Tag Archives: Sir Robin Wales

Last chance saloon

27 Mar

!04 studios in this converted office building

Last week Sir Robin’s cabinet approved a loan to Red Ventures, the council-owned property company, of £28.9 million to buy a property in north London.

The property in question is Zenith House (pictured above), a refurbished office building in Seven Sisters. Planning rules for converted commercial properties are much looser than for purpose-built residential buildings and the developer has crammed in 95 studios and 9 flats.

The website advertising this development says the studios “range from 319 to 388 square feet.” Which sounds quite a lot until you translate it into square metres – it’s just 29.6 m2 to 36 m2.

The UK government’s ‘Technical housing standards – nationally described space standard’ sets the minimum gross internal floor area and storage for a one-person dwelling as 37 square metres.

So even the biggest studio in Zenith House is smaller than the minimum. But the standard doesn’t apply because this is a refurbished commercial building.

It is fair to say that if this scheme was it was in Newham and required planning permission, it would never be given.

Despite the high number of units and some fairly optimistic assumptions about occupancy, the return to the council over ten years is paltry.

By the end of year 10  LBN will receive a net income of £113,000.

Overview and Scrutiny has called the decision in and will meet tomorrow to discuss it. Sir Robin has scheduled an emergency cabinet meeting for Thursday at 10 a.m. to receive O&S’s verdict and, if necessary, overturn it.

But why the rush?

The government is changing the rules on ‘prudential’ council borrowing to prevent them taking out loans to fund purely commercial acquisitions and from ‘investing’ outside the borough. These new rules come into effect on 1 April. If Sir Robin doesn’t get this through by close of business on Thursday the deal will fall through.

Let’s hope it does. Why is so much being staked for such a low return, in a scheme that doesn’t provide a single new home in Newham? Sir Robin has only a few weeks left in power. Councillors should not let him bind his successor’s hands by tying up cash in imprudent and sketchy ‘investments’.

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Generous to the last

20 Mar

Oddly shaped balls

Picture via @NewhamLabourWTF

A few months ago a set of new signs appeared in West Ham, directing people towards the Memorial Recreation Ground, home of the East London Rugby Club.

This wasn’t the first time the rugby club had benefitted from the generosity of the council. In 2015/16 in the guise of ‘Memorial Rugby’ it received £560,000 from the community infrastructure levy – the largest such payment to any organisation that year.

And it won’t be the last time either.

A recommendation is going to cabinet on Thursday to award a further £662,000 to the Memorial Recreation Ground to fund the installation of a second synthetic pitch “to replace the existing turf main rugby pitch.”

The Memorial Ground is run by a charity, East London Community Sports Association (ELCSA). Their accounts and a list of trustees can be found on the Charity Commission website.

The report to cabinet notes the extensive use of ruby facilities at the Memorial Recreation Ground, which 

… is home to East London Rugby Club which runs three adult teams with an estimated pool of 60 players. East London Ladies Rugby Club is also based at the site, running 2 teams with an estimated pool of 35 players. King’s Cross Steelers, London’s largest gay rugby club, also play from the site, running 4 teams with an estimated pool of 75 players.

Impressive, but…

Football drives the most significant level of participation at the site. An estimate of 2635 participants is reported to the Football Foundation as part of their annual monitoring and evaluation requirements.

There are a couple of FOI requests in progress (here and here) trying to get to the bottom of the Council’s generosity towards ELRC over the last four years which seems, on the face of things, to be out of all proportion to its significance.

Council COO Nick Bracken is a trustee of ELCSA and is also President of the rugby club. Simon Letchford, Director of Commissioning (Community and Environment), is also an ELCSA trustee. Newham CEO Kim Bromley-Derry is a member of ELRC. And soon-to-be-ex-Mayor Sir Robin Wales is a past rugby club president.

All of these are duly noted in the report to Cabinet. We are assured that none of the officers has been involved in decision-making about the proposal because

ELCSA… has a long lease on land adjacent to Memorial Park and could benefit from the provision of the funding.

