Saturday, 31 December 2011

Films Of The Year 2011

For the eighth year running, it's time to reflect on the films I've seen over the last 12 months. During 2011, I've managed to make it to the cinema on 47 occasions, significantly more than last year. I put this down to the surgery I had in February: to avoid remaining stuck at home, bored out of my mind, there really aren't that many options available apart from the cinema during recovery from a horrible operation

In keeping with previous years, I only count actual trips to a cinema - not films on DVD - and as usual I've rated the films I've seen. You can find ratings for previous years here.

Ratings:
5 stars: Unmissable!
4 stars: Definitely worth seeing
3 stars: Decent film
2 stars: Disappointing
1 star: Pants
No stars: Why was this released?

In date order - five star films highlighted in bold:

127 Hours (****)
The King's Speech (****)
Black Swan (*)
Hereafter (**)
The Fighter (***)
Never Let Me Go (***)
True Grit (*****)
Paul (***)
The Adjustment Bureau (****)
Route Irish (***)
The Eagle (**)
Source Code (*****)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (****)
Oranges and Sunshine (***)
Hanna (***)
Fire in Babylon (****)
Attack the Block (***)
X-Men: First Class (**)
Senna (*****)
Incendies (****)
Just Do It (***)
The First Avenger: Capitan America (***)
Super 8 (****)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (****)
Sarah's Key (***)
Cowboys & Aliens (****)
The Guard (*****)
The Skin That I Live In (*)
Troll Hunter (*****)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (*****)

Memento (*****)
- part of the BMW Origins Season
Drive (*****)

We Need To Talk About Kevin (*****)

The Ides of March (**)
The Help (***)
Contagion (***)
The Awakening (***)
The Rum Diary (***)
In Time (***)
The Adventures of Tintin (***)
Hugo (****)
Another Earth (***)
The Deep Blue Sea (***)
Sherlock Holmes – Game of Shadows (****)
Dreams of a Life (****)
Moneyball (***)
Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol (***)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [2011] (***)

Sunday, 25 December 2011

The Random Blowe Festive Christmas Card

A very happy Christmas to my friends in Newham, Hackney, Leyton, Haringey, Brighton, Leamington Spa, Birmingham, Cardiff, Cornwall, Goa, Chiang Mai, Basle, New Orleans, New York - too many to name in person - and to everyone who took the time to read this blog during 2011.

Next year, the area where I live will be crawling with armed police. It'll be our job to keep an eye on the buggers.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Return of 'Building Resilience'

As regular visitors to this blog will know, I have tried - without success - to find out how Newham council has spent its huge 'Preventing Violent Extremism' funding (see here, here and here). Trying to understand the notoriously opaque internal workings of the council is like the employing the guesswork of a 1970s Kreminologist - but occasionally it's possible to stumble upon a nugget of information. For instance, earlier this week I found out quite by accident that a consultancy firm called The Campaign Company is paid by the borough for "a project using values-based segmentation to understand why young Muslims radicalise as part of the PREVENT programme".

It's the kind of detail that the council has refused to share, even though it can be found with a little digging on the consultants' website. However, the real reason I Googled them had nothing to do with Newham's shadowy 'Prevent' work, but a new contract that the Campaign Company has been given to undertake something called "Newham Resilience Research".

Those who remember the launch of the council's 'Building Resilience' project back in May are aware that it is another slice of New Labour authoritarianism that is essentially about blaming people for their poverty and providing a dubious ideological justification for local cuts. We haven't much more about since, but now the Campaign Company has contacted some local groups saying:


Newham
Council has commissioned research from The Campaign Company and the Royal Society of Arts to find more about the strength of communities and how they may be affected by the cuts in Newham. We want to understand more about the connections people have to both the individuals and organisations in their local area, in order to build stronger communities in which everyone can play their part.

The Campaign Company is currently surveying the residents of Newham and to tie in with this, we would also like to get in touch with all community and faith groups affiliated with Newham. As organisations within Newham, you all play an integral role in community cohesion and resilience, and your thoughts and perspectives would therefore be very valuable for our work. We would really appreciate it if a representative or leader from your organisation or group could take some time to speak with us over the next week. Our interview should take no longer than 15 to 20 minutes.

It all sounds terribly reassuring, but strangely enough, I didn't receive this e-mail directly. In fact, no-one working for the borough's various second-tier organisations, who have long-established relationships with the voluntary, community and faith sectors in Newham and a wealth of information about local communities and their diverse needs, appears to have been contacted either. I'm sure this is wasn't deliberate (cough) so why, I wonder, does Newham keep shelling out money on consultancies who have no idea that independent charitable groups in the borough have their own established networks and structures?

Instead I found out about the research from a friend who is part of a local campaign group (one fiercely critical of the council) and who sent the e-mail with the words, "this looks unbelievably dodgy". I can see why she is so suspicious. One reason the council could be looking to map connections between individuals and organisations is because its 'Building Resilience' plans, if they ever get further than the drawing board, involve a staged withdrawal from the provision of more and more council services, apart from core support for the most vulnerable, leaving the majority of residents dependent on voluntary groups, informal networks and friends. 'Resilience' looks a lot like a rebranding of the government's massively discredited 'Big Society' proposals.

Being Newham, of course, it's all rather chaotic and poorly executed. The Campaign Company say they are 'carefully' targeting only 60 groups but have been relying on a list of organisation contacts provided by the council in which 75% of the e-mail addresses are wrong. Furthermore, on the evidence of a brief conversation with them, they don't appear to have much of an idea of the geography of their target wards or who are the useful contacts within them. Sadly, I can't imagine the results of the research will adequately reflect Newham's voluntary, community and faith sectors in any meaningful way.

Why, I'm left wondering for the umpteenth time, does Newham council keep shelling out money on consultants with so little actual knowledge of the borough?

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Lift-Off

Yes, that really is my photo on the Newham Recorder website of the London Air Ambulance taking off from the junction of Woodgrange Road and Romford Road today. I waived my usual fee* in exchange for a credit - hey, today was my last day at work and I was in a good mood!

* yeah, as if I'm likely to have a 'usual fee'!

