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HIghgate LibraryCouncillor Sian Berry writes:

The council’s ‘Camden Challenge’ is asking for ideas to raise money and cut costs in the face of a dramatic cut to central government grants to local councils.

In our response – read the full document and all our ideas here – we have tried to embrace the spirit of the Camden Challenge and propose a range of revenue-raising methods that will contribute to closing the deficit, as well as a number of capital investments that could be made now to reduce revenue requirements in future, including external wall insulation, LED street lights and solar panels on council properties.

We also propose increased spending on a range of bottom-line measures for the Green Party, including honouring the Council’s commitment to the Ethical Care Charter and to pay the Living Wage to those employed by contractors.

We are also saying – once again – that people in Camden should be asked in a referendum about a rise in Council Tax of more than 2%. The fact that Camden’s public engagement exercise has so far shown more than six in ten people support a 2% rise shows that there is a limit to the cuts in public services people are willing to take, and that they are willing to pay to preserve the services Camden provides.

We know, however, that raising Council Tax now, after a seven year freeze, can only go a small way to closing our upcoming deficit. And we know that Council Tax is not a fair tax, nor is it adequately progressive, taking little account of income except by concessions for those at the very bottom of the wealth scale.

To properly solve these problems, the next Government has to act, and councillors from other parties, should be doing much more to put pressure on their national policy makers to address the crisis in local services and reform local government finance. If they fail, then whatever clever ideas we come up with in Camden will be nothing more than a sticking plaster under which local public services will eventually wither away to nothing.

Caroline Lucas MPA proposal in Parliament

On 28 November, Green MP Caroline Lucas tabled an Early Day Motion to highlight the cuts to local government.

It moves:

“That this House believes that under the guise of austerity, central government is slowly but surely putting an end to local government as we know it; notes that from 2010-11 to 2015-16 core central government funding to local authorities has been slashed by 40 per cent whilst local government responsibilities increase; further notes that demand for council services is growing and that people are suffering under government policies harming the poorest and most disadvantaged such as the bedroom tax, cuts to tax credits and benefits and the increase in VAT… and therefore calls for the cuts to local government funding to be reversed and for local government to be protected from further cuts to enable local authorities to provide cherished community services as well as vital social services such as support for looked-after children, care-leavers, users of adult social care, older people, homeless people, low-income families in crisis, disabled people, those with special educational needs and emergency help to survivors of domestic violence.”

Although a number of Labour MPs are signed up, so far no Lib Dem or Conservative MPs and neither of Camden’s two Labour MPs have supported the motion.

Read more here:  http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2014-15/579 

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By Kirsten de Keyser
Political blogger and campaigner

On Tuesday 9 December the OECD, the west’s leading economic think tank, dismissed the concept of trickle-down economics as it found that the UK economy would have been more than 20% bigger had the gap between rich and poor not widened since the 1980s.

This is a staggering assertion and the report makes for required reading during these dark December evenings. Granted, the economically enlightened would already have guessed that stretching the inequality elastic to pinging point could not be healthy. But reducing the size of an entire economy by 20%? That’s calamitous, to be sure.

So how do we compare here in Camden? Acutely socially aware, borne out by a Labour controlled Council, a great hooray, a lot of back slapping and town hall flag hoisting went on back in October 2012. Green Party Councillor Maya de Souza had been one of the instigators of the Council’s commitment to pay all staff the London Living Wage and a justly proud Camden became one of London’s first boroughs to be accredited as a LLW Employer by the Living Wage Foundation.

And congratulations were certainly in order. Despite swingeing slashing of budgets across the board, Camden Council had somehow found a way to do the right thing; reducing the income inequality of its workers by lifting the lowest paid up to the London Living Wage.

‘Please can I have some more Sir?’
But despite all the 2012 fanfare and fireworks, it now transpires that the much trumpeted LLW commitment will not be fully met for another two years. The excuse is that the pay increase cannot be added into existing contracts, for legal or other administrative reasons. For example, Camden’s dinner ladies will not be paid a living wage until 2016 – four years after the pledge was made.

And that’s a disgrace. Camden Council should simply top up wages to meet the London Living Wage for all staff. If an organisation cannot pay its staff enough to live on, it should not be in business. Passing the buck to the DWP Tax Credit budget or the Housing Benefit department is not only immoral, it is incompetent.

The Green Party of England and Wales has called for the statutory minimum wage to be immediately lifted to Living Wage levels and for a £10 per hour minimum wage for all by 2020. And not a moment too soon.

Twitter: @kdkwifi
Blog: http://whatwouldborgendo.wordpress.com/
Project:NB https://paper.li/kdkwifi/1391956794

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Sian Berry and Maya de Souza at Camden Library, which is currently shifting to be largely run by volunteers

Sian Berry and Maya de Souza at Highgate Library, which is currently making the shift to be largely run by hard-working volunteers

By Sian Berry, Green Councillor for Highgate ward.

