With regard to the proposals to enable HMRC to share data more widely and to the e mails I am currently receiving from the 38 degrees campaign, I certainly appreciate the concerns that some people and organisations such as ‘Big Brother Watch' and the Chartered Institute of Taxation have expressed about the Government's proposals, which would remove HMRC's legal constraints on sharing data and allow the release of non-financial VAT registration data.
As I am sure you are aware, HMRC consulted on this last summer and the Government have now stated that they plan to go ahead with these proposals and will introduce legislation to do so shortly.
I know there is very real concern about this - indeed, more than 260,000 people have signed a petition opposing the Government's plans. Many people are also understandably concerned about the Government's wider plans to increase data sharing in the public sector, including in the NHS through the Care.data database.
I would be very concerned if the Government put anything forward that could compromise the privacy of individuals simply complying with their tax obligations. I also believe that there needs to be very clear safeguards in place to ensure that personal data is not misused and so that public confidence is retained.
That is why I believe that it is vital that the Government urgently and clearly now set out their plans for the sharing of HMRC data and that they listen and respond to the concerns that have been raised about this proposal.
I can assure you that I will continue to follow this issue closely and I thank you once again for writing to me and for sharing your views.
Karen Buck MP
Dear Constituent With regard to the proposals to enable HMRC to share data more widely and to the e mails I am currently receiving from the 38 degrees campaign, I...
Many people have contacting me recently with regard to overseas domestic worker (ODW) visa arrangements and the Modern Slavery Bill.
I was very pleased to work closely with the leading campaign organisation in this field Kalayan when my constituency included their office in North Kensington prior to 2010, and I heard a great deal of powerful testimony about the scale of the problem and the appalling abuse many overseas domestic workers endured.
I therefore absolutely supported the introduction of the Modern Slavery Bill as it went through Parliament. Modern slavery is a heinous and all too prevalent crime and the complicated nature of tackling it requires special legislation. I believe, however, that this Bill could go further in a number of areas to help victims and survivors of modern slavery – including with regard to Overseas Domestic Workers.
As you know, in April 2012 the Government changed the Immigration Rules to prevent ODWs from changing their employer in the UK, and limiting the length of time ODWs can stay here to six months. I recognise the serious concerns that organisations such as Kalayaan and others have raised about these changes, and the effect they are having on protections for workers against potential abuse and servitude under tied visa arrangements.
I agree that the Government’s changes to the Immigration Rules in April 2012 have made things worse for Overseas Domestic Workers and have led to more of them being trapped in slavery. Kalayaan’s work has also found that domestic workers on tied visas are twice as likely to report significantly worse conditions and fewer freedoms.
I welcomed the amendment to the Bill supported by my colleagues in the House of Lords-which would effectively reverse the Government’s 2012 changes to ODW visa arrangements. Unfortunately, this was defeated by the Government.
Plans for an independent review into Overseas Domestic Workers’ visa arrangements were announced instead, in light of the concerns that have been raised inside and outside of Parliament. . I believe, however, that this review is too late, unnecessary and that it does not tackle head on the plight of many workers who are subject to forced labour and exploitation.
However, there is still more work to be done on the issue of specific offences of child and adult exploitation, and I welcome that a future Labour Government will seek to remedy this. I can assure you that I will continue to follow this issue closely.
Many people have contacting me recently with regard to overseas domestic worker (ODW) visa arrangements and the Modern Slavery Bill. I was very pleased to work closely with the leading...
I know that many local people are very concerned about the current Government's continued support for badger culling.
I oppose culling because I believe it is bad for farmers, bad for taxpayers and bad for wildlife. The previous Labour Government spent £50 million on a ten-year randomised badger culling trial which concluded culling will not work to achieve a lasting reduction in Bovine TB and actually risks making things worse, particularly for farmers in neighbouring areas.
As you know, the current Government commenced culls in West Gloucestershire and West Somerset on 27 August 2013. The initial six week cull in both areas was extended after failing to meet the 70% culling targets. The Independent Expert Panel (IEP), appointed to monitor the effectiveness, humanness and safety of the controlled shooting, concluded that the two pilot badger culls had also failed on both the effectiveness and humaneness tests.
However, the Government ignored the scientific evidence by proceeding with a second year of badger culls in September and October 2014. The IEP was not asked to oversee the second year of the pilot culls and was subsequently disbanded by the Government.
It is now clear the Government has wasted millions of pounds on a badger cull which is unscientific, inhumane and ineffective. I supported a motion in the House of Commons on 13 March 2014 which called on the Government to stop the culls, to not grant any further culling licences and to develop alternative strategies to eradicate the scourge of Bovine TB.
It is appalling that the Government allowed the second year of these culls to go ahead when they had already been described as an 'epic failure' by the former Chief Scientific Advisor to Natural England. I share concerns about reports that the current Government now plans to initiate further culls this summer.
