If you are on Twitter, you might have seen one amusing comment which was something like, "When 2020 began, I had no idea it would last two years". And so it did. It isn't only councillors for whom the last two years have meant months that were indistinguishable from one another, punctuated by jabs administered and tests recorded. So I thought it would be interesting to look back at the council year and the punctuations we experienced, recalling just how long ago the issues that remain current and impactful arose.
The nationwide move from physical to virtual council meetings was logical in the context of limiting the spread of COVID-19 but it led generally to an explosion of meetings and briefings and a decrease in dialogue. Whatever anyone says about the benefits of being able to join a meeting from anywhere with a good internet connection, those meetings haven't always allowed the formal and informal exchanges common in a physical room that make meetings worthwhile. It is also, somehow, much easier to cancel online meetings and this trend seemed to increase as the year progressed – our diaries are peppered with crossed-out entries. This month we had two all member briefings about the pandemic (usually held fortnightly); a rehearsal for then the virtual Chiswick Area Forum, which unfortunately clashed with a Streetspace meeting about schemes in Isleworth (we were elected to represent Chiswick wards but our opposition role applies borough-wide); three other Streetspace "engagement" sessions, one on the South Chiswick Liveable Neighbourhood (SCLN) scheme (my colleagues in Chiswick Riverside ward accurately call it the Unliveable neighbourhood scheme), one on schemes in the rest of Chiswick, and one specifically for businesses held at a time when few businesses were able to attend. Some of us attended an extremely moving virtual Holocaust memorial event. Our monthly litter pick sessions resumed on the fourth Sunday of every month (but not December).
The massive TfL development plans for Bollo Lane and the latest proposal for land on Chiswick roundabout (Holly House) preoccupied our discussions as Turnham Green ward councillors, the former bordering the eastern boundary of the ward and of huge concern to residents of the Gunnersbury Park Garden Estate conservation area, and the latter of enormous concern throughout Chiswick. For my two ward colleagues, Cllr Joanna Biddolph and Ron Mushiso, it also meant an overview and scrutiny committee call-in of the council tax support scheme.
The full borough council met for its annual budget-setting meeting, postponed from February, including a council tax increase of 4.99%, the maximum allowed. The following day, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced his £65bn plan to support jobs and businesses including restart grants; extending the furlough scheme, the business rates holiday and VAT reductions; and encouraging pavement licenses for outdoor dining/drinking. Throughout the pandemic, the Chiswick Shops Task Force (run by my colleagues Cllrs Patrick Barr, Joanna Biddolph and Gabriella Giles) has kept informed as many independent traders as possible of government support and guidance. Member development training sessions continued, looking this month at governance, the council's constitution and its code of conduct. Town centre workshops, run by consultants, revealed just how much the council wants to change the way we live our lives, bringing sameness to all our areas to make them indistinguishable from anywhere else. These discussions reveal the vast difference between Conservatives, who value difference and variety, and Labour's one size fits all mantra. We had a Gunnersbury Park stakeholders meeting. The planning committee approved the development of Chiswick Health Centre which, because of our intervention, includes three zebra crossings over Fishers Lane for which our group has campaigned for years.
Three more member development training sessions (committee procedure rules, effective scrutiny and financial governance) dominated this month which was otherwise a little slower because of the Easter break. We paid tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh. A meeting with the council's new head of transport and traffic about Streetspace schemes enabled my councillor colleagues Joanna Biddolph and Sam Hearn to explain the impact of C9 and the closure of Devonshire Road and Turnham Green Terrace (TGT). We detected a glimmer of hope when he acknowledged the obvious "parking pressure" on the once-busy and now near-lifeless TGT.
Tuesday, 18th May saw the last concrete planter removed from TGT. Traders were jubilant, one honking his van's horn as he spotted councillors watching the work being done, celebrating too the return of the 30-minute stop-and-shop parking which is such a boost to business. We attend a virtual ward walkabout with officers, astonished at the lack of corporate knowledge of which assets are where throughout the borough. Turnham Green ward includes the Grade II listed Chiswick Town Hall, Chiswick library, four conservation areas, three open spaces and a nature reserve, under-used allotments – and a desperate need for public loos (a campaign which we intend to escalate). Member development training continued (affordable housing, safeguarding) as did Covid briefings though at a slower pace. We have a meeting on the future of the world of work and how it might affect the borough. The postponed London mayoral and GLA elections saw Nicholas Rogers elected for the south-west area, which includes Hounslow; he took up his first case the next morning, on behalf of a Chiswick café.
A relatively quiet month though member training sessions (communications) and Covid briefings continued. Chiswick Cinema opened bringing positive news and lifting spirits, despite the limitations within which it must operate during the pandemic. Best of all, Devonshire Road re-opened though in a complicated scheme that will continue to put-off shoppers and that follows hours (open from 8am to 5pm) which have little to do with retailing.
