Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Reasons to Be Cheerful

One creative alternative to Christmas lights

I thought hard about adding a question mark to this entry’s heading. As the festive season gets into full swing, hundreds of Brent families remain officially homeless, while the sharp increase in  possession claims continues throughout the Borough. The 92 luxury-flat gated community in Willesden Green is swiftly and mercilessly occupying our public space and skyline (no sign of the new Library last time I looked), and more -largely unaffordable- high-rise developments are in the  pipeline at the Queensbury pub site, the Electric House building,  and now the old Willesden Green police station. One of our popular local schools, Gladstone Park Primary is due to be privatised in April. And on top of that, we don’t even get High Street Christmas lights or decorations this year or the next. Hardly reasons to be cheerful.

Yet looking ahead into the new year, it turns out there are some glimmers of hope. People in Willesden Green and neighbouring wards have been mobilising to reverse the misery and pain designed by the ConDem coalition and delivered by our Labour-controlled Council. Brent Housing Action has established itself in a short time as the local campaign fighting racism, social cleansing and the victimisation of the most vulnerable residents in both the private and social housing sector of our Borough. The Save the Queensbury Campaign has finally –third time lucky – got Brent to recognise our community pub as an Asset of Community Value (that now makes two in the whole of the Borough). This status should count as a material consideration in the Council’s decision on planning permission, and residents’ objections  to Fairview’s proposed scheme are piling up on the Planning application website. Separately, a working group issuing from the Willesden Green Town Team has recently been established to prepare a Neighbourhood Development Plan which, if supported by widespread participation, could offer residents some real power in designing our area’s built environment.  Even in Gladstone Park Primary there seems to be some positive movement: six months after the Parent Action Group suggested ways to keep  the school under local authority control, it seems Brent has finally listened – as of January the school will share an Executive Head with an outstanding Camden school, effectively forging a ‘soft’ federation across two local authorities.

None of this, of course, is to say these various campaigns are on a path to victory. There are all kinds of powerful obstacles in the way of making Willesden Green more democratic; in keeping our neighbourhood socially mixed, protecting and extending our public spaces and services, and defending  the area from colonisation by developers. Some of these obstacles come in the shape of  dismal representation from our local Councillors and the three mainstream parties. But we have an opportunity to change that at the local Council elections on 22 May 2014. Willesden Green residents will each get to vote for three candidates next year – with my own independent grassroots candidacy seeking to give electoral voice to these various local campaigns there will at least be a real alternative at the ballot box. However small, and  in these times, that’s hopefully one reason to be cheerful. 
If you wish to participate in building this alternative, there is a Make Willesden Green policy afternoon scheduled for Saturday 11 January 2014. Email me or sign up to our list for more details.  

Monday, 25 November 2013

That Was The Week That Woes

Signposting  the Willesden Week of Action

Residents and visitors to Willesden Green were welcomed to our neighbourhood last week with a massive sign that made our area look like the South Bronx in the 1970s. Were they doing a chilly remake of the Summer of Sam? Or perhaps Crimewatch was filming in the area? The reality was less glamorous but just as scary: this was Brent Council’s idea of engaging the community during the ‘Willesden Week of Action’. And as this collection of Tweets indicates, people were unimpressed with the stunt.

Visiting the actual Week of Action stalls outside Sainsbury’s, anger over the threatening sign changed to a sense of disappointment: a potentially fruitful initiative was being squandered by Council incompetence. The fire-fighters, NHS employees, Council Housing workers and Transition Town people who were at the Week of Action Tent (though oddly the Willesden Green Town Team seem not to have been invited) are at the core of our community, and it is very important that we have an opportunity to meet  and exchange information face-to-face. Yet the whole event was overshadowed by the bizarre signage outside the tube station and the more sinister anti-immigration raids that seem to have been part of the Week of Action.

The Willesden Week of Woe was not just a PR disaster for Brent Council. It shows how one hand just doesn’t know what the other is doing. While the stalls at the Week of Action rightly tell us how important it is for health and well-being to get out and about, to stop-and-chat to neighbours (immigrant or otherwise), our Council decimates our area’s remaining public spaces, evicts our independent bookshop and threatens to close down our community pub. As Council workers look to advise vulnerable residents about their housing rights, their bosses see it fit to build gated communities on public land, marketed at wealthy speculators.
The Week of Action Tent on Saturday

We set up our own Make Willesden Green stall outside Sainsbury’s on Saturday to offer this alternative message: we want Brent Council to start joining-up its thinking with its actions. If Councillors and their officers really want to focus on our area’s needs and priorities, then ditch the scaremongering and start defending our community assets and fighting school academisation; build more social housing and protect tenants' rights; preserve our public spaces and stop private developers swallowing our neighbourhood up.     

