Thursday, 23 October 2014

More Communication Problems at the Willesden Green Cultural Centre

Last month we blogged about the rumours that there would be no Customer Services (previously known as the One Stop Shop) at the new Willesden Green Cultural Centre and that, despite several enquiries from both Make Willesden Green and from individual residents, there was little knowledge of the plans from our councillors although they did promise to keep people informed if, or when, they found out more.

Having not heard anything further we were surprised to see the issue on the agenda at Brent Cabinet last week, hidden within a long document on Community Access Strategy. Two local residents spoke at the Cabinet meeting and raised several queries and objections but the document was approved unamended. There were no representations from any local councillors at the meeting.

The document presented a case to say that, since more residents were using the online service rather than seeking face-to-face contact, there was no longer a need for a dedicated Customer Services space within the Cultural Centre. Instead, self service computers and telephones with a direct line to the Wembley Civic Centre would be placed in the library and a weekly "by appointment only” surgery would be held (in an unspecified space within the Cultural Centre) for those who could not travel to the Wembley Civic Centre. 

The (approx 210sqm) space on the first floor that was to have housed Customer Services is now subject to a “local dialogue” about its alternative use but that use, says the council, will need to be both "of public benefit” and “income-generating”.

It’s a great shame that while the strategy document contains some positive proposals to improve the quality of the council’s online service to residents it seems to have come at a high cost, both to those who are unable to use that mode of communication and to library users who will see their facility further reduced.

Some of the points raised by residents at the meeting were:
  • a significant proportion of people still do not have online access, they are most likely to be poorer, elderly, disabled and more vulnerable residents. These are the very people who have complex needs that need to be dealt with face-to-face, rather than via a self-service computer or on the phone.
  • the majority of the council’s high need residents live in the south of the borough.
  • the housing of the Customer Services self-service computers and telephones within the library will represent a further reduction in the actual library facility – library users will be jostling for space with self-service customers and librarians will be expected to facilitate both sets of users.
  • the redevelopment of the library site was “sold” to residents on the basis that the old building couldn’t house an enlarged Customer Services facility, yet we are now going to end up with less than we started with.
  • there has been no consultation with local residents on what they feel their needs are relating to Customer Services provision.
  • how will the "alternative use" of the space be determined? Is there a contradiction between the need for it to be both “of public benefit’ and “income-generating”? Will the “local dialogue” be nothing more than giving us a choice between a Costa and a Starbucks?
Despite these concerns the proposals were nodded through. The broken promise that the Cultural Centre will mirror services at the Wembley Civic Centre  leaves us yet again feeling like the south of Brent is the poor relation of Wembley and that we are subject to a two tier service when it comes to council provision.

Having made this decision without any reference to residents views, Brent Council is hosting a meeting next week, the agenda is to include:
  • An update on progress with the building and services
  • A presentation from the building designers and a chance to take part in design workshops for the interior
  • A chance to give your views on how the community can be involved and put this building at the centre of life in Willesden
Monday 27 October 2014  6:30-8:30pm
St Andrews Parish Centre, 2 St Andrews Road, NW10 2QS

All residents are invited to attend and we encourage you to do so.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Willesden Green Cultural Centre - Lots of Questions, Few Answers

At the Willesden Green Town Team meeting on 1 September residents were shocked to learn from a Brent Council officer that a decision had been made to scrap the enlarged One Stop Shop (now known as Customer Services) at the Willesden Green Cultural Centre (WGCC), and instead let the space for commercial use.

The implication was that this would not be a commercial retail let to a bookshop or café but would instead be commercial offices in a similar vein to the current proposal to let 2 floors of the Wembley Civic Centre to Air France, which is currently under consideration.

Many residents will remember that the council’s original rationale for the building of the Cultural Centre included:
4.6 The Council is currently driven by the overarching concept of One Council. This aims to provide excellent public services and deliver these in the most efficient way but also to build strong relationships and better communications between the Council and citizens ensuring local priorities are addressed and that local potential is nurtured. A redeveloped WGLC will play an important role in this strategy supporting both the One Council Library Transformation Project and the One Council Future Customer Service Project. 
4.8 The Future Customer Service Project aims to improve efficiency and clarity of the services offered to citizens. The strategy is dependent on developing a new customer contact centre at WGLC providing a service for the south of the borough, an area where many of the Councils high need customers reside. 
Report adopted by the Brent Executive on 16 January 2012

So to hear that yet another public facility (arguably the only part of the new Cultural Centre that represented an improvement for local residents) was being stripped from the new building was concerning, meaning a further reduction in community assets.

Both MWG and individual residents contacted some of our councillors and met with varying responses.
An enquiry on Twitter received an aggressive and unhelpful reply from Willesden Green ward councillor Tom Miller. 

