Wood & Vale articles

Wood & Vale April 2015

They say “all politics is local” and next month’s General Election is no different.

I make no apologies for being a fully paid up member of the Karen Buck fan club. I have known Karen for over 30 years as a community campaigner in the 1980s, as a Queen’s Park Councillor from 1990-1997 and as our Labour Member of Parliament for the past 18 years.

Everywhere I go in Westminster North I meet people whose lives have been helped by Karen Buck’s actions – on local housing, on local health services, with immigration and asylum issues and so much more.

Environmental issues are forever high on Karen’s agenda, whether it be campaigns to deal with overflowing refuse bins and dumped furniture, calls for 20mph speed limits on residential roads or action to save local pubs from being closed and turned into yet more luxury flats and betting shops.

Karen has built strong and positive working with the local police and knows how important it is for action to be taken swiftly against anti-social behaviour and other crimes that afflict local communities. Importantly, she has helped build bridges between the police and local communities which has benefitted everyone.

In a multi-cultural community like Westminster, community cohesion is of vital importance to us all. Karen is in regular touch with the huge breadth and range of local communities that have made Westminster North their home over recent decades.

Going canvassing door to door with Karen Buck is a joy. You just have to mention that you are calling on behalf of Karen Buck and people’s eyes light up. Tell them that Karen is in their street or on their landing right now and they want to repeat their thanks for past help even though it might have been many years ago.

Karen has always reached out beyond her natural supporters. She has argued consistently in Parliament for new laws to ban the ‘iceberg’ basements that make life a misery for residents of St. John’s Wood, Bayswater and Lancaster Gate – working closely with her Conservative neighbour Mark Field MP to present a cross party call for action.

At the end of the day I, like everyone else, want a Member of Parliament who gets things done, who is fearless in speaking up for Westminster North and who is prepared to go ‘the extra mile’ for local residents.

Of course, the big national issues – NHS, jobs, housing, the economy – are all vital issues that need to be addressed by the candidates. Karen’s views on all these have been rehearsed regularly in the Wood & Vale over many years. No one can be in doubt that she is on the side of local residents against the powerful and unaccountable.

Yes, “all politics is local” and Labour’s Karen Buck is the local choice for me – and I hope for you, too!

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg
Leader of the Labour Group
Westminster City Council

Promoted by Andy Whitley on behalf of Karen Buck MP both at 4g Shirland Mews W9 3DY

Wood & Vale – March 2015

The biggest Council issue of the moment is Westminster City Council’s plan to cut over £600,000 from Children’s Centres and Play Services. There have been protests and petitions from parents at Essendine School, the Mickey Star Centre and elsewhere as the ‘Wood & Vale’ has reported.

Parents’ protests have been supported strongly by Labour Councillors and Karen Buck MP. And some Conservative Councillors have voiced ‘warm words’ promising to “fight hard to ensure this valued service is protected”.

Westminster Council has claimed that by cutting support schemes, outsourcing the centres and reducing staffing levels they would be able to provide greater help for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

However, a cross-party report published by The House of Lords Committee on Affordable Childcare last week criticised this approach, arguing that it was “a false economy to invest in early education at a level insufficient to improve child outcomes.”

Westminster City Council currently offers a range of Stay and Play sessions throughout its Children’s Centres, including those at Essendine School and the Mickey Star Centre, providing users with the opportunity to speak to other parents from a variety of social backgrounds as well as centre workers.

The Council’s cuts will see many of these services which increase parental skills reduced or taken away all together. This is particularly shocking in the light of the Lord’s report findings which say “evidence indicates that the home learning environment is critical to a child’s development.”

The House of Lords report confirms what Labour Councillors have long been saying; cuts to services reduces parental engagement which means that children, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, may not be getting the support they need at home.

These sessions provide an invaluable resource for parent/carers ensuring that whilst the children are playing, parents are given the opportunity to come together and share their experiences.

Service reductions of this nature will mean any improvement made by focusing more on disadvantaged children are likely to be completely mitigated by cuts elsewhere.

At the Council meeting on Wednesday all 16 Labour Councillors voted to restore these proposed cuts.

It will be no surprise to ‘Wood & Vale’ readers to learn that those Conservative Councillors who had previously claimed they would “fight hard to ensure this valued service is protected” instead voted for the cuts to Children’s Centres.

I hope residents remember this latest Conservative betrayal on 7th May!

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, Leader of the Labour Group, Westminster City Council

Wood & Vale – January 2015

Not many people attend Council meetings these days but that does not mean that important issues are ignored.

At this week’s Council meeting, Labour Councillors called for a better private rented sector for Westminster and our main speakers were Church Street Councillor Vincenzo Rampulla and Churchill Ward Councillor Murad Gassanly.

As most people know, there has been an enormous growth in the private rented sector, with more than 4 out of 10 households in Westminster now renting from private landlords.

However, costs are high, with households paying around 40 per cent of their income on rents. As a result, in Westminster 3 out of 4 private renters rely on benefits to pay their rent

Shockingly, the council has this year subsidised private landlords, through housing benefit, by an enormous £75 million. This is partly explained due to average rents in Westminster in 2011-12 have increased by around £744 whilst wages have decreased by 13 per cent.

Notoriously, there are poor standards within the private rented sector compared to other tenures, with figures showing 4 out of 10 homes still failing to meet ‘Decent Homes’ standards. In 2011/12 one in 8 homes inspected by the Council received a legal notice.

Finally, only 52 per cent of private renters thought renting privately was a ‘good’ tenure, as opposed to 93 per cent owner occupiers and 82 per cent of social renters.

