The Council election – a fascinating and humbling experience

You can see the full election result at http://www.wandsworth.gov.uk/info/200327/election_results/2327/2018_borough_council_election_results_-_3_may/20 but in a nutshell West Hill Ward elected two Labour Councillors, Angela Ireland and Peter Carpenter, and me. By giving me 4,002 votes (out of a total 6,000 cast in the Ward), by some way the highest total of any candidate on the night (actually I understand the largest vote in the history of Wandsworth Borough Council except for 2010 when there was a high turnout because of the General Election on the same day), I believe we delivered powerful message to both of the political parties – that we do expect more of our representatives than three and a half years of silence and a (frankly rather ‘project fear’) blitz campaign. Every year I will be asking for an official statement about the numbers of questions all 60 councillors have asked on behalf of their residents as it was a bit of an eye-opener when my former Independent colleague James Cousins asked that question this year. It will also give you the information to hold me and other new councillors to account. The Council is now made up of 33 Conservatives, 26 Labour and me.

The other thing that I really liked was the fact that our turnout was greater than 50% (51.2%) which I think was the highest in the Borough. Sadly these days in local elections it is extremely rare for more than half of those eligible to vote actually to do so – I hope others will notice that when residents and councillors work together on issues people will come out to vote and engage in our democratic process.

THE NEW COUNCILLORS

I would like to congratulate Angela and Peter for their election to the Ward. I have known both of them for some time. Angela has been a very effective chair of the Edgecombe Hall Residents’ Association and we have worked together on a number of issues, not least recently on the proposed imposition of sprinklers in all rooms of 10+ storey council blocks. Peter has represented Roehampton and Putney Heath Ward for eight years and is an intelligent man with a particular interest in council finances. I am looking forward to working with them both. A special word for Nobuco Hara – it is always difficult to be the one who misses out in these circumstances and I know from the positive comments I heard after the hustings at the Gardens Tennis Club a couple of weeks ago that she was well thought of and brought a new perspective to local issues.

THE CAMPAIGN

I thought that all the candidates fought a robust and effective campaign and I am sure any of them would have made highly effective councillors. Anyone who offers themselves for public office has my respect. I have asked all the Labour and Conservative candidates (and will extend the invitation to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, though it is probably fair to say that they were not quite so high profile in the campaign) if we could sit down together and share our thoughts as to what we have learned about the Ward over recent weeks. It always seems to me a shame that the candidates in an election, as a group, pick up a huge amount of knowledge about what is going on but it is hardly ever captured and acted upon. I am delighted that Alison Rodwell, Salvatore Murtas and Robert Hughes have accepted as have the new Councillors and Nobuco.

More reflections on Grenfell

It is a sad fact that in the case of many major disasters, the attempts to put things right often exacerbates the initial tragedy rather than ameliorating it. In my view there is a serious risk that this may prove to be the case following the Grenfell Tower catastrophe, as evidence-based decision-making has taken a back seat to what appears to be something of a panic-driven political knee jerk.

This is not badly motivated – anyone who saw the fire (it was visible across the River from my Ward in Wandsworth for example) or has heard the stories of those most directly involved cannot fail to have been deeply affected.

Nonetheless, the national fire statistics are interesting. Perhaps the most important fact is that over the last 30 years the number of fire deaths in the UK has fallen by some 64% – one of the great successes in public policy.

Dig deeper and other points emerge. In 2016/17, if a fire broke out in a property it appears that one was least likely to die in a block of 10+ storeys (4 deaths per 1000 fires); most likely to die in a 4-9 storey block (8 per 1000); with 1-3 storey blocks of flats and houses/bungalows/ conversions lying in between (6 and 7 per 1000 respectively). If the last five years combined are taken it is houses and conversions that are the most ‘dangerous’ (7 per 1000) but 10+ storeys are still the safest (steady at 4 per 1000 fires). If London alone is taken the five-year figures are practically identical (not surprising since about two thirds of Britain’s 10+ storey blocks are in London).

The numbers equate to 6 fire deaths in London in 10+ storey blocks over the last 5 years. For a Borough like Wandsworth this is equivalent to about one fire death in 10+ storey blocks in any 25 year period, presuming of course that fire safety does not continue to improve as it has done in recent decades. Of course Grenfell will skew these figures enormously for the year 2017/2018 but the overview is clear enough.

After an excellent immediate response, in which Wandsworth (like many councils) told residents that only two or our blocks had ever been ‘clad’ and that in both cases there had been flat fires that had not spread throughout the buildings, within a week Wandsworth had announced plans to impose sprinklers in all flats in all 10+ storey council blocks, to take £24 million out of the Housing Revenue Account (in effect the rents of council tenants) to pay for it and to recharge leaseholders a sum expected to be of the order of £3-4k each for the programme.

This was done without any semblance of consultation with those who will be most severely affected. This has struck many residents as ironic – here we were, being told that one of the big lessons of Grenfell was that councils should listen more closely to their residents, yet Wandsworth was simply ignoring the voice of residents and taking unilateral action of its own.

As it happens, West Hill Ward has the first London County Council tower blocks, constructed on the Ackroydon Estate in the early 1950s. For 65 years these blocks have been protecting residents, often from themselves, from many flat fires and other events. The Fire Brigade and the Council, throughout that period, have rightly told residents that these concrete and brick boxes are ‘safe’.

Since 2007 it has been mandatory to fit sprinklers in all new 10+ storey blocks as they are built. This is fair enough – obviously it is much cheaper and more efficient to include a feature at the design and build stage than to try to backfit it in an existing structure. But the government, so far at least, has (rightly in my view) not made it compulsory to backfit sprinklers in older blocks.

 However, Wandsworth, like other councils, has in effect said that while residents of older multistorey blocks in the private sector are intelligent enough to take their own decisions based on the evidence, those in Council estates are not and need nanny to do it for them.

