Sunday, October 14, 2018

Wansted Flats WREN: History walk following summer fires

This afternoon Gill and I went on a walk organised by the local conservation and wildlife group called WREN in the "flats" (ancient heath land, part of Epping Forest, now owned and managed by the City of London) right next door to where we live.

In July this year there was a huge grass fire on the flats, which at its peak flames were 30 foot high and jumped across local roads, which took 40 London Fire Brigade (LFB) fire engines to bring under control and put out. It was the largest grass fire the LFB has tackled since it was formed in 1965.

Luckily no one was seriously hurt and there was little damage to property but interestingly the City of London were asked by the LFB to bring in a special "plough" to turn over the burnt areas of grassland so the area could be saturated with water in order to prevent "hot spots" reignating. An unintended consequence of using this "plough" was that the ploughing turned up historic remains from the past that had been buried for at least 70 years.

The purpose of the walk was to examine these remains as well as see the damage done by the fire to birds and plants in the flats, part of which has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

About 20 local residents turned up for the walk despite being rather damp and overcast with the forecast of possible heavy rain or thunder.

The walk leaders were Peter Williams and Mark Gorman, supported by other conservation activists. 

We firstly walked across the flats to a site of a World War 2 circular radar/telecommunications centre and could see pieces of electoral wiring and numerous pudding shaped pieces of concrete which could have been signal mast supports from the centre. You can still see the the shape of the centre from the air. 

We also formed a line to walk across a nearby area where there was a war time anti-aircraft Rocket station looking for historical artifacts. We found pieces of shrapnel (Gill's sharp eyes) in the ground which are thought to have been debris from the rockets fired at German Bombers. It appears that these rocket stations were not successful and despite improving morale by being very noisy and apparently showing Londoners they were being defended from the enemy, they did not result in any of the German bombers being shot down. A similar station in Victoria Park is blamed for firing rockets in a training exercise and causing the panic and stampede that resulted in the Bethnal Green tube disaster in 1943 which killed 173 civilians. 

There was also remains shown of a probably 19th century ginger beer bottle with "Leytonstone" marked on it and a German bullet found locally with a made in "Nuremberg" stamp and reference number. 

Next we visited the concrete foundations of world war barracks and storage facilities from the rocket site hidden away in Long wood. 

The walk finished across Centre Road at the site of the German military Prison of War camp adjacent to Lakehouse Road. This was a holding prison for high risk Germans, suspected of being die hard Nazis.  A local fireman in his autobiography noted that following a VI explosion in nearby Lakehouse which destroyed homes and killed civilians, some prisoners were giving Nazi salutes and shouting "Sieg Heil" in celebration of the V1 attack.   

My paternal Grandfather, another John Gray, was in an anti-aircraft regiment during the second world war and may even have been stationed locally. I must find out more. 

At the end of the walk the plans currently being discussed to allow large music festivals on the flats and the possible (likely) negative impact on rare nesting birds were brought up. I hope that the City of London will "think again" about these proposals and reject them. 

Many, many thanks to the organisers of this event. 

Saturday, October 13, 2018

UNISON London Regional Council: Speakers on Camden Parking Strike; Rise of the New Far Right & Legal measures to fight mental health discrimination at work

I was little late turning up to the Greater London UNISON Regional Council on Thursday, so missed the guest speakers from Camden UNISON on their dispute with Parking Contractors NSL on poverty pay (see UNISON General Secretary, Dave Prentis, on their picket line). 

However, I did hear a speaker from Hope Not Hate give a thought provoking and deeply disturbing analysis of the rise of a new poplar far right front and neo-Nazi terrorism in the UK (and beyond).  

On the one hand membership of British Nazi and Fascist parties such as the BNP has collapsed but we are now seeing the largest numbers of people in decades on the streets supporting campaigns led by new far right groups. 

The thug and serial convicted criminal ,Tommy Robertson, has a huge social media presence, far in excess of any anti-fascist group. 

