Monday, September 18, 2017

Newham Council amended Motion on antisemitism (passed tonight)

"This Council expresses alarm at the rise in antisemitism in recent years across the UK. This includes incidents when criticism of Israel has been expressed using anti-Semitic tropes. Criticism of Israel can be legitimate, but not if it employs the tropes and imagery of antisemitism.

This Council therefore welcomes the UK Government’s announcement on December 11th 2016 that it will adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, making Britain one of the first countries in the world to adopt it. This definition has also been adopted by the Labour Party and featured in the Labour Party’s Race and Faith Manifesto (page 12) published during the 2017 General Election. The IHRA definition defines antisemitism as thus: 

This Council notes that:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.

Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.

Antisemitic acts are criminal when they are so defined by law (for example, denial of the Holocaust or distribution of antisemitic materials in some countries). Criminal acts are antisemitic when the targets of attacks, whether they are people or property – such as buildings, schools, places of worship and cemeteries – are selected because they are, or are perceived to be, Jewish or linked to Jews.

Antisemitic discrimination is the denial to Jews of opportunities or services available to others and is illegal in many countries.

This Council welcomes support within the Council for combating antisemitism in all its manifestations.

This Council hereby resolves to adopt the above definition of antisemitism as set out by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and pledges to combat this pernicious form of racism through awareness raising and education; and through engagement with the range of Jewish opinion on how best to address antisemitism in addition with all communities that live in Newham.

This Council also condemns all forms of racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia and sexism and we commit to fighting against them.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"The Stadium Loan" and Questions to Council Meeting

See below today's blog post by Newham Council Cabinet member, Cllr Rachel Tripp, on the controversy regarding the "The Stadium loan". Also, my questions on this subject that have been sent to the Newham Full Council meeting being held tomorrow. 

"Rachel writes…Introduction

I want to write a blog post here about the Olympic stadium, because I want residents in Forest Gate North to be able to have one place where they could read the facts, and to know how they are being represented, all laid out clearly in one place.

Without wanting to sound worthy, I’m also writing this because it’s so important for public bodies and the people who work in them to be transparent. I am a cabinet member at Newham, and I take that seriously, but I am also one of your elected representatives in Forest Gate North, and I don’t feel I would be doing my job properly if I wasn’t always trying to be open, even when the topics are challenging and feelings run high.


Last week (Thursday 7th September) there was a cabinet meeting at 5pm. That afternoon before the meeting, I read on social media that the £40m loan that the Council made to the Olympic stadium had been ‘written off’ and that this formed part of that cabinet report and was being decided that evening.

I assumed that this must be in the agenda item Medium Term Financial Strategy, a report which is regularly updated and sent to Councillors. This report gives a commentary and information about where the Council’s finances are.

But in fact the report that contains the reference to the stadium loan is not one that was on the agenda for that evening. It is in the Draft Statement of Accounts 2016-17, which is due to go to the next Investment and Accounts Committee later this month. The draft statement of accounts which contains the reference is here.

The bit of this report that is particularly relevant is on page 12 which reads, ‘Impairment totalling £44.4m of a Long Term Debtor in one of the Council’s group undertaking, Newham Legacy Investments Ltd. These charges are subsequently written-off to the Capital Adjustment Account (Note 26)’

I was extremely concerned when I read this, as were many other residents. This was the first time I had seen this kind of assumption made about the Olympic stadium loan.

The Council’s statements

The Council has subsequently released a statement which I will reproduce in full here, saying:

“The council’s draft accounts for 2016/17 were first published on our website on 3 July and were then open to the normal period of public scrutiny until 11 August. These draft accounts are currently with our auditors for their review. The finalised accounts are due to be considered at a scheduled meeting of our Investment and Accounts Committee on 20 September.

“Our draft accounts, which are subject to change and approval, show a prudent, responsible and regulatory compliant treatment of a Council loan related to the London Stadium. The loan is shown, for accounting purposes, as currently ‘impaired’, or damaged, due to the current financial performance of the Stadium. It is not a write off of the loan.