So I have heard stories of leaseholders who are just paying up to £12,500 per flat for major redecoration works (often not done very well), a huge sum especially for those who bought under right-to-buy and are still living in their old council home, and now have another £4,000 to find. Some fear they may have to move out. I hear of (and have visited) those who have just finished doing up their own property but who are now faced with someone coming in and ripping it all up to put the sprinklers in. I hear from those who are scared about what would happen if the sprinklers went off accidentally or because of a child’s prank, say, and they were left with the costs of putting things right. Others wonder if legionella might be a threat in the warm stagnant water.

These concerns are not limited to leaseholders. Several council tenants, who will not have to find the cost upfront (though of course it will be taken out of a fund that could be dealing with their dreadful damp problems, a real health threat, or many other improvements), are just as adamant in their opposiito0n to the proposals. Many would like the money spent on more pressing problems.

A head of steam is now building up among leaseholders across the Borough – politically interesting given that they have been a group who have always been regarded as natural Conservative voters but may take a different stance in next year’s Council election. There is particular anger that Wandsworth used their money to obtain legal advice supporting the recharging of the costs but has point blank allowed them to see that advice so they can challenge the key argument concerning ‘improving the security of the blocks’. The Council seems merely to default to two arguments – that council estate residents should have the same safety standards as those in the private sector (simply not true, since as noted above it is only post-2007 blocks that would have this imposed on them); and that the Fire Brigade is in favour of sprinklers in high rise. (The Fire Brigade rightly focuses purely on fire – local councillors though are not elected by the Fire Brigade but by local residents to balance the various calls on their money and to act in their best overall interests.) But to be fair, Wandsworth did not put fire engines outside its tower blocks, so driving home how ‘dangerous’ they were and exacerbating for example fears among those who live on the 9th floor of a 9-storey block wondering why they won’t get sprinklers when someone on the ground floor of a 10 storey one will.

There is an alternative. We could wait until we understand the technical analysis of the Grenfell disaster. We could see what lessons there may be, which may well be more about cladding than about the original block design. We can rectify those blocks which had unsafe features added. And then we could allow individual leaseholders to take the decision for themselves. I asked the Cabinet Member (to be fair she is very inexperienced in her role) if she would be happy with the government coming round to her house, forcibly installing sprinklers and charging several thousands of pounds for doing so – given that in a house she is more at risk than if she lived in a tower block. I received back criticism for ‘continuing to use statistics’ in my argument (the biggest crime of all in Conservative Wandsworth). And we can ask the residents of each block as a body whether they want them, so valuing the tenants’ views as well. We could also target those most at risk of fire – inevitably older people, especially those who smoke – rather than a crude uniform approach that takes no account for example of the very different types of block construction that have been used and the very different way various blocks have been treated in recent years.

The haunting images from Grenfell, of course, make us desire to make such terrible events less likely in the future. We’d be heartless to react in any other way. Many residents do want sprinklers and should be helped to get them. But in my experience those who have actually lived on our estates – the engineers, the lawyers, the estate agents and all – know far more about their everyday lives than those of us sitting in the Town Hall. Let’s use this awful tragedy as a prompt genuinely to empower residents and listen to their collective wisdom, not yet another chance for evidence-lite ‘government knows best’ thinking to dominate.

Questions to the Housing Department on fire safety

I sent these questions to the Housing Department of Wandsworth Council this morning…

It would be extremely useful to have a briefing, perhaps in the form of a Q&A, on the current situation re our housing stock: I find it very frustrating to have to tell residents who are raising concerns that I only know what I have picked up through the mainstream media, particularly but not only about Wandsworth blocks failing the fire safety tests. I have emailed the Cabinet Member but received no answers or indeed acknowledgment.

In particular I have been asked:

Which two blocks have failed the tests (I presume Castlemaine is one of them)?

The Council told residents last week: “If you live in a high rise property you are not at more risk of a fire starting, living in a flat is not more dangerous than living in a house” (i.e. if you live in a house or by implication low/medium rise you are no safer than if you live in a tower block). Why is the Council only putting sprinklers in blocks of 10 or more storeys when those living in other types of property are just as much at risk of fire – is it just to save money? (One resident specifically asked about the fire in Turin Street in Bethnal Green on Saturday – why does the Council not intend to put sprinklers in properties like that?)

In particular (this is my question, not that of a resident), what technical evidence has been used to determine that residents living on the ground floor of a 10-storey block are more in need of a sprinkler than those living on the 9th floor of a 9-storey block? (An alternative approach, if the above advice on the risks of high rise versus other properties was indeed misleading, would be to install sprinklers in all flats above say 5 storeys no matter how high the block in question.) Can this evidence be made public?

Will the cost of the sprinklers be recharged to leaseholders? (A couple of leaseholders in high rise have said that although they realise there is no meaningful fire risk they are concerned about the value of their flat. Actually they were prepared to pay if necessary – less affluent leaseholders may not be in that position – but obviously would not object if the costs of installing what one called ‘cosmetic’ sprinklers to shore up their investment were taken away from Council tenants rather than them having to foot the bill themselves. I am sure that commercial companies owning dozens or hundreds of flats for rent across the Council’s housing stock would like similar assurances of a major public subsidy to their profit margins and asset base.)

When sprinklers malfunction (say through inadvertent overheating, freezing, mechanical damage, corrosion or manufacturing defects – the equivalent of setting the smoke alarm off by burning the toast), causing water damage, will the Council be responsible for putting the damage right or will it fall on tenants and leaseholders who may or may not be able to afford contents insurance?

How much will the exercise cost? How much would it cost to provide fire extinguishers for 6,400 flats? Which other HRA (Housing Revenue Account) schemes will be cancelled to pay for it? (It has been suggested to me that the HRA will just ‘borrow’ the money so no other schemes will be affected. However, I and I am sure many residents are sceptical that in effect there is a ‘magic money tree’ – indeed the Prime Minister herself has made this very point. It seems unlikely that the Council or the HRA can run up debt without placing an eventual burden on the next generation who will have to pay it back or service it, inevitably at the expense of services and/or investment projects. Of course if the sprinklers really can be installed without affecting any other schemes now or in the future then why stop at 10 storeys?)

