Clubs and local people working together

Muswell Hill. Photo credit: markhillary, FlickrHere’s my latest column for the Muswell Hill Flyer and the Highgate Handbook:

It must be horrible to have drunks vomit over your garden wall, throw estate agents signs into your front porch and to feel threatened if coming home in the dark alone. But that’s the experience of those who live near the clubs at the top of Muswell Hill – and many other places where the alcohol fuelled version of the night-time economy blossoms.

But what can actually be done about it? That really is the big question. It’s one posed by a group of residents who raised with me the constant noise and nuisance caused by drunken souls exiting from establishments near their homes.

There is a right for any of the responsible authorities (police, health and safety, environmental health, fire authority, safeguarding authority) to call for a review of an establishment’s license if there are serious problems of crime and disorder, public nuisance, public safety or protection of children from harm.

If the police are called on a regular basis to stop fights and violence, or serving underage drinkers and so on – then they can call in the license for review and it can be revoked. However, for the drip, drip, drip of local nuisance, vomit, noise, and general disturbance it is very, very difficult to demonstrate that matters are serious enough to justify a review. That’s all the more so when it often isn’t clear which club someone came out of and, in the absence of a police presence, it can be hard to prove the existence and severity of incidents.

The Muswell Hill and Fortis Green Residents’ Association had a public meeting recently at which the Safer Neighbourhood Teams, Haringey’s chief licensing officer, some of the local club owners – and residents – discussed these matters.

My Lib Dem colleague, Cllr Gail Engert speculated that the clubs should put a stamp on customers as they enter their club – so at least it could be established where they had come out of. It was also agreed at the meeting that residents should join the monthly ClubWatch group – which currently is just police and club operators. Working together must be one of the best ways forward.

But the over-arching problem is that since the ending of the requirement for licenses to be renewed each year, residents have lost their annual opportunity to voice their objections and recount their experiences.

I am hopeful that ClubWatch will be the practical and best way forward. But I will be dropping the appropriate Secretary of State a line to point out the very weak position that local people find themselves in and asking what the Government proposes to do to strengthen their hand.

The government wants to reduce your say over local planning issues

Lynne Featherstone MP with Quenin Givens protesting against the Planning BillYesterday it was a case of rain, rain go away – but it didn’t. So trooped off to the Friends of the Earth stall in front of Wood Green library to show solidarity against the swingeing powers of the proposed new Planning Bill. Cutting to the chase – decisions about big developments will be taken away from local decision making and we local people won’t even have a voice. Hence Quentin Givens being blind-folded and gagged in the photo.

This is a really serious issue and as the Bill goes through its Parliamentary processes I will certainly be representing those people and groups locally who rightly fear what the outcome will be in terms of unwanted, unnecessary and badly planned developments.

Planning law already favours the developer – and with the developer being able to appeal against a refusal. This Bill brings forward proposals that simply put more and more nails in our local coffin – and mean that we will have no means to prevent something being built that local people don’t want. Action stations!

Planning and Darfur

Start the day meeting all the lobby groups against the Planning White paper. The paper is a developers’ charter – and not only gets it wrong on many counts – but omits huge areas that do need tackling. For me – I want ordinary people, objectors – to have the same right of appeal as developers or applicants. It’s not fair that if you are refused permission you can appeal – but if it is granted and you are an objector – you cannot. Also – another bugbear – is that Her Majesty’s Inspector who doesn’t live in the local area and doesn’t have the same interests as local people – can overturn a decision made by the local Planning Authority. That could do with an overhaul too! (On which point … you can read more in my newspaper column on the topic from a little while back).

Then meeting with Foreign and Commonwealth officers to discuss all my many and various Parliamentary Questions on Darfur. I have raised Darfur in Parliament many times – and it was riveting to discuss the substantive issues with officers who really know the subject and working with those on the ground. Not going to discuss here as the material is something I want to think about how best to use.

How do you stop developers in your neighbourhood?

Congratulations to Benji Lesser and co for putting paid to developers trying to bung non-social housing in the space between the back gardens around Priory Road. They have seen off planning applications in the past, but this time – the surrounding residents have clubbed together and bought a plot of land – saving it from development. Well done!