A full week later Cllr Miller was still none the wiser about what was actually happening but was at least a little more considered.

An email inquiry to Cllr James Denselow, the Cabinet Member for Stronger Communities asked the same question and got a vague response:

“We're still gathering this together and seeing what the exact customer services offer will be run from the library - will be in touch shortly”

Other residents have had responses from both officers and councillors saying no decision has yet been made – and the council’s entire Customer Services programme is subject to a review which will report back in October – a response which flatly contradicts the council officer’s very definite statement at the Town Team meeting and leaves residents in a state of confusion, fearful yet again, that backroom deals to reduce public assets are being done behind our backs with no transparency or accountability. If indeed there is a proposal to reduce the physical Customer Services space (perhaps as a result of more transactions being done online) then the additional space can be well utilised by the community in this part of Brent, rather than commercial offices that offer no benefit to residents at all.

We note also that any attempt to change the Customer Services area to commercial offices should require an amendment to the original planning application for Change of Use to be discussed by the Planning Committee.

Meanwhile, after a reasonably amicable meeting in July, two months on we are still waiting for answers from Councillor Denselow to a series of questions we put to him regarding, among other things, the community input into the running of the centre and the process by which the agreed retail tenants will be selected (so as to promote more of a community venture or an independent business rather than yet another Costa coffee shop). A recent request asking for progress on answering our outstanding queries brought a two-word response:
“Will do”

However, one interesting feature which did come to light as a result of a residents’ recent email is that Cllr Lesley Jones states that :

As for how centre set up and used, I have officers working on setting up an informal  ‘panel’ or ‘friends of’ the centre who could comment, suggest, complain on these aspects.  Expect panel to be local interested people from different perspectives, including original objectors to the development.  Early days yet, but invites to join a panel will go out eventually, probably in the new year.”

This was one of the suggestions MWG made during our meeting with Cllr Denselow so we’re pleased to see they are taking up our idea. Nevertheless, on current form it will be down to us to make sure this is real resident involvement and not an attempt to hoodwink residents into some form of sham consultation as happened with the proposal to build the centre itself. We await our invitation.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

A Spectre is Haunting Willesden - More Zombie Planning

You may have noticed some big signs springing up which ask "What will Brent look like in the future?" Other than the slightly spooky figures on the poster which might lead you to answer "free-from ghosts, hopefully", there are some important responses needed to this question.
The council is consulting on its new Development Management Plan (DMP) which will guide its planning decisions in the future. This is the first time in over 10 years that the plan is being revised so whatever is decided now is likely to shape Brent planning for some considerable time.

The plan contains a number proposals relating to housing provision and the makeup of our high streets. Of particular interest to us as Willesden Green residents is the section on protection of community facilities. Many of us who have been involved in the Save The Queensbury group have been lobbying for over 18 months for the council to adopt a specific pub protection policy so it is a hugely disappointing blow to see that the council has failed to include this within the draft DMP. Yet again, there has been lip-service which is not backed up by proper action on policies. There is one passing mention of pubs as a part of social infrastructure that should be protected, but given that many other local authorities are recognising the role that pubs play in communities and have adopted very detailed pub protection policies, it seems like a huge missed opportunity that Brent hasn't done the same.

The draft DMP can be be found here and you are encouraged to respond either by completing the online comment form or by emailing before 5pm on 31st July.

Points you might like to raise are:
  • The purpose of a policy is to give proper consideration where (for example) a developer claims a pub is not viable or not needed. A pub protection policy would have established the value of The Queensbury and its building early on on the planning process, saving the planning department a lot of work and residents of Willesden Green a lot of distress.
  • Tagging "public houses" on the end of a list of buildings deemed to be community infrastructure  is an ineffective and insufficient substitute for a dedicated pub protection policy. Brent should follow the example of local authorities in Lewisham, Kensington & Chelsea and Cambridge, among others, in adopting a detailed pub protection policy. As part of the policy, these local authorities maintain either a formal register or an informal list of all the pubs within their area.
  • Under the new draft DMP, it is highly likely that planning officers would have reached the same conclusion as they did in March 2014, recommending  demolition of The Queensbury.
  • The consultation reads that "in keeping with the NPPF, public houses are classed as social infrastructure and proposals which would result in their loss will be subject to this policy and town centre policy DMP 3 ‘Neighbourhood Centres and Isolated Shop Units" However the latter policy makes absolutely no reference to pubs. Hence this will be easily evaded at planning decision and appeal stage.
  • The draft DMP does not propose any additional protection for buildings which are listed as Assets of Community Value under the Localism Act. ACV-listed buildings should be protected from applications for Change of Use. The process for an ACV listing already requires a very high bar so the fact of it being worth preservation should not be in question. Although ACV regulations are not primarily planning regulations, it should be noted that 2.20 of the DCLG guidance on ACVs states:  "However the fact that the site is listed may affect planning decisions - it is open to the Local Planning Authority to decide whether listing as an asset of community value is a material consideration if an application for change of use is submitted, considering all the circumstances of the case."  This means that ACV listing can be used as a material planning consideration if desired – it is up to Brent to be bold enough to say that they will give these assets real protection and make the ACV status recognised and valued within the DMP.
  • A Pub Protection Policy is not specifically for heritage or rural pubs – CAMRA's model policy covers both rural and urban pubs. Brent has a number of significant historic pubs, some of which are locally listed by Brent for heritage reasons. It has been requested several times that The Queensbury be assessed to be placed on the local list of heritage buildings yet to date this has not happened.
  • More weight should be given to the preservation of the characteristics of conservation areas within the DMP. The current policy states that a building in a conservation area cannot be demolished unless it is thought to be actively detracting from the the look of the conservation area. Nobody could argue this is of the current Queensbury building, yet Brent planning officers chose to ignore it when they recommended demolition. The policy should therefore be given more emphasis in order that it is not easily over-ridden.
Aside from the important Queensbury issue the draft DMP is also an opportunity to input on the number of payday lenders/chicken shops/shisha bars on high streets, the height of new developments and the amount of affordable housing that's available. It is an important document, so do be sure to have your say.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Fascists not welcome in Cricklewood

