It has been a bumpy summer as we’ve felt locally the impact of a series of national and international crises.
In July ‘1 in 300 year’ floods saw hundreds of H&F homes swimming in sewage – was this climate change or neglect by Thames Water? In August the fall of Kabul in a matter of days left hundreds of local Afghan families fearful for relatives now hunted by the Taliban – and in September hundreds of Afghan refugees arrived without notice at hotels in Shepherds Bush and Fulham with little support from the Home Office.
One disaster after another has broken over the past decade: Austerity, Brexit, Covid and now the shortages, price and tax hikes and benefit cuts that announce the worst Cost of Living crisis for 40 years. Local resident and political economist Professor Steve Schifferes sent me this telling analysis last week.
It’s not just that we haven’t had time to recover from the last blast before the next one hits us. We are failing to deal with crises as they occur and so one is layered on the next. The stripping bare of public services – NHS, public health, local government – made us less able to respond to Covid. Failure to drive down infection rates has depressed the economy so the rise in national insurance, end of furlough and cut in universal credit will hit the least well off hardest. Ending freedom of movement has deprived us of essential workers leading to empty shelves, fuel shortages and crops left to rot. Constituents are sending me their new gas and electric bills: some have gone up by 200% or 300%.
All these problems are a dereliction of duty by government, whether directly or by failing to respond to challenges as they arise. Many are the fault of serial governments both here and around the world, but it is the current government that has to rise to these unprecedented challenges. Sadly, it is singularly unfit to do so.
The Cabinet reshuffle confirmed what many already suspected: this is to be a government in the image of the Prime Minister. Most important offices of state are held by what you might call front of house staff. People who enjoy the rough and tumble of politics, who think it is a game to be played for their (and their associates’) benefit. They are good at it – Gove, Shapps, Dorries, Truss are showpeople. They are there to distract, bluff and often deceive. They are having a good time. The trouble is while all the effort is going into keeping the band playing the ship is still sinking.
Sadly, we are unlikely to have a General Election for at least 18 months but there were clear signs this week that the Labour Party both understands the scale of the challenges facing the country and has the ability to deal with them. Keir Starmer is a serious leader for serious times and his speech to Labour Conference showed not only that he has the character to be Prime Minister but the policies too. On education, employment, mental health or green investment we heard radical but achievable – indeed essential – ideas to transform the country after so many wounds, many self-inflicted by the current government.
Retreat from Kabul
The UK foreign office and intelligence services, once unmatched for their skills and knowledge, no longer have their ears to the ground. That is the only conclusion to be drawn from the collapse in a matter of days of Afghan forces the west had spent 20 years building up to hold the country against the Taliban. We all watched in horror the scramble, by those whose lives were at risk for the help they had given Coalition forces, to leave via Kabul airport, but none more so than the thousands of Afghans already granted asylum in the UK.
Hammersmith has a large established Afghan population and I spoke up for them several times in Parliament in the past few weeks while my caseworkers tried desperately to help over 160 local families get their loved ones to safety. We later learned all our enquiries were being dumped – with millions of others – unread in government inboxes. Only where we could find backchannels did we get families out.
In many cases we were contacted by a father already resident in Hammersmith because his life had been threatened but whose wife and children were still in Afghanistan due to Home Office obstruction – indeed this continued after Kabul fell. Now we are trying not only to find out what documentation they need, but to establish what are the routes to safety, still with little or no response from government. Even as I write the Resettlement Scheme for Afghan refugees has still not been opened. If this is how the Government treats people who served our country, no wonder ‘ordinary’ refugees are vilified and threatened by the Home Secretary.
Meanwhile, and without any notice to the local authority, several hundred Afghan refugees were offloaded in a quarantine hotel in Shepherds Bush and hundreds more in a ‘bridging’ hotel in Fulham (ie for want of homes to place them in). They arrived without money or spare clothes and were told nothing about their future. The council found out they were there when the Home Office told them to find school places for the children.