The bigger picture issue remains – the fact that developers still virtually have a charter for development, with the presumption being so strongly in favour of development – and the developer has right of reply against a refusal whereas poor old residents have no right of appeal if things go the developer’s way. I continue to campaign to right this wrong!

Two years as an MP

Houses of ParliamentSo – two years ago this weekend I was elected to Parliament. Thank you, thank you – to the voters of Hornsey & Wood Green. It has been and is the most phenomenal honour to serve. It’s a crazy job. There’s no time off virtually – but fighting for the things that matter to local people is where I started and where I still am. It is an extraordinary thing to be able to stand on the floor of the chamber of the House of Commons and have a voice in the debates and issues of our times (when and if Mr Speaker’s eye falls on me!).

But this job isn’t just about Parliament. It’s about what comes through my surgery door, what people write (or email, or ring, or fax…) to me about, what people say on my visits and meetings round the constituency – and above all what people’s experiences are at the coalface of where legislation and regulation meet real people and real lives.

It’s still about fighting for better health services – from Hornsey Hospital to the Government’s top-slicing of the budgets for Primary Care Trusts – which here means family planning and sexual health clinics cut. It means local campaigns supporting local campaigners and – at Parliament – it’s about tackling Patricia Hewitt to get money for Hornsey Hospital.

It’s about fighting against the unwanted planning applications – such as from London Concrete Factory for Cranford Way – succeeding with local campaigners at the first stage, but losing the appeal to Her Majesty’s Planning Inspector. Hence, my speech in Parliament and writings about the need to revise the planning system so that it is fairer to both sides and better rooted in what the local impact of a decision really will be.

Crime continues to be a major issue from Wood Green to Highgate – so it’s about continuing to argue for the full Safer Neighbourhood Teams (having fought for years to get the teams) and the preservation of our local police station presence and front counters. At Parliament it’s me asking the Leader of the House in Business Questions for a full debate on gang culture and gun and knife crime. Here in the constituency, it is me going into Woodside School to spend the morning with police and an acting troupe to engage with the young people on knife crime.

On the environment – and climate change in particular – locally it include my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I campaigning for business recycling. Whilst we (thanks to years of local campaigning) are now able mostly to be green with our doorstep collections (except blimey they’ve just stopped collecting our plastic cartons – why?) – but at Parliament it was about being able to stand up and speak in the Climate Change debate to demand that the Government bring forward a Climate Change Bill.

All these and many, many more issues. And then there are the visits to events all over the constituency. I have visited every secondary school, some more than once and many of the primary schools, community visits, visits to local businesses to encourage and congratulate, job centres, libraries, sporting events, awards, a couple of dinners, celebrating green flag events, fun runs and street parties and on and on. All a delight.

And then there are the meetings – with council staff, with the Health Trust, with the Chief Executive of the local hospital, the police, the Council Leader etc and my work with the local Lib Dem councillors who are all fighting on the ground for their ward constituents against the mess Labour so often makes of running Haringey Council – running still run roughshod over local people with consultations which are often meaningless.

And then there is surgery – when people come to see me in person (or I visit them in their homes if they can’t get to me), so often with heart-rending stories that remind me continually how much there is to fight for and how motivated I am to fight for those who need help against the great machines of bureaucracy, forms and rules.

I could go on, and on, and on – but just wanted to try and illustrate how it all links up and how I try and represent what comes at me (at the rate of about 50 people a day – usually by letter, email or in person), whether that means taking up the issue at Westminster, in the constituency or indeed anywhere else where it can be helped or solved. And then there are all the other things MPs doing involving scrutinising legislation, holding ministers to account and so on…

Architecture awards

I don’t suppose we will get over this date, 9/11, for may years to come. Important to remember. Am concerned by conspiracy theory gaining any credence that USA did it themselves. Often get the feeling these days that we are psychologically disposed to believe the worst of ourselves and our allies and the best of the terrorists. Those views have been encouraged by the way our trust was abused over WMD.

At the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architecture) London awards – of which I heartily approve. Design barely gets a look in generally and yet it is the answer to many of our problems. An example: minimum room standards. They are far too small. Result – teenagers can’t take friends home; they hang out incessantly; I get queue of people at surgery telling me how dreadful the youth of today is. And I am forever banging on about the importance of the built environment to our lives. It can raise aspirations or blight them.