So, with that background we have called for the following:

● The Council to support for a better private rented sector in Westminster, one that is well-run, well-regulated and offers value for money to both renters and taxpayers;
● The Council to play an active role to play in ensuring a well-run, sufficiently regulated private rental market, producing a dedicated council private rented sector strategy that will focus on:
– Identifying those areas that represent the worst standards in the borough;
– using all legal powers currently available to address poor standards in the private rented sector, including proactively taking enforcement measures;
– Encouraging the use of longer-term tenancies to add stability for renters;
– Encouraging institutional investment to increase the supply of new, well-run and affordable rented accommodation in Westminster;
– Ensuring renters and landlords in Westminster know about the Mayor’s Rental Standard and it is actively championed by the council;
● The Council to support the principle of a borough-wide licensing scheme to champion the better standards in Westminster’s private rented market, commissioning a working group, of equal political representation, to report the possible development and implementation of such a scheme within six months;

For too long Westminster Council has ignored its private rented sector residents. Let’s hope that this Labour initiative gives private renters a better deal.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg
Leader of the Opposition
Westminster City Council

Wood & Vale November 2014

Two of the most pressing issues facing many Westminster residents is the need for the London Living Wage to paid by companies right across the board and the need for more Council accommodation at social rents.

First, the Council recently celebrated its success in getting more cash from the Government through the London Growth Deal.

Quite rightly, the London Growth Deal focusses on those are hardest to reach, those who have multiple problems and those are the most vulnerable.

By their very nature, these are the residents with the fewest resources, on the lowest incomes and with least opportunities.

Providing a job is an obvious first step. But it needs to be more than a zero hours’ contract. It needs to be a job that pays the London Living Wage of £9.15p an hour at least.

Otherwise we end up subsidising poor-paying employers. Or we end up pointing our tenants to the nearest food bank because they cannot afford to pay the rent and feed themselves and their families.

A London Growth Deal that opens the door to a poorly paid job will be no advance and no incentive to many. There is certainly ‘dignity in work’ but not if it is exploitation. For too many low paid workers in Westminster there is fine line between them today.

Second, because we are dealing with the resident most in need it makes absolute sense to build more social housing so that the low paid pay low rents. Otherwise we end up subsidising buy-to-let landlords or worse. More social housing will give low paid residents the opportunity to pay their own way. Paying them the London Living Wage will also cut the amount we spend on Housing Benefit.

As part of the London Growth Deal the Council has the power to spend an extra £8.5 million on affordable housing. But using the £8.5 million to build so-called ‘affordable homes’ at rents set at 50 or 60% of current market rents will not help the low paid out of the benefits trap. In fact it will make them more dependent on state benefits and push up the Housing Benefit bill for everyone.

We live in one of the richest and most successful cities in the world. As we approach 2015, surely paying people the London Living Wage and building homes that they can afford to rent should not out of the question for a place like Westminster.

If we truly aspire to be the greatest city in the world then this must be the test we set for our City Council.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg
Leader of the Labour Group
Westminster City Council

Wood & Vale October 2014

When the Right to Buy was introduced over 30 years ago the intention was to give long-standing tenants the opportunity to own a home of their own. Critics at the time said that selling off Council houses without replacing them with new homes for rent would create problems for the future.

As we all know, the ‘future has arrived’ and we are now in the midst of the biggest housing crisis in London since the end of the Second World War.

And with a housing shortage, it is no surprise that prices are rising on a daily basis. The starkest example of this is right on our doorstep.

The prospect of the first £1 million former Council flat sold by Westminster City Council under the Right to Buy for a fraction of that amount is getting closer with a flat in Robin House, St John’s Wood on the market for a staggering £875,000. Going on current trends, this flat is likely to be bought by a Buy-to-let investor and let out at a rent in excess of £4,000 a month.

Advertised on Rightmove, the flat is described as;

“A newly refurbished four bedroom apartment on the raised ground floor of this purpose built block. The property benefits from well laid out bedroom accommodation with good storage and a long lease of 95 years. Robin House is located within a short distance from St John’s Wood underground station (Jubilee Line) and the shops and amenities of St John’s Wood High Street as well as the open spaces of Regent’s Park.”

The continued sale of Westminster’s dwindling number of Council flats is adding to the housing crisis locally. Large flats like this one in Robin House were built by St Marylebone Borough Council before the last war to house local residents in housing need. To see them for sale for nearly £1 million when housing need is just as acute as it was all those years ago is completely wrong. Turning homes for those in housing need in to buy-to-let investments is destroying local communities and making places like St John’s Wood even more of a ‘no-go area’ for people on middle and low incomes.

This situation cannot go on any longer. We need radical action. First, we need to build more homes at social rents in all parts of Westminster so that we can maintain truly mixed communities.

Second, the Right to Buy has surely run its course and needs to be quietly put aside. Everyone knows it is being abused by sharks offering get-rich-quick schemes to the vulnerable. We are already know of an increasing number of tenants on Housing Benefit who somehow can suddenly afford to buy flats worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. Millions of pounds worth of public assets are being sold at knock down prices and end up in the hands of property speculators. It is a true scandal and the time is right to end this for good.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg,
Leader of the Labour Group,
Westminster City Council

Wood & Vale August 2014

A few weeks ago the Council finally published a report it commissioned last year on the ‘The Prime Residential Market in Westminster’ by Ramidus Consulting Ltd.

Of course, the part of the report that hit the headlines was the part which discussed the most expensive properties in Westminster, mostly in Mayfair and Belgravia.

But if you read the report closely, the recommendations are all about building more homes in Westminster for people on middle and low incomes. Indeed, the report calls on Westminster Council to build more homes for low and middle income residents, create more mixed tenure developments and do more to tackle the problem of vacant property.

The Ramidus report’s recommendations call on the Council to;

“• Deliver, where possible, public sector rented homes for local people and shared ownership homes for local key workers within the borough.
• Westminster should, wherever possible, seek to retain Affordable Housing on site, in order to create and preserve mixed and balanced communities. It should also consider a tiered mechanism for negotiating Affordable Housing provision to reflect land value.
• There is no official source for data showing the extent of wholly or periodically vacant properties. Westminster should initiate a process to collect more accurate data either through Council Tax returns or periodic survey work.”

