Occupiers vs Hammersmith and Fulham council

Update 13 February:

Met with the occupying group several times last week. It seems that the council went in last weekend and changed the locks on the building doors, so now the occupiers are locked out – as is anyone who hopes to use this community building. The occupiers’ posters have also been taken down. The building is empty and unused. Amazingly, it seems that the council would rather have an empty community building than one utilised by community groups. The occupying group said that there were still several years to run on the council’s lease of the building, so they can’t understand why the council is so keen to empty the building out.

Updated Friday 3 February

A newly-formed group of centre users and Hammersmith trades council members occupied the Hammersmith information and visitor centre in Hammersmith on Tuesday (the centre is in Unit 20, Hammersmith Broadway, W6 9YD).

The council planned to close the information centre down as part of its austerity cuts programme, but protestors denied the council entry when removal staff arrived to clear the building on Tuesday.

The occupiers have a set of keys to the centre and the council does not.

Gwen Cook, a Hammersmith trades council member and occupier told me that the occupiers planned to continue their protest past this week. They expected things to get more difficult next week if the council made a decision about gaining access. “What can they do, though? Are they going to kick the doors in to a building on the Broadway?”

Cook said it was “disgusting” that the council was planning to close the information centre. The information centre had been a vital public space for voluntary and community groups in the middle of Hammersmith for many years. Meeting space and public building options for voluntary groups in the borough were reduced considerably last week when about 20 voluntary groups were forced out of Palingswick House on King’s Street to make way for Toby Young’s freeschool.

“People think the Tories win everything, but they don’t. We don’t want to just hand it [the information centre] to them.”

From the occupiers’ press release and subsequent interviews (they were still there on Friday):

“The Hammersmith information and visitor centre has served the borough for many years. During that time, it has hosted new community organisations and helped them to grow. It has provided a resource for small unfunded local groups to meet. It has provided a gallery space for local artists and photographers to showcase their work. Above all, it has served as an information and visitor centre helping visitors and residents to find their way around the borough, to seek out social and commercial services and has been a friendly face to thousands of people seeking help.

The centre has been staffed entirely by experienced and expert volunteers during its lifetime.

In this 2012 Olympics Year and Royal Jubilee year, many more visitors are expected in the borough. Is it a good idea to close the only place visitors can go to get information and help in this vast city of ours?”

Update Thursday 2 February:

Went down to the information centre this evening after work and spoke to the occupiers.

Chris Tranchell, from the Hammersmith Community Trust, said the trust, which had used the information centre for about nine years for meetings and community activities, had known for months that the centre was likely to be closed. (For several years now, the council has been closing and selling popular public buildings, in the face of major opposition from local people. The council inevitably argues that buildings and services are underutilised. Service and building users always say different. Tranchell shows me artwork, folders, signs, pictures, photos and other material belonging to community groups which use the centre. They’ve left their equipment and stocks in the centre for now, because they have no other buildings or rooms to move things to. The centre is just full of those belongings. That was the material that the removal workers were meant to take away on Tuesday.

Tranchell says the council told the trust that the centre would be “given back” to Hammersmith Broadway’s landlords, so he and other members of the trust went to talk to the landlords to ask if they and other community groups could somehow stay on at the centre. Tranchell says that the landlords were surprised to hear that the building was to be “returned” to their custody – that seemed to be news to them.

He said Labour MP Andrew Slaughter was looking into this for them. Tranchell and his group want to negotiate continued community use of the building with the council and the Broadway’s landlords. He said the council gave the trust a list of about 140 alternative community buildings to use, but that a lot of the organisations in charge of those buildings were charging commercial rates. “They don’t seem to be making these decisions [about closing public buildings] with the community in mind.”

More soon.

Ta ta Tamworth

40 tweets

So.

You’ll be pleased to hear that even as Call Me Dave liberates the grateful people of Libya, his ground troops in the UK continue to target the most vulnerable of his own citizens. Nothing like consistency, as I consistently say.

Tomorrow night, Hammersmith and Fulham council’s Tory cabinet will take a decision to close Tamworth – a 14-unit hostel for people with mental health issues. These people are among the borough’s most compromised as far as mental health goes. They need medium to high-level supported accommodation and care.

Tough titty for them, though: the council has decided to close the Tamworth hostel in the interests of strafing Supporting People funding for a £300,000 medium term financial strategy saving.