At Monday’s full council meeting, Councillor Flick Rea and I have proposed in a motion that the Council should set up a reserve fund to help community centres and libraries stay open and keep providing vital services.

Supporting libraries and community centres was top of our manifesto commitments in the local elections and this idea is something I first talked about in the summer at the Resources and Corporate Performance scrutiny committee.

At the July meeting of the committee we were asked to look at Camden’s plans for how to deal with an £8 million underspend in last year’s budget, which were to allocate the remaining funds to various reserves, many of which were already stocked beyond was required to deal with risks to other Council functions.

At the scrutiny committee, I made some suggestions for better uses, including topping up outsourced contracts so they would pay care workers and other staff the London Living Wage, and for a reserve fund to help give more security to the many community centres and libraries that are moving towards more self-sufficiency, fundraising and volunteer working.

The second suggestion didn’t go down completely badly with either officers or the other councillors on the committee so, with Cllr Rea, I’ve put the proposal to the whole Council in a formal motion.

You can see what happens on the webcast of Monday’s meeting, which will be shown here: http://democracy.camden.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=149&MId=5022

This is the text of the motion, which we hope is worded in a way that all parties can support:

This council:

Is committed to ensuring all residents have access to quality local public services, including local libraries and community centres. These facilities are vitally important to meet the health, educational and social needs of protected groups and to support residents of all ages.

Recognises the enormous budget pressures on the Council and the rationale for seeking opportunities for local community services to become more self-funding over time.

Recognises that current plans for increasing the self-sufficiency of many community centres and libraries are ambitious, can depend heavily on the effective mobilisation of volunteers, often by other volunteers including hard-working board members and steering groups, and frequently involve creative ways of extending services and significant changes to the way facilities are run and managed.

Is concerned that some of these changes may take time to fully reach their potential, and that some facilities will face difficulties when first implementing them and even the risk of closure in the coming years if fundraising and income targets are not met.

Believes that allowing vital public facilities to stop services or close due to short-term difficulties during a transition period, then trying to revive them later (perhaps once management teams and developing community networks have disbanded) represents poor value for money, and that short-term support to keep facilities open and running smoothly while obstacles are overcome would be a good use of council funds, if administrated in a responsible way.

This council therefore:

Supports the creation of a specific reserve fund in the 2015-16 budget for Camden, aimed at helping community centres and libraries through short-term difficulties on their way to becoming more self-supporting.

Suggests that this reserve fund can be created by the reallocation of funds from other reserves without impact on the overall budget of the Council, and that the support it would provide would save money overall.

Calls on the Leader of the Council and the Cabinet to investigate and consider this proposal while preparing next year’s budget.

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In the second post of our series, Green Councillor Maya de Souza writes about the work that has gone into securing better conditions for council staff:

caroline_maya250

As residents will know, a Green Party slogan is ‘Fair is worth fighting for’. Green Councillors have pursued this cause with conviction. The key issues for us have been a living wage, not only for council staff but for the contracted-out as well. We asked through scrutiny committees and full council meetings for the living wage to be paid in the 2006-10 council.

The Tory-LibDem administration made a commitment to put all Camden directly employed staff on the living wage. But the Greens said this was not enough. The big issue was, continues to be, the outsourced staff, school catering and social care workers among others. Camden should not have a two-tier workforce.

We showed in our subsequent budget amendments that a living wage across the board could be financed. During the 2010-14 period we have continued to raise concerns about the exceptions that Labour were making, despite signing up as a Living Wage borough. They claimed it was too late in the contracting process to include the living wage in catering staff contracts and too expensive to pay social care workers a living wage! The Greens led a cross-party challenge and we’re pleased to say that in the end Labour made a commitment to pay care workers a living wage within two years. That’s still not good enough but it’s better than nothing.

Employment practice – Another aspect of fairness is non-discrimination in employment. This has been a major aim for me, given my experience, as an employment lawyer, on how discrimination materialises in day-to-day life. It’s not always deliberate, but often a result of stereotyping and poor procedures that allow too much subjectivity, as when managers choose people ‘like us’.

With the support of knowledgeable residents I’ve asked questions and sought to ensure proper monitoring. This involved looking at how agency staff is recruited for well-paid temporary employment posts and whether the Council discriminated against some groups of people in recruiting. It certainly looked as if this may have been the case. Monitoring helps to flag this up. I also sought to ensure good practice for retention and promotion of staff, leading a challenge in 2013 following a finding of race discrimination against Camden in an employment tribunal case.

Here, I worked with councillors from the other parties. I led discussions at the Scrutiny committee meeting, successfully arguing that for better procedures, training that sought to challenge stereotypes and preconceptions, as well as for better figures showing numbers at different grades. Mike Cooke, the Chief Executive, was among those to respond positively to these proposals.

