22 February 2012

Potty-mouthed Hammersmith Tory Greg Smith told to apologise by Standards Committee

Tory Hammersmith councillor  Greg Smith, whose boyishly fruity tongue has been amply discussed in this blog, has been the subject of an official complaint by a member of the public who took exception to the stream of bad language on Cllr Smith's Twitter feed.

Private Eye carries the story as the second of a record two Rotten Boroughs pieces in the latest issue (see the other one here). According to the Eye:

When the council's Standards Committee told him to apologise, Cllr Smith, in a typical rush of blood to the head, claimed his language was "not inappropriate".

Private Eye lapses from its own high standards of propriety and good taste when it describes Cllr Smith thus:

Hammersmith council may have to pay "significant back taxes", says Private Eye

Private Eye logo
Hammersmith Tory council is in Private Eye again, this time for possible tax dodging in its lavish use of consultants.

The Eye says, "Tory flagship council Hammersmith & Fulham is employing tax-avoiding 'consultants' on a far greater scale than anyone has realised." That's 69 at the last count.

Where consultants effectively act as full-time employees, the council is required to pay National Insurance contributions and tax. Apparently, for "a significant proportion", this isn't happening.

So Tory Hammersmith is not only cutting services by £22 million and paying "record amounts" to consultants, but the council - for which read local residents - may also end up having to pay "significant back taxes" to HMRC

What a nasty mess from one of the country's least efficient councils.

21 February 2012

News from Andy Slaughter MP

  • How recent planning decisions will change the face of Hammersmith forever
  • Developers now call the shots as residents are squeezed out
  • In other news
  • Work in progress

How recent planning decisions will change the face of Hammersmith forever

What do bankers, private health companies, insurers and property developers have in common?  They all are benefiting from legislation that exempts them from regulation, increases their profits at consumer expense or allows them to take over great chunks of the public sector.

Indeed they are often asked to draft the legislation themselves. And of course they all donate generously to the Conservative Party.

This is a very different approach from previous right-of-centre governments that would have seen the interests of the individual rather than the corporation as the guiding dogma – think council house sales or anti-union laws.

A lot of these battles are being played out nationally - in votes on the Health or Legal Aid Bills or adoption of the National Planning Policy Framework (the developers’ green light).

Now attention is turning to the local impact.  In Hammersmith we have already seen advice centres close and continued rumours of hospitals closing.

But it is the rise of the property developer that singles out this borough as a warning of what happens when due process breaks down.  And we should not be surprised.  It is the planning function that regulates change.  The planning officers and planning committee who act as a break on unrestrained development and mediate between the wishes of residents and developers.

So what happens when the planning process becomes the cheerleader for the developer?  When political imperatives dictate supposedly independent planning decisions?

We have a partial answer to this in the Hammersmith Riverside schemes approved by committee last autumn.  St George at Hammersmith Embankment and Helical Bar at Hammersmith Town Hall were the first two identikit schemes to pass, though it has proved electorally convenient for Boris Johnson to put the Town Hall scheme on ice.

Maximum density, maximum height, small luxury properties for the investor market.  Of no benefit to the locality.  They were hugely contentious not least for their spoiling of sensitive sites, but their size – 750 and 300 units respectively – is dwarfed by the decisions taken on the past week to approve the Westfield and CapCo developments at White City and West Ken.

Developers now call the shots as residents are squeezed out

Two planning committees, a week apart, have sanctioned billions of pounds of development along the borough’s eastern boundary.  On 8 February Shepherds Bush Market and Imperial Wharf.  On 16 February Westfield and Seagrave Road.

These and the further applications to come for Earl’s Court, Imperial and Helical Bar White City will commit the whole area to 20 years of continuous development and at least 12,000 new flats.  The Victorian and Edwardian streetscape will be replaced by the concrete slab 10-35 storeys high as the borough’s defining architecture.

There is a reason for squeezing so much into so little time.  Actually, two.  Ken Livingstone has visited the Riverside, the Market and West Ken Estate and did not like what he saw in the plans.  Developers do not want to gamble on a change of Mayor, so the council has been told to get all its rubber stamping done before May.

And there is the Crossrail levy.  Major developments approved after 1 April must pay towards the cost of Crossrail.  Given that many of them rely on Crossrail if they are to be viable this seems entirely reasonable, but the council is happy to help them beat the deadline even though they are in no fit state for approval.

