partnership with the EU;
- A meaningful vote on the final deal at the end of the Article 50 negotiations- not a ‘take it or leave it’ vote which is no real choice
The Tories used their Commons majority to vote down our amendments to the Article 50 Bill, but I will continue to press these demands and to oppose a hard Brexit.
Let be me clear, if the deal which will be negotiated over the coming 2 years does not deliver for the people of this country I will vote against it.
I’m willing to fight this election on the question of Europe and the crucial importance of not allowing what happens next to be waved through Parliament by an anti-European Conservative party.
But I also want it to be about more than that.
A society such as ours should be able to guarantee a decent quality of life for all and to make the investment- in educating our young people as much as in homes and transport- which will lay the foundations for the future. Of course, as the Conservatives have already threatened, turning us into a global tax haven and slashing protection for workers and consumers will permanently cut our ability to deliver decent services and support for the vulnerable. We must not go down that path. But even before we face any such choices, there are still decisions we can make about which way we want to go as a country.
Spending cuts hit schools for the first time in decades
Government plans to move education funding away from London, together with a funding squeeze overall, will take £7 million out of Westminster school budgets. Not every school is equally hard hit but many primary and secondary schools will lose huge sums. Westminster secondary school heads have written to me to warn, “many of the gains made in Westminster Schools will be at risk”.
London’s deepening housing crisis
Homelessness has risen 130% since 2010. That was not inevitable - in the previous ten years under Labour it fell by three quarters. But this is only the worst symptom of the housing crisis, which sees developers building luxury blocks for sale overseas, while local people cannot afford to rent or buy anything in the borough.
The government will not build affordable homes, will not give meaningful help to lower income people seeking to get onto the housing ladder and will not tackle the high rents and low standards in the private rented sector. All around we can see evidence of luxury flats under construction whilst long-term residents, including many doing the work that keeps the city going, are being priced out.
Our health and social care services
This has been the worst winter for the NHS in many years, as it suffers the biggest financial squeeze in its history. The Imperial Hospital Trust was deeply in deficit in 2016, and I am hearing more and more stories of lengthening waits and cancellations. The deep cuts to social care for elderly and disabled people - down by a third in Westminster - are trapping people in hospitals who should be able to be cared for at home, and this has backed up into problems across the whole hospital service.
And there are lots of specific local issues too.
As your MP I have never stopped campaigning and assisting local people with their concerns. In the last year alone I have responded to over 6000 problems or policy enquiries. And in the last two years I have worked on issues from the threatened closure of St John’s Wood Post Office to the ending of all council funding for Westminster’s youth service and after-school clubs, from fly-tipping to air quality, from basement excavations to the impact of short-lets and from support for our Safer Neighbourhood Police Teams to help for people facing the loss of disability benefits.
I’ll be out talking to residents from now till polling day, but you don’t have to wait until I knock on your door, though. Let me know about what matters most to you - I’ll be pleased to hear from you!
Karen Buck MP
It’s about our future relationship with Europe- but much more besides Here in Westminster North, electors voted to ‘remain’ by a margin of more than two to one. Since...
From Karen Buck:
I am honoured to have received the trust and support of residents here in North Westminster as your Member of Parliament.
At the General Election on 8 June I will stand as a strong voice for our community, helping thousands of residents every year with issues and problems through my constituency work.
We’ve had a Conservative government since 2010, a Conservative Council since 1963 and a Conservative Mayor of London from 2008 until last year. Now Theresa May has called this election - having promised not to - to try and pack Parliament with Conservatives to do whatever they want, over Brexit and many other policies.
- The worst possible outcome from leaving the EU, damaging jobs and businesses, bringing economic uncertainty and already putting a squeeze on living standards
- Going ahead with deep cuts to school budgets, hitting London schools hardest
- Running down our NHS with longer waits for hospital treatment - having already slashed home care for older and disabled people
- Deepening the housing crisis – building more and more luxury flats while local people can’t afford a home to rent or buy, worsening homelessness (already up by 130% since 2010)
It is more important than ever that we have the balance of a Labour MP fighting in the interests of North Westminster residents - and only a Labour vote here can stop the Conservatives.
I’m looking forward to meeting you in the coming weeks, but please get in touch if you’d like to help with my campaign.
From Karen Buck: I am honoured to have received the trust and support of residents here in North Westminster as your Member of Parliament. At the General Election on 8...
“Many of the gains made in Westminster Schools will be at risk” say Westminster’s secondary school heads
The letter below sets out the concerns of our local secondary school heads as they face cuts in funding due to changes in the way the government supports schools- which has the effect of moving money away from London- as well as unfunded cost pressures. I have already initiated a debate on this matter in Parliament, and will be seeking to do more to keep the pressure up for a change of heart. All views welcome.
“Many of the gains made in Westminster Schools will be at risk” say Westminster’s secondary school heads The letter below sets out the concerns of our local secondary school...
Short/holiday lets (and other aspects of the London housing crisis)
Thank you to the many local residents who completed this survey on line or by returning a newsletter.
The growth of the holiday/short-let sector is becoming a significant issue in London- and especially inner London- as figures collected by Westminster Council illustrate. Of course it is reasonable for people to be able to let rooms or their property for short periods without excessive interference. However, there are still rules which do need to be enforced. Short and holiday lets should not interfere with the right of neighbours to have the peaceful enjoyment of their homes, and care must be taken to prevent much needed residential property simply turning into an arm of the hotel industry.
I also asked a few other questions gathering thoughts on aspects of the housing crisis as it most affects us locally.
