July newsletter and latest Covid update

Emerging from lockdown, with the health risks of Covid-19 likely to be with us for many months to come, and the full economic and social consequences gradually becoming clear, is turning out to be in many ways harder than going in. The advice is more complex, the sense that this may be a long haul is more challenging, and the impact on people’s lives and livelihoods is stark and painful. The fact is that economic recovery cannot be separated out from the public health response to Covid-19. Only when we can have confidence that the virus is under control- and until there is a vaccine that relies on a genuinely effective test-and-trace system and clear public health messages -will we be able to rebuild the economy- and even then, it will inevitably be different to what went before.

The coronavirus outbreak and the measures taken to contain it have delivered one of the largest ever shocks to the UK economy and public finances. The UK is on track to record the largest decline in annual GDP for 300 years, with output likely to fall by more than 10 per cent in 2020. The Organisation of Economic Development, published last month, made for harsh reading. It suggested that the economic hit on the UK due to the coronavirus would be the worst of all industrialised nations and that unemployment levels in the UK could be the second worst in the industrialised world. That’s all before the possible hit from a ‘no deal’ Brexit, which we now know will add £7 billion costs to British business.

Yet challenging as this undoubtedly is, it could also be an opportunity- to re-shape the economy with a new emphasis on skills development and a ‘Green recovery’ which creates jobs that help us on the path to carbon neutrality. That needs a clear government-led strategy. As always, there is a choice to be made.

The government were right to take steps to support the economy, such as through the Job Retention and self-employment schemes, although naturally my party and I have a number of differences with them over the how they should be delivered and over how long. We have supported the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions. We want people to be able to get back to work and to see their families and loved ones. We want an exit strategy- but not an exit without a strategy, or one that falls short of what is needed to meet the scale of the challenge.

Of course we went in to the crisis at a point when ten years of austerity had already left much of the infrastructure of the country, from social care to public health to housing to police capacity, on the floor. And yet those services are being asked to perform miracles. In many cases they have, but increasingly they are running on empty. I describe below what this means for our own local council, but the same applies across our public services, and to our support for people left with no or inadequate incomes. We have relied on the courage of our key workers over the last few months. Now the government must show similar courage and invest at the scale and in the way we need to help us recover.

An All Party Parliamentary Group for the ‘excluded’

My emails are full of examples of where people’s own experiences don’t fit neatly into government schemes, substantial though these are. So the setting up of this new group, focusing on this issue, was very welcome and I was pleased to sign up. It aims to lobby for, and address the concerns of such groups as the newly self-employed • Those who are less than 50% self-employed • Those with over £50k trading profits • PAYE freelancers • New starters • Those denied furlough • Small limited company directors paid PAYE annually, paid in dividends or drawing repayments to a director’s loan • New businesses • Businesses ineligible for grants • New mothers under the Maternity Petition

Happy birthday to the NHS – and the latest update from Imperial

A 72nd anniversary wouldn’t normally attract much attention, but quite rightly we did celebrate the birthday of the NHS recently- an institution which has proved itself yet again, thanks both to the courage and dedication of its staff and its philosophy of care free at the point of use, determined by need and not ability to pay.

This is the latest from our own local hospital group:

As of Tuesday 14 July, the Imperial NHS Trust were caring for 40 inpatients who tested positive for Covid-19 on their current admission to hospital. None of these patients needed to be on a ventilator in intensive care. They have helped 1,319 patients recover from Covid-19 and be discharged, as of Monday 13 July. They reported 427 deaths of patients positive for Covid-19 via NHS England, as of Monday 13 July.

They say: “Really encouragingly, we have not reported any deaths for over seven days”

Planning for the recovery of NHS services

Planned day surgery resumed last week at the Western Eye Hospital, with patients following a new, Covid-protected pathway. This means measures are in place to ensure that, as far as possible, patients and staff do not have – and are not exposed to – Covid-19.

More Covid-risk-managed pathways – where it has to be assumed initially that patients may have been exposed to Covid-19 – have been approved to enable face-to-face outpatient services to resume:

•  community-based cardiac diagnostics

•  outpatient imaging

•  skin prick test outpatient service

•   pleural intervention outpatient service

•  children’s clinical research facility

•   outpatient echo and device clinics

•   dermatology outpatient service

•   outpatient sleep service

•   community genito-urinary medicine/HIV outpatient service.

