The campaign for Wandsworth to accept ten refugees seems woefully inadequate in the light of the scale of the refugee crisis. Even despite that, there are plenty who are arguing against it both locally and nationally, saying we should look after our own people first, that the country is already full or that those finding their way to our shores are motivated by economics not personal safety.
There might be some merit to that first argument. I long ago lost count of the number of people who had approached me as a councillor about their housing application I found myself telling that, however difficult their circumstances, they would have a long wait until they were likely to be at the top of the list.
Equally, the council can argue that it has a tried and tested procedure for assessing the merits of housing applications and that circumventing that would create a dangerous precedent and be unfair to those who were previously on the list. In any case, such a small number is tokenism given the scale of the issue.
Sometimes, though, a symbolic gesture is exactly what is needed. The council may have efficient bureaucratic processes, but it can also show leadership: a gesture, perhaps, but also a strong signal that we don’t simply turn our backs when we can help. That as a borough and a country we are not selfish and we are not full. And that when it really matters we can rise above parochial self-interest and rule-bound processes that so often rail-road our decision-making; to prove that we are not just human, we are also humane.
Someone came to my surgery on Saturday, though not as a result of my post (at least they didn’t mention it, if it was). I’m afraid that it doesn’t change my opinion on the value of surgeries, it’s still the first time anyone has attended a surgery session I’ve run for the life of this blog. And while looking through the surgery log it still seems to average about one attendee per session, I still think we could be more imaginative about the way we do these things.
But what really struck me on Saturday was the realisation that I’ve probably had to tell most of the people I’ve seen in 12 years of surgeries that I’m sympathetic, but just can’t help. Why? Not because I’m lazy or unwilling, but because I’d guess the bulk of my visitors at surgeries (like Saturday) are about re-housing. We have well-defined rules and policies when it comes to deal with housing applications, and obviously these can’t bend to suit the will of a councillor. I can check they have been correctly placed in the housing queue (make sure medical conditions or overcrowding have been correctly reflected, for example) but can’t do anything to get them a home any quicker.
What really struck me on Saturday was how the current housing system of secure tenancies fail the people who need them. I’ve touched on the subject before and – without breaking any confidences – the case I saw on Saturday was typical example of how those in need are let down.
It was a family in severely overcrowded accommodation. And, realistically, their only option was to sit and wait.
We know we have properties that are big enough, but we also know that people are reluctant to leave them, even when they don’t need all the rooms, all the time – often they want to keep spare rooms for when family visit. We therefore end up ‘buying’ rooms by offering an incentive payment for people who release a larger property.
The family who are waiting could look to the private sector. But that doesn’t have the same security, and they will inevitably move further down the queue for the large council property they want, so there is little incentive to take the risk. As a result people who do want a smaller property lose out because that hasn’t been freed up.
I’m not sure I have the answer. The council has an important role as a provider of housing, it is de facto the landlord of last resort. But it seems wrong that the secure tenancy means that the system moves so slowly that people can spend most of their life in a home that is the wrong size – first in an overcrowded house, then a few years in a house that’s the right size, then as children leave the home the rest of their lives in a house that’s too big!
I can see why people need to have security. But surely the balance is wrong when it leaves so many people without the home they should have.
I have been featuring some of the videos from the council campaign, but this is my favourite.
Because Wandsworth has always encouraged council house sales, empowering people to become homeowners rather than tenants, doesn’t mean we aren’t proud of our position as a social landlord. Wandsworth has been at the forefront of the campaign to retain council housing, rather than passing it over to housing associations – a campaign overwhelmingly supported by tenants. We also have one of the best records in the country on the decent homes standard.
And we are also one of the leading providers of new social housing through our Hidden Homes initiative.
The video is, I think, a powerful example of the difference an innovative Conservative council can make. By being flexible and inventive we are able to give people the opportunities that can help them change their lives.
Hopefully on Friday we’ll have a government that takes the same approach.
