Ward report September 2020

Hello Forest Gate Northers! After a bit of a hiatus, I’m publishing another councillor report. These are reports which are officially made to the Forest Gate North ward of the local Labour party. Local Labour members are the people who selected me, Sasha and Anam to run for election, so I report back to them about what I’m doing.

I also publish these reports on my councillor blog (which may be where you’re reading it now) for any resident who wants to know more about what the person they voted for – or didn’t, of course – is doing for the local area.

Covid

Firstly I wanted to share the most recent Newham ‘Covid dashboard’. This really helpful overview of how things are in Newham is being produced once a week, and I am sharing it on social media. The ‘What does it mean?’ section from our Director of Public Health is particularly useful, pointing out that although there isn’t a large increase in cases, the numbers are almost certainly reduced by the fact that people cannot access tests.For more detailed information please do check the Council’s website, but in the meantime we all need to stay safe: keep our distance, work from home if we can, wear a mask, wash our hands, and protect each other.

We have been trialling the NHS Test and Trace app in Newham, providing feedback to the Department of Health about how it could be improved. You can read all about the app in this blog post here: https://forestgatenorth.com/2020/08/20/nhs-tracing-app-in-newham/


I also went out visiting shops and businesses on the Romford Road with Ian from the Gate library, encouraging them to download their own QR code so that customers can ‘check in’ with their app.


This wasn’t entirely successful – we didn’t find a single QR code displayed in any of the businesses! Feedback included people who planned to download and display their code but hadn’t, people who clearly had no plans to download it but were nodding in the hopes that I would go away, some people who were suspicious of the app and concerned about the safety of their information, and several businesses concerned about the impact of being asked to isolate for 14 days. All this has been passed back, through our public health team, to help with the further development and improvement of the app and the communications with it.

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs)

This is probably the biggest piece of work I am currently involved in, and I should say up front that I realise this topic can be divisive, and it’s one that people have strong feelings on. It’s also the single biggest and most positive change that I think we can make quickly, for our local area, and I’m delighted to see the benefits of quieter roads becoming obvious already.

You can read my introduction to what an LTN is in my blog post here:
https://forestgatenorth.com/2020/06/25/all-about-low-traffic-neighbourhoods/
That post is all about the principle of reducing through-traffic, what that normally looks like in practice, and what the benefits are.
And you can read about the introduction of our LTN in another blog post here:
https://forestgatenorth.com/2020/08/19/our-first-low-traffic-neighbourhood/
That post is more specifically about the LTN that stretches from Woodgrange Road to Stratford, about where is covered, about implementation, and starts to cover some frequently asked questions about, for example, traffic displacement and emergency services access.

Where we are now is that the LTN has been entirely installed, and we are all adapting to it. Some changes are being made in response to comments: most recently some bollards are being added to the pavements around some of the filters to stop the small number of very determined cars who have ignored the signs and the planters and mounted the footway to continue their journey!

My initial reports from residents nearby are entirely split between a small number of people who want them removed immediately, and another group of people who are incredibly positive about the impact they are already having. Some people are genuinely concerned about emergency services access, which I do tackle in my blog posts, but to summarise: all emergency services are consulted at an early stage of the design. The main reason why some of the filters are physical (planters right across the road) and some are camera-enforced (planters but with a gap for a vehicle to pass through) is because of feedback from the police, fire service or ambulance service.

I’ll be writing more blog posts on this topic, especially as we move into the implementation of the next local schemes, around Manbey Grove, the Woodgrange Estate, and Forest Gate North East (anyone saying ‘the village’ will be subject to a penalty and forced to come up with a better name ).

I’ve been passionate about the idea of reducing traffic in Forest Gate and indeed in Newham for several years. Some use of vehicles is a vital party of our city life, especially for disabled people who may rely on adapted vehicles to get around, but there is an absolute environmental imperative that those of us who can, change our behaviour, and using private cars less is a vital part of that. LTNs form a vital part of the jigsaw. We need to put them in place, and in parallel to that continue with the work outlined in the Newham Air Quality Action Plan: https://www.newham.gov.uk/downloads/file/166/air-quality-action-plan and the Newham Climate Now work: https://www.newham.gov.uk/NewhamClimateNow

Noise nuisance
I have had several ongoing complaints about noise nuisance, which became considerably more tricky to manage during lockdown when not only was everyone at home more, and often trying to work from home, but also the noise nuisance service was unable to visit residents’ homes so was effectively suspended for a period.