Monday, 19 December 2011

Launching The Anti-Olympics Poster Competition


Even this close to next year's Games, the impact of the wide-reaching London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 is little known. However, as I noted in February, it includes strict regulations that apply to "advertising of any kind" in the vicinity of London Olympic events, even leaflets, posters, announcements or notices of "a non-commercial nature". This means that you decide to stick an anti-Olympic poster in your window, section 22 of the Act provides "a constable or enforcement officer" with the powers to:


(a) enter land or premises on which they reasonably believe a contravention of regulations under section 19 is occurring (whether by reason of advertising on that land or premises or by the use of that land or premises to cause an advertisement to appear elsewhere);

(b) remove, destroy, conceal or erase any infringing article;

(c) when entering land under paragraph (a), be accompanied by one or more persons for the purpose of taking action under paragraph (b);

(d) use, or authorise the use of, reasonable force for the purpose of taking action under this subsection.

Pretty damn draconian, don't you think? But also a definite 'red rag to a bull' for stubborn east Londoners, despite the threat that conviction can lead to to "a fine not exceeding £20,000".

Anyway, thanks to great idea by Luther, today I'm launching a decidedly unofficial "Anti-Olympics Poster Competition". Design the ideal poster for us locals to put up in our windows so we can see whether we get a visit from a "a constable or enforcement officer".

Send one entry per person please (in PDF, JPEG or TIFF format) to copwatcher [at] gmail.com by 31 January 2012.

I'll display the best entries (along with downloadable PDFs) on this blog.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

So What Do We Do About Fortress Wanstead Flats?

After much debate about how to follow the court decision to refuse to listen to the case for a judicial review, the Save Wanstead Flats campaign is inviting local residents to a meeting at Durning Hall Community Centre in Forest Gate on Wednesday 18 January at 7pm.

This meeting offers an opportunity to discuss what to do next, which inevitably covers a broad range of concerns. For instance, there are the question of how to prevent the use of the Flats as a 'security exclusion zone' in the future (for the World Athletics Championships in 2017, for example) and what, if anything, can be done to strengthen the Epping Forest Act 1876, which has been severely undermined by the Legislative Reform Order and the City of London Corporation's cowardice. There is also a discussion that must be had about what other steps might still be taken by the Save Wanstead Flats Campaign to try and stop the Met police’s plans - or whether it is time for the campaign to call it a day and let others take over.

Campaigns always come to an end eventually but, from a personal point of view, I believe the impact of a Met police 'Muster Briefing and Deployment Centre' on the local area next year still demands further action. There are, of course, immediate issues facing residents in Forest Gate, Wanstead and Leyton when the base opens, not least the potential disruption and restricted access to the Flats that may be far worse than we have ever expected. This is something that residents' groups may decide to take on. One group I've been involved with for many years, Newham Monitoring Project, has grave concerns about the effect on local people's rights of a massive security presence in east London next summer and is keen to monitor the impact of the base on the use of excessive stop & search powers. In addition, there is more scrutiny necessary in checking that promises made about the base during consultation and planning in 2010 are not broken because of 'changing security demands'

One way or another, Fortress Wanstead Flats will demand our attention next summer. And you never know - perhaps someone has a creative and imaginitive way that we can still stop it.

What Next For Wanstead Flats?
Residents' Meeting
7pm, Wednesday 18 January 2012

Durning Hall Community Centre, Earlham Grove, Forest Gate

Let your friends and neighbours know - publicise the event on Facebook or download a flyer and distribute widely.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Council In Trouble Over Sport England Grant To Threatened Sports Centre

This week's Private Eye 'Rotten Boroughs' column reports:


"Eye 1301 reported on how Newham, London's 'Olympic' borough, plans to close the Atherton leisure centre - the only public sports facility of its kind in the 'Olympic zone'.

Newham's mayor, "Sir" Robin Wales, says the Atherton has to go because the council can't afford the £2.2m required to run it for the next ten years. Wales has promised a new "state-of-the-art" pool and sports centre, but no funds have been earmarked.

Campaigners who want to keep the pool open have discovered that Sir Robin hasn't done his sums properly. Back in 199 the council obtained a £2.36m grant from Sport England to refurbish the centre. One of the conditions of the funding was that the council had to keep it open for at least 21 years - ie until 2020. if not it would be liable to repay some or all of the £2.36m... over £100,000 more than it would "save" by closure. Brilliant!"

UPDATE

This information came from a Freedom of Information request made to Sport England by the Save Atherton Leisure Centre Campaign - see this press release.

UPDATE - 12 December

Papers for this Thursday's Newham council Cabinet meeting include reference to the grant and say that Sport England "are not currently intending to seek repayment of any lottery grant although this remains an option":

8.6 Lottery Grant repayment

The Council was the beneficiary of a £2.3m Lottery grant via Sport England in relation to the Atherton Centre. The grant agreement allows for Sport England to claw the funding back should the service no longer be provided. However, Sport England have been involved in early development of facility options and remain committed to working with Newham to secure long term sustainable investment in leisure. Sport England have confirmed that their priority is to secure this and welcome the Mayor’s comments about reproviding a new leisure centre. They are not currently intending to seek repayment of any lottery grant although this remains an option. Officers will continue to liaise with Sport England to mitigate this risk.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Wanstead Flats - A Terrible Precedent Is Born

It is now either very late at night or very early in the morning, but I need to bang this out if I'm going to get any sleep.

The campaign against the use of Wanstead Flats during next year's Olympics by the police for a Muster Briefing and Deployment Centre has never just been about what happens in 2012. From the beginning, it has always been about the precedent set by choosing to enclose part of Epping Forest, an area supposedly protected by a 135-year-old Act of Parliament.

Yesterday's terrible judicial decision, by Mrs Justice Dobbs at the Royal Courts of Justice, meant that leave was refused for the presentation of the case for overturning the Home Secretary's order, which sets aside, albeit temporarily, the protection of the Epping Forest Act 1876. That judgment significantly increases the risk that parts of Wanstead Flats may be 'temporarily' enclosed again and again in the future, whenever it is deemed convenient or necessary.

Take, as an example, the World Athletics Championship that will be held in London in 2017. The likelihood that the interests of security will demand another Metropolitan Police Muster Briefing and Deployment Centre are high - the Met described such centres as an important tactic in their court submissions. Where better to site it then, from the police's point of view, than Wanstead Flats? Yesterday's decision clears the way for another half-hearted 'consultation' and the use of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act to once again sweep away the legal protections afforded to the Flats.

