Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Bush Free WiFi at a cost

Lamppost WiFi: coming to the Bush
Shepherd's Bush is set to receive public WiFi in a deal hailed by the Council as free to the taxpayer, but is that really the case?

Back on May 15th our Council announced a deal with communications company Arqiva, which will see local lampposts fitted with network technology. Users will be able to access a whole 30 minutes free WiFi, after which they will need to pay up if they want any more, unless they want to surf the Council's own website, which will continue to be free.

In return, of course, Arqiva gets a vast infrastructure network which it can then rent out, at profit, to mobile phone and internet companies as they seek to provide 4G and other online services to consumers. H&F Council will receive what it described as "a share" of that profit.

Sounding a bit one sided? Well, there's more.

The Financial Times has revealed that Arqiva pays no corporation tax, despite making sales of £1 billion per year. It has done this, for the last four years, in part by borrowing money from its shareholders and agreeing to pay them back at a 13 per cent rate of interest. Those loans can then be used to offset tax. All perfectly legal, of course, but with politicians accusing Google of being "evil" for exploiting its own tax loopholes eyebrows have been raised at local authorities like ours being so keen to do business with other tax avoiders.

In light of this Councillor Greg Smith's own comment on the deal is curious. He said:
"This is a fantastic deal for taxpayers and the council. We know that many of our residents still do not have online access, so this deal will open up a new digital world to them".
Fantastic deal? And the "new digital world" will be open for, er, thirty minutes.

Speaking in respose to the Financial Times expose Simon Hughes, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats said:
"Central and local government must stop giving contracts to companies which do not pay their proper share of taxes"
While Arqiva boss John Cresswell had this to say in his defence:
"Arqiva has invested heavily in the UK’s infrastructure, including £630m in the digital switch-over. In recognition of this considerable investment in the UK’s communications infrastructure, the government has agreed a tax exemption for Arqiva from 2009".
You be the judge. 

Friday, 24 May 2013

West Ken: Greenhalgh in clear

Stephen Greenhalgh has been found innocent of corruption charges levelled at him by residents of the West Kensington & Gibbs Green Estate who are fighting the Council's plan to sell the estate to property developers. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) which I reported in January had launched an investigation into secret lists of tenants being promised new flats if they supported the Council's plans, has found there to be no evidence which supports the allegation.

The review threatened Mr Greenhalgh's present position as Deputy Mayor for Policing, and the big man had this to say:
"The IPCC has finally concluded that there is no basis to these defamatory allegations which were entirely politically motivated. I am extremely proud of my record as Hammersmith and Fulham Council Leader and I remain focused on serving London in my important role as Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime."
Note Mr Greenhalgh's deliberate use of the word "finally" - he and fellow Tories are known to be furious at the delay this review caused and the cloud it placed over the plans for the estate. Here's his replacement Nick Botterill, who has taken a similarly hardline approach to the estate:
"Stephen Greenhalgh was both an inspirational and transformational council leader and the residents of Hammersmith & Fulham have much to thank him for. The IPCC has concluded that the allegations against him, which were wholly politically motivated, had absolutely no merit or substance whatsoever."
And here's Harry Phibbs writing on Conservative Home:
"It is important part of our open society for genuine complaints to be investigated. But some accountability is needed against these malicious complaints. Wasting police time is an offence. Making bogus complaints amounts to the same thing. How much of the IPCC's £32 million budget is devoted to them? How many beat police officers could that fund? How much police time is diverted from crime fighting to deal with ridiculous complaints?"
Regular readers will know I completely disagree with this Council's approach to the estate and its residents, but it is difficult to disagree that the system for handling complaints of this nature needs to be a lot better than it is now.  

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

H&F Hospital closures slammed

The Evening Standard reports that a leading Professor has slammed the effective closures of our hospitals by the Council and NHS bosses, warning of the danger to patients in need of emergency care and the degradation of the facilities that survive the cuts.

