Rachel’s ward report Sept – Nov 2017

Small Business Saturday

As I write this, Seyi and I have just finished our social media campaign for Small Business Saturday. You can read about it in our blog post here:
https://forestgatenorth.com/2017/11/30/fgshoplocally-and-marylandshoplocally/

In essence, we’ve been supporting local small businesses since being elected in 2014, recognising what an important part they play in our local community. This year, as before, Small Business Saturday fell on the same day as the Forest Gate Christmas lights switch-on, which gave us a chance to combine our promotion and social media campaign with a bigger than usual market, plus the pop-up craft fair ‘Oh Come All Ye Gateful’ which took place in the old CoffeE7 building.

As usual the day was a blur of family activities, community spirit and Christmassiness. We were really thrilled with how many people and businesses got on board, sharing information about offers and purchases using the hashtags, and joining onto the Facebook event. The market was buzzing all day, and social media was alight too with pictures of purchases. The Magpie Project (on which more below) was the designated charity from Saturday’s market, and raised £900 plus two car loads of donations to support some of the most vulnerable families in Newham.

Recycling bins at Henniker Point

After receiving some complaints from residents about the unsightly mess left at the recycling bins at Henniker point, Seyi and I organised a meeting there with the officer responsible, us and some of the residents too.

On meeting there, it was very obvious that the complaints are entirely well-founded. The bins are in poor condition, there is rubbish dumped alongside them, and they are very unsightly. We do need to keep some recycling facilities in this location or nearby because they are a recycling point for Henniker Point, the tower block of flats behind. The officer pointed out to us that although it appears that the clothing bin is full, because there were bags of clothes left outside it, actually there was space still inside it. Frustratingly, but understandably, people are reluctant to reach inside the bin to deposit their clothing, so they leave the bags alongside, then subsequent visitors assume the bin is full and leave their bags alongside as well. We agreed that we would trial clearing the site more regularly as a starting point.

Another problem with these kind of bins is that the way they are emptied means the whole bin is lifted up and tipped up, which scratches the bins badly, meaning that even quite new ones look old and neglected very quickly, which in turn adds to the ‘unloved’ feel.

We talked about how some funding was available to revamp recycling sites, and the officer was keen to try this one out first (a real advantage of having engaged residents and councillors –  I got the sense that the combined interest here had pushed it up his list). He and a colleague are looking into different bins, which have a housing around them which makes them look better and hides the scratches. We also agreed that some better signage would help, and Seyi made some great suggestions about communicating with and engaging local residents.

Although this location is on the western side of Leytonstone Road, so actually in Stratford and Newtown, we’ll follow this one up as it matters to our Maryland residents, and we’ll report back on any progress.

Planning

I’ve had some planning casework recently which has reminded me again about the importance of the planning consultation process and how we could do a bit better in the future to encourage resident feedback. In Maryland an application that had been previously approved, applied to change the materials on their application. These kind of post-application changes are quite common, but I know from planning committee that we keep a very close on eye on them as there is a tendency for developers to ‘value engineer’ their applications, which is to say that the first application goes through with high quality materials, then subsequent changes are applied for which would make the building cheaper but less attractive and more liable to deteriorate over time.

This amendment for a new building on Leytonstone Road was spotted by an eagle-eyed Maryland resident, who drafted a very comprehensive and measured objection, and shared this with the Maryland group. They then got organised and submitted around 16 objections between them, all argued on the same points. The Design Officer at Newham has also submitted his response, not supporting the changes. So I have my fingers crossed that the determination will uphold the original materials.

There has also been a bit of buzz from Maryland residents objecting to an application to demolish the Manbey Arms. This (as with the recycling bins) isn’t in Forest Gate North, but I’m keen to support Forest Gate North residents with their interests which of course aren’t restricted to within ward boundaries. As with so much else, sadly and realistically the issue here may well be one of money. The planning process can and should help to support local assets and community space, but the planning process cannot in and of itself refurbish a pub and create a business. That said, I have been told that there has been an application to make the pub an Asset of Community Value, which isn’t the whole answer but which can help. I know that the Forest Gate South councillors are aware of this and I know they’ll also do their best to help if they can.

Stadium

This would not be a complete report to the ward if I didn’t talk about the recent news of the loss of the Council’s investment into the Olympic stadium. I will do a separate blog post on this, to follow up on my first one when the impairment of the loan became public. There is so much to say here, but firstly I want to make it clear that I share residents’ shock and distress at the loss of so very much money, which especially painful in the context of cuts to the Council’s budget, and the homelessness and poverty facing so many of our residents.

