Karen Buck

Working hard for Westminster North

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As the Conservatives voted against requiring landlords to make all properties 'fit for human habitation', here's a report on why it is needed, based on research by my office.

 

Report: The Challenge of Tackling Unsafe and Unhealthy Housing

As the Conservatives voted against requiring landlords to make all properties 'fit for human habitation', here's a report on why it is needed, based on research by my office.  ...

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I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year. Thank you also to the children of Christ Church Bentinck School for their excellent Christmas Card designs. 

Christmas Card 2015

I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year. Thank you also to the children of Christ Church Bentinck School for their excellent Christmas Card...

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I am very pleased that this important issue was debated in Parliament earlier this month, albeit on ‘Backbench business’ which was not be voted upon. 

Whilst on this occasion due to a packed diary of other commitments, I was unable to attend the latest debate  (Like most MPs as well as attending debates on the floor of the House I also have numerous committee duties and long-booked diary meetings)

On the substantive issue, I am in total agreement of the need to protect the bee population.

I appreciate the concerns that have been expressed about declining bee numbers and the impact this could have on food production, the economy and our countryside.

As I am sure you are aware, the EU Commission announced in April 2013 that it would restrict the use of neonicotinoid pesticides to crops that are not attractive to bees and other pollinators for two years after the European Food Safety Authority concluded that three commonly used neonicotinoid pesticides posed an unacceptable danger to bees.

During the last Parliament, the Coalition Government opposed the European ban on neonicotinoids but the decision to enforce the ban was taken by the Commission after a qualified majority could not be reached amongst member states.

I support the European-wide ban on neonicotinoid use because I believe it is a proportionate response to the evidence on the contribution of the three neonicotinoid pesticides to pollinator decline.

However the current Government has approved an application by the National Farmers Union (NFU) for the ban on neonicotinoids to be lifted this autumn to allow these chemicals to be sprayed on rapeseed in order to help prevent crop damage.

I believe the Government should have rejected the calls from the NFU to lift the ban to allow for the effect to be properly analysed. It is important to take a science-led approach to the use of pesticides and to consider how best to support farmers, to protect wildlife and reverse the decline of pollinators.

I also believe that the Coalition Government's 10-year national pollinator strategy for bees and other pollinators, which was published in November 2014, did not go far enough. It does not, for example, tackle habitat destruction, damaging farming practices, bad planning decisions and neonicotinoid use, which are the primary causes of pollinator decline.

I hope the Government will listen to the concerns that have been raised about this issue and I will continue to fight for the protection of our natural environment.

Continuing issues around bee numbers

I am very pleased that this important issue was debated in Parliament earlier this month, albeit on ‘Backbench business’ which was not be voted upon.  Whilst on this occasion due...

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My views on this vitally important and complex matter remain as they were - I believe we do need trade to be governed by international agreements but that these must provide security over the full breadth of public interest– including consumer and environmental protection- and not simply be a means by which unaccountable multi-national corporations are able to promote their own interests. The final agreement must protect the rights of democratically elected governments to protect public services- in this case, the NHS. The most controversial element of TTIP involves, of course, the disputes settlement mechanism, which permits investors to bring proceedings against a foreign government, in tribunals outside the domestic legal system.

Earlier this year, Parliament’s Business and Skills Select Committee produced a report on TTIP. The Committee concluded that it remained to be convinced that ISDS (Investor State Dispute Settlement) provisions were needed in TTIP and that the UK Government and the EU needed to show that the legal systems in the EU and US did not provide adequate protection for foreign investors before ISDS should be considered. If ISDS were to be included in the Treaty, the Committee recommended including a number of safeguards including: clauses to dismiss frivolous claims, a presumption that the loser should pay and a statement that Government’s right to regulate must take priority over investors’ rights to invest.