Friday, 22 November 2013


Brent Council's official "Willesden Week of Action" is underway. So far it seems be focusing on crime prevention with little mention of community and not that much action forthcoming. So we have decided to set up our own stall on Saturday and offer an alternative view of what actions are needed for Willesden Green.

Make Willesden Green will be highlighting the democratic deficit in Brent that has resulted in our open space being lost, our library land donated to developers, our bookshop evicted and our favourite pub now being threatened with demolition.

Let's make sure Brent Council are not let off the hook, please do spare some time to come along on Saturday to discuss your own priorities and ideas for Willesden Green.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Welcome to Brent EasyArchive

Will Shanice also be serving as Brent Museum archivist?

One of the aims of the Make Willesden Green platform in coming months is to establish connections between budget cuts, the quality of our public services and local democracy.  These are obviously hot political issues across the whole of the country, but they manifest themselves in very specific ways in our own neighbourhood, and should be a focal point of next year’s Council elections.

Take the case recently highlighted by Phil Grant, staunch defender of Brent’s local history and eloquent advocate for Willesden Green’s heritage LINK. Phil patiently details his own experience of  the consultation over Brent’s new Museum and Archives Strategy, and how he has tried to stop this being made a waste of time by a staff restructuring exercise which is going on simultaneously.  The restructuring appears to be an attempt by the Head of Libraries, Arts and Heritage to impose her own ‘vision’ before the Council’s formal consultation process ends in December 2013. Key decisions around staff restructuring - which will have a huge impact on the type of service delivered at the new Brent Museum and Archive in Willesden Green - were made prior to her consultation with staff, making it in Phil’s words ‘a complete sham’. Senior Council officers have said the matter is not open to further discussion, and it seems the jobs of the existing Archives staff are to be ‘deleted’.

The  new ‘vision’ for Libraries, Arts and Heritage aims to ‘move to a culture of archives users learning to research resources for themselves’  where ‘[customers] will be encouraged to self-help’ – presumably in line with our friendly new receptionist at the Civic Centre, Ms Holly Gramm. In Phil’s view,  the job descriptions for the new Heritage Officer posts suggest ‘they are not expected to have the detailed local history knowledge, or knowledge of the collections they are in charge of, that the existing staff have. Where ever possible, they will point you to a computer and say "find out for yourself". There will be more "digitised material" available, but how you will work out what you need to find in order to answer your particular question remains a mystery’.

Budget cuts will no doubt be trotted out as the reason behind the Archive’s staff restructuring, yet I understand that there is an alternative proposal on the table that would allow for modest savings whilst retaining existing staff. This too, it appears, has been dismissed in the consultation process thus far without further consideration by senior Council officers.

Those of us involved in the farcical ‘consultations’ over the Willesden Library redevelopment will sadly find much that is familiar in Phil’s story. The wider context is certainly one dominated by the ConDem cuts to local authority budgets, but it is the arrogance and lack of spirited creativity on the part our Labour-led  Council that will ultimately be responsible for the ‘no frills’ DIY Archives Service when it reopens in 2015. Until then, you can make the most of our existing Archives Service, relocated to a desk in the basement of George Furness House, and contribute to the Museum’s revised content and design HERE.   

Friday, 8 November 2013


Just a reminder that Make Willesden Green will be having its first public outing this Saturday, 9th November, with a street stall next to the Post Office on Willesden High Road from 10-30am-12.30pm.

We will be introducing residents to the Make Willesden Green election platform, asking them what their priorities are for the area and letting them know that there is an alternative to the three main parties. Please do come along for as long as you're able - even if it's just for half an hour.

I look forward to seeing you on Saturday.

A Sorry Tale of Two Boroughs

It is likely that next week Governors at Gladstone Park Primary, the local school for many children living in Willesden Green, will decide to become an Academy, handing over this Local Authority (LA) school to a private sponsor. This comes after a six-month campaign by parents and staff to keep Gladstone Primary under LA control HERE. Over in Redbridge, northeast London, staff and parents also organised during the summer to keep their school under LA control after it was put in ‘special measures’ by Ofsted and threatened with forced academisation. Yet Snaresbrook Primary last week won its battle against the Department for Education (DfE) and will remain a LA maintained school.