Professor Simon Shorvon told the Standard that the removal of all A&E departments in Hammersmith & Fulham, which was agreed between the Council and NHS bosses in a secret deal revealed with much PR at the time, would lead to greater time in taking casualties to emergency care. That is stating the obvious, you might think as ambulances try to weave their way through traffic to Middlesex through our clogged up streets, but is flat denied by the NHS while ruling councillors tend to look at the floor and shuffle their feet. You can see what local campaigners think in the video above, taken at a recent rally on King Street, Hammersmith.

Our Council has defended its deal with NHS chiefs, essentially saying it was the best on offer, but its claim to have "saved" Charing Cross Hospital has been met with widespread ridicule. Professor Shorvon has described the long term degradation of even the surviving services, in the shrunken "community hospital" that is left.

Meanwhile Ealing Council and local campaigners are set to use the 40th birthday of Charing Cross Hospital as a rallying point in their effort to genuinely save the hospitals of the borough. Taking place at the hospital today, the event will mark the opening of ‘ new’ Charing Cross Hospital.

First opened in Villiers Street in Charing Cross, off the Strand in 1821, by Dr. Ben Golding as the first hospital for the poor who flocked to London for work in the new factories. It was London’s first teaching hospital and Medical School for doctors, professional nursing and medical staff and was moved to its present site on 22 May 1973. Community campaigners will hope this is one of many celebrations to come.

Monday, 20 May 2013

A Chinese University Campus ... in White City

Bush Blog Editor Bart Govaert reports on the arrival of a Chinese University in the Bush ... now there's globalisation for you:

It is widely reported that Zhejiang University, one of China’s top schools, is planning a research centre in a deal with Imperial College.

The deal is non binding, so anything can still happen.

The Zhejiang London campus would be part of the Imperial West buildings that are planned.

Personally, I welcome the presence of a world class university in our area. (There was some talk of Chelsea FC moving to the site, just what we need - even more football traffic).

This being said, the overall plans for Imperial West are very ambitious indeed, with some very tall buildings, and if I would live “in the shadow” I’d be unhappy as well.

A Chinese University in White City?? It shows how the world goes nowadays.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Council spend £800K on B&Bs

Our Council has increased its spending by 12 times since 2011, housing homeless families in bed & breakfast accommodation as it sells off available council housing to property developers. I last reported on the selling programme back in 2011 when it was even featured on the BBC. The Council insists that the purchasers of the property do not live in the borough themselves, guaranteeing that it is purchased by developers. As the presenter of the programme described at the time:
"This restrictive clause is essentially a way for the Council to keep all the money made from the sale. If the buyer lived in the flat the government would receive 75% of the capital. So it's good for the council but of course that does limit its attraction to buyers."
Since 2011 the human cost of that policy has mounted, as has the financial. Andy Slaughter recently submitted a Freedom of Information request which forced the admission of the escalating spending on B&Bs. You can read the response above.

Speaking yesterday Andy said:
“Hammersmith & Fulham Council are spending almost £1 million a year keeping families in unsuitable bed & breakfast hotels. One hotel alone is getting £250,000 of taxpayers’ money. But this is the same Council that deliberately demolishes, sells off, keeps empty and refuses to build more affordable homes. Their extremist policies are exposed not only as immoral but financially incompetent.”
Our Council dispute this interpretation, and speaking in response to the story in 2011 claimed that in fact it was a means of generating much needed funds. Here's Cllr Harry Phibbs speaking on the local Tory blog:

"The proceeds go to the Decent Neighbourhoods pot. They help pay for the capital maintenance programme - especially to reduce crime and anti social behaviour. For items like the current works at Fulham Court (including the Children's Centre) which cost £4.5m"

"The funds will also help develop or acquire new affordable housing to meet identified housing needs, including where appropriate extension of current properties - for instance the "Hidden Homes" programme. It will also fund tenant incentive initiatives (qualifying as capital expenditure) that free up council housing which is in demand for those in housing need (e.g. the need for larger family accommodation)."
Sounds great in theory - but the numbers revealed by the Freedom of Information request make sobering reading; in 2009 2 families were in B&Bs, in 2010 when the current Council came to power it was 15, by 2011 when the house sell off programme began it rose to 58, while in 2012 it had rocketed to 365 families.