All councillors are corporate parents, responsible for the care of looked-after children in the borough, so the member development training session on corporate parenting was especially compelling. Brentford Football Club geared up to its opening with friendlies allowing it to test operations including on local transport. Gunnersbury tube station is pivotal; some fans use Acton Town tube station, on the edge of the ward. Impact was relatively low but will continue to be monitored. The Secret Cinema event hoped for in Gunnersbury Park was cancelled.
Road changes continued to dominate our lives with public meetings on Streetspace and a councillor briefing on C9. In a typical year, I might have gone away on a cruise – not possible this year.
We held the first Chiswick Area Forum of the 2021/2022 municipal year, much delayed but in person at Chiswick Town Hall with seats spread carefully 2m apart allowing about 60 people to attend. The new format seemed to go down well with sessions from the Hogarth Community Centre and Age Concern, two organisations that support our community at opposite ends of the age spectrum. A session on the future of public transport, with our GLA representative Nicholas Rogers, brought reality to hopes for our tube and rail stations to have step-free access and the Piccadilly Line stopping at Turnham Green 24/7. What was Nick's answer for improving London transport? Buses, buses, buses. The mayor's reception and charity launch was cancelled because of the pandemic; it is tough for any mayor to have an impact when there are so many restrictions or concerns about meeting in large groups. The borough council met in person at Hounslow House; levels of cordiality had not changed.
The mayor's inaugural reception was held with a lovely buffet at Hounslow House complete with a piper from the Band of the Brigade of Gurkhas . This year's mayor, the borough's 65th mayor, is a former Gurkha and his pride in his former role was plain for all to see. We held the second new-style Chiswick Area Forum, recorded this time , and with sessions from Chiswick Pier Trust and Move into Wellbeing. The policy presentation, with chartered civil engineer Isobel Grant, was on the challenge for councils to meet their climate responsibility. All three of us – Cllrs Joanna Biddolph, Ron Mushiso and I – attended the call-in at Ealing council of the decision to close Fishers Lane. We had been denied the chance to speak – why would Ealing, any more than Hounslow, be interested in majority local opinion being conveyed by elected councillors? Member training sessions continued, looking at inequalities and tackling the most complex issues raised by residents.
Meetings turned to looking ahead at next year's council budget – with huge gaps to be filled by "rebasing" which the council insists does not mean "cuts" though how else it will achieve the large reductions needed is hard to fathom; something has to go, that's the point. The council is planning a summer of culture but somehow the Chiswick Culture Compendium compiled by Cllr Gabriella Giles has not been forwarded within or between departments. We had a member training session on chairing skills and another briefing on C9 changes. The Borough council meeting was cancelled because of the unexpected and sad death of Cllr Javed Akhunzada the evening before.
The month started extremely disappointingly with the removal of a 90-year old tree on Chiswick High Road near the junction of Chiswick Lane – a very permanent and brutal act for what is supposed to be a temporary scheme. The full Borough council met. More extreme disappointment. Most concernedly, our motion on climate change was so low down the agenda that there wasn't time for a debate – it moved straight to the vote after being proposed by Cllr Kuldeep Tak and seconded by Cllr Sam Hearn (it was originally proposed by Cllr Gabriella Giles, the group's environment spokesman, who couldn't attend this postponed meeting). It called on the council to re-emphasise its commitment to tackling the climate crisis, especially the pledge to become a carbon neutral authority by 2030, and to provide six-monthly updates on carbon emissions throughout the borough; to adopt a programme of carbon in-setting, not off-setting; and officially to endorse the Glasgow Climate Pact . Labour voted against the motion which tells you all you need to know. Our motion on increased street lighting for improved safety wasn't just voted against but was also ridiculed by Labour. I proposed this motion as a follow up to our repeated calls for better street lighting, raised at both the public meetings I had organised, in 2018 and 2019, on crime and the future of policing in Chiswick. As the Conservative group's spokesman on crime and policing, I have raised this every year since the council introduced its dimming and trimming policy which brought in lower levels of lighting for longer hours each night. It was raised by the Chiswick Shops Task Force, too, because of the impact lower lighting has on the night-time economy. Labour wasn't listening. We paid tribute to Cllr Akhunzada whose warmth, kindness and humour made Hounslow Council a better place regardless of party politics.
Christmas and the new year
It seems as if 2021 was busier even than 2020 and, as it comes to an end, both Christmas and the new year seem to be repeats of last year. I know that for many there will be gaps around the Christmas table from lives lost, felt more painfully because of the pandemic, and that some, like me, have partners, parents, family or friends who have grown distant because of dementia or Alzheimer's Disease. I cannot not visit Peter, my partner, on Christmas Day or Boxing Day – something I have not faced in the 40 years we have been together. My heart goes out to others whose Christmas and new year will not be as they wish. If you know of anyone in a similar situation, just call and say a quick hello; it will have a huge and welcome effect at what can be a very bleak time.
Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. All three of us have been reselected for the forthcoming local elections and we very much look forward to serving Turnham Green ward residents again, and welcoming Gunnersbury residents currently in Brentford ward to the new ward of Chiswick Gunnersbury, dependent, of course, on the results of the ballot on 5th May 2022.