Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Latest Newham’s response to Grenfell Towers

This is the latest media release from Newham Council (see below).

 I am still waiting for copies of the fire risk assessments for high rise blocks in my ward (West Ham) from the Council.

 I have also asked who is checking the fire risk assessments for high rise blocks controlled by Housing Associations and privately owned/leasehold blocks in Newham.

 We also need to think about cladding on schools, commercial office blocks and also low rise accommodation.

 By coincidence, last month during the General Election campaign, I was part of a West Ham Labour Party Canvass team, who knocked on every door in Ferrier Point. It appeared to me at the time to be in good condition internally with nothing really obviously wrong. I did not of course have any detailed risk assessments or other technical information on the block.

 As someone who has direct experience of managing high rise blocks and is a member of IOSH (Institute of Safety & Health) , trained in checking risk assessments, I have also had conversations with the lead Council Executive advisor for Newham Housing, Cllr Terry Paul and other officers.

I understand that the London Fire Brigade are satisfied so far with the control measures put in place by the Council in the 3 blocks identified so far with cladding that has failed safety tests. I am satisfied with what I know so far, but once the immediate crisis is over, we need to find out what went wrong and who is accountable.

 Yesterday evening I was at a meeting of West Ham One Housing Group TRA, where we had a really constructive debate on Grenfell and its aftermath. Tenants are really worried about the safety of their homes.

 The one and only positive thing about this is the way that ordinary working class people across the country and beyond have rallied around the victims and their families.

 Check out this post here on Forest Gate North by local Councillor, Seyi Akiwowo, on Grenfell issues in her ward.

 (Newham media release 27/6/17)

"Following the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in West London, Newham Council is in the process of inspecting all tall buildings, prioritising those with cladding. There is no immediate risk to the safety of any of them that would lead to residents having to leave their homes.

 Last week, we sent a sample of the exterior cladding from Ferrier Point, Nicholls Point and Tanner Point for expert testing. Although the cladding failed the test over the weekend, the council has confirmed that the insulation material used in the cladding on your block was of higher quality to that used at Grenfell Tower as it is made of Rockwool which offers more fire protection.

 Because overall the samples of cladding failed the test, we have employed an external contractor who has been visiting all three blocks today to assess the removal of the cladding and how quickly this can be done.

This weekend, London Fire Brigade (LFB) along with Newham Council has carried out a full fire safety inspection of the three buildings and a sample of individual flats within the blocks. We have agreed a number of immediate actions which include:

· Extra security is in place in these three blocks 24 hours until further notice. This extra security will patrol the blocks every 20 minutes so they will be able to raise the alarm in the event of a fire
 · Clutter, including some personal possessions such as bicycles have been removed to safe storage.

All residents living in these blocks have been written to and visited wherever possible to outline the actions the council and LFB have taken. We have reassured the residents that these additional actions, along with safety measures that are already in place, including smoke alarms in every flat and high quality fire doors, means there is no immediate risk to safety and no need for people to leave their homes, unless otherwise notified.

 There are some additional matters we are addressing around the blocks, including vandalism, rough sleeping and issues such as smoking in stairwells and corridors. We have also reminded residents of the London Fire Brigade’s current safety advice following the Grenfell Tower fire.

Essential works will begin immediately to enhance fire safety with further upgrades taking place over the next few weeks, including dealing with the cladding.

We have thanked them for their patience and apologised for any inconvenience that future work may cause. We will keep them informed of all further developments.”

Monday, June 26, 2017

"Pension Costs and Charges" - UNISON National Delegate Conference 2017

I was tasked to speak on this motion 26 on behalf of the NEC at Conference last week but it did not receive sufficient prioritisation by branches and regions to be debated. 

Which is a shame since if we don't bring down the costs and charges of not only the Local Government Pension Scheme but all funded schemes and stop the rip offs then the future is bleak.

Next year. 

Anyway here is my speech. Hat tip Mr Meech.

"John Gary, NEC and Chair of the SGLC LGPS Forum

UNISON have been campaigning for the right to know what it is we are paying for the management of our money and finally the veil of hidden costs are being removed.

We made a significant breakthrough when we persuaded the Local Government Pension Scheme Advisory Board’s for England, Wales and Scotland to adopt a ‘Code of Cost Transparency’ and move toward the collection and analysis of all costs incurred by the 100 pension funds.

This is conference an amazing step forward for workers and our savings. There is only 1 other country in the world with that transparency of cost and that’s the Netherlands.

Last week we had the country’s largest fund manager and manager of the largest amount of LGPS assets. £30bn. Declare it is signing our code of cost transparency, Legal and General.

This means every worker that has Legal and General managing their pension fund can now legitimately ask for the same cost transparency.