What explains this contrast in fortunes? How did a Tory-controlled Redbridge manage to fend off the DfE, while a Labour-run Brent sat on its hands watching the unwanted academisation of Gladstone Park Primary? The answer essentially lies in political will.

The Save Snaresbrook campaign had cross-party support from Redbridge Councillors, Council officers and their local MP John Cryer who actively sought to keep the school under LA control. Redbridge Council immediately and unanimously passed a motion opposing the academisation of Snaresbrook Primary and forcefully made their case to the DfE HERE. The Council also backed change in the school’s senior leadership - a new Executive Head and Associate Head were appointed and they immediately got on with the task of improving the school under the LA umbrella.

 When I joined a parent delegation to meet our local MP Sarah Teather in February, she told us fighting academisation was futile and the best we could hope for was to try and find a sponsor that met our school’s ethos. Soon after, a
Gladstone Park Parent Action Group was formed and we campaigned vigorously for our elected officials and senior Council officers to fight to keep our school under LA control. The spectrum of responses to our efforts stretched from apathy to hopelessness. Senior Council officers reiterated that there was no alternative to academisation (and that it ‘wasn’t so bad’, anyhow); Willesden Green Councillors remained silent on the issue, while Cllr Butt was asked to instruct his senior officers, including the Council’s Chief Executive, to oppose the academisation of our school. He sent a letter to Sarah Teather instead. To his credit, Dudden Hill Cllr Hirani did correspond with the DfE, but without wider Council backing such lonely voices inadvertedly detracted from our campaign.

It is this frustrating experience of indifference toward, lackluster opposition to and in some cases, complicity with the privatisation of Gladstone Park Primary School that has in large measure led me to stand as an independent, grassroots candidate for Willesden Green in the forthcoming Council elections. On this, as in other key issues affecting the ward, our elected officials have lacked the political backbone to stand up for their proclaimed principles, hiding instead behind the faceless authority of senior Council bureaucrats. Local residents deserve better than this. It now falls upon us to stand up for our own neighbourhood, to defend the public assets we all rely upon and thereby make Willesden Green more democratic.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Lift Off for Make Willesden Green

It was great to see so many familiar faces from local campaigns, and some new ones too, at the launch of Make Willesden Green last Wednesday. The aim of the meeting was to present this new electoral platform, collect ideas about where to focus our energies, and gather support for the campaign. I think it’s fair to say we’re now airborne.

I opened with a few introductory remarks about why I’m standing for the Council elections under the banner of Make Willesden Green – how this initiative emerges from neighbourhood campaigns around housing, education, public spaces and local democracy, and in response to the the lack of  proper representation from the mainstream parties.

Campaigners from Save the Queensbury, the Gladstone Park Parent Action Group and Keep Willesden Green spoke passionately about, among other things, the dangers of  developers turning our neighbourhood into a dormitory town; Brent Council’s dereliction of duty in standing up against the academisation of our schools; and the increasing disparities between Wembley and the south of the Borough.

People asked about my views on the Coalition’s cuts and the Immigration Bill currently going through Parliament, as well as my position on children with special educational needs in mainstream education (The clip below captures my response to these questions). A very important point was also raised about whether Make Willesden Green is a residents’ association or a political party.  I suppose the answer is neither and both: we’re an electoral platform seeking to give political weight to community campaigns.

Responses to our questionnaire on campaigning priorities highlighted the need for more community and open spaces, housing, education, High Street improvements and support for local business, as well as ‘tackling developers’. All these chime with the core aims of Make Willesden Green.

Wednesday marked the beginning of what will be a long and challenging effort to make Willesden Green’s campaigning voices heard at the local elections. We now have a critical mass of supporters and will be taking our message about affordable housing, state-funded schools, public spaces and amenities, and a more democratic local politics across the whole of our ward and beyond.

We’ll be  setting up a stall next to the Willesden Green Post Office on Saturday 9 November from 10.30am, to raise the profile of our campaign and to hear residents’ views on your aspirations for our neighbourhood. Please do come along to Make Willesden Green – you can stay in touch with the campaign by signing up to our email list above.