I’m not sure why but it seems like campaigning seems to be taking up more and more time, although looking through the diary we’ve been keeping up a fairly stiff pace through the summer months. It is perhaps the onset of darker and considerably colder nights makes an evening on the doorstep seem a lot less appealing than it did in the summer months. Or it might be that the elections are starting to seem a little more real now that other candidates are falling into place – I’ve heard Martin Linton’s wife, Sara Apps-Linton, is standing as a council candidate in Shaftesbury – whether the story is accurate or not there is no doubt that we are definitely heading into election territory. If you don’t like elections and politics it might be an idea to book a long holiday!
Awards of one form or another have formed a large part of this week. I was one of the judging panel for the first Safer Neighbourhood Team awards this week, responsible for sifting through the hundreds of nominations made by members of the public, businesses, charities, pubs, councillors and children who all thought they had the borough’s best SNT.
At the risk of using cliché it was not an easy decision. I think the result changed several times during the discussions before the winner was finally decided. And while I’m not going to name the winner here, it says a lot that there is such support and recognition in the borough for the work of the SNTs.
I also attended a little session to recognise the awards that the council’s Community Safety Division have received over the past few weeks. I have often said how privileged I have been to work with some excellent council officers from all parts of my portfolio, but it’s always good to see their good work recognised externally. Since October Community Safety officers have been part of the team winning the London Region Tilley Award (a Home Office prize awarded annually) received a commendation from Ron Dobson, the London Fire Commissioner, (I understand this is the first time council staff have received such recognition) and also received commendations from Stewart Low, the Wandsworth police borough commander, for their community safety work.
That they are an award winning department is no surprise to me, and I’m incredibly proud of all that they have done for the borough.
Westfield Stratford City
While not directly related to the borough I took up an invitation to have a look around the Westfield Stratford City site this week. It is a truly massive project and (I am happy to admit) one that I hope I will never visit when finished! But however much I dislike shopping I cannot deny the regeneration benefits it will have for Newham, creating enormous employment opportunities for the area and fitting into the wider regeneration through the Olympics. Of course, a retail-led regeneration of that scale is not directly suitable for Wandsworth, not least because it would undermine the council’s five town centre strategy. But it is a example of what can be achieved between the private and public sector and while the parallels are not direct gives an indication of the sort of benefits might accrue to local residents as development begins in Nine Elms.
As an aside, it also offered an excellent view of the Olympic venues. Several are visible from the upper areas of the Westfield building site, and while the media (I think) tends to portray a negative image but when you see them you realise that they are very close to completion and that the Olympics are not very far away at all.
Housing ASB conference
Finally, I spent his morning at a conference on Anti-Social Behaviour organised by the council’s housing department. Wandsworth’s housing department is very strong when it comes to dealing with ASB from its tenants, but it is something that continues to blight many people’s lives. One aspect is understanding, a resident in a working group I took part in commented that, very often, people felt intimidated when there was no ill-will meant and sometimes a group of teenagers is just a group of teenages and not a knife-weilding gang!
It is a point we often lose sight of and I was talking to a Shaftesbury resident this afternoon about much the same subject. While the council and partners need to be (and are) tough on crime and anti-social behaviour we need to ensure that in doing so we do not criminalise and marginalise a generation just for doing what teenagers have always done – meet friends and hang about.
The recent, tragic, fire in Camberwell has heightened concerns about fire safety, so I thought it would be worth using the blog to highlight the (I think) good situation in Wandsworth.
For a start, there aren’t any blocks in Wandsworth that bear direct comparison with Lakanal House, the scene of the Camberwell fire. Although there are some blocks with a similar, ‘barrier’, design none are more than ten floors high and only one has a single staircase, but this does have an open access balcony and private balconies to the rear. If there were a fire in the tallest of these blocks the Fire Brigade able to get a ladder to the top.
The council also undertake a number of tests and inspections to make sure our blocks are safe. For example dry risers get checked weekly and a full, wet, test every year and risks and blockages in communal areas are checked and removed daily. New tenants get smoke alarms and existing tenants can get new ones installed for free on request – the housing department are working with the Fire Brigade to target properties where they have no record of an alarm being fitted.
Risk can never be fully removed, but Wandsworth’s housing department is doing some excellent work in making sure it’s reduced as far as possible.