Author Archives: cllrtommiller

Gritting update – Feb 18

Wow, two posts in one day – what a treat!

Brent Council has issued some update material and guidance on gritting for the snow coming in. You can find it here.


Fighting austerity – speech to Budget Full Council

In the last seven years like so many others I’ve raised my voice to speak out against government cuts to councils. I’ve slogged my way through weather like today in marches and demonstrations, I have joined pickets, and delivered thousands of leaflets. I’ve met residents who are affected in appalling ways by cuts to disability benefits, or the national failure to build council housing, and I’ve previously spoken up for vulnerable victims of these cuts as a charity worker. The government has stopped talking about austerity but there seems to be no end in sight.

How we fight locally is important. As part of my cabinet role I am in regular conversation with police officers and victims of crime. There is widespread frustration with Police understaffing and a nationwide rise in knife crime. People feel like when they speak to police they aren’t getting good customer care. Boroughs are being forced to merge to save money. And none of this is the fault of Police. This is one of many examples of government failure to foot the bill, resulting in a loss of some 80 frontline police posts in Brent alone, thousands of hours of police time. There’s no reason our residents should put up with it.

As a Labour council we believe that these cuts must be fought politically. But we also believe in mitigating the bad hand we are dealt by raising our income and thinking differently. This is why when the government makes cuts to the police budget, we invest in officers to target the local priorities of our residents in particular. We have targeted our work with trading standards and enforcement to close down hubs of lawlessness like some of our worst shisha cafes, and to make sure that effort goes into stopping the door to door scammers and rogue traders who target our elderly and vulnerable people.

Imagine how it would feel to be one of the victims of this type of crime, losing hundreds of pounds of pension money, when the only reason nobody will help you was the false and artificial need for local government to carry the can for austerity.

Cllr John Warren’s whacky council budgets over the years total up to a £20 Million hole in our finances. But today he shows up an offers us an alternative proposal based on last year alone, effectively accepting forced savings from seven years of Labour budgets which he has told us each time were in fact unnecessary. Likewise, he disowns the advice of his own government that we raise council tax to pay for the social care crisis they pretend this money can cover.

We comply with Westminster’s laws and budgets, our only choice. We generate more of our own income. We make the biggest positive difference for working class people that we can, in the most financially prudent way. But we will not carry the can.

The Tory case for austerity has always been built on lies and misrepresentations – the idea that the economy was on the brink of total collapse because of spending, that we can’t grow the economy back to health, that public investment is the problem rather than part of the solution. The myths created have been very resilient and take advantage of some of our deepest emotions – fear and helplessness. Public acceptance of these ideas has allowed the government to force enormous cuts onto local people and our services – 177 million pounds to Brent.

But the truth is that there are real problems with the economy. After seven years of cuts, markets are becoming tighter and players folding as the margin for growth disappears, from Carillion to Tory Northamptonshire.

In wider society economic power is concentrated in the hands of a small controlling elite, leaving workers unable to bargain their wages, and productivity lagging as technical investment is held off and quality of life declines. Wealth has transferred from poor to the rich at a record rate, which of course is the main point of the plan. Green incentives were deliberately sabotaged and then dropped off the government’s agenda in the path of Brexit.

Cutting councils is a way of starting fights locally to distract citizens from the task we share: we need to re-route our economy towards greater strength and greater accountability. But we don’t need fear and helplessness. Through democracy we can and will build strength.

The first part of any solution to these is very simple – Labour in power. I look forward to greeting some Labour colleagues from Brondesbury Park this May.

How should Labour approach regeneration?

As a Cllr in Brent I’m not going to lay into the Cllrs on either side of the Haringey dispute despite the fact that there’s so much to say. I’ll leave that to their local party. Likewise, this is not a post about Brent, but local government generally.

What I will say is this: whether or not Labour’s local regeneration policies will now be set nationally – something I don’t think should ever become normal – we do need a settled view of what ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ regeneration looks like, how we test that locally, and what steps should be followed by councils as best practice for regenerating communities.

We need to renew our vision

We could sure as hell use come conciliatory local group leaderships who will listen to Council members and local parties to provide oversight, drive compromises, and make sure support can be brought on side. That said, it would be pointless doing that if local Councillors and Party members are not ready to apply themselves to practical limitations in regen and housing. Local Labour Parties really need a two way deal.

There are definitely Labour councils who (in my opinion) do regeneration badly. But because we have not provided positive ideas about alternatives, we now appear to be creating a limbo. Instead of auditing and improving policy at the level of the national Party and LGA group, we are letting political crises build locally and then taking remedial action. This needs to be the other way round.

Partly as a result of this some large scale regen developments blatantly gentrify, pushing out low income residents, and do so without sufficient compensation to them or to the host community. Disappointingly, Labour Councillors have often failed to show solidarity to these communities. This is shocking and politically suicidal locally given that my colleagues rely on working class votes. For me the first principle for Labour taking on developments should be to not socially cleanse the areas. But an equal truth is that we as a party should never have allowed such instances to happen in the first place and should have set a clear shared Socialist vision in opposition to such schemes.

But that’s only one side, isn’t it. We also need to reject the idea that all regeneration projects are bad or unsupported, especially by working class residents and social renters. That’s not true for most examples we come across, as community consultation responses in many areas will indicate. Our people want good quality housing and more of it. Consultations are often maligned as a hoop to jump, but in this case they are a good indicator, if not the best. We shouldn’t blanket oppose regeneration when many examples are actually well supported locally.

Surprisingly, a significant number of left activists are nevertheless blanket opposed to regeneration, or close enough, perhaps because we are more used to spending our lives trying to stop stuff rather than making it happen. In part, it’s also the common mistake of substituting loud or organised opinion for views which are representative, a phenomenon not restricted to Lib Dem leaflet writers. In reality, existing residents often favour regeneration plans, as long as it treats them well and meets their concerns.

This said Councillors representing existing residents is merely adequate, rather than good.

Labour should be about working people as a whole – in that spirit it should be noted that its not just people who already live on site that local Councillors have a moral duty to consider. We need to think about people on housing lists, and that means building social, but also affordable places that can be used to free up social capacity. Our people, especially our younger voter base, want higher quality housing, and lots more of it.

The challenges

If a guiding position on regen is set nationally, Labour does need to bear in mind that we have a housing crisis, with local and national targets to meet for building, even though we aren’t in government.

Cities are already very low on virgin public sector owned land and intensification is the only answer we have apart from sending people away. This is perhaps the key reason why blanket opposition to regen might work for activists but can’t work for people responsible to the whole public locally.

In meeting those needs, regen schemes will create great difficulty for some people who don’t want to move or experience the massive inconvenience of rebuilds. I am not sure how local policy is supposed to deal with this, especially again if we are talking about meeting housing targets in dense areas. If our only answer is to tell people to put up with it, we have a gap there too.

Given all of these points I have had a rethink about the proposed principle of local referenda on regeneration projects, particularly as we tend to get quite positive reposes from wider feedback where I am, though certainly not without opposition. I was previously sceptical about these simply turning into middle class NIMBY campaigns which would stop us housing people in need. On reflection, I think it would do the opposite and provide a mandate to most proposals.

But actually, if we built on this suggestion to reflect the full range of interests, and also had a voting pool based around people on the housing list and gave full knowledge of affordable provision, if anything it could help us pressure developers to give us more.

Can we really say that giving a voice to people with housing but not those without it is the right thing to do?

The biggest risk of the referendum proposal is that people in building which have become totally substandard might just become too emotionally attached to them for things to move move on. We’d need to be able to go around them for accommodation which is physically crumbling, impossible to maintain, or environmentally offensive.

As I said, I think by far most ballots would be won, in Labour areas anyway. But the most obvious problem is that it can only restrict building levels compared to projections. Labour should only press its referendum policy once we’ve changed the law to get councils building council houses again.

Big questions

  • In the hypothetical situation that Labour blanket opposed regen schemes, how should it answer people in crumbling accommodation or without housing?
  • How should Councillors deal with local or mayoral housing targets, especially those set by Labour politicians with a public mandate for them, like Sadiq Khan?
  • Given that councils don’t have in-house architects, development teams, building firms etc., what role do socialists feel private developers should play in meeting the housing targets?
  • If the Labour left is against any land sales in principle, how should councils fund their housing targets with half their 2010 budgets?

The questions above can very easily to lead to completely impractical conclusions if we are to renew housing stock and fight the housing crisis, if I am honest. If the answer to each was never to engage, our answer to demand for housing or housing improvement would absolutely suck.

It becomes clear that most relevant question for socialists to address is whether to treat housing and regen as a practical problem as well as a political one. So:

  • Is it actually the fact that some of the trends above are things we can take into account and deal with if core objectives (such as keeping current residents at the same rent via 1:1 replacement) are achieved?
  • What are our core objectives anyway? How do we make sure that Labour Councils follow ‘good’ or ‘sustainable’ regeneration, meaning minimal disruption to local communities, enough building to meet the crisis, high rates of social and affordable, high quality shared space and amenities, environmental sustainability?
  • How do we balance those? Is it even possible?
  • How do we make sure that regen processes are transparent and accountable?

