Thursday, 9 April 2015

King's Cross housing losses - the causes and some more facts

Here are some more facts regarding the affordable housing situation at King's Cross Central than were printed in CNJ story today (link to follow) on loss of social homes.  Warning: it differs somewhat from the slant given in the article by William McClellan. 

The reduction in the number of affordable homes in the development is primarily caused by the enormous losses in subsidy for social housing announced by the coalition government in 2011. Whereas there used to be around £120k available for each home, there is now only around £30k provided from the GLA - a very big reduction given the high cost of providing social housing in inner London.

While the Phase 1 social housing on York Way at King's Cross is being delivered at a cost of £37 million in public subsidy, the post-2011 funding regime affects Phase 2 that is not yet built. 

The cut in grant means that a clause is triggered in the planning agreement from 2006 that leads to a so-called 'cascade' from 148 social rented units down to 74 units. 

Rather than accept this, the council has negotiated with the developer, Argent, to protect as many of the social rented units as possible. 

The deal involves converting some of the intermediate housing, such as Homebuy units, into units for private sale. This has meant that we can deliver 127 units at social rent rather than 74.  These are social rented units, not homes at the Mayor's 80% market rent.

It's clearly very bad that we have to accept any loss in social units, however, the 's106 agreement' was conceived in 2006 before the bank recession and five years before the full horror of the Tory approach to social housing was known.

We are trying to make the best of a bad situation and protect the kind of housing that is genuinely affordable to the people on our housing waiting list, rather than those earning £70k per year who might be able to afford a shared ownership flat at King's Cross.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The first true Twitter election, really?

Candidates for the marginal Hampstead&Kilburn constituency participated in an online hustings after the local paper partnered with social media giant, Twitter. 

True to Twitter's form of inviting opinion then spending time shooting opinions down, I got into a little hate-cave from users and hacks because I expressed a view about how appropriate this medium was.

Here's how it worked:  rivals from the main parties - and the Lib Dems - got to sell an initial pitch then respond in the normal Twitter 140 character format.  You can see the results here.  
The rationale for using social media is sound: anyone can challenge anything in public and get a response without being physically present.  Whether Twitter can provide any depth to the complex issues candidates will have to face when elected is more than debatable.

Twitter’s head of News and Government Partnerships explains: "With voters and political parties increasingly harnessing the power of Twitter for political discourse and information sharing, 2015 has become the UK’s first true Twitter election."

Nice corporate marketing, but not quite.  Twitter is useful directing people to events, information or further detail.  It's also a social 'worm' enhancing real-time media events, rather than a debating platform in its own right.  When it does become a place for debate it commonly acts much like an echo-chamber - which is why campaigners prefer Facebook for more meaningful contact, discussion and exchange.  

Reporters at the Camden New Journal explain:  "The nature of Twitter’s character limits will ensure that the candidates will have to get straight to the point." (Good thing they were succinct at 110 characters making their point there...).  It's an interesting move from the New Journal, which otherwise isn't so interactive.  For example, editor Eric Gordon operates a bizarre Cold War-style practice of banning comments below his own, often extreme, comment pieces - will they change this now they've found love with Twitter's public affairs department? 

Politicians could always do with more brevity but reducing political conversations to yet another exchange in slogans limits candidate self-expression.  It also lets journalists perpetuate the tropes they love about elected representatives. 

But the thing is, we don't decide policy in a snapchatty forum of yes-or-no decisions on housing, Europe, or assisted dying.  Don't get me wrong, social media platforms have a huge role to play, but in many ways are in their infancy when seeking to engage people in deliberation

Camden council used locally-developed Vox Up for the £70m budget cuts consultations and previously the We are Camden platform.  However, these needed to be powered by other social media platforms, like Twitter, to reach a wider audience. 

So Twitter is part of the mix because it is ubiquity, which is why I'll post this blogpost there. As a platform to challenge ideas in a meaningful way, if this is really "the UK's first true Twitter election" ...dare I say it, it's a pretty limited thing?