These key recommendations should not be crowded out by the facts and figures of the relatively small prime and super-prime housing market.

The fact of the matter is that Westminster Council is currently failing on all three fronts identified by Ramidus;

• Not enough social housing is being built to help the 2,000 families in temporary accommodation or those Council tenants in overcrowded conditions. Last month research by specialist fund and asset managers London Central Portfolio revealed that in 2013 40 per cent of new build homes in Westminster were sold to buy-to-let investors.
• The Council regularly fails to ensure that new developments include on-site affordable housing. For example, in June the Council gave permission for the redevelopment of the Canadian High Commission building in Mayfair to provide 41 luxury apartments which contains no affordable housing but will include a gym, swimming pool, banqueting suite and 53 parking spaces.
• Westminster is one of the few Councils in London which fails to charge the increased Council Tax for properties that have been empty for more than two years. Yet there are an estimated 3,000 empty properties in Westminster.

Interestingly, the report also recommends that the Government “introduce at least three additional Council Tax Bands, covering properties valued, in today’s prices, at £2-£5 million, £5-£15 million and more than £15 million”. Westminster Conservatives have been strangely silent on this common sense proposal.

The key housing challenge in Westminster is to provide more social housing and shared ownership housing so that people have somewhere locally to live that they can afford. Residents want some leadership and action from the Council to provide the homes for local people in need. Sadly, we are getting neither from Westminster Conservatives.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg
Leader of the Labour Group
Westminster City Council

Wood & Vale – June 2014

It was only four seats, but it felt like we had won the Council!

For the first time since 1986 Labour won seats off the Conservatives in the Council elections in Westminster. Rita Begum’s win in Maida Vale and winning all three seats in Churchill ward in Pimlico has increased Labour’s strength on the Council from 12 to 16 Councillors.

Indeed, Labour triumphed right across the Tri-borough Councils, winning Hammersmith & Fulham Council outright and increasing the Labour Group on Kensington & Chelsea by 5 seats.

So why did this happen?

In Westminster, Labour Councillors have been campaigning hard over the past four years with Karen Buck MP, taking up issues of importance to local residents, particularly in Maida Vale and St John’s Wood. Add to this the fact that many residents told us that the Conservatives have taken residents for granted for too long and the Liberal Democrats appear to have almost given up.

Bread-and-butter issues like road safety, housing conditions and dirty streets have been at the heart of our campaign. Residents want their Councillors to be visible, responsive and diligent. People don’t want to hear how wonderful the Council is but want evidence that their Councillors are dealing with the issues that matter to them.

Over the past few months, in particular, we met scores of local residents who joined our campaign and gave us their time and their efforts in small, but important ways. Some people had never been involved in politics before but joined our campaign because they wanted to be involved and wanted to make a difference.

Over the next few years we will be reaching out to more local residents, taking up their concerns and giving them a reason to believe in local politics as a way to get things done.

In 2010 the Conservatives won 48 seats and control of the Council, despite winning just 43% of the votes. Last month they did even worse. With just 40% of the vote they now hold 44 seats out of 60 and have control of the Council for another 4 years.

Just as before, it is the role of Labour Councillors to represent the 60% of Westminster residents who do not vote Conservative. And because you have increased our strength by 4 extra Councillors we are better placed to represent you with renewed vigour and determination.

The next four years will be tough. The Conservatives promise more cuts and more austerity. Basic Council services will be under further attack, hitting residents from all walks of life. Our job will be to represent your concerns and to put forward constructive ways to improve the quality of life.

These elections should be a wake-up call for the Conservatives in Westminster. The look of horror and panic on their faces as the votes were counted in Maida Vale shows that they are not infallible or untouchable. The result in Regent’s Park ward, too, has revealed another new marginal ward.

Thank you for your support. At the next elections we will be working hard with local residents to win another 4 seats…… and more.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg
Leader of the Labour Group
Westminster City Council

Wood & Vale – March 2014

The two biggest issues facing Westminster residents in 2014 are the Housing crisis and the Cost of Living Crisis.

We live in a city where the growing gap between the rich and the power is widening on a daily basis. The richer are getting richer and the poor are told to clear out of Westminster.

This is something about which one of our most distinguished residents has spoken recently.

Last month, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Nichols, condemned the Government’s welfare cuts as a “disgrace”. Growing number of families are facing “destitution” and are punished if they failed to fill in forms correctly.

Westminster now has two Food Banks. Who would have believed that so many of our fellow citizens living in the centre of the most successful city in the world could be living on charity as a necessary way of life?

The Housing and Cost of Living crises are affecting us all. Real wages are down by an average of £1,600 a year while prices are going up. Average weekly private rents are 71 % of wages.

Then Westminster Conservatives pile on the agony. Council rents will rise way above the inflation rate – up by 4.52% (£275 a year). Council tenants now pay over £72 million a year to Westminster Council.

Nobody pays more to Westminster Council than Council tenants. While the billionaires and oligarchs of Mayfair and Belgravia have had their Council Tax payments capped for six years, the hard working Council Tenants in Carlton Vale, Hall Place, Barrow Hill and Maida Vale and elsewhere have endured year-on-year-on-year Council rent increases way above inflation. What was that phrase? All in it together?

Local residents with a car are suffering a staggering 16.5% increase in the cost of a Residents’ Parking permit.

Parking charges are now more important than the Council Tax in raising money for the Council. Westminster makes a profit of £52 million a year from parking charges and fines. In contrast, the Council Tax raises just £46 million a year.

We support a Council Tax freeze. Low and middle income Westminster residents have been hit hard enough by a Conservative Government and Conservative Council without piling on more pressure.

Our five priorities are;

• First, tackling the cost of living crisis. We would freeze the Council Tax and ensure that Council rents and residents’ parking charges rise at no faster than inflation.

