I do hope you are well and continue to be so during this extraordinary time. I’m emailing as leader of the Conservative group on Hounslow Borough Council - councillors elected to the wards of Chiswick Homefields, Chiswick Riverside, Turnham Green and Feltham North (won in a by-election held on General Election day last December which seems decades ago).
While the world is changing all around us, some of it in our control some not, we wanted to let you know what we have been up to during this pandemic which has inevitably increased our councillor workload immensely. We also ask you to respond to an important consultation on walking, cycling and parking in the borough.
Roles of councils
Overall direction and day-to-day decisions were devolved by the government to councils, with chief executives and senior officers instructed and supported by Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, secretary of state for housing, communities and local government (MHCLG) and other relevant secretaries of state. These senior officers form the crisis Gold team. This does not mean that political direction has been totally absent locally - we have been working hard at giving our political direction when processes have gone awry and by anticipating or following up what is needed or requires attention and action.
Cross party working, a critical friend in private
Soon after the start of the pandemic, I wrote on behalf of the group to Hounslow council leader Steve Curran suggesting cross party working, with us being a critical friend in private, to avoid public spats when the focus should be on the pandemic and its impact on residents, businesses, care providers and council staff. Consequently, after a meeting with Steve Curran and chief executive Niall Bolger to discuss the many concerns we had, we have had weekly virtual meetings with the Gold team submitting some of our key questions in advance which enables supplementaries on the day. We raise difficult issues, challenge claims and push for shifts in focus and it is gratifying to see improvements. Hounslow’s cabinet has a similar weekly briefing with the Gold team. As managing the pandemic is easing, these meetings will be fortnightly from this week.
We meet virtually as a group the evening before the Gold meeting and immediately after the Gold meeting to discuss follow up and look ahead. Meeting as a group twice a week is unprecedented but brings huge benefits of concentration on key policies and safeguards. Meeting more often than we used to, including virtually, is likely to be the norm though there is no doubt that it is not so easy, in the virtual world, for everyone to be heard in the same way as when we are all in the same room. The number of emails and phone calls between and among us has increased hugely, too.
Inevitably, our concerns have shifted as the crisis has progressed but we have been constant in raising the most important subjects:
- Finances. A running issue with more questions asked by us than on any other subject. Spending on crisis management is a given; no-one questions cost against saving lives and rightly so. We do want a robust recovery plan and budget with a strategic review of operations and how the the council is reshaped to deliver new, clearly identified and essential services.
- Homelessness during a health crisis. The government’s requirement that all rough sleepers be housed, to protect themselves and others, was laudable and has created an immediate and significant reduction in rough sleepers in Hounslow (and nationwide). Our concerns turned to how they can be accommodated long-term - finding an alternative to expensive hotel accommodation - then Robert Jenrick announced funding for 6,000 long-term safe homes for vulnerable rough sleepers, 3,300 to be made available this year. It takes a crisis to tackle a crisis and the government deserves praise for recognising it must continue its strategic involvement for the long term.
- PPE and care. The focus has switched from getting PPE to all care staff, to standards of care and specifically what is being done to ensure action on CQC recommendations which highlight inadequacies in Hounslow.
- Education. Establishing virtual learning in schools revealed low take-up among less well-off students. Now we worry about how they will catch up, particularly if some schools do not reopen in June. Looked-after children are always on our agenda; we are keen for them to be encouraged to take up virtual education opportunities. Chiswick School has set an astonishingly high standard in every respect; its programmes and ways of engaging students in home-schooling opportunities are inspiring.
- Community support hub: Required by government, fulfilled by the council, some of us have volunteered at the hub (several of us can’t because of being shielded or isolating, and others have full time jobs) raising legitimate concerns about, for example, the freshness of some of the provisions.
- Business and retail. We look at this below in this newsletter.
- Volunteering and community support. We’ve all been impressed by the surge in volunteering and good will; we’d like to harness this community spirit post Covid-19 across the borough.
- Domestic abuse and domestic violence. One of several issues that will become more significant after lockdown is eased, the need for support is likely to increase as people currently trapped at home are able to escape abusive or violent situations. We are currently pulling together an article which includes comments from the Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird.
- Council operations. Staff have been working at about 80 per cent capacity - roughly the same as normal (accounting for holidays and sickness absence). Hounslow Highways has maintained its service, collecting waste and recycling, clearing fly tipping and graffiti as normal and residents have been suitably appreciative of their hard work, despite the risks, some leaving them bottles of fizz on collection day.