“The closure of Tamworth will allow the Supporting People funding to contribute towards the mental health placements budget savings,” tomorrow’s cabinet report tweely observes, for all the world as though mental health care budgets should be encouraged to hand themselves in. Existing residents will be shifted into alternative accommodation, and the council will flog the building off – generally its aim with useful community buildings. Continue reading

Ringside at the Big Society circus

Following my tweets from the Hammersmith and Fulham council cabinet meeting this week, here’s a take on that meeting and the cabinet’s decision to give council rights to sell community buildings.

Note the various betrayals people refer to – the Irish cultural centre’s horror at finding the council had not signed an agreement to extend the lease on the Irish centre and so on. Note also the nature of the vote at the end of the meeting – the cabinet simply stood up, broke for recess and agreed the decision. There wasn’t even a show of hands.

More “Tough Shit, Scrubbers” from Hammersmith Town Hall this week, as that borough’s appalling cabinet ignored pleas from locals to delay a decision to sell much-loved local community buildings.

Locals (thousands of them, if their petitions are anything to go by) wanted the council to give or extend leases on the Sands End community centre, the popular Irish centre and the Shepherd’s Bush village hall. Several hundred turned up at a cabinet meeting to make that point (rowdily) in person. Lease extensions would give community groups the chance to fundraise and buy the buildings for community use – à la the Big Society, one would have thought. Certainly, that is what locals thought: statements like “the government is talking of the Big Society – well, we ARE the Big Society,” went down a storm all night.

People also wanted the brakes put on a decision to throw 20 or so community groups out of King Street’s Palingswick House and move Toby Young’s proposed West London free school in. Some are bigger than others in Big Society.

The cabinet gave people a hearing, even though the decision to ignore them had clearly been made. Let us walk you through the charade.

We heard a passionate speech from West London school of dance director Anna du Boisson, who paid tribute to the many groups that use the Shepherd’s Bush village hall: church groups, karate, yoga and tai chi organisations, tea-dance groups and exercise classes – “all have a good, loyal membership,’ du Boisson said.

Her dance school (now 25 years old) has 750 children on its books and an admirably egalitarian take on entry criteria: the school offers “a scholarship programme [which] means that nobody is turned away on the basis of the inability to pay fees.” (The school is run and funded by a charity). There is literally nowhere else with the space and wooden floors (for dance) in the borough – with the possible (and ironic) exception, as du Boisson pointed out, of the very room we were sitting in at the Town Hall.

“We would like the opportunity to raise the funds to buy [the village hall],” du Boisson pleaded. “The government is talking of the Big Society. Well, we are the Big Society and selling this hall runs exactly counter to the letter of their objectives. Grant us the lease and we’ll do the rest. Give us the chance to buy it.”

Continue reading

Big society getting smaller…

Via Hammersmith and Fulham Unison:

Leading Tory Hammersmith and Fulham council members will meet tomorrow evening to rubberstamp the sale of four big community centres. Thousands of residents oppose these sales.

Community members who want to run the centres as community-based Big Society projects have been ignored – local MP Andrew Slaughter is reporting that supporters of the Shepherd’s Bush Village Hall made an offer to lease the building commercially under a charitable trust, but have had no response. The Shepherd’s Bush Village Hall is in one of the borough’s most deprived wards. Yours truly will have to try and catch up with some of the players in this story tomorrow. If the Shepherd’s Bush group is struggling to get hold of a building for community use, but Toby Young is not struggling to get hold of Palingswick House for his free school as below – well, we’ll have to spend some time deciding what that all means.

The four threatened community centres are:

Palingswick House: home to more than 20 charities in Hammersmith and Fulham. Slaughter is reporting that Toby Young’s controversial West London Free School has been identified as the likely buyer.

Sands End Community Centre: includes the Sands End library, children’s and social services, an affordable gym and adult education.

The Irish Centre: a self funding arts and cultural centre. About 7000 people signed a petition asking the council to reconsider this sale.

The Shepherd’s Bush Village Hall: used by about local organisations and offers Sure Start services and the Shepherd’s Bush Families Project.

There will be a protest outside Hammersmith and Fulham Town Hall in Kings Street tomorrow night before the cabinet meeting: 6pm Monday 7 February W6 9JU.