Make Willesden Green is participating in the North West London United campaign against a planned fascist march through Cricklewood this coming Saturday (19th July). Along with many other local groups and trade unions we have signed the statement below, and we hope that as many local residents as possible will join the protest at 12 noon on Cricklewood Broadway to say that racist hate is not welcome in our neighbourhood.

Fascists not welcome in Cricklewood

The South East Alliance (SEA), a group of racist, Islamophobic thugs is threatening to return to Cricklewood on Saturday July 19th. This group, made up of remnants of the Essex branch of the EDL, includes known fascists and has links to Ulster loyalists. They say they are demonstrating against the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, but since that organisation moved to Austria in April before the SEA came to Cricklewood on 14th June, they clearly intend simply to bring their message of hatred to disrupt Cricklewood’s vibrant multicultural community.

In Cricklewood, as in the whole of North West London, we are proud of our diversity. Here people live and work together, children study, play and grow up together in mutual respect, regardless of faith or skin colour, language or place of birth. We will not tolerate attempts to divide us or stir up hatred. We stood united on June 14th to show the SEA that there is no place here for their racism and Islamophobia. We ask you to join us on 19th July to do the same again. 
This statement has been signed by:

Rev Jane Morris Vicar St Gabriels Walm Lane NW2

Rt Rev Pete Broadbent Bishop of Willesden and Deputy Bishop of London

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein Senior Rabbi Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue

North West Islamic Cultural Centre

The following Brent Councillors:

Cllr Muhammed Butt (Tokyngton) Cllr Rita Conneely (Kilburn), Cllr James Denselow (Queens Park), Cllr Liz Dixon (Dollis Hill), Cllr Harbi Farah (Welsh Harp), Cllr Sabina Khan (Stonebridge), Cllr Arshad Mahmood (Dollis Hill), Cllr Margaret McLennan (Northwick Park), Cllr Tom Miller (Willesden Green), Cllr Neil Nerva (Queens Park), Cllr Michael Pavey (Barnhill) Cllr Ahmad Shazad (Mapesbury), Cllr Sam Stopp (Wembley Central),

Cllr Lorna Russell Fortune Green, Camden Council

Cllr Abigail Wood Haverstock, Camden Council

Andrew Dismore London Assembly Member for Barnet and Camden

Tulip Siddiq Labour PPC for Hampstead & Kilburn

Pete Firmin President, Brent Trades Union Council

Roger Cox Secretary, Brent Trades Union Council

Eddie Dempsey Branch Secretary Paddington no1 branch RMT

Bill McKinstry RMT Paddington No 1

Leon Brumant Vice chair RMT Bakerloo line branch

Mary Addosides National Union of Teachers Brent

Helen Davies Chair Barnet Unison

Steve Forrest GMB London Central President

Robin Sivapalan Unite Community

Sarah Cox Brent & Harrow Unite Against Fascism

Martin Francis Brent Green Party

P. Murry Secretary Green Party Trade Union Group

Scott Bartle Brent Green Party

Shahrar Ali Chair Brent Green Party

Graham Durham Brent & Harrow Labour Representation Cttee

Alex Colas Make Willesden Green

Sujata Aurora Make Willesden Green

Michael Calderbank Brent Fightback / Red Pepper Magazine

John Tymon Football Against Apartheid

Stephane Goldstein Chair, Kilburn Brent Labour Party

David Kaye Secretary, Kilburn Brent Labour Party

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Clean Willesden Green

Back in May, Make Willesden Green supporters helped our Willesden neighbour, Deborah Mahs, organise a clean-up morning drawing attention to the sad state of the service road behind Walm Lane. It seems her campaign is already yielding results and, spurred on by this success and support, Deborah has organised a wider clean-up with the Willesden Green Town Team on Saturday 26th July. Below is Deborah's message - we hope many of us can come out an help, even if it's briefly, for what promises to be a great community event.