“The financial performance of the Stadium in its first full year of transformed operation is a matter of public record and it was widely anticipated that the first full year of trading would be particularly challenging. Newham Council is working with the Greater London Authority, the London Legacy Development Corporation and our other Stadium partners on a range of options to improve the financial performance of the Stadium. The future value of our loan, and its treatment in our accounts, is directly linked to that future performance.”

end of statement

Other information given to journalists said:

1. The £40m loan is a repayable one over 40 years.

2. The Mayor of London has commissioned an independent review into the London Stadium and that to inform this work, all partners in the stadium are looking at options to improve commercial performance.

3. There has been a successful summer programme in the stadium, including three major concerts and World Championship Athletics and Para Athletics.

4. Newham residents have enjoyed benefits as a result of the council’s investment in the form of ticket giveaways. This includes 5,000 free tickets to West Ham United’s Carrbao Cup game on 19 September against Bolton Wanderers. These tickets are being issued to residents through community neighbourhoods, community groups, a ticket ballot, and to volunteers and staff.

Other information

I have subsequently also been told that:

– impairment is an accounting term and is not a write-off. If a substantial loan were to be written off, it would come to Mayoral Proceedings, which is a public meeting with a paper.

– there is a precedent for this, as during the financial crisis, loans made by Newham to Icelandic banks were ‘impaired’ by 100% but were subsequently revalued as the position changed, and were paid off.

– there are commercial negotiations ongoing which are currently confidential, and more information will be released as soon as an agreement is reached.

What happens next

This information takes us up to now. So I also wanted to set out clearly here what I think should happen next.

Firstly, I’m surprised that this is the first we’ve heard that there was doubt about the value of the loan. Although I have heard various conversations about the profitability of the stadium, and ways in which this could be improved (the costs attached to moving the seat going is a relatively well known barrier to making money, just for example), previously the information about the loan has been what a good deal the Council has.

To summarise my understanding of this, we borrowed the money at a relatively low rate of interest, and have loaned it to the Stadium who pay us a commercial (higher) rate of interest. This means that we get back: the original investment, the difference in the two interest rates, the community benefits (community days, free tickets for residents) and also 30% of the profits in perpetuity. Although this loan has been controversial, I have always been assured that the terms of the deal were beneficial to us.

Secondly, I mentioned transparency above, and I think transparency is even more important when the topic is controversial. The impression given here, rightly or wrongly, is that the information has been hidden, and I think this is a great shame. I’m surprised that there wasn’t more explanatory text in the accounts document, and am even more surprised that the term ‘written off’ was used without anyone realising that if the accounts use these words, then residents reading it may – not unreasonably! – not understand the financial term ‘impairment’ and assume that the loan has indeed been written off. So I think we need more public information (where it’s possible to publish it, and recognising that commercial negotiations do sometimes need to be confidential for reasons that are entirely right) so that financial decisions and changes to financial circumstances can be not just published, but explained and understood.

Thirdly, I need to learn more about the loan, which increasingly appears not to be a loan at all but more akin to an equity share, despite having been consistently referred to as a loan. Apparently, the difference this makes includes the terms under which the interest is payable. Generally on a loan the interest is payable whatever happens. With our loan/equity share, I understand that interest payments are only made once the stadium is profitable.

Other considerations

For fairness, there are a few other things I need to point out which are points that have been made to me.

The investment that Newham made in the stadium was key in ensuring that it would become a multi-use venue in its own right, and not fail after the Olympics. Having a venue like this in Newham, bringing sporting and musical and other events into Newham, is really important to the borough and very positive in terms of employment, place-making, sporting opportunities, visitors, and much more.

Although no one else has made this connection, I also keep remembering the O2, which started life as the entirely ill-fated Millennium Dome, referred to with seeming certainty as a white elephant, but now reimagined as a thriving music venue. Obviously I understand that the analogy is not perfect, but it does show what can be done.

