Hello to all those reading this, and I hope you’re all keeping well and safe. This is my latest ward report, which as ever I’ll begin by explaining that I write as a means of accountability to those Labour members in Forest Gate North ward who chose me as one of their councillor candidates for the Labour party, to stand for election. I also publish this report on my councillor blog (which is where you are now – hello!), so all residents of Forest Gate North, or indeed anyone else interested in the minutiae of what I do, can read it.
I wanted to start with some Covid information. I’m signed up as a Health Champion, and would heartily recommend that anyone else interested in receiving and sharing up to date, evidence-based information in easy to digest and simple bite size pieces should also consider doing so.
The most recent information on the virus in Newham is encouraging: numbers are falling which shows that the efforts everyone is making are working. But sadly we can’t relax any of our precautions: numbers are going down, but started at an extremely high level. This means yet more staying at home, hand washing, keeping our distance, and all the other things we’re doing to help keep those around us safe.
Vaccination continues apace: all over 80s should now have been contacted and invited for a vaccine, and over 70s should have started to be invited last week, along with people who are extremely clinically vulnerable. If you are invited for a vaccination, please do take this up. There is lots of information about the vaccine available (as well as lots of misinformation, sadly). Newham is also recruiting vaccine peer supporters who can help talk to people about getting vaccinated and allay any concerns they have.
Low traffic neighbourhood
I am pleased to say that the feedback about this is increasingly good although it’s still a topic that raises strong feelings. I even got an email from someone who said they had been concerned initially, but were now feeling more positive having seen the impact at first hand.
The enforcement cameras have now been installed, which is great news – not because of issuing tickets, but because the past few months have shown that although clear signage showing a road is closed to cars does reduce the flow of vehicles substantially, actually only a physical barrier or a fine will stop cars from ignoring the restriction and ‘just nipping through’. I was particularly pleased to see the cameras installed at the Odessa Road filter, where one resident was concerned that a reduced number of vehicles was resulting in more speeding and making the road less safe, and also at Wooder Gardens, where the number of cars going through this tiny road actually went up after the restrictions went in (albeit from a very low base).
Having seen the results of the closure of Browning Road Bridge (also very controversial and passionately argued when it was first installed), which have been so beneficial that the closure has been made permanent, it is now going to be interesting to see accumulated data from the impact of the LTN when it is available. There are several sources of information from which we can assess impact: the comments left on the commonplace online platform, vehicle counts from the roads inside and bordering the LTN, air quality data from the monitors, as well as feedback from emergency services and others. I’ll be sharing and publicising any information we have – no matter what it shows! – so please do keep an eye on my social media and my blog.
LTN Extension into ‘Sidney triangle’
I was also pleased that the area bounded by Dames Road, Sidney Road and Centre Road, which had originally been left out of the LTN because of a bus stand which we needed to liaise with TFL about, was added to the Low Traffic Neighbourhood recently. I was contacted by various residents of these roads who were all keen that their roads, too, should have through traffic removed from them. There is a downside to this part of the LTN, though, which is that there is still no right hand turn if you are travelling by car south down Centre Road and want to get to Dames Road. Effectively, if you want to travel west from here you need to either go down to Forest Lane, or go up via Lakehouse Road.
The LTN team did have a look at this before the closures were put in. Although not ideal, the detour via Lakehouse Road is actually only a few minutes extra on a car journey. This junction is TFL controlled, and Highways at Newham have already been in touch with TFL to start the process of assessing whether the right hand turn can go back into this junction. I’ve also dropped a line to various contacts I have, including Unmesh Desai who is our GLA member for East London, to see if there is anything that can be done to help this process to run smoothly.
Enforcement day of action
The Enforcement team, as part of restructuring how they work, have started to do focussed ‘days of action’ in particular wards, and they were in Forest Gate North and South last week. I had hoped to accompany them for at least part of it, but sadly the demands of home schooling got on top of me, so I settled instead for emailing them a list of some of the problematic sites across the ward that might benefit from some attention, and seeing the results afterwards.
The results I’ve had back are a summary of the work done, which included visiting businesses where people weren’t wearing masks, giving Fixed Penalty Notices for fly tipping, checking licences for things like skips, carrying waste, and scaffolding, patrolling tower blocks, and much more. I’ve asked both the officer in charge and also James Beckles who is the cabinet lead for Enforcement how we can find out more about the site-specific problem-solving that the officers have done, as I know from experience that this is the longer-term action that will help to stop the problems resident report at the source.