The speaker correctly pointed out that we cannot fight modern day fascism with the tactics of the 1980s and simply screaming "NAZI" at people attending marches since they are genuinely angry at the Manchester bombing, is not going to do anything positive. 

We have to work out how to defeat this new social network of individuals, who do not belong to traditional far right political parties but are being radicalised by Nazi websites, here and abroad. 

Going on anti Nazi demos and protests are tactics and not a means to an end. We need to get a better and more effective modern message to counter this threat. 

Final speaker was Ann-Marie Christie from Thompsons solicitors, who since this was World Mental Health day, gave a  practical update on possible employment law and personal injury measures that union reps could use to protect members at work. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

Newham private rented sector licensing scheme breaks £5m barrier for recapturing lost Council Tax

​Since the introduction of licensing in 2013 an extra £5,002,203 has been collected from rogue landlords renting out houses in multiple occupation.​

​Newham’s Private Rented Sector (PRS) licensing scheme began five years ago but was forced, by government, to re-launch from scratch in March 2018. Since its restart the PRS Team have processed and issued over 30,000 new licences.

In the same period the team has taken action against landlords in 120 cases where serious and dangerous disrepair was discovered or landlords were breaking the law.

Cllr John Gray, cabinet member for housing said: “This five million pounds, which would have been lost to the council, and therefore the tax payer, has been recouped by the private rented sector team, and will help us fund the crucial services that our residents rely on, from elderly care, to supporting our young people.”

The council would like to thank those landlords who have joined the new scheme, but remind those that have not yet applied that failure to get a license can result in fines of up to £30,000 or a criminal prosecution and unlimited fines.

In addition from the 1 October this year, new regulations mean properties, no matter how many floors they are arranged over, which are rented to 2 or more households, and/or 5 or more  occupants require a mandatory HMO licence.

The new legislation won’t affect most Newham landlords as they are already required to get a licence to rent out to three or more individuals through Newham’s Additional HMO Licensing Scheme.

The exception is some landlords in the E20 (Stratford New Town) ward will now be required to obtain a HMO licence where previously they were not required to.

The change of rules has been introduced by government, but will be implemented by Newham Council’s Private Sector Housing Team.

Cllr Gray said:  “I would urge any landlords to engage with our team especially if they are unclear about the new regulations. We genuinely want to work with landlords to create a fair rental market for them, and for all our residents. Together we can work to drive the rogues out of the market and improve the lives of tenants.

Weakening of trade unions behind pay stagnation, says Bank of England’s Chief Economist

Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, has pointed to the decline in trade union power as a key factor in the last ten years of real wage stagnation, alongside the rise of insecure work, low productivity and automation.

Speaking to trade unions and business earlier this week, he said: "Sectors of the UK economy with higher levels of unionisation have seen smaller falls in their labour shares. Over the past few decades, a sector like administration and support activities with under 10% unionisation rates has seen its labour share decline, while a sector like education with a unionisation rate close to 50% has seen its labour share rise."

The last ten years have been historically unusual, he added, in that employment has risen but pay has not followed.

Indeed, workers are feeling the pinch across the UK and some of those in the most insecure types of jobs are taking a stand.

Hat tip IER

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Join us campaigning in the Boleyn ward by-election

"There is a by-election in Boleyn ward on Thursday 01 November. Please join our fantastic Labour candidate, Moniba Khan (seen with Newham elected Mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz), out on the doorstep speaking with residents about their priorities for our borough.

Door knocking is twice every day, meeting at the Champions
statue, corner of Central Park Road and Barking Road, buses 5, 15, 58, 104,
115, 147, 330, 376. Newham E6. 10 minutes walk from Upton Lane District Line station

11:00 Every day

15:00 Saturdays and Sundays

18:00 Weekdays

We have had a positive response so far, but can always use volunteers to reach
more of our residents and support our Labour candidate.

Best wishes,
Newham Labour"

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

UNISON - the union for Housing association workers

New recruitment leaflet from UNISON. A key message is that more employers sit down with UNISON to negotiate terms and conditions that any other union in the sector and that we represent workers interests around the table.

