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"The Big Society is failing spectacularly in Hammersmith"

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Andy Slaughter

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Weekly Round Up

This week I had the pleasure of hosting an event at the Commons for the Hammersmith based company Sipsmiths. This company was founded two years ago by Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall, and is the first new gin distillery to open in London for 200 years. Sipsmiths is a great example of strong local enterprise, being driven by two dynamic young entrepreneurs.

I also visited another local success story on Thursday, online betting firm Betfair. The company, which was only founded 10 years ago has now become the largest online betting exchange in the world, and employs around 1000 people on Hammersmith embankment.

On Friday I visited the Prostate Cancer Campaign headquarters in Hammersmith. The charity employs around 100 people in central Hammersmith and raises nearly £20m a year to research and campaign in the fight against prostate cancer, one of the biggest killers of men every year.

Also on Friday I had the pleasure of attending Addison Primary School to talk to a class of year two pupils. I answered questions and told them what I do in my role as an MP. The kids were responsive and interested in what I had to say, and their behaviour was a lot better than is often encountered in Parliament!

It's always difficult to explain democracy to six year olds but as the whole class had been watching the events in Egypt on the telly I was able to them that it was what we had and what the protesters wanted and suddenly it all made sense.

Egypt - on the road to democracy

The fantastic news from Cairo that Mubarak has stepped down is a victory for the millions of brave Egyptians who took to the streets and defied his thugs. On Thursday night I was asked to go and commentate on the Islam Channel ahead of Mubarak's speech. There was a huge sense of deflation when he announced he was staying on. But 24 hours later people-power won the day and, although there is a long way to go, this is one of the most exciting events internationally since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Residents defiant despite building sales

There was no surprise at Monday night’s decision in Hammersmith Town Hall to go ahead with the firesale of community buildings.

Hammersmith & Fulham’s Tories have an unrivalled reputation for arrogance and disregard of the local community. But how it happened on Monday did surprise everyone present. That included over 400 people from every part of the borough and every type of background. From the eloquent deputations by representatives of Shepherds Bush Village Hall, Sands End Community Centre and the Irish Centre, to the tsunami of questions from opposition councillors and members of the public, to the attention of national and local media that saw it making headlines across the country.

These were unprecedented scenes and the Tories buckled. The leader of the council lost his temper, cabinet members who had rehearsed their crocodile tears about the closures forgot the script and burbled on incoherently or simply told outright lies. Matters descended into farce when opposition councillors queried how, without taking notes, the Tories could answer the 100 or more questions put to them. Of course they had no intention of doing so. They had made their minds up before they had come into the room. But attempting to respond they soon found themselves in deep water.

“We have found an alternative for the Shepherds Bush Childrens Centre which is quite acceptable to the current users,” said Councillor Binmore. Up to the microphone stepped Tina who has run Shepherds Bush Families Project for 23 years flatly contradicting what had just been said.

“Give us more time and we will raise the money that you want and keep the services running” was the message from the representatives, defeating the Tories only argument that they needed the sale to balance the books.

By 9pm it really looked as though they would withdraw the report and think again, having been completely outclassed and out-argued by the articulate audience, but, sotto voce, the Council Leader said to his colleagues, “Shall we just agree the recommendations,” and they did so in two seconds and adjourned before anyone knew what they had done.

Ignorant, cowardly, despicable.

But both the anger and the pride of the residents at what had happened meant that everybody left the hall in an upbeat mood knowing that they could beat the enemy and more determined than ever to save the community centres on behalf of the tens of thousands of residents who rely on them. Round 1 to us, and I think Rounds 2 and 3 will be as well.

The issue has gained increasing attention in the national press, with Ed Miliband choose Hammersmith as an example of where the "Big Society" is failing spectacularly.

Less democracy, more cuts in merger plan

Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham councils this week unveiled plans to merge.

If these proposals are to achieve economies of scale by sharing or merging administrative functions then that it is simply good practice which all councils should be doing at a time of financial stringency and the only remarkable fact is that these self-opinionated council leaders are making a huge fuss about it.

However the defensive tone of their statement and the pompous “sovereignty guarantee” suggests that something much more worrying is happening here, as indeed it is. By concentrating sensitive and important decision-making functions such as adult social services and children services in one borough they are denying access to hundreds of thousands of people in West London, they are abandoning localism and they are seeking to bind the hands of future administrations that may well have different views particularly if they are of different political persuasions.

Once again this goes against the Government’s rhetoric on devolution of powers and is something for which they have no mandate. It is already the case that elected opposition councillors and members of parliament from different parties are routinely denied information for political purposes and these steps are likely to increase the culture of secrecy that exists within these town halls.

Instead of axing the chief executive for Hammersmith, why don’t they reduce the salaries of all three chief executives by a third, particularly given they all earn more than the Prime Minister? The biggest con-trick in this document is the idea that this will in some way avoid frontline cuts. These three councils are national leaders in slashing frontline services; the half a million pounds Hammersmith aims to save from the merger next year represents less than 2% of their total savings. What is actually happening in these boroughs is sale of community assets, closing Sure Start centres, demolition of affordable housing, closure of youth clubs, closure of libraries, with most of the cuts targeted at the most vulnerable.

Tory Donors to Benefit from NHS Breakup

Who’s benefitting from the Tory-led government’s plans to privatise the health service? It looks like it’s going to be large donors to the Tory party.

John Nash and his wife Caroline, who have substantial interests in the private health care industry, bankrolled Health Secretary Andrew Lansley whilst in opposition, and made a number of other large donations to other candidates including £50,000 to my opponent in the last election.

Curiously it’s Care UK that’s just benefited from a new contract to deliver prisoners' health services in the North East. The private health care company was chaired by Mr Nash until last April when he stepped down, taking an advisory role on their board.

The funding scandal comes in the same week in which it has been revealed that over 50% of Conservative party funding comes from the City.

On Tuesday the Guardian reported that in 2010 funding from the City to the Conservative party accounted for £11.4m, a sharp increase compared to the £2.7m received in 2005, the year David Cameron became leader.

However whilst the financial sector commands such power over the Conservative Party at national level, at local level it’s even worse. During the Mayoral Elections in 2008, 77% of Boris Johnson’s campaign spending was donated by City grandees.

It is further proof that the Conservative-led Government’s weak policies towards the banks are dictated by personal allegiances and vested interests.

Sure Start cuts

It is becoming increasingly clear that the cuts being imposed on Sure Start centres in Hammersmith are not just being dictated by central government policy. The government maintains there is sufficient money in the pot to fund all Sure Start centres. While I doubt this is true, the council certainly has no mandate to close nine of fifteen centres. I raised my concerns during a Local government finance debate on Wednesday.

On Thursday I attended a meeting with parents and carers at the Cathnor Park Children’s Centre where we discussed the council’s plans to slash the money being given to children’s centres and condemn over half of them to closure. Unfortunately no Tory councillor was prepared to attend the meeting to explain themselves. Separately I met with representatives of all the threatened Sure Start centres to plan the campaign against closures. If you wish to be involved in our campaign please respond to this email.

Contact Andy by emailing andy@andyslaughter.com or call his office on 020 7610 1950.

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February 16, 2011