These developments are part of a major programme of work to establish the right service provision for each of our sites as part of our longer term response to Covid-19. We are looking:

•   to make the majority of Hammersmith Hospital Covid-protected, providing planned specialist care

•   to create a mixture of protected and risk-managed areas at Charing Cross and the Western Eye, enabling some planned surgery and procedures as well as urgent and emergency care

•  for Queen Charlotte’s & Chelsea to continue as a primarily Covid-risk-managed facility

•   run most of St Mary’s services as Covid-risk-managed, reflecting its position as a major trauma centre.

We are exploring some service moves, building adaptations and new procedures and will be engaging with wider staff, patients and stakeholders over the coming weeks to help determine the best approach. As well as protecting patients, staff and visitors right now, we need to make sure we are prepared for possible further peaks of Covid-19 infections and the certain increase in urgent and emergency care demand over the winter. We also want to make sure that any changes help us deliver our wider organisational strategy, wherever possible.

Having your say on the future of St Mary’s

Last year Imperial Trust embarked on a new programme to redevelop and refurbish ageing hospitals, largely funded by land sales and a development partnership. They want to gain more insight from staff, patients and local community about what they want from a hospital for the future, starting with St Mary’s as the site most in need of redevelopment.

They have commissioned research and involvement experts, Kaleidoscope, to support an initial engagement by running a series of virtual workshops and a survey to gather early opinions, views and suggestions during July to September 2020. They are running three virtual workshops – more information here. We hope as many interested people as possible will be able to complete their online survey.

A much-needed rescue package for the arts

There was some welcome news last week with the Chancellor’s announcement of financial support for the arts.

This is particularly important for areas like North Westminster as so many local people work in the creative and cultural sectors- directly as musicians, actors, artists-or in all the businesses which support them.

I am glad the government has listened on this, but obviously a great deal depends on the detail about how this fund is distributed. We need to know if it will include all live ‘entertainment’ venues, and if community arts projects will get help as well as the big national institutions as well as how quickly the money will be available, because many venues, big and small, are on the edge of going dark – and some already have.

Most urgently, will there be help for the people who run the creative industries as well as the institutions? A high proportion of those who work in the field have been excluded from government schemes thus far because of the way their businesses are run – eg as limited companies – or because they fall just outside scheme rules.

We have repeatedly pressed the Chancellor and Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary to provide urgent, targeted support for the creative and cultural sectors. It was right for the government to introduce the furlough and self-employment schemes to try and save jobs during lockdown, and to effectively ‘suspend’ the economy during these dreadful months when everything stopped, but as we now move into a new phase, with the medium and long term challenges becoming clear, we have to be more imaginative about specific sectors- including this, hospitality, aviation and so on. Their futures are not going to be the same as manufacturing, or financial services.

I absolutely need no convincing of the importance of music, theatre and other branches of the arts as far as jobs and their contribution to the economy are concerned. The music industry alone is worth £4.5 billion and supports 210,000 jobs. Theatre more still, yet every day we are hearing terrible stories of closures and redundancies. Many of these institutions will have no way back once they have gone. I need even less convincing of the fact that the arts go to the heart of what it is to be human- that we need them to make sense of life, and need them most when the world throws us challenges of the kind we are now experiencing. My first thought when reading about threats to theatres and music venues is how impoverished our lives are going to be, alongside my anxiety for all those people whose livelihoods are at risk.

Whilst opportunities to raise specific concerns in Parliament remain highly constrained by the impact of social distancing (I didn’t, for example, get a place on the ballot for DCMS questions next week), I am working with my colleagues to demand more help from the government. Obviously all attention is now focused on getting the Chancellor to announce tailored help in the financial statement he will be making on Wednesday. I’m supporting our Culture team, led by Jo Stevens and Tracy Brabin, who are also working closely with sector representatives, including Bectu, the Musicians Union and many others. I am also working closely with the Mayor, and his Deputy Mayor for Culture, Justine Simons. As you may know, Sadiq Khan has set up his own ‘Culture at Risk’ fund, and is, of course, himself working closely with the Arts Council, and lobbying government hard for emergency help on the scale needed for the many venues and institutions of national importance that are based here in London.

The truth is that this crisis comes on top of a decade long period of financial drought pretty well across the whole of public life, and even though the arts make such a huge contribution, that has not been reinvested to ensure viability over the long term. Oliver Dowden is reported as believing UK arts institutions are stronger for not having enjoyed the same level of support given by many European countries (Germany has provided a billion euros to the arts, compared with £160m to the Arts Council here in the UK). I disagree. Time is fast running out.

