Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Affordable Housing Conference - "A Bold Plan for Local Authority to Deliver it’s own Housing"

My speech today at this "Affordable Housing" conference in central London.

"Thank you. As I think I am the only politician speaking today, I hope you will find our perspective of what we are doing in Newham of interest. 

First the bad stuff, which no one here should be surprised about but just needs saying.

Like many Councils up and down the country, Newham is desperately in need of good quality, affordable social homes. For too long supply has failed to keep pace with demand, and a series of damaging Government policies have compounded to result in a disastrous impact on the lives of our residents. As house prices and rents have rocketed in recent years, many of our residents continue to struggle on low incomes.

· In Newham, the impact is stark:

- Nearly half of all Newham residents are now in poverty once housing costs are accounted for.

- Over 28,000 households are currently on our housing waiting list

- More than 5,200 households are living in temporary accommodation(remember this figure).

- And not only does Newham has the highest number of homeless people in England – shockingly, we have 50% more children in temporary accommodation than in the entire north of England.

We have an ambitious local plan to tackle this national crisis – and we are calling on the government and partners for additional action that will help local government to step up the building of truly affordable homes.

Our central argument in that the market alone won’t deliver what people need – you need bold action from government, partners and from local authorities to drive forward affordable housing delivery.

We have set out demanding plans for direct housing delivery:

o 1,000 new Council owned homes at social rent in 4 years.

o 100 started in the first year

o Half of homes delivered in the borough to be genuinely affordable

Our recently agreed Local Plan sets out over the longer term that we will deliver 43,000 homes over 15 years. We have the land available in Newham, and we have the ambition to make a serious impact on London’s housing crisis. We want to work in partnership to do just that.

Our approach to delivering affordable housing has 3 main objectives.

1. Build

a. Direct delivery on Council owned sites &

b. More than 1,000 genuinely affordable homes paid for by grant

c. 1,000 homes for sale with all profits recycled into more affordable housing

2. Acquire

a. Buy into third party schemes

b. Increased provision for a mix of permanent and temporary solutions as part of a housing pathway of homeless prevention and advice

c. Make full use of RTB receipts. 

3. Secure

· Working within the planning system to increase genuinely affordable provision

· We have more than 4,000 affordable homes already with planning consent - of which 40 per cent have started

10 months in to our new administration in the borough, and we are already delivering:

We successfully bid for £107m from the Mayor of London’s Building Council Homes for Londoners Fund - the highest allocation of any London authority.

We have invested £500k to recruit a new housing delivery team, enabling us to have capacity and step up delivery

And we have made sure that our own housing delivery vehicle - Red Door Ventures – is focused on delivering the genuinely affordable homes that Newham needs. RVD is a 100% council-owned company, will be an important driver in the delivery of affordable homes in the borough in the coming years.

There is much more to do – but we want to work in partnership to deliver the genuinely affordable homes that Newham needs. For example, we are also actively looking into with other LA and investors whether our Council pension funds should invest in social housing.

Of course, this cannot just be about numbers of units – we need to involve people in the process. The key phrase of our administration in Newham is ‘putting people at the heart of everything we do’. That means genuinely involving people in decisions – including major decision about their local area.

There has been a strong feeling in Newham and many other communities that regeneration does nothing for the existing local residents – that it displaces local people and just pushes up rents.

It is a feeling that has developed over recent years as the housing crisis has worsened, despite major developments and luxury flats springing up across the capital. And it has also developed because local people do not feel sufficiently consulted and involved in the process. They have often felt ignored

So we will also be pioneering new engagement approaches to involve residents in decision making – in major development like the Carpenters Estate in Stratford.

Finally, as the only politician on the panel, I do need to point out the changes we need from government. We have ambitious plans in Newham. But we continue to be shackled by disastrous Government policies.

The housing crisis is worsened by the government’s damaging and poorly implemented welfare reforms.

And while the lifting of the HRA cap is welcome, we need more funding for local authorities to build the social homes that we need. We need subsidy to make homes truly affordable.

Crucially, we also need to see an end to the Right to Buy (RTB) policy, which continues to strip away our social safety net depriving our residents of hundreds of desperately needed social homes:

Since 1982, Newham Council has lost almost 10k (9,707) social homes to RTB. 1/3 of our stock. The high discounts, the low qualification period, and the restrictions around the use of RTB receipts also mean that it is almost impossible for LA to replace these greatly needed homes.

RTB not delivering its original intention of helping social tenants to purchase and live in their own home. Instead, it is increasingly supporting the growth of the private rented sector - it is shocking that nearly half of all these 10k properties purchased through RTB in Newham are now in the private rented sector. Remember I said earlier we have just over 5k homeless households. Do the maths

England needs to follow the example of Scotland and Wales and end RTB, as a crucial part of a package that will help LAs deliver Localism but also the homes we need in a sustainable way.

Thank you for listening

Monday, March 18, 2019

Sunday, March 17, 2019

United against Terror #Christchurch #Pittsburg #Manchester

Yesterday, following the fascist massacre of Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand, the Newham Labour Movement family and friends, came together at a vigil outside Stratford Station. All of us were "United Against Terror". 

Newham Mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, Stephen Timms MP, Councillors and religious leaders spoke passionately against the foul vile haters, who have murdered innocents in Christchurch, Pittsburg, Manchester and so many other places.   

Afterwards, many of us went with the Mayor to join the "Stand up to Racism" march in Central London which ended up at a rally in Whitehall. 