It doesn't matter the Home Office's own preparation was screwed up the first time they tried, or that this piece of highly contentious legislation has only, up until now, been used for minor, almost trivial 'tidying up' of existing laws: the judge decided yesterday that strong public objections are not covered by ministerial pledges to avoid the use of such sweeping powers for 'highly controversial' issues. In future, government departments will be able to change primary legalisation using a legislative order, with little debate in the House of Commons or House of Lords, as long as the majority of an obscure parliamentary committee, voting on party lines (as they did this spring), deem the decision uncontroversial. We, the public, have little say in the matter and no grounds to object.

Then, of course, there is the precedent set by the planning decision of Redbridge council. It too doesn't matter that Newham and Waltham Forest councils objected to the planned Olympics police base, or that more than 1800 signatures we collected in opposition, or than the planning committee in Redbridge told people that potential alternative sites were outside its remit. The decision was taken, with little apparent consideration of the objections, and the damage has been done. After next year, Wanstead Flats effectively becomes a useful 'security zone' whenever another major sporting event - held in the next borough at a staggeringly expensive arena that needs to recoup its costs and justify its existence - makes policing considerations a necessity.

Almost every weekend, I tend to end up walking on the Flats. All of my friends who live locally say it's one of the places that they love most about living in Newham - one of the few places, in many instances. Had it not been for the fact that I work in Forest Gate and was the first person approached in June 2010 by residents concerned about the police's plans, it may have been months before I found out that a place we love, an open space intended for our leisure and recreation, would be partially closed off during the Olympics. I can say this because I don't live on one of the streets closest to the Flats, where the limited publicity by the police was allegedly distributed, but a mile away.

I wonder how many people found out about the plans very late in the day: how many people missed the leaflets put out by the police, or even by the Save Wanstead Flats Campaign because it only had a budget of £180 in donations. I wonder how many people tried to make sense of what they could and couldn't include in a planning objection, or struggled to decypher and understand the laughable consultation document published by Home Secretary on her Legislative Reform Order. I wonder how many people even knew where to find it.

Those who expected, perhaps more than I have, that the courts exist to balance the rights of ordinary citizens against powerful state interests have given an important lesson - that they may have been hoping for too much from the judiciary. After all, it took the active support of the City of London Corporation in the 1870s and in 1946 when the Flats were under threat, instead of the tacit, shameful endorsement of the 'Conservators' in 2010-11, to prevent enclosure. This time, the Corporation took the money offered to them and residents were left to fight alone.

Back in 1871, history reminds us that it also took huge demonstrations on the Flats to stop the plans of powerful interests, with protests that demolished illegally erected fencing. Sadly, such passionate resistance is probably now a thing of the past, the product of a different age - and as Mark Twain once said: "there was but one solitary thing about the past worth remembering, and that was the fact that it is past and can't be restored."

Nevertheless, I must confess that, should I find myself wandering on Wanstead Flats this weekend, I know I'll hope that Twain, a satirist and writer who was right about so many things, was wrong about the past. Hope is always something worth hanging on to.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Wanstead Flats: When Is An Undertaking Not An Undertaking?

Tomorrow morning, at 10.30am in court 19 at the Royal Courts of Justice, Mrs Justice Dobbs will preside over the the final hearing of a judicial review on the Metropolitan police's Olympic operations base on Wanstead Flats. The court case continues to be a real David versus Goliath affair, with Forest Gate resident Dr Michael Pelling acting as a 'litigant in person' against the expensive legal teams for the Home Office and the police.

Those who have been following this case will know that the Home Office used a Legislative Reform Order (LRO) under the provisions of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act (LRRA) to override the specific legal protection afforded to Wanstead Flats by an act of parliament back in 1876. At the time of its introduction in 2006, the LRRA was fiercely criticised for giving arbitrary 'modernising' powers without the proper scrutiny of parliament. The Telegraph reported that even Clifford Chance, the world's largest corporate law firm, briefed its clients that the only red tape the LRRA would remove is "the red tape of Parliamentary scrutiny for primary legislation".

The government, however, gave 'clear undertakings' that the powers of the LRRA would not be used to force through controversial measures - not once but on three separate occasions:


Jim Murphy, Cabinet Office Parliamentary Secretary
(Commons Hansard 9 February 2006: columns 1058-1059)

I am giving a clear undertaking today that orders will not be used to implement highly controversial reforms, that they will not be forced through in the face of opposition from the Committees of this House and that the Committees’ views of what is appropriate for delivery by order will be final.

Pat McFadden, Cabinet Office Parliamentary Secretary
(Commons Hansard 15 May 2006: column 795)

The Government have also given an undertaking that they will not do anything highly controversial using an order and that an order will not be forced through despite opposition from the relevant parliamentary Committees. (..) the Government have placed on a statutory footing a veto for relevant Committees of either House. That will provide further assurance for those concerned that an order will proceed only if the informed view of the House and another place is satisfied that its outcome is desirable.

Lord Bassam of Brighton
(Lords Hansard 13 June 2006: column 125)

I can reiterate two key Government undertakings: that the Government will not deliver highly controversial measures by order and that we will not force through orders in the face of opposition from the parliamentary Committees.

However, the skeleton argument put forward by the lawyers for the Met Commissioner makes an astonishing suggestion - that these undertakings were made only to parliament, not to the public, and therefore are really none of our concern. In section 104 it says:

"The undertakings provided to Parliament are not undertakings to the world at large; rather they are undertakings to Parliament and intended to be enforceable only within Parliamentary processes".

Their skeleton argument goes on to suggest that "the mere fact that objections have been raised does not mean that an LRO is highly controversial. There must be something of significance constitutionally regarding the reform proposed".

So what, you may ask, is Parliament if not the elected representatives of the world at large? I know that much of the time, the massive disconnection between parliamentarians and the public makes it seem like MPs and Lords are living in a different world, but in theory they still represent us. Right?

And when, you may also wonder, is a 'clear undertaking' by the government to resist using powers in controversial circumstances not really an undertaking? As far as the Metropolitan police's lawyers are concerned, when an issue is challenged by members of the public. So much for the government's "localism" rhetoric about local people having a say in decision-making that affects us. As for second statement by the Met's lawyers, it's simply : the LRRA was allegedly designed to 'remove or reduce burdens' - but there is absolutely nothing in it about these burdens needing any constitutional significance.