More on ignoring the great ignored

So…

I’ve been forwarded an email by a number of people who are desperate to protect the Hammersmith library service from cuts, and jobs and service downgradings.

The email exchange is between a local union rep and H&F Tory councillor Greg Smith, cabinet member for the (deliciously-named) Residents’ Services department and the councillor responsible for the libraries ‘restructure.’

In the email, the rep pleads with Smith to visit staff at the very popular, but-soon-to-be-disbanded, home library service (this dedicated service, which is run centrally from Barons Court library, will be devolved to other Hammersmith libraries. They’ll have to find time and staff for home deliveries – at a time of cuts and staff downgradings).

The rep suggests that Smith join home library staff on one of their rounds to the housebound people who rely on the service for delivery of library books and DVDs (at any one time, there are 6000 books on loan to service users).

Smith’s answer – a resounding No Thanks – turned up just 12 minutes after the rep sent the original.

I reproduce the email here – not just because it demonstrates the airy Tory dismissal of service users and staff that speaks – if you will – such volumes, but because it points up the worrying lack of interest in consultation that I’m finding more and more. Continue reading

Where consultations go to die

A helpful someone has sent me comments submitted by users of Hammersmith and Fulham’s soon-to-be-disbanded home library service.

The disbanding of the home library service is part of a general Hammersmith and Fulham council assault on library services and staff – staff across libraries are being downgraded and posts cut as the council attempts to squeeze a few coins in savings out of this most popular and blameless of services.

The home library service is run from Barons court by a small, experienced team that is much valued by the elderly and disabled residents that it services. The council has told local libraries that from now on, they must run their own home library services, which of course they won’t be able to. At best, a home library visiting service will become a tacked-on extra. The staff cuts and downgradings will make it almost impossible for local libraries to spare staff to visit homes with the books, videos and CDs that home library users appreciate.

And they do appreciate those things, to say the least. The comments below make that clear.

The comments were made earlier this year when the council was ‘consulting’ (easily our era’s most meaningless word and act) local residents about its plans to dispense with the dedicated home library service. The really galling part is that the comments never saw the light of day. Word is that the forms they were on were shoved into a box that was, in its turn, shoved into a corner from which it only recently emerged. Even if the comments did end up in a report somewhere (and I haven’t seen it), they’ve been ignored. The dedicated home library service is coming to an end.

Anyway – here are some of the comments from home library service users. If nothing else (and there is nothing else), they show that locals are as passionate about their library services as Hammersmith and Fulham council is about eradicating services that don’t make a financial return:

“The Home Delivery Service, and its first rate reliable always cheerful staff. They know what to choose for each individual customer and find what is ordered.”

“As our Home service scheme is based there (Barons Court Library) I wouldn’t approve of any alternative arrangements which I feel might make working conditions for our lovely delivery people more strenuous.”

“My husband and I get through over 15 books (large) print), loads of videos, DVDs and CDs in the three-week period between visits. Without this service we would be left twiddling our fingers!”

“No trust could compare with the service at present. They have become “friends for life” rather than different individuals coming to us, if the service is farmed out to trusts or volunteers.”

“The Home Library Service is a life saver for us as we are both old and even if we were taken to a library we wouldn’t be able to carry the heavy books we enjoy so much.”

“Desperate to have the visiting library continue this service. Will sadly miss my supply of books to cover lonely days. In my case, being disabled, the books and whoever delivers them each time is important. Always such charming people, bringing a chirpy atmosphere.”

“The staff that comes to me always takes the trouble to bring books written by authors I like and also the H&F News which keeps me in touch with the outside world. Money is not the only answer to change, so do please think carefully on what you intend to do.”

“Barons Court Library and its services are wonderful, and it houses a wonderful Outreach service. The staff have worked under pressure for many years. The range of books and knowledgeable staff it’s time you rewarded their hard work and not downsized. It would be like losing my right arm.”

“The Home Library Service – my husband and I are very old and unable to get about much. The HLS has brought us books, talking books and DVDs every three weeks and the service is very much appreciated. I realise it may cost but since the number of people over 85 is increasing, the demand for such a service will also increase.”

“As I’m housebound my only way I could receive my library books is the Home Library. Without this service I would no longer enjoy the pleasure of reading.”