- Recovery and the future shape of the council. The crisis and redeployment of staff have revealed new roles for the council and untapped skills but how will these be funded in a world of debt and are some roles now expendable? Our new normal is not yet fully known; our concern is not to build a bigger democracy without a proper review.
- Restoring democracy: A concern from the start, we have pressed for council meetings to be reinstated. Parliament is meeting, in reduced numbers to meet social distancing. Other London boroughs have held borough council meetings virtually; all providing hindsight for others including us. Here, planning and licensing committees have met virtually with no hiccups. However, borough council meetings - the only chance to challenge Labour across its policies - have been postponed until September, cancelling meetings in May, June and July; there is normally no meeting in August.
Consultation on walking and cycling prompted by social distancing: deadline 25th June
Responding to social distancing requirements, the council has initiated a consultation on walking and cycling throughout the borough. We encourage you to add your views. The government has enabled experimental temporary measures to be brought in for walking, cycling and driving - all three - to reduce demand on pubic transport. The council has brushed aside the driving option, certainly in Chiswick. The council is already acting on suggestions and is currently looking at measures in Chiswick, including reducing parking, installing pop-up-cycle lanes and limited access to some roads to reduce traffic volume including Chiswick High Road, Chiswick Lane, Devonshire Road, Duke Road/Dukes Avenue, Fishers Lane and Turnham Green Terrace. Chiswick members might like to comment on these proposals and say where, if CS9 were to be implemented through pavement, social distancing will be compromised - and where parking must be retained to make shopping at independent shops possible. The proposals are borough-wide so please comment on roads where you live or work. All consultations are best when they have representation from all personal and political viewpoints. Here’s the link: https://haveyoursay.hounslow.gov.uk/traffic-and-transport/streetspace/
Walking and cycling policy
Meanwhile, on Monday, 18th May we published our policy on walking and cycling. COVID-19 has been a useful catalyst to look ahead, shifting the focus from CS9 to what we’d like to see locally (internally throughout the borough). We don’t yet know whether signs of increased cycling will be sustained for the long term which is why we call for temporary arrangements to be subject to a full and proper review, not automatically made permanent. Our press release and policy statement are on the B&I association website: https://www.brentfordandisleworthconservatives.org.uk/news/hounslow-conservative-councillors-welcome-new-government-policy-walking-cycling
Chiswick Shops Task Force
We have sent 11 briefing emails to independent traders in Chiswick outlining the extraordinary range and extent of government measures to support business and chasing up their applications for grants when the council was slow to process them. In the next week or so we will publish the task force recommendations for a vibrant and successful retail economy in Chiswick, now even more uncertain because of COVID-19. This is a plea to all of you please, if you can, to support our independents as they re-open and afterwards; they make Chiswick Chiswick. Very early on we published a list of shops remaining open for takeaway, delivery or online; this has now been taken over by chiswickw4.com and we continue to provide updates. It is not comprehensive because of the fluidity of the situation but it is the biggest list. It is now on the B&I association website: https://www.brentfordandisleworthconservatives.org.uk/news/local-shops-and-services-need-your-support
Don’t believe everything you read in the press
Some comments on social media about social distancing have implied chaotic queues outside independent shops where social distancing was impressively in evidence. It’s a nationwide phenomenon which is why the government paid for an advertorial in The Times warning about fake news, “Don’t let truth be a Covid casualty”. The point was well-illustrated in Bored Panda: https://www.boredpanda.com/different-perspective-telephoto-lens-vs-wide-angle-philip-davali-olafur-steinar-ry/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=BPFacebook&fbclid=IwAR37foZJJ0DEW3_neZgQwJGMXIKm5UfHjIZkhpx0uQO_iCu5OgZxAbZybW4
I hope you are enjoying our weekly blog on chiswickw4.com, now written by each of us in turn so readers have perspectives and variety. They are listed far down the weekly Sunday newsletter sent to subscribers; please scroll down to find them. And please forward the link to others. All are published on the B&I association website so you can catch up with them there, too: https://www.brentfordandisleworthconservatives.org.uk/blogs
The days of meeting over a glass of wine and a raffle seem long ago but we hope to see you in a new normality soon. In the meantime, we all hope you stay healthy - and have found this email interesting.
Councillor Joanna Biddolph on behalf of the Conservative group on Hounslow Council
Jo’s landline: 020 8896 9369
Jo’s mobile: 07775 902904