Key to this case is the requirement that Ministers consult widely before making an LRO - and Dr Pelling and the Save Wanstead Flats Campaign argues that the consultation was based misleading, based upon a reading of the Epping Forest Act that even the Home Office admits was flawed. What this case has shown is the real dangers of using powerful draconian legislation like the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act to drive though decisions simply for the sake of convenience - especially when it involves a prestige government project like the staging of the Olympics.

If the Met police's arguments are accepted and the state wins this case tomorrow, another precedent may well be set - not only over future misuse of Wanstead Flats, but also that 'clear undertakings' by government are demonstrably no longer worth the paper they are printed on.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

How To Get Rid Of Newham's Dear Leader

Over the years and usually over a few drinks, conversation has turned repeatedly to a reoccurring and increasingly tiring topic: are we stuck with Newham's Mayor Sir Robin Wales for ever?

For seven years before taking up his current post, Wales was council leader and since 2002, he has presided over a cabinet system in Newham that carries considerable patronage and influence from the top. This has made Wales extraordinarily powerful, because uniquely among the fourteen local authority areas that have directly-elected Mayors, there is no political opposition - Newham's municipal politics are the Labour Group's internal politics.

The fact that a majority of those who bothered to turn out for mayoral elections (34% in 2006 rising to 52% in 2010, on the back of a closely fought General Election) tend to heavily vote Labour in Newham has always been one of the biggest obstacles for those who would like to see the back of Sir Robin Wales. Opposition parties have been unable to agree upon a single candidate to stand against him that they can all support. So too has been the lack of of term limits: the Local Government Act 2000 that introduced directly-elected mayors did not include them and it remains the decision of political parties to choose who they select. Locally, there is no-one in the Labour Party likely to mount a challenge to Wales (and therefore risk their comfortable council allowances) unless he chooses to stand down and so the Mayor, now 56, could easily be with us for the next 20 years or more. Imagine how imperious he'd be in 2031...

The other more significant problem with the 2000 Act, especially for those of us who believe the mayoral system places far too much power in one individual's hands, was its lack of a mechanism for undoing the referendum that created the post of Mayor back in January 2002, on a meagre 26% turn-out. However, I am indebted to Forest Gate resident Kevin Mansell for pointing out that this is no longer the case. Under the Localism Act 2011, which fulfilled the Coalition Agreement pledge to "allow Councils to return to the committee system, should they wish to", it is now possible to hold another referendum if a council's current model of governance was itself the subject of a vote. Local authorities can do so by a resolution of the full council, which in this borough is never going to happened. But the new law also says that a referendum can be triggered if a petition signed by 5% of the electorate is submitted to the council.

In 2010, there were 195,058 people on the electoral register. That means a petition would require 9753 signatures. At the last local election, all the opposition parties were committed to a new referendum and 30,446 electors voted against Sir Robin. Finding less than a third of them to sign up to a call for a new vote should not be an insurmountable task.

That's not the end of the story of course: even if a referendum was triggered, any fledgling 'Bring Back Democracy' campaign in Newham would have to make damn sure that it pulled people out to actually vote against the continuation of a directly-elected Mayor. Even with a broad alliance, including all those who are unhappy about council cuts, that's not such an easy task given the patterns of electorate turn-out in the past. Moreover, if the campaign failed, the Localism Act prevents another challenge for another ten years.

But as far as I'm concerned, I don't want to ever hear another grumbled conversation about how vital it is that we are rid of our dictatorial Mayor. If people are really serious, then the means are now available to make it happen if they are willing to put in the hard work.

However, with the next local elections in London due in 2014, any decision on starting a petition and launching a campaign must be made in 2012. And no, I'm not volunteering to organise it - after all, I'm not the person who ever starts the reoccurring and increasingly tiring conversations...

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Public Sector Strike Action Tomorrow

Tomorrow, around two million public sector workers begin a one-day strike over government plans to change their pensions. In total, 23 unions having voted for industrial action and everything from the courts to council services and hospitals will be affected. It's a measure of how much this represents the first serious mainstream challenge to the Coalition government - one sadly missing from the Labour opposition - that ministers like Education Secretary Michael Gove have resorted to red-baiting in the desperate hope that this may dent the 61% of the public who support strike action, according to yesterday's opinion poll commissioned by BBC News. There's a useful analysis of the claims and counter-claims by Polly Curtis on the Guardian website that illustrates the weakness of the government's case.

In Newham, however, despite the inevitable disruption, it may be easy to miss the fact that strikes are even taking place. Friends of mine who work in the public sector been rather hazy about whether there will be picket lines anywhere in the borough and the False Economy website, which has a map of activities taking place across London, includes nothing about Newham but a host of activities taking place in neighbouring Tower Hamlets, including a march from George Greens School on the Isle of Dogs to Canary Wharf as a warm-up for the SERTUC rally and march from Lincoln's Inn Fields. I'm not sure what this says about the generally demoralised state of local politics and union activism here in Newham - it's not as though there won't be extensice strike action taking place. Newham council reports that the majority of local schools will close, as will Beckton Globe, Green Street and Docklands Local Service Centres. This map shows the extent of the strikes in the borough:



View Newham N30 Strike Map in a larger map

If all goes to plan, I'll be heading into town for noon to join the march to Victoria Embankment. Let's hold the police don't decide to kettle protesters and that the key advice from Green & Black Cross won't be needed tomorrow.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Today's "Writers: Pictures in a Tunnel" Exhibition

Even after 25 years in the city, there is so much I don't know about London - for instance, that Leake Street in Lambeth, under Waterloo station, is an unofficial 'authorised graffiti area'. Marc Vallée, who with Brian David Stevens held a 'pop up exhibition' there today, told me the rumour that the pedestrian-only tunnel is still leased from owners Eurostar by the artist Banksy, who hosted the 'Cans Festival' there in 2008. Whether this is true or not, graffiti artists are quite obviously tolerated - nobody bothered to even glance up from their work as two police officers walking through while we were there.