The awards went to twenty-two buildings in London – which is quite a lot of good buildings in a year. We should be so proud of our good architects and their continual striving to create wondrous spaces and shapes and dwellings and workplaces. They fight the good fight. I just wish developers, councils and politicians would make their lives a bit easier – then we might really have more decent buildings – and not just in central London.

I tried to tell Ken, when I was on the Greater London Authority, to send his architectural adviser – ye Richard Rogers – to Haringey for one of our big projects. But Ken wasn’t really interested in the quality of development in Haringey, and the developers – well they cut every corner in the book.

Wood Green development

Surgery all morning at Wood Green library followed by meeting with the council officers involved in the Wood Green Master Plan.

Master Plan is a bit of a misnomer – as this is really a Wood Green Planning and Business Improvement document. It’s early stages – but as far as I could glean this was a bit of strategic assessment of what might improve the regeneration and status of the area. There are a number of big sites that will be developed in the relatively near future – like Heartlands and the old Civic Centre site. The issues of jobs in an area of high unemployment, planning, sustainability and so on need to be handled sensibly to bring in the sort of retail that will provide more trade and attract more people – whilst taking into account in the needs of local residents whose services – such as transport, schools and health facilities – will need to cope with any growth. And the confidence of residents is dented when ghastly looking buildings from lowest common denominator developers get built.

However, that having been said, I am heartened by the fact that strategic thinking is going on – so long as it is followed by strategic consultation before it gets to a stage where we all feel we have no effect on outcome. I was delighted to learn that the new Haringey Chief Exec – Ita O’Donovan – has been having a go about design quality of the built environment. In my first meeting with her, I made it clear that I felt Wood Green was being damaged by ugly buildings that people then had to live with for years. In fact my first speech in Parliament talked about this – as it is always those in areas of deprivation who get the most badly stuffed by this sort of crappy design and materials.

I also lobbied at the meeting for improvement to Wood Green station – which can barely cope with the numbers already using it. It is not just a lick of paint that is needed but a redevelopment and expansion of capacity. And my last thrust was on sustainability – this is an opportunity to bring some real meaning to sustainability and also to be innovative. Why not bring some real green-ness to Wood Green High Street – water, trees, landscaping, planting street furniture of a real high standard – would all make such a difference! And the front of the library … need I say more?

Last issue of the day is the tragic knifing of schoolboy Kiyan Prince in Edgware. Carrying a knife in a public place should carry the same sentence as that for firearms. If you are murdered by a gun or murdered by knife, the outcome is the same – you are dead. In the Violent Crime Reduction Bill going through Parliament the Lib Dems did put an amendment at Report Stage asking for this. Labour voted against increasing the sentence. The Bill will raise the age at which you can buy a knife from 16 to 18 – which we supported (despite Labour’s attacks on us to the contrary) – but wanted Labour to put in what types of knives were prohibited. As it stands the new legislation means you will be able to get married at 16 but not buy your cutlery from John Lewis until you are 18!

The 7-year tariff for carrying a gun has reduced gun crime. Knives should be the same. I don’t take the view that we should automatically have scanners in every school – that is not the answer to knife crime. I heartily approve of teachers being given the powers to search those kids they suspect of carrying – but don’t believe we should treat all children as criminals. Even more importantly, as knife-carrying is epidemic, is to work on the why and the causes to change behaviour. The culture means that kids believe it is cool to carry a knife – a fashion accessory to gain status. Supporting teachers, the school police person, acceptable behaviour contracts (ABCs) which target behaviour improvement – we need a long sustained and well-resourced emphasis on working on children to turn this around. Punishment, strong sentencing and enforcement all play an important part – but they are not enough on their own to counter the ills of society.

Good planning website

Planning – especially attempts by developers to cram in far too many (and badly designed) properties into small spaces – is a big issue in Hornsey and Wood Green – as with many other places.

There’s a little gem of an official website at www.planningportal.gov.uk.

You can find out lots of useful information on how the planning system works (useful for campaigners against over-development!) plus look up planning applications near where you live and other useful stuff.