July 12 saw west London suffer its worst floods for at least 14 years. Several hundred properties, many around Askew Road and Brackenbury Village as well as thousands more in K&C and Westminster, suffered surface water or sewer flooding – sometimes both. I want to thank Brackenbury Residents’ Association and LBHF among others for compiling a list of the properties affected. It mirrors closely the properties affected in the last major flood in 2007. This is significant as Thames Water claim this is an exceptional (1:300 year) event that could not have been predicted or prevented. Those of us with long memories beg to differ. Not only was the major Counters Creek flood relief scheme cancelled as unnecessary but many of the alternative mitigations (FLIPS and SUDS for those used to the jargon) were patchily completed.
I have met Thames Water to discuss their responsibility and the council is holding series of meetings with their senior management – including a planned public meeting (date to be advised). Thames do concede the response on the day of the floods was – to quote their corporate director – ‘bloody awful’ but deny liability for the damage caused.
Instead, they have set up an independent inquiry which will report back next spring on what happened and why and suggest what measures are now needed to prevent yet another flood. I am working closely with neighbouring MPs (we have held one debate already in Parliament) as well as the council and promise we will not let this rest.
It’s pretty clear what the government’s Covid strategy is for this autumn and winter. Try Plan A – no controls but more vaccination. Keep their fingers crossed, and if that doesn’t work try Plan B – selective use of Covid passports, compulsory masks, and a public information campaign including advice to work from home.
Let’s hope the fingers crossed works as Plan B is pretty nugatory and looks more like a way of appearing to act without imposing a further lockdown if things do get out of hand.
There are 70 Covid patient in local hospitals this week and vaccination levels are now around 54%, which is a bit better than when I raised the issue in the Commons two weeks ago but still troubling as we enter the flu season. Infection rates remain at 2-300 per 100,000 across north-west London. We do now have a network of local pharmacies which are giving out the vaccine and boosters, vaccination of under 16s and flu jabs are underway. This requires yet more work from tired NHS staff, so please help them and all of us by getting jabbed and staying healthy.
The continuing pressures on staff and beds from Covid is making it more difficult to get to grips with the backlog of five and a half million treatments in England, with poorer areas most affected. Locally, Imperial is doing a good job with surgery at 83% of pre-Covid levels and outpatient appointments at 97% in August and of course we still expect substantial refurbishment of Charing Cross and Hammersmith Hospitals. However, this is not due to start for up to five years and bizarrely the government has started referring to any improvement in service as a new hospital. What is urgently needed is sufficient funding for the NHS and social care to improve both the quality and speed of treatment and care. We are very far from that.
Natasha’s Law and an Allergy Tsar
One area where the NHS could do better is helping allergy sufferers. On 1 October Natasha’s Law comes into effect, the result of campaigning by Fulham residents Tanya and Nadim Ednan-Laperouse, whose daughter Natasha died because a sandwich she bought from Pret a Manger did not list its ingredients owing to a loophole in labelling rules. Now all such outlets must list their ingredients, but that is only the first step by the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation which is calling for a national clinical lead – or Allergy Tsar – to coordinate policy across healthcare and fill in further gaps in provision. I recently met Nadim and Tanya with shadow minister Alex Norris and will be raising the issue in Parliament. In the meantime, please sign the petition so we can get a full debate.
A year before the Grenfell Tower tragedy, 19-storey Shepherds Court on Shepherds Bush Green suffered a serious fire caused by a faulty Whirlpool tumble dryer. I have campaigned on the poor quality of electrical goods and the lack of consumer protection for buyers ever since as well as raising issues around the lack of action on cladding and fire safety generally and who is being made to pay for remedial work. A lot of the cost is falling on leaseholders but tenants and social landlords are getting no help at all from government, so it is their rents and funds meant to pay for repairs and building more affordable homes that are being diverted to strip cladding and install proper fire doors.
I held a debate on these issues in the Commons this month to mark the fifth anniversary of the Shepherds Court fire and got support from all sides – even the minister seem well-disposed, until he got sacked in the reshuffle the next day. Still, this like so much is a long haul.