Guest Blog by Deborah Mahs
Hello Willesden Green!! Come on down to Walm Lane, by Willesden Green underground on Saturday 26th July around 3pm and I will very likely be giving you a scrubbing brush and asking you to join in the fun and cleaning along with other passionate residents of Willesden Green, signifying our desire to improve, uplift and beautify the environs of Willesden Green, the home we live in. For a couple of hours clean teams and anyone passing who will willingly join in will be giving Walm Lane an unusual cleanup. Veolia, Brent's Waste and Recycling Management provider will be deep cleaning the pavements in the week before the event and on Saturday 26th they will be attending as well to lend their support to the community with volunteers and equipment. The Willesden Green Fire Brigade will also be on hand with one of their Fire Engines lending their support by providing the water and joining in the clean up. And this is just the beginning!! Too often in the past I have looked the other way when I see dilapidation, untidiness, dirt or things I don't like happening in my streets - but now I really am inspired to make a positive impact and I am calling on the community to join me. The clean up is to encourage awareness and involvement at any level, even if its just to look on and smile in support. I see Willesden Green as a gem hidden under a layer of dust and disconnection and I want to reach out to my neighbours because I know that over time with caring and actions, however small, we can improve our streets, buildings and local area and make Willesden Green a desirable place to live and visit and a joy for us all to be proud of. I am so looking forward to the friends we can all make and fun we can have and seeing Willesden Green begin to look fine, clean and vibrant. Please do join us for the cleaning, to look on and cheer and for the party afterwards at The Nest Cafe (5pm) by Willesden Green Underground station.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Make Willesden Green Enters a New Phase

Around 25 residents met at the Rising Sun beer garden last Sunday to celebrate the phenomenal electoral result of Make Willesden Green at the May local elections and to discuss ways of taking the collective energies of the group forward.  Coming runner-up in the election and beating the Tories and LibDems  shows that we represent a significant number of people in Willesden Green and - with Labour's huge majority on the council - our independent voice is  now more important than ever: Make Willesden Green is effectively the ‘official opposition’ in this area.
People expressed different ideas on what Make Willesden Green can or should be. Some of the key points raised included:
  • widen and deepen our reach across the community so that Make Willesden Green looks more like the neighbourhood it wants to represent
  • keep the campaigning focus of the group, and hold our elected councillors to account
  • address issues and include supporters from surrounding wards of Dudden Hill, Mapesbury and Brondesbury Park, and make sure that Make Willesden Green connects all parts of Willesden. 
  • amplify other campaigns relevant to our area - from Brent Housing Action to Save the Queensbury
After some discussion, the following action points were also agreed: 
  • To seek a delegation at the earliest opportunity to the Council regarding the management and community access to the new Cultural Centre
  • To monitor Galliford Try profits from the library development and ensure the council receives additional monies due to the inflated housing market
  • To investigate the possibility of a street party to involve more people in Make Willesden Green  
  • To use the blog to focus attention on the the key areas of improving the High Road/and public spaces, promoting affordable and social housing, protecting our schools from academisation and upholding local democracy.      
The excellent turn-out and continuing fighting spirit on display at our first post-electoral meeting of Make Willesden Green bodes well for the group’s future activities. This website will now act as an on-line clearing-house for information on relevant events and activities. We have also set up an email discussion group which you can join HERE or email and we will add you directly. As a grassroots initiative the future of  Make Willesden Green relies entirely on resident’s collective efforts – so please sign up and  add  your ideas, expertise and energy to build an independent voice for Willesden residents.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Make Every Vote Count On Thursday

Some of the many supporters who turned up for our last mass leafleting
It was a tremendous honour to have so many fellow residents come out last Saturday to give the Make Willesden Green campaign a last push before Thursday’s election. With about two dozen supporters swarming across various parts of Willesden Green, we managed to leaflet the whole of the ward and still find time to speak to hundreds of residents outside the Sainsbury’s forecourt. Most people said they were disenchanted with the three mainstream parties, but were keen to hear about our electoral offer of an independent voice for Willesden residents.

These conversations, and the groundswell of support I have received over the past few months from a real cross-section of our community, has made me even more confident that we can make Willesden Green a thriving, clean, open, democratic and environmentally-balanced area in future if only we have better representation. People in Willesden Green have spent too much of the past four years fighting against developers and unelected bureaucrats for a neighbourhood with open spaces, secure community amenities, an improved High Road, more affordable housing and properly-funded public services. In the process, we have been ignored by our Councillors and dismissed by senior Local Authority officers. 