This rapidly escalating B&B spending would suggest that instead of funding new and upgraded homes, it has instead gone into the trouser pockets of B&B owners. Unless I'm missing something that would mean this policy has impoverished the most vulnerable, cost taxpayers vast amounts of money with the only real beneficiaries being the B&Bs.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Bush Green to open with bang!

There may be ice cream
People who live, work and visit Shepherds Bush are all invited to the official opening of Shepherds Bush Green.I'm told that "a local celebrity" will officially open the Green on Monday, May 20, at 3pm. There will also be a jazz band and Victorian-style funfair attractions.

Hundreds of local children have already been enjoying the two new state-of the-art playgrounds and local people have been visiting the site in their droves. Paths have been resurfaced, with several being widened and new CCTV and lighting installed. The Grade II listed war memorial has also been reset onto a new granite stepped plinth.

And now Hammersmith & Fulham (H&F) Council is inviting the community to come and see the revamped Green for themselves.

The improved Green will be officially opened by the Mayor of Hammersmith & Fulham, Cllr Belinda Donovan and a local celebrity on Monday at 3pm.

The vast majority of the Green has been open to the public since last October and the council has received plenty of positive feedback from users.However, a small section of the Green has been closed following a catalogue of delays outside of the council’s control.

First of all soil was found to contain ash, ceramic, bricks and other impurities, which would have been used to level the site after the Second World War. Then workers had to down tools as there was a London-wide embargo on this kind of construction during the Olympic and Paralympic period.

Next, the Green fell victim to the weather. 2012 was the second wettest year on record and a section of the Green became flooded. The council’s contractor, FM Conway has now aerated the section in question and turf has been laid.

In fact the delays were made worse by our Council's refusal to listen to the views of local residents on the new look of the Green, which resulted in a prolonged and drawn out public inquiry by the Planning Inspectorate, which eventually found a compromise between the two parties back in 2011. 

H&F Council deputy leader, Cllr Greg Smith, said:
“After several infuriating delays, we are delighted that the improved Shepherds Bush Green officially open on Monday. We have already received rave reviews about the Green and it has been incredibly disappointing that we have not been able to open a small section of the area.

“Nevertheless, we are confident that those who live, work and visit Shepherds Bush will agree that the wait has been worthwhile and we now have a Green to be proud of.”
Despite delays the £2.6m project is expected to come in on budget. At last.

Ravenscourt Park - 125 years

Bush Blog Editor Bart Govaert reflects on a milestone passed for a cherished local park...

Ravenscourt Park is one of the delights of our borough. Our own children seem to have grown up largely between the paddling pool and the play areas and even though we now live a bit further out, “the park” is still always Ravenscourt Park. The council does a great job keeping everything in good shape, continuing to improve the infrastructure (most recently the basketball court which seems to be a great success).

The park opened to the general public on the 19th of May, 1888. To celebrate the happy event there will be a choral evensong on May 19 at the Holy Innocents Church, Paddenswick Road, at 6pm.

The history of the park is really interesting.

Originally it was a Manor (housing, amongst others, a Royal Mistress). By the 1870s, the park was owned by the descendants of George Scott (who also developed nearby St Peter Square). Ravenscourt House was destroyed during WWII, apart from the stables, which are now the Tea House.

The Scott family sold the estate to a developer, who wanted to build over the whole park, and set up to buy up the leases of the various houses round the park (the leases included a clause that forbade to build over much of the rest of the park). The leaseholders largely sold out.

Mr Burchett and Mr Dethbridge, however, strongly disagreed with the development plan, and hatched a clever plan, demanding £1,000 for their lease. This was an outrageous sum, but all other leaseholders followed suit, making the development economically unviable. The developers had to give up their plans,instead selling the park to the Metropolitan Board of Works (which later became the London City Council).

Thank you Mr Burchett and Mr Dethbridge, the local kids are grateful, 125 years later!

(sources: LBHF website,, and Wikipedia)

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Bush Business: Champion Driving School

Every now and again this blog likes to give a plug to a local business that’s well worth checking out, and one of those beyond a shadow of a doubt in my mind is the Champion Driving School.

I should know, I’m a former pupil!