I was an trade union activist for many years (firstly T&G then UNISON) before I realised that negotiating terms and conditions was the most important thing. Representation of members in individual discipline, sickness, grievance, redundancies, TUPE etc is really important (and horrible for anyone to go through alone). However, most members will only need personal advice or  representation probably two or three times in their career.

But everyone wants trained reps negotiating their pay, bonus, leave, pensions, sickness, maternity etc every year.

Remember also the age old adage. The more people in the union. The better the deal we will always get with our employers.  

Monday, October 08, 2018

A day in the life - Thursday 27 September 2018

This is one day in my life as a Newham Council Cabinet member, which was particularly busy but pretty much reflects what all Newham Cabinet members experience on a regular basis. Compared to the Mayor's normal diary, it was probably a walk in the park.

I came back late on Wednesday evening from Labour Party conference in Liverpool. 9am on Thursday, I had my first meeting in Newham Dockside, chairing a working group of Council Officers on the future of Community Spaces (Centres) in the borough. A very difficult issue but the meeting (I felt) went really well and was positive and constructive.

Next I had to rush off to chair a UNISON London regional forum on the Local Government Pension Fund in central London. I had doubled booked myself so was a little late. In the afternoon I attended a fascinating meeting of the Newham Homeless Forum in Anchor House with Cllr Susan Masters, followed by a tour of the marvellous new register office at East Ham Town Hall. I then went across the road for a meet with Newham College of Further Education heads.

After that I had a surgery in my ward in the tenants and residents room in Brassett Point. Finishing with a meeting of Audit Committee in East Town Hall which ended around 9pm. (Followed by a short recovery drink in the Red Lion).

Hope this doesn't seem like gloating "look how busy I am" or "pity me". I am really enjoying the challenge because I am convinced that we (all Labour Councillors and the Mayor) will make a big difference for the better to the lives of our residents.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Councillor Report to West Ham Labour Party Branch October 2018

Councillor Report to Branch
4 October 2018

tel: 0203 373 3456 or email

Surgeries and case work 

Please note the new time and place of my Councillor Surgeries

· Stratford Library, 3 The Grove, Stratford E15 1EL 1st Saturday in every month 10am-11am

· 1st Floor Tenants’ Room, Abbey Road, E15 3LA. 1st Thursday in every month 5pm-6pm.

I can also be contacted by email or phone (see above box) or even via twitter (@grayee) or Facebook (search “John Gray Newham”)

Ward issues
Following complaints from residents and my visits during the election campaign on 9 August I inspected, with technical and caretaking officers, Maud Gardens, E15. A number of communal repair, parking and caretaking issues were identified. We were also able to visit an elderly resident with a serious disrepair issue and since then an emergency decant to alternative accommodation has been arranged. The Council is carrying out what is called a “stock survey” of all its accommodation to identify repair and refurbishment works needed.

Friday 15 August I took part in an inspection of Brassett Point with residents, technical officer and concierge manager. The block was clean and secure but there was also a number of issues identified regarding communal repairs, anti-social behaviour, parking, and leasehold charges. Cllr Whitworth presented a petition from residents at the full Council meeting on 17 September. A follow up meeting with local ward Councillors has been arranged for 4 October 2018.

I also met up with Eastside Community Heritage about a possible “Art in Tower Blocks” scheme. Brassett Point residents indicated that they would be interested in finding out more. I will speak to officers. An inspection of next door David Lee Point is also being arranged.

Planning application in Abbey Road 
This application is for a very large new tower block on the site next to the DLR station. Local residents have been up in arms about this development as being unsuited to the neighbourhood in design and height (amongst other things). I have met with local residents who made a series of formal objections to the application. Newham planners have recommended that the application be rejected. Cllr McLean and I will support objectors when the application comes to planning committee. Cllr Whitworth is a member of Planning Committee so cannot be involved in this campaign.

Newham Boxing club 
The club has approached local Councillors for support to redevelop the site in Church Street. We have asked regeneration officers to look at the proposal.