One of the main offenders was some railway arches that were squatted, and which before lockdown had become the site for regular ‘parties’, and in fact appeared to be operating as a de facto nightclub at the weekends. When I first heard about this, I quickly contacted various people and departments hoping that I could get some information sharing and a quick resolution. I dropped a line to my contacts in the local police Safer Neighbourhood Team, Noise Nuisance, Licensing, and also the Arches Company who manage the arches and their leases. Once lockdown began I tried to put the Arches Company in touch with the team at Newham helping homeless people, too. I have to say that this quickly became rather thorny, exacerbated by a number of issues which included the legal complexities of evicting the people from the arch, the difficulty of getting the Arches Company to get back to me consistently (at one point in despair, after getting no answers for weeks I resorted to twitter), and then of course lockdown.

The local residents have really suffered with significant noise, ASB, some reported threatening behaviour, and of course worrying about the wellbeing of people living in arches with no facilities.

After all of this, it was good news to finally hear back from the Arches Company that they had got the legal order required, had evicted the people squatting there, had secured the arches, and were inspecting them regularly. They are also marketing them to let, and I’ve asked them to ensure that they engage with responsible tenants who can run businesses in a residential area.

A slightly more surreal, but no less disturbing for the residents, piece of casework has been one of the cockerels which are living on the western side of the ward. Having been backwards and forwards about the complaints from neighbours who are woken and disturbed every day by what appears to be a large number of cockerels kept in a private garden, I’ve spoken to a senior officer about this case as we need to be sure of animal welfare, quite apart from anything else.

Boundary review
The Local Government Boundary Commission has reported back, and in a surprise move, rather than giving its final recommendations has begun a further round of consultation, looking at the configuration of wards in the borough. The affected proposed wards are Forest Gate North, Forest Gate South, Maryland (a proposed new ward), Forest Gate Green Street (a proposed new ward replacing Green Street West), Green Street East, Little Ilford, Manor Park, and Plashet (a proposed new ward).

You can read a summary of this on Newham’s website here:
https://www.newham.gov.uk/news/article/504/further-consultation-announced-by-the-boundary-commission-over-newham-council-ward-boundaries

Another controversial topic! I know there has been some debate about ward names, ward boundaries, about the existence of some proposed wards at all. Personally, I don’t feel as strongly about this as some people do. Boundaries have to go somewhere, and some of those boundaries will be natural ones that feel ‘right’ to some people, but in a place like London you’ll never really be able to draw electoral lines that exactly reflect the places where people feel that they live and belong. That said, I did feel that the previous iteration of this map had the Forest Gate North boundary too far east, so seeing it proposed to move further west strikes me as a good thing.

I am not at all sure about 2 councillor wards, knowing as I do from first-hand how a team of three can spread out the workload, and can flex and take account of periods of leave, of ill health, of family responsibilities and more.

Anyone who has a view on the latest stage of this consultation should make sure that they send their views in to the Boundary Commission, an independent organisation who make the final decision. The website to do that is here: https://www.lgbce.org.uk/all-reviews/greater-london/greater-london/newham

Healthy school streets

I was so pleased to see that the Healthy School Streets closures are back up and running with the new term, supporting parents and children to walk, cycle, or scoot to school safely, and even more important now that we need to use the space to social distance.
Having appointed myself as unofficial cheerleader for timed school street closures in Newham, I was also really delighted to hear that we have more school streets rolling out across the borough: more information to come. It has been very interesting to see that what started as a slightly unusual and even controversial idea is now much more widespread. We have led the way for Newham here in Forest Gate and I’m hugely grateful for the schools, parents and local community who have been so very supportive in making this happen.

Our neighbours Hackney announced 40 school streets, Waltham Forest are announcing more just this week as I write, and it seems clear to me that in the future closed roads around schools will become the expectation, with any roads near schools that have to remain open an exception.

