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
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