It's been week of money, money, money. Not mine, well it is – and yours, too. It's the grants allocated to retail, hospitality and leisure businesses to help them through the rollercoaster months of Tier 3, Tier 4 and lockdown during which some have been able to trade more or less as normal (thank you to all our food and health shops and stalls and our amazing pharmacists); others allowed to operate for takeaway and delivery only (not just cafes/restaurants but also homeware, books, clothes and anyone else with an online business); and still more who were not allowed to operate at all (gyms and yoga studios, beauty/hair salons and others).
Confusion was caused by the unnecessarily unclear titles allocated to the grants by the civil service. Instead of calling the grants something logical (such as Tier 3, Tier 4, Lockdown, Spring Grant), traders have had to grapple with titles such as Local Restrictions Support Grant (Open) and Local Restrictions Support Grant (Closed) where using the word "closed" has been particularly perplexing if you've been allowed to be open for takeaway/delivery (which counts as closed). The official gov.uk list of which businesses fall into each category has been firmly in my favourites bar throughout the pandemic (essential as the list has changed several times as new categories have been added, such as travel agents who have inevitably experienced no business beyond taking bookings then cancelling them).
On top of that, just as traders started gearing up to re-open – which means a flurry of activity – HMG announced that all the current grants must have been claimed by 31st March. During the pandemic, the four of us who run the Chiswick Shops Task Force (Cllrs Patrick Barr of Chiswick Homefields ward, Gabriella Giles of Chiswick Riverside ward, me of Turnham Green ward plus Anthony Young on behalf of Ealing's Southfield ward) have sent 37 informative emails (plus half a dozen emails about retail generally) to all the 300 plus traders on our list, urging them to apply for grants or passing on details they might have missed from government announcements including the Chancellor's budget.
Most traders clock them. Some miss them completely. So, it was inevitable that several business owners have not applied for the grants they are due – while struggling to pay their rent and bills. This week has been a frantic ring round of businesses I know needed guidance for the first batch of grants early on during the pandemic (even I can't remember when it was, so odd has passing time been) and who might not have re-applied for this second batch (no-one who was eligible for grants in the first batch was assumed to be eligible for the second so they all had to apply again – I know, I know; it's not how I would have run it, either).
It's been difficult enough for people for whom business-based working is the norm. Imagine what it's like if English is not your first language; you have had no training in office-based methods; and you conduct much of your business on a mobile phone. I do so hope no-one has slipped through the net. If any traders are reading this, please get in touch with Patrick, Gabriella or me. (And I'm acutely aware that all our emails, and this blog, fall into the guilty category – inaccessible to those for whom the English language is a challenge.)
Pandemic briefings and training : learning from Handforth Parish Council
All councillors have seen a significant increase in casework during the pandemic. At first I reckoned it was because people were going through their when-I've-got-time-to-do lists. Now it's because, unfortunately, so many more people need help and support. Our other work has increased too, including briefings for all councillors on the pandemic and a new refresher training programme that has had little attention since our three-month-long induction sessions after we were first elected. What's the main topic? Governance.
It would be intriguing for such intensive training suddenly to take place a year before the next local elections but for the fact that our meetings are now broadcast live, and held on YouTube, enabling greater scrutiny of the behaviour of elected representatives and, potentially, officers – and particularly following incidents during the most recent borough council meeting on 2nd March.
When the live stream failed, according to messages sent to me by those trying to watch, my polite reports in the meeting chat were met first with an offensive comment from the council's chief executive then, when I raised concerns about that message, I was muted by the mayor. The offensive remark, quickly deleted, was not aimed at me but it raised alarm bells about whether it is a symbol of how things are run in Hounslow. I received a notional apology from the chief exec which I have acknowledged while I look into this further. The mayor appears unabashed.
After those two significant actions, it's clear to me that the party in control (some in Chiswick might prefer the term "controlling party" given how much is being done to us, whether we want it or not) has reached a mid-term sense of invincibility and has lost touch with why each of them stood for election and what their roles are in relation to those they serve.
It is important to note that I was trying to tell the mayor (who is in charge of the meeting) and officers that the live feed wasn’t working – which might make the meeting illegal under COVID-19 legislation. Other councillors were reporting it, too. So why were my polite reports singled out? And why, given all the national publicity to muting at a Handforth parish council meeting, to which the mayor referred at the start of the meeting, was that tactic even considered here in Hounslow? The controlling party doesn't like to hear others' voices, not even when they are trying to report a failure that might make the meeting illegal. Silencing the opposition, whether trying to be helpful or expose failings, is the aim.
This was the annual budget-setting meeting, the single most important borough council meeting of the municipal year; it must be legally held. I have since been told that, despite its many broadcast failings, it was legal. It needed to be checked.