The details of the casework I get are, as ever, for the most part confidential. But there has been a variety of different topics that I’ve been helping residents out with, including disputes with a housing association, planning queries, housing concerns, a concern about how special educational needs could be met at school, and much more.
I am often tagged on social media, or receive DMs when people are having difficulty with something and need help, and I try as much as I can to reply and to follow these up. But I always ask if people have something that they need a reply to, please email me on my Council email address to make sure I see it and can ask the right people. I don’t always see tags or DMs, and don’t have a robust system for following them up like I do with my emails. We have a new casework management system for councillors which so far seems very promising and should help me to keep more on top of what is coming in and out, and where I either need to chase or have fallen behind.
On this topic, without wanting to throw a pity party when so many people are enduring real hardship, things are very busy at home at the moment whilst my three girls are all home learning, and all the normal arrangements which allow me some time to focus on my councillor work aren’t in place. So if I take longer to reply to you than I normally would, or if I’m not able to take the time to call, then please bear with me and accept my apologies.
This subject has been extremely controversial, and I’m sure anyone who is active on social media or reads local news will have seen that Newham has introduced a charge for the first residential parking permit for the first time, and these charges are emissions based.
I strongly feel that charging for parking permits may be difficult, but it’s the right thing to do, and I’ve outlined my thoughts on this at length in a blog post which is here.
I personally think that the new charges may not go far enough: I think that there should be at least an administration charge for electric vehicles, and I also wonder if there should be a limit on the total number of vehicles allowed per household. But I can see that, as ever, any change or proposal around cars and parking is particularly emotive, and raises especially strong reactions.
I have in common with all councillors received a large number of emails from people protesting about the new system of charging, and have tried to respond to those that were from people in Forest Gate North, but haven’t attempted to reply to all those that were sent to every councillor. We have now agreed a 40% reduction in the charges for the first year (those who have paid already will have a proportion refunded) which will help a little with the financial pressure for those people who are on a low income, but – importantly – will still introduce the charge which cements into our processes the idea that people who don’t have a car should not subsidise those who do, that space on the public highway used to store personal property should incur a fee, and that those with the most polluting vehicles should pay more.
Grants for local small businesses
I would like to encourage anyone who owns a business in Forest Gate, or knows someone who does, to make sure that they are in touch with the recently renamed ‘Our Newham Business and Enterprise’. They send out regular updates to all the businesses they have contact details for, which include useful information about business rates, seminars and information, as well as the all-important details about the government grants for businesses affected by lockdown. Their contact details are: 020 3373 7373 or firstname.lastname@example.org Various rounds of the grants available have gone out but the next phase is due to open next week.
In general from talking to local businesses, the system for assessing grant applications and distributing funds has gone extremely smoothly. I have advocated on behalf of a couple of businesses where an admin error has held things up, but these have been resolved really quickly which is good to see.
Needless to say that it’s always a good time to support local businesses which contribute so much to our area, but perhaps never a better time than now when so many of them are struggling. If you can’t make purchases, as many of us can’t right now, then it’s also helpful to like, share and comment on the social media posts of local businesses, as this helps to get them more attention, and more customers.
Eat for Free
After realising that the budget called into question the viability of Newham’s pioneering Eat For Free work, it was with mixed feelings that I greeted a request to join a working group to look at this topic. Obviously I was pleased to be asked to contribute, but also worried as I didn’t want to end up being part of dismantling something that I’ve always been so proud that Newham does. (For anyone new to Eat For Free, basically Newham Council pays for free school lunches for all primary school aged children. This means no means testing and no stigma, and an extremely high uptake of hot school lunches in all our primary schools. The benefits of this are manifold, but of course at a most basic level this ensures that every child at primary school in Newham gets at least one hot meal a day. In a borough with such high levels of poverty, this is really important.)
So I joined the group with a little trepidation. I was worried that despite the identified saving in the budget, we weren’t ready to consult on charging for school meals because we didn’t really have detailed information to hand about what the impact might be. To a certain extent this is normal – measuring impact is notoriously complicated. But we discussed some of the key groups who would be affected by some of the proposals for charging, including children who go to school in Newham but live outside Newham, and particularly families with primary school children at key stage 2 who do not qualify for government funded free school meals. I was also concerned about how the logistics would work of asking schools to charge families – the infrastructure that would be required to accept payments, and the difficulties and the ethics of pursuing bad debts all struck me as very difficult and a hard ask for schools that are already under so much pressure with online learning.