More equal society – Greens have successfully argued in the Council for a maximum 10-one pay ratio for senior to junior staff. This is now accepted, but we argue that we should go further, leading by example in moving towards a more equal society. And we do query bonuses and, in particular performance related pay, which allows too much subjectivity to enter decision-making.

The evidence is also that higher paid workers benefit, as it is easier for them, unlike those in more routine jobs, to show high performance. We have also supported staff on disability rights issues, persuading the Cabinet member, Pat Callaghan, to sign up to the ‘Breaking the Stigma’ campaign for mental health sufferers.

Zero hours – More recently the big issue has become the use of zero hour contracts as a means of limiting Council obligations to staff. I’ve argued that we should not use them as an employer nor through outsourced contracts. The Labour administration has not given assurances on this front. Following tenacious questioning and many attempts at fobbing us off I was told that the Council did not in fact know whether they had anyone on zero hour contracts.

In terms of those on outsourced contracts, we’re pleased that the administration recognises the problem but do not accept that we must wait for the government to change the law.

It’s perfectly possible for Camden to require fair employment terms in its contracts with service providers. We will push them to do so. So, if you’d like Councillors who believe that fair play, decent working conditions and non-discrimination are fundamental and non-negotiable, do ensure you vote Green! Our Green team has the legal skills and campaigning experience to mount an effective challenge.

Maya de Souza
Camden, May 2014

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In the first of a series of posts about her eight years as a Green Councillor in Camden, Maya de Souza writes about the influence Greens have had on planning in the borough:

Maya-AirQualitySummit21Nov11_webIn my eight years as a councillor, initially with fellow councillors Adrian Oliver and Alex Goodman, we influenced planning policy as well as actual decision-making.

Our knowledge of the law and our determination to make an impact on policy has certainly helped. Good planning and good design is something we Greens are passionate about. Shaping our local environment and protecting our heritage is so important. We are also keen to use planning policy to protect our local shops and high streets and ensure, through section 106 payments or the community infrastructure levy, that developers provide affordable housing, open spaces and community facilities.

King’s Cross – To give some examples; early on as a councillor on the Development Control committee I considered an application for a building by Christopher Hatton school in the Holborn area that raised issues about the playground being overshadowed. I felt the answer must be to have roof gardens to compensate, given the pressure to build in the very urban parts of the borough. I raised the issue in committee, including when we were considering the Kings Cross development, and in discussions on the new Camden Planning policies. Roger Madelin, the Kings Cross developer, has taken this on board, and the policy was amended to included a reference to roofs for amenity spaces and food growing.

Basements – When the issue of basements first arose the planning department felt that it wasn’t a planning matter. It was for neighbours to manage through party wall agreements or standard negligence actions. I read the policy and disputed this interpretation. I argued that the impact on water movement and possible flooding of neighbouring property made this a planning issue. This is now accepted and the Council seeks independent reports on hydrological issues, regarding it as a relevant ground for refusal. I’ve also argued that, to ensure its independence, the council should commission the report itself at the applicant’s expense. This is now virtually accepted practice.

Change of use – In council discussions on change of use of the Torriano pub in Kentish Town, I realised there wasn’t enough protection for pubs with a community function, and argued for the inclusion of a stricter ‘change of use’ test in such circumstances. This, again, has become planning policy. I understand that this was helpful in resisting the application for change of use of the White Bear pub in Hampstead. In recent council discussions I argued, persuasively, for stricter protection that takes into account not only the community functions of pubs but also their heritage value.

Construction nuisance
– Another issue we are proud of is insisting that, in special cases, construction issues are taken into account before a decision is made. This was of relevance in the Fitzroy Farm (Highgate) and Little Green Street (Kentish Town) applications. We argued that in some cases the construction nuisance was serious enough to justify the refusal of planning permission altogether. We also argued that granting planning permission and then, later, considering construction issues, always left the Council in a weakened position. This approach has been accepted, though officers need to be consistently reminded of it by vigilant councillors.

Local environment quality
– These are some examples of our work, but there are many others – for example, challenging officers in planning decisions to ensure they have fully considered efficiency standards in buildings, biodiversity, flood resilience, green and open spaces and other issues.

The developer pays – I’d like to mention one notable example of the role of section 106, in which a developer makes a payment towards a neighbourhood amenity. In this case, Camden council, as the developer in Holly Lodge Estate, was persuaded to contribute to a new family centre building. It was the idea of a local resident. I pushed for it and was pleased to see it happen. Though councillor Sally Gimson may claim credit, it had been agreed long before she arrived in the area. There remains much to be done in terms of good use of section 106 funds and the Community Infrastructure Levy. We’d like to see innovative approaches, for example using some of the funds to pilot a small network of pipes for a combined heat and power system, an investment in our infrastructure that would create jobs and improve our homes.