Stepping back: understanding the debate itself:

  • If you think this area has worthy simple answers, you are wrong. Politically and practically. We can not afford to hide from complexity.
  • Local government in 2017 involves all sorts of competing priorities for socialists, and a lot of external limits and standards. In this case these include the housing crisis, decaying social stock, land scarcity, build targets usually set by our own politicians, finance shortfalls, social and affordability rates, lack of decent community space, viability issues, place making and community safety. It’s complex and it demands trade offs.
  • There are very few party-based experts on regen and house building as wider public policy, though I’d advise people to read Red Brick. It’s better than Facebook.
  • It would be helpful for the left to have some principles expressing what type of regeneration and house building it is in favour of – what is good regen?
  • It would be helpful for Labour to clarify the role of the NEC and other parts of the Party against group decisions (especially if it intends to challenge policies from local manifestos).

Speech on the launch of Brent Faith Covenant

It is a momentous time. This year we mark the anniversary of the October revolution, which sparked on of the greatest repressions of religion and faith in history. But let us remember the inspiration for this comes from a profound misunderstanding or religion’s role within society and the words of Comrade Marx. He is famous for invoking religion as the opiate of the people, but to take this in isolation means the opposite of the point made. Religion offers us an escape route from the relentless ethos of consumerism and profit, the hard edge of soulless types of logic at the expense of spiritual and material wellbeing. This has been a frequent theme of Pope Francis, but it is present in the logic of the reformation, in the epics of Hinduism, in the Exodus story of Judaism and in the logic of the protestant reformation as it brought religion closer to the people it was always there to serve.

It is a means of community resistance in the face of the things which divide men and women from our brothers and sisters. The famous line about being the opiate is preceded by the words “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” In this sense, faith is a respite and a guiding point; even as a secular humanist myself, it is very plain it is important for us as humans to have something to live for and something to live by.

This time is also momentous because of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. The EU is intricately bound up with the ECHR, and has therefore stood as a barrier between religion and the state in a way which is positive for faith.

Article 9 ECHR – Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

We might be losing our relationship with the EU, but this ethos is one which we will preserve in Brent at all costs. All people have a right to their faith and we will protect that.

And the final part of what we celebrate today is not the rights that accompany faith, but its obligations. The golden rule that we treat others as we would wish to be treated is the foundation of the ethics, laws and spirit of faith – the beating heart of faith itself. Regardless of our own relationships with god or morality, we find ourselves bound to it, and compelled by the spirit of these ideas to carry out good works – something also represented in the Jewish term tikkun olam – the idea that we must act to heal the world. It compels us to work together and to respect each other.

I often look to the Christian socialist concept of the brotherhood of man – a notion from faith which expands beyond any individual creed. Locally in Brent and in the world more widely, we look to people of faith to provide leadership in creating a world which is just, sustainable, and better for the soul. We look to you to help us build a place where relations between faiths and ethnicities are tolerant and rich. The people of Brent expect this from leaders of faith, and in the spirit of the faith covenant, together we must make the shared commitment that they will not be let down. Thank you all for coming.

A wildflower meadow

Helping Brent become cleaner and greener

In my role as the cabinet lead in Brent for stronger communities, I find myself covering areas like crime and safety, arts and heritage and community cohesion. These are all pretty fertile areas for someone on the left to throw around ideas and implement their vision, along with that of the Labour Party. One minor frustration though is that in roles like this you can never really reach a full expression of what your politics is about.

I’m a convinced environmentalist. I believe that global warming is the major threat our entire species faces. Further, when you consider the impact of global warming on food and habitation, some of the issues of migration and war we have seen for recent years will impact heavily on people in temperate climates. In my opinion, it’s not good being a social democrat or a socialist if you are not also ecologist in your thinking – a rose must grow green if it is to flower red.

But the environment is not all about big stuff. For that reason, developments like the coming together of local pressure group Clean Air for Brent are entirely welcome – around 1300 people per year are dying prematurely in London due to breathing pollution. Our environment matters because of the impact it has on our surroundings and our every day lives. So I thought I would divert slightly to talk a little about what we are doing on the Council to increase biodiversity and promote cleaner air, via the work of the Labour Party and my colleague, Cllr Southwood. Continue reading