Grenfell, Brexit and reflections on elections

Firstly, I want to say a very big thank you to everyone who voted for me in June’s General Election. It was the strangest of the nine General Elections I have worked in.  When the campaign started the polls said it was touch and go whether we would hold the seat and in the end we won almost two thirds of the vote.

92% of voters in Hammersmith went for one of the two main parties, and turnout, at 72%, was significantly higher than it was here two years ago and above the average for the UK.  I think we are still mulling over why this was, but two obvious factors were that many people who don’t always vote did this time and that Brexit, or the type of Brexit the Government was (and is) pursuing, is alarming most people in Hammersmith.    

Secondly, although the government hasn’t changed, the political world has.  Even Brexit hardliners are beginning to talk about a ‘transition’ of several years, and Remainers are emboldened. Harmful policies like the ‘dementia tax’ and cutting pensioner income have been binned and some money has been found for schools – albeit from other bits of the education budget. The decision on the Third Runway has been pushed back until next year at the earliest.

Thirdly, we have a lame-duck Government (and PM), which is simply not going to tackle the real problems I discussed on the doorstep for seven weeks.  The tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed how deep-seated our housing crisis is:  if we can’t help 200 families in the direst of need, how can we help the millions inadequately housed in our country?  

Charing Cross remains under threat, demolition only postponed by the work of local campaigners and other failures in our under-funded NHS.  Debt, low pay and poor working conditions are affecting a growing number of people from students to nurses.  Of one thing I am certain: neither Theresa May nor any of the ‘colleagues’ jockeying for her job have a solution to these profound problems.  On the contrary, they have caused or exacerbated them for the past seven years.

So, perhaps masochistically given how gruelling they are, I am yearning for the next Election to be called.  

Lessons from Grenfell

I woke up about 6am on 14 June and already had messages about what was happening two miles away in north Kensington.  By then the Chief Executive of Hammersmith & Fulham was phoning her opposite number in Kensington & Chelsea to offer staff, housing and other assistance (which like similar offers from other boroughs was ignored).  

Firefighters had forced their way almost to the top of Grenfell Tower, miraculously rescuing some people from the 19th and 20th floors.  But at least 80 people had died, and died in the most horrific of circumstances.

I visited the scene that day and on most days for the next two weeks.  Sometimes to meet volunteers, to assist Kensington’s new MP, Emma Dent Coad, to speak with the media and to try and make sense of an extraordinary national tragedy that had happened on our doorstep.  At the time I was shadow minister for Housing and for London, until sadly but inevitably sacked for voting against a three-line whip on 29 June.

Not that that makes any difference to my focus on Grenfell, which I think will be – certainly should be - the dominating issue for this Parliament.  I say that because it has exposed so many flaws in our society.  If this does not shake us out of complacency at the way public services have been cauterised, I’m not sure what will.  

These are just some of the Grenfell issues:

•    Once again an electrical fault has caused a major fire, as in Shepherds Court last year.  If this also turns out to be a known problem with a kitchen appliance, the campaign I have been pressing for proper registration and recall of defective goods will be redoubled. Yet the government report following the Shepherds Bush fire, which was published last week and seven months late, contained none of the recommendations demanded by Which? and other consumer and fire safety bodies.

•    The way the Grenfell fire spread – from bottom to top of the 24 storeys in minutes, has drawn attention to the cladding used to spruce up many tower blocks built in the 60s and 70s.  It appears that the inherent safety of these concrete blocks, which usually contain fires in a single flat, has been compromised by flammable insulation and covering.  This is extraordinary, but only made possible by the weakening of building regulations.  Hammersmith & Fulham along with other councils is rightly doing a full review of the safety of its high-rises, and has put together a £20 million programme of improvements.  But it is astonishing that standards have slipped to such an extent – let’s hope we have heard the last of ‘health & safety gone mad’.