No planning policy.  As you would expect with developments of this size, there is a detailed process to go through.  Opportunity Areas are defined, Supplementary Planning Documents (SPD) are consulted on and taken through Full Council, Masterplans are prepared by the developer for outline consent before detailed applications are considered.  But that all takes time, and time is of the essence here.

So we were treated to the unedifying sight of planners repudiating their own policies, either because they weren’t ready or because they were being legally challenged.

When considering the plan to demolish the area around Shepherds Bush Market , councillors are instructed they ‘should place no weight on the SPD’ for no other reason than that the Goldhawk Road shopkeepers have won leave to judicially review it, and the review won’t be heard until after the May election. Shepherds Bush Market and the shops on Goldhawk Road were featured on the BBC programme ‘Inside Out’, which you can watch here, starting 19 minutes in.

I wrote, for the first time ever, to the Director of the Environment and Chair of the planning committee to ask that they defer approving 800 new homes for Seagrave Road until they could consider the SPD and Masterplan for the area.  The new homes will be built on the car and lorry park for Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre and will replace in part homes on the West Ken Estate.  But until a decision is taken to demolish the Exhibition Hall and the estate there is no logic at all to this application.

Westfield’s 20 storey tower breaks current guidance but there is once again no adopted detailed policy for the area.  Other than: what Westfield wants, they must have, and what Westfield gets sets a precedent for the other White City developers.

Planning at war with housing.  Every week now I have families coming to my surgery with eviction notices because the Government’s Housing Benefit cuts mean they cannot pay private sector rents in Hammersmith.  I also have newly homeless people who have been to the town hall for help.  They are being told to move to Dagenham or Margate.  It used to be Croydon, but now that is too expensive and Croydon itself is sending people to Hull.

These are mainly families who have lived in the borough for many years, who work locally, who have kids in local schools and family support networks here.  I spoke about this in the Commons debate on the benefit cap.

They have also often been on council waiting lists for many years.  A council or housing association property would not only provide a secure home it would be affordable, and save the taxpayer thousands a year in Housing Benefit.  

H&F Council is already notorious for selling off empty homes rather than using them for the 8,000 waiting families.  But the current planning consents compound this abuse of power.  Ninety five of the 1522 Westfield homes will be affordable (and these are decants not additional properties), none in Shepherds Bush Market, no additional homes in West Ken.  And yet the council’s Core Strategy, adopted last October, says 40% affordable housing is required on each of these sites.

The one feature that could mitigate the major developments would be if they provided affordable homes – family houses for local people on low or average incomes rather than stopover flats for City traders.  If we were building for the community rather than private investors.  If they tried to solve the appalling housing crisis in west London.  These plans will make it worse.

No access to information.  The reason there will be almost no affordable homes on these major brownfield sites is – the council-developer says – because they are not viable.  Viability studies have been done which prove this, they add.  But you cannot look at them, they conclude, you must take our word for it.   I have been refused permission to see any of them.  Councillor Mike Cartwright, the Labour lead councillor on the planning committee has seen one, the Westfield study.  He cannot however tell anyone else what he has read, and was made to sign a six-page confidentiality agreement, which defines everything from the ‘appropriate security arrangements’ when he is reading the study to the fact that the developer will indemnify the council against any attempt by the courts to get it to reveal the precious information.
These are complex issues and we are lucky to have in H&F bodies like the Hammersmith Society, Historic Buildings Group and individual residents’ associations who are prepared to take on the developers, as they did over the Town Hall site and are in West Ken.  Many communities would lack the expertise, funds and organisation to do this.
But that misses the point.  We pay our taxes so that professional planning officers protect our environment and heritage.  So that local politicians act morally as well as efficiently to assist people in need and promote social cohesion.   When the local authority becomes the instrument and voice of the developer, Hammersmith & Fulham is the result.