The lunchtime exhibition included images of some of these 'writers', the result of Marc's decision to work with Brian to document the London graffiti scene after eight years of photographing political protest and dissent (which is how my mate Cilius and I know him). Some of the images from this new project can be found here and on Brian's 'Drifting Camera' blog here: my more amateur efforts from Leake Street and the exhibition itself can be found in this Flickr set and below.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Going Underground - Aldwych Station

After yesterday's Royal Courts of Justice hearing, an entirely different experience: one of my friends got hold of tickets for a rare opening of the disused Aldwych station. I wasn't sure what to expect but it was interesting to see what has become a popular film set - especially the 1970s advertising. Here are a few pictures:

More on Flickr

Friday, 25 November 2011

Wanstead Flats - At The Royal Courts Of Justice

This morning I attending a hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice for the first time since 1988, when I was there because my polytechnic was trying to shut down a student occupation (that time, due to lack of sleep, I fell asleep in one of the corridors).

As regular readers of this blog will know, a Legislative Reform Order (LRO) amending the Epping Forest Act was passed with little debate by Parliament some months ago. However, the Save Wanstead Flats Campaign has continued to argue that because the consultation carried out by the Home Office was so poor and denied local people a proper chance to challenge the decision, it should be overturned. One resident and Campaign member, Dr Michael Pelling, has therefore taken on the Home Secretary and Metropolitan Police by seeking a judicial review of the consultation process and the quashing of the LRO. The Save Wanstead Flats Campaign is an "interested party" in the case.

In early October, the original request for permission to apply for a judicial review was turned down by Mr Justice Irwin. Some of his reasoning was decidedly peculiar – he argued, for instance, that the existence of “a local action group that mounted an active campaign” means that “the idea that the proposal [from the Home Office] was somehow concealed from the local community is quite fanciful”. The ludicrous notion that local campaigners, with extremely limited resources (about £180 raised at public meetings, some of my time provided by my employer and the passion and dedication of local people), are able to force the police and the Home Office to release information shows just how out of touch the judiciary can often be. As the Save Wanstead Flats Campaign pointed out a year ago, the police’s decision to release limited details of alternative sites only a few weeks before the close of the consultation made it impossible to check how reliable this information actually was. We didn't have the funds or the time to check every location on its 'long-list' of potential sites.

As a result of Mr Justice Irwin's unimpressive ruling, Dr Pelling sought a Renewal Hearing. Yesterday’s presentation at the Royal Courts of Justice in front of Mr Justice Bean was to prepare for a full hearing in December. Michael asked for disclosure from the Home Office and the police of the ‘alternative sites’ they had identified in the event that the LRO is overturned – this was refused. So too was an argument against a ‘rolled-up’ hearing, which would mean seeking a renewal of the judicial review and, if successful, holding the review itself on the same day. This makes Michael’s job considerably harder, but he has managed to secure some protection against costs.

The ‘rolled up’ hearing is scheduled to take place on 5 December, back at the Royal Courts of Justice. One way of another, we will know the outcome of the legal challenge against the Home Office in defence of keeping Wanstead Flats open to the public – and it is essential that as many people as possible come along and show the level of opposition to the planned Olympics operations base.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

What's In Newham's Stop & Search Scrutiny Report?

Last week, the final report of the Crime and Disorder Scrutiny Commission ‘Review of Stop and Search Procedures in Newham’ [PDF] was finally discussed by the council’s Cabinet after it slipped off its agenda in July. It makes for interesting reading.

It confirms that during June and July 2010, compared to neighbouring boroughs, Newham’s police carried out the highest number of stop and searches under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. 'Section 60s', unlike other police stop & search powers, do not require an officer to justify having a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that a person may be about to commit a crime (although justifications under other powers can often seem pretty dubious). The report also confirms that the impact of this ‘intelligence-led’ power, usually justified to tackle knife crime, was very low, that few people stopped were ever carrying a knife and that “it was very difficult to assess what crime had been prevented by stopping and searching members of the public”.

Nevertheless, Newham's senior officers told the Crime and Disorder Scrutiny Commission that the local police have “the support of the community” in using these powers and that “consultation took place, in particular with young people”. However, the evidence provided by focus groups of young people themselves seems to suggest a far less rosy picture. The Commission found that:


"Overall, there were fairly negative connotations and experiences associated with stop and search procedures. A general lack of explanation and being stopped for no apparent reason was evident in the experiences of the young people in the groups. Feelings associated with stop and search included resentment, embarrassment, frustration and the feeling that it was a waste of time. More explanation, respect and privacy were wanted if young people were to be stopped and searched. It was also very much thought that stop and search procedures was not as random as it should be and that the young people felt targeted for a number of reasons e.g. race/ethnic background, appearance, social class, etc".

Unfortunately, the response of the Youth Strategy Lead for Newham Police, Chief Inspector Gary Brown, was not a recognition that stop & search is something of a blunt instrument, one that produces limited results in combating knife crime and is, according to the testimony of young people, not always conducted in a “respectful and dignified manner”. Instead, he dismissed the Scrutiny Commission’s qualitative research as unrepresentative compared to the “thousands of young people” he had personally spoken to.

The overall impression is that although "feedback is welcome", Newham's police treated the Scrutiny Commission as a distraction that can be safely ignored, despite statistics released in July 2011 [PDF] that show there were 13,780 'Section 60s' in Newham over a 12-month period (one that doesn't include August's riots). Chief Inspector Brown, in the formal response to the report [PDF], offers only to "look into" the recommendation for ‘young engagement classes for officers’, which somehow managed to attract some publicity in the Evening Standard last week. My guess is the idea is unlikely to ever materialise.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Fog & Sunset On Wanstead Flats

This afternoon I joined a friend to wander across Wanstead Flats and on to Wanstead Park. On the way back, a low-lying fog descended just as the sun began to set - and the result was stunning, the Flats at its most beautiful.





Photos from today have been added to a set on Flickr, "Wanstead Flats Over One Year", with pictures of the changing seasons on the Flats from October 2010.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Bank of Ideas - The Surveillance State

During the week, protesters against the banks and the power of the City of London set up the Bank of Ideas, the new squatted space at an office block owned by the Swiss bank USB in Sun Street. The Bank of Ideas has been running a series of lectures and discussions and at 2pm this afternoon, I dropped in to listen to Nick Pickles from Big Brother Watch on "The Surveillance State".