My own personal views were echoed by many of the speakers at the vigil and the rally.
We were doing at least 3 important things that day. 
  • We were there firstly, to grieve and show solidarity with those murdered or injured at Christchurch. 
  • Secondly, to publicly demonstrate against and campaign against the scourge of fascism, bigotry and hate in all its forms. 
  • Thirdly, out of misery and tragedy sometimes there can be a positive. Despite this latest mass murder by haters, why can there not be be a rainbow alliance of everyone opposed to hate? 

Let us build a movement based on our common humanity. 

WE are the many - the Haters are the real "other". 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

A year since Rokhsana Fiaz elected was as Labour Party Candidate for Newham Mayoral Contest 2018

What a great picture. I believe taken after 3pm that day when the Labour Party informed Rokshana that she had been elected by Labour Party member in Newham to be our candidate in the Newham directly elected Mayoral elections on 2018.

Bizarrely, I was on a train when I heard the news, while coming from Richmond following a debate with Vince Cable MP at the Richmond UNISON AGM.

What a fantastic result. One of the best days in my life ever.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has". Margaret Mead


Friday, March 15, 2019

Greater London UNISON Housing Associations Branch Annual Report 2018 (1) Branch Chair Report

Branch chairs report: Tony Power

It's been a year of uncertainty for all of us. The Brexit vote of 2016 still continues and has consequences that are still not clear and this has become particularly unsettling for our members who have come from the European Union and beyond. These members are our friends, neighbours and work colleagues and it is upsetting for us to see the distress this uncertainty is causing them. Unison is doing all it can to provide support for those most worried about what lies in store post Brexit. It has published two guidance documents; Migrants and the future of social care and Your Right to Remain, both of which are excellent sources of support and are available on the Unison website. As Dave Prentis says in the introduction:

“Now, more than ever, our union must show its support for members from across the EU. They have given so much to our communities and our services – now we must stand with them and defend their right to remain”

This year has seen the branch restructure still ongoing and I'd like to put on record my thanks to all of the staff for bearing with us during this process. There have been a lot of factors that we've had to take into consideration including budgets. As well as agreeing a new structure with current staff that provides the best possible service for you, our members. We are working closely with the region to ensure this process is concluded as soon as possible and with the full co-operation of our branch staff who throughout the year have worked incredibly hard supporting our members. I would like to thank them personally for all of the help they have given me and the rest of the executive team over the past 12 months.

On a sad note we have had to say goodbye to a couple of highly respected and regarded Unison officials this year.

Firstly, I'd like to put on record my thanks to Colin Inniss our previous Regional Organiser for all of his hard work and support that he is given both to you the members and us in the branch executive during his time with us. We are sad to see him go but we all wish him well in his new post in the local government sector. On behalf of all of the branch I would like to say a big welcome to Ezequiel Kramer our new Regional Organiser. It’s great to meet you Ezequiel and we look forward to a long and fruitful working relationship.

The second sad goodbye is to our current branch secretary John Gray. Who I have been fortunate to work with so closely over the past number of years. John's been a terrific Branch Secretary and has made a real impact on the branch and how it works. We are sad that he's decided to stand down but we hope that he remains an active member of the branch executive committee.

In conclusion I want to remind all of you that we are only as strong as you, our members, make us. I urge you to not only continue your membership but also commit to making 2019 the year that you become more active in your union by becoming a shop steward, health and safety rep or a staff contact and by so doing join the current activists to that are the backbone of Unison.

With so much uncertainty around at the moment there has never been a better time to be a part of an organisation like Unison which is fighting for the rights of all of workers in your workplace, region and worldwide.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Labour rebuilding Burham and Wouldham - May Council elections

Today I attended the UNISON National Labour Link Committee and offered support for Labour Council candidates, who are standing in May 2 in our UNISON East and South East regions. London does not have any "planned" elections this year, so we hope that London activists will go and help out comrades elsewhere.

The Eastern and South East regional reps present were more than happy with this offer.

In the meanwhile may I pass on a plea for help by my UNISON branch assistant secretary, Lola Oyewusi, who is standing in Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council for Labour. It is currently a Tory ward but anyone who underestimates Lola - does so at their peril!

Obviously we will target marginals but I will be off to Kent at some stage to help out my branch colleague.

Check https://twitter.com/lab_ton_malling?lang=en  and https://www.facebook.com/LabTonMalling/

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

West Ham Trades Council Banner 1957: Vic Feather

Hat tip Captain Swing for "Souvenir programme" of West Ham Trades Council "unfurling ceremony" of their new banner by Victor Feather, Assistant Secretary of the Trade Union Congress (later General Secretary of TUC).

Captain Swing and I wonder where this banner is now? Does anyone know?

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

UNISON Housing Associations Branch AGM - Sarah Jones MP keynote speaker

We held our branch AGM at Committee room 17 in the House of Commons. Sarah Jones MP, Shadow Housing Minister gave a superb presentation on Labour housing policy and stayed for an extended questions and answers session. She then had to rush off to vote in the Brexit debate.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Sunday, March 10, 2019

John McDonnell MP at West Ham Labour dinner

Picture collage from last Thursday West Ham Labour event. Many thanks to everyone involved. We had solid 250 tickets. It was a great night out and we have raised loads for money for the CLP. 

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Mental health in the UK

I came across this slide that shows the scale of the problem in the UK. Hat tip charity MIND via Association of Labour Councillors (ALC)

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

"Council warns residents against workmen conning people out of thousands of pounds"

"Newham Council is warning residents against fraudsters attempting to con people out of thousands of pounds.​

The con artists pretend to be contractors working for the Council offering repairs at the victims home. They then tell the victim that specialist equipment will be needed and that the deposit will need to be covered upfront by the resident.