• Second, we would build more genuinely affordable homes. We would restore the Family Quota system to enable the sons and daughters of existing residents to live locally. We will tackle rogue private landlords and rip-off letting agencies through a registration and rigorous inspection regime.

• Third, we would deliver high quality, value-for-money public services, including paying the London Living Wage to all staff working for Council contractors

• Fourth, we would improve safety and security at home and on the streets

• Fifth, we would deliver better services for children, teenagers and older people

We do not have to run the Council as a car parking company. Westminster can do better than that.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg
Leader of the Labour Group
Westminster City Council

Wood & Vale – January 2014

Nothing irritates people more than when politicians fail to deliver on their promises.

I don’t know why politicians continually make promises they know are going to be difficult to deliver. It is a fool’s game, but they keep doing it!

And there is no one better at over-promising and under-delivering than Westminster Conservatives.

In 2009 Westminster Council pledged to re-house 1,000 overcrowded households between 2009/10 and 2013/14.

According to Council figures, in April 2010 there were 1,335 overcrowded Westminster Council tenants waiting to be re-housed. By January 2014, the figure was 1,035 overcrowded families in Council accommodation – just 300 less than four years earlier.
In fact, in the past 4 years the Council has re-housed just 250 overcrowded families – a very long way from the pledge made by the Council’s Overcrowding & Health Inequality Task Group.

Sadly, there is nothing new in the Council’s “over-promising and under-delivering” record.

• When Council Leader Philippa Roe was in charge of housing she announced, re-announced and re-announced again ‘the biggest council house building plans for a generation’ promising 500 new homes. What happened? In fact, just 139 new ‘affordable’ homes have been built since 2010, and only 85 of them were for council rent.

• When the Right to Buy discounts were increased to £75,000 and then to £100,000, residents were promised that one new Council home would be built for every one sold under the Right to Buy. In fact, Westminster Council has sold 66 Council flats under the Right to Buy since 2010, pocketing £16.2 million, but has built no new Council homes with that money.

• Meanwhile, of the 9,000 former council flats in Westminster that have been privately sold, 3 out of 10 are now being rented out privately, at vastly higher rents paid to private landlords. So, of two families living next to each other in a council block, one could be paying £120 a week in rent to the Council, and the other paying £400 to a private landlord in Housing Benefit. No wonder Housing Benefit bills have gone up!

The facts are simple. Westminster Conservatives have over-promised and under-delivered on housing matters again and again and again. Hundreds of local families are living in overcrowded conditions because of the Council’s failure to build more social housing and to make developers provide on-site social housing on new building projects across Westminster.

Things do not have to be this way. There is over £100 million in the Housing Revenue Account that could be used to build more social housing for families in need. At the same, developers are lining up to build luxury homes all over Westminster and the Council should insist that at least 30% should be available at social rents.

Over the next few months Westminster Conservatives will continue to over-promise in their scramble to get your vote. Westminster residents deserve better than years of broken promises. Labour’s common sense alternative is both deliverable and affordable.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg
Leader of the Labour Group
Westminster City Council

December 2013

It is hard to believe but it is true. Westminster Council spends £450m a year with outsourced contractors and yet takes no interest in whether these contractors pay the London Living Wage to their staff.

According to figures uncovered by Labour Councillors, the Council spends hundreds of millions a year with external contractors, including;

• Amey (£65m) as part of a tri-borough contract with Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham Council
• Vertex/Serco (£40.6m)
• Veolia (£36.8m)
• NSL (£7.3M)
• Westminster TranServ (£7.5m)
• Capita (£6.5m)

In a question to the Council we asked “Does the Council have any requirements in any contracts let, that contractors pay at least the London Living Wage to their staff working in London?”

The Council replied; “The majority of contracts are related to service delivery, not numbers of people or rates of pay and the Council continues to award contracts on an outcome specification.”

We also asked; “Does the Council keep or compile information from our term contractors on things such as whether staff are being paid at least the London Living Wage, annual staff turnover or use of agency staff?”

The Council’s response was “We do not capture details of the number of staff against each contract or their wage rates.”

It is beyond belief that in this day and age Westminster Council can take no interest in the wages paid to people working on its behalf and employed by major contractors. When there is cost of living crisis of major proportions it is good sense to pay people decent wages so that families do not have to survive on state hand-outs. Yet Westminster Conservatives continue to stick their head in the sand and claim that paying decent wages is nothing to do with them.

The Council’s refusal to ensure that their contractors pay the London Living Wage is even more outrageous with the news that the Truscott Arms in Maida Vale is one of the first 200 businesses in the capital to sign up to the LLW. Andrew Fishwick, owner of The Truscott Arms in Shirland Road, said;

“When we were establishing the company, we wanted to take our corporate responsibility really seriously with things like sourcing produce but also paying staff.

“It is a cliché but it is true that your biggest asset is your staff and you want to ensure they stick around and to look after them so paying the rate was a way of saying ‘you are vital to what we do’.

“It also makes economic sense. To recruit a single person can cost on average £3,000 with advertising the job, training etc.

“If you can keep hold of people longer you save money and one way of doing that is to pay them properly.”

It makes good business sense to pay decent wages, as every successful business will tell you.

If a pub in Maida Vale can pay its staff the London Living Wage, why can’t Westminster Council? Why don’t Westminster Conservatives get it?

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg,
Leader of the Labour Group
Westminster City Council

October 2013

How low can Westminster Conservatives sink in their quest to make the lives of the most disadvantaged families as hard as possible?

Well now we know.

Last month the Local Government Ombudsman released a report investigating 40 separate complaints from families housed in inadequate B&B or hotel accommodation by Westminster Council for longer than the legal limit of six weeks.

The Ombudsman found that Council was guilty of ‘maladministration causing injustice’ and should pay at least £500 to every family kept in this kind of unsuitable accommodation, with another £500 added for every six-week period thereafter.