I was therefore really pleased that after some discussion in the working group about the importance of free school meals, the Mayor and cabinet made the decision to keep this scheme. I have written above about charging for residential parking permits, and of course charging for anything – particularly at a time like this – is really difficult, but I do feel more comfortable with a universal subsidy of food for school children than I would with retaining a subsidy for residents who have cars. We have held a consultation about Eat for Free and also commissioned some focus groups which have provided some really valuable insight about teachers, parents and others’ views on Eat for Free, and their experiences of it.
The working group that was examining Eat for Free is now going to look at Food Poverty more broadly across Newham, and I’m going to continue sitting on it and will report back further.
I have joined a London-wide group interested in creating more ‘parklets’. A parklet is a mini-park or space for people that uses a parking space to create some public space. We don’t currently have any in Newham but there is one outside the Wanstead Tap, which is just inside the Waltham Forest border, on Winchelsea Road. In happier times, this parklet means that people can sit outside and enjoy a drink from the Tap, using the seating and enjoying the planting there.
As with play streets, quite apart from the pleasure they can bring, the main reason that this appeals to me is because it encourages us to look critically at the amount of public space dedicated to cars, and to really think about how space is used. As with so many things, the time I can dedicate to this is rather limited, but I will do my best. Although creating parklets might not be top of anyone’s list right now, have always passionately believed that we may be a deprived borough, but we should still always be ambitious in terms of our spaces, and that the people of Newham deserve safe streets, high quality green spaces, and other improvements just as much if not more than other areas of London with a different demographic.
Anti-Semitism and anti-racism working group
I was also pleased to be asked to be part of the Labour Group Anti-Semitism and Anti-Racism working group, though saddened that such a group is necessary. I think that in many aspects of working against discrimination we have been really strong in Newham, but there is an obvious need for improvement here, and I am looking forward to being part of this.
Although I couldn’t attend what I understand was a particularly moving virtual Holocaust Memorial day service last week, I did light a candle and share it as part of the ‘lighting the darkness’ campaign, to remember those who were killed and resolve that it should never happen again.
End of recycling trial
The recycling trial that I have written about before has now come to an end. Proposals about borough-wide changes to improve our recycling service are expected in May. This is a topic that many residents feel really passionately about, and many people contact me to ask why we can’t recycle a wider range of materials, and why our collections are only two-weekly. Despite all the additional financial pressures that have come from the pandemic, I am hopeful that we can make some changes and improvements here, and also hopeful that in a world where interaction is possible again, we might be able to harness the knowledge and enthusiasm of residents to help promote any changes, and to reduce our recycling contamination rate as well.
Meeting with We Are Possible
Before lockdown 3.0 I had an online meeting and then a socially distanced walk around the ward with Carolyn from an organisation called We Are Possible. She was keen to reach out and make contact with councillors as part of her organisation’s work to promote a medium-term vision of London free from car dependency. She wanted to understand a bit more about the ward, and the borough, and to find where there might be space to work with residents and other groups on projects that could improve public spaces. As with so much else, Covid has rather paused this, but we had a very positive discussion about some of the unused spaces in the ward, and how they could be made greener, more pleasant and better used.
After meeting with the Tree Officer at Newham (a role that was vacant for a long time) I am particularly interested in how unused green bits of housing land might be planted with trees. There is some community gardening across Forest Gate which is planted and maintained by residents, and I am always conscious that local people have finite time and resources to take on more, so the idea of planting trees which are very low maintenance is appealing!
Newham Lockdown Window Art
Finally, a mention of something that I’m essentially doing in my personal capacity, but which ward members might enjoy. Michael Nash, a Newham artist, has organised the Newham Lockdown Window Art: a socially distanced display of some of the artistic talent in our borough. From February the 4th – March 3rd we can all enjoy art up in the windows of the houses of participating artists.
You can follow Newham Lockdown Window Art on Instagram @newhamlockdownwindowart or twitter @lbnlockdownart . There are over 30 participants, with a good number of artists from Forest Gate taking part.
Ok that’s more than enough from me. Take care all, stay at home if you can, and keep well. And if you need me, please drop me an email on Rachel.email@example.com