You may be interested to know that, following on from the pressure being placed on governments and the EU; the European Commission published proposals for the new system last month. The proposal includes a clause emphasising government’s right to set policy – in particular saying that:

1. The provisions of this section shall not affect the right of the Parties to regulate within their territories through measures necessary to achieve legitimate policy objectives, such as the protection of public health, safety, environment or public morals, social or consumer protection or promotion and protection of cultural diversity.

2. For greater certainty, the provisions of this section shall not be interpreted as a commitment from a Party that it will not change the legal and regulatory framework, including in a manner that may negatively affect the operation of covered investments or the investor’s expectations of profits.

These are helpful, but of course the proposals now form the basis for the next round of negotiation with the US and we will see what emerges - including in respect of the machinery of the revised disputes mechanism.

There is still some considerable way to go on these negotiations and we will have to make a judgement based on the final outcome. We are not yet sure whether or not this will involve ratification by the British Parliament:

If a trade agreement comes under EU exclusive competence, the Council and the European Parliament adopt or reject it. The European Parliament cannot amend the agreement; it can accept or reject it under the ‘consent’ procedure, which includes a vote in the Committee for International Trade followed by a vote in the plenary. Then the Council authorises conclusion of the agreement.

If a trade agreement is mixed competence (EU and Member State competence), the Council, the European Parliament and all 28 Member States must adopt or ratify it. There is no fixed timetable for the ratification process and it could take two or more years.

 

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My views on this vitally important and complex matter remain as they were - I believe we do need trade to be governed by international agreements but that these must...

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I am extremely conflicted on this difficult issue- though having listened to the Prime Minister’s statement, I have to say he has not yet convinced me of the effectiveness of a policy which seems to rest on a number of disputed assumptions about the ground capacity of anti-Assad moderate forces, such as the Free Syria Army (regarded as essential to defeat ISIL since airstrikes alone cannot) and the prospects for a wider settlement and an  end to the civil war. Without this, it is hard to see how we can achieve an outcome we can all agree is necessary.

I hope you do not mind if I set out my thoughts fully.

I would rejoice at the destruction of ISIL/Daesh. They are an exceptionally vicious and dangerous organisation, inflicting hideous barbarity on Christian and Muslim communities within the Middle East, and sponsoring terrorism abroad. As the massacre in Paris demonstrated, they have the capacity and intent to do us terrible harm. At the same time it is also true that the Assad regime has been conducting a murderous civil war against the Syrian people, and it is largely, though not exclusively, the terror and the brutality the regime is inflicting which has contributed to a refugee crisis on a scale not seen since World War Two.

Committing our country to military action is sometimes inevitable, in self-defence or in fulfilment of our ‘duty to protect’- and the choice NOT to act can also lead to terrible suffering and death (Bosnia, Rwanda). Hence I have supported military action in the past, and voted in favour of backing the Iraqi government in strikes against ISIL inside Iraq when this came before Parliament last September. I acknowledge the real dangers of militant Islamism in the various forms this has manifested itself in recent decades, and I do not believe that the horrors we are not witnessing are all a consequence of Western interventions in Afghanistan or Iraq. But I have opposed military action in the past too, including when the Prime Minister sought backing to take action against Assad in 2013 (with the very real risk that it would have given more scope for groups such as those which eventually become ISIL to gain ground), and voting for the rebel amendment against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

When we voted to support the Iraqi government against ISIL last year, Labour said that we would extend that support to Syria if ministers could present a coherent plan that met a number of tests about its aims and legality. So I have been open to the argument, and the situation is, of course, changing almost daily. For example, the unanimous vote at the UN last weekend means that there is now a legal basis for action. I also accept the argument that we have obligations to our allies and these must be properly weighed in the balance.

On the other hand, defeating ISIL and ensuring it, or another group in its image, does not re-emerge, means we have to learn from the mistakes of the past and not rely on vague and wishful thinking. Extending our role in the bombing campaign against ISIL in Syria is almost the simplest part (which is not to say it is simple or risk/cost free). Contributing to a lasting solution to the crisis is far more challenging.