What intrigued me was the choice of speaker by Occupy London activists: after all, Pickles (right) was a Conservative Party candidate in West Yorkshire and Big Brother Watch has close associations with the right-wing Taxpayers Alliance (it shares a Chief Executive, Matthew Elliot). It is most definitely a creature of the right: it's first director Alex Deane was David Cameron’s first chief of staff. That doesn't mean the libertarian right hasn't been making some valid arguments about civil liberties and the power of the state, just as the centre-left, particularly under the Blair government, decided that individual freedoms should be abandoned, indeed sacrificed completely, in the name of 'security'.

As a result, there was little that I would necessarily disagree with as Nick Pickles outlined concerns about the growth of government databases, the unaccountable influence of Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) or the misuse of police powers of stop & search. However, much of the debate today concentrated on privacy and data protection issues and Pickles spoke a lot about local councils and the NHS, the right's traditional focus of attack (although defending the intrusive actions of useless councils and hospital trusts simply because they are public sector bodies is a trap that the left should really try and avoid more often - the state is still the state, even if it is threatened with cuts).

Where I also disagreed completely was in the emphasis on why abuses of civil liberties happen - for instance, I don't accept the argument made by Pickles that it is also the fault of bureaucratic target setting and incompetence, or that police officers actively resent having to conduct arbitrary stops and searches to meet targets. All the evidence available suggests that officers actually relish the power they exercise, especially over young people (for instance, see the Newham scrutiny commission report on stop & search [PDF] released last week). The powers to interfere, intimidate and spy on people's lives are deliberate, not accidental. Furthermore, I still think Big Brother Watch, like others, places far too much emphasis on legal processes after people's rights have been abused. This continues to feel like a response that is too late, is too much like desperately holding the line in the face of a growing surveillance state and is far too dependent upon the uncertain decision-making of another conservative part of the establishment, the judiciary.

Nevertheless, many of the points made by Pickles are arguments that sections of the protest movement are themselves making and are highlighted by the campaign led by the Network for Police Monitoring, 'Kettling the Powers of the Police'. The position of Big Brother Watch may be similar to that adopted by groups like Liberty, who I have different problems with. But they did turn up and speak at the Bank of Ideas - which, to be honest, I can't imagine that Shami Chakrabarti would ever contemplate.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Anonymous Sources Raise Olympic Trial Balloon

I see that yesterday’s Guardian article claiming that the United States has raised serious concerns about security measures for next year’s Olympic Games has been rejected by the US State Department.

I’m not really that surprised, for in truth, it was always highly likely that during the Olympics there would be substantial number of overseas security personnel, including FBI agents “to provide protection for America's contestants and diplomats”, just as it was likely that we’d see the deployment of ground-to-air missiles to ‘protect London’. The fact that “the sponsors of the Games, including Coca-Cola, will have their own private security details” was an intriguing extra, but nevertheless, some of us living near to the Olympic site have been saying for several years that our community will effectively become a militarised zone from around May 2012.

What is perhaps most significant about the Guardian piece is its extensive use of unattributed contacts from within the security and intelligence establishment – “one security official” and a “well-placed Whitehall source” – and the eagerness of these sources to blame everything on the Americans. Rereading the article, the issues of ‘concern’ they raise, from the meddling of foreign agencies to restrictions on the scope of anti-terrorism stop and search powers and budgetary limitations, look very much like their own gripes, particularly as Britain’s securitariat is notorious for its turf wars and petty jealousies . What the piece also looks like is the raising of a trial balloon for more money and more draconian powers (especially around stop & search) to see how much is shot down by politicians and public opinion (rather than the aforementioned naval missile batteries).

With under a year until the start of the Games, it feels like the process of soften us up for potentially sweeping new powers – in the name of Olympic security – has finally begun This may well mean more arguments for a ‘temporary’ reversal of the repeal of section 44 of the Terrorism Act, which allowed police to stop and search people with impunity, along with demands for a range of new laws to clamp down on public gatherings, ban protests and install a far more intimidating level of visible security in east London than many people may have perhaps realised.

The security establishment used to use the Murdoch press, especially the Sunday Times, as its vehicle for communicating its messages. The right, however, is already largely onside. That this story appeared first in the Guardian does tend to therefore suggest a more targeted audience, aiming to persuade liberals who are more likely to complain about infringements on civil liberties that draconian measures are necessary in the ‘special circumstances’ of the Olympics – and pointing the finger of blame at those terribly hawkish, ‘risk-averse’ Yanks.

Sadly, it’s a strategy that is likely to work – we only have to look at the meek acceptance of the Blair government’s aggressive legislation over a decade of ‘the war on terror’ to see how fragile the liberal establishment’s support for civil liberties can be during ‘special circumstances’. However, the implications for those living near the Olympic park remain genuinely frightening, especially if you are young, black, Muslim, poor and unable to afford to escape to Tuscany during July and August next year.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Catching Up On Political Protest

Having been away, I've missed an eventful month that has included some particularly oppressive policing (see this report from the Network for Police Monitoring) and the Occupy London protest outside St Paul's Cathedral. Today I dropped by the West Courtyard, caught up with some friends who have been taking part from the start and chatted with some new, first time protesters.


For those of us who are unable to take part on a daily basis, there are still ways of offering some practical solidarity. The Occupy London website has a list of 'tat' that the camp needs - more here.

[More photos on Flickr]

Back From India Part 2 - Haryana in Black & White

After a week back in the UK, the jet lag has finally disappeared and I'm starting to get used to the cold. One thing I've been looking forward to seeing the results from this week is an experiment in taking black & white photos using an old school film camera whilst I was in India.

Sadly, the results have been far from a success - the photo service that I used have made a complete mess of developing the black & white film. What I have learnt? That there are real advantages with digital photography - and that Bhogals Pharmacy on Green Street are complete cowboys who have no clue how to develop and print film without screwing up massively. Anyway, here are the pictures. Next time I'll go to Jessops.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Back From India

Apologies for the fact that this blog has gone rather quiet over the last month. Since the beginning of October, I have been in India visiting the school built as a memorial to my old friend Gilly Mundy, who died in 2007 at far too young an age.

Thanks to fundraising by the Buwan Kothi International Trust (of which I am Treasurer), a field in a fairly isolated rural village in Haryana in northern India has been transformed into a school with over 500 students in just over three years - and this was the first chance I have had to see it.