In Britain people get a statement showing what they've invested during the year, the value of their fund a year ago and its value today. There is no attempt to strip out what has been gained in investment returns and what is then subtracted in charges, let alone what these various charges are for.

Without this information people can't evaluate whether their pension trustees of manager is doing their job.

It is not just individuals who need this information to select a decent pension fund. Thousands of smaller employers will soon have to provide pensions for their workers.

Most have little idea how to evaluate these complex charging structures, so could end up selecting inappropriate and expensive schemes, potentially leading to mis-selling accusations at a later state.

Pension charges are too high and too complex. If your car is serviced in a garage you get an itemised bill explaining what each charge is for, which part was replaced and what the labour charges are, all in pounds and pence. No one would quote the fee as a percentage of the value of your car, which would be meaningless. But this is what happens with pensions.

So £billions of our money leaks out of our funds and we are the losers, they are used to pay for the extravagant life styles of the city traders and fund managers.

This money is used to fund the Tory party – our money cutting our own throats. Conference everyone needs to pay attention to the trial of money that starts from our payroll.

The UK Government must be pushed by us to finally curb the worst mis-selling scandal in the history of British finance, greater than endowment mortgages, PPI, energy profiteering or even sub-prime mortgages.

I refer to the legalised theft of billions of pounds from citizens' pension funds through excessive charges, a scandal that has been going on for at least 20 years and has ensured a miserable retirement for millions of older people.

Please support the motion

Hat tip cartoon

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Christian Wolmar on London's zero emissions nirvana - can the new strategy really achieve that by 2050? 

In the week that the Mayor of London announced his new London Transport Strategy (out for consultation until the 2nd October – read more here), come join us for a discussion and debate with Transport expert Christian Wolmar to discuss the ambitious plans,  whether it can really be achieved plus implications for the Silvertown Tunnel scheme .

City Hall say’s the new draft transport strategy is not anti-car but it certainly aims to reduce the dominance of motor vehicles in London. The Mayor's aim for 2041 is for 80% of all trips in London to be made on foot, by cycle or using public transport – a figure that stands at 64% today.

It is a strategy big on ideas and big on numbers with clear themes: it’s trying to respond to a growing population and increasing congestion at a time when London's population is predicted to grow from 8.7 million today to an estimated 10.5 million in 25 years time. So the mayor wants to shift emphasis from vehicles to walking, cycling and public transport, using a ‘Healthy Streets Approach’ and cutting car journeys by three million a day.

Promoting the idea that London’s streets should be for active travel and social interaction, the new transport strategy aims to address the health impact of inactivity to encourage people to move around, plus reduce the reliance on car driving as a space-inefficient mode of transport which has made London’s streets some of the most congested in the world.

Cars have a huge impacts on Londoners – causing pollution, making streets unpleasant places to be and delaying public transport journeys. Car traffic is also overwhelmingly responsible for the greatest environmental challenges facing London, responsible for half of the main air pollutants including some of the pollutants that are most harmful to human health.

So come join us for an interesting session that will explore the ambitious plans, plus look at how the transport strategy sits with existing plans to expand transport infrastructure such as the Silvertown tunnel which will connect the Greenwich Peninsula with the Royal Docks in Newham, which campaigners say will increase traffic levels, worsen the capital’s poor air quality and lead to further congestion - so how can that be squared?

Sign in desk opens at 4.45pm and the event starts at 5.00pm prompt.  
Please Register Here

Read More

Does the Mayor's transport strategy mark the end of car dominance in London? Read BBC's Transport Correspondent, Tom Edward's piece here.
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Saturday, June 24, 2017

#UNDC "Why we need to build a new housing consensus for affordable and decent homes for all"

This is the speech I gave on Thursday on behalf of the NEC about  the Housing motion  put forward by London Region and my branch.


John Gray, Community NEC, speaking in favour of motion 36 as amended.  I happen also to be a housing officer for 24 years whose substantive post is to help manage a large estate in East London with 7 high rise tower blocks.

Conference, for far too long, housing has been the political dog that did not bark. 

The general election campaign changed the public debate in this country and showed that finally 38 years after the Tories began dismantling public housing - and denying millions of people their basic human right to a home – the tide of public opinion is turning.

Today there are 1,500,000 fewer homes available for a rent, that people on low incomes can afford, than there was 38 years ago - and the population has grown dramatically since.

 I can say that this is why families with children, the elderly and disabled end up being housed on the 18th floor of a tower block.

The scandal that surrounds the Grenfell House tragedy lies not just in the repeated failure of government to listen to and act on the advice they received but in the Conservative political mantra that regulation is ‘bad’.

The Tories 38 year strategy of dismantling public housing has been the biggest privatisation in this country’s history. The Right to Buy was misnamed from the start – it was a Right to a Discount – and 38 years on, we find that huge numbers of the homes that have been sold are now owned by private landlords, in one case the son of the Tory Minister that introduced the Right to Buy, and often in companies registered in tax havens.