Two cases have been reported in the borough, one in Canning Town and the other in Stratford, with one 89-year-old woman mistakenly handing over £2,700 to the conmen.

In previous cases, the fraudsters, while dressed as workmen, have claimed they are working for a company called ‘A1 Solutions’. They have also given details of a ‘Mr Smith’ at Newham Council when questioned on their credentials, giving a false number of 020 3633 7029.

Newham councillor John Whitworth has been one of the residents targeted by the scam.

Councillor Whitworth, ward member for West Ham, said: “As someone that has been targeted by this scam, I urge other residents to be vigilant.

“Should any workmen visit your house, do not hand over your hard earned cash and please do report it to the Council.

“These men may seem convincing but they should not be trusted.”

Newham Council will always contact residents by letter first if there is any work needed to be carried out at their home. In no circumstances will the Council allow the contractor to contact residents without getting in touch first and residents should be aware of any workmen knocking on their door or calling unannounced.

The con has been reported to the police.

Councillor John Gray, Deputy Mayor and lead member for Housing Services, said: “It is disgraceful that this con artists think they can get away with this behaviour in Newham.

“The Council will always contact residents in advance if any work is required at their property, and they should under no circumstances hand any money over to workmen that knock on the door.

“Both the Council and the Police are aware of this fraudulent activity, anyone that experiences this should report it to the authorities.”

Residents should call the normal council number of 0208 430 2000 if they are suspicious and speak to a Customer Services Advisor. Anyone that falls victim of the fraud should contact the police".

- Hat tip Newham Council website, Cllr Whitworth and well done to staff to their prompt response to this report. I am not a member of the "hang 'em and flog 'em" brigade" but believe that we must protect our elders.  Such abuse, is technically "burglary", which could result in a 14 year prison sentence. I would be very content if these criminals spent 14 years behind bars for such crimes. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

West Ham Ward #Labourdoorstep with Lyn Brown MP 23 Feb 2019

Picture college from recent canvass session. Our MP, Lyn Brown was on one canvass team and our East London GLA Assembly member Unmesh Desai, the second. It was a really busy canvass session and I met many residents and picked up lots of casework as a local Councillor.

Including a mum with 9 kids (two of which have special needs) in a two bedroom flat and another resident with an ongoing repair problem saying that regardless of whether or not I can help her, she will always support the Labour Party.

Our support in the ward, a 100 year Labour heartland, is simply humbling and we need to make sure that we earn this trust.

Monday, March 04, 2019

Rothschild Conspiracy Theory Exposed & "Antisemitism Open Letter"

An excellent video by Momentum. We need more of this stuff to combat anti-semitism in the Labour Movement (nevermind the Labour Party)

also Hat tip Momentum. I have signed below "Antisemitism Open Letter"

"We are Labour members who support Jeremy Corbyn in his leadership and the progressive, socialist programme and anti-racist principles of the Labour Party.

We have seen antisemitism from Labour members and supporters, online or offline. We recognise that as a movement we have been too slow to acknowledge this problem, too tolerant of the existence of antisemitic views within our ranks, too defensive and too eager to downplay it.

We sincerely apologise to the Jewish community, and our Jewish comrades in the party, for our collective failure on this issue to date.

We believe that a small minority of antisemites are wreaking havoc in the Labour movement, alienating Jewish people, and sabotaging the Labour project. Some of these people are already expelled or otherwise suspended by the party, but remain active on social media. Moreover, there is a much wider problem of denial about the problem, including shouting down those who raise it or take action.

We are acutely aware that confidence in the left is at an all time low within Jewish communities. It is our goal to rebuild trust and relationships with our Jewish compatriots.

In addition, we understand our obligation to be sensitive to the concerns that have already been widely expressed. A particular issue is that many people, due to a general lack of education about antisemitism, are not recognising antisemitic tropes, and as a result often react defensively. We recognise that rising antisemitism in society at large, and in other parties, isn’t a reason to fall short here in the Labour Party. It is our party that has always led the fight against racism, which is why our failures are bitterly disappointing for Jewish members, and as such we affirm that there is no space for anti-Jewish prejudice and bigotry in our movement. We must be at the forefront of eradicating antisemitism from our own spaces and movement, which is where we have the power to hold ourselves to the highest standard in order to make a real difference.

Part of the difficulty is that when speaking out about the injustices of the Israel-Palestine conflict, progressive and radical activists have faced allegations of antisemitism when they have either not been antisemitic or when they did not intend to be antisemitic and took care to ensure they were not using antisemitic tropes or rhetoric. At the same time, we acknowledge that we face real currents of unchallenged and somewhat normalised anti-Jewish oppression in our movements and society at large including at times alongside criticism of Israel. In order to resolve this we call on all members of the Labour movement to seek an end to bunker mentality, demonstrate maturity and prove why, as a party awaiting government, we can be trusted to face up to the challenges we encounter in bringing about significant change both within and outside of the movement.

It is our ambition to arrive at a place where we can hold ourselves accountable, continuing to address important challenges and having meaningful discussions about topics including the Israel-Palestine conflict. All of this whilst being true and committed allies to our Jewish compatriots in the fight against antisemitism.

We are committed to proactively opposing antisemitism and antisemitic tropes wherever they occur and countering efforts to downplay concerns raised. We want to work with the party to urgently assign resources, in consultation with the Jewish community, to expose and isolate antisemites active online purporting to support Labour; to create and develop political education materials to assist in educating those who are ignorant of this subject and unaware of the nuances of antisemitism; to publish a dedicated page on the Labour Party website addressing antisemitism; to address both new and outstanding cases in a timely manner; and to raise up Jewish voices speaking out about their experiences; and to reiterate publicly and privately that dismissive attitudes and denial are part of the problem.