Here are some pictures from the school - I'll try and add more on an eventful trip to the Golden Temple at Amritsar and the India/Pakistan border in the next few days.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Wanstead Flats - Corporation Can't Wait To Spend Met Police's Money

It seems that an impatient City of London Corporation isn't interested in waiting for the outcome of the judicial review of plans by the Metropolitan Police to site its Olympic operations base on Wanstead Flats. It is already eager to spend the money - the incredibly small sum - that the Met has offered for 'rental'.

Consultation [see this PDF] is due to end on 31 October with local people asked to vote on four potential projects: improving the landscape around Alexandra Lake; restoring the tree avenues at Bush Wood; redeveloping the sports facility on Capel Road; and relining Jubilee Pond. The Corporation plans a display of these projects at Capel Road Football Changing Rooms this Sunday (2 October) from 12pm to 3pm and at Aldersbrook Library (date to be confirmed).

This is all part of an desperate attempt to pretend that the operations base is a positive move for Wanstead Flats - a case that the Corporation has singularly failed to convince most local people of over the last year.

Newham Council To Close Atherton Leisure Centre

More evidence of the true face of the Olympic "sporting legacy", as Newham council has announced that it plans to shut down the Atherton Leisure Centre in Stratford on December 31st 2011.

In a statement on the council's website, it says that the closure is the result of "spiralling costs for the repair of the ceiling over the centre's main pool and an estimated maintenance requirement of more than £2.2 million over the next ten years". Mayor Sir Robin Wales insists that the council is committed "to providing a new facility with a pool as quickly as possible and we want people to have a say in what else might go in it", adding:.


"We would like to have kept the centre open while we look at all the options but we simply cannot afford to do that. It would be foolish and a complete waste of money. We need to replace the leisure facility. Doing repairs is money down the drain."

However, minutes of a council meeting on 22 September [PDF] make clear that "at present there is no identified capital funding for the new facility [to replace the Atherton Centre], and no external investment has been secured". It adds that "here is significant risk that the capital financing will not be secured for a replacement facility".

Council officers also acknowledge that there is insufficient capacity within other facilities in the borough to cope with the closure of the Atherton Centre - there will be severe problems in accommodating the School Swimming Lesson Programme that currently uses the Atherton pool to full capacity, as well as 81 private swimming lessons and aerobics classes, fitness sessions and football clubs.

The Atherton Centre has approximately 240 000 visits a year, 23% of the borough total visits to Leisure Centres. Its loss, with no concrete plans for a replacement, will have a significant impact on leisure facilities locally and it will cost local taxpayers £80,000 to decommission the building. The planned closure also seems to have been in part influenced by the end of the current contract with Greenwich Leisure Ltd, who currently tun the centre. Meanwhile, the planned opening of the Olympic Pool to the public is not due to take place until 2014. So what happens over the next two years?

Tomorrow , a protest is planned to show the council that local people are not prepared to accept the closure of a popular community resource. Meet outside the Atherton Centre (189 Romford Road) at 11am.

Friday, 23 September 2011

LAZY FRIDAY - What If Computer Problems Were Real?

What if computer problems were real? This week's Friday lunchtime distraction is for everyone having a really bad day at the office.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Olympics Sponsor Coca Cola Recruits Distributors - But Isn't Paying Them

Many thanks to Pete from local community radio station NuSound for letting me know that for next year's London Olympics, official sponsor Coca-Cola is recruiting people "to help distribute drinks to athletes, visitors, staff and volunteers within the Olympic Park and other London 2012 venue" - but isn't paying them.

The posts of 'Venue Operator Interns' will involve, amongst other tasks, the distribution and arrangement of "up to an average of 80 cases of product per day", as well as ensuring "the correct amounts of stock are maintained and recorded". Internships are full time for a period of 4 to 8 weeks between 18 July and 12 September next year and their hours may include late night shifts. The work is evidently demanding: applicants are expected to be "physically fit with a high level of energy".

So much of been made about the employment opportunities that the Games will bring to local people, although there are only 11 jobs in east London listed (as of today) on the official Jobs for the Games website. But it's still a shock to discover that a 'Worldwide Olympic Partner' like Coca Cola has found a way around minimum wage legislation by not paying interns a wage at all - especially when even the Department for Business Innovation and Skills has produced guidance advising that intern positions should be paid the National Minimum Wage.

Unsurprisingly, the offer of sharing a twin room in a hotel, a "healthy breakfast and working lunch" and expenses didn't feature in this guidance as an adequate alternative to proper pay of at least £8.30 an hour.

During the Labour leadership campaign Ed Miliband signed a pledge organised by the campaign Intern Aware promising that, if elected, he would "campaign for Labour’s Minimum Wage Act to be fully enforced so that employers must pay their interns what they are due". Somehow, I imagine the chances are slim at best that he'll speak up and demand that this includes the Olympics in 2012.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Property Investor Gave £50K To Tories Months Before Winning Olympic Village Bid

From this week's Private Eye [16-23 Sept 2011]:


Property investor Jamie Ritblat's company Delancey made a £50,000 donation to the Conservative Party just months before it bought the Olympic athletes' village in east London at a £275m loss to taxpayers.

This is the first time Ritblat, Eton-educated son of property giant John Ritblat, or his firm had donated to the Tories, according to the Electoral Commission.

Delancey bought the Olympic Village with Qatari Diar, the Qatar investment vehicle, for £557m – nearly £300m less than the Olympic Delivery Authority had paid to build it. Other bidders had offered even less, so the dead at least represented the smallest loss to the public purse.

The deal's supporters say that the Olympic homes, which have no kitchens, require a lot of remodelling before they can be rented or sold after the games. The Wellcome Foundation, which also bid, wanted a larger slice of the site and to build a research centre, which would have netted less money in the short term but potentially could have done more to create jobs and boost the economy. The strong possibility that the Delancey-Qatari owners may sell many of the properties to overseas buyers may also add controversy.

Ritblat will have plenty of opportunities to discuss these issues with the government: £50,000 buys him a place at the Tory party's “leader's group” and the chance to rub shoulders with David Cameron and other party bigwigs.