The Time is Now

The Virtual Climate Lobby & the Green Recovery

The Coronavirus epidemic – nearly 4 months on – remains at the forefront of political and private life and the threat remains very real as rules begin to relax. But we do of course continue face another global crisis: the breakdown of the Climate and the natural world. On the 30th of June I ‘met’ with constituents virtually at another mass climate lobby organised by the Climate Coalition. It was great to have a conversation and to hear so many different perspectives. We talked about green issues from cycle lanes, electric buses, green energy, jobs and Westminster Council’s city plan. What was clear from speaking with constituents – and the emails I receive –  is that people want to see radical action on the Environment, before it’s too late. The Coronavirus epidemic has not gone away of course, and it may not for some time, but as the Government looks to phase in a return back to *more* normal, we need to also think carefully about the unique challenge – and opportunity – ahead of us.

One opportunity arising from the Coronavirus crisis is the risk of mass unemployment. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) have highlighted the key areas where they believe governments need to take action in the coming months. These include low-carbon retrofits, making buildings fit for the future, tree-planting, peatland restoration and building our cycling, walking and remote-working infrastructure – all of which are labour intensive and could serve the dual purpose of a massive boost the jobs market and the fight against climate change.

Travel has of course changed significantly as a result of the crisis. People’s preferred modes of transport are changing as tubes and buses remain a distinct risk and while many people have started to look to active alternatives, we are seeing individual car usage creep back up. Of course some people have no alternative but we should be doing what we can to encourage those who are able to consider greener, safer ways of getting around.

With transport devolved in London to TfL, we are fortunate to have access to better cycling facilities than most parts of the country. There has been huge progress in the capital on this although Westminster and Kensington Councils have not always been as active in supporting TFL as they might have been. But as many people who started to walk and cycle more during lockdown will have seen, our infrastructure is far from perfect and our roads could be a lot safer. Only £50m out of a promised £2bn funding package for cycling and walking measures had been delivered to local authorities as of June, so it is really important that central government makes the funds available and that local authorities start spending this as effectively as possible.

Another huge consequence of the crisis has been the need for one of the largest ever Government interventions to support businesses. It is right that the government steps in at times like this to keep businesses afloat. However, I believe they also need to consider conditions on this financial support which will oblige companies to adhere to environmental requirements, safeguard the interests of workers and the public and ensure that we build back better.

I believe it is clear that as we recover from the impact of COVID-19, we must not return to business as usual. We continue to live through a climate and environment emergency, with under ten years left to avoid the worst impacts of catastrophic climate change. The climate must be at the heart of everything we do now, including our response to and recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Black Lives Matter- will this be a turning point for inequality?

The number of policy related enquiries from constituents has continued to soar – I received over 2,000 separate policy emails in June alone – but, apart from Brexit, no single issue has generated as many – or as strongly voiced- letters as Black Lives Matter. Sparked, of course, by the brutal killing of George Floyd in the United States, it soon became clear that the issues of racism and inequality remain very deeply felt in this country as well.

Having served on the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill Committee in Parliament many years ago, implementing a number of findings of the MacPherson Report which followed on from the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, it is desperately sad to see how much remains to be done. Yes, there has been important progress in a number of areas, but-the scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation, the impact of Covid-19 on Black and Minority ethnic communities and continuing deep inequalities in education, criminal justice and elsewhere too, reveal what still needs to be done.

You can read the full report into Covid-19 and health inequalities here. It showed BAME groups are two, three, sometimes four times more likely to die from the virus than white people. Part of the explanation for this lies in overcrowded housing, poverty and exposure to risk at work. It is also clear that not just medics and other health and social care workers but those working in transport, retail, security and local government were at enhanced risk. The common factor for all these jobs was that disproportionately they are done by BAME staff. The tragic case of Belly Mujinga brought this home.

My Parliamentary Committee – the Joint Committee on Human Rights- has been taking evidence from people and organisations whose previous work in this area has yet to be acted upon. We will be producing a report on this in the coming weeks and will do all we can to demand action.

Renewed attention has also been focused on policing and the use of stop-and-search, not least because of the high profile local example involving the athlete Bianca Williams. In that case, the Met has referred itself to the Independent Office of Police complaints.

I have no doubt that there is a role for stop-and-search in policing.  I also have no doubt that policing is a difficult and not infrequently dangerous job, with quick and complex judgements having to be made constantly and under pressure. I work closely with the police locally and commend them for what they now do, with vastly reduced resources compared to a few years ago. I do believe the police service and the Met, in particular, want to police even-handedly, and we all want them to keep us safe and protect our young people from the extreme violence we see too much of. I write the day after a young man was stabbed to death just off the Harrow Road- another heart-breaking tragedy we must do all in our power to stop. We must do everything in our power to save lives and protect people from becoming the victims of crime.