Taking ownership – More recently, I’ve supported the neighbourhood forums as away of communities sharing the use and feel of the area. I see the forums as a way forward on decisions relating to better transport and streets, energy efficient homes, protecting parades of shops and space for business, as well as heritage and prized sites. In Highgate Ward, this would include the Mansfield Bowling Club site amongst others. I’ve worked with residents to develop a constitution for the forum that makes it inclusive and participatory.

We Greens have done a fair amount of work but more, lots more, remains to be done. Green councillors, with their knowledge, expertise and commitment, are well equipped to play this important role.

Maya de Souza
Camden, May 2014

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by Green Cllr Maya de Souza

As the Camden New Journal reported, Camden’s Labour administration has proposals for the Highgate Newtown Community Centre site. The proposals, released for consultation last week, involve demolishing and rebuilding some of the centre and building substantial private sector housing. The downsides would be loss of the key part of the youth centre ie the old church on Winscombe Street, closure of a dedicated children’s centre, and construction of a large five-storey block of flats.

All of the homes are intended to be for private sale; none for the affordable housing so vital with the pay differentials and inequality we have in London. Immediately there will be a tension created between raising funds by selling these homes and having a community centre on site, with a tall building casting a shadow on the reduced courtyard of the Centre and buyers being put off by young people, children etc

So Camden Greens are calling for, not only a careful assessment of need for children’s services before a decision is made to lose this dedicated facility and protection of youth services in the area, but also an innovative approach to the housing development.

What we would like to see is this space used for innovative affordable housing which takes from the housing co-op movement and from the history of the nearby Holly Lodge Estate. This would involve space-saving apartments, built to a very high standard of design, combined with more communal space, for social activity and some spare rooms for hire for visiting children or grandchildren.

This would not only be for older people, but also for others who like to have some support or community activity. This site is ideal as some of the community centre space could be used out of hours. In this way, we could make these homes affordable appealing to those who struggle to live in the area, whilst improving well-being through addressing isolation. Homes would be to live in not for buy to lets, strengthening community and taking away speculation.

This closer community way of life worked well for Holly Lodge Mansions – hugely innovative in its time providing safe supportive housing for women. Once again we need innovation with our ageing population and ever increasing house prices, and I am confident that our many architects can come up with some excellent design.

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By Cllr Maya de Souza

At Camden’s Health Scrutiny meeting on July 2,  the Whittington Health’s  Board were back following the heated meeting a few months ago, soon after the hospital’s mass sell-off proposal came to light, which led to a mass protest march.

Dr Greg Battle led the delegation  and this time began with an exposition of the hospital’s clinical strategy. He said other strategies like estates were derived from it.  But the clinical strategy is what the change is really about.

It was very well presented and the clinical plan seemed pretty persuasive, innovative in part. Councillors almost looked relieved. So did Tom Foot, the journalists who broke the news of the sell-off, sitting in the wings.  Though one has to ask whether its really quite so easy to reduce costs in the health service, and if it were why this hasn’t happened before.

So this is the strategy.  It has  three elements:

  • a. enhanced recovery: which means getting people active and fit earlier. No sitting around in expensive beds waiting to get better.
  • b. ambulatory care : co-ordinating care so that patients can be turned round quickly. Dr Battle talked about avoiding “hospitalisation- associated disability” and a radically very different A&E experience which focused on avoiding people being admitted unless monitoring was needed.
  • c. Integrated care: this means links from intensive care to mental health and social care. Dr Battle referred to the  Haringey example, with real time telecoms with all relevant people. He explained that lower level care approaches like encouraging and supporting people to give up smoking can be more effective than other interventions.

There was a lot of other seemingly good stuff. But the best was a sort of assurance that beds wouldn’t be lost if they were needed. They’re expecting not to need quite as many beds but before trying to close any they will consult and will explore all options. The Board assured councillors they would only give up beds if not needed once the new approach had been tried out. They would adopt a flexible approach so beds will be available if needed.

This all looks good but people will want to hear more of this and see it in writing.  Defend Whittington Hospital Coalition Chair, Shirley Franklin, was in attendance and said that the Board did intend to close down beds, and hospital was on red alert with 94% occupancy. Cllr Bryant, ordinarily a very fair chair, refused to let her speak, so we heard no more.

So it looks as of there is no longer a plan to do certain things within certain timeframe. There has been a partial rethink, not a complete rethink in my view.

We will need to keep a close eye on the detail, as the board’s interest in becoming a Trust will drive them to show a healthy financial state and may encourage bigger cuts than manageable.  Also as commissioning becomes more GP-driven I fear the incentives will be against hospitals and for the services that GPs provide, again possibly all excessive pressure to reduce the size of hospitals.

But I think it’s fair for the campaigners including us Greens to claim a partial victory.

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