In February this year, the Council was housing over 150 families in unsuitable hotels or B&Bs for longer than the six-week legal limit, rising to a peak of 171 families over the summer.

Earlier this year Labour Councillors revealed that Westminster was placing families in five-star accommodation where costs ran into thousands of pounds per week, at up to three times the going rate. The majority of families were, however, placed in very poor quality accommodation, often outside of the borough.

Thankfully, the Council has now acted now that the Ombudsman has reported and following constant questions from Labour Councillors. The Council claims that the scale of the homelessness problem has been greater than anticipated. But Westminster’s Conservative councillors have been ‘cheerleaders’ for the policy which has ended up causing them and vulnerable families so many problems. As Karen Buck MP said;

“Evidence is piling up that ill-thought through government policies have piled costs and problems onto local councils. Government ministers were warned by friends as well as opponents that cuts in housing support would create homelessness and so it has proved. Homeless families suffer but homelessness is an expensive failure all round.’

‘I have met with several parents who did not have access to cooking facilities and were struggling to afford to feed their children with unhealthy take away food. It is not surprising that homeless families struggle to keep their children in school when they sometimes have to travel for up two hours each way. Forcing vulnerable people to live in these conditions for longer than six weeks, in many cases over a year, is intolerable.’

Sadly, this huge and expensive Council failure appears to have had no impact on the uncaring and thoughtless views of some Westminster Conservatives.

Last week Westminster Council’s Housing Cabinet member Jonathan Glanz compared long-term residents living in social housing in the West End with “the Made in Chelsea brigade, the young people portrayed in the ITV television series who spend their days dining out and sipping champagne on London’s King’s Road” because of “the benefits enjoyed by social housing tenants in some of country’s most expensive areas”.

As one West End resident said, “it’s not just the poor he wants out of Westminster, it’s anyone who’s not rich. He appears to envisage the perfect West End as a gated community”.

It looks like Westminster is now in the grips of a very hard-faced right wing Conservative faction intent on making Westminster a ‘no-go’ area for anyone without piles of money. We cannot allow this to happen.

Westminster can do better than this.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg
Leader of the Labour Group
Westminster City Council

September 2013

With public money in short supply you would have thought that Westminster Council would be looking at ways that it can maximise the amount it gets from planning applications where the applicants want to ‘buy out’ their obligation to provide on-site affordable housing.

However, Westminster Conservatives have been regularly throwing away money at a colossal rate.

So much so that Labour Councillors have now written to the District Auditor to draw his attention to the £31,130,387 loss incurred by Westminster City Council in accepting financial payments less than required by the Council’s adopted Planning Policies.

We have sent the District Auditor details of nine recent planning applications over the last 3 months. It is likely that over a full year, the financial loss to the Council would be many tens of millions of pounds more.

The details from nine recent decisions taken by the Council’s Planning Applications Committee since May are;

• 24 luxury apartments at 73 Great Peter Street, W1. The Council accepted £2,179,929 less than required under the Council’s policy.

• 42 luxury apartments at Grosvenor House Gardens, 35-37 Grosvenor Gardens, SW1. The Council accepted £3,094,755 less than required under the Council’s policy.

• 31 luxury apartments at 26 Chapter Street, SW1. The Council accepted £2,084,000 less than required under the Council’s policy.

• 22 luxury apartments at 67 Tufton Street, SW1. The Council accepted £1,152,808 less than required under the Council’s policy.

• 6 luxury apartments at 10-12 Park Crescent, W1. The Council accepted £350,832 less than required under the Council’s policy

• 78 luxury apartments at 1 Palace Street and 1-3 Buckingham Gate which was previously an office building. The Council accepted £10,287,063 less than required under the Council’s policy.

• 89 luxury apartments at 70-88 Oxford Street which was previously an office building. The Council accepted £5,532,000 less than required under the Council’s policy.

• 31 luxury apartments at 56 Curzon Street which was previously an office building. The Council accepted £1,768,000 less than required under the Council’s policy.

• 42 luxury apartments at 29/30 Old Burlington Street and 22-27 Cork Street, W1. The Council accepted £4,681,000 less than required under the Council’s policy.

The Council is allowing applicants to ‘buy out’ their on-site affordable homes obligations in the West End at a ‘cut price’ and, as a result, has lost over £31 million in off-site affordable housing payments.

If there were a surplus of affordable homes in the West End or in Westminster generally, the Council might have an argument for accepting less than is required by its Planning Policies. However, the reverse is true and there is a huge demand for affordable housing in the West End and in Westminster generally. Currently there are over 1,000 families registered on the Council’s Overcrowded families Waiting List

The Council calculates the off-site affordable housing contribution on the basis of a payment of £215,000 per unit. On this basis, the £31 million lost by the Council could have built 144 new affordable homes in Westminster.

What a waste and what incompetence!

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, Leader of the Labour Group, Westminster City Council

August 2013

There has been a lot of attention on Wonga and their sky high interest rates recently. But a little closer to home our very own Westminster Council is operating its own residents’ parking ‘scam’ which is increasing the cost of living for so many people.

Over 90% of Westminster car owners will be hit by a 22.6% increase in the cost of their residents’ parking permits as the Council imposes a 6.5% inflation increase, plus a further increase as the Council scraps the current discount for on-line applications.

The cost of an on-line parking permit is currently £115 a year (and £132 for applications in person) and over 90% of car owners apply on line. The cost of a residents’ parking permit will increase by £19 to £134 on 1st July 2013 and by a full £26 a year to £141 on 1st July 2014.

The Council say that the price increase and on-line discount abolition will raise over £1.4 million extra for the Council;

“the phased removal of the online discount over 2 years would potentially result in an additional £672,000 in income. Assuming that the number of permits remains unchanged, the effect of the inflationary increase in permit prices will potentially result in income increasing in the region of £439,000 in the financial year 2013/14 and £742,000 in 2014/15.”