Though culture secretary Jeremy Hunt described the Stratford deal as “fantastic”, as it would “give taxpayers a great return”, Ritblat Jnr's ventures haven't always been so good for the public. Delancey was part of the notorious “Mapeley” consortium which bought all the UK's tax offices and leased them back to the UK government, with a lot of cash flowing offshore into a tax haven.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Campaign Launched Against Secretive Cuts To Stratford Children's Library

There’s little doubt that Stratford library is always busy – it’s often difficult to find a seat amongst the students who use it regularly and its children’s area is popular with local parents. However, most may not know that the library is due to close for six months from 1 October for what Newham council calls “refurbishment” – and what in practice means the incorporation of the Local Service Centre, currently across the road near the Fox pub, are part of the Mayor's plan for "Integrated Front Offices". With no notice and no public consultation, this will involve a drastic reduction in the children's library area.

The few Stratford library users who have heard about this proposal are understandably furious and I am indebted to Claire Perez for letting me know about a campaign to “end the clandestine cutting of community services upon which our children depend”. A campaign website has been set up and a petition launched. In a letter to Mayor Sir Robin Wales, Ms Perez says:


According to my conversation with senior library management, the Borough’s communications team had not authorised them to inform library users of these impending changes. This is unacceptable and makes parents and children feel that they are victim to cynical machine politics. Parents and children of Newham will not be able to forgive politicians who stand back and allow a whole generation of young people to be betrayed in this way.

Sadly this kind of secrecy is commonplace in Newham. As those of us with a long memory also know well, efforts to persuade Sir Robin to change his mind are notoriously difficult, especially when squeezing other council services into a smaller, more overcrowded Stratford Library enables him to continue to claim that no library in Newham will actually close. The campaign by parents therefore needs all the support it can get from local people. You can find out about how to do so here.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Newham's Conspicuous Consumption Day

Down in Docklands today, arms dealers gathered at the ExCel Centre to spend millions on arms, ammunition and equipment. Meanwhile, the new Stratford Westfield shopping mall also had its opening day and was mobbed by crowds reminiscent of the pre-Christmas rush on Oxford Street.

Due to work commitments I was able to make it down to Custom House, where I hear that protests were smaller than in previous years. As for Westfield - as well as the 'smarter' shops, the mall also has its fair share of the usual chains, including Primark, Footlocker and Greggs. There's little doubt it will kill the old Stratford Shopping Centre, but will the crowds really return to Westfield in the same numbers once the novelty has worn off?

More pictures on Flickr

Monday, 12 September 2011

Protest Ban in Newham Lifted

From a press release this evening from Christian Khan Solicitors:


The Metropolitan Police today applied to the Home Secretary for consent to lift a blanket ban on protest marches in four East London boroughs to allow a march against the world's largest arms fair to go ahead on Wednesday 14 September 2011, following a threat to bring legal proceedings challenging the lawfulness of the ban.

Taherali Gulamhussein, a protestor and volunteer with the Network for Police Monitoring, last week instructed Kat Craig of Christian Khan Solicitors to send a Letter before Action challenging the 30-day blanket ban on protests imposed on all marches in five London boroughs, namely Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Islington, Waltham Forest, and Newham.

The decision to vary the ban, which had been applied for by the Metropolitan Police under Section 13 of the Public Order Act 1986, came one minute before a deadline given by Mr Gulamhussein’s lawyers to cancel or vary the ban, or be taken to the High Court tomorrow (Tuesday) morning. The ban has now been lifted in all boroughs except Tower Hamlets.

Mr Gulamhussein challenged the ban when he realised that a march he wished to attend, organised by the University of East London Students’ Union to the Excel Centre in East London in protest against the arms trade, would be prohibited. He said:

“There appears to be an increasing and worrying tendency by the state to attempt to silence legitimate opposition in the form of peaceful protest.”

The ban, which came into force on 2 September 2011, was originally believed to have been put in place following concerns about a march planned by far-right group the English Defence League (EDL) in Tower Hamlets on 3 September 2011. However, activists and lawyers raised concerns when they noted that it extended far beyond the area where the EDL intended to march, and was due to be in force for a period of 30 days.

Kat Craig, who specialises in bringing challenges against the police for interfering with the right to peaceful protest, said:

“The ban was patently disproportionate and excessive. Leaving to one side its initial purported aim, it would have prevented any march in the five boroughs, regardless of why and by whom it had been organised. It was a clear and flagrant infringement of the right to freedom of expression.”

In response to the threatened legal action, the Metropolitan Police disclosed that concerns about further public disorder following the shooting by police of Mark Duggan, whose funeral took place last Friday, were one of the reasons the ban was proposed.

Mr Gulamhussein, continued:

"It is deeply concerning that the police and the Home Secretary attempted to use the funeral of an innocent man, who died at the hands of state agents, to prevent legitimate protests taking place. Further, it makes no sense as the ban covered a completely different geographical area. This is yet another example of the lack of transparency we face when dealing with the police, and shows that we must challenge their decisions to ensure accountability."

Friday, 9 September 2011

LAZY FRIDAY - Go Forth And Revolt

This Friday's lunchtime distraction is a anti-capitalist parody of the staggeringly awful Levi's advert playing in cinemas at the moment. It gets far closer to some real truths than the noodling jazz of the jeans ad.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Newham Mayor Paid £10K By Olympic Organisers in 2011

Today the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) published its financial report and accounts for 2010-11, which includes details of directors' remuneration.

It comes as a surprise to find, on page 69 of the report [PDF], that one elected public official who sits as a non-executive director - Newham's Mayor Sir Robin Wales - was paid £10,000 by LOCOG in 2011 and £7000 in 2010. This is on top of an inflation-busting 4% pay rise from Newham council in 2010, which took his Mayor's salary to £81,029 a year.

Intriguingly, the accounts indicate that Stephen Lovegrove, a senior civil servant within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, "does not draw a fee for his services as a Non-executive Director given the nature of his role within the UK Government". I had always assumed that Sir Robin's role within local government, representing one of the Olympic host boroughs, would mean the same. But presumably LOCOG pays for his dynamic communication and interpersonal skills, not for the fact that he has final say on a huge range of council decisions that impact on the organisation of next year's Games.

If you're thinking this may throw up potential conflicts of interest, then don't worry - Sir Robin chairs LOCