Karen Buck

Working hard for Westminster North

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My article for the SEBRA spring magazine

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

Change of rules on short-term property lets

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and the wide range of property websites offering opportunities to advertise homes for rent, makes this law increasingly outdated and unworkable"

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

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

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

Councils get powers to curb growth of betting shops

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

Police numbers continue to fall

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

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

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

Hallfield estate- Major works problems continue

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

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

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

Karen Buck MP, House of Commons, London SW1A0AA


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