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the Council wishes to reject, but there is some concern that the response to last year's consultation remains unpublished, and I know residents are still very anxious to see tougher restrictions coming in as soon as possible.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.