•    The response to the disaster by RBK&C was worse than negligent.  Sadly, the same people are still in charge, although an external team of London chief executives is temporarily pulling things together.  Had this not been a prominent Conservative council I’ve no doubt commissioners would have been sent it to run things until next May’s elections.  Almost 100 survivors were booked into hotels in Hammersmith, and initially left without money or a change of clothes.  They were ‘found’ by local residents and businesses who rallied round and alerted H&F council, who then stepped in.  But how extraordinary that this could happen in west London in 2017.  And most of the Grenfell families are still there having had no adequate offer of permanent housing.

•    The neglect of health and safety at Grenfell was one part of the neglect of the tenants and leaseholders on that estate, despite their repeated and articulate warnings. It is typical of the way council and other social tenants have been treated by landlords, contractors and government.  Social housing still houses eight million people in the UK, and 30% of residents in H&F.  But it has become a victim of our self-inflicted housing crisis, which sees too few homes built, estates ‘redeveloped’ or sold off, as at West Ken, and tenants’ voices ignored.  I sincerely hope the Public Inquiry into Grenfell will extend its remit to look at this issue, which was at the route of the tragedy.

Brexit, what is it good for?

The answer increasingly looks like ‘absolutely nothing’.  What strikes me is how much time ministers like Liam Fox and David Davis spend trying to mitigate the problems of losing the trading relationship with our closest and biggest partners.  It begs the question, why are we doing it?

The simple answer is because the country voted to Leave.  But the country has the right to change its mind, and may well do so.  In the meantime any responsible government would guarantee that nothing will happen to make us worse off for the sake of it.  Hence the new battle within Brexit. On one side, the Brexit pragmatists, are talking about a 'transitional phase' going up to 2022, where we keep the same trading relationship with Europe but without having a say on how the EU is run.  The Hard Brexiters oppose this and prefer the ‘cliff edge’.  And you can see why:  the longer we spend in the single market and customs union and the more difficult it is to find acceptable alternatives, the more Leave voters are likely to say ‘maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all’.

Save the NHS – from itself

Last week I visited the new Imperial College Campus in Wood Lane.  Huge investment, public and private, is creating the research hubs and laboratories that are going to keep the UK at the leading edge of medicine, and house the students, clinicians and professors from around the world who are going to sustain those advances.

Meanwhile, a mile away, Imperial Healthcare Trust continues to threaten one of the country’s leading teaching hospitals, Charing Cross, with demolition and replacement with primary care facilities.  This is just so mad that I find myself, even after five years of rehearsing the arguments, dumbfounded whenever I come across Jeremy Hunt’s mouthpieces among the NHS management locally.

I am now much more confident we will win the battle to save Charing Cross – 2022 now appears to be the earliest date for their demolition plans to start – but at what cost?  Huge uncertainty, a colossal effort, and millions of pounds and productive hours lost.  

So meet the new Government, same as the old government.  But hopefully not with us for long.

In the meantime, have a good summer.  I leave you with some positive local stories.

•    Sister Mary Joy, who runs the Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre, providing horse riding for many local schools and hundreds of disabled children, walked a marathon this month to raise funds.  She has almost raised £10,000 – please help her to hit her target.

•    Sue James, of Hammersmith Law Centre, celebrated 28 years as a legal aid lawyer by winning a national award for Outstanding Achievement at the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Awards this month.

•    The 266 bus will no longer run through the borough.  Why is this good news?  Because many of us who live around the Askew Road believed it stopped running 20 years ago, so bad is the service.  And it will be replaced by two new routes – the 218 and 306 – as part of a shake-up of services by the Mayor.  This should make the service to Hammersmith more frequent and reliable – but make your own mind up and have your say here

•    Lidl is the new Morrison’s.  The W12 Centre has finally secured a replacement for Morrison’s who closed their Shepherds Bush store at the end of last year.  Everyone I have spoken to is pleased with the prospect of a new supermarket with a reputation for affordable pricing arriving.

•    Hammersmith resident Bill Bailey is, as I write, walking the Ridgeway to raise money for Stand up to Cancer.  Find out about the walk  and sponsor him here.

 

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