“I am not able to visit a library. My own service – The Home Library – is, as it always has been in mind exceptionally good and I judge the three people who run it exceptional also. To run the service on one full-time and two part-time employees is well nigh unbelievable. Not only do they bring the books but knowing one’s tastes they choose books also. I have always enjoyed their choices; they are well thought out and always interesting. These three people are so much more than ordinary library clerks and I would judge pretty well irreplaceable. The service they give me is of the highest order.”

“I totally depend on the regular service provided by the staff of the Home Library Service.”

More soon.

How cuts reduce us all

Updated 7 November 2010:

This morning, I went to the Shepherd’s Bush library on the Westfield shopping site to help out at a small protest that a group of Hammersmith and Fulham librarians had organised.

The librarians’ salaries (library assistants earn about £21,000) are due to be cut as part of Tory Hammersmith and Fulham council’s gleeful pursuit of ‘savings’ and local annihilation of any notion of community, or public service. The home library service is to be dismantled and word is that some local libraries will shut.

Tis my view that closing local libraries ranks near book-burning as a social contribution, but what would I know, I suppose. Hammersmith and Fulham libraries will close and the free reading sessions and activities for kids they provide will disappear, along with the books, CDs, DVDs and free computers that so many enjoy and need. The reading and IT classes for adults that many libraries run will take their place among history’s sweeter dead, like sonnets. Thus it is that the Tories plan to build a happy, deficit-free tomorrow. My main hope in life these days is that I won’t be around to see it.

Anyway – the protest. Three or four librarians – all middle aged women – stood outside the library for about an hour in their own free time and handed leaflets about their worries to members of the public. I was there – no spring chicken myself – along with two long-time reps from the Hammersmith Unison office, and a well-known local blogger and a reporter. My leg hurt and we were all moving slowly because it was cold and we were all getting old. Armed rebellion was hardly on our agenda.

But hey-ho and you never know – suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by four or five very heavy-looking guys in black jackets – Westfield security. Thus the high camp began. These guys were ridiculously combative – Christ knows what they had on the PS3 back in the office. At least one member of our group was hanging out to meet the resource-allocation genius that decided to send in five heavies to take out three librarians.

The first guy in the video below was incredibly aggressive – ‘you can’t be here. You haven’t got permission. You have to get out.’

He got very upset when he saw I was filming. He came after me down the street, putting his hand out every now and then towards me – I thought he was going to try and grab the camera and maybe even grab me. I hurried down the road – another slow-moving, near-fogey on the run – then back up Uxbridge Road and down a side street so that I could film the scene from across the road. So far, so very tragic. People on the sidewalk were laughing, watching my little legs trotting off to safety.

You can see three of these guys on the film, standing over the women who were protesting:

You can also see one of the guys rush at the camera on Chris’ blog.

There were so many security guys hassling the librarians that people walking by observed that security inside Westfield itself had to be compromised and that now was the time to start thieving.

So. This is how public sector cuts for the hell of it look when you get down to it, people – four or five probably-badly-paid security guys trying to score points off three greying librarians on a pavement. And all for a handful of change in public-sector savings. I don’t think that this is us at our best, you know. I’d cry, if I was the type.

Here’s one of the library assistants – a ten year veteran of the job – explaining the reasons why she wanted to hand out leaflets (it was her day off, so she wasn’t on library time). She also talks about the work library assistants do.

I’ve had a lot of stupid days in my life, but today really took the biscuit.

Hammersmith and Fulham’s voluntary sector raid

Hammersmith & Fulman funding cuts demonstration

Hammersmith funding cuts demonstration

A couple of months ago, Tory Hammersmith and Fulham council voted to cut voluntary sector funding by 16%. The cut will be considerably more than that in real terms, because the council has stopped adjusting its voluntary sector fund for inflation.

The squeeze is due in the next three years – savings targets of £158,738 for 2010 to 2011, £284,772 for 2011 to 2012 and £257, 481 for 2010 to 2013, with a total savings target of £700,791 by 2014.

The council claims, of course, that the recession has forced its hand – “the impact of [the coalition’s public sector cuts] will need to be shared with the third sector,” thunder cabinet agendas.

The amusing (kind of) part of this claim is that the total annual allocations budget for Hammersmith and Fulham’s voluntary sector is a comparatively tiny £4m. That’s hardly major money, no matter how you slice it.