Penalising residents who pay on-line by scrapping the current discount is poor customer service and akin to the sharp practice employed by some of the much-criticised budget airlines.

Now that the Council has closed down all its One Stop Shops residents have little choice to pay on line or join the long queues at the post offices. Scrapping the on-line discount simply makes more money for the Council at residents’ expense.

So why are the Conservatives upping the cost of living for residents?

The answer is very simple. Westminster City Council has spent over £3m in six months paying for people waiting for permanent housing to be put up in hotels. Following the Government’s notorious Housing Benefit changes, the Council has had the most families in long-term bed and breakfast accommodation in London and has had to resort to more expensive hotels to cope. And in the first nine months of 2012, more than £2m was spent accommodating people in four-star hotels.

The Council is seriously over-spent on its housing budget because of the Government changes and now residents are picking up the bill with higher parking charges. It is outrageous that residents should have to pay so much more because of the Government’s financial incompetence.

But sadly this is not the first or last cost of living increase planned by the Conservatives. Earlier this year the Council increased rents by an inflation-busting 3.88% which will add over £227 a year to the average residents’ outgoings. And there are more price rises on the way.

Westminster Council might not be Wonga but it is doing a good imitation.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg
Leader of the Labour Group
Westminster City Council

June 2013

Labour Westminster Councillors are supporting the campaign for changes to the private rental regulations in order to protect private tenants from the worst landlords and letting agents.

As a start, we need an end to fees for tenants when setting up a tenancy. Excessive fees are barring large numbers of people on low and middle incomes from the private rented sector. If you’ve saved and borrowed enough money for a deposit, an additional £200-£500 or more in “administration fees” is an insult and can make it impossible to get somewhere to live.

An investigation by housing charity Shelter revealed that almost a third of those who have used a letting agency in the past three years were forced to borrow money to pay for the agency’s fees. A better system would require landlords to cover the costs of setting up a tenancy rather than tenants.

The Shelter investigation approached 58 letting agencies and found that all demanded agency fees — many of which are not-refundable and charged under the guise of administration, holding, credit check, check-in or check-out fees — to set up a tenancy.

The national average for the fee, charged on top of deposit and rent, was just over £350, but almost a third charged more than £400 with seven agencies charging more than £700. The Property Ombudsman has already reported a 12 per cent rise in complaints against letting agencies from both landlords and tenants. And a recent report by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, which represents some letting agencies, compared the letting industry to the “Wild West”.

We also need proper regulation of letting agents. Regulation should be introduced which requires letting agents to have a nationally recognised qualification, undergo proper training, be audited annually and report to a national regulatory body.

There is also an obvious need for action to bring down rents and keep them under control. Shelter found that a fifth of landlords had increased their rents because letting agents had encouraged them to do so. Until the market stabilises, we need government-led rent regulation that caps rent increases in line with inflation.

We also need longer, more secure tenancies. Landlords also stand to benefit from longer tenancies which could provide a more certain, sustainable return on their investment. Many of the 8.5 million people renting privately, a third of whom are families with children, desperately want a home that offers more security.

Things need to change in the private rented sector, and soon. When people have to find hundreds of pounds in fees each time they move, on top of deposits and rent in advance, it is time to put a stop to this ‘something-for-nothing’ scam.

The high demand for rented homes means that people cannot ‘shop around’, but are forced to deal with the letting agency their landlord has chosen. They have no choice but to pay up or have no home. This rip-off cannot be allowed to continue and we need Government action now.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, Leader of the Labour Group, Westminster City Council

May 2013

Everyone knows that there is a real housing crisis in Westminster.

So why have Westminster Conservatives left a six bedroom Council-owned house at 109 Lisson Grove empty since November 2010, losing you and me almost £20,000 in lost rent and rates?

Plans to convert this long vacant house to two bedroom flats for rent, promised over a year ago, have still not started.

And while this home has been left empty, scores of families in housing need have been moved out of Westminster to Bletchley, Southend, Maidstone and Thurrock.

It is no better down in Pimlico where the Council is paying building contractors over £20,000 plus VAT a year to keep the long-vacant former Balmoral Castle pub, on the Churchill Gardens Estate, encased in scaffolding to stop it from collapsing.

This Council-owned building has been empty since the lease to Watney Truman Limited expired in 2006. The building is derelict, has structural problems and is being supported by scaffolding. Since 2006, you and I have paid nearly £200,000 for this building to stay empty, with no prospect of any progress in sight.

And this week the Council revealed that four flats in Tickford and Simpson Houses on the Lissaon Green Estate have been vacant for over three years awaiting repairs and conversion, resulting in the loss of around £80,000 in lost rent and rates. And yet the Council says it does not have enough homes for people in housing need and ships them 50 miles or more out of Westminster.

In my view the failure to renovate these properties really does cast doubt on the Council’s ability to deliver the long-promised major regeneration plans in Church Street, Ebury Bridge, Tollgate Gardens and Westbourne Green.

How does the Council expect residents in Westminster to vote for ambitious regeneration schemes involving the demolition of hundreds of Council homes, when the Council cannot even organise the conversion of a vacant single house on Lisson Grove or four small flats on the Lisson Green Estate?

Every day residents in Church Street and Churchill Gardens see with their own eyes the evidence of the Council’s total failure to sort out the renovation of individual properties. So how can anyone believe the Council has the ability to deliver the regeneration of four entire estates?

Over the next month residents in Church Street and Ebury Bridge will be asked to give their consent to the demolition of hundreds of Council homes with the promise of a ‘better tomorrow’.

I hope that the Council’s promises are worth more than its current record of failure. Only time will tell, but if the Conservatives fail to deliver on their promise to residents again there will be thousands of real families whose lives will have been ruined and that would be an unforgiveable and appalling tragedy.

And that would be another housing crisis.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, Leader of the Labour Group

March 2013

With just over a year before the next Council elections what is the ‘state of Westminster’?