Watermelon Men: me with Shahrar Ali and Martin Francis, Green Party candidates for Willesden Green

In fact, when the Make Willesden Green campaign was taking shape one of the main drivers behind its formation was the general lack of accountability and unresponsiveness of our sitting councillors. Our current Labour councillor and one of the LibDem councillors were enthusiastic supporters of the Willesden Green Library project in the face of overwhelming resident opposition, while the second Lib Dem councillor has moved away from Brent, has barely been seen for a year and doesn't even respond to emails. Now of course, it's election time so we see both parties coming out of hiding to claim that they are listening and ‘on your side’, hoping that we will forget their past sins and misdemeanors.

We formulated a policy on the Right to Recall local councillors in between elections and I personally signed a pledge saying that as an elected councillor I would submit to to a by-election if enough residents demanded it. We challenged every candidate standing in the Willesden Green election to sign the same pledge – only the two Green Party candidates, Martin Francis and Shahrar Ali responded positively. Labour, LibDems and the Tories did not bother to respond at all.

However our attention was drawn to this rather mealy-mouthed blogpost from sitting councillor Lesley Jones who sets out a number of objections, all of which can be easily overcome. (‘Who will collect the petition signatures?’ Cllr Jones asks, ‘Well, how about the same people who collected 6,000 signatures against the Library development that you backed?’ would be an answer.)

All in all, the response to the recall pledge has shown that the main parties have learnt nothing from the anger, frustration and disenchantment of local residents. They want your vote on Thursday but they don't want to hear from you again after that. Do we really want to give a mandate to parties that are still scared of democracy, still afraid of participation and still reluctant to give us a real voice? 

I hope that I will get one of your votes this Thursday, but I hope you will also think about whether you want to give your second and third votes to parties who show such a fundamental disdain for the wishes of their electorate.

On Thursday we finally get a say: every vote sends a message, and by giving me one of your three votes, you’ll be making it clear the three main parties have failed our area. We need genuinely radical and grassroots Councillors to represent the interests of Willesden Green, and this Thursday is the time to vote us in. 

Monday, 12 May 2014

Where There's Muck, There's Brass

Despite the unenviable task of clearing up months of accumulated rubbish, the clean-up of the service road behind Walm Lane last Sunday was very much worthwhile. The pictures below show what a couple hours of bagging rubbish can do to the appearance of even the most neglected parts of our area (as well as revealing some decent compost, which large worms were getting stuck into). Most importantly, Sunday's modest clear-up was an opportunity for residents from the alleyway and adjacent streets to meet and exchange notes on how to find a permanent solution to that street's refuse problem. Our role in Make Willesden Green was to facilitate the process and encourage neighbours to continue pressuring  both private landlords and Brent Council to meet their responsibilities to alley residents and the wider community. Other similar initiatives are now being planned through the Willesden Green Town Team.  Hopefully this muck-raking has revealed a community that cares about its surrounding environment, and is willing to channel what have until now been individual efforts into a stronger collective voice.



Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Community Clean-Up on Walm Lane

Make Willesden Green has organised a community clean-up of the service road behind Walm Lane this coming Sunday. Residents have seen the alley become a dumping ground for all kinds of rubbish over the past few years, and  the problem has now gone beyond the merely unsightly to become a potential health hazard. The land is privately owned and so the Council has refused to clear it, allowing the problem to escalate. After many months and numerous complaints the Council has finally issued a small fine and a clear-up order to the landowners, to which they have not responded. The next step is for the Council to take legal action which is a frustratingly slow process. Meanwhile the tip continues to grow.
Accumulated Rubbish on the Alleyway
Sunday’s clean-up should not absolve either the land owners or Brent Council of their responsibilities. Make Willesden Green has taken this initiative to shame the land owners and pressure the Council into urgent action. Most importantly, we hope the clean up will bring together local residents and businesses to try to find a permanent solution to the unacceptable state of the alley. This ugly and increasingly unsafe service road severely affects adjacent businesses and residents, but it  also reflects poorly on the wider neighbourhood. Join us on Sunday, even if it’s only briefly, to show you want a cleaner, safer and greener Willesden.

Dumping Ground

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Less UKIP, More Democracy

Corrections to a UKIP poster in Swansea
Hope not Hate, a campaign group dedicated to exposing and combating far-right politics in Britain recently approached Make Willesden Green to help deliver a message against the politics of hate in Brent. I immediately agreed to distribute their ‘Let Hope Win Over Fear’ leaflet together with our own electoral material, as I think it’s important to challenge the mainstreaming of racist and xenophobic positions in the run-up to the local and European elections of May 22nd.

