January 2020 E-Newsletter
So it was back to work days after the General Election ushered in the fourth Conservative-led government in a row, to see the EU Withdrawal Bill finally pass into law and the formal exit from the EU on the 31st. Of course, however effective the ‘Get Brexit done’ slogan may have been in political terms, Brexit will absolutely not be done this week, or this year. There is still a high risk that we will not be able to complete a new trade deal before the end of the transition period, leaving us back on the same cliff edge we were approaching more than once in 2019. Meanwhile, there are other trade deals to be done, not least with Donald Trump’s USA, and we can already see how fraught and challenging they are going to be. So Brexit will continue to be a dominant theme of politics in the coming years, like it or not, and MPs will have to remain vigilant, even though there will be no formal role for Parliament in scrutinising trade deals.
I will be desperately sad to leave the EU on the 31st, and not even primarily because of the issues of trade and Britain’s economic self-interest. For all its faults, the EU represents a serious attempt at international collaboration on a continent torn apart by the worst wars in human history, and in the face of challenges which simply don’t lend themselves to single country solutions. 2020 is already shaping up to be a year which demonstrates the fundamental truth of this – with the devastating Australian bush fires driving home the scale of the climate emergency. Events in Iran and Iraq illustrating the fragility of peace in the Middle East, the on-going tragedy of the refugee crisis arising from conflicts in Syria, Libya, Yemen, the Rohingya and more, and now the spread of the coronavirus. Despite everything, I have great faith in human ingenuity and goodness. Despite all the suffering, we can resolve these pressing demands, but the truth remains, that no one of these can be tackled by single countries acting alone.
Meanwhile, there are always lots of local issues to attend to! Here are some.
APPG on Air Pollution : A New Clean Air Bill
Earlier this month I was elected as the vice-chair for the APPG on Air Pollution in its inaugural AGM of 2020. I have a keen interest in air quality for a number of reasons; concerns about our impact on the environment, fears over declining standards in public health following Brexit and also as a resident of one of the most polluted boroughs of the most polluted city in the UK.
Air pollution represents a public health crisis. It is appalling that more than 40 towns and cities have areas which exceed safe pollution limits set by the World Health Organisation. Small particulate pollution, such as the type emitted by petrol and diesel vehicles, is the most dangerous and poses a threat to both public health and our environment. Without ambitious policy to curb emissions we will not meet our goal of net zero emissions by 2050. The UK should be a world leader on tackling unclean air; instead, in relation to banning the sale of new diesel cars we are lagging behind countries like China, India, Ireland and Norway.
What is more worrying still is that many of the laws currently in place in the UK surrounding air quality and emissions targets are derived from EU legislation which will no longer be in force following our exit from the European Union this month. That is why the main focus of the discussion at the meeting surrounded the need for a new Clean Air Bill. My colleague Geraint Davies, Swansea West MP, who chairs the APPG on Air Pollution will republish his Clean Air Bill in February in the hope that we can begin putting in place the legal protections we need to start tackling the environmental and public health crisis of air pollution.
The current UK Clean Air Act dates back to 1956 and is no longer fit for purpose. Other recent attempts in Parliament to enshrine key principles protecting us from toxic air have failed and I very much hope that in this new Parliament the Bill can progress and become law. To read more about the work of the APPG you can look here.
Over many years, Westbourne ward councillors and I have been working to improve the conditions in and around Elmfield Way – the site of the old St Mary’s, Paddington and now a mixed area of private and social housing and NHS accommodation and service buildings. I was able to get support to create a playground on part of the site which has been waiting for development for the last decade, for example. However, residents are understandably very unhappy about the state of the road itself, including the lack of effective parking enforcement, drainage and lighting. The road, which is currently part of the NHS estate, has never been adopted by Westminster Council, and the council are now saying it will cost some £2 million to bring it up to an acceptable standard. Until it is improved, Westminster won’t adopt the road and bring in parking enforcement, yet it is hard to imagine the NHS giving priority from their overstretched capital budget either. We do need to find a solution before problems get worse and even more expensive to resolve, so we are now trying to get together with the various landlords on the site to get a plan together.