What account was taken of the very different construction methods used in different high rise blocks across the Borough, with very different approaches to fire safety and therefore presumably very different potential risks? (Again, my question, not a resident’s.)

What consultation was done with residents, notably tenants, to make sure that they agreed that this was the best use of their rent money accrued in the HRA, given the Council’s previous assurances on safety?

Does the Council have legal powers to force tenants out of their homes unilaterally, without their consent or any consultation, as seems to be happening in Camden? Would there be any circumstances in which the Council would exercise any such powers? (One elderly resident has expressed fear that she is going to be removed from her flat and made to sleep in a B&B or on a mattress – she is also worried about what would happen to her dogs.)

There is something of an impression developing that the Council has succumbed to a badly thought out knee-jerk response. The announcement has obviously and inevitably created (in my view unnecessary) fears among residents in blocks below 10 storeys in my Ward who have been told by the Council that they are in just as much risk of fire as the higher blocks but are not going to get the sprinklers. I am sure this impression is exaggerated but answers to the above and other questions would go a long way to damping down the sense of chaos.

Grenfell House

As all of our hearts go out to the community of Grenfell House in Kensington & Chelsea (K&C) after the tragedy last week, the sense of public anger against the agencies that ‘allowed’ the accident to happen is entirely proper. Some aspects of the way the building was managed, and the response with which the events were met, need very careful scrutiny.

Nonetheless I find I have some concerns which, if they have any substance, may suggest we need to be very careful about how we interpret the tragedy and, more importantly, how we reduce the likelihood of it happening again.

West Hill Ward in Wandsworth, which I have represented since 1994, has a large number of tower blocks of 8 storeys or more (though none quite as high as Grenfell House – I think 14 floors is the largest, in Keevil Drive), some of which have suffered flat fires in recent times. The Ward has the very first social housing tower blocks in London, on the Ackroydon Estate. I also had a period chairing the Housing Committee on the Council, in which period we had the fire at Chillingford House in Tooting which could be seen from as far away as the Town Hall and which required the whole building to be evacuated for two days. The good news for residents is that on every occasion the building has done its job in isolating the fire to the flat in question or one or two neighbours.

However, there are two related issues which have not received a great deal of comment as yet. Ironically they stem from a desire to shift the power for taking decisions away from elected representatives and the mechanisms of government and towards empowering service users to take their own decisions about how those services are delivered and to what degree.

The first issue stems from one of the challenges of mixed tenure within most of our tower blocks. There are several categories of resident. There are Council tenants, placed by the Council and living in flats still owned and maintained by the Council. Then there are various groups of leaseholders. There are some of the original residents who bought their property under right-to-buy and are still living there. By the nature of things these residents are sometimes not particularly wealthy. There are owner-occupiers who have bought the lease from the original leaseholders or perhaps a subsequent owner and who live in the property themselves. And there are absentee landlords, maybe the original lessees who have moved away, maybe people who have bought the flat as an investment, maybe large property companies, who let the flat out to sub-tenants who can afford the rental values.

Let’s say that major works are being done which cost £10,000 per flat; there is an option to include a non-statutory improvement, let us say sprinklers, at an extra cost of £5,000 per flat.

For Council tenants it’s not all that much of an issue, as they would not have to find £10,000 or £15,000 up front. Their share would be taken from the central pool of housing money, the Housing Revenue Account, which consists of all the rents across the Borough plus some of the routine service charge payments from leaseholders and various grants from central government. In effect the tenants have already paid for the major works through their rents in the period since the last set of major works, typically 15 or 20 years previously. For them, therefore, the direct financial difference between a programme costing £10,000 or £15,000 per flat is extremely small.

For leaseholders it is very different. They must find the £10,000 or £15,000 directly. The Council may give them a year to pay (in instalments), they may be able to add the sum to their mortgages, but they have to find the cash quite quickly. And if the sprinklers are included they have to find an extra £5,000 pretty much straight away.

For the owner-occupiers this may be attractive – generally speaking those who can afford to buy a lease these days can also afford, and indeed would expect, to pay significant major work bills and would of course get the direct benefit of the improvement. For original leaseholders, however, the need to find an extra £5,000 may represent an enormous extra burden. As for the absentee landlords, in my experience when it comes to improvements like entrycall systems, from which by definition they will not benefit in their day-to-day lives and which rarely enhance the property value by as much as the cost incurred, they are often less than keen to support the added expenditure. Indeed, given the way many of the leases are worded leaseholders are specifically excluded from having to pay for anything which is deemed an ‘improvement’ rather than a ‘repair’.

So who should decide whether the sprinklers go in? If it is a ballot of residents then there is a significant likelihood that leaseholders will baulk at the proposals, notably in blocks where a high proportion of the flats are sublet by absentee landlords. Alternatively, should such decisions be taken away from the residents and once more imposed by the Council or its agency? And if so then who pays? If it could be shown in law that the introduction of non-statutory sprinklers constituted an ‘improvement’ then the whole cost might fall to the Housing Revenue Account – i.e. a huge transfer of wealth from Council tenants to private leaseholders (including property companies) – or it would fall at least in part on hard pressed original right-to-buy leaseholders?

The second issue concerns governance. In my Ward most of the housing estates are managed in-house by the Council. If residents have a difficulty they can raise it with me, I can raise it on their behalf and, to be fair to Council officers, I generally get effective action taken quickly by our excellent officer team. However, if proper action should not be forthcoming I can escalate the issue through the Council knowing that the buck stops with our officers.

However, I also have two estates, the Wimbledon Park and the Ackroydon East, where affairs are managed not by the Council but by a Tenant Management Organisation (TMO – in the case of Wimbledon Park it is called the Co-Op). In the mid-1990s residents were given the option of taking over some or most of their services from the Council (the Co-Op is actually rather older than that). As it happens both of the ones in my Ward are good and I am certainly not aware of residents in those two estates wanting to change things. However, although as a Ward Councillor I have good relations with both management organisations, inevitably I and Council officers do not have the same powers to challenge and correct any instances of poor service, or to take high-level decisions when those have been delegated to the TMOs. The collapse of the Alton Estate TMO in Roehampton cost the Housing Revenue Account hundreds of thousands of pounds. Checking the standard of service delivery in these effectively unaccountable organisations, including around safety, is obviously much more difficult for the local authority than when it is providing or managing the services directly.