UKIP’s ascendancy is of course the immediate cause of concern here. Although they are only standing four candidates in the Brent local elections (happily none of them in Willesden Green; though there is one in neighbouring Dudden Hill), the European elections are offering Farage’s outfit an opportunity to spread their poisonous ideas across our Borough.
In fact, whilst canvassing, supporters of Make Willesden Green have come across the occasional resident who’s initially confused my standing as an independent with me being for UKIP. We’ve quickly disabused people of that connection, making it clear Make Willesden Green sits on the opposite end of the political spectrum to UKIP.

UKIP and other far-right parties play on people's genuine concerns about unemployment, housing, education and austerity, and simply blame them on foreigners. They encourage the most disadvantaged groups to take social inequality out on similarly vulnerable people from other nationalities, rather to focus on the gross disparity of wealth within the UK, and between different parts of Europe.

The likes of UKIP also make a lot of hay out of people’s disenchantment with mainstream politics. But the ‘free’ market they’re so fond of  (except for when it comes to freedom of movement) is a major cause behind the corruption of politics – either directly through corporate lobbyists or indirectly by handing over democratic control of public goods like education, health or transport to a private sector that’s only accountable to major shareholders. UKIP’s crude anti-politics stems from its extreme pro-market positions; and their free market dogmas simply exacerbate the economic inequalities they then accuse immigrants of causing.

Grassroots initiatives like Make Willesden Green are about the exact opposite. Our campaign has consistently been about involving people politically in the democratisation of our neighbourhood, and by defending those public spaces  and services that bring our area's rich mix of people together and protect the most vulnerable in our communities. Ordinary citizens can turn seemingly technical, non-partisan matters like the demolition of libraries or the academisation of schools into political issues -especially if it’s with a small ‘p’ that looks beyond narrow Party-political interests.   

Monday, 28 April 2014

Social Housing, Not Social Cleansing

Campaigners of all ages at the South Kilburn Estate  Photo: Sujata Aurora

Last Saturday afternoon I joined other members of Brent Housing Action on a ‘Housing Inequality Bus Tour’ highlighting the harsh human consequences of London’s deepening housing crisis. A double-decker bus hired by the union UNITE set off from Bishops’ Avenue near Highgate (also known as ‘billionaire’s row’) and made stops at key sites where regeneration schemes are contributing to housing injustice, including the Jubilee Sports centre near Queen’s Park and the South Kilburn Estate in Brent.

The nature and dynamics of this housing crisis are of course complicated, involving the drastic decline in the supply of social housing and its replacement by private rented accommodation during the Thatcher years; New Labour’s promotion of London as a property honey pot for the global super-rich; and now the ConDem government’s use of welfare reform to socially cleanse large chunks of the capital - including Brent, as a recent BBC Panorama programme illustrated.
The community mobilises to save the Jubilee Sports Centre Photo: Pilgrim Tucker

The really insidious aspect of this process, however, is that, whilst the drivers of the housing crisis may be global, their implementation is very local. Not a week goes by in our city without another neighbourhood asset and community space being picked out for lucrative ‘redevelopment’ – almost universally with the assistance and complicity of local authorities. In Willesden Green, the Library re-development is the most blatant example of putting profits before people. In neighbouring wards, the ongoing saga over the former Kensal Rise Library and the recent cross-Borough decision to demolish the Moberly and Jubilee Sports centres in order to build 155 housing units, only 12 of which will be ‘affordable’ represent further instances. Even the much-trumpeted South Kilburn ‘regeneration’ is in fact  ‘decanting’ many existing residents out-of-Borough to make way for one-bedroom flats with price-tags starting at £284, 950. Anyone chasing an ‘affordable’ home should expect to cough up 80% of that market price. 

The Willesden Library Gated Development for Sale in Singapore
Local campaigning groups like Brent Housing Action have sprung up across London and the rest of the country in an effort underline the connections between Council-led ‘redevelopment’ and social cleansing, and to join-up the dots between seemingly parochial regeneration schemes which are rapidly changing the social mix of the whole of London. 

One of Make Willesden Green’s slogans is that our campaign is local but not parochial. That’s why our focus on the scandalous Willesden Green Library centre re-development is not simply about unwanted changes in our own backyard – it is also fundamentally about promoting a different housing model that allows Local Authorities to build more social housing, apply rent controls to the private sector and reverse the promotion of ‘buy-to-leave’ properties.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Commemorating the Grunwick Strike


An area’s regeneration can take different forms, and one of them is surely to offer opportunities for learning and self-education in and about our community. The Birkbeck PopUp University has, in partnership with the Willesden Green Town Team been doing just that over the past weeks, with plenty of stimulating talks scheduled until the end of May on subjects ranging from Willesden’s conscientious objectors in War War I, the history of Britain’s urban public parks and green spaces, and the the politics of social housing in London, as well as regular slots on careers advice, counselling and returning to work and study.
The commemorative plaque at the former Grunwick site
This Thursday 24 April, the PopUp University will be hosting an evening of debate and discussion from 6-8pm on the Grunwick Strike of 1976-78. Together with the 1984-85 miners’ strike, the Grunwick dispute is one of the signal moments in the postwar labour history of this country - and it all unfolded in the back streets of Willesden Green. For a brief but intense period, striking workers in our neighbourhood, led by the emblematic Mrs Jayaben Desai, put collective struggles against racism, patriarchy and workplace exploitation at the centre of national politics.