A summary of the responses are set out below. This information, and the additional detail many people provided, will be of great help when I attend the Greater London Authority summit on short/holiday lets, and introduce my short Bill in Parliament on the subject, so ‘thank you’ again, and please do feel free to keep your comments coming.
1. Short/holiday lets
I asked you questions about the impact of short-lets, including those advertised on platforms such as Airbnb, on your neighbourhood.
- 80% (out of total of 218) thought that it should be easier to enforce the rules that properties should not be let out for more than 90 days (which currently requires planning permission).
- 81% had experience of a property/properties near you being rented out on a holiday or short-let basis?
- 55% had experienced problems.
Some of you questioned whether there is a “real, evidence based problem”. Another pointed out that there is a difference between short-term residential lets (more than 6 months) and Airbnb lets (which are often for holidays and for no longer than 6 months).
Some of you mentioned a positive experience of using Airbnb yourselves or Airbnb use in your building:
‘on a positive note, we have met some lovely people who have rented the flat!’
short lets are a…‘very useful way to get money in people’s pockets’
However, many of you have experienced serious problems with short-term lettings in your neighbourhood. In brief, the problems include:
- Noise – people arriving and leaving noisily in the middle of the night, loud parties, wrong buzzers being used at night
- Security – short term occupants obtaining keys and security codes (leading to at least one burglary?)
- Rubbish left untied, or left out on the wrong days or in the wrong place
- Drugs and prostitution
- Loss of community feeling
You wanted better enforcement again to ensure holiday/short-lets kept within the law and didn’t cause wider problems.
2. Foreign ownership of property in London [Q1]
We are an international city and very much the stronger and better for it. Ownership of property will understandably reflect that fact. However, concerns have risen in recent years, and perhaps especially regarding the ‘off-plan’ purchase of new homes before they are even marketed in the UK. This lay behind Sadiq Khan’s decision to hold an inquiry and establish what impact this was having. Of the 218 respondents a significant majority (84%) supported the Mayor of London’s inquiry into the impact of foreign ownership on the London property market. Around 70 of you wrote comments.
16 of these comments identified a link between foreign ownership and the high prices of properties and rents in London and a few want foreign ownership banned.
‘Foreign investment in London property is making the city unaffordable for anyone except the very rich.’
Some of you are concerned about the “luxury” developments which are aimed at the overseas market. You were also concerned the link between foreign ownership and money laundering, corruption and tax avoidance.
However, many of you felt that the shortage of affordable housing in Central London has many complex causes – planning restrictions being mentioned frequently.
It struck me that many of your comments suggested that the main problem was that property was being left empty.
‘There are new blocks of flats near me where almost no flats have lights on at night.’
One of you suggested that the Mayor’s inquiry
‘should be expanded to cover the impact of empty homes.’
3. Increasing access to affordable homes
I asked you whether London house builders should be required to ensure that at least 35% of homes in all new scheme are affordable.
A large majority (76%) of you agreed with this question [96/127].
In your comments, many of you felt that “affordable” needs to be carefully defined.
Affordability should be related to earnings and not be a % of average rents.
By affordable, it should be within the actual pay range of most people which is 20 – 25K, not 32K.
These should also be properly “affordable” – when the average couple who are both working full-time can’t afford them, how are they “affordable”?
Some of you felt that 35% isn’t high enough and others felt that it was probably too high and would “disincentivise builders from developing”.
Whilst one regretted the disappearance of the “social mix that used to make London so successful” another felt that “people who can afford to live here [Westminster] should live here and those who can’t afford should live where they can afford”.
4. Changing the private rented sector
A great number of you told me that you had wanted to choose all three options (and some of you said that you would have chosen two).
However, a few of you were opposed to all three options and concerned that these measures could limit the availability of property to rent. These comments give me a good indication of your views.
a) Longer tenancies
Many of you supported the longer tenancy option, with some of you thinking that this would result in more stable communities. However, in your comments, a number of you questioned whether it was realistic.
‘Not all landlords will have enough confidence of their financial position in 5 years’ time to want to contractually oblige themselves for this period. Conversely, shorter lets (1 year) are favoured by a lot of tenants who want to retain flexibility.’
A few of you referred to the fact that other countries have a 2-year minimum length of contract. However, a number of tenants said that they would not want to be bound by a long-term agreement. Others felt that there shouldn’t be any restriction on a landlord’s use of their property.
b) Limits on rent rises
Although many of you (but not all) supported limits on rent increases, very few of you expanded on this in your comments. A couple of you suggested that rent rises should be limited to RPI during a tenancy.
c) Limits on estate agent charges
Again, this was supported by many of you, giving examples of “rip off” charges of £300 for reprinting the rental agreement.
Short/holiday lets (and other aspects of the London housing crisis) Thank you to the many local residents who completed this survey on line or by returning a newsletter. The growth...
Karen Buck MP signs Holocaust Educational Trust Book of Commitment
Signing the Holocaust Memorial Book of Commitment, a wonderful initiative by the Holocaust Educational Trust
Karen Buck MP signs Holocaust Educational Trust Book of Commitment Read more
The independent House of Commons Library has analysed for me the changes in adult social care spending in every local authority since 2010.
As can be seen in the table below, Westminster has had one of the biggest reductions in spending, from £102 million to £66m (a fall of 36%). This is the 4th largest spending cut out of 155 Local Authorities.
The lack of social care for elderly people who could, if support were available, be discharged from hospital, is one of the key drivers of this winter’s NHS crisis.
The independent House of Commons Library has analysed for me the changes in adult social care spending in every local authority since 2010. As can be seen in the table... Read more