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

50 years of Camden - a quick Labour history

Given it's Camden council's 50th birthday today: here's a short precis of Camden, from my Labour perspective - comments please!

Camden Labour has been voted in to run the Town Hall 43 of the 50 years the borough has been in existence.  It has only been out of power for two short spells: between 1968-71 and 2006-10.

Ensuring that council housing, fair rents and inequality is addressed have been hallmarks of successive Labour administrations throughout the years.  We have also safeguarded residents' interests in the face of major national infrastructure developments.  Camden's unique social mix is a result of its varied housing tenure, and is assisted by our excellent Local Education Authority and family of community schools.  Support for council housing and community schools distinguishes the borough from those to the west: our social mix remains despite gentrification occurring at an alarming rate over last two decades.

1960s Camden formed of three small boroughs of HolbornHampstead (both Conservative) and (Labour) larger St.Pancras in local government reorganisation.  Greater London Council (GLC) created.  Labour wins majority in new borough under leader and railway clerk Charlie Ratchford.  Camden logo of eight linked hands created, symbolising “voting, giving, receiving and unity.” Labour housing minister Crossman approves council plans to build 4250 homes by 1968. Camden successfully opposes flyover proposals in Camden Town and M1 extension through borough.   

Housing investment
1970s Labour returned to power at Camden Town Hall on pro-council housing platform focusing on lower rents and new council housing.  Camden unsuccessfully applies to CPO Centrepoint, large office block intentionally kept empty by property developers during housing crisis.  Council housing acquisitions programme starts buying up ‘slum’ street properties for council housing, making Camden a major landowner.  Last new council housing built until 2013.  Creation of local amenity groups across borough, e.g. WHAT and tenants movement.     

Thatcher’s Britain
1980s Thatcher’s Rates Act takes away Camden business rates, forcing major cuts to services as Camden faces huge deficit.  Homeless Bengali families occupy Town Hall demanding better housing. Turbulent Labour Group splits over approach to Whitehall ‘rate-capping’ of council, but finally sets legal Budget.  Abolition of GLC.  Anti-Poll Tax riot and financial instability.     

Turning council around
1990s Beginning of consolidation of council under Richard Arthur and '1990 Group', major focus on stability, council re-organisation and higher quality services.  Continuing government cuts result in massive capital backlog for housing and infrastructure.  First King’s Cross plans defeated by local residents.  New Labour government elected, starts to give more power and funding to local authorities. 

Labour Investment
2000s Camden named ‘Council of the Year’ in 2003, gains powers over community safety and early years.   Labour government invests £500m in council housing, beginning to make good the 18 year repairs backlog.  ‘Tackling inequality’ a council priority in Community Strategy, regeneration funds targeted at 10 most deprived areas.   Camden first borough to establish comprehensive Sure Start network. Swiss Cottage complex and Talacre Sports Centre opened.  Camden and Manchester drive new ASBO powers against drug-dealersKing’s Cross regeneration passed and Crossrail green lighted to Tottenham Court Road.  Leader Jane Roberts named Dame for services to local government. 

Coalition cuts
2010s Camden faces £160m cuts from Coalition government over 7 years, reductions of over 30%, and face massive capital deficit for council homes and schools.   Ends of sales of council homes by auction policy taken by Tories and Lib Dems.  Introduces 20mph zone across the borough, sets plan for London Living Wage and starts £330m Community Investment Programme to build 1100 new council homes and repair all community schools.  First new council homes built at Chester Balmore since 1970s.  Equality Taskforce and Camden Plan put childcare, growth and jobs centre stage.  Primary schools named best in country.  Leader Sarah Hayward opposes plans to demolish parts of Regent's Park Estate and Camden Town for HS2. New offices, public swimming pool and library build in King's Cross.   