Durul Jannah Community Centre, E15
Is appealing against a decision of the local planning committee. Cllr Whitworth and I spoke in favour of the application at the committee (before he became a member of the Strategic planning committee)

Last month I attended the Labour Party conference in Liverpool as a Councillor (self funded). During which I attended 9 housing fringes.

I attended the evening meeting of the Stratford & West Ham Assembly on 12 September. It was well organised and very constructive with about 80 people attending. It is probably the best residents’ meeting I have ever been to either as a Councillor or officer.

If requested I would be happy to present on my role as Cabinet member for Housing services to a future meeting of the branch.

If any member wishes to contact me about this report to discuss any aspect please do not hesitate to do so.

John Gray
West Ham Ward Councillor

Saturday, October 06, 2018

New UNISON Convenor to Clarion Housing Group: Joseph Ogundemuren

Passing on the baton as the new UNISON Convenor of Clarion Housing Group to Joseph Ogundemuren (middle of picture) following a unanimous decision at meeting of activists last month.

Joseph is a proactive and experienced UNISON steward, member of the London branch Executive and existing staff council member. After 11 years as a local  convenor I am so pleased to be handing over to someone who is competent and capable.

Of course this always happens when people move on in UNISON... :)

While I am still an employee and a steward, I am on unpaid leave of absence to carry out my duties in Newham. I will still help out but have limited capacity due to obvious reasons. But I am still around and will always consider myself to be a Labour movement activist, first and foremost, until the day I die.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Is it time for schemes to run to safety? Professional Pensions Opinion Piece

As concerned pension funds are flocking to 'safe' assets or buying equity protection, John Gray points out there is no such thing as a 'free lunch' in life
There is an ancient saying attributed to Saint Teresa of Avila that "More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones." 
I think that most pension trustees have been grappling with what to do about the ongoing highs in the equity markets and whether (or when) there will be the inevitable market correction. Returns have been exceptional for some time and many funds have made a lot of money. Is it time to run to safety or is it truly ‘different this time'?
Many active fund managers have been sitting on their hands for a long while, refusing to invest in what they consider to be an overvalued market that is bound to crash and destroy value. However, this has impacted on their performance, which has suffered accordingly.
Some funds are moving out of equities, realising gains and locking into what they believe to be ‘safer' and less volatile asset classes.
Other funds are buying complex ‘insurance' products that for a fee will protect against market losses or can even offer protection for no apparent cost (instead of an upfront fee you give up on gains from possible future market rises). 
There is, of course, no such thing as a ‘free lunch' in life. Most open public and private defined benefit (DB) schemes (yes there are still open private schemes) are dependent on taking long-term equity risk to meet their obligations. If they reduce their exposure to equities then they may have to increase contributions. 
There is also the argument that pension funds are in for the long run - so why worry about short-term temporary movements? Equity markets always recover eventually and then go on to more record highs… don't they?
I remember a few years ago funds being strongly lobbied to take out similar insurance products. Since then markets have risen even further and if they had bought then this would have meant unnecessary costs and/or lost equity return opportunities.
To complicate matters further for us poor trustees, there are also voices out there arguing the risk is overstated and that equities are not necessarily overpriced in all markets. Twice now in recent months I have attended pension conferences and heard positive views on the near future. This included a respected economist of a major international bank and a senior investment manager of a large mainstream equity fund. There were ‘ifs and buts' expressed about the impact of Brexit and Trump etc. But it was not at all doom and gloom.
Meanwhile, elsewhere I have heard very robust arguments that we are about to go over a cliff edge.
The elephant in the room is fund valuations. If the market does crash at the eve of a valuation and it results in massive deficits then that will cause all sort of problems for these funds. So you could understand the temptation for funds to be defensive and ‘safety first' even though there will be costs.
Let's leave aside for the moment about whether it is really a good idea to drive pension investment decision-making on the basis of what is essentially an artificial ‘snap shot' of inherently volatile valuations. I think it does make sense to crystallise some of your gains and take defensive measures. If your fund is currently nearly fully funded (like most local government pension funds) then why take the risk?
The current positive funding level of so many DB funds does make you wonder why so many people wrote off DB schemes and closed them at huge cost in the private sector. But let's leave that aside for another day as well. 
John Gray is chair of the Newham Council Pension investment and accounts committee, writing in a personal capacity