Also, I think it’s worth re-emphasising that since I have become a councillor in 2014, the Newham budget has been cut by around 30%. It’s difficult to overstate what an enormous impact this level of cuts has had on local government across the UK, and the signs of it are everywhere, from libraries closing (not in Newham, thankfully) to the increase in street homelessness. Local authorities are making commercial decisions and in many cases are making capital investments in order to secure longer term income so that they can continue to provide services.

The money invested in the stadium is capital investment not revenue, and was borrowed by LBN in order to invest. So while it’s still public money, and important to remind ourselves of the vulnerable people the Council has a duty to support, it’s not the case that, for example, ‘that £40m could have been spent on social care’. Also, the consultation that we held in the summer 2015 about makings savings was about cuts to our revenue, so this was absolutely not a consultation asking residents what they wanted to cut in order to fund the stadium.

I’m also reminded that previous investments the Council has made have been successful. The building at Dockside, for example, has risen in value significantly, whereas at the time the purchase of it was also controversial with strong feelings expressed against it in some cases.

Summary and conclusion

Overall for me the things that need to happen now can be summed up into: the ‘what’, the ‘how’ and the ‘what now’ . The ‘what’ being the money – when do we find out more, was it a good investment, can we be assured that the money comes back, what further information do we need? The ‘how’ being how this information was and is communicated, and the ‘what now’ being, well – obviously – what happens next.

The joint meeting of the Audit Committee and the Investment and Accounts committee (which approves the accounts) is due to take place on the 27th September. The Council’s statement above refers to the 20th, but this date has since been changed. I’ll attend it, and report back here as to what is discussed. This is the next important date, but it is not within this committee’s gift to ‘decide to write off’ the loan. The impairment is an accounting term which should reflect current financial values and assumptions, and should be a neutral not a political decision. It will nevertheless be interesting to listen to the discussion of the accounts, and find out more.

Along with all my colleagues, I will do my very best to get all the information I can, and will share whatever I’m able to. I have spoken to the Mayor already, and will do so again, and am going to sit down with my colleague Lester Hudson who is the political lead for Finance to talk to him. I should point out that although this blog post is mine (and I’m responsible for any errors in it) I am certainly not the only council member who wants to find out more. Here in Forest Gate North, we have a blog, and many of our residents are on social media, so it makes sense for me to share this here. Other councillors are doing the same things, but off line and in different ways.

As ever, I am happy to discuss any part of this, and will answer any questions that I’m able to. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch. I won’t release or leak confidential information but I will always be up front about what I am and am not able to share.

I really hope this post is useful".

Next my (John Gray) questions to Full Council
Stadium impairment & write off
Dear Kim (LBN Chief Executive)

This question is to Mayoral advisor on Finance Cllr Lester.

1. I am writing as a Newham Councillor about the “impairment” and “write off” of £44 million in (NLI) Newham Legacy Investments (page 12 in draft statement of accounts 2016/17).

I was very disturbed to have only found out about this while reading the accounts and that Councillors/Investments & Accounts were not told beforehand that there were any problems or issues with our investment in the NLI. Please explain why this was not done?

2. What is your opinion on our NLI investments and our potential liabilities? For example do we know how much money E20 Stadium LLP has lost this financial year, if so how much and what is the projection for year end. 

Have we made any other loans to the NLI or E20 stadium LLP ? If so what has happened to them. 

Including what has happened to our £5 million South Park investment and confirm that it has been invested in accordance with the report approved by the full Council.

Cllr John Gray

(hat tip picture Evening Standard)

Saturday, September 16, 2017

To Terror From London

nuf said. h/t Franzi & Lily Allen

Levada bashing in Madeira - Ribeiro Frio to Portela

Off message but recommend this marvellous recent summer holiday walk, 11k (4 hours-ish) alongside Madeiran Levadas (irrigation water channels) in stunning mountain countryside.