Speaking of long hauls, the saga of Hammersmith Bridge rolls on. There were two good pieces of news this summer of course. Firstly, the reopening to foot and cycle traffic with the reassurance that temperature control should keep it that way and sensors should warn us if there is deterioration. Secondly, the engineers are asking a much more affordable £6m for permanent stabilisation at this loading (down from a previous estimate of £44 million). As the council has got quite a lot of stick over the past two years, perhaps I should point out that both these steps were initiatives by council leader Stephen Cowan and his colleagues – the government taskforce having seemingly given up the ghost.
However, the fact that the government have not yet produced their share of the £6m does not bode well for finding the £150 million for the main repair. I have a nasty feeling they will make another unrealistic demand that H&F can’t meet so they can point the finger in the run up to the local election next May.
Imperial College and White City
Last week I visited the Imperial College campus in White City to see what had been happening during lockdown and to be briefed on the innovative work on air quality by Professor Frank Kelly and the Environmental Research Group, the world leading centre for the study of air pollution.
We are incredibly lucky to have Imperial in the borough, a world leading university with plans to go on building and expanding for decades to come. They in turn attract big commercial and research partners to the area, providing thousands of jobs and accommodation for students, staff and workers on site. They also do great work with local schools and residents, including providing learning materials and equipment during lockdown.
Without Imperial the whole of the White City Opportunity Area north of Westfield would have been a lifeless wall of luxury identikit flats. The incessant demand for taller and taller buildings across the borough and west London generally (46 stories proposed in White City, 55 under construction in North Acton) seems unstoppable, but they are building on an inhuman scale.
I wonder if the recent attempt to have Grenfell demolished is to help the marketing of the many new tower blocks that overlook it rather than a real concern for public safety.
Tunnels of Hope
Tunnels of Hope was the lockdown brainwave of local resident and artistic consultant Ros Elwes. Working with professional artists and the pupils and teachers of St Peter’s Primary in Hammersmith, she transformed one of the subways under the A4 with artwork and post-lockdown messages of hope. I was delighted to be asked to open it last week. Do go and have a look – the exhibition is there until 4 November. And thanks to LBHF and TfL for their support.
The Upper Room
Shepherds Bush charity The Upper Room helps the homeless, ex-offenders and others in need, not only with the essentials of life but in finding a job, learning to drive or with counselling. Now they need your help to get clients through the winter and are appealing for warm clothes, but also laptops and phones that can be repurposed. More details here (I am a patron and can testify to their excellent work).
London Legal Walk
With Covid restrictions having eased, the London Legal Walk is once again taking place to raise money for legal advice charities.
As always, staff from our local H&F Law Centre will be taking part in the sponsored walk and they are looking for sponsors to help support the excellent work they do in the Borough.
In the last newsletter I wrote about the death of Colin Aherne who served Wormholt and White City as a councillor for 35 years and was the longest serving councillor in the borough. This month as we campaigned for his successor to be elected I was touched by the number of people who remembered Colin fondly as a person and for the help he gave them. He will be a hard act to follow but I am delighted to say that Frances Umeh was elected as the new Labour Councillor for the ward last Thursday with a thumping 70% of the vote – over a thousand votes clear of the next candidate. As the daughter of Mayor Mercy Umeh she already knows about public service and brings a youth and passion to the role.
Another legendary councillor died in April – Brendan Bird, who had devoted his life to the people of Sands End in Fulham. Last Sunday, with Covid rules relaxed, he could at last be remembered by the many people who knew him. Tributes, led by his wife, Viv, daughter Jessica and twin brother Tony, were made at his local church and at the new and spectacular Sands End Community Centre, which Brendan helped to create. I met Brendan when I joined the Labour Party in Fulham almost 40 years ago. We remained friends always but he never let party affiliation or personal friendship stop him speaking out for what he believed was right. It was why people of all parties and background gathered to toast his memory. We need more Colins and Brendans in public life. Fortunately they are still making them, as Frances I have no doubt will prove.