Consultation area appraisals
With so many unrepresentative consultations, quasi reviews and pre-determined outcome workshops about the road closures, LTNs, C9 and our town centres, you might have missed two important consultations in the heart of Chiswick: re-appraising the Chiswick High Road conservation area (including taking in more of Turnham Green Terrace) and proposing the Glebe Estate conservation area (a symbol of Chiswick's development and historical context). Please make your views known.
For me, the most important point about the Chiswick High Road conservation area is what has been said behind closed doors by lobbyists – whether formal or informal, groups or individuals, recognised or self-styled experts. As with all the recent unrepresentative "consultations", it's important to imagine the worst and say what you don't want. One of the worst things anyone could do to Turnham Green Terrace, which is unquestionably different from every other shopping street anywhere and much the better for it, is to destroy its single storey shops on the eastern side (in Turnham Green ward). These give so much charm to the road, provide a sense of openness and give it cheer – as the photo on the cover of the consultation appraisal document shows.
Yet a well-known architect said in a recent workshop that these "poor quality" single-storey shops must go. So, apparently, did one of our commercial estate agents. Why? Would they have a vested interest in developing the sites and/or selling/letting the new shops, offices or flats? What about the hundreds of thousands of pounds that have been poured into improving them by their hard-working and talented tenants? What about us and the pleasure we get out of their quirkiness? Oh, sorry, I forgot. Chiswick would be so much better if it were a clone-town with character-free streets picked from a catalogue.
Freddie the seal tragedy on the Thames
Everyone seems to have been moved by this. Freddie the seal was so much more than a visitor basking on our foreshore. His presence demonstrates the increasing cleanliness of the Thames and its importance as a habitat as well as its value as a transport route, its historical place in our city, and a source of pride for all of us who enjoy being on it in boats or canoes, watching the annual (mostly) boat race, strolling or sitting beside it or even just knowing it's there, looping round and embracing our home town.
We councillors talk to each other quite a lot and this week's chats with Cllr Gabriella Giles have inevitably focussed on Freddie. Gabriella's role includes being the councillor representative on the Chiswick Pier Trust and the Thames Landscape strategy where Freddie's case has been prominent. All are working for something positive to come from this incident which will take further the spirit of pride we have in being a riparian borough.
An election is coming
After months of confinement, we are back on the campaign trail delivering leaflets. I will, of course, be voting for a fresh start for London from Shaun Bailey and for Nicholas Rogers for the London Assembly, replacing Tony Arbour whose support locally and personally has been immense. Nick's approach epitomises the phrase "hit the ground running". With a career in transport, he was quick to pick up on our long-running campaign for the Piccadilly Line to stop at Turnham Green Terrace (he knows it is achievable), improvements to buses and tube stations and our recent call for our borough police to reintroduce special constables to support our busy ward police teams and increase night-time patrols (he's been a special). Feeling safe at night is fundamental not only to us as residents but also to the survival of our bars, cafes, pubs and restaurants as they come out of lockdown from 12th April. Please do eat and drink out in the open with them when they re-open.
Shaun and Sadiq Khan went head-to-head on BBC1 on Monday. If you missed it, you can catch up with key moments here (the full broadcast doesn't seem to be available on iPlayer) and here's an article from the Evening Standard.
Still time to complete the census
One of the most newly prolific Twitter trolls was quick to criticise me for completing the census a few days early. The letter made it clear we could fill it in early, as long as we were certain our answers would apply to census Sunday. I was. It's not too late to do it now, either. If you haven't yet done so, please complete it asap via this link.
Early on I asked long-standing councillors how they kept track of information – specifically filing. We are supposed to read everything online and printing documents is looked-down on particularly by young Labour councillors with no age-affected eye-sight limitations. The reality is that some documents need to be printed, and pages marked, so you can have them in front of you during meetings, whether we meet physically or now when meeting virtually on screen. Importantly, too, our annotations can have long-lasting significance. I now know that laughter was the only logical response – my office and dining room floors prove the point. There is no system that works.
It took less time to work out how to manage keeping track of subject-based work. Instead of one notebook for everything, I need one notebook for each topic or committee (and, so far, two on the pandemic alone). I buy beautiful notebooks for casework to elevate the humdrum and honour the heartbreak (some people's lives are unnecessarily burdensome) and for the Chiswick Shops Task Force (because our traders deserve special attention). Colourful practicality works best for committees/council projects (and thank you, to Bookcase on the High Road for carrying the ideal range).
Surgeries to resume soon
The council is working towards reinstating face-to-face surgeries from 17th May, if the roadmap to the end of lockdown goes to plan. I so look forward to being able to meet residents in person again.
Cllr Joanna Biddolph