Madeira is an Atlantic Portuguese Island off the coast of Africa and a little bigger than Anglesey (north Wales) which gets a lot of rain in the mountains located in the north of the Island but most of its famed agriculture is in the south. So for hundreds of years they have been building thousands of miles of "Levadas" to bring the water across the mountains to where it is needed.

This is a great tourist opportunity since there is usually a pathway next to these Levadas and you can walk along them and enjoy spectacular scenery with little or no effort. since for water to flow the gradient has to be slight. However, since Levadas are cut alongside the side of mountains you can find yourself walking alongside sheer drops, which can be a little scary at times but there are generally fences on most (not all) of the really sheer drops.

Most of the Levadas are "linear walks" so you need to take a bus or taxi to the start and back again from the finish. Madeira has an excellent public bus network but is fragmented and has complicated timetables. However, most drivers speak good english and are very patient being used to disorganised foreign travellers.

Levada do Furado (Code PR10 Ribeiro Frio to Portela) is one of the oldest Levadas and described as a "Classic" walk. . We got to the start at via the HDF No. 56 bus from Funchal.  The bus was full but luckily they laid on another. A good reason for catching the bus at the beginning, behind the lower cable car station. The walk is fairly well sign posted but take a decent map and walking guidebook just in case.

It was a stunning walk with lots of shade and spots to stop and stare at the amazing scenery. There were not that many other walkers (maybe we were lucky) so there was a feeling of isolation, peace and quiet. There was a few areas where you had to be a bit careful but if you take your time and have decent footwear you should be fine.

Lovely views (and ice cream) at end of walk in Portela.

The bus back was the SAM No. 53. The stop is obvious and opposite the Bar & Restaurant "Portela Vista". Nearly all buses start and finish in Funchal. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

UNISON Housing Associations Labour Link AGM with John Healey MP

I am very pleased that John Healey MP, the Labour Party Shadow Minister for Housing & Planning has agreed to be our guest speaker at our branch Labour Link AGM at House of Commons on Wednesday 26 October 2017. 

Due to limited space invite & RSVP only. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Millionaires & Food banks

This evening I got a tweet from Barclays Wealth Managemen with this picture saying "Our latest #ProsperityMap finds that the UK millionaire population grew by 7.6% year-on-year, up to 625,000".

I replied "and 8% of UK adults don't have enough money for food. What a disgrace" and linked to this article below on UK food banks.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Newham response to Grenfell Fire

Last week at Forest Gate North Labour Party meeting the Newham Executive Advisor on Housing, Cllr Terry Paul, gave a briefing on the Council response so far which he is happy to share.

"The tragic fire at Grenfell Tower occurred on the 14 June 2017.

Since the fire, the Government/Dept for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) required Newham Council to test its tower blocks - Ferrier Point, Nicholls Point and Tanner Point, which contained Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding.

There are 115 flats in Ferrier Point and 56 flats in each of Nicholls and Tanner Points. Refurbishment works were carried out to Nicholls Point and Tanner Point in 2009 and to Ferrier Point in 2012. Each refurbishment included the installation of ACM cladding and stone wool insulation to the exterior of the blocks.

For the local perspective the tower blocks in Forest Gate -Capel, Jason Close, Field, Green, College and Forest- aren't ACM and therefore not at risk.
The Council submitted sample cladding for screening tests and was informed by DCLG on 2 August 2017 that the current combination of cladding and insulation at the three tower blocks failed the large-scale wall test, meaning that it did not adequately resist the spread of fire over the wall to the standard required by the current Building Regulations guidance. 