As I understand it the residents of K&C’s housing estates voted to leave K&C Council and set up their own TMO, which was duly established in April 1996. The TMO has a management board of 15 people, of whom 8 are residents, four appointed by K&C Council and three independent. (The website currently shows 13 members, with apparent vacancies among the Council and independent members. Two of the three council-appointed members are councillors). It has largely been praised by officialdom, receiving three stars (out of a possible four) from the old Audit Commission before such external scrutiny was abolished by the Coalition government while its long-standing chair received the MBE for her services in 2012.

So the responsibility for the management of the nearly 10,000 Council properties in K&C lies not with the Council but with the TMO, with its built-in majority of residents. At present K&C Council seems to control just two of the 13 places.

The intention in setting up such organisations – free schools are another example – is a reasonable one, on the surface. It is based on the assumption that users of a service will always know better than the mere ‘professionals’ who have been trained to deliver it as to what is wanted and needed by the people concerned. People do often feel that they are not being listened to by the powers that be and this appears to be a way of breaking that cycle. However, it does mean that the elected representatives and their agencies have far less opportunity actually to intervene in practices that may be ineffective or, in the worst case, dangerous. The abolition of the Audit Commission, which cast an external eye over such matters, was a criminal act by Sir Eric Pickles and his colleagues and leaves us all in a more vulnerable position.

Grenfell House is being portrayed as a failure of officialdom, from the Central Government down through K&C Council, to take sufficient care of and concern for those in its charge. Yet the evidence suggests that maybe the opposite was the case – when locally elected, accountable representatives were in effect removed from responsibility for and powers over service provision, many of the mechanisms to protect residents were removed at the same time. The war on local government which has been waged by all parties of government for so long was bound to have casualties. We must do all we can to make sure that the difficult balance between professional expertise and service users’ desires does not swing too far in either direction.

A Little Bit of History (1)

A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY

Southfields has a fascinating history. Putney, Roehampton and Wimbledon were all once part of Earl Spencer’s Wimbledon Park Estate, consisting of undeveloped fields, woodland and park. The Spencers stared to run out of money by the 1830s so in due course a large amount of land was sold to developer John Augustus Beaumont (who has two roads named after him). Several large houses were built along Park Side, Victoria Drive and Albert Road (as it then was). Park Side became home to mansions like Tudor Lodge, Crakehall Villa, Richmond House and Argyle Lodge. Only Fairlawns (home to Queen Victoria’s dentist Edwin Saunders) and Elmley House remain today, though the names of others like Albemarle, Spencer House and Chivelston live on in later developments (as do the names of Argyle Lodge in the Argyle Estate, and Belmont House which stood where the Southlands Estate, including Belmont Mews, is now). So, while the Grid (including Gartmoor, Southdean and Kingscliffe Gardens) was well developed by the 1910s, what is now West Hill Ward was characterised by open fields and large mansion houses until after the Second World War.

For example, the present Allenswood on the Wimbledon Park Estate is not the first building with that name to occupy the site. A large house, built initially for a barrister, became the home of a famous ‘finishing school’ for young women. The Allenswood Academy had originally been founded in 1864 in Paris by Mlle Marie Souvestre (1830-1905) and then recreated on Albert Road (as it was until 1936). The young ladies were taught exclusively in French and given a good grounding in the arts. English, French, German, Italian and music were taught along with domestic science, dancing and fencing. The girls wore long skirts (usually black), white ruffled blouses, a striped school tie and boaters when outside. They made their own beds (not such a big deal today but rare in those days!), had to empty their plates at every meal and went out on to the Common every day after breakfast, whatever the weather, before returning for classes. After lunch they had to lie on the floor for an hour and a half and fix their minds on a single thought which would then be discussed at teatime. They had exercise every afternoon, then more classes. A bell rang to tell them to dress for dinner. After that, Mlle Souvestre would embrace those most favoured, kiss others and extend her hand graciously to the rest.

Many celebrated families used the school, with names like Lloyd George, Chamberlain, Strachey and Webb. However, perhaps the most famous pupil was Eleanor Roosevelt, niece of US President Theodore Roosevelt (who was to be in office from 1901 to 1909). At the age of 15 (in 1899) she started a three-year stay at the school. In due course she became First Lady to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a distant cousin), whom she married in 1905 (and who had visited her during her time at Allenswood). After FDR’s death in office in 1945 (after twelve years in post) she was to continue as an international author, speaker, politician and activist, working to enhance the status of women. She was also a keen supporter of the United Nations and became a delegate there from 1945 until 1952, chairing  the committee that drafted and approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. FDR’s successor President Harry S. Truman called her the “First Lady of the World”. Eleanor was by all accounts a model pupil and certainly one of Mlle Souvestre’s favourites but she did find some of the rules a bit odd. In particular she wasn’t impressed that students were only permitted three baths a week, none longer than ten minutes; that they had to confess upon entering the dining hall if they had uttered an English word during the day; and they were subject to the punishment of ‘bed-stripping’, having the entire contents of their dresser dumped on their bed if they misbehaved. Sadly Mlle Souvestre was to die just two weeks after the Roosevelts got married. The Academy continued under her deputy, Pauline Samia, alongside Florence Boyce, and subsequently Jeanne Dozat and then Enid Michell until it closed in the early 1950s.

There were also large houses on Albert Road called Ambleside (more or less where the current block of the same name stands) and Fernwood, which stood at the present location of Winterfold Close. Lydney and Peterstow Closes are built on land once occupied by another large house, Oaklands, hence the name of the estate. The house become home to St Gabriel’s College School of Languages. Florys Court was once the site of another house named simply Florys, while Struan was found where the Convent now stands.