We understand that many Jewish members feel uncertain and have reservations, but we hope that you will stay in the Labour Party, so we can work with you and together eradicate antisemitism from our movement and society as a whole.


Vote Members First: UNISON NEC elections 2019

Picture collage from last weekend at the UNISON Community Conference in Southport (for our members who work for Housing Associations and the Voluntary Sector). It was great to get support from activists and to hand our leaflets and to ask for support from delegates.

Denise Thomas and I are standing for the two UNISON NEC seats for Community. Check out our joint request to branches to nominate us here https://www.johnslabourblog.org/2019/01/unison-nec-elections-2019-nominate.html

Sunday, March 03, 2019

uCVS19 Conference speech 10. "Alexa did you takes our jobs The rising threat of Automation and computerisation in the Housing Sector"

This was my speech to UNISON Community Conference yesterday on Motion 10.

"John Gray, speaking on behalf of the Service Group Executive in favour of motion 10 as amended.


This is all disturbing and challenging but negative changes in employment is nothing new. My first experience of significant industrial action took place 20 years ago this July when I was I was a housing officer working for a London council and was elected chair of a strike committee, we took all out strike for a month against setting up of a repairs call centre and closure of 12 local housing offices with the threat of compulsory redundancies.

It is also not just automation that threatens our jobs but the associated so called “gig or uber economy” employment practices. The rise of bogus self-employment, insecure contracts, no sickness pay, no decent holiday nor pension provision.

Undoubtedly there are threats from automatisation that this motion seeks to begin to address but also there are opportunities to organise. Remember the words of the famous song “Jerusalem” by William Blake? We have new versions of “dark satanic mills” in this 21st century  industrial age, even though there might appear to be shiny computer centres, and UNISON has to be there for workers - fighting, campaigning, persuading, influencing, defending workers by all means possible.

Unison needs to raise its game as well, recently a community member rang our free phone number unisondirect to advise us that she had left her job with a major charity and was now working “freelance” for two charities. As soon as she mentioned “freelance” she was told that she was no longer eligible to be a member! Of course, this is nonsense and Gavin our national officer was horrified when I told him and has taken up with issue with unisondirect, but this shows how we must change our union to reflect the reality of workers, here and now.

This member doesn’t just want traditional representation if things goes wrong she want help with chasing invoices, claiming tax back, basic pension advice and income protection if she is sick.

Finally, conference, 20 years ago we won that dispute against automatisation and managed to save a local housing office service and no one was forced out of a job.

What we must do now is to ensure that our union can adapt to our ever changing world and win future fights for all our members. Conference, please support this motion.

This motion was from the great nation of Cymru/Wales written by my good comrade Mark Jones. Hat tip picture to Mitsy. The motion was passed unanimously.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

UNISON supports striking AFG care workers

UNISON Community Conference showing solidarity with AFG care workers taking industrial action this weekend. Including strong support from UNISON Assistant General Secretary, Christina McAnea and Shadow Minister, Rebecca Long-Bailey

Friday, March 01, 2019

Unison Community National Seminar & Conference 2019 #uCVS19

Day one of our unison conference for members who work for voluntary organisations and housing associations.

First thing was meeting of our Service Community Executive to agree on last minute arrangements, platform speakers and our position on amendments.

We also agreed to support our members taking industrial action tomorrow to protect "Sleep in" payments from being cut by AFG (Alternative Futures Group).

This is not a case of inadequate funding but an organisation that is choosing to slash and burn the pay of its already low paid work force.

Next, sector meetings for housing associations, Community & voluntary, Major Charities, new delegate briefing, Then start of seminar at 2pm.

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus!

Thursday, February 28, 2019

UNISON Industrial Action Working Group

This afternoon I chaired a meeting of a UNISON working group on industrial action at our headquarters in Euston, London (with an NEC member from the West Midlands video conference into the meeting).

While taking industrial action (strikes, overtimes bans, working to rule etc) is nearly always a last resort, we need to ensure that when we do take action and our members can lose money by being on strike, that we have an impact and that we can win the dispute for members.

I have very limited patience for those who advocate "glorious defeats" for our members. I recognise that we do need to take risks in disputes and I have been on a number of "risky" strikes, some very successful, some ill conceived disasters. 

In light that most of our members being very low paid (but no-one wants to lose money unnecessary) and Tory Government anti trade union legislation, we need to box clever and make sure when we have a fight with employers or the government, we not only have an effective union machine to support members and win, we also have the support of our members that this is a issue that is important to them and a plan to win.

There were a number of really positive ideas and proposals to come out of this working group. Watch this space. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Spreading the word in Newham - our Word Festival 25 Feb to 11 March 2019

On Monday evening I went to the launch of the "Newham Word Festival" with the Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz and my fellow Deputy Mayor Charlene McLean. It was a lovely launch and great to meet lots of Newham residents who are so passionate about literature, art and culture. 

Check out the programme here

25 FEBRUARY - 11 MARCH 2019

"Poetry, film, storytelling, authors discussing their books, visual arts, debates, performances and lots more. Featuring artists from near and far, local and international, at the peak of their careers or just starting out, Newham Word Festival takes place across the whole borough".

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

VOTE John Gray & Denise Thomas for UNISON Community NEC seats

Many thanks for all the branches that have supported us. If all goes well and we are accepted as candidates voting will start on 15 April (ballot papers sent to home addresses of members). 