These struggles are far from over. Although the Grunwick processing plant has long disappeared, episodes like last summer’s Home Office xenophobic van campaign or the Willesden letting agent who was shown to openly discriminate against African-Caribbean would-be tenants remind us of the everyday racism still plaguing our streets. Similarly, our local Homebase cuts costs by using unpaid staff under the ConDem government’s workfare programme, while local Labour politicians rail against striking teachers fighting the privatisaton of our schools.

Thursday’s event therefore aims to be as much a commemoration of the Grunwick strike, as an opportunity to consider its legacies for today’s campaigns for social justice and equality in our neighbourhood and beyond. After screening the documentary “The Great Grunwick Strike”, we’ll be joined for discussion by Pete Firmin from Brent Trades Union Council and Dr Sundari Anitha and Professor Ruth Pearson who coordinated a research project on  “Striking Women: South Asian workers’ struggles in the UK labour market from Grunwick to Gate Gourmet”. The event is completely free, but online registration is required HERE.

The Opening of Birkbeck's PopUp University on Queen's Parade in March

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Trouble at the Old Police Station

Over the past few weeks Willesden Green has felt like the last frontier town in the Wild West. With bulldozers at work on Electric House, the month-long road closure and bus-diversion in and around the Library centre redevelopment, and further construction next to the Buddhist Temple on Willesden Lane, it’s almost like residents have to ask permission from contractors to move around our own neighbourhood, not the other way round.  

The most recent and potentially worrying new development is at the former Willesden Green Police Station, where talk of  sheriffs and cowboys is sadly not entirely fictional. Neighbours on Huddlestone Road have been alarmed by irregularities in the development of that site – including dangerous manoeuvring of HGV vehicles in a narrow residential street, stacking of building materials on third party walls, burning of materials on the site as well as noisy work conducted on weekends and early mornings. Constant monitoring by residents, and persistent complaints to the Council have brought some enforcement action, but there still remains real concern and some confusion about what will replace the former Police Station. The residents were first advised that the Police Station would be converted into a nursery. Within weeks a building control application was submitted to reconfigure the Police Station into a hostel. A few days ago this application was revised to a four storey building with commercial units and twenty-four residential units and there is no accompanying planning application. Residents can only speculate that the much loved Victorian Police Station will at some stage be demolished and replaced with flats and commercial units, but even this is guess-work given the lack of communication from either developers or the Council about what is going on in that address. 

Narrow manoeuvers
Neighbours from Huddlestone Road made it very clear at the recent Brent Connects meeting that all they are asking is for the redevelopment of the former Police Station to happen lawfully and with due respect for local residents and Council regulations – they are not objecting to the refurbishment as such, but to the way it is conducted and the lack of information about the future of that site. It has been brought to their attention that the works are being carried out by a contractor who has a history of unauthorised building work in Willesden Green, and who has in the past been heavily fined by the Health and Safety Executive. They have also been advised that the contractor is using a private building controls firm, rather than the Council and this is an additional source of anxiety for all of us living in the area. 

Busy, but Early and Noisy too
All this unfortunately does little to dispel the sense that our Borough, and Willesden Green in particular is a soft target for unscrupulous developers. With the Council encouraging unfettered redevelopment of our neighbourhoods (and at least one ongoing investigation into fraudulent support for the library conversion in Kensal Rise) it seems easy for rogue contractors to give the already understaffed inspection and enforcement teams the run-around. In the meantime, it is residents that are acting as full-time, unofficial inspectors of building sites. It’s hard work, living in the wild frontier.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Spaces for Cycling

I joined about a dozen other Brent Cyclists last Sunday for a tour of the Borough’s high roads and back streets, as part of their campaign to put safe cycling at the heart of May's local elections . Despite the inauspicious weather forecast, it turned out to be a great morning out. Cycling can be a quick, cheap and easy way of getting around Brent, but it can also be quite dangerous in the absence of protected cycle tracks on the larger roads. I therefore think it’s important to support initiatives like the Space for Cycling campaign which calls for separating bicycles and motor traffic at busy roads and junctions, lowering speed limits to 20 MPH and the creation of safe cycling and walking routes for all children between home and school. The London Cycling Campaign will soon launch an online facility where residents can make suggestions on how to make their neighbourhoods safe for cycling. I was told the next Brent Cyclists event  is on Saturday 26th April and will involve a short cycle route connecting various schools in the north of the Borough.