I have seen the Mayor’s statement which details the benefits that he believes have come directly from the Council’s investment, and which you can read here:
https://www.newham.gov.uk/Pages/News/Newham-Council-agrees-future-ownership-and-legacy-benefits-of-London-Stadium.aspx

I have a number of questions about where we are now, which I’ll summarise rather than go into in detail.

  • If the loan is now written off, why was the message we all got so recently so vehement that the impairment was NOT a write-off? I was in fact told that if there was a write-off it would not be hidden in accounts, but would be subject to a separate Council decision. This is clearly not the case. I am very embarrassed to have assured residents that the impairment was not a write off, and I apologise for this, but can only say I did so in good faith.
  • Surely it is the case the benefits cited would have accrued to the Council if the stadium had been financed without us. I see the point that without the LBN investment, the stadium would have foundered, but I do need to see a bit more about the decision-making process to be certain that this is the case. I don’t necessarily disbelieve it, I just haven’t seen enough evidence thus far.
  • Were we clear with residents about the risks we were taking? I am particularly concerned about the previous messaging that this investment was ‘a sure thing’, ‘could not fail’ and was an excellent way to ensure future income. I entirely appreciate that, especially in the current climate, Councils must take brave financial decisions if we are to secure our future services. I believe Councils can and should take risks. But it’s absolutely vital that we’re open about the risks, and how we have balanced and weighed up the decision to take risks. The message that the stadium was a ‘certain bet’ is not only demonstrably untrue, but if we gave no public information about risk then that’s also very concerning.

Licensing

As I write this I have the whole of tomorrow blocked out in my diary for a licensing hearing at the Magistrates Court. Avid report readers (hello Mum) might remember that residents of Dames Road and the surrounding roads have suffered enormous and consistent disruption and noise from 39A Dames Road. The reports from there of excessive noise, ASB, littering and fly tipping, opening well beyond licensed hours, violence and police involvement, were really upsetting.

The noise and nuisance team and the licensing team at Newham have worked so hard to help, revoking the alcohol licence at a hearing, and even shutting the venue recently so that entry is barred to all but a small number of people. The venue is appealing against the licence revocation, and I will be interested tomorrow to see what case they present.

I am generally very supportive of local businesses, and believe a thriving night industry is really important to London. The residents are all clear that they’re not opposed to a business operating in this venue. But the way that this venue has been run has been to my mind beyond the pale, and I was especially surprised at the licensing hearing to hear the licensee first of all deny there was any problem at all, then go on to demonstrate no understanding at all of the legal responsibility of holding an alcohol licence. I hope to have a positive result to report back to the Dames Road residents tomorrow, who have been patient and polite and organised in the face of the constant disruption to their sleep and their lives.

Resurfacing

I have, to no avail as yet, been requesting information from the Highways team about the programme of works for resurfacing roads. Residents might have noticed the recent resurfacing of Maryland Square, Sebert Road, and Chestnut Avenue. I really want to get information about the future programme and to publish and help publicise this. I have been promised a display in each community neighbourhood (in our case, a display in the Gate library) but I’d also like an electronic timetable that we could all look at. I’ll keep asking and will post information as soon as I have it.

On a related note, I was a bit concerned about the finish and surface of Chestnut Avenue, and contacted officers to check that it was actually finished, especially after the road markings went on. I was told that it was finished, but was a different surface to, for example, the tarmac used on Sebert Road. The reason Chestnut Avenue looked to my eyes more shabby was that it has been ‘micro-asphalted’. Micro-asphalt goes down quite ‘loose and chippy’ to quote the officer, but over time the traffic on it will stabilise it and the appearance improves. I’m happy to report that although I greeted this with some scepticism, I do walk down there every day, and have noticed the finish on the road improving just as was described. I also noticed some pot holes forming, and have been assured this would be looked into and repaired asap. As ever, although it’s unglamorous, please do report pot holes via the Newham app – they can be really dangerous, especially for cyclists, and the more relevant information we have about road conditions, the better decisions we can make about prioritising works.

I have also asked for some time with the Mayor to talk about the opportunities we could take advantage of whilst resurfacing roads to adopt a ‘healthy streets’ approach where we also consider planting, shade, seating, traffic calming, cycle infrastructure, and more when we resurface a road. Not all of these things are appropriate in every location, but we should have a process for considering them which we do not have, in spite of my being assured at every point that ‘Keep Newham Moving’ would not just be about traffic but would be a way of making physical improvements across the borough. (If you’re interested in this kind of area, particularly in pedestrians and walking, then please check out Newham Living Streets on Facebook which I am jointly setting up in my personal capacity.) On December the 4th at Council Clive Furness gave a great speech about how achieving our public health aims will include taking some brave decisions to encourage walking and cycling, and I’m meeting him next week to discuss it and what we can do.

