Tuesday, 31 July 2012

NOLYMPICS III: Homelessness doubles as obscene spending continues

Manchester has 'very nice' areas no doubt, but it ain't home

A very sad day dawned today as at 6.45am I spoke to Susan Bookbinder on LBC about the increasing homelessness in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

The number of homeless households in K&C has almost doubled in the past three years to cc2,000 – including cc2,000 school age children – and is expected to rise further as housing benefits caps and cuts continue to kick in. Currently there are around 25 new households accepted as homeless every week – and this doesn’t count those who will not be accepted under the Homelessness and Housing Acts and will never appear on the books.

The impact of Universal Credit next April, coupled with rising rent in Council and housing association properties heading towards the unaffordable ‘Affordable Rent’, could drive people into debt, resulting in yet more households applying for homelessness so they are eligible for Temporary Accommodation (TA).

Now the Council is looking further and further afield for TA to find ‘competitive rates’. We have already seen families uprooted to Barking, Dagenham and further afield. The effect on physical and mental health, schooling, and employment prospects is devastating, and Councillors have already received heartbreaking requests to be ‘brought home’ by families on the brink of despair.

The Council now states it may be ‘forced’ to pay landlords in other boroughs over the odds to secure TA, thereby forcing up rental rates and chasing low income families from there as well. They are currently doing deals with Derby, Nottingham and Manchester, which we are told by the Cabinet member for Housing is ‘very nice’. Thus homeless families will be forced to accept being sent away from everything they know, jobs, families, schools, doctors, social networks, or be removed from eligibility to any housing whatever.

Meanwhile, the Council makes over £1m PROFIT from TA, by keeping the difference between government grants and the cheapest possible rent they can find.

Let’s put this into context. Around one-third of housing benefit/LHA recipients are low income workers; another third are disabled, pensioners or otherwise unable to work; just a third are currently unemployed. In the bizarre world of Kensington and Chelsea this can include property owners, of whom there are housing benefit recipients in every single area, Knightsbridge and Chelsea included.

Property prices in the borough are the highest in the land, and the Council is not only complicit but proactive in increasing them. One example is the sale of un-refurbished basement properties in Elm Park Gardens off Fulham Road. These derelict basements – which had previously been lived in as flats, whatever the Council says (they stated they were storage to avoid paying tax) – were kept off the market for nearly two years so they could ‘achieve the best price’; a case of property banking at its worst. Little corners of the borough are being sold off or bartered with developers – a new school for some private flats on the playground is the latest wheeze. Meanwhile family homes such as park lodges or a large former childrens’ home are being sold off on the open market; the income goes straight into RBKC’s ‘fun fund’ and can be used for whatever they wish.

Despite the above, the Council will bleat ‘there is nowhere to build social housing’.

Take that £1m profit, plus the proceeds of selling the children’s home, and think what you could do with that £8m to mitigate the devastating effects of what is no less than social cleansing. What the Council decided to do with their spare £1m however, is another matter entirely. Exhibition Road Show is a £1m jamboree, or rather, ‘a journey of discovery, a landscape of wonder … London’s most sophisticated street party.’

Click here for link to Road Show events

In short, Kensington and Chelsea Council is playing Monopoly with people’s lives, and using the proceeds on its ‘urban pleasure garden of culture’ and other frivolities.

The obscenity of profiting from the misery of homeless families or pregnant women living in B&B, or sent to live in Manchester, while spending £1m on ‘a landscape of wonder’ is so cynical and heartless it is breathtaking.

Monday, 23 July 2012

NOLYMPICS: It's my London too; Wornington Green 'muck-up'

The divide between north and south of RBKC has perhaps never been so keenly felt than at this moment.

Imagine the depth of cynicism involved in a decision to bleed your most disadvantaged communities of children's sports funding due to 'government cuts', while frittering roughly the amount saved into a whacking great boozy party lasting nine days.

Unimaginable, isn't it?

Yet this is what our Council has done. In the past three years the total of cuts to school sports amounts to  cc£750,000. This is enough to affect the long-term health, fitness, exercise habits and general well-being of an entire generation of young people, many of whom come from families desperately struggling just to put food on the table. Yet our Council has done this while obscenely and incomprehensibly squandering Council taxpayers' money on nine days of high-brow entertainment, the Exhibition 'Road Show' in South Kensington, involving street performers, circus acts and a staggering 10 open air bars. It kicks off every evening at 6pm. Drinks are being priced high 'to discourage binge drinking', though this will hardly concern the gilded youth of K&C.

Meanwhile, in the embattled estate of Wornington Green in North Kensington, the juggernaut that is Catalyst Housing (a so-called 'social landlord') decided, with no forewarning and no discussion or opportunity to raise problems, to demolish a popular children's skatepark on the first day of the summer holidays and plonk some ugly portocabins there instead.