The DCLG’s Expert Panel’s advice was that wall systems with these materials therefore present a significant fire hazard on buildings over 18. The suite of tests were completed on 25 August 2017 and identified a number of wall system combinations which passed the testing process. 
The next step is to phase the works for the three tower blocks into:

site investigations and welfare set up, approximately 1 month duration (investigations for de-cladding, gas services, duct work and scaffold design)
• block de-risking, approximately 6 months duration (scaffold erection, de-cladding, duct cleaning)
• re-cladding to the 3 blocks as part of a new fire-proof system, approximately 6 months duration.
Pending commencement of this significant programme of works, the Council has already implemented the DCLG recommended interim measures at the three tower blocks. All fire risk assessments are up to date and under six months old and extensive consultation and fire safety auditing has been undertaken with the London Fire Brigade to assess mitigation measures. Mitigating actions across the blocks now include:

• 24 hour wakeful watch
• Temporary fire alarm systems
• Car parks around the blocks have been closed 
• increased waste collections
• changes to fire evacuation procedures
• personal evacuation plans have been carried out for all vulnerable residents
• housing staff are based on site every day including weekends to deal with residents enquiries

RMS have completed extensive repair and remedial works. 
The ongoing weekly cost of the above mitigating actions is approximately £90,000 for the three tower blocks, arising primarily from the contract staffing of the 24 hour wakeful watch.

Next Steps

1, Continue to follow the principles of resident safety, openness and transparency 

2, Complete the planning and procurement process for Ferrier, Nichols and Tanner points.

3, Focus on Fire Safety in Newham's housing stock and prepare for the ramifications from the Grenfell Fire report.

4, Keep residents and party members informed of ongoing developments

Terry Paul,
Councillor and Lead Member for Housing

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Thanking Barney & Louise

A newsletter is going out tomorrow to all UNISON members in my employer thanking national organisers, Barney Wakefield and Louise Baldock for all their support during the past 12 months. They have done a fantastic job supporting me as Convenor, other reps as well as members up and down the country. 

Good luck and once again many thanks. 

We hope you enjoyed the fish!

Monday, September 11, 2017

#TUC17 Motion 3 - Building a new housing consensus

(Speech on Motion 3 Building a new housing consensus)

Congress. President.

Conroy Lawrence, UNISON, moving motion 3.

Congress. I work at Lewisham Hospital in London.

Like all of you, I see members struggling with impossible choices at the end of the month before pay day.

And at the root of those choices is often the cost of their housing. Crippling costs that drive choices where to work and live. Often far away from their communities and families.

Whether to start a family or not and other major life choices are often sadly influenced by the cost of housing.

Congress, for far too long, housing has been the political dog that did not bark. The general election this year 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 one and a half million fewer homes available for a rent, that people on low incomes can afford. Less than there were 38 years ago - and the population has grown dramatically since.

As a Londoner I can see that 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.

Congress, 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% at most?

On London we surveyed our members on housing cost.

And I should say first that these statistics probably hold true in many parts of the country, whether city or countryside. I know from my UNISON colleagues that one of the biggest mismatches between local wages and house prices is in the south west of England.

In London over 1000 public service workers told us this:

63% said housing costs means they are looking to move home or job.

87% of health workers in the private rented sector said they were looking for somewhere new to live and work.

24% said they were struggling to manage.

This rose 65% struggling if they were tenants of a housing association.

Two thirds of all responders said they were spending over a third of their income on housing in London.

Congress, wherever you are from, we need our local workers have the chance to live near where they work and living in the communities they serve.

Congress, this motion provides the basis for the TUC 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 the right to a roof over our heads in the 21st century. Support the motion.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Trade Union Congress 2017 #TUC17

Now in Brighton for TUC annual conference. I will be trying as usual to post on speeches and fringes.

Congress started for UNISON with a delegation meeting at 3pm where we decided our policy on motions, agreed speakers and support for the General Council report and the TUC campaign plan 2017-18. 

The conference opened at 4pm with this years President, Mary Bousted, welcoming delegates and sororal/fraternal visitors. I was once on a panel at a Labour Party conference fringe on Pensions with Mary.

Congress then stood while obituaries of leading activists was displayed on the screen including that of the still sad loss of our former UNISON President (and my friend) Eric Roberts.