Monday, February 25, 2019

Newham Against the Arms Fair 2019

This picture collage is from the protest last Saturday 16 Feb at the Excel Centre against plans to hold the biannual DSEI (Defence & Security Equipment International) Arms fair in September.

The Newham Executive Mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz and local MP, Lyn Brown turned up to support protestors as did many local Councillors.

It was a largely a friendly musical protest apart from some "disagreements" with Excel security about handing out leaflets and where to stand.

I love the picture (lower middle) where we are singing protest songs but Joshua, the young son of Newham Councillors, Carleene & Daniel Lee-Phakoe,  is pictured sticking his fingers in his ears at our noise, therefore making his own protest. 

Saturday, February 23, 2019

UNISON Housing Associations Branch AGM 2019: Sarah Jones MP Keynote speaker

I am really pleased that Sarah has agreed to be our Keynote speaker at our branch AGM on March 12 at Portcullis House. She is a local London MP and a Shadow Housing minister.

Before the meeting we will have a tour for members and their guests of the Great Hall and the House of Commons (many thanks to my Newham colleague, Julianne Marriott who has "volunteered" to lead on this tour - she is a qualified blue badge tourist guide)  and after the meeting a branch meal and social at a nearby restaurant.  

Friday, February 22, 2019

London Mayor Sadiq Khan & Newham Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz visit Londoners living in new Council Homes

Picture collage from yesterday's visit in East Ham with London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Newham Mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, to new Council owned homes. The large number of TV and other media present showed how housing is now becoming a number one political issue.

The families who proudly showed us around their new homes were absolutely brilliant ambassadors for council housing.

Thanks to London Mayor, Sadiq Khan's £107 Million investment, our Newham Mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, will now be able to build at least 1000 similar council homes at a social rent.

Not only will this mean that at least a 1000 Newham families will in the future have access to decent, secure and truly affordable homes, the lovely family we visited with the disabled adult daughter will also benefit when we pay care workers a London Living wage and sign the UNISON Ethical Care charter.

Carers will not only receive sick pay, training and up to a £100 per week pay rise but this will result in less "turnover" of carers. Which is a major issue.

As part of our Newham Mayoral anti poverty programme, the 50% reduction in Council tax for the 19,000 poorest households in Newham, will be transformational for our most vulnerable residents. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Labour's Community Wealth Building Unit - new website

This is what we want to do in Newham!

"With Tory austerity blighting our communities and forcing councils to cut and privatise many local services, there is an urgent need for Labour councils to come together to develop and share ways to bring services back in house, stimulate local economies to provide decent jobs,  and strengthen local democracy.
There are many creative solutions being used already, and we have set up the Community Wealth Building Unit to spread this inspiring work through online resources, regular workshops and training sessions for Labour councillors, and bespoke advice and practical support.
The Unit brings together councillors, unions, think tanks, and independent experts with experience of delivering frontline change and adopting creative methods to secure and provide vital services and stimulate sustainable economic development for communities in the face of austerity.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Re-elected at London UNISON Regional Council AGM 2019

I was privileged to be re-elected last week at the London UNISON Regional Council AGM as Finance convenor (Treasurer and Regional Council Officer) for I think the 12th year in a row.

The AGM was probably in my view the most constructive and positive one, I have ever been to in all my years as a UNISON activist. The UNISON Lay President, Gordon McKay (a NHS nurse), gave a typical self deprecating but very passionate keynote speech about the simple cruelty that this Tory Government shows towards the poor and the vulnerable.

Next a great presentation by http://greecesolidarity.org/ about the work they do to support the people of Greece and a plea for support from UNISON branches.

I gave my financial report to the AGM and was pleased that there were proper questions and challenges by delegates.

Deputy Convenor, Conroy Lawrence, who was also re-elected had nearly everyone in tears as he moved his branch's motion on Gun and Knife crime, and told us why this is so important to him as he explained about the senseless gun murder of his own son.  Branch activist, Misty Harmon-Russell also spoke during the debates.

Our Convenor, Yvonne Green, was re-elected unopposed and showed why, by her lovely polite, quietly spoken but firm chairing of the meeting. This is a real skill.

 In the evening I had my Greater London UNISON Housing Association branch executive at the Hyde Housing Association headquarters and was unanimously nominated to be the Community NEC General Seat candidate (with my good comrade from Wales, Denise Thomas and other sensible broad left candidates )

All in all a good day. 

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Friday, February 15, 2019

Labour Local Government Association Conference 2019

Last weekend I went to the Labour LGA conference in Coventry. There were Labour councillors from all over England. On the Friday evening Tom Watson was the speaker at a buffet meal. The next day Jeremy was our keynote speaker (see main picture with Jeremy and Newham Labour directly elected Executive Mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, both arriving at the conference following a personal meeting)

At the start of conference, local Cllr Jackie Taylor welcomed us. LGA Group leader, Nick Forbes, reminded everyone that we are are a Labour movement family with the odd wayward teenagers & grumpy uncles (I plead innocence). 

There were a number of seminars and fringes including an important one on "New municipalism community wealth building" and another with John Healey MP on housing campaigning. Where following negative comments about the problems caused by Airbnb in some areas, I had to admit to staying in a flat for this weekend via this said website.

I am so pleased that Labour has committed to getting rid of section 21 (no fault legal evictions). We also need to support the Tenants/leaseholders representative movement, since we will never get first class housing services without this.

Rokhsana also skyped into two Newham Citizen assemblies that were being held in East Ham town hall at the same time. I filmed her on her phone as she addressed the morning and afternoon assemblies. It is amazing what modern technology can achieve. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

"Newham’s left wing Mayor challenges Tory austerity in her first budget"

Hat tip "Labour Against Austerity"

By Daniel Blaney

"The Mayor [of Newham] has set out a clear ambition for housing in Newham, with a particular focus on increasing social housing stock in the borough.