In other news
  • I met Thames Water for an update on the Thames Tunnel but also to discuss the risks of drought this summer.
  • As an officer of the new All-Party Britain-Kosovo group in Parliament, I spoke at the 4th Independence Day celebrations held at Hammersmith Town Hall.
  • I was re-elected to the Hammersmith and Fulham Community Law Centre management committee at their AGM.  This will be their toughest year yet thanks to cuts in council and government funds.
  • Co-hosted the Parliamentary re-launch of Street Games, a national programme of sporting events in the community, which not only runs projects locally but gets £1 million sponsorship from Hammersmith-based Coca Cola GB and Ireland
  • As a member of Fulham Supporter Trust I attended the Commons meeting of Supporters Direct to champion the fans’ role in professional football.
  • I spoke to a wide range of schools about Parliament and politics from Melcombe Year 6, to Latymer 6th Form, to the Hertha Firnberg vocational school, visiting from Vienna.
  • I attended the White City Neighbourhood Forum which is looking to take control of all public services in the area, and also Rainville Road Residents’ Association who have longstanding management and maintenance problems with their landlords – a toxic mix of H&F and Notting Hill Housing.
  • The manager of our local King Street cinema took me on a tour that revealed some hidden secrets.
  • I did an hour-long interview for Egyptian TV on the failure of the British government to investigate fugitives and stolen assets of the Mubarak regime now in the UK.   

Work in progress

I am busy with meetings about or investigations into the following issues, which I will report on soon, but please let me have any information you think is useful:
  • The sale of Hammersmith Park – why is a private company being given a third of one of our major park on a 35 year lease?
  • White City Health Centre – is it finally going to be built?
  • Imperial’s next planning application – the Shepherds Bush shard
  • College Park residents’ fight against eviction from their community hall.
  • Riverside Studios and Queen’s Wharf  - will the new plans be better or worse than those turned down last August?
  • Nomis Studios, Sinclair Road – can we stop this folly, including the two-storey underground garage of the kind that has caused so much chaos in Westminster and Kensington?
  • Haymarket’s plans for new flats overlooking Sacred Heart, to pay for their new offices in Hammersmith Road – overlooking Latymer Court.
  • The ‘air rights’ over Planetree Court  – no longer up for sale.  A victory for the elderly residents who would have lost daylight and peace and quiet, but are there other plans to dispose of  sheltered housing?


18 February 2012

Is Tory Hammersmith & Fulham Council engaged in tax dodging? The three questions they must answer.

Today’s papers (see below) carry the shocking news that Hammersmith & Fulham's Conservative-controlled council may be breaching Inland Revenue tax rules in the way it employs consultants.

The Tory council has apparently engaged two sets of accountants from Deloitte and PwC to undertake two separate investigations into whether or not the council is operating within tax laws.

Hammersmith Tories claim to run Britain's most transparent council. So they should have no problem with these three questions:

  1. Will they publish the terms of reference given to Deloitte and PwC so that local residents can assure themselves that the accountants were asked to look at the right things?
  2. Will they publish the Deloitte and PwC reports in full (with names redacted if necessary to ensure confidentiality)? 
  3. If it is shown that the council did break tax rules, will any Tory councillors' heads roll?

Today's Guardian says:
At Hammersmith and Fulham, in west London, council leaders have brought in Deloittes and PWC to see if it has breached Inland Revenue rules by employing consultants.
Deloittes said its audit of "personal service companies identified serious weaknesses in both the use and sourcing of consultants by the council".
It is alleged that many "consultants" at the high end of earnings are former local government employees who have "retired".

Today's Financial Times adds:
A London council has hired investigators to examine whether 30 self-employed consultants have broken tax rules…
A Hammersmith official told the Financial Times that it had hired Deloitte to examine “mid to low-income” staff rather than directors. The move last week follows a separate investigation last year which found “significant problems” in relation to self-employed contractors at the council.” 

This follows further coverage in the most recent Private Eye of the shocking tale of Nick Johnson, which this blog has covered ad nauseum. The Eye's website carries only the headline HAMMERSMITH & FULHAM: How paying top staff as consultants rather than employees could attract the attention of the tax man but The Bureau of Investigative Journalism gives a detailed report of the Eye's piece:

Private Eye provides further examples of tax avoidance ‘in the upper echelons of local government’....
High on the list is Nick Johnson, of Hammersmith and Fulham council, says the Eye. In November 2007, Johnson retired from his position as chief executive of Bexley council due to ill health, following which he began receiving a local government pension (totalling £50,000 per year, according to the Daily Mail).
Just four months later, in April 2008, Johnson was taken on by Hammersmith and Fulham council, on a salary of more than £1,000 per day. Ordinarily, Johnson would have had to relinquish his lucrative pension. However, says the Eye, because Johnson was employed through his company – ‘Davies Johnson Ltd’ – he was able to ‘get round the letter, if not the spirit of such regulations’.
After an internal review concluded that, in paying Johnson this way, the council had been operating outside UK tax laws, ‘Johnson cannily took out insurance to indemnify himself against any action from HMRC’, alleges the Eye.
Meanwhile, says the Eye, seemingly undeterred by the internal review, Hammersmith and Fulham have also recently instructed Johnson’s company to ‘supply’ him as a consultant on a plan to demolish housing estates in Earl’s Court. ‘“Davies Johnson Ltd” will be paid £71,710 for 101 days’ work,’ the Eye reveals.

09 February 2012

Déjà vu as Hammersmith Tories' favourite son Shaun Bailey fails to file his accounts on time

On this date last year Shaun Bailey, Hammersmith Tories' failed Parliamentary candidate and a Big Society ambassador for David Cameron, was nine days overdue with filing the accounts for his charity, My Generation. He finally filed them 17 days late.

Now we see that this year My Generation is again nine days late with its accounts (and counting). The charity has been late in filing in four out of the five years since Bailey set it up, according to the Charity Commission's website.

The HMRC website says, "You must pay the tax your charity owes on time. If you pay tax late, HMRC will charge you interest and you may also be charged a penalty." 

How much donors' money has Bailey wasted in this way?
Yet another inefficient Hammersmith Tory.

Tory favourite son's weak compliance history 
Source: Charity Commission

08 February 2012

Lest we forget: a year since Hammersmith Tories voted to sell off our community's buildings

It was at a heated Council meeting almost exactly a year ago, in the midst of a property slump, that eight Tory Hammersmith & Fulham councillors voted to sell off eight much-loved community buildings.

In the teeth of residents' fury and Labour opposition, Councillors Stephen Greenhalgh, Nicholas Botterill, Mark Loveday, Helen Binmore, Joe Carlebach, Harry Phibbs, Lucy Ivimy and Greg Smith all voted to flog off Palingswick House, the Irish Cultural Centre, Sands End Community Centre, Fulham Town Hall, the Distillery Lane Children's Centre, the Shepherd's Bush Village Hall, the Askham Family Centre and the Greswell Centre.

The battle to save some of these is still ongoing. For others it has been lost.

Selling the community's property on this scale betrays future generations. Doing so in the middle of a slump is typically rubbish Tory economics of the sort that property developers love.

This is the same Tory council that has lavished millions on unnecessary consultants and is prepared to waste up to £35m on new Town Hall offices. They are neither caring nor efficient.

Ken pledges to reverse Boris's police cuts in Hammersmith & Fulham

As burglary and motor vehicle crime increase in Hammersmith & Fulham (see below), Ken Livingstone is launching a major campaign on crime and policing. Our streets are getting less safe and the Tories’ answer is to cut frontline police officers.

Boris Johnson has admitted cutting 1,700 police officers. If elected, Ken pledges to reverse Boris’s cuts. He will also reinstate sergeants to all 600 Safer Neighbourhood Teams, including those cut by Boris and the Tory council in Hammersmith & Fulham. More of these teams will be beefed up to a minimum of nine officers. 

In the last four years, Boris Johnson has raised transport fares to record levels, cut 1,700 police officers and had a £250,000 second job he describes as “chicken feed”. He has taken London dangerously in the wrong direction.

Ken wants to put this right. He wants to cut fares and put police back on the streets. 

Crime figures in Hammersmith & Fulham

Whole-year comparisons (2010 vs 2011)
Burglaries (residential): Up 11%   (1,845 in 2011 vs 1,668 in 2010)
Burglaries (non-residential): Up 14%   (685 in 2011 vs 599 in 2010)
Motor vehicle crime: Up 21%   (3,348 in 2011 vs 2,769 in 2010)

Monthly comparison (Dec. 2010 vs Dec. 2011)
Burglaries (residential): Up 14%   (169 in 2011 vs 148 in 2010)
Burglaries (non-residential): Up 8%   (63 in 2011 vs 58 in 2010)
Motor vehicle crime: Up 19%   (275 in 2011 vs 232 in 2010)