So these are the key issues as I see them:

I agree with my colleague Dan Jarvis when he says one test is that “we need clarity about the difference that extending Britain’s intervention will make to hastening ISIL’s defeat. Our role should not solely be justified by solidarity, but on how we can make a practical difference”.

Given that the coalition has already conducted an estimated 2,700 air attacks in Syria (and 4,900 in Iraq, where we are already involved) it certainly cannot be argued that we are starting from a position of inaction. As Ewan MacAskill writes:

“In private briefings and in public testimony to Congress, a long line of senior American officers have acknowledged frustration with the battle against Islamic State. General John Allen, who was in overall charge of the US campaign in Syria and Iraq, has quit after a year. A marine commander, Lieutenant General Robert Neller, offering his best assessment of how the war is going, described it as a “a stalemate”. By the middle of last month the US-led coalition engaged in air attacks in Syria and Iraq had conducted 7,600 attacks (4,900 in Iraq and 2,700 in Syria). Their main problem is finding targets to hit”

David Cameron’s statement, whilst making a case for extending British air strikes into Syria, recognised the need for ground troops, since airstrikes are not sufficient to ensure victory. The assumption is that there are potentially 70,000 “moderate” Syrian forces to undertake this task.- but is this figure reliable in operational terms and is it sufficient? (The US alone had 170,000 soldiers in Iraq in 2007, when the insurgency was at its height). There are real differences of view as to the location, capacity and operational cohesion of these 70,000- not least as for many, their over-riding objective is defeating Assad. Meanwhile we are effectively backing these forces against ISIL despite the fact that one of our practical allies for this purpose- Russia- is also bombing some of them in de facto defence of Assad! So the assumption that airstrikes will easily support moderate Syrian forces to victory is an ambitious one, with huge potential to unravel.

Many of those concerned by an ‘ISIL first’ (Cameron’s words) approach want to be convinced both that there is a realistic prospect of securing a victory on the ground - bearing in mind the previously unpredicted scale of Western involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan that proved necessary over many years- and that defeating ISIL contributes towards an end to the civil war.

There needs to be credible plan for a political agreement to end the conflict, beginning with a cease fire and with an emphasis on the establishment of safe havens for civilians, and this can only be secured by agreement with the other key partners now involved. It is surely impossible to see President Assad remaining in place as part of that process, given his regime’s role in atrocities which has substantially driven the mass exodus from the country, and which is responsible for more than 90% of the 200,000 deaths since 2011. In turn that means clarity on a political agreement which has the commitment of the key powers involved in the conflict, including Russia and Iran. The alternative- defeating ISIL whilst leaving Assad in a stronger position domestically, means no end to the suffering or to the outflow of refugees.

In the recent past, post-conflict reconstruction has proved far harder than anticipated following  interventions, such as Iraq, whilst the experience of Libya shows that airstrikes may have an immediate impact but do not of themselves prevent the disintegration of the state. Lessons may have been learnt from Iraq regarding the risks of dismantling the apparatus of the state, but it is reasonable to want to know how Syria can be assisted given the very different interests within the anti-ISIL coalition.

In the short as well as the long term, we need to be looking at the economic, financial and ideological factors underpinning the conflict. How are ISIL being funded? Today’s government statement revealed that ISIL are generating an astonishing $1.5 million dollars daily from oil revenues- money which funds their terrorist as well as military capabilities. Where is the oil being pumped from within ISIL territory being sold to and why? How is money getting in and out of the territory it controls? How are funds from sympathisers being generated and transferred? And how do we bear down on the extremist theology being practiced and exported by countries in the region with which we are otherwise allied? As Paddy Ashdown said on the radio this week, there also has to be pressure on the Gulf states to stop the flow of Sunni jihadism.