This will require significant Council capital investment to complement the £107 million Greater London Authority grant under the Building Council Homes for Londoners programme.” 

That is the introductory paragraph of a paper at the December 2018 meeting of Newham’s Cabinet, approving a business plan for Newham’s “Housing Revenue Account” – the obligation to account separately for Council-owned social housing. Its technical material, and language quoted is a little dry, but perhaps it illustrates best the political change emerging from the replacement of Sir Robin Wales as Mayor in May 2018 with Rokhsana Fiaz. 

The February 2019 budget is new Mayor’s first budget. She and her cabinet colleagues regularly tout this as a ‘transitional’ budget, clearly frustrated it doesn’t in itself demonstrate the sum of the political ambition, but marks a significant change of direction. 

A more radical, transformative 2nd budget is to be prepared over the next twelve months. In reality, the housing aspects of this first budget are already radical and transformational. The fact that the “Housing Revenue Account” business plan is being transformed, is a demonstration of the role of actual council housing in the new Mayor’s priorities, both in terms of investment by building new council housing, and in investment in existing stock, improving the housing of existing tenants in their current homes. 

The London Borough of Newham is recovering from a scandal in its “Repairs and Maintenance Service”, which was exposed by the actions of a whistleblower in the last months of the Robin Wales administration. The service had been re-modelled to be prepared for commercialisation and was expected to behave like a business – and so commissioned to work on the Borough’s highways maintenance, but without a proper system of checks and controls. Millions of pounds were lost. 

This became more widely known through the publication of a report by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), commissioned by Rokhsana Fiaz immediately on taking office. The practical reality for residents in Newham’s council housing is the repairs and maintenance service is much more about repairs and much less about maintenance. 

The first budget of the new Mayor effectively doubles asset investment in existing council housing, to £65 million in 2019/20. The detailed capital programme identifies work on lifts, boiler replacements, kitchens, bathrooms, windows, roofs, door entry systems and much more. 

The CIPFA report criticised a poor balance of planned and reactive maintenance, and so the capital programme should now stop leakage of public money through inefficient reactive spend. Meanwhile millions are allocated to find new council homes for Newham’s staggering waiting list. 

£28 million is allocated for acquisitions, including where sensible, Right-to-buy buy-backs. £82 million is allocated to the council building its own new build homes. Much of this funding comes from £107 million Sadiq Khan granted to London Borough of Newham as part of Khan’s Building Council Homes for Londoners programme – the largest allocation to any London Borough. 

The Affordable Homes for Newham Programme was agreed on 5 February 2019 and will “seek approval for new build and acquisition programmes at the earliest opportunity”. The budget sets aside £500,000 to fund 26 full time equivalent professional staff to work on the Affordable Homes for Newham Programme. 

The HRA business plan, the GLA funding and the Affordable Homes for Newham Programme all demonstrate Rokhsana Fiaz is likely to exceed her election pledge to deliver 1000 new homes at council rent levels. 

Meanwhile this ‘transitional’ budget is radically investing in children and young people. £1.2 million extra has been budgeted to guarantee the universality of Newham’s free school meals programme “Eat for Free” for Key Stage 2 pupils; £1.4 million is for additional youth services; £1.3 million for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. 

Separately £3 million is allocated to work on Newham’s accreditation as a London Living Wage employer. The investment prioritised by the new Mayor is all the more remarkable given the general financial situation for Newham, as across local government; continued austerity imposed by central government further decreases government support for poverty stricken areas like Newham; Lyn Brown MP made a brilliant speech to this effect in parliament a few days ago and the challenges for local government are enormous. 

This year savings are coming from, amongst other things, fewer editions of Robin Wales’ vanity Newham Mag, previously published monthly; ending Robin Wales’ “Small Business Programme”; and more effective and active asset management. Council Tax rises by less than inflation, and for those eligible, the Council Tax Reduction Scheme cuts their Council Tax by half. 

Savings of £686,000 to Robin Wales’ “Every Child a Musician” programme have caused controversy, but the programme itself is controversial, regarded as a well-intentioned but inefficient and ineffective programme by various educational and music professionals. 

The Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accounting noted poor budget planning at Newham generally, but specifically cited Every Child for where previous expenditure increases had lacked budgetary oversight, and further overspends took place that were, in CIPFA’s view, unsustainable. CIPFA recommended the programme needed to be “re-evaluated” and the Council has pledged to do so. 

It proposes months of engagement on establishing a new more “ambitious creative and cultural enrichment programme” that will be available to all Newham children and which will serve the diverse cultural interests of Newham children. 

Meanwhile millions of pounds are allocated for additional support and preventive work on homelessness and rough sleeping, on democratically regenerating the Carpenters Estate and more generally demonstrating that Labour in local government is no longer aligned to the era of New Labour and is demonstrating how in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, Labour in office can actually deliver for its people. 

* All figures relates to 2019-20 unless otherwise stated.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Warwick 5 mile Circular Walk 2019

(Off message) After Labour Local Government Conference in Coventry, Gill and I stayed over and went for a walk on the Sunday around nearby Warwick. A 5 mile flat circular walk courtesy of the AA, starting off at the racecourse. It rained in the morning but cleared up for our walk with some lovely sunshine which somewhat exasperated some friendly fisherman who complained that they had been fishing in the rain all day (we passed quite a few - and they were all men)

The canal, the river walk and views of Warwick castle were simply stunning. The winter sunshine obviously helped. A overnight return visit to Warwick is definitely on the cards. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

"Invest £6.3m so that primary school children continue to eat for free"

"We are proposing to ensure primary school children continue to eat for free in the borough by investing £6.3million. Full Council will make a decision on our 2019/20 budget proposals at a meeting on Monday 18 February.