ACKROYDON AND EDGECOMBE HALL

The Ackroydon Estate now covers an area from Princes Way around Windlesham Grove as far as Inner Park Road. The properties east of Victoria Drive are known as the Ackroydon East, those between Victoria Drive and IPR as the Ackroydon West.

Ackroydon, which lay more or less between where Wainford Close is today, was a grand house built in the early 20th century in the grounds of an older mansion, The Grove, which occupied land around where Admirals Court is now found. Above left is a view of the house from the Sunken Garden, which still survives as a public space behind the Ackroydon Hall on Montfort Place; below is the hall of the house (the first ‘Ackroydon Hall’!). The house was built for shipowner James Cairns, whose family came from Tyneside – his uncle, Thomas, was Liberal MP for Newcastle from 1906 to 1908 – by the short-lived architectural firm of Dunn, Watson and Curtis Green. The house was demolished after the Second World War and the Ackroydon Estate built between 1950 and 1953.

Edgecombe Hall was grander still, the house and its grounds covering an area stretching from the border of the orchards of the Royal Hospital and Home (roughly where Linstead Way and Bell Drive are today) all way down Beaumont Road to Augustus Road and also down ‘Leg of Mutton Hill’ to Sutherland Grove. The 1913 Ordnance Survey map shows no Whitlock Drive, Combemartin Road (though there was a footpath following its course), Skeena Hill or Girdwood Road. The Hall was probably built in the late 1850s for one Thomas Gabriel (1811-1891) who was Lord Mayor of London in 1866/7 and subsequently Baronet Gabriel of Edgecombe Hall in the County of Surrey – his great great great nephew is Peter Gabriel of Genesis fame (for those of you of my generation!). The Hall had large lakes where the Whitlock Drive pond is today, designed by celebrated Victorian and Edwardian landscape gardeners, James Pulham and Son.

Wandsworth once had a fine reputation for helping refugees. In June 1915 a garden party was held in the grounds of Edgecombe Hall on behalf of Belgian refugees from the First World War who had been accepted into the Borough. It was opened by HRH the Princess Henriette, Duchesse de Vendôme, sister of Belgium’s King Albert: she lived at Belmont on Wimbledon Park Side (where Chapman Square now stands). Tea was available, as were light refreshments ‘including Fruit Salads Ices, Strawberries and Cream, Lemonade, Ginger Beer, Coffee, Sandwiches &c’. Sadly, no sooner had the Duchess arrived than there was a clap of thunder and torrential rain started and continued for the rest of the afternoon. Nonetheless most of the entertainments carried on regardless. The girls from Putney County Secondary School on West Hill (now a block of flats called Mayfield) had to march over in the rain but reportedly gave a fine musical performance (luckily in the tent). One Winifred Crewe did particularly well in the sports, coming second in the 100 yards and the skipping race and first in both the egg & spoon and potato races. Edgecombe Hall’s owners, Mr and Mrs Richard Agar, opened the house up as well as the grounds and the Duchess took shelter there. The War was to be less kind to Private Leonard William Booker of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who lived with his sister Ada at the Lodge of Edgecombe Hall: he was killed in action in Flanders in August 2017.

In defeat, malice, in victory, revenge. IDS rides on.

Former Conservative Party leader Ian Duncan Smith has launched another nasty attack on ‘the Remainers’ – anyone who dared to hold a different view to him on the EU referendum (Conservative Home website, http://www.conservativehome.com/thecolumnists/2016/11/iain-duncan-smith-continuity-remain-are-fighting-a-desperate-rearguard-action-to-undermine-the-leave-vote.html).

There seem to be only two options in the mind of Mr Smith – someone either wants Brexit on whatever terms the government chooses and can get and should therefore just shut up and have no say on the matter; or someone wants to reverse the Brexit vote. There is no space for those who, in his trademark sneering terms, ‘accept’ the result but still believe in Parliament and the courts having a vital role to play in coming up with something that will value the needs of the Remain voters while delivering on the result for Leave voters. “I seemed to have conveniently forgotten that the then-Prime Minister, Tony Blair, stated unequivocally just eleven days before the General Election that, ‘What the British public will be voting for is a Labour Government or a Conservative Government’.”

After the 2001 General Election, which delivered a (huge) Labour victory, my recollection is that far from ‘accepting the verdict of the British people’, Mr Smith actually argued and even voted against many of the proposals put forward by the Blair government. I wonder how he would now describe such behaviour – was he an ‘enemy of the people’? Was he subtly trying to reverse the result of the election? Or trying to dilute the Labour programme in some way – perhaps ‘soft’ Blairism – when the British people had decisively (much more decisively than in the referendum incidentally, not that that matters) voted for profligate public finances, gradual undermining of our traditions, special treatment for big Labour donors who fund racing cars and so on?

Or would Mr Smith argue, as I would, that it is the role of opposition not to seek to overturn the democratic vote but to represent the views of their constituents and seek to persuade the government of the day to change course to take other views into account? History shows that when we have had widespread consensus on any issue, to the extent that opposition is marginalised or ignored, things don’t always go well.

I completely expect a majority in the House of Commons (and the Lords, I hope) to trigger Article 50 when the time comes. I guess one type of democrat, those who support direct popular votes, would say that 341 MPs should argue for and vote to Leave and 317 to Remain (presuming Sinn Fein take part) – I don’t take that view as I believe we elect Parliamentarians to use their judgment on our behalf, not to vote as we dictate on any particular issue, but that doesn’t sit at all well with a referendum so I’m a bit lost. In any case I would expect a vigourous debate with a very significant number of MPs (not just the SNP) voting against leaving. I will be very disappointed if my MP, representing a constituency in which Remain got three quarters of the vote, does not vote against triggering Article 50, just as should Labour form a government I would be disappointed if any Conservative MP voted for an 80% top rate of tax or whatever John McDonnell was proposing that week.