Friday, 21 March 2014

A Letter of Support

Below is a letter of support for Make Willesden Green from local residents, published in this week's Brent and Kilburn Times. This kind of public endorsement is tremendously encouraging and shows Make Willesden Green is having a real impact. It's much appreciated, and even more so will be your votes (and those of your neighbours, friends and relatives in Willesden Green) on the 22nd of May!

Friday, 14 March 2014

How The Queensbury Was Saved

Typo Corrected
The sensational victory by Save The Queensbury campaign last Wednesday is a massive cause for celebration for Willesden Green. It was achieved through the relentless collective efforts of residents and their supporters. One of the founding members of the campaign and irrepressible agitator for its cause, Sujata Aurora, tells the story of how the battle was won.
Guest blog by Sujata Aurora
The Save The Queensbury group won a significant victory on 12 March when Brent’s planning committee threw out proposals to demolish Willesden Green's landmark community pub and replace it with a 10-storey block of flats. 

The 18 month-long campaign was a true community initiative initially set up in October 2012 by a handful of residents and largely ignored by the political parties until the local elections began to loom. It is much to the credit of the campaign that they mobilised mass local support to the extent that they persuaded several previously indifferent councillors to back their cause, almost certainly because the level of attention the issue was generating made them fear the electoral consequences of not doing so. Sadly two of our Willesden Green councillors, LibDems Ann Hunter and Gavin Sneddon, refused to represent residents’ views despite repeated requests, their unresponsiveness maybe a consequence of their not restanding for election.

Despite attracting the belated support of some local politicians the campaign never became compromised and fiercely iterated its independence. As Brent Council's treatment of Save The Queensbury became ever more shabby there was a dawning realisation that the battle was not just against developer Fairview Homes but also against the council itself. Many in the group had had no previous dealings with the council and, perhaps naively, put their faith in the ability of various processes and politicians to protect the pub. Their awakening was rude and the criticisms that they were subsequently forced to make of the council upset some of The Queensbury’s Labour supporters. Yet as one campaigner pointed out, "this is a cross party campaign and we welcome all support, but if we shy away from pointing out the failings of Brent Council where they could have acted to save the pub, then we are doing this cause a disservice.”

Getting the Message Across
While professing some limited support for the campaign, no political party or councillor was prepared to actively lobby in support of policies that would have protected the pub from demolition.
  • The attempt to have The Queensbury listed as an Asset of Community Value (ACV) under the Localism Act was initially refused with Brent citing, in part, the reason that they needed to consider the developers intention for the site in considering whether it might have future community value. That reason has been confirmed by other authorities and by experts on the Localism Act as a significant misapplication of the regulations. It was only after a threat to go to the Local Government Ombudsman and a new application covering just The Queensbury Pub rather than the entire site, that a listing was successful.
  • Queensbury campaigners took members of CAMRA and planning experts with them to meet with council leader Muhammed Butt in April 2013 - they presented him with examples of pub protection policies from numerous other local authorities. A request for Brent to develop a pub protection policy and produce some planning guidance which would prevent “Change of Use” applications for buildings listed as ACVs got an initially favourable reception from Councillor Butt – but almost a year on they are still waiting for even a draft policy to be produced and the expert on pubs and planning policy who offered to assist is still waiting for a call.
  • A presentation by the Queensbury campaign in October 2013 to officers and councillors at the Partnerships and Place Overview and Scrutiny Committee asking for a review of the ACV listing procedure and a further request for planning guidance to protect ACVs from “Change of Use” resulted in the following resolution: "That the committee will write to the lead member for Environment and Neighbourhoods and ask them to consider implementing a policy on Assets of community value." Six months on, a direct query on progress to the Lead Member for Environment and Neighbourhoods (Cllr Roxanne Mashari) got a response that this is not her remit and she knows nothing about it. A further request for clarification to the chair of the committee (Cllr Zaffar Van Kalwala) is still unanswered. 
  • Numerous requests to have the Queensbury considered as worthy of a local listing (i.e. regarded as of historical or architectural merit) were similarly stonewalled.

In this context the decision of the planning committee to vote against demolition of the pub and to go against the advice of officers is a huge achievement and will hopefully set a precedent to show that Brent is not necessarily a soft touch for developers. As we lose our heritage buildings in Willesden Green like Electric House one by one, this is no mean feat – it is a testament to the well-organised and uncompromising campaign that has been led by residents rather than party politicians. More than that, it is a demonstration that people in Willesden Green desperately need a strong, independent and grassroots voice to represent them.