Famous Camden councillors
Barbara Castle (St. Pancras council) – Labour Minister
V. K. Krishna Menon (St. Pancras council) – Intellectual and activist for Indian independence
Tessa Jowell – London MP and Labour Minister
Ken Livingstone – MP and Mayor of London
Geoffrey Bindman QC – Human rights lawyer
Frank Dobson – Labour Minister and Camden MP
John Mills – Economist and entrepreneur

Friday, 27 March 2015

On the Living Wage

Premiership clubs will start paying the London Living Wage to directly employed staff by 2016/17, according to an announcement yesterday.   This is welcome, but it only commits clubs to something cash-strapped councils were able to do for the last 5 years.  The real challenge, as pointed out by the Living Wage campaign, is with their contracted staff and their supply chain: all should be at the 'Chelsea standard.'

In London, Camden and Islington councils have almost completed full Living Wage status after pledging to do so, despite massive cuts from central government.  For both councils over 95% of contracts are paid at over the Living Wage but some large care contracts remain a hurdle, but both have signed UNISON's Ethical Care Charter to bring this in line very shortly (in our case by 2017), along with other reforms such as paying travel costs and ending short visits.

Camden has the legacy Caterlink contract for school dinner staff, negotiated on low wages by the Tories and Lib Dems when they ran Camden council and actively resisted any move towards the London Living Wage.  Camden has also gone a step further on low pay last year and become the first council to by introduce a minimum earnings guarantee - meaning by 2018 every one of the council’s 4,300 staff  will be paid at least £20,000 a year.

Both councils have campaigned for local employers, specifically including Arsenal Football Club, to embrace the Living Wage too and join us in setting out a plan to raise wages.  Much like the recent criticism of the Church of England, here in Camden the Tories and the Camden New Journal paper have doubled up locally to say organisations which aren't precisely 100% Living Wage compliant shouldn't ask private sector firms to change their ways - but these are the views of people who are more interested in shouting 'hypocrite' or pursuing political advantage than supporting progress in any meaningful way.

The Living Wage Foundation approach doesn't hide that it is gradualist or that dealing with this issue is more complex than it looks.  When you pledge to become a Living Wage Employer it commits organisation to a funded plan to address London Living Wage in a given period of time. This enables organisations to examine their procurement processes and deal with long-term contracts and ensure that when they are re-tendered they meet the new standard. This is the concept of phased implementation which was set out when we raised the flag at the Town Hall in 2012 and explained our approach.

So we say to the haters: join the campaign and support more Living Wage employers in London - including Premiership clubs, who can certainly afford it

Here's what the Living Wage Foundation says:
"Camden was one of the first councils to make the commitment to roll out the Living Wage.  And we believe there is an important role for local government in championing the Living Wage to other employers.  The Living Wage Foundation recognises that full compliance can take some time as contracts come up for renewal.  There may in fact be a risk of legal challenge if contract terms are materially changed before the point of re-tender." 
Next year Camden will make good the remaining contract for school dinner staff - the people who matter most here - what we won't do is further subsidise the profits of big firms by paying out more taxpayer money on top the subsidy we already give low wage employers through the benefits system, as we have always made clear. 

Friday, 6 February 2015

West Hampstead benefits from huge investment in schools

The West Hampstead and Kilburn areas are benefiting from an unprecedented investment to expand and modernise schools.  The areas 'wins' because it has a growing population and therefore has greater need than other areas of the borough.

Far from money being taken out of the area, as some critics allege, the £25m figure cited here is actually one of the highest totals in the borough, only Highgate - where there is a historic cluster of secondary schools, has more investment.

The table below provides details of schools investment in Fortune Green, Kilburn and West Hampstead wards, showing total amount of planned expenditure and expenditure to the end of 2014. The funding for this investment comes from (Community Investment Programme (CIP) and government grants (non-CIP). The government grants have been for bulge classes in areas of high need and (£6.7m) general school places - the latter did not have to be spent in West Hampstead and could have been spent anywhere in the borough, but the decision was made to invest the money in the school there.