The current Government has wilfully ignored the evidence and I believe is more concerned with killing badgers than with controlling TB. I believe the Government must abandon its failed policy on Bovine TB control and believe that we need an alternative approach that includes prioritising badger and cattle vaccinations and bringing in stricter cattle measures.
I am therefore pleased my Shadow Frontbench colleagues have stated that a future Labour Government would end the Government's ineffective and inhumane badger culls. The next Labour Government will work with scientists, wildlife groups and farmers to develop an alternative strategy to control Bovine TB which puts scientific evidence at the heart of policy.
I know that many local people are very concerned about the current Government's continued support for badger culling. I oppose culling because I believe it is bad for farmers, bad...
You wrote to Claire about the proliferation of betting shops on the Harrow Road and asked if we would like to comment on this.
Claire asked Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones who is Director and Lead Clinician, National Problem Gambling Clinic, UK.
Addictions Directorate, CNWL for her thoughts and she has provided the quote below from her team.
The National Problem Gambling Clinic receives over 800 referrals a year, the majority of patients referred use bookmakers as their preferred mode of play. Clustering of bookmakers in areas which would instead benefit from regeneration projects such as community centres, subsidised gyms and libraries can increase the number of people betting.
As more people use gambling as a recreational activity because of the lack of alternatives, more people with a vulnerability to problems will be uncovered.
We do not believe four betting shops in one high street does anything to safeguard the wellbeing of the local community, particularly when reflecting on the younger population of that borough.
The staff at the National Problem Gambling Clinic, CNWL NHS Trust.
Claire Murdoch, CEO &
Professor Dorothy Griffiths, Chair
Central & North West London NHS Foundation Trust
Dear Karen, You wrote to Claire about the proliferation of betting shops on the Harrow Road and asked if we would like to comment on this. Claire asked Dr Henrietta...
Business is the beating heart of the economy. Businesses create jobs. Businesses generate wealth. And as the economy keeps changing we need to support and nourish ‘start-ups', small businesses and innovation. Government does not do the job of business, but good government can shape the framework within which business flourishes. For there is a powerful myth that government is a dead weight on the wider economy, making the job of business more difficult. In fact, businesses both large and small, rely on what good government can ensure. At the practical level, the private economy needs sound infrastructure - efficient transport has never been more crucial than it is now. Businesses need skills - and skills start in our schools and colleges. (A quick glance at London business organisation, London First's ‘Manifesto for Jobs and Growth' makes the point well). In addition, employees get sick, and need the care of the health service. Working parents rely on childcare (a substantial part of which is now publicly funded). The social security system shares the burden of sickness/disability; unemployment and pensions. In recent years, low wages have required a vast level of public spending on ‘in-work' benefits, such as Tax Credits and Housing Benefit and, indeed, these benefits acted as a massive stabiliser in the economy during the financial crisis, when employees' earnings fell sharply.
At the more abstract level, business also needs governments to set and uphold the law and negotiate the rules within which economies operate, including the framework for international trade. Businesses want a fair, open and stable environment in which to trade, which is why so many are anxious about the prospects of us lurching into an exit from Europe. And, of course, governments stepped in to protect the banking system when the banks ran into trouble a few years ago.
But, on the other side of the equation, society has a reasonable expectation of what business will do. That includes paying fair taxes on the activities carried out within this country; offering a decent deal to employees, serving consumers honestly, and meeting certain standards in areas ranging from financial transparency to environmental protection.
Unsurprisingly, the wider public takes a dim view of the behaviour of big companies which do a great deal of business in Britain, but avoid paying tax on it, or who shift offshore to cut their tax liabilities. On far too many occasions, the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee has exposed examples of blatant tax avoidance. Sometimes it is the tax payer who loses, sometimes it is small businesses and suppliers, sometimes it is the consumer. Story after story has appeared of corporate bad behaviour, from the fixing of exchange rates to the exploitative use of zero-hour contracts, from over-stating profits to potential breaches of the code of practice in relation to the suppliers of major companies, from misselling Payment Protection Insurance to the energy giants not passing on savings to customers fast or large enough as the oil price plunges... the list goes on.
All too often, even the worst behaviour seems to go effectively unpunished, and in some cases is even apparently rewarded by massive pay-outs. Not only does this shock the public, all those businesses that do uphold strong professional and ethical standards are also damaged by stories that undermine trust. We have a common interest in everyone playing by the rules.
I want a constructive relationship with business at every level. I want stability regarding our position in Europe, more help to small businesses, such as our proposed cut in Business Rates, and investment in infrastructure and skills, with a particular emphasis on boosting quality apprenticeships. There is nothing wrong with a healthy debate about the specifics of these and other policies, but let's have this in the spirit of partnership and a shared interest in a strong, healthy society and economy.