And the Tories knew that caps to the local housing allowance would drive low income households out of central London – this is social cleansing – and if the Tories have their way, it is what will happen in Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Newcastle too

In this parliament over £100bn will be spent paying housing benefit to private landlords and it won’t produce a single new home.

Conference, how can people afford to buy when house prices are rising at 5%, 6%, 7% a year and wages are growing at 1% or 2%?

Conference, this motion provides the basis for UNISON to play its role in ending the dismantling of public housing and beginning a new era of providing quality, safe council and housing association homes with good space standards at rents people can actually afford.

Please support this motion.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Court tells Government they cannot make Council Pensions funds be dependent on Boris Johnson Whims

In a victory for common sense the Courts have apparently thrown out the requirement that Council Pension funds have to invest according to the political whims of the UK Foreign office.

Who on earth  would want their pension being dependent on the judgement  of Boris Johnson?

Well done to Palestine Solidarity for funding this judicial review. This case also supports the view of UNISON that the existing EU law already requires Council pension funds should be invested in interests of beneficiaries and legally separate from employers and the government.

Professional Pensions The government has suffered a major defeat in the High Court after its rules on Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) investments were deemed unlawful.
The investment guidance, issued last September, requires LGPS funds to have policies on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues but also added they could not pursue policies contrary to central government foreign and defence policy.
The guidance said "pension policies to pursue boycotts, divestment and sanctions [BDS] against foreign nations and UK defence industries are inappropriate, other than where formal legal sanctions, embargoes and restrictions have been put in place by the government" and funds could not "pursue policies that are contrary to UK foreign policy or UK defence policy".
The policy was particularly contentious as LGPS funds and campaigners said this limited their ability to take up ethical investment, particularly BDS action against companies operating in Israeli settlements in Palestine.
A bid was launched in the courts by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) to overturn the regulations via a judicial review, where it argued the government had acted outside of its powers, and it was "lacking in certainty".
It also cited Article 18.4 of the EU's directive on the Activities and Supervision of Institutions for Occupational Pension Provision (IORP), which states "member states shall not subject the investment decisions of an institution… to any kind of prior approval or systematic notification requirements".
However, in his judgment, issued today, the judge Sir Ross Cranston only agreed with the first argument, stating the minister for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) Sajid Javid had "acted for an unauthorised purpose and therefore unlawfully".
His reasoning was the "guidance has singled out certain types of non-financial factors, concerned with foreign/defence… and stated that administering authorities cannot base investment decisions upon them. In doing this, I cannot see how the secretary of state has acted for a pensions' purpose".
He stated specifically that this guidance could preclude LGPS funds taking ESG factors into account even if there no "significant risk" of financial detriment or "no good reason" to believe members would object.
Cranston therefore granted a judicial review, meaning the government may have to rethink its approach to the rules if it wishes them to take effect.
PSC chair Hugh Lanning welcomed the ruling, and said local councils would be happy to be able to invest funds as they see fit.
"Today is a victory for Palestine, for local democracy, and for the rule of law," he said.
He added: "This ruling upholds the right of local councils and their pension funds to invest ethically without political interference from the government of the day."
A spokesperson for DCLG said the government would consider whether to appeal: "It is an important principle that foreign policy matters are for the UK Government to decide. We will consider the judgement and next steps."
Unison national officer for capital stewardship Colin Meech also welcomed the judgment, and called on the government to replace the guidance with the IORP directive.
"It was always preposterous to us that the LGPS funds had to invest in the best interests of UK foreign and defence policy," he said. 
"We have been telling various governments since 2007 that they must implement the EU IORP directive into the LGPS. The judge did not say that the directive did not apply to the LGPS and therefore we now hope that the current government dismantles the 2016 regulations and replaces it with article 18 of the directive.
"This will mean that the LGPS funds must invest in the best interests of scheme members, as all other pension schemes in the UK must do. The best interests of scheme members are aligned with all sponsoring employers in seeing that their pensions are delivered in the most efficient manner. For 10 years LGPS scheme members have been denied their statutory rights, this must be rectified."

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Grenfell Tower Fire - London Hazards Centre

Hat tip Phil Lewis Chair of London Hazards & in today's UNISON NDC regional newsletter "London Calling".

"Here is some information I was able to get hold of

2009 – Lakanal House tower block catches fire killing 6 people. The local authority is prosecuted for lapses in fire safety. A review is promised by the Labour government after pressure from the Fire Protection Association (FPA).

2010 – Building Regulations Act is published, including provisions for fire safety. Conservatives win election, a review is promised by the new government after more pressure from the FPA and warnings that the BR act does not go far enough.