What will annoy non-rugby playing residents of Forest Gate and Stratford is that this S106 and CIL money could have been used on the rebuilding of the Atherton Leisure centre. Costs and specifications on the Atherton were cut to meet a very tight re-build budget (in contrast to the East Ham campus project, which took place at the same time) when we could have had a much better Leisure Centre!

Party of one

13 Mar

Lakmini Shah's international women's day tweet with photo

Last Friday Newham council held what was billed as an event to celebrate International Women’s Day 2018. As the above picture shows, it wasn’t really women being celebrated.

The party was organised by Cllr Lakmini Shah.

For reasons that have not yet been properly explained, women councillors associated with Rokhsana Fiaz’s campaign were not sent invitations to the event until the very last moment – barely 24 hours beforehand.

That’s women councillors not being invited to a council-funded event celebrating women. But the very-definitely-not-a-woman Sir Robin was put front and centre (where else?).

I wonder what criteria Cllr Shah used to draw up the guest list? Sir Robin wouldn’t want to waste his valuable time during a tight re-selection battle chatting privately to just anybody.

Vile and insulting

8 Mar

Image 2

Remember how Andrea Leadsom torpedoed her own bid for the Tory leadership when she said being a mother gave her “a very real stake in the future of our country,” in contrast to the childless Theresa May? Even Tory MPs described the remarks as “vile” and “insulting.”

Well evidently Cllr Lakmini Shah doesn’t.

In a call with a local Labour member, a recording of which I have heard, she says Rokhsana Fiaz doesn’t understand how important free school meals are because “she’s not married, she hasn’t got children, so she don’t know how hard it is for parents.”

Member: “Cllr Shah?”

Lakmini Shah: “Yes, it is.”

M: “Hi, yeah, I just spoke to you. Basically, I’m with my wife right now. And she’s saying, telling me to vote for Rokhsana, but I told her that, look, you know, they are going to scrap the free school meals. We’ve got two kids in school in, like, infants and one in nursery, so…”

LS: “Yeah”

M; “…but can you explain to her – I’ve put you on loudspeaker – can you just say what you said earlier…”

LS: “Okay”

M: “…about the free school meals?”

LS: “Okay. So Robin has had free school meals for children [pause] and that cost £3 million a year to the council. So Rokhsana says parents should be… because she don’t have children, she’s not married, she hasn’t got children so she don’t know how hard it is for parents. I’ve got three children and I know how hard it is to pay for school meals.

“So they, um, going to stop this free school meals to save this 3 million. I’m not sure if it’s 3 million or 6 million a year, I have to find that number out.”

This is absolutely outrageous.

Lakmini Shah isn’t just some random member canvassing votes for Sir Robin, she’s Cabinet Member for Work & Skills and Domestic Violence Prevention.

Sir Robin needs to take ownership of this and offer Rokhsana Fiaz a full and unreserved apology for what is being said by his campaign.

And Cllr Shah should resign as candidate for East Ham South. If she doesn’t, members should take the decision for her.

The vision thing

7 Mar

Sir Robin has a vision

Sir Robin’s vision for Newham in 1997 (my emphasis added):

There are too many people, those currently living in Newham and those attracted from other London boroughs, who survive on low incomes or who present themselves as homeless. Whilst we will offer support and carry out our legislative duties, our aim will be to increase Newham’s property values and raise the income profile of all our residents.

What we must take action to avoid is a continued flow of people from other boroughs requiring sustained support.

Which helps to explain why, 20 years down the road:

  • The Carpenters Estate remains empty, despite offering hundreds of good quality, low cost homes
  • There’s been an explosion in high-rise ‘luxury’ apartment developments, particularly in Stratford
  • Developers are rarely, if ever, held to the requirement for 35-50% affordable housing set out in the local plan
  • The homeless are routinely harassed in Stratford
  • Poor and vulnerable families are encouraged to take up housing far away from London
  • The many private landlords sat on the Labour benches in council are Sir Robin’s most loyal supporters

Now that he’s being challenged for the party’s nomination Sir Robin is promising to build record levels of ‘council-owned housing.’ But he doesn’t mean council houses, or even affordable homes – he means housing built by Red Door Ventures, the private rented property company owned by the council which charges full market rents for its properties. And which is currently buying up blocks of flats on the other side of London.