Hat tip Newham Council

Thursday, February 07, 2019

"Men's mental health at work: how unions can help men to open up"

Great post on TUC website. I did not realise that today was "time to talk day". 

"It’s a bit of a cliché - the strong and silent man, the stiff upper lip. But sometimes clichés are clichés because they contain a truth. The truth here is that men often don’t talk about their mental health, or indeed their feelings at all.
I was first diagnosed with clinical depression in my mid-teens. I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder a few years later. I was 18 when I first attempted suicide. I’m now 53 and my second (and hopefully last) attempt was four years ago. In the intervening years I’ve experienced good mental health and bad mental health. I’ve had periods when I’ve been really on top of my life, and times when I could barely function.
But one thing that defined most of those years was my inability to talk to another human being (who wasn’t my GP) about my mental health.
And I’m not alone in this.
Currently, the biggest killer of men between the ages of 18 and 45 in the UK is suicide. There is a national crisis of mental health, yet men are far less likely than women to seek help for their mental health issues. Only 53% of men who have depression have spoken to a friend about their illness, as opposed to 75% of women.
For as long as I can remember, people have told me to ‘man up’ when I’ve seemed low. Once you reach a certain age, the perfectly natural act of crying to release emotions becomes a problem for boys. If you cry, you’re seen as weak, effeminate or odd. So you just stuff it all back down inside, wear a mask and act like ‘one of the lads’. Both my suicide attempts happened not because I didn’t want to live anymore, but because I was so full of unexpressed emotions, I felt like I was going to explode.
Men also face self-image problems which I believe are being exacerbated by social media. The constant pressure to have the perfect body is no longer just something women experience. NHS figures show that over the last decade male hospital admissions for eating disorders have risen by 70%.
This is not to detract from women’s experiences of mental ill health; women are far more likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder than men, and cuts to mental health services have disproportionately affected women. However, I believe there is still an urgent discussion to be had in the trade union movement about men’s mental health.
The question is, what needs to be done?  
Firstly, there is an urgent need to de-stigmatise talking about mental health for men. The Campaign against Living Miserably (CALM) and Heads Together have done good work in this area, but I would argue that trade unions could add to this substantially by creating discussions in the workplaces we represent.
Unions can play a role in helping employers set up networks of Mental Health Champions or First Aiders. Crucially though, we can also negotiate strong and effective mental health policies that help men (and women) talk about their issues without fear of judgement.
We must also continue to campaign for a fully funded NHS and mental health services that provide the support, treatment and space to talk that is so desperately needed to tackle the mental health crisis in this country.
‘I became the change’
Four years ago, I took the decision to be open about my mental health issues.
I was terrified. Unsure if I was making the right choice. But I knew that carrying on as before would eventually kill me. So I started talking to friends, family and my employer. I wanted them to see that it’s ok for men to talk openly about how they feel. To paraphase Gandhi, I became the change I wanted to see.
This decision was the starting point of my recovery. I now have a support network that gets me through the days when I feel that I can’t cope as well, and I have an employer that genuinely helps and supports me. What I want most of all, is for everyone to feel able to be more open about their mental health.
Get talking
Today is Time to Talk Day, so it’s as good a day as any to start doing something.
Every trade union activist, rep, officer, even  members should use this day to ask :what is my union doing to help men and women talk about and get support on mental health? And what can I do to help?
Many unions are running courses and events that help reps understand the impact poor mental health can have on people’s lives, including what workplace initiatives can be developed to bring about healthier and safer workplaces.  
But small things matter – such as making the time to really talk to your workmates. And above all, not using the old clichés such as ‘Man Up’.
Mark Everden – Regional Organiser (Education) Unison South West.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

A Day in life: UNISON NEC, Pension meeting on Housing investment, & Chartered Institute of Housing Dinner

A full on Labour Movement Day. A long UNISON NEC meeting (and the rest); then met up with LGPS pension fund officers and fund advisers on possible investments in Housing (see why housing is an investment opportunity as well as social need) & infrastructure followed by Presidential dinner of the Chartered Institute of Housing. Fantastic and inspirational speech by President, Jim Strang, on Housing need and domestic violence. 

Monday, February 04, 2019

Sunday Stroll to Wanstead

Off message but picture collage from a local winters walk yesterday from Forest Gate to Wanstead and back. It was cold but lots of sunshine and blue skies. We stopped off to feed the birds at Jubilee Pond with defrosted green peas (bread makes their stomachs swell apparently but no-one has told the birds this since they were far more interested in bread than our peas).

We then walked through Bush Wood and along Overton Drive, then cut through to George Green. We checked out the Farmers Market in Wanstead and bought some Cromer Crab and a Joint for Sunday dinner. After a bite to eat at Filika Restaurant (great set lunch for £8.95) we walked back home via Wanstead Park.

Lovely little walk just under 5 miles. For the whole day I had 127 Google Fit movement minutes and 90 heart points. 

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Let Your Voice be Heard: West Ham & Stratford Citizen Assembly Saturday 9 March 1.30-3.30pm

Citizens' Assemblies

In the third and final round of the 2018/19 Citizens’ Assemblies residents will have an opportunity to comment and refine their Local Community Plan that has been developed through the assembly process and by the working group members, local councillors, council officers and partners. Residents will also have an opportunity to vote on projects that will be incorporated into the Local Community Plans.

You can register at www.newham.gov.uk/CitizensAssemblies and you can also register for special requirements to enable you to attend. For more information contact CitizensAssemblies@newham.gov.uk

Join us at
Stratford & West Ham Citizens Assembly
Saturday 09 March, 1.30-3.30pm
Lunch 1-1.30pm
Stratford Old Town Hall 29 The Broadway, E15 4BQ

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Democratising pensions

Excellent article by my Scottish UNISON NEC Colleague, Stephen Smellie in yesterday's Morning Star. While the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) is slightly different in Scotland than England and Wales (stronger trade union rights for example), I would support pretty much all his points for south of the border. 

Our pay, our pensions

Many pension funds end up invested in shares of fracking companies or those supporting the illegal occupation of Palestinian land and other unethical practices. But union reps are leading the way in questioning where pension funds are invested. STEPHEN SMELLIE reports

WOULD you give your boss 20 per cent of your wages every pay day to look after for you?

Would you be happy for them to use that money to speculate on the stock exchange, putting your money into arming dodgy regimes, harming the health of children and destroying virgin forests in the Amazon?

Sounds like some dodgy racket but that is what many workers who are in occupational pension schemes do every pay day.

In the Scottish Local Government Pension Scheme, which I am a member of, between 5 and 8 per cent of our wages goes into our pension fund.

The council employers put in between 13 and 20 per cent of the value of our wages.

Both the employee and employer contributions are deferred wages that otherwise should be in our wage each month.

The money goes to the pension fund which is managed by a pension fund manager overseen by a committee of councillors and shadowed by a pension board made up of employers’ representatives and trade union nominees.

The pension fund manager, in the vast majority of cases, commissions external investment managers to invest my deferred wages with the intent of making a profit so that when I retire I will have a healthy pension.

These external investors take a commission on every bundle of millions they are asked to “look after” and a further commission on every transaction they undertake with my pension pot and rarely actually reveal how much all this management of my deferred wages is costing the pension fund, that is, costing me, who hasn’t had a decent pay rise in many years, and my cash-strapped council employer. Now that does sound like a dodgy racket.

I have no say over where the investments go. Currently they go to buy shares in companies that are investing in fracking and the destruction of indigenous people’s homes in the Amazon to allow access to climate destroying coal reserves; making money out of companies supporting the illegal occupation of Palestinian land; tobacco companies that market their product to children in the developing world.

While most investments are in less dubious areas of capitalist speculation, including a relatively small amount in infrastructure, renewable energy and social housing, it is still true that millions are in highly unethical investments and that I, as a pension fund member, have no say in this.

Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of trade unions, led by my own union Unison, and allies in civic society campaigning around ethical investments, this is beginning to change.

Pension fund managers, some very unwillingly, are being forced to address these issues.

The advent, in the past few years, of trade union members on pension fund boards has allowed for challenges to be made to the previous arrangements where pension managers were given almost free rein to do what they wanted as the council committees nodded through annual reports that were opaque.

After years of campaigning the trade unions have secured agreements that pension funds will only engage external managers who agree to sign and adhere to a transparency code which requires them to give a full account of all the costs that they are charging to the pension funds.

This will allow pension funds to compare the costs they are being charged with what other funds are charged.

Remarkably, and predictably, this has led reductions in the fees being charged to pension funds.

The trade union reps are leading in questioning where pension funds are invested. Unison, supported by a number of environmental campaign groups, launched a campaign last year for disinvestment from fossil fuels.

Millions are invested in companies that continue to trade on the exploitation of more and more fossil fuels when government policy across the world is moving away from the high-carbon economies and accepting that fossil resources should mostly be left in the ground.

Investments in fossil fuels is not only encouraging more damage to our climate but also risks our pension funds being left with “stranded assets” as the value of these companies declines as the world moves to a low-carbon economy.

In Scotland, Unison is launching a campaign to argue that the 11 local government pension funds, run by 11 different managers and supervised by 11 different committees and boards, should be merged into one Scottish fund.

This would create a significant fund that would be able to make huge savings in the cost of the external investment management.

Instead of 11 funds employing the same companies and all being charged separately there would be one contract negotiated and subject to the most transparent accountability.

A Scottish fund would have the advantage of larger sums to invest, making it a major player, able to get better investment returns and have greater influence over ethical investments.

There would be greater potential to invest in infrastructure projects that can provide benefits to the community as well as good returns for the pension fund members.

Importantly it would also mean that greater use of in-house investment managers rather than relying on the external Maserati-driving investment managers who profit at our expense.

In-house teams in Lothians and elsewhere have proved successful and cheaper and all of Scotland should be able to benefit from this.

Research shows that hundreds of millions of improved returns and savings in costs could be achieved if the 11 Scottish funds were merged.

That is hundreds of millions of pounds that could both improve the pensions of local government workers and reduce the costs to the employers, and ultimately the council tax payers, of pension contributions. Savings that could then be used for better pay rises and protecting local services.

Unison will be targeting Scottish Finance Secretary Derek Mackay who is considering options for the pension funds. One fund makes sense and we hope to persuade him that one fund is the best option.

Trade unions have in the past only got active around pensions when proposals to increase members’ contributions or cut benefits have been proposed. That is changing.

Pensions are our deferred wages and we are entitled to have a say in how they are managed for our future.

Unison and our sister unions are leading a movement for decent, sustainable and ethical pensions. These are our pensions. Why shouldn’t we have greater control over them?

Stephen Smellie is deputy convener of Unison Scotland.