The Paris atrocities demonstrate ISIL’s terror capacity - as was previously the case with Al-Queda, and as to varying degrees is the case with other groups, such as Jabbat Al-Busra; Boko Haram and Al-Shabbab. Of course it is right that we want to deal with the terror threat, yet the journalist (and David Cameron’s former speechwriter) Ian Birrell, has written:

“blasting it to bits will not solve the issues that sparked its rise. We can destroy it, just as we defeated al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, but similar groups will flare up again in a different guise. The militants feed on poverty and poor education, the alienation of minority groups, sectarianism inflamed by repression, colonial borders that fail to match realities on the ground, and cack-handed foreign interventions. And generations are growing up for whom conflict is normal as ethnic, political and religious divisions worsen. More than ever we need focus in foreign policy, yet it seems sorely missing amid endless talk of fighting

Finally, both at home and abroad we must continue with, and constantly refine, an effective intelligence, community policing and counter-terrorism capability, complemented by a comprehensive strategy for working with the majority of Muslim opinion which rejects extremism.

I still do not absolutely rule out the possibility of a package of measures which would, together, include and justify further military involvement. Yet neither the latest statement to Parliament- measured in tone though it was, nor the comments of the Defence Secretary earlier this week saying it would be for a “moderate Syrian government” to provide the necessary ground troops to support airstrikes, help defeat ISIL and maintain the peace, provided a sufficiently firm outline as to how to reach that desirable outcome to convince me. Our inability to find a coherent and internationally co-ordinated response to the refugee crisis doesn’t bode well, either, despite Britain’s undeniably important financial contribution.

So in conclusion:  I believe taking part in an extension of military action without an robust, internationally agreed plan for Syria- including, but not restricted to - the defeat of ISIL, how we would deal with the aftermath, how we might build a lasting peace and what an exit strategy would be, risks repeating recent history. I may still be convinced by the precise proposal put before us, or by new information or circumstances, but as of now I think it unlikely.

Sincerely

Karen Buck MP

My statement on intervention in Syria

I am extremely conflicted on this difficult issue- though having listened to the Prime Minister’s statement, I have to say he has not yet convinced me of the effectiveness of...

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Relaxing the rules on ‘holiday lets’

New rules permitting homes to be ‘short-let’ without notification or permission (effectively for up to half the year in some cases) are now in force. Westminster Council confirms my sense that this has led to a rise in short-lets with more residential properties being advertised on the main websites. I am supporting the Council’s plans to seek an exemption for some areas - an exemption that would mean owners still have to notify them when they do holiday lets, making it much easier to deal with enforcement issues when problems arise. I am aware that Westminster are prioritising the Edgware Road area as they draw up these plans and have stressed that in my view they should also be considering some or all of Bayswater and Lancaster Gate as well, since I have had a number of residents complaining about problems in these areas. Do please let me know if you are affected, or have views on the issue.

Policing faces a further squeeze

There has been a steady increase in the number of complaints I have received about crime and ASB issues locally, from begging to burglary.  A few weeks ago, police warned of a “small spate of street robberies” in parts of W2” and issued advice to people to take care using their mobiles on the street.  There certainly seems to have been a rise in burglaries over the year, including some business break-ins (although crime over the long term generally remains down across the city).  There have also been reports of a rise in begging in and around Queensway. Our Safer Neighbourhood teams continue to be very stretched, and there are concerns that the Spending Review settlement will leave the Met Police with another £800m or so to find in budget cuts. The Met Management Board has delayed a decision, originally due in October, to scrap all the remaining 1000 Police Community Support Officers.

Slow Broadband speeds let the local economy down

Small businesses make up two-thirds of the estimated 50,000 businesses in Westminster and many cannot afford premium-grade business services. Their development - and the wider economy - are being held back by “painfully slow” internet access, even though London is Europe’s leading ‘tech city’, according to the Council less than half the city, 47%, has access to super-fast broadband. I’ve taken this up with the Minister responsible and BT and will continue to do so on behalf of anyone who wants to contact me about it.