Planning

When almost everything seemed to suddenly stop in March, planning was one of the first functions to pick back up, and start operating remotely. So I’ve been continuing to sit on planning committee meetings, albeit from my bedroom rather than from the Town Hall. This means of course that if you are really keen you can watch along, as the planning meetings are now broadcast live on Facebook… though I understand this is a level of commitment and interest not everyone has!

I have now been sitting on planning for six years, and am more and more interested in how this legal process shapes the place we live, and how we can use it better. As an elected councillor I’m very aware that there are officers in this field who have literally spent years studying different aspects of it, and the challenge as a lay person is to make the democratically accountable bit of that process work, holding people to account whilst not charging in like a rhinoceros all over months of work and shouting ignorant things (though I’m sure I have unwittingly done that too).

I very often ask questions about active travel: about how developments can design in walking and cycling, also about green spaces, and how we can make developments greener both in terms of spaces for residents to enjoy but also for biodiversity and to reduce flood risk. I was very interested to attend some training last year about new standards for biodiversity and greening in planning, and I know this is something Forest Gate residents are also very keen on, and which I feel it’s my role to represent and promote. I am no expert but I always want to know more about design, and about good not just ‘acceptable’ design, and how the layout and design of buildings, particularly at ground floor level, can make liveable and attractive spaces for people. Of course we are all also jointly, as committee members, constantly questioning developers on the homes they are building: in terms of the number of social rented units, where those units are placed within larger developments, how many family units, whether those are suitable for larger families, and more.

There are currently changes planned by the Tory government to the legislation that governs planning. Officers are going through this in detail, and putting together points for us to discuss, but it’s hard to view what is being proposed with anything other than a deep sense of misgiving. I’ll come back to this topic.

Finally, I thought it was worth reiterating that one of the downsides of sitting on Strategic Development is the legal necessity to approach meetings with ‘an open mind’. Meaning that in order to do this role properly, I need to make sure I haven’t taken a position about something before the meeting begins and all the evidence is assembled. This is actually quite sensible, and should lead to good decision making. In practice it means I do have to be a bit mealy-mouthed about some developments, including those which might be controversial. You can read about, for example, where this leaves me on the MSG sphere in my old blog post here:
https://forestgatenorth.com/2019/06/03/the-msg-sphere-planning-application/
From a practical perspective, if you have an opinion on a large planning development and are looking for local councillor support, please do contact Sasha and Anam who can help you with this as they are not constrained in this way. On smaller applications, which don’t go to Strategic Development but to a different committee, I can and do help any way I can.

Thorogood Gardens
I popped into Thorogood Gardens very briefly recently, where local residents were holding a planting and weeding session. Thorogood Gardens will always have a special place in my heart after the work that Seyi and I did to create a garden space out of a disused green area, create a play space, and more to help spruce up an area that had felt rather abandoned. To read about that project, take a look here: https://forestgatenorth.com/2017/11/21/thorogood-gardens-update/

The green space that Seyi and I created is now thriving, carefully tended by local resident Derek, and now freshly planted with tonnes of bulbs for the spring by the Maryland Community Group. There have been problems here with ASB and littering, and Derek could certainly use some more regular help with the gardening, but overall a real change has been made here, and I’m really proud to have been part of it.

Greening
Talking of greening, I have been a bit involved with the latter part of the work of the ‘greening’ group that came out of the Forest Gate Citizens’ Assembly. This group, made up of local residents, was behind the ‘Bloomin’ Forest Gate’ festival that should have taken place in March. But they have also done other bits of work, and most recently we were looking at the planters outside Bereket, near Wanstead Park station.

These planters were put there at my suggestion, to help with a perennial problem of cars parking on the pavement there. They were temporarily removed as part of the ‘Streetspace’ works, to make room for social distancing, but were put back after I suggested that without the planters, we get cars parked there, leaving less room for pedestrians not more!

They had been planted up by volunteers, but apparently the planters were partly full of sand which was contributing to the plants not doing very well. So a group of residents made a plan: they collected the plants, the council emptied the planters and filled them with soil, then the greening group came back and planted them up.

We discussed having some signs in them to let people know that they are community planters and need caring for, and I volunteered my painting skills and painted some signs. There is an ongoing problem here with people using the planters as unofficial benches, congregating there to drink and make noise, and leaving litter behind. You will see if you go past that there have been some experimental efforts at deterring sitting on them: little wooden ‘triangles’ attached and some railings too. We’ll keep on trying – sadly a ‘fairy garden’ in one of the planters was quickly stolen, and some of the plants went missing this week too. Greening and improvements in busy, densely populated areas will always be a case of trial and error, so we will keep going, and keep trying, undaunted.