Thursday, October 04, 2018

World Mental Health Day 2018

A campaigning day for equality and dignity but also some good advice from UNISON "you don't need to suffer in silence"

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

My UNISON NEC Report to Community Service Group Executive October 2018

"Dear Members

Firstly, my apologies for not attending the last SGE meeting and for submitting this written report late but you may be aware that in May I was appointed to a new position which has proved to be an exciting opportunity but also challenging and time consuming.  

Instead of my usual report on my activities as one of your NEC members, I thought it would be useful to expand on national themes and topics relating to our community service group and the national union

Our National Delegate Conference (NDC)
The Conference was on many levels very successful and I was pleased to see Community delegates speaking on many debates, however, I was very disappointed that the NEC motion calling for a wholesale review of what UNISON does was defeated by conference.

It is the 25th anniversary of the creation of UNISON and bearing in mind the huge (and ongoing) changes to our sector over the years, such a review is long overdue and delaying it by (hopefully until next NDC 2019) is at best a setback at worse an own goal. Especially for our Service Group but also for the whole union.

While I understand the long and proud tradition of “platform bashing” at NDC (being suspicious and sceptical of everything and anything your elected lay NEC proposes) we cannot afford to put off accepting that our world has changed and we need to be prepared to make difficult decisions.  

In our Community Service Group world we desperately need change. We need to sort out how we fund and support our fragmented and diverse structures to make a process that will serve all branches with community members, whether or not they are Community specific, whether they are small, large, national or multi-employer branches.

We need support for branch officers and understanding that facility time is difficult to obtain and often impossible for multi-employer branch activities.  For such branches we need paid organisers to support workplace stewards and paid managers to supervise and support these paid workers.

 Those staff who are employed by branches deserve the same rights to effective line management and personal development that we would demand all employers to provide.

All Community members deserve not only excellent advice and representation but also the opportunity to play a full part in the democracy of their union. Sadly, despite the fantastic work that our stewards and staff do day in and day out and the real difference they make to the member’s lives at work, too often neither happens.

Let’s not wait until next NDC. Let’s start the debate now for Community, on what we need to organise effectively in 2018, work out what works and what doesn’t work and how we can pay for it. Let’s just do it!

NEC Meeting 6 June 2018
(Paragraph deleted P&C UNISON matter)

The General Secretary, Dave Prentis in his report to NEC passed on the thanks from the TUC for UNISON participation in the TUC demo not only for our numbers on the demo but for all the noise we made while marching.

(Paragraph deleted P&C UNISON matter)

Check UNISON public report on meeting below

NEC Meeting 11 April 2018
I spoke against a motion calling for a national conference for social care since Community members find it more difficult than some other service groups to get time off to attend motion based conferences than seminars. There had also been successful seminars for care workers and of course the whole point of National Delegate Conference, our annual Parliament, is to discuss such motions and decide upon campaigns. While I personally enjoy attending conferences UNISON holds a large number of expensive conferences already and I didn’t think that the case had been made to hold yet another. The NEC by a large majority decided to oppose this motion.

On a motion calling for changes to branch funding I said that supporters of this proposal have to be honest about consequences since if we take money away and give it elsewhere then that will have to be paid for by, for example, sacking unison staff, closing regional centres, stopping our international work etc.

Check UNISON public report on meeting below

As a NEC member I am also on the Policy & Development Subcommittee, Welfare Trustee, Staff Pension fund trustee and Vice Chair of the Industrial Action Committee.

I am more than happy to discuss with SGE members or anyone from UNISON Community service group (Housing Associations and Voluntary sector) my work as their NEC member.