Business is the beating heart of the economy. Businesses create jobs. Businesses generate wealth. And as the economy keeps changing we need to support and nourish ‘start-ups', small businesses...
Crime and policing
The now 20-year long decline in overall crime, whilst very welcome, inevitably conceals lots of variations, both in types of crime and between areas. Last year's crime figures for Westminster, for example, show a fall in total crime on the year, including burglary and robbery, but a sharp rise in violent crime, which rose from 7019 offences in 2013 to 8,541 in 2014. There were also rises in reported levels of rape and sexual offences, domestic violence and race and religious hate crime.
More locally, there have been reports of a rise in burglaries. Met crime figures confirm that there has been a rise in burglary in Lancaster Gate over the year, and in recent weeks there have been particular issues in Bayswater, Westbourne Gardens, Westbourne Park Villas and Sunderland Terrace. Police are now focusing on burglary reduction in W2 and I am told that an action plan has been prepared to make sure this is implemented.
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 to Belgravia for processing - greatly adding to the time they are off the streets in North Westminster. This appears to be linked to the issue of staffing levels - and indeed two of our long standing Safer Neighbourhood Sergeants, including Sgt Ken Taylor from Hyde Park, have been moved to cover custody. The pressure on staffing levels is very acute - I previously reported that we lost almost one-third of our total police strength in Westminster between 2011 and last year.
My view is that the fall in police numbers has gone far enough and I am concerned by warnings from the Commissioner that "all bets are off" when it comes to the next round of budget cuts. The Labour Group on the GLA have put forward a budget that would put an extra 1,000 officers back on the streets, and I would support that.
Night time economy
Plans are underway for extending the tube to a 24 hour service on some lines. At the same time, we learn that the planned removal of staff from tube ticket offices will cost an estimated £134m! I confess to being concerned about the reduction in staffing at stations, for although it is true that the Oyster system reduces the demand for the counter service, inner London stations seem to have a constant demand for more complicated enquiries. Additionally, whilst I find travelling on the tube to be very safe, I am not alone in feeling more comfortable when stations are well-attended, especially at night. As I write, a report has come in of a tube worker being stabbed in the face at Lancaster Gate tube station, and this is a reminder of both the risks staff take and the risks (albeit rare) of stations not having adequate cover.
Queensway the first station to lose its ticket office staff in this round of closures
Queensway was chosen to be one of the two first tube stations to lose their ticket office staff at the beginning of February - part of the rolling process by which all underground station ticket offices will close. The Mayor expects to make long-term savings, although the loss of 897 staff and their replacement by more ticket machines will initially cost an additional £134 million!
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 does not yet permit them to act to restrict the size or depth of new basement constructions, and this may still take many months to come into effect. There is some concern that the response to last year's consultation remains unpublished, and I know constituents are still very anxious to see tougher restrictions coming in as soon as possible.
The Council is in the middle of a further round of cuts to the Children's Services budgets, equivalent to a quarter of the entire Children's Centre spend- or £500,000. Specifically, this means ALL £80,500 funding will go from the Queensway (Hallfield and Bayswater) Family Centre. In total, Westminster is planning £3.3 million of savings from the Children's services in 2015/16, and needs to meet an estimated shortfall of 195 nursery places for 2 year olds.
The government have changed the rules applying to development, so as to exempt ‘vacant buildings' from the requirement to make a contribution to affordable housing. John Walker, the Council's new Director of Planning, has described this as ‘insane' , saying that Westminster alone could lose up to £1 billion. This will only intensify London's housing crisis, and add to the costs of both homelessness and the housing benefit bill. Mark Field and I have made a joint representation to the Minister, urging him to think again.
Impact of short/holiday lets
I was grateful to all those Lancaster Gate and Bayswater 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 - 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. 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.
Pressure has been building on the London NHS in recent weeks, and our local hospital St Mary's, was heavily 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. St Mary's has also fallen below required performance standards for 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.
Part of the reason hospitals are under such pressure is the difficulty some people are having accessing GP and community cased services. I am always interested in hearing people's experiences, so do please let me know if this is something you have had particularly good or bad experiences with.
The urgent need to boost investment in the NHS is the reason we are seeking to raise an additional contribution from owners of properties worth £2million and above. We have said that this will be £250 a month for those properties worth between £2 and £3million, with additional bands above that level, and the option of deferring payment until the property is sold for anyone who is not a higher-rate tax payer. Westminster Conservatives have now come out in favour or a total re-banding of Council Tax with new, additional ‘mansion' bands, so we are no disagreeing on the principle that the owners of the most valuable properties should be asked for an extra contribution - even if we differ about the precise mechanism.
Cycling ‘super-highway' gets go-ahead
In a growing city with limited road capacity, we should broadly welcome measures that boost cycling. The proposed new ‘super-highway' does impact on Lancaster Gate, of course, and it is important that the revised plans facilitate cycling whilst also protecting the interests of residents, pedestrians, public transport and traffic flow. TfL are putting forward new plans around Lancaster Gate gyratory, having amended the earlier proposals (except making Bayswater Road two-way by the station). The original proposals are not changed in Westbourne Terrace but they will be influenced by the decision over the Westway, and are anyway dependent on the completion of Crossrail works, so won't be implemented until at least late 2018 / early 2019 when Eastbourne Terrace reopens for general traffic. We await dates for another round of public consultations and meetings in early 2015, which will also include for the first time proposals for Hyde Park (though not yet for the Westway) and down to Westbourne Terrace/Cleveland Terrace.
Residents are (once again!) looking at options for new windows, so the remaining window replacements can go ahead. Whilst it is essential to get the decisions right - in terms of design and value for money, and given the issues around project management in the past-- it seems absurd that this Major Works programme is now into its sixth year- leaving lots of residents suffering from the cold and high heating bills in the meantime.
It was good to join SEBRA again for the Annual General Meeting in November, where topics ranged from cycling to the policing of the Royal Parks and the future of both Queensway and Westbourne Grove. Despite all the pressures I have described above, there are still plenty of people with a lively interest in their community, and long may this continue.
Please do carry on raising your questions and concerns:
House of Commons
@KarenPBuck on Twitter
Crime and policingThe now 20-year long decline in overall crime, whilst very welcome, inevitably conceals lots of variations, both in types of crime and between areas. Last year's crime figures...
Brandon Lewis MP
Minister for Planning
Eland House, Bressenden Place.
February 4th 2014
We wanted to thank you for responding to the debate in Westminster Hall on the Deregulation Bill, and in particular the concerns that have been raised with us and with colleagues around the proposed deregulation of short-term letting in London.
You provided assurances in that debate that Government does not "seek to provide new opportunities for short-term letting on a permanent basis", that there would be no negative impact on London's housing stock, and that regulations will follow the passing of the Bill that will clarify for Londoners what is permissible and what is not within the confines of the law.
Those regulations, you explained, would allow for the exclusion of particular residential premises, and residential premises in particular areas, from any relaxation of section 25 of the 1973 powers under which local authorities are currently able to enforce against unlawful and commercial short-term letting.
We had previously noted with interest Lord Ahmad's commitments during the House of Lords Grand Committee debate last year that the Government would work with London authorities to ensure that any regulations that may follow the passing of the Deregulation Bill will strike the necessary balance between allowing additional flexibilities to home-owners and protecting against the type of short-term letting with which our constituents in Westminster and others around central London are sadly all too familiar.
However, with the House of Lords Report debate due to take place this week, we are told that there has still been no such engagement or liaison with Westminster City Council on the details of the regulations that are intended to follow this Bill. We therefore remain none the wiser as to which ‘particular residential premises' or ‘areas' the Minister has in mind for exclusion from any powers stemming from clause 33 of the Deregulation Bill.
Nor is it entirely clear how the parliamentary timetable will allow for the passage of this legislation as well as the drafting of subsequent regulations to set out the specific detail of changes to the 1973 powers, full and proper consultation with London's local authorities on those regulations, the consideration of those regulations by both Houses and then their passing into statute, all before Parliament is dissolved on 30th March. If work has already been done on the drafting of those regulations, clearly the earlier that local authorities could be sighted and have the chance to comment on them the better.
It is disappointing that your Department has still not published its response to the consultation on the Review of Property Conditions in the Private Sector, which covered the issue of short-term letting. That consultation ended in February and you have previously promised that the Government's response would be published before the end of 2014 (PQ response dated 14th October 2014) and most recently "in due course" (PQ response dated 12th January 2015).
The continued delays in publishing this response do nothing to provide any reassurance to us, in seeking to address the concerns of our residents, that we should simply wait until the Bill is passed and that everything will be fine and dealt with appropriately in the detail of the regulations.
We are aware that amendments continue to be tabled to clause 33 of the Deregulation Bill, and we would urge the Government to consider those amendments carefully and support their intention, which is simply to codify on the face of the Bill the very assurances and guarantees that Ministers say will follow in the draft regulations.
I would be grateful if you could provide some further clarification on the above matters at your earliest convenience, not least given the lack of time that remains in this parliamentary session for these issues to be properly considered and acted upon.
Karen Buck MP
Mark Field MP
Brandon Lewis MPMinister for PlanningDCLGEland House, Bressenden Place.London SW1 February 4th 2014 Dear Brandon, We wanted to thank you for responding to the debate in Westminster Hall on the Deregulation...
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...
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...