A number of local residents continue to raise the management of the ‘Maida Hill piazza’, as well as the wider area up and around the Harrow Road. It is now a number of years since the physical improvements to the piazza, the efforts to introduce the market, the dedicated police Safer Neighbourhood Team and the successful battle to prevent the former Prince of Wales pub being turned into a betting shop. Although we have not returned to where we were in the days before all that level of activity, we have gone backwards in terms of policing and council resources, and there are concerns about serious youth violence, not least since the shooting in Walterton Road before Christmas, and the numbers of street drinkers in the area.
As you will be aware, we have lost a third of our police strength and the local police station, and although the Government have promised to increase police numbers this has yet to impact significantly at the local level. However, we do have very good contacts with the Police locally and can make sure hot spots are targeted when necessary. Harrow Road Ward Councillors and I have also been pressing for better management of the street drinking. Westminster Council are also considering an injunction to limit the street drinking, having run out of time on the last occasion they were preparing evidence and statements for the court. They can also issue notices in the area and warnings to individuals.
Most people don’t want heavy handed approach to this issue, but they do want to know that the area is being monitored and kept safe, and it is in no-one’s interests if it feels neglected and unmanaged.
Meanwhile there are discussions underway about the development of the wider area, including a bid to the Mayor’s High Street fund, so if you live locally do get involved with the Maida Hill Forum and have your say.
Here is a video of me raising cuts to safer neighbourhood policing in Parliament.
Row over Westminster sports and leisure price hikes
A big row broke out over the Council’s (via Everyone Active) latest price hikes for sports and leisure facilities earlier in the month, and I was contacted by residents and local sports groups about it (you can read some of the stories here and here.
Westminster Council has now decided to temporarily roll back to 2019 fees and charges in the light of this, and I am, told
“We are working towards re-implementing the 2020 rationalisation ASAP to ensure as many residents as possible can access and take advantage of the new ActiveWestminster Card/Mark benefits and discounts”
After Grenfell – more delays in tackling fire safety
As the second phase of the inquiry into the Grenfell disaster started last week, I went on ‘Politics Live’ for a special edition devoted to the fire and to fire safety issues generally. There are still over 300 high rise blocks with unsafe cladding in place as we head towards the third anniversary, and Westminster has more private blocks in this position than almost anywhere else in London. In Parliament last week I also raised my concerns about the limited progress on fitting sprinklers – where even Councils which want to install them and have made provision for funding are stalled by a lack of clarity around issues like right of access to privately owned properties in social housing blocks. The lack of urgency is really distressing.
You can watch Sunday’s ‘Politics Live’ here.
Many residents will have walked along the Westbourne Park stretch of the canal at some point and wondered about the statues in front of a colourful section of wall opposite Meanwhile Gardens. I have seen these statues many times myself over the years but only recently did I find out the charming story behind them.
Gerry Dalton lived on Hormead Road and spent years crafting statues, filling his home with model buildings of historical interest and hanging art from his walls. Gerry sadly passed away last Autumn and the full extent of his collection became apparent to his friends and neighbours, many of whom had not seen inside his home. In October I was offered the opportunity to come and see Gerry’s work and it truly is a labour of love. Nearly every inch of his home is filled with sculptures and models made from wooden frames and paper mache. The roofs of each building – including Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle – lift off, revealing rooms with intricate details, tiny paintings on the walls and figurines of former occupants. It is amazing to think of a man working into his eighties to compile what The Outsider Art Foundation have called one of the most significant collections of its kind.
