Rachel’s July Councillor report

Rachel writes…

I read Seyi’s councillor report recently with a mixture of pride and awe (feelings that those of us who work with Seyi are more than accustomed to). It reminded me that I had done my own first ward report in July, which I gave to the Labour members who came to the ward meeting, and which I always intended to publish on the blog… but then, well, it was summer, and then… well.

Although I realise that this is now partly out of date, I thought that just as part of being transparent I should still publish it here. So here is my report from July this year, with apologies for lateness. Some of it has now been overtaken by events, but this is the report as I presented it in July and I hope it’s interesting, or if not that, that it provides an insight into what we do.

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Introduction
Although Seyi has regularly given written reports to the ward, councillor reports have previously tended to be verbal and more informal. Given the increase in membership recently, we thought it was probably now appropriate to become a bit more organised, to introduce some more accountability. So this is the first of my written reports to the ward, which I will make every three months from here on, taking it in turns with Seyi and with Anam, once he is as we hope successfully elected. I won’t go into everything here, but will aim to give any big current trends or pieces of work. More information on our work is available for all residents on our joint blog, http://www.forestgatenorth.com

Casework
I have seen a steep increase in casework recently. As with all other councillors, there is a large amount concerning housing, where increasing rents and the short supply of social housing are putting pressure on residents, especially those who have lived here for some time in rented accommodation, and whose landlords wish to sell or to increase their rent.
I have also seen some planning enforcement casework. The planning enforcement team are very good at acting where building has taken place without permission, but they need to know about it first. I forward emails I get through to them, but reports can also be made online here: https://www.newham.gov.uk/Pages/Services/Planning-enforcement.aspx

Other common topics for casework include litter and fly tipping (which I have given its own section below), and parking (ditto).

Fly tipping
I attended a meeting organised by the person behind the twitter account @sitesofnewham which was intended to allow residents from across Newham to give their ideas about how to tackle fly tipping. There were 6 councillors in attendance, and it was chaired by Stephen Timms. Although I didn’t count I think there must have been 30 or 40 people there, and although there was some representation from other political parties, and a strong voice from people who had moved to the area relatively recently, overall the attendance seemed diverse and pretty representative.

I took several things away from it, partly that we have traditionally in Newham not been so strong on education and prevention, and that although we are now doing this, we need to be more clear about how and where. I was also struck afresh by how little residents know (indeed, how little I knew before I started finding out about it) about the action that can be taken against fly tipping, and the prosecutions and fixed penalty notices that are issued. There was also some very helpful discussion about the end about how the Council can facilitate community action to keep the place clean.

As part of Keep Newham Clean the borough is introducing a whole package of measures to try to improve litter and fly tipping, so after that meeting I went to see Jon Hastings who is in charge of the visiting team, who are visiting houses in the borough. There is still lots to do there, but I was interested to know:
– The team are now visiting Forest Gate (they knocked on my door in fact)
– They are visiting ‘standard’ houses first, then will be moving on to flats above shops which are a particular problem in terms of waste
– That the figures for fly tipping do not show an increase in tips since the £20 bulky waste charge was introduced (I found this fascinating, as my experience looking around and also from talking to residents is the opposite of this. I am asking for some more information, not out of disbelief, but just to check)

What I plan to do next is:
– Get hold of the minutes of the meeting and make sure we follow up.
– Speak to officers about the idea of Community Skips (as mentioned to me by a resident and Labour member) and how and whether we can use these at particular problem spots.
– Speak to an officer who works in the website about making the data from fly tips open and available to residents, as suggested at the meeting.
– Think some more with officers about how we communicate about CCTV, which is something residents often ask for. It can be part of the answer, but isn’t actually a panacea. I would like to make the process for requesting new CCTV more transparent.
– Hold a networking event in Forest Gate on the environment, specifically about cleanliness, to allow residents who want to find out more about recycling and disposal, to sign up with a community litter pick if they wish, or create one if they want to. We already have #tidyourflats, and there is a group at Manor Park, and an initiative just starting called ‘Love Our Lanes’.

Parking
I have given parking its own section – it’s a constant surprise to me how time-consuming it is. There has now been a decision to create parking restrictions across the whole borough, which in my opinion is very sensible given the transport pressures, and given the time and energy otherwise spent on piecemeal changes, which just move the parking pressure, road by road, incrementally, creating disruption and distress for residents.

Although controversial, on careful reflection with colleagues I strongly felt that when the east of the ward (basically the area bounded by Sebert, Woodgrange, Capel and Tylney Roads) became an RPZ, it was not at all fair to leave the area west of Woodgrange Road as the only small ‘island’ of unrestricted parking. We are therefore consulting on creating a new controlled parking area for all of the rest of the ward.