Thanks to Government policies, up to 5,000 Westminster families will be forced out of the area because their housing benefit will be cut. This is supposed to save money. But now we learn that the Council’s spending on housing families in hotels in London, including the West End, is costing £145,000 a week. On an annual basis this works out at a massive £7.5 million.
How can it be that a Conservative Council is spending almost £85,000 a week housing families in 10 West End hotels, with over £22,500 a week paid to the Central Park Hotel, two minutes’ walk from Hyde Park and over £17,000 a week paid to the Copthorne Tara Hotel in Kensington?

And then there is the blatant law-breaking. There are today over 170 families with children who have been in B&B accommodation for more than 6 weeks. This is against the law.

In November 2012 Westminster City Council was told by Housing Minister Mark Prisk MP that its continued placing of families with children in Bed & Breakfast Hotels for more than six weeks was “unlawful and unacceptable”.

Clearly, complying with the law is for other people. Five months later no action has been taken by the Council or by Government despite these clear warnings. Moreover, the figures have increased by over 400% since last April. Westminster Council in its typical arrogant manner believes that it is above the law. What sort of message does this send out to the vast majority of law abiding citizens?

As Westminster’s housing crisis continues to deepen, this is the council that wants to sell the Moxon Street car park site for luxury housing, at the same time as the Council is reported to be planning to buy a plot of land in Poplar, east London, to build 66 flats for temporary accommodation for Westminster families.

This is the Council that is increasing council housing rents by 3.88% and adding over £227 a year to the average residents’ outgoings. This at a time when

 Public Sector Pay increases have been capped a 1%
 Private Sector earnings are increasing by just 1.5%
 The Minimum Wage increase was just 1.8%
 And the Inflation rate is 2.7%

And this is the Council that has nearly £6 million of Council Tax payers’ money still tied up in failed Icelandic banks

This is the Council that has received £13m in New Homes Bonus but has not spent any of it on new homes.

This is also the Council whose Leader promised to build 500 new homes by 2013 but has built just 29.

And this is the Council which overspent the budget for the renovation of Leicester Square by a massive £1.7 million

Finally, there is one ray of sunshine amongst the gloom. We congratulate the Council on following Labour’s advice and joining the Greater Manchester energy switching scheme. Saving up to £182 a year on energy bills will benefit many Westminster families and help them to balance their regular outgoings, including helping Council tenants offset the £227 a year rent increase.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, Leader of the Labour Group

January 2013

This year is likely to be one of the toughest yet for many Westminster residents. With £60 million already slashed from the Council’s budget over the last two years, further Government cuts of £30 million over the next two years will hit the most vulnerable very hard. The Conservatives said that these cuts were needed to get the debt down and the economy moving. Yet, since 2010 we have seen the debt grow and we are now approaching a triple-dip recession.

And on top of this, Westminster’s housing crisis continues to rage with more families uprooted from their communities and scattered across London and further afield as the Housing Benefit changes hit those in low-paid West End jobs living in private rented property.

Many of the Council’s cuts will hit front line services to young people, the elderly and the disabled. But they will also hit residents living in some of the more prosperous parts of Westminster. It will mean less money for street sweeping, refuse collection, pavement and road repairs and for libraries. The Conservative cuts will hit St John’s Wood and Maida Vale as well as Church Street and north Paddington.

And so, too, will the Mayor’s police and fire service cuts affect everyone. Harrow Road and St John’s Wood police stations are already under threat of closure.

There are no easy options left. So far, half the cuts made by the Council have hit front line services. Such is the scale of the further cuts to come that front line services are now much more likely to be hit hard by the latest slashing of services.

So what can be done to save local services?

First, it means listening to local residents to hear how the recent cuts have affected their lives and to listen to their priorities for the future. Labour Councillors will be launching a major consultation and we will be inviting local residents and community groups to tell us their priorities for local services over the coming few years.

Second, Labour Councillors have always been close to the people we represent. As ‘One Nation’ Labour, we will be standing up for residents throughout Westminster. We will give a voice to all, no matter where they live.

Third, it means rooting out the continued waste and profligacy at City Hall. How on earth can Westminster Conservatives possible justify spending £3 million a year on ‘Communications and Policy’ when front-line services to the vulnerable are being cut? Labour wants the money to go where it benefits the community and not to be spent on Conservative Party political propaganda.

Fourth, it means working with local residents to stop the Conservatives’ ‘slash and burn’ approach to local services. Services that take years of hard work to build up can be destroyed for ever once they are closed down. Our task is to ensure that we find ways of keeping services running.

Fifth, one of the ways out this mess is to give local people more say over their local area. That is why we have been such strong supporters of the Queen’s Park Community Council ever since it was first suggested by local people.

Yes, 2013 is going to be tough. Of course we will be exposing the incompetence of Westminster Council whenever and wherever we find it. But we will also be working with local residents to chart a path through these tough times.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, Leader of the Labour Group, Westminster City Council

November 2012

Politicians are good at making promises. So it was no surprise that Councillor Roe made a promise back in 2009 when she was in charge of Westminster’s Housing policy to build 500 new Council homes by 2014.

But sometimes those promises come back to haunt you. And that is the situation with Councillor Roe’s extravagant 500 new build homes promise.

The sad fact is that Westminster City Council has built just 29 of the 500 new Council homes promised by Council Leader Philippa Roe in 2009.

And equally sadly, the Council’s failure to build the often-promised 500 new homes is typical of a Council that regularly over-promises and under-delivers.

The chronology of Councillor Roe’s repeated promises and glaring failure to deliver is as follows;

  • On 7th July 2009 the Council issued a press release announcing “plans to build around 500 more homes across Westminster”. Councillor Roe said;

“Over the next four years homes will be built on brownfield and under-used sites on existing estates to help ease chronic overcrowding and provide home ownership opportunities for Westminster residents.”