Parking

It would not be a ward report without information on parking! There are a couple of issues that have come up recently. One is the problems experienced by residents of car-free developments when the development is built prior to an RPZ coming in. For those not in the know (as in fact I wasn’t, previously), a car-free development is one where at the planning stage, developers concede that there is not space on the surrounding roads for the residents to park, so they agree that residents will be told that they are not permitted to have cars.

The problem with this development and with some others is that the residents say, convincingly, that this was not made clear to them when they moved in. In fact, they say that they were told ‘you can’t park in here, but just park on the surrounding roads’. Now that the RPZ has been brought in, they have cars that they have come to rely on, but literally nowhere to put them.

Speaking honestly, I do not think I can help them to get residents’ permits, as to do so would call into question the whole notion of car-free developments, something that has recently come into the news as Sadiq Khan has stated his support for them. Whole areas of Stratford, for example, are made up of car-free developments. Where denser flats are built, there is clearly not enough space for on-road parking, and to claim that there might be would be enormously difficult.

That said, there are some things we can do. I am going to ask where the nearest car club bays are, and see if we can install more. I’m also asking One Housing how they allocate the small number of spaces that are inside the development, which residents say are allocated but are often empty. I don’t think, as with so many questions on parking, that we’ll be able to find an answer that leaves everyone happy, but I hope I can alleviate things a little.

Community Call to Action

I was delighted to attend the Community Call to Action jointly organised by Seyi and the police in Sarah Bonnell school, and moved to see so very many people there, from across Newham, across different sectors, and from across the Labour party, to address one of the most important and distressing issues facing us at the moment: the safety of our young people. I was especially impressed by the genuinely collaborative and interactive discussion (not to mention happily geeked out over the software used to share everyone’s contributions) and I look forward to being part of the action plan when more information is available.

London National Park City

Forest Gate North was the very first ward in Newham to pledge our support for the London National Park City initiative, and last night in Council I was pleased to have the support of all my colleagues to my motion that all the other wards in Newham should sign up.

You can read more about the initiative here, but in essence it aims to apply National Park principles of education about nature, and making the most of green spaces, to a city environment. It is absolutely not about preventing the building of housing, but about recognising the value and benefit of being in nature in an urban environment, and ensuring Londoners can enjoy the green around them.

The campaign wants to get a majority of wards signed up, at which point it will declare London the world’s first National Park City. It aims to bring together grass roots organisations working on green issues, but also to create an umbrella body by raising funds from corporate giving (not from government). I’m delighted we’re signed up to show how vital green space is, and look forward to seeing what the London National Park City group does, and how we can support them in Newham.

The Magpie Project

Although physically based outside the ward, the Magpie Project feels to me very much like a Forest Gate North project, firmly rooted in temporary homes of some of our most vulnerable families as well as in our residents’ hearts. Along with other councillors (Dianne Walls for example has been especially involved, volunteering with them and helping to run it)  I have been a staunch supporter of the project from its inception, providing input and advice, helping to publicise them, putting them in touch with Council officers, setting up their website, and doing everything I can to help make them a success. I will keep on advocating for this vital work, and keep using my Council influence to do anything I can to make these women’s lives a little easier.

Resigning from the cabinet

I mentioned in my post asking for reselection that I have resigned from the Cabinet, but thought it right to put it into a ward report as well. I am very sorry to report to members that I felt I had to resign in September this year. I very much miss my Newham-wide role, and especially the officers and colleagues I was working with.  I still think it’s really important to try to make things work, to step up, to be ‘in the room’ and get involved even when that involves slowly building relationship and trust, and making compromises. I want to assure you all that I did my very best to make this happen, and worked as hard as I could. However, for various reasons I realised it wasn’t possible for me to carry on, and I had to step away.

And finally … #forestgaterocks

In the time honoured tradition of news readers ending on a lighthearted note, I thought I’d share that in a personal capacity I have set up an initiative called Forest Gate Rocks. Based on other stone and rock painting groups around the UK, the premise is a simple one: you decorate stones and write the hashtage #forestgaterocks on them, and hide them around Forest Gate. If you find one, you take a picture to share, and rehide it. This has been a huge hit with my children, who have become obsessed with finding painted stones, and I’m pleased to say it seems to be working, with a regular stream of pictures of happy children holding stones being posted on the Facebook group. If you are interested in a slightly silly and easy way of spreading a bit of joy, please join the group and join in. All welcome.

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