John Gray
General Seat UNISON Community NEC member

(hat tip picture with my UNISON Housing Association branch delegates at NDC)

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Newham celebrates Black History Month

Black History Month is being revived in the borough for the first time in more than ten years.​

With a new mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz and a new administration, the decision has been made to reinstate the event as part of the council’s wide reaching events programme.

Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz said: “I’m really pleased that for the first time in many years, Newham Council will be celebrating Black History Month!

“It’ll be a chance for us to acknowledge the significant contributions, past and present, to our borough’s rich history of people like Frank Arthur Bailey, the first full time black firefighter in England who joined West Ham Fire Brigade in 1955 and served at Silvertown; or actor Idris Elba from East Ham; or gold medal winning Olympian Christine Ohuruogu from Stratford.

“There’s a plethora of amazing black talent that has emerged from Newham whose contributions are equally as important and I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens during Black History Month through the range of talks and events taking place. We’re also asking how Black History Month can be “re-imagined” so that in future it features in what we do throughout the year.”

The programme will allow residents to explore the meaning of Black History Month and to inform and shape future programmes, ensuring that it genuinely reflects the borough’s Black communities.

Free film screenings, exhibitions and talks highlighting black history and culture will be staged across Newham in October to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of many of its residents. The events will highlight icons, innovation, achievements and culture through poetry recitals, talks, spoken word and author events.

All of the events will have a discussion or question and answer session so residents can share their ideas of how future Black History Months are produced.

Events include screenings of Grace Jones’s “Bloodlight and Bami”, an insight into her electrifying concert performances and intimate, personal footage showcasing her life. Marvel’s Black Panther, the ninth-highest-grossing film of all time and the highest grossing film by a black director will also be shown.

There will be talks on Pan-Africanism , A History By Professor Hakim Adi and Black Female Authors in Conversation with Jay Lopez and Trina Charles (Curlture); Chimmy Lawson (The Pinker Print); and Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené (Slay in your Lane), as well as The Cultural Politics of Lovers Rock by Senior Lecturer at Birmingham City University, Lisa Amanda Palmer.

Deputy Mayor McLean said: “I’m pleased as a council we are celebrating Black History Month and we now have a commitment to deliver a long lasting, vibrant selection of events and activities that showcase the history and culture of Newham’s communities. It’s important that we use this month to show the strength of our diverse community and also challenge ignorance, prejudice, and bias and race hatred.”

More information on the events programme can be found at

Monday, October 01, 2018

Bumbles Green Walk

Off message but another great walk from the free site. "Bumbles Green" is within spitting distance of London. It is only 30 minutes drive from Newham and like most walks just outside London, incredibly quiet and peaceful.

King Harold (of "1066 and all that") is thought to have had a hunting lodge and a mistress near here

Early on the walk you pass a 19th century "Coal and Wine" post (picture next to pint of beer in collage). The City of London was able to levy taxes on these goods so such posts used to be placed on all access points to London.  I suspect that locals at the time had a similar attitude to modern day to taxes so I am not sure how successful such posts were.?

Check out the photo in the college bottom right, where on the ridge there some spectacular views of London (click on it to enlarge). A great place to have a picnic. There are remains of military bunkers on the ridge which I suspect were anti-aircraft gun platforms to protect London during the second world war.

The walk is only 6.5 miles and while it has some hills there is nothing too severe. Other points of interest on route is a massive market garden nursery, which we finally managed to work out was growing courgettes and a huge mobile caravan park which appears to have been allowed to turn itself into permanent housing.  I note an advert for a two bedroom caravan at the site going for sale at £199,000. If that does not convince you how ridiculous London property prices are what will?

Many years ago Gill and I were walking in this same area and watched scores of travellers racing ponies and carts up the hill. A magnificent sight to us although I understand afterwards that the local landowner may have had a different opinion.

Unfortunately the King Harold Head pub mentioned in the walk description as somewhere to seek refreshment has been turned into a rather snooty restaurant and when we turned up after the walk to see if we could have a drink we were turned away with disdain. Nevermind, I was able to get a lovely golden beer elsewhere (The Plough in Sewardstone).