  • On 5th March 2010, Councillor Roe told the local press;

“Very shortly we will be starting on site in phase one of our ambitious plans to build more than 500 new homes across Westminster, the biggest affordable housing building programme we have undertaken for more than a generation.”

  • On 18th March 2010 Councillor Roe repeated her promise to build 500 new homes in a Council press release;

“This is a historic moment and this programme will make a real difference to hundreds of local families in desperate housing need. While we’re turning the clock back to the 70s with the concept of such large scale building, the quality and finish of these new homes will very much be 21st century.”

  • But three and a half years on, the Council’s new homebuilding programme has produced just 29 new build homes  at Westbourne Green (10 new homes), Avenue Gardens (2 homes), Gloucester Gardens ( 8 homes) and John Aird Court (9 homes not yet completed)

The facts speak for themselves. The Council promised 500 new-build homes but just 29 have been built or are nearing completion. By anyone’s standard this is a massive failure to deliver and all too typical of Westminster Conservatives.

But it could be very different. That is why we say that new homes for low income residents should be an essential component of the redeveloped Moxon Street site (together with a new library). The Council’s planning policies say that 35% of the new homes should be affordable homes and that they should be built on site. It will be interesting to see if the Conservatives stick to their planning policies or whether they ditch the on-site affordable housing obligation in favour of taking cash.

Or will over-promising and under-delivery be the defining feature of Councillor Roe’s Council leadership?

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, Leader of the Labour Group, Westminster City Council

October 2012

Recently we came across the fact that CityWest Homes has set up an estate agency and is letting former Council flats at three times and more the rent that would have been charged had the same flat still been in Council ownership.

For example, CityWest Homes is advertising flats for rent on the Churchill Gardens Estate in Pimlico at £500 a week, three times the rent than had it remained a Council flat. The three bed flat, which is being advertised as a “A superb opportunity for a ‘buy to let’ investor” is also for sale for £465,000.

In our view this is completely wrong and we have called for a limit on the rents that buy-to-let landlords can charge for former Council flats.

Given the scale of the Westminster housing crisis, measures should be introduced limiting rent levels of former Council property to the new affordable rent levels set by Westminster City Council in order that those hard-working families on incomes of between £25,000 -£39,000 a year can find somewhere to live in the West End.

The Council’s affordable rents for those earning between £25,000 – £39,000 are;

1 bed flats – £135 – £172
2 bed flats – £148 – £194
3 bed flats – £156  – £210

The extent of the buy-to-let renting of former Council flats is now on an ‘industrial’ scale. Earlier this year, the Council revealed that it has sold over 9,000 of its 21,000 properties over the past 30 years, with 40% of the properties sold in the hands of buy-to-let landlords.

It is a scandal that these former Council flats are being sold for such huge sums or being rented out at hugely inflated rents. The owners of these flats have enjoyed massive public subsidies and it is grossly unfair that they should continue to profit in this way when there are so many hard-working people in housing need.

The Council has stopped building homes for social rent and will now only build for rent at ‘affordable rents’. We are arguing that these new affordable rents should apply to all future former Council properties that have been acquired by buy-to-let landlords and we are asking Westminster City Council and City West Homes to join our call to the Government to introduce measures to make this possible. We cannot allow the housing crisis to continue in this unregulated way, when thousands of hard-working families are being squeezed out of Westminster and other parts of inner London.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, Leader of the Labour Group, Westminster City Council

September 2012

Westminster Conservatives are spinning out of control!

Just last week, the Council spin-machine went in to over-drive to claim that the Council was the first to use the new anti-squatting laws to reclaim a one-bedroom Council flat on Lisson Green that had been squatted.

With all due seriousness, Councillor Jonathan Glanz, cabinet member for housing and property, proclaimed; “With these new powers, we have been able to recover a property from a squatter who was depriving a family in desperate need of a home, in a much quicker time than was previously possible. We will not tolerate the illegal occupation of our homes and will work with CityWest Homes and the police to take action where we need to.”

However, the truth about this squatted flat was a long way from Councillor Glanz’s partial account.

What Councillor Glanz failed to say is that the squatted one-bedroom Council flat was not “depriving a family in desperate need of a home”, but had been left empty for over a year as a result of Westminster Council incompetence and mismanagement.

The shocking story of Council bungling was revealed in an email from a City West Homes official to Labour Church Street Councillor Aziz Toki on 29th August in response to an inquiry about why there were so many long-standing empty flats in Simpson and Tickford Houses on the Lisson Green Estate in Marylebone. Councillor Toki was told by the City West official;

“My apologies for the time taken to come back to you on this one. The delay has been due to a difficulty in obtaining information as the officer that manages all conversions is on long term leave. I have been advised by the officer currently covering him that works to the flats in Simpson House are due to start in November. I believe that the flats have been empty for more than one year because of the high cost associated with converting them from two one bedroom properties to one three bedroom property.”

The truth of the matter is that this flat could only be squatted because the Council had allowed this flat and others to be left empty for so long.   The empty flat, and all the others that are still empty, could have been used for a short term let for a family in housing need and then it would not have been squatted.

It is the sad truth that it is the Council’s incompetence and mismanagement that was responsible for these flats being left vacant for so long and making them vulnerable to being squatted. Not only were people in housing need deprived of somewhere to live, but the Council has lost thousands of pounds in lost rent and rates and thousands of pounds more has been spent installing security doors. Councillor Glanz and the rest of the Westminster Conservatives have been well and truly found out. They can take no credit for using the new anti-squatting laws to sort out a problem of the Council’s own making.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, Leader of the Labour Group, Westminster City Council

One Response to Wood & Vale articles

  1. Imelda Finnerty says:

    I was shocked to read that CityWest are allowed to run a commercial Estate Agency within the terms of their status in managing lease properties for Westminster City Council. Do they make commissions? Where does the money go to? Is CityWest a profit-making concern? This is alarming and I would not have known about it if I had not read your Wood & Vale column … It was illuminating about this and other local issues. Thank you..

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