The CIP investment is funded by disposals of assets by the council after the Coalition government cuts £200m+ in investment to schools in 2010.  
Table 1: CIP and Non CIP Schools Programme Project Commitments
Total CIP and Non CIP Funding (£000)
Expenditure to Nov 14 (£000)
Fortune Green
West Hampstead
Taking away the £6.7m from the government and money for bulge classes the CIP totals here are in the region of £17-£18m.

In Fortune Green, the following schools have received investment:
  • Beckford  school is benefiting from £450k of repairs
  • Hampstead school has received £1 million for urgent repair works to heating and building fabric to keep the building operational until it is rebuilt under the government’s Priority Schools Building Programme
In Kilburn, the following schools have received investment:
  • St Eugene de Mazenod has received £400k, for works to eliminate the backlog of building repairs to bring the school into good condition;
  • St Mary’s Kilburn has received £350k for works to eliminate the backlog of building repairs to bring the school into good condition;
  • Kingsgate has received £2.2m to date as part of providing three bulge classrooms and other improvements to the existing school.
In West Hampstead, prior to CIP, Emmanuel Primary School had £8 million invested to rebuild the school.  Again, this the council contribution could have been spent elsewhere.  The cost of the new buildings for an expanded Kingsgate primary school in West Hampstead will be funded from capital receipts from the sale of land at Liddell Road.
So is West Hampstead a 'cash cow' for other areas of the borough?  No.  Table 2 provides details. At the moment there are no additional planned disposal projects in the these three wards.   
Table 2: General Fund CIP receipts
Actual disposals
Total planned future disposals (£000s)
Fortune Green
1A Glastonbury St.
Rear Car Park, 65 Maygrove Rd
Rear Car Park, 65 Maygrove Rd
West Hampstead
1a Lithos Road
55 Hemstal Rd

Sunday, 18 January 2015

On Tesco and Belsize Park

Tesco proposes to open a store in Belsize Park, at the site of the old HSBC.  As with the attempt to open a Sainsbury's in South End Green, the idea has come against strong opposition and a feisty campaign.

No to Tesco is led by local Belsize Councillors and celeb Tom Conti (now Emma Thompson) is supported by a large number of petition signatories (you can sign here is you are so minded).

I have no great love for high street chains, but I am unsettled by aspects of this campaign - like these objections about staff or some of the reasons for refusing the alcohol licence.   

This is why.  Camden is a mixed community and most Camdeners shop in normal, brand supermarkets so the campaigners need to careful not to send off the wrong signals that their area will suddenly deteriorate beyond recognition because it is served by the same shops everyone else uses.  The campaign should avoid coming across as 'exclusive' and take care to 'check their privilege' otherwise it may backfire and actually embolden Tescos to reach out to the silent customer base it feels isn't served locally.  Presumably the reason why it is opening here and Sainsbury's wanted South End Green was that their research tells them that.  

We need to be careful not to send people down blind alleys: the licensing application will be very difficult to turn down.  The judgement will rest on quality of argument rather than sheer volume of people saying the same thing on questionable grounds.  The council is duty-bound to hear cases in a set period of time: you can't not process an application you don't like and the applicant has the right to submit whenever they want.  The site is not in a Special Policy area so is likely to go entirely for the normal framework hours.  In past experience concerns are much more likely to be addressed by condition (training for staff on alcohol sales) rather than outright refusal.

A constituent wrote to me making a good point which should also be heard:  We also know that food as a percentage of income for those on lower wages is much higher than those of the rich. We can be as critical of Tesco as we want, because of competition food prices are going down...this mostly benefits those on lower incomes.