Mr Smith seems determined to continue to provoke and anger the 48% who voted to remain. He is absolutely right in one respect – as a Remainer I went through the stages of grief, including denial, anger, bargaining and depression, and am now well into acceptance and seeing the possible benefits alongside the possible downsides. I would be amazed if Mr Smith did not go through the same when he was sacked from the Party leadership – it is a well-documented human reaction to loss and has nothing to do with the EU referendum as such. Yet instead of generously recognising this, the ‘nasty party’ wing of the Conservatives would rather use it as a further weapon with which to bash and sneer at those who took a different view.

If all this has done one thing for me, I have come to realise that I may now be feeling like many of those who voted Leave and voted Trump might have felt – ignored and demonised by an elite which has no empathy with my feelings or sympathy with my interests. It’s quite a jolt but very good for my personal growth as a fully paid-up member of the metropolitan elite who has not always been open enough to other philosophies. But Mr Smith might reflect on the implications of treating a significant proportion of our nation in such a way. He comes over more as someone who wants to settle old scores than to take us forward to a better place.

Trump and Brexit – in defence of offensiveness

I am not making this up.

“The University of Reading’s students’ union voted not to take part in future episodes of the BBC2 quiz show after the presenter made an off-the-cuff remark about a team mascot during a break in recording.

Jeremy Paxman said: ‘There was a technical fault which meant we had to interrupt the recording, leaving all of us sitting at our desks in the studio while the problem was sorted out in the control gallery. To fill the void in a brightly lit studio, in front of all eight contestants, a full studio crew and an audience of several hundred spectators, I asked the Reading team about the mascot sitting on their desk. One of them said it was a hand-knitted Jeremy Paxman doll. Across the several yards separating the chairman’s desk from the teams, I asked the whole team whether they took it to bed with them.’

Samantha Buzzard, the Reading captain and a PhD student working on mathematical modelling of the surface melt of Antarctic ice shelves, was the team’s only woman and took offence. Writing in a blog, Niall Hamilton, education officer at Reading students’ union, said: ‘Misogyny and sexism are not about ‘offending’ contestants but undermining and oppressing individuals due to their gender. In such a historical and respected institution as University Challenge, these forms of oppression should not be taken lightly.'”

Yes, I know this is startlingly silly, a self-parody of a world where ‘safe spaces’ are created at universities – universities! – to protect the educated elite from the slightest risk of offence from opinions they don’t like; where the Leader of the Green party wants any government adviser who dares to challenge the majority view on climate change to be sacked; where cruel parody of some Christians for say being uncomfortable about same-sex marriage is almost required behaviour; where Benedict Cumberbatch, hardly the heir of Bernard Manning, arguing for more ethnic minority representation in the performing arts, gets slated for referring to ‘coloured people’ instead of ‘people of colour’.

But it is not so funny really. The metropolitan elite – I speak as a fully paid-up card-carrying member – has so persuaded itself of the moral superiority of its position on – well, on everything really – that the bigotry associated with claiming that the Trump-voting, Brexit-supporting majority in our two countries are ‘information-light’ (code for stupid), racist, xenophobic and so on has become invisible. Let’s remember what Hillary Clinton told us a couple of months ago: “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.” Somehow the ‘liberal’ (by which I suspect I mean dictatorial) left fails to see that demonising a quarter of the US voting public in this way is every bit as offensive as some of the language used by the genuine racists, sexists and homophobes.

So if the bar for acceptable behaviour is not making a throwaway joke about a rag doll, we should not be surprised if those who don’t exhibit the childish self-righteous egotism of the Reading Students’ Union start to feel what the heck. If we’re going to be accused of misogyny almost whatever we do maybe we shouldn’t worry about going the whole hog and electing a genuine sexist – at least we won’t feel constantly looked down on and scorned.

This is a difficult point in time for me. Carlos and I are maybe going to get married this coming year. We might not bother as the civil partnership gives us everything we need in legal terms but it is nice to have the option, to feel fully part of the bourgeois norm. Yet clearly this issue is one that causes considerable discomfort to many in society. It is dawning on me that the interests of ‘people like me’ have ruled the roost for a long time. Feminist bloggers like Amy Glass can post articles entitled ‘I Look Down On Young Women With Husbands And Kids And I’m Not Sorry‘. Those women who actually rather like the traditional family pattern of the man going out to work and the woman as ‘the angel of the house’ are simply getting it wrong and their choice should not be tolerated. “Do people really think that a stay at home mom is really on equal footing with a woman who works and takes care of herself?” Well, the answer is yes, many people do think exactly that and may be more inclined to support an unsavoury candidate who does not denigrate them so roundly than yet another patronising self-styled intellectual.

If we are going to heal the almost exactly half-and-half split between (simplifying it a bit) urban and rural Britain (maybe I mean England), or its equivalent in the USA, we may need to start to be rather more accepting that other world-views are valid, while at the same time standing up against the genuine racism and sexism which seems to have been emboldened a little by Brexit and Trump victories. At the moment our right not be offended is being exercised in such a way as to maximise offence to those with a different approach to life. I have been pretty offended (British understatement) by a lot of what I have heard from the Farage/Trump worldview; but I can see why the Corbyn/Clinton alternative, with its disdain for the concerns of so many people outside our conurbations, must be equally offensive to those people.

So – can we call a truce? Can we recognise that the metropolitan elite has a point when it comes to unreconstructed sexist and racist behaviour but that it has massively exaggerated the issue to the point where so many of our fellow countrymen feel unvalued? Can we row back on nonsense like that of Reading Students’ Union or Amy Glass and recognise that one can abuse free speech just as much from the liberal left as one can from the unkind right? I have no idea how this would work in practice but constantly crying wolf – there is still a Facebook page entitle ‘Mitt Romney is a racist’ – always has a predictable outcome when a real wolf comes along. If it means people like me get a fairer share of being offended, well, that’s not too high a price to pay.

Our childish politicians

I eventually got a response to my previous letter to Paul Flynn, an MP who I discover sits for the Labour Party and spends much of his time badmouthing Labour colleagues like Stephen Doughty (whom he accused, either ironically or hypocritically, of using ‘wild and divisive language’ in a Twitter storm yesterday!), so I suppose I should not be surprised that I come in for some stick as well, based on invented ‘quotations’.