In a break with the normal process, Seyi and I insisted on, and held a drop- in session at the Gate library one evening. This was hard work, as people’s feelings were running strong. But I spoke to everyone there, and interestingly the majority of the people there were in favour of restrictions, even though those who spoke most forcefully were those who were strongly against. There are a number of rumours and mis-information about parking restrictions, but the easiest to combat in this report are that parking isn’t money-making (in fact, I believe there is legislation to say it can’t be, and that if any money is made it must be ploughed back into roads), and also that the first permit per household is – unusually – free under our system and councillors and the Mayor are committed that it should remain so.

Lead councillor for Forest Gate
As well as being elected for Forest Gate North ward, I am appointed as the Community Lead Councillor for Forest Gate, which is the name of our ‘Community Neighbourhood’. Newham is split into 8 community neighbourhoods, each with a designated councillor who takes a lead politically, Liaising with staff in the Neighbourhood Centre (ours is the Gate) to get things done.

Some of the things I have been doing include:
– Working with Planning Enforcement to think about how we can physically improve Woodgrange Road. Opportunities here include the ‘Linear Gateway Project’ where local shops are asked to comply with bye-laws around the condition of their buildings, and their shop fronts
– working with Transport on the plans for the remodelling around Forest Gate and Maryland stations, and thinking about how to include more art and ‘greening’ in our streets.
– Holding themed networking meetings around key improvements we want to make to Forest Gate. Our latest one was about cycling, held jointly with Newham Cyclists, with information about how to maintain a bike, local bike routes, and more. Others in the offing include business networking (also to explore whether there is local appetite to create a Business Improvement District), the Environment, and Play Streets.
– Working with colleagues and the market to support it and any future alcohol licence application.
– Thinking of how we can encourage community activity in specific areas. Seyi and I held a drop-in small grants session in Maryland, we are planning another, and I plan to hold one in Upton Lane too.

Planning
Planning, like parking was an unexpected part of my councillor role. But unlike the other word beginning with P, it’s been immensely enjoyable as well as hard work. I sit on the Strategic Development Committee, which looks at applications for larger developments right across the Borough. This has meant a pretty steep learning curve about planning, and lots of 100 page + documents to read through.

The perpetual issue with planning is to work within the guidelines laid down by national legislation, but within that to exert the maximum pressure on developers to ensure the best outcomes for residents, whether that’s in terms of affordable housing, community space, money for schools and other infrastructure, transport improvements, or some combination of the above.

Recently the economic uncertainty after the referendum has led some of us to worry that many of the agreed developments across the borough may not go ahead, although we are reassured that the ABP business park in the south is unaffected as their business is not orientated towards Europe. The legislation coming up will change the definition of affordable housing entirely, into subsidy for ‘starter homes’ which is highly problematic to say the least as it won’t offer anything to people on low or even average (or above average!) incomes, and may inflate house prices further.

There is a development coming to the committee on 39 – 49 Woodgrange Road. With other councillors I want to hold a meeting where residents can come along to learn more about the planning process, its opportunities and its limits, and speak to their councillors about their views on the proposals. As always, people will have strong opinions and the spectre of the old Obsidian application looms large in memories, meaning this will be a difficult topic. My aim is to provide a forum to assist those councillors who are not on the committee in representing their residents, to genuinely and openly hear views, and to start the process of empowering residents so they can make good submissions to the planning process which enable officers to negotiate better outcomes from developers. Lofty aims, and certainly the latter can’t be achieved in the short term.

Equalities

I have also just been appointed onto the Cabinet, in a one-day-a-week role, with responsibility for Equalities. I am really pleased at this, and in fact have a bit of professional experience as I used to manage the Equalities team in another borough, on the officer side.

Although too early to make any definite plans, I want to find out more about:
– Access to flexible affordable childcare for women on low incomes;
– Work opportunities for people with learning disabilities
– How to encourage a wide range of people to get involved in politics and democracy
– Housing allocations and homelessness, including vulnerable people
– Voluntary organisations in the borough and their views
I am aware that the scope of a role like ‘equalities’ could be limitless, so want to do research and listening initially, then focus on one or two areas. As the list above makes clear, I am not yet sure what those areas are.

That͛s just a flavour of some of the work I have been doing, and of course almost none of it is just me, but a combined effort of me, Seyi, councillor colleagues and officers. As ever if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact me, or to come along to a surgery at the Gate where one of your councillors will be there every Saturday at 10.30am.

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