Westminster set to lose desperately needed social housing under new government plans

Government plans to extend the Right to Buy scheme to housing association tenants across the UK could force the sell-off of nearly 113,000 council homes, according to findings from the homelessness charity Shelter. In Westminster, three out of every four council homes- 9,213 -would be affected, with homes in areas such as Bayswater and Lancaster Gate most at risk. Not replacing properties sold to Housing Association tenants ( just one in five have been replaced) combined with the forced sales of council properties, means far fewer homes - in inner London especially - for people waiting in over-crowded or unsuitable homes, or expensive temporary accommodation.

In an even more recent announcement, the Government intends to allow developers to avoid building affordable homes to rent at all in favour of more ‘Starter Homes’, priced up to £450,000 in London. Locally, where 1-bed new builds sell for £500k or more, this will further reduce the availability of homes for lower and middle earners, with Shelter estimating that only those with incomes of £77,000 or more could afford them.

Supporting leaseholders

I held the third in my series of advice sessions for leaseholders in Bayswater in September- once again it was packed out with people- private and council leaseholders (including the Hallfield estate and Swanleys)  struggling with issues such as the cost and quality Major Works; Service Charges, transparency and access to information. The Major Works on the Hallfield are now into their sixth year- certainly the most protracted Major Works programme I have ever known. Sadly, this means that those residents whose lives are impacted by excess cold and condensation face another winter of misery and high heating bills, whilst the cost of building works is not exactly going down.

Basement excavations

I recently re-introduced my ‘private’ bill to give legal force to new council policy on restricting basement excavations, with cross party backing, including from MPs Mark Field and Victoria Borwick. Latest figures show that there have been 242 applications for residential basement excavations in the last two years alone, of which all but 38 were accepted. Whilst I welcome Westminster toughening up their policy (their new rules come into effect early 2016) there are still concerns that well-funded developers will be able to challenge them - as has now happened in Kensington.

It was a joy to be able to join the birthday parties organised by SEBRA this summer for two of the associations’ greatest champions: John Walton and John Zamit. It’s lovely that SEBRA is the sort of organisation to show appreciation for residents who put so much into their community without reward.  The amount of hard work involved in running an amenity society, organising events, submitting responses to planning applications and so forth is often under-appreciated. Yet is it vital to a healthy civic society. Both John Walton and John Zamit deserve our grateful thanks.

Talking of events, the summer party was again great fun and blessed by the weather, and I look forward to SEBRA AGM in November (where there is usually a surprise or two in store for the main guests).

Please do continue to keep me in touch with your concerns and interests- by e-mail (buckk@parliament.uk), phone (02089687999), letter (Karen Buck MP, House of Commons, London SW1AOAA, or Twitter (@KarenPBuckMP).

My article for the South East Bayswater Residents' Association newsletter

Relaxing the rules on ‘holiday lets’ New rules permitting homes to be ‘short-let’ without notification or permission (effectively for up to half the year in some cases) are now in...

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Karen Buck MP

House of Commons
Westminster
SW1A 0AA

buck@parliament.uk

Cllr Heather Acton
Cabinet Member for Sustainability and Parking

Westminster City Council


29th October 2015

 

 

 

 

Exemption to the de-regulation of short-term letting in Westminster

The Deregulation Act 2015 allowed householders in London to rent out their properties on a short-term basis without the need for planning permission and it also provided powers for local planning authorities to direct that this should not apply to particular residential premises situated in a particular specified area. We are very grateful for your support on making the case for exemption for Westminster.

Westminster’s unique circumstances as a densely developed area at the heart of the world city means that short-term letting in the centre is quite different from other parts of London, is carried out on a commercial basis, and often has major impacts on the quality of life of neighbouring residents.

The Council therefore decided to submit a case to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for the exemption of Hyde Park and Bryanston & Dorset Square wards along with 16 residential blocks outside of these two wards where residents suffer an unacceptably high level of negative impacts upon their residential amenity as a result of short-term letting activity.