At the same time, there is strong evidence that stop and search will not, in itself, prevent crime and that there is a community impact that must not be ignored.  Stops need to be intelligence-led and much depends on how they are conducted.  In that respect, the use of body-worn cameras is a huge step forward, giving confidence to both the police and suspect.

The fact is that young black men were stopped and searched by police more than 20,000 times in London during the coronavirus lockdown – the equivalent more than a quarter of all black 15- to 24-year-olds in the capital. 8 out of 10 led to no further action being taken. The figures equate to 30% of all young black males in London, though some individuals may have been searched more than once.

The Met increased its use of stop and search during the lockdown, compared with a year ago. The force carried out 43,000 stops in May, compared to 21,000 a year earlier, and 30,608 in April, up from 20,981.

So we do need to understand the impact of stops, and be as clear as possible about their effectiveness when they are used.

It remains the case that policing alone will not eliminate crime, or serious youth violence. This needs an investment in tackling causes- restoring youth services, tackling school exclusions, early intervention in mental health and family support and more. I also want us to return to a properly resourced Safer Neighbourhood police model, which has been so much reduced in recent years. Local knowledge and local relationships are so important.

A separate policing challenge has related to some of the unlicensed musical events which have taken place since lockdown. We saw examples of these on the Mozart estate and the Lydford estates recently. I am aware that some people are distinguishing between how these events are policed and the handling of massive crowds – whether in central London or on Dorset beaches- drinking and sometimes misbehaving-but the simple fact is that the locations for these parties are residential communities, and most residents do not want the noise, the nuisance or the risk of disorder. Police are doing their best to manage these events when they occur and close them down without trouble or disruption and that is the right thing to do.

Defend free travel for under 18s

During a short Parliamentary debate last week, MPs- including me- discussed the grim terms imposed on Transport for London as the price for financial help following the collapse in passenger numbers and revenue during Covid-19. This includes the withdrawal of free travel from under-18s.

Westminster Council told me that there are approximately 22,000 children attending at Westminster schools. With 25% to 40% children are currently using public transport to get to school it could mean roughly 5,000 and 9,000 children affected by this.

Local Authorities are required to provide transport for all ‘eligible’ children- including children under 8 years old living more than 2 miles away and those between 8 and 16 years old living more than 3 miles away; children whose parents are on benefits or who receive free school meals and children who have special educational needs and/ or disabilities. All the children who currently use public transport to get to school could be eligible children.

We need the government to rethink this urgently – it will cause serious hardship to families and add extra pressure onto councils at the same time. Link to the petition.

Working in Parliament

I won’t pretend Parliament is working normally at present. Some parts work well. I am busy on the Human Rights Select Committee, which has produced a number of reports recently and is currently undertaking inquiries into:




I’m chairing the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, which has been looking at access to justice during this current crisis. I chaired the Domestic Abuse Bill committee and served on the Fire Safety Bill, which is one of the first steps, three years on, towards strengthening building safety legislation post-Grenfell. I have also recently been asked to join Keir Starmer’s team as a Shadow Minister for Social Security.

But MPs are still very limited in what we can do, with a much reduced ability to take part in debates and questions. There have always been ballots for questions, and no-one can take part in everything, but there used to be opportunities to intervention spontaneously to challenge the government or take part in questions and debates at short notice and juggle commitments. The limit on the number of people who can be in the Chamber of the Commons at any one time has made this all impossible.

Last month we were ordered to stop voting and participating virtually, unless there was a medical reason for doing so. What has actually happened is that we now have to be on the premises but have *less* chance of taking part in business than before because only those allowed into the chamber can do so and we spend hours queuing to vote. This certainly does not help us hold the government to account.

Plunging income leaves Westminster Council facing massive cuts or new charges

Westminster Council faces massive service cuts or hikes in Council Tax and charges to make up a £123m budget gap by spring 2024 – with the Conservative Government making things worse rather than providing necessary support.

In early March this year the Conservatives’ pre-Covid council budget suggested the council would have to deliver £95.6m million in spending reductions or extra taxes and charges, by March 2023, due to further planned austerity and changes the Conservative Government is making to move funding away from cities towards the rural counties.

The future outlook has now become even gloomier due to both Covid and decisions by the Government. Westminster council has previously outlined £32.1m it could cut from spending or raise in income (something which now may be more difficult to achieve) by 2023. However, in a paper being presented to the council’s cabinet tonight (Monday 13th July), its finance team now forecasts a revised budget gap by March 2024 of a further £91.4 million that it has not yet explained how it will pay for.

The council will have to plug that gap and make the £32m in ‘savings’ it’s already identified, for a total of £123.5m in four years. That figure compares with the council’s net budget for 2020/21 of £180m: the budget gap is equivalent of two-thirds of this year’s budget.

