Saturday, 28 September 2013

Hollowing-Out Democracy in Willesden Green

Demolition of Willesden Green Library & Bookshop (Thanks to Willesden Herald)

I've lived in Willesden Green for over a decade and, in the inevitable ups and downs of  any neighbourhood's public life, the last two years have marked a new low. This is partly due to the Coalition Government's callous and vindictive cuts to local authority budgets. But the asset-stripping of our community was planned before austerity set in, and it's been orchestrated by the Labour-controlled Local Authority, with the support of our ward's Lib-Dem councillors.

The gutted shell of the Victorian Library building, and the heap of  rubble that once was our Library centre are perfect symbols of  how local democracy has been hollowed out in Willesden Green. Thousands of local residents raised objections to the Library redevelopment and over 80 per cent of those consulted opposed the plans. Despite this, the Council steamrolled ahead with the project, while our ward councillors cheered them on. We have now lost  valuable open space, a cinema and a bookshop while the Council has gained new offices and sold public land to developers who are due to cash on the sale of 92 luxury flats marketed to wealthy speculators. Similar plans are underway for Electric House and the Queensbury pub on Walm Lane. Only a privileged minority will  benefit from these developments. The prospect of yet more absentee landlords will do little to revitalise our High Street or democratise our local housing  market.

But it's not just the lack of transparency and accountability in these property deals that is undemocratic. Democracy is also, fundamentally, about equalising people's life chances, and education is clearly central to this aspiration. Gladstone Park Primary - a highly-valued local authority school that has for decades been successfully educating our rich mix of children  - was targeted for forced academisation in January. Instead of defending this precious local asset, Council officers have been complicit in the privatisation of the school, leaving  parents and governors to their own devices as we fight to keep our school under public and democratic control.

 By demolishing our libraries, producing new gated communities with no affordable homes, facilitating the privatisation of our schools; in threatening to close a community pub like the Queensbury and evicting the only independent bookshop in our area, the Labour Council is drastically narrowing access to public spaces, services and amenities. It is effectively shrinking ordinary people's quality of life across our neighbourhood, and that is deeply undemocratic.

As local residents, we can respond to this predicament in at least two ways. We can elect  new councillors who will radically address the democratic deficit in our borough and beyond. The Greens are the only local party to have consistently supported grassroots campaigns for democracy in our neighbourhood. We can also make Willesden Green more democratic ourselves, by continuing to mobilise as citizens for social rights, political accountability and public goods in our vicinity. There is still a silver lining in the dust cloud hanging over Willesden Green: the sense of community and public-spiritedness that has emerged in recent local campaigns. I very much hope we'll keep that collective spirit alive and make it fight for our neighbourhood in the coming months.

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