The exemption case, which is attached for your information, was submitted on 29th October 2015 and we await a response from the Secretary of State as to whether the Council will be permitted to exempt those areas identified from the relevant sections of the Deregulation Act.

WCC response to the de-regulation of short-term letting in Westminster

  Karen Buck MP House of Commons Westminster SW1A 0AA buck@parliament.uk Cllr Heather Acton Cabinet Member for Sustainability and Parking Westminster City Council 29th October 2015        ...

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CWHHE Consultancy Spend Numbers

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Evening Standard article about the Jubilee Sports Centre

 

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Picture 1957. The launch of Sputnik 1.  The premier of Jailhouse Rock. The average house prince topped £2,300. And the maximum rent level below which a tenant could legally require their landlord to ensure their rented property was fit for human habitation was last updated.

So there is, in effect, no meaningful requirement for a home to be let or maintained in a fit condition.  So when people express their surprise that there is no legal requirement for landlords to ensure properties are let- and kept- fit for human habitation, the answer is: “They are, but only if your rent is less than £52 a year!"

Perhaps the long term failure to update the law reflected the decline of private rented housing over much of the same period (and it is within the private sector that conditions are worse overall). But if that was true throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, it is certainly no longer true now.

The private rented sector has dramatically reversed its long decline and now accommodates more households than the social rented sector. The law needs to change to reflect that - and the not unrelated fact that conditions in the private rented sector are worse than those in other tenures. This is what my Private Member’s Bill set out to do.

Of course many landlords are responsible people (let’s leave important issues like rents and tenancy lengths for the time being). Yet nearly one in five privately rented homes (18.9 per cent) contains a Category 1 hazard – as defined by the Housing Health and Safety Ratings System (this from a Yougov/Shelter survey 2014) and 61% of tenants have experienced mould or damp; leaking roofs or windows; animal infestations or a gas leak in the last 12 months.

Ten per cent of tenants report that their health has been affected in the last year because their landlord has not dealt with poor conditions in their property, and nine per cent of private renting parents said their children’s health has been affected. My postbag is full of such cases, such as the mum concerned for her vulnerable daughter, who wrote:

"For years my daughter has had damp in her home to the point where the walls were black. Many times surveyors comes out and the situation doesn't get resolved. This year workmen were sent out to deal with the damp and thinking the problem was solved, but two months ago it was back again. My daughter has lived with the damp, ruining her health, numerous times reporting it and nothing is done. She's vulnerable and although I as a mother try and look after her affairs I cannot be with her 24/7 as I work.  My daughter is under the doctors …she suffers from depression, self-harm, has high blood pressure, drinks to block things out, has counselling and was abused by and i know that is part of her problems. I know if my daughter was to get out of the flat it would help her situation immensely, but her landlord is not doing what they should be doing and that is addressing the situation with the damp so that we can move forward."

Local authorities do what they can, but resources are incredibly limited and getting more so. A simple change in the law would have given legal rights to tenants to take action themselves against their landlord when properties are in an unfit condition- brining the law into line with what already exists in respect of disrepair.

It added no new duties to landlords- it simply gave better redress to tenants. All this also simply put into effect a recommendation from the Law Commission from the mid 90s- itself strongly backed by the Court of Appeal.

I was quite hopeful that such a practical and modest step- elegantly put together for me by leading members of the Housing Law Practitioner’s Association- would not meet opposition. Who could oppose a requirement to make homes fit for habitation, and redress against the minority of bad landlords who fail to do so?

The answer turned out to be, the government, and Conservative MP Philip Davies, who ‘talked the Bill out’ yesterday. But what won’t go away is the need for action- a need that was powerfully reinforced by new research which led in the Times today. So we will try again. And, if necessary, again…

Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill – My attempt to raise standards in the private rented sector

  Picture 1957. The launch of Sputnik 1.  The premier of Jailhouse Rock. The average house prince topped £2,300. And the maximum rent level below which a tenant could legally...

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