This emerging horror story doesn’t even include the predicted in-year loss for 2020/21 that will see the council lose upto £33m this year due to the immediate impact of Covid-19 on its income. This will be covered by the council’s emergency reserves, cutting them in half and increase pressure on the council to refill them from its already massively overstretched income.

Westminster Labour Leader Cllr Adam Hug said “The impact of these enormous cuts, coming on top of the pain of the last 10 years, would devastate our communities. The Covid-crisis has further exposed how overstretched council services already are but the scale of the financial hole facing the council could mean major cuts to adult and children’s social care in the years ahead while many services that are not legally mandated could disappear entirely.”

Even now the Government still keeps promising that austerity is over but these figures show that to simply be a lie. The Council’s Conservative Leadership need to stand up to their Government to demand more support or they will show themselves to be fully complicit in the hardship currently heading Westminster’s way. No expressions of sympathy will cut it if they slash vital services because they didn’t want to rock the boat with their parliamentary pals.”

My Labour councillor colleague, Cllr David Boothroyd, says, quite rightly: “The Westminster Tories wasted the years before the crash, never properly diversifying council income. They have left local communities horrendously exposed and the Cabinet paper questions the long term financial sustainability of the council.”

Mapping CIL (Community Infrastructure Levy) spending in Westminster

This article and the maps come from a fascinating blog by James Wickham, a property consultant who writes about planning, housing and property issues in Central London. As lots of us locally have a special interest in these issues, and in the costs and benefits of development, I thought it may be worth including.

You can find the blog here.

The Community Infrastructure Levy has been with us for almost ten years now. However, its role in raising money from development to support a wide range of local projects – both hard infrastructure as well as a range of more community-led projects – in urban areas that have promoted development is often not particularly clear and doesn’t get much in the way of coverage.

From my perspective, having spent quite a proportion of my time over those ten years working in the West End and wider Westminster, I was curious to see how CIL that has been collected in Westminster since 2016 is being spent.

All the information is in the public domain and is published by Westminster City Council. But it is split across several different reports, so I’ve brought it all together onto a single interactive map in the hope that this is easier to see.

A few key trends & headlines:

·  About £64m of CIL has now been collected from new development in Westminster;

·  About £35.5m has been earmarked for, or spent, on projects;

·  Well over 120 separate projects have received funding;

·  About £29m remains (as of January this year) to be allocated;

·  Of that, about £8m is supposed to be spent at the neighbourhood level, and the remaining £21m by WCC centrally;

·  Of the neighbourhood areas, Little Venice and Maida Vale has collected the most “neighbourhood” CIL (£1.5m) although none has been allocated;

·   Perhaps unsurprisingly, when looking at CIL spending ward by ward, West End has seen the most CIL expenditure;

·   The two largest single projects were the Schools Travel Plan Programme, to improve pedestrian links to various schools, and zero-emission street cleaning for Oxford Street and environs.

This information is based on my analysis of Westminster’s reported information, but any mistakes / discrepancies in the presentation are mine.

It’s worth bearing in mind that this only covers money raised from CIL and doesn’t include financial contributions secured as part of planning permissions for specific, identified topics, or affordable housing. It also doesn’t include financial contributions to Crossrail, through the Mayor of London’s separate CIL charges.

More information can be found here.

‘A new ‘getting around’ strategy for the Royal Parks

The Royal Parks has embarked on an exciting and ambitious journey to develop a Movement Strategy which sets a coherent framework to help shape and inform the policies relating to how park visitors can access, experience and move within the parks.

As we look to the challenges ahead, we continue to be proactive to ensure our parks are here for future generations. Part of this process has been the development of an organisational Movement Strategy that will support the future health of our parks while also linking to the overall health and happiness of the city. We have formally adopted the Royal Parks’ Movement Strategy and have announced five trial projects that are to be launched across the estate, all of which aim to reduce the amount of cut-through traffic in the parks. The trial projects include:

· In Bushy Park, restricting all through traffic with a partial road closure between Teddington and Hampton Court Gates

· In St James’s and Green Parks, closing the Mall and Constitution Hill to traffic on Saturdays, in addition to the regular Sunday closures

·  In Greenwich Park, a full-time closure of the Avenue to cut through vehicle traffic

·  In Hyde Park, trial closures of North Carriage Drive permanently, and South Carriage Drive on Saturdays, in addition to the regular Sunday closures

·  In Richmond Park, reducing cut through motor vehicles (with more details to follow).

You can see the whole strategy here and here.

Thank you for reading and your comments are always welcome.

Karen Buck MP

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