If you know anyone in need of lessons do give them a call. The instructor is likely to be local W3er John Powell, who runs the business, and is an all-round nice guy. He is also a very good teacher. When I was learning he was in training to do a charity walk, so every lesson I got an update on his progress, as I calmly cranked the living daylights out of his gearbox.

In fact my experiences learning to drive in W12, about 5 or 6 years ago now might have been a mirror image of many people’s. Not wanting to spend more than I had to I contacted BSM thanks to their blanket advertising, but 10 lessons later with a frankly terrible instructor (who I later heard had been sacked), I was no closer to either passing my test or saving any cash.

One day walking down the Old Oak Road I happened on John in his car and booked a couple of lessons, after not very many more, all of which were a pleasure, I found myself at the test centre and passed without any problems. The difference seemed to be that John genuinely wants you to pass, whereas others seem to have an eye on you needing more lessons. And after bumping into him earlier this evening, after all that time, he remembered exactly who I was and stopped to have a chat.

So if you are reading this and are either thinking about learning yourself, or know someone who is, do give John a call. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend him as an instructor, and as a local business that runs on a conscience as well as a profit margin I’d say they’re well worth our support.

Bush Market: TfL oppose Council

Transport for London are opposing our Council's attempt to issue compulsory purchase orders to evict the traders of Shepherd's Bush Market. 

The admission followed heated scenes at the London Assembly last week as Murad Qureshi AM put Graeme Craig, the Commercial Director of Transport for London (TfL) on the spot over the future of our market. It was a fairly classic skewering, as you can read from the transcript here, with Murad putting two questions which both elicited a fairly damning response from TfL.

What followed was a letter from TfL which confirms that they are opposing our council's attempt to force out the market traders, which you can read above.

It is an often forgotten fact that the landlords of our market are in fact TfL rather than our council, who are currently hellbent on bullying traders and shop-owners out with compulsory purchase orders, despite clear on the record promises not to do so. In all the sound and fury TfL basically get off scot-free so so this was a very welcome shining of a light onto their own record.

It turns out, in response to Murad's first question, that TfL make nearly £1million a year from the advertising hoardings sited just on the approach to Westfield shopping centre. That's from a total of £4 million per year. In other words TfL are coining nearly 25% of their total advertising hoarding income from boards that are sited almost directly above the market area, which they own.

But more damning than that was the guff that was to follow in response to Murad's second question which was why TfL were not using a penny of that cash to invest in the market area. The answer, translated into English from the very long winded version (page 32), was "because we don't have to."

In fairness Mr Craig was taken somewhat by surprise by the questions and hadn't been briefed, but gamely answered them anyway. And Murad is to be congratulated for managing to get the questions asked at all after the chair John Biggs, quite pompously tried to bat them away. If he'd succumbed to the pomposity of Mr Biggs we would never have received what, for this area, is very interesting news.

What it does show, however, is that TfL have been not only complicit in the treatment of this unique piece of our heritage but have actually been making vast sums from the area while not paying a penny piece back for the privilege. Murad takes a more diplomatic view, remarking to me last week:
"It just confirms to me that TfL are very poor in managing their non-transport assets like Shepherds Bush market and don't the most of them being the centre of their local communities and thus opportunities for some urban regeneration" 
He has written his own blog on the situation here, which is well worth reading. It underlines how an alternative to the bullying and intimidation currently being pursued by our council could well be a solution similar to London Bridge market, another historic community asset owned by TfL and thriving as a result of real investment from their landlords.

We now know the traders have successfully pushed this project over the local elections line next year, so a future Hammersmith & Fulham council may wish to explore that option with TfL, particularly since they too seem to be far from convinced by Orion the property developers approach.

(As a postscript, for me this underlines the need for most of us to take the Assembly a bit more seriously than any of us really do. It's a democratic check and balance to the power of officials, and we wouldn't now know what we do without this session having taken place. Our council were not about to tell us, and neither were TfL. With the ongoing pantomime of Boris it's not hard to see why it's easily dismissed but I remember a session back in 2009 that left me with the same sense that Londoners really should know a lot more about how their lives are shaped by what happens at City Hall).