Since October 2019 there have been discussions between Notting Hill Genesis – who own the house on Hormead Road – and Gerry’s family and friends about what will happen to his collection which has been dubbed ‘Gerry’s Pompeii’. Of course NHG’s priority as a charity has to be focussed on the provision of housing and I share their concern about making sure we don’t lose a much needed unit of social housing. Having originally given a deadline of November for the flat to be cleared, NHG have since been in talks with the Mayor’s office and the newly formed local group Gerry’s Pompeii LTD. Many curators who have visited the collection believe it must be kept in situ for the nature of Gerry’s work to be preserved. A major issue has been funding which I understand may be progressing currently. This will not be straightforward but I very much hope a resolution can be reached which does not detract from the acute housing need in our borough and which preserves a genuine cultural artefact.
You can read more about this story here.
New research on the extent of short-lettings
Last week London Councils, the cross- party representative organisation for local government in London, published a report on the scale of Airbnb-style short-lets in the capital. They found 1 in 50 homes are now short-let- and of course the concentration is much greater in inner-London. No one wants to stop home-owners making some extra cash from a spare room, or while they are away for a few weeks, but the short-let sector has become increasingly professionalised, with properties being available all year round in breach of the 90-day a year legal limit, and evidence that landlords are turning properties that were let as homes into holiday lets instead. I’m quoted in this piece reporting on the London Councils findings – we need to find a better balance that keeps owner’s rights to let within the rules but protects the housing supply, and the interests of neighbours and communities.
Freedom Pass renewals
Freedom Passes must be renewed every five years and as some 642,000 older person Freedom Passes will expire on 31 March 2020. I always get lots of questions about renewal from constituents. I thought it would be helpful to put some information out here:
Older persons Freedom Pass If a person has used their pass in the last two years and has not changed address, they will receive a new pass automatically from February. They do not need to contact anyone. Those who have used their pass in the last two years and have changed address will receive a letter in January asking them to renew their pass.1 Residents whose pass expires on 31 March 2020 will need a new pass in order to keep using the scheme. Any older person whose sole residence is in London, who has used their pass in the last 2 years and who meets the age criteria can receive a pass.
Pass holders who live in the London borough of Camden will either receive their new pass automatically or be sent a form to verify they still live in the borough.
Receiving the new pass Those who are eligible for renewal and have used their pass in the last two years will receive their pass automatically from February 2020. Residents who have had to actively renew their pass will receive a new pass in the post within around three weeks of completing the renewal. Once the new Freedom Pass is received, it can be used immediately, and the old pass destroyed.
Renewing online London Councils is encouraging people to renew their Freedom Pass online. It’s an easier, quicker, more cost-effective method of getting the Freedom Pass out to Londoners. In 2019, 82 per cent of people with Freedom Passes expiring that year renewed online; of those, 93 per cent thought it was very easy or fairly easy to renew online and 88 per cent completed the online renewal by themselves.2 People can renew online by doing either of the following: • Going to www.freedompass.org • Following the link and instructions included in the letter they received about renewing.
Disabled persons Freedom Pass
Holders of the disabled persons Freedom Pass will receive their new pass in February once their eligibility has been checked by their local council. Holders of the disabled persons Freedom Pass will not receive a letter and may not need to actively re-apply. Their local borough may contact them to confirm their continued eligibility for the scheme. Disabled persons Freedom Passes are only valid for as long as the pass holder meets the eligibility criteria and if they do not respond to borough correspondence inviting them to be re-assessed, their pass may be stopped.
Keeping our city clean
One of the local issues I heard most about during the election was fly-tipping and rubbish. I’ve backed the Great British Spring Clean, which this year will run from 20 March – 13 April. Together with Local Labour councillors I’ve also been working hard to press Westminster Council on dumping hotspots – including where traders are dumping commercial waste illegally. After a long campaign, measures are being put in place to improve the Walterton/Warlock junction, in line with those which have had some success in Marban Road. However, there is a long way to go – do keep us informed about areas you think are particularly problematic.
|Thank you for reading and your comments are always welcome.
Karen Buck MP