Recycling trial
I was genuinely thrilled to find that several Forest Gate North streets are included in a recycling trial that Newham is running. I am regularly contacted by residents who are dismayed, as I am, by the small range of materials that we are able to recycle in our orange bins. The topic of recycling probably deserves a whole separate post, but to summarise the main factors restricting, say, recycling glass, include a long and very unhelpful contract for the disposal of waste, money (of course) and also our very high level of recycling contamination.

During this trial, certain streets will be able to recycle a larger range of materials, including glass bottles and jars (hallelujah!), plastic tubs, pots, trays, aerosols and foil paper. We’re also trialling a new approach with these streets where people who put the wrong materials in their bins will receive a postcard through the door reminding them what can be recycled. If the materials are contaminated again then the recycling may not be collected.

This kind of approach, though common elsewhere, is completely new for us in Newham, and I’m really pleased that we’re trying it out in a planned way so that we can see what the impact is. Trying to improve how we all dispose of rubbish is a thorny problem that I’ve spent more time puzzling over than I care to think of, and this trial seems a very helpful way of trying to identify some ways forward, as well as looking at any unintended consequences.

For more information about the trial, see this page of the Newham website:
https://www.newham.gov.uk/rubbish-recycling-waste/waste-service-trial/1

Fly tipping


Talking of disposing of rubbish, the fly tipping trial continues, and you can watch a video about this work here:
https://youtu.be/eUeVUk0Q19E
When I was cabinet lead for Environment and Highways, I helped to start off this piece of work, where we brought together residents, facilitated by Keep Britain Tidy, to think about the issue of fly tipping and what might help to reduce it. The initial experiments residents suggested have been trialled across the borough, and we’re now rolling out the most successful ones more widely.

Just to prove what I said above about this being a thorny issue, there is a stencil saying ‘no dumping’ on the marketplace … very near a seemingly permanent pile of bags and rubbish. The struggle continues!

Shape Newham and the High Streets project
A couple of very positive projects are going on that I hope will also have a real impact on our streets and our physical environment. Shape Newham is a project to improve public spaces through projects chosen deliberatively by groups of residents: combining resident involvement and physical improvements to our environment, it really represents Rokhsana’s manifesto from the last election. You can read about the project on its website here: https://shapenewham.co.uk/

The project that will be happening, I believe quite soon, in the ward is a mural on the Youth Zone, designed in partnership with young people. I will publicise this when it starts to be installed.

I also recently attended a briefing on a new piece of work being started by the Regeneration team looking at high streets. I know that a large number of residents are really passionate about our high streets, and also are brimming with ideas for how they could be improved, so am really looking forward to sharing more information about this. In the past, our physical regeneration work in Newham has been very focussed on areas of intensive new development (the docks, the Olympic village, Canning Town) so it’s great to see attention being paid to what can be done to improve our existing high streets, and the businesses there.

Virtual surgeries

I have run a couple of ‘virtual surgeries’, at the normal surgery time of 10.30am on a Saturday. I’ve offered that if someone contacts me with their preferred virtual method of communication (Zoom, Skype, Facetime, whatsapp video or even just the phone) I can make them an appointment. No one has taken me up on this thus far, and in fairness I think for most people needing some help, it’s easier to write an email than it is to arrange a virtual face to face. I’ll keep offering though, partly just to remind residents that councillors are there and also as a way of keeping up my surgery commitment.

This also feels like a good time, after a period with lots of local discussion on social media, to say again that I always aim to reply to social media tags on Facebook and on twitter, but this isn’t the most reliable way of contacting me. Sometimes my mentions are fast-moving and things get lost. Sometimes I’m doing family stuff, or even have decided to take a short digital break! I do my very best to reply to everyone but a backbench councillor role is a part-time one, which I know not everyone is aware of.

If you need to make sure that I see something and want a considered reply, please email me!

I hope this has been a useful insight into some of the work going on locally in these strange times.

Do take care, all, and stay safe.

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