In the future we might think about how local businesses to develop a more objective 'chain-free street' brand/campaign (we recently backed We support Small Business Saturday for traders in Queens Crescent) emphasising your pride in not having too many chains on the stretch/local community etc so there is more of an objective justification to avoid this in the future and to deter other speculative bids by major names - see the problems we are having elsewhere in Camden with Foxtons.  

We don't live in a society where we can stop businesses from buying properties or competing with other businesses because we subjectively don't like them.  The council doesn't have general powers to prevent certain retailers or individuals buying properties - established national laws and frameworks favour business, and always have.  On planning and licensing the system in this country gives a presumption to grant (with conditions) rather than refuse.  
The most likely way to win for the campaign is public pressure from as wide a base as possible.  I was part of the anti-Starbucks campaign in 2002 in Primrose Hill, the company were within the law to open up a shop and the council had no grounds to stop them doing so. They backed down and never came back because 4000 people signed a petition against it and they considered that it was harming their reputation. 

I live around the corner from a Sainsbury's local.  It's convenient to grab something when the weekly shop runs out but after a while I got bored by the lack of choice and how expensive it turned out to be.  I now do most of my shopping at the store run Sil and Roj, a new independent store which is better and cheaper and has far more product ranges.  

The council is drawing up the new Local Plan which will have an important section on independent shops, although these need to be in conformity with new national rules.      

Just as we don't a bland street with only national chains, we don't want a street full of boutiques.  Ideally we'd have a high street mix with community and corporate anchors so there is choice and competition for all the community.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Prepare for the big attacks on public services from Tory paper 'data teams'

The headline of today’s Times screamed of the “scandal” of a “£5bn spree” by local councils {paywall} on agency staff and temporary workers.  The piece, worked by veteran Whitehall Editor Jill Sherman and the ‘Times Data Team’, had the appearance of a classic Tory hit-job in the press - including a pre-baked quote from Eric Pickles on consultants in Whitehall and a dated editorial about wasteful centralisation and the 'Big Society'.  Poor.

For colleagues running councils up and down the country:  welcome to the shape of things to come.  With the Conservatives lagging behind in the polls on trust with public services the only likely response will be to diss the otherwise good record of local councils in providing efficient services with less money in a period of rising demand.  

This is all a part of a Tory election strategy to highlight profligacy in the state and, by implication, that Labour is as incompetent with taxpayer’s money as it is high spending.

Of course, the sensationalist totaling up of some big numbers neglects the nuance and detail of running complex public services - but why would you if you have some juicy numbers?

Since we are talking about agency workers and consultants, let’s examine that.

Expenditure on short-term staff happens, but it is important to see this as a proportion of total payroll - in Camden this stands at 10%.  Payroll is the highest spend from pretty much any organisation, public or private.  Like other councils we are constantly working to minimise agency staff in the face of rising pressures, we are not embarking on a "spree".

Secondly, much of this spend is where there is a statutory duty set in Westminster: like for at risk children or vulnerable adults.  Other areas of high demand include IT change, where we compete with the private sector for talent to help transform services.

Where we can't fill a post, often because we can't find the right people for the job due to intense competition (especially in London), we often have to find cover.

Thirdly, where councils are building - one in 20 council house starts in the country are in Camden - we employ external help to deliver these projects.  I don't know anyone who would count this as waste.  

Glib comparisons made in the article by Secretary of State Eric Pickles with the reduction in consultant spend in his department are characteristically unhelpful because the CLG is a Whitehall department and doesn't deliver any frontline services to vulnerable people or build the new homes people really need.

In the coming months expect the following, with questions asked, like the Times, over the period of a Parliamentary term:  how much did your council spend on redundancy payments?  How many computers did you report lost or stolen?  Has your council tax collection rate dropped?

Never mind if there’s a rational explanation (redundancy payments are high because there have been lots of redundancies; more people use computers, more people work remotely to save on overheads so this is more of a risk; council collection rates have dropped because government changes to council tax benefit means the poorest are paying it for the first time, creating collection problems)… total up a big number and we’ll find a big problem.