RDV is funded by loans from the council; money which is borrowed from the Treasury or banking sector and then re-lent. If the housing bubble bursts and RDV goes bust, guess who’s left with the bill? (Clue: the same people who will ultimately pick up the tab for the Olympic Stadium ‘investment’)

Under Sir Robin’s watch the proportion of people living in private rented accommodation in Newham has rocketed. A report in the Guardian last year said

The regeneration of the borough – or as others would call it, the social cleansing – has increased the number of privately rented housing to 40% of the housing stock, the highest proportion of all London boroughs. The effect of the drop in home ownership means that residents become transient and many social housing tenants are pushed out

The landlord registration scheme may keep the worst offenders out of the market, but there’s still plenty of opportunity for the greedy and unscrupulous. Which shouldn’t be a surprise: Sir Robin had a vision.

It’s time now for a fresh view.

Academy antics

7 Mar

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Councillors are so opposed to academies they are paying millions of pounds for this one to expand

Last Monday Newham council passed a motion, proposed by Cllrs Mas and Salim Patel, declaring itself opposed to local schools converting into academies.

Given that half of all Newham schools are already academies and that by April 75% of local primaries will be in ‘multi-academy trusts’, this is all a bit late. Where have these newly radicalised anti-academy councillors been for the past few years?

It also raises an interesting question about the mayor’s apparent preference for expanding academies at the expense of local authority maintained schools.

Back in April last year, Sir Robin and his cabinet approved a plan to expand Brampton Manor Academy and Forest Gate Community School by a total of six forms of entry. Under the plan Brampton would take in an extra 120 pupils a year (on top of the 300 who already join year 7 each September) and FGCS would take an extra 60.

Despite the two schools being academies and therefore directly funded by the Department for Education, Newham council will be footing the bill for the extra classrooms required. And what a bill – the expansion was costed at over £29 million. That’s around £1 million per additional classroom.

Cabinet April 17

Headteachers in other local schools were, understandably, very concerned. They argued that there was no solid evidence that these extra places will be needed. Creating permanent additional capacity at these two academies will likely mean fewer pupils enrolling at other local schools, reducing their income and, potentially, threatening their long-term viability.

To add insult to injury, funding of a previously agreed special educational needs development in Stratford was cut by £7 million to pay part of the cost.

And now it appears the academy expansion bill is getting bigger. On 22 February – less than a week before full council passed its motion – Sir Robin’s cabinet approved a new capital budget that allocated £34.75 million for the extra classrooms at Brampton Manor and Forest Gate schools – an increase of almost £5 million (17%) in less than a year.

Cabinet 220218

None of this was mentioned in the anti-academies motion, or in the debate. Did the councillors Patel not know, or were they sparing Sir Robin’s blushes?

Oops!

2 Mar

I’ve written before bemoaning the shoddy state of record-keeping and a generally lax attitude to quality assurance at Newham council.

But a paper going to cabinet next week just about takes the biscuit.

This report seeks approval to the correction of the Minutes of the Cabinet Meeting on 20 February 2014

Yes, you read that right. They need to correct a four year-old set of minutes.

Why? Because the minutes of that meeting omitted to record a key decision in relation to setting up Red Door Ventures, the council-owned private rented development vehicle. That decision was to

Agree that the company be provided with funding through state aid compliant loans and grant facilities

So the council has been lending money – A LOT OF MONEY – over the past four years to Red Door Ventures without any properly recorded authority to do so.

Cabinet will undoubtedly agree to

correct the minutes of the Cabinet meeting held on the 20th February 2014 and ratify decisions made under the purported delegated authority, made in good faith, pursuant to the omitted recommendation.

But this is, to say the least, an embarrassing oversight.

On its face, this is an administrative cock up rather than Sir Robin over-reaching his legal authority (in contrast to the Collegiate 6th Form, where he did something he had absolutely no power to do). It is reminiscent of the unapproved £10 million overspend on the East Ham Town Hall campus project. That was also blamed on unnamed officers. The politicians, who should ultimately be accountable, just shrugged it off.

It all reflects extremely poorly on someone who is seeking a fifth term of office, claiming to the candidate of experience and competence.