This is apparently to 'speed up the development', a development which, in my experience of six years working there, no one wants, at least not what is on offer.

To stop this insult to some of the poorest children in the borough, we asked Catalyst, we asked senior officers, Directors and Cabinet members to intervene on the residents' behalf. Guess what? They don't give a stuff. We know this because email trails inadvertently forwarded show what we always feared, that they consider us all to be a great nuisance and a hindrance to the progress of this poorly conceived development.

So, a nine-day world of wonder costing £1m in South Ken, and bugger all for residents in North Ken, not even a popular though scruffy skatepark.


Saturday, 7 July 2012

NOLYMPICS: some thoughts on Olympic exclusion

You can smell it but you're not getting any

TfL and London 2012 have issued the following advice to ensure people enjoy ‘the best possible Games-time experience’. Read between the lines:

‘be prepared to wait for several hours and think carefully about bringing small children’
‘For some, it may be better to view the event … on TV at home, with friends, at a pub or local community centre’
‘TfL also repeated its advice to motorists and urged those in road event areas not to get caught out by the road closures necessary to stage the event’
‘Motorists are advised to avoid central London’
‘Don't get caught out - you will not be able to cross the race route by road’
On road event days road closures will be in place from early morning;
Instead, please use public transport, cycle or walk’

What they really mean is –

In K&C, ‘an Olympic borough’ we have had that advice in bucketloads. The tickets are far too expensive for mere mortals so we can’t think of attending. We have the volleyball competition but residents of Earl’s Court are afraid that local transport will be fit to bursting, possibly dangerously so. Many people have no idea how they will get to work.

So what’s in it for the citizens of North Kensington? Well the Council has cut the school sports budget by £750,000 over the past two years, so if any local young people are inspired by watching the Games obediently on telly they can forget it, there’s little or no funding out there to encourage you. There is allegedly a huge programme of performances on Exhibition Road costing a humungous £1m, but you’ll never get there as the buses will be even more log-jammed than usual. Anyway the Council doesn’t seem to want the proletariat down there, as there is nothing on the Council website to let you know what’s going on. Even residents local to South Kensington have no idea what’s going on right on their doorsteps, so evidently that’s going to be just for tourists too.

And if the poor dears wander up to North Ken to sample the delights of Portobello Market, they will be met with this sign just outside Ladbroke Grove station.

OK not really, but it’s beginning to feel like that.

So is the Council organising any Olympic-themed fun days for residents who can’t afford tickets?

No they are not.

Have they put on any fun events for children to encourage them to get involved in sports?

No they have not.

So what are they doing for the great unwashed masses of N Ken? Well it’s ‘a riotous feast of culture’ called InTransit, comprising ‘artist-led walks, interventions, promenade performances and commissions’, or an ‘unexpected programme of site-responsive events’. You really have to see this:

Apparently they will be taking Grade F polluted water from the canal, parading it around and then throwing it in the Thames.

This is so utterly barmy it not only appeared in our own dear Hornet’s Nest, but also in Private Eye Rotten Boroughs. Some days I am embarrassed to be a Councillor in RBKC, and this was one of them.

You know, I love the arts, and some of the events they are putting on are not bonkers, they are fine. This isn’t an issue about ART. This is an issue about where the Council prioritises its spending in straitened times.

In 2012/13 the Council cut £40,000 from voluntary organisations, over £300,000 from learning disability services, £279,000 from sports for schools (to add to the £500,000 last year), £200,000 from high need adolescents etc etc. Yet they managed to find £1m for ten days of ‘site-responsive events’ on Exhibition Road for tourists, an alleged £30,000 for the launch event party for the select few, and of course the legendary whopping £25m for paving the street – which gets so mucky it needs an extra £175,000 year on special cleaning, which they will need if the ten bars selling booze until late are allowed to open.

My advice to you is, judge the Council not by what they say, but what they do. Their priorities are very clear, and the good people of North Kensington are very far down the list. What is obvious is that there is money to be found for fun activities in the south and middle of the borough, and cuts to be found for the north. The divide between rich and poor in the ‘richest borough in Europe’ is getting wider. Some children go to school hungry, while overpaid executive directors and senior Councillors dream up ever more bizarre ways to spend Council taxpayers’ money ‘saved’ from supporting the vulnerable. This map might give you an indication:

Two Years of Brutal Cuts

A group of local churches, Faith in the City, will be holding an Olympic-themed event for children on Friday 27th at Emslie Horniman Park with stalls and games. I’m sure it will be lovely. For many, it will be the only Olympic event they will experience. In our Royal Borough this is a true reflection of just how much certain people in the Council, elected or employed, care about its poorest residents, and it's shameful.