I say ‘response’ to my letter but there was no response to my arguments.  It is frustrating when instead of engaging me on the issues which I raised in my response to his attack on me in the Commons last year, based on fictional quotes which (of course) he fails to justify, he simply repeats the false claim that I am a ‘PR’ man.  This from someone who is very careful to take his ‘advice’ from people like David Lowry who have a black and white view of the nuclear issue and find it emotionally or psychologically impossible to recognise that atomic energy has its good points (in the way that I have always accepted it has its drawbacks).  Flynn says I am ‘derogative’ about renewables – well, yes, I am critical at times but always based on published science and always open to changing my mind if a better argument comes along.

I have drafted a letter in response but frankly I am not going to bother sending it.

“Thank you for your letter of the 9th inst.  I am not sure what you mean by saying I have ‘done a PR job for nuclear’ or describing me as a ‘PR person for nuclear’.  If you imply that I am simply mouthing someone else’s opinions and passing them off as my own then you are wrong – I only say things that I believe to be true, based on my reading of the evidence.  If on the other hand your objection is that I have come to some different conclusions from you as a result of that reading then you are right of course. (Whether this means that the media should be forced to inform the audience whether a particular person holds views which are approved of or disapproved of by Paul Flynn MP is less clear.)  I provided you with examples of my having said things during Fukushima that with the benefit of hindsight look alarmist yet you make no reference whatsoever to these.  You say I am ‘derogatory’ and ‘alarmist’ about renewables. But again, my analysis leads me to believe that to an extent we have all been taken in by clever messaging from the rich landowners and multinational capitalists who are enjoying the subsidies and have downplayed the importance of variability in output. This analysis is based solely on published evidence and my own reasoning.  I may be wrong – indeed, as a scientist I like being proved wrong anyway but on renewables I would very much love to be wrong as I am scared by climate change – but are you seriously saying that the very fact that someone is skeptical about some of the claims makes one unfit to express an opinion and is proof of a lack of good faith?

“I of course have respect for those who have well-reasoned views with which I happen to disagree. I note however that you steadfastly refuse to engage with me on the issues, instead preferring to repeat your personal attacks.  In my experience that reveals someone who is either so morally and intellectually arrogant as to dismiss out of hand the idea that other opinions can be honestly and informedly held, or someone who is so unsure of their own position that they are unwilling to submit it to scrutiny.  You will know better than me to which of these groups you belong.  However, you also point blank refuse to point me towards the source of your invention that I ‘praised the explosions of hydrogen [at Fukushima] as something of benefit’.  Indeed you seem to hold that from your exalted and privileged position you can simply make up things that I have never said and ridicule me for them and it is then my responsibility to find these non-existent quotes to refute them.  Can you at least give me the date and time when I said these things?  Well of course you can’t, you know as well as I do they are invented.  The planet deserves better than frivolous name-calling based on such fictions.

Yours sincerely,

 

MALCOLM GRIMSTON”

A terrible dilemma

The Labour Group is putting forward a motion at the full Council meeting tomorrow (October 14) noting that that the UK has only accepted 216 Syrian refugees under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme since its launch in January 2014, and 5,000 Syrian refugees since 2011 and calling, inter alia, for Wandsworth pledge to accommodate at least 10 refugee families urgently (if private accommodation is funded by central government), to put in place measures to become the first London ‘Borough of Sanctuary’ and authorise officers to accept refugees from Syria under the government’s Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme.

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought and am finding the situation far from clear.

On the one hand of course we should, and would wish to, play our full part in supporting the refugees from the African/Middle Eastern wars.  But at the same time there are several aspects of the issue which are equally worrying.  Perhaps most concerning is the observation that the family of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old whose tragic death so affected so many people, seem to have been living in Turkey for the last three years – not ideal for a Kurdish family, for sure, but not a situation in which their lives or even their quality of life was under direct threat.  A nagging question is why the family should choose this moment to leave a settled and essentially safe haven and take the risks which led to the tragedy.

I cannot help reflecting on the awful thought that the impression that Europe is about to open its borders – fostered by Germany’s disgraceful decision simply to rip up European agreements, unilaterally, on the matter – is contributing to the agony and the misery and encouraging some people to take these terrible risks.  I cannot escape a feeling that children like Alan are dying precisely because Europe is appearing likely to adopt almost a ‘no questions asked’ approach to taking anyone, be they genuine refugee or not, rather than because Europe is refusing to take anyone who has gone through the necessary procedure.  By this I mean being taken either directly from the Syrian refugee camps or from the list of those who have conformed to what was European protocol before the German action, i.e. registration at the point of entry to the EU followed by an orderly process of finding them a sanctuary.  I can only imagine the joy of the illegal traffickers being able to ply their evil trade by holding out a much greater prospect of ‘success’, illusory though that might ultimately be.

I believe, then, that the UK should be absolutely firm in saying that we will take genuine refugees who have played by the rules as set out above, and refuse to take anyone who has tried to bypass the process and has passed through Europe without conforming to the Dublin Regulation.  To do differently would in my view inevitably lead to more deaths at the hands of the people traffickers.  It seems a simple fact that since Australia has made it clear that it would turn back any boat found in its territorial waters nobody has drowned in that part of the world.  As I say I am absolutely not proposing that we close our borders in that way to genuine refugees but if preserving innocent life is one of our aims we cannot afford to ignore evidence of this nature.

As an Independent I have no particular axe to grind politically but I am not sure I agree that the British stance has been particularly bad.  The UK seems to be spending a higher proportion of our national income on international aid than any other developed country: a considerable and growing proportion of this has been spent on supporting potential Syrian refugees within Syria and at the border.  If we take the view that most of those leaving Syria would far rather stay there or return there when it is safe to do so then the eventual solution must involve work of that nature in and around Syria itself.