Monday, 14 October 2013

How to Make Willesden Green – A Personal Invitation

Make Willesden Green is an independent, grassroots campaign for next year’s Brent Council elections. It is independent because it is not affiliated to any political party, and it is grassroots because its support stems from local residents who have been active in various local campaigns to save our schools, our libraries, our A&E departments and our community pub.

 The ‘Make’ in Willesden Green is all about emphasising the participation of ordinary residents in the public life of our neighbourhood. There is plenty of community activity in Willesden Green – some of it political; other less so. But it tends to be ignored by Brent Council and by our elected officers.

Make Willesden Green was set up over the summer by residents who feel unrepresented by local Councillors and mainstream parties, and who want to redress this imbalance. Our  aim is to make connections between local campaigns like Save the Queensbury, Save Gladstone Park School or Keep Willesden Green, and give them an electoral voice at the Council elections next year. This electoral platform emerges directly from the energies and ideas expressed around these campaigns, but it does not claim their exclusive representation. Instead, Make Willesden Green seeks to continue highlighting the democratic deficit in our Borough by  putting issues of  democracy, equality, sustainability, the defence of public realm and public services at the centre of the electoral campaign.

If you agree with most or even all of these aims, I would very much welcome your participation at the launch of Make Willesden Green on Wednesday 23 October 2013 from 6-7pm at the Queensbury Deli, 68 Walm Lane, NW2 4RA (the tube station end of the High Road). You will hear brief statements from local campaigners explaining why they think we need Make Willesden Green, and you will also get a chance to tell me, the candidate, what you feel our campaigning priorities should be.

We need to Make Willesden Green together.  It will only work if it is powered through the participation of local residents in whatever form you can offer: by publicly endorsing the platform, by helping to canvass neighbours, by offering to research policy ideas, by contributing funds, or simply by spreading the word.

I look forward to seeing you on Wednesday 23rd.


Saturday, 28 September 2013

Hollowing-Out Democracy in Willesden Green

Demolition of Willesden Green Library & Bookshop (Thanks to Willesden Herald)

I've lived in Willesden Green for over a decade and, in the inevitable ups and downs of  any neighbourhood's public life, the last two years have marked a new low. This is partly due to the Coalition Government's callous and vindictive cuts to local authority budgets. But the asset-stripping of our community was planned before austerity set in, and it's been orchestrated by the Labour-controlled Local Authority, with the support of our ward's Lib-Dem councillors.

The gutted shell of the Victorian Library building, and the heap of  rubble that once was our Library centre are perfect symbols of  how local democracy has been hollowed out in Willesden Green. Thousands of local residents raised objections to the Library redevelopment and over 80 per cent of those consulted opposed the plans. Despite this, the Council steamrolled ahead with the project, while our ward councillors cheered them on. We have now lost  valuable open space, a cinema and a bookshop while the Council has gained new offices and sold public land to developers who are due to cash on the sale of 92 luxury flats marketed to wealthy speculators. Similar plans are underway for Electric House and the Queensbury pub on Walm Lane. Only a privileged minority will  benefit from these developments. The prospect of yet more absentee landlords will do little to revitalise our High Street or democratise our local housing  market.

But it's not just the lack of transparency and accountability in these property deals that is undemocratic. Democracy is also, fundamentally, about equalising people's life chances, and education is clearly central to this aspiration. Gladstone Park Primary - a highly-valued local authority school that has for decades been successfully educating our rich mix of children  - was targeted for forced academisation in January. Instead of defending this precious local asset, Council officers have been complicit in the privatisation of the school, leaving  parents and governors to their own devices as we fight to keep our school under public and democratic control.

 By demolishing our libraries, producing new gated communities with no affordable homes, facilitating the privatisation of our schools; in threatening to close a community pub like the Queensbury and evicting the only independent bookshop in our area, the Labour Council is drastically narrowing access to public spaces, services and amenities. It is effectively shrinking ordinary people's quality of life across our neighbourhood, and that is deeply undemocratic.

As local residents, we can respond to this predicament in at least two ways. We can elect  new councillors who will radically address the democratic deficit in our borough and beyond. The Greens are the only local party to have consistently supported grassroots campaigns for democracy in our neighbourhood. We can also make Willesden Green more democratic ourselves, by continuing to mobilise as citizens for social rights, political accountability and public goods in our vicinity. There is still a silver lining in the dust cloud hanging over Willesden Green: the sense of community and public-spiritedness that has emerged in recent local campaigns. I very much hope we'll keep that collective spirit alive and make it fight for our neighbourhood in the coming months.