The amounts that the council wants to slice from it will destroy voluntary groups (some exist on amounts as small as £50,000 pa), but barely touch the sides of the council’s own three-year £50m savings target. As for the chances of annual cuts of £200,000 having pregnant impact on the national deficit – well, you have a quiet life if that adds up in your mind. These are petty savings, not temperate ones.

Hammersmith and Fulham’s cuts are – as they always have been – part of an ideological raid. Continue reading

Hammersmith: local fines for local people

This is the latest in a series of interviews I’m collecting from low earners in Tory Hammersmith and Fulham’s Big Society:

About a month ago, Notting Hill Trust tenant Johnny O’Hagan, 53, found a fat letter from Hammersmith and Fulham council in his morning post.

Now.

Hammersmith and Fulham council rarely writes to its poorer burghers to talk love and/or mercy. O’Hagan assumed the crash position as he peeled back the envelope’s fold.

He was right to worry. Opened, the envelope coughed out a pile of accusatory correspondence about a rubbish bag that O’Hagan had put out for collection a day before he was supposed to. His collection day is Wednesday. He put his single rubbish bag out on Tuesday. There were letters, closeups and wide-angled photographs of the offending bag sitting by itself outside O’Hagan’s home on Hammersmith and Fulham’s Leamore Street, and a threatening notice – complete with paragraphs in red ink – demanding payment of a fine.

Little wonder that Hammersmith and Fulham’s less well-off residents live in fear of their council. One strike, says O’Hagan, and you’re gone. He’s an exemplary tenant and touches often on this clean sheet: ‘I’ve been a [Notting Hill Trust] tenant for 15 years and I’ve never been in trouble.’

So.

O’Hagan’s offense is poverty and ill-health, rather than attitude or a longterm love of life on the state. He was a manual worker for most of his working life – he started on the production lines in East Acton light-industry factories in the 1970s and 1980s, then spent ten years on the night shift at Sainsbury’s, unpacking West London’s frozens. He liked the routine and the regular work: he’s on the autism spectrum and prefers the beaten track.

He’d probably still be at Sainsbury’s, except that he had a heart attack on the job and went off sick, which led to the sack. Angioplasty followed, along with serious depression and a stint in Charing Cross Hospital’s psychiatric unit. Now, he collects an income support payment of about £90 a week and housing benefit for his £80 a week one-bedroom flat. He says he’s bored out of his mind. ‘I applied for dog walking, but they never got back to me. I’d like to work in a charity shop, or something silly like that.’

But enough of the laughs – back to the rubbish. Two days before he made his fatal collection-day mistake, O’Hagan woke up with feet and legs so painful that he could hardly walk. He went straight to his GP – he worries about arthritis and other permanent injuries, because he spent so much of his working life on his feet. O’Hagan’s doctor prescribed strong painkillers. They went to his head, so he decided to head off to bed. Before he went, he put his rubbish out. ‘I was out of it a bit. I got my day wrong.’

A couple of days later, the letter turned up. O’Hagan was shocked. These fines are heavy. The immediate demand for the single bag was £100, with a chance to get that down to £60 if O’Hagan paid within ten days. Both amounts were beyond him.

As for the £1000 fine that he faces if the council decides to prosecute for non-payment – well, forget that. Hopefully, the council will forget that: the costs (for councils) of taking people to court are exorbitant. Certainly, it seems that pursuing these fines is less about saving money than it is about terrorising citizens into handing over whatever they’ve got.

Eric Pickles is considering scrapping these fines and rewarding people who recycle (opponents of that plan say rewarding people for recycling encourages them to consume more). Hammersmith could choose to run such a scheme already, of course: unfortunately for O’Hagan, Hammersmith and Fulham prefers to prioritise in favour of revenue generation. It fleeces lower earners to keep council tax down. Vulnerable and disabled tenants have taken the council to court to fight the council’s various charges.

O’Hagan didn’t have £100, so his only option was to head down to the council offices on King’s street and ask staff to drop the fine. He left his contact details three times before he was able to talk to someone. He was told that he might be excused if he could give the council a doctor’s certificate. He went to the doctor, got his certificate and dropped it off at the council.

He hasn’t heard a word since, so he’s hoping that the whole thing is over. He says he’ll give it a couple of weeks and then relax. Been a tense few days so far, though. The last council officer he spoke to said he’d keep the doctor’s note just in case. ‘Do you know how much power do they have to take the money off us?’ O’Hagan asks. ‘Can they come into the flat?’