2013 – Boris Johnson overrules the ruling body of the London Fire Brigade and uses legal action to inflict £29m in cuts. Closing 10 fire stations, cutting firefighters by 552, losing 14 fire engines and cutting minimum staffing levels from 5 to 4. By the time he steps down as Mayor of London he inflicts a further £100m in cuts to £130m total and the loss of 7000 firefighters. Fire prevention measures carried out by the service drop by over 25%. When challenged by a committee on fire safety on how cutting the fire service would not increase deaths, Boris replies “get stuffed”.

2013 – All Party Parliamentary Group on Fire Safety and Rescue produces a report strongly recommending installation of fire suppression systems and sprinklers in 4000 tower blocks throughout Britain. The Grenfell residents action group publishes a report warning that their landlord is putting their safety at risk by restricting the access ways to their car park. They are ignored by their landlord.

2013 – 2016 Conservative housing ministers sit on All Party report without action, promising they are “looking at it”, including housing minister Gavin Barwell.

2016 – Conservatives vote against a Labour motion to make sure all landlords and housing associations ensure residences are fit for human occupation, including provisions for fire safety. The motion is denied by 312 votes to 219. 72 of the MP’s voting against are landlords. The Grenfell residents action group publish a report warning people will die in a fire before the landlord takes notice of their poor fire safety provisions. They are ignored by their landlord.

2017 – Ex housing minister Gavin Barwell becomes Prime Minister Theresa May’s chief of staff. He never actions the All Party Parliamentary report recommendations. Grenfell Tower is reduced to rubble with the deaths of at least 79+residents as a fire spreads through the building in 4 minutes. It has no fire suppression system or sprinklers. The stairwell is not adequate for a full building evacuation. The emergency lighting is missing from half of the floors. The fire service struggle to reach the building due to previous car park modifications causing access issues as warned by the resident action group in 2013.

Philip Lewis

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

UNISON National Delegate Conference 2017 - Tuesday

My Conference day started with a short jog up and down the famous Brighton beach. The weather was hot even at 7.30am.

At 8.30am we had our first UNISON NEC meeting to discuss and (hopefully) agree on any outstanding matters or policy positions.

Conference itself starts at 10am on its first day.  Firstly there is the "welcome to conference" speech by the Senior Vice President, Carol Sewell. She introduces all our international guest visitors.

Followed by Standing Order Committee (SOC) reports 1 and 2 (it is a long standing tradition at NDC to play reference back ping pong with SOC).

This is followed by a presentation and vote on our annual report and our year end financial statement. Our first motion of conference was 18 "Stepping up the campaign against bullying and harassment".

During lunch I went to the UNISON "There for You" AGM as a NEC member of the charities board of trustees. After lunch there was another round of ping pong and further motions debated including the 55 "UNISON and the WASPI campaign" about the rip of pensions by this government for many women.

Our General Secretary, Dave Prentis, gave a very powerful speech during which he thanked our emergency workers for all they had done in recent times and talked about the unexpected loss of his comrade, our President Eric Roberts.  After the speech I could see from the NEC platform a number of delegates wiping tears from their eyes and there was a (genuine) standing ovation by Conference.

In the afternoon there were more debates. Conference finished at 5pm. On the way back to my accommodation I was stopped and "persuaded" to go an excellent fringe on "Pensions and climate change".

Monday, June 19, 2017

UNISON National Delegate Conference 2017 - Monday Evening

Comrades together picture from this evening outside the Holiday Inn Hotel in Brighton after the UNISON London Region delegates meetings.

Our ace Regional Conveyor, Yvonne Green, is on my left with Housing Association branch delegate Mitsy on her left and Croydon delegate Kia, on my right.

Conference starts tomorrow morning and although I am here as UNISON NEC, I have been busy supporting my Housing Association Branch delegates with hotel bookings problems and getting ready to speak on our housing motion 36 which is high up on the "snake" (UNISON conference jargon. Don't ask it will blow your mind)

All four of our branch delegates are confidant and articulate black women workers who have spoken at previous conferences and I have no doubt, whatsoever, they will participate fully in the next few days.  

Sunday, June 18, 2017

John Gray's Father's Day

Lovely picture of my Dad, John Gray (left), my big Sister Helen, My little Sister Lucy, Me (John Gray) and our Grandfather, John Gray.

(and top of the head of "Muff" our daft but so loyal family boxer dog)

Great Newham Get Together - In Honour of Jo Cox

This afternoon I went to the Newham Woodcraft Kids Zone and Big Lunch Picnic in Wanstead Flats next to the Golden Fleece pub.

It was simply a fantastic community event. Loads of people from all over Forest Gate and Manor Park had come to participate, share food, meet their neighbours and also honour Jo Cox and all what she stood for.

Many, many thanks to Newham Woodcraft folk for doing all the hard work putting up the tents and organising the entertainment for the kids.

There is indeed more that we have in common that divides us.

Never forget.