Of course there are plenty genuine refugees who do need help and we should help them.  But it would in my mind be a cruel mistake to give the impression that Europe was now abandoning rigorous checks on the bona fides of potential incomers.  Brutal as they have been about it, the Hungarians did seem to me to have been trying against huge odds to stick to European protocol and register those coming through their country. Germany, after pressurising the Hungarians to abandon those checks, soon found it had to close its own borders thereby creating the worst of both worlds – people being encouraged to chance their lives in bypassing the protocols followed by even those who have played by the rules being rejected.

In my opinion this is one of those situations in which if we want to fulfil our hearts’ desire to help those in need and not to make things worse, we need to follow our heads’ conclusions and apply commonsense as well.  I shall be arguing for the Council to take that stance when it comes to offering asylum to those whom of course we would all wish to help. 

Information in times of stress

I’ve just been told that one Paul Flynn, MP for Newport in Wales, had a go at me in the Commons a couple of months ago for my comments during the first days of the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm150617/halltext/150617h0001.htm).

On looking the good Mr Flynn up I find that by all accounts he appears to be on the Left of the Labour Party. Yet, oddly, he seems to be a kind of antimatter version of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has approached the Labour leadership contest saying he will only focus on the substance of the arguments and will absolutely refuse to indulge in personal attacks: Flynn seems determined only to attack the integrity of anyone who holds a different view and will absolutely refuse to indulge in reasoned debate on the issues. I can only hope they do not end up in the same room together as the annihilation explosion could be devastating.

I am not too fussed as I don’t imagine many people will be interested in the views of an obscure backbencher but I have written to him in the following terms.

Dear Mr Flynn,

I note that in Hansard a couple of months ago you are quoted saying that at the time of the Fukushima accident I was on TV indulging in “ludicrous PR spin” and “praising the explosions of hydrogen as something of benefit”.

I wonder if you are in a position to offer me a reference for this quotation, as I do not recognise it? If I recall correctly, after the hydrogen explosion at Unit 1 at Fukushima I said something along the lines of “Bizarre as this may sound, in the context of what is happening at the plant the hydrogen explosion wasn’t a terribly important event”. I stick to this statement – indeed I did not realise it was anything particularly controversial. Presumably, given your attack on me, you take the opposite position – i.e. that the hydrogen explosion was more serious than the threats offered by the risk of the containment vessels being breached at Units 1-3 or of serious uncovery of the spent fuel in the ponds especially of Unit 4 but also of the other five units at various times. I do not agree with this point of view – in my opinion either of these latter events would have been immeasurably more serious. The hydrogen explosions resulted in very little release of activity in the context of the accident as a whole and very little if any structural damage to either cores or fuel ponds – but of course as a scientist I am always happy to change my mind if new information comes along. I would be interested to know your reasons for holding that opposite view.

But in any case I cannot believe that I “praised the explosions of hydrogen as something of benefit” in the way you state and certainly have no recollection of doing so. It is indeed my opinion that the alternative to venting the hydrogen and risking its exploding in the outer containment – which was to let the hydrogen pressure build up in the reactor pressure vessels until the seals blew, releasing vastly more radioactivity – would have been far worse. From this point of view the action made operational sense. But surely that is not “praising” these explosions in the way you seem to imply? (Again, I presume had you been in charge you would have taken the opposite course?)

Once again, then, I would be grateful if you could provide me with the source of the quote so I can check whether you have provided an honest and balanced reflection of my comments. In return, below I offer a couple of references for things I actually did say.

As a final point, I am not saying I got everything ‘right’ during that first month – information and misinformation were coming thick and fast and commentating was at times sheer guesswork (as I frequently made clear when commentating live – recorded soundbites rarely allow such uncertainty to be expressed of course). As one example, I said (it’s still on the BBC website at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13017282): “At Reactor 4, where there was an unusually large amount of spent fuel in the pond, there seems to have been damage to the zirconium fuel rods, and, possibly, a release of hydrogen – there was at any rate another explosion, which damaged the outer building.” As events subsequently showed this was far too pessimistic – the spent fuel was fine and the hydrogen had come from Unit 3 through a shared vent – and I have to accept that in making this point and unjustifiably ‘talking up’ the seriousness of the situation I may have caused fears that later proved unfounded. No doubt at other points I may have said things that proved too optimistic: I do recall at one point saying I thought they may have turned the corner on controlling Unit 1 which turned out not to be the case.  Though I did not set out to exaggerate (or understate) the effects of the accident but to give a balanced picture as I saw things, such ‘errors’, if that they be (I think they made sense given the information at the time), are inevitable in real time. If the standard needed to avoid having one’s integrity impugned under the cloak of parliamentary privilege is 100% accurate foresight then I suspect very few would venture to give their honest opinion of unfolding events.

Incidentally, since you did not make reference to it in your Commons speech I presume you missed it but this is what I told Channel 4 News on March 30 2011 (still on Channel 4 website at http://www.channel4.com/news/fukushima-clean-up-will-take-decades-and-cost-billions). “Malcolm Grimston, energy specialist at think tank Chatham House, told Channel 4 News that the process [of decommissioning the reactors] could take years and cost billions – but stressed the Japanese would be entering uncharted waters. ‘This is uncharted territory, a lot of new technology will be developed to deal with these reactors. The closest to this we have is Three Mile Island, where there was a partial core meltdown – I think about 40 per cent. The clean-up process lasted from 1979 to 1993, so almost 15 years, and cost £1 billion. That was £1 billion in 1993 money, so obviously a lot more now,’ he said. ‘Also now we have got four reactors damaged, not just a single one like at Three Mile Island, and the complicating factor of what state the spent fuel is in the ponds. At the moment there are huge imponderables, but whatever happens, the answer is long and expensive.’ Apart from exaggerating the problem again – we haven’t really got four ‘reactors’ damaged as the reactor itself in Unit 4 is fine – I don’t see how you can describe this as “ludicrous PR spin”, even though I did work for the UK Atomic Energy Authority over 20 years ago.

An academic’s reputation is vital to their standing: I believe you have made a very unbalanced and unfair attack on mine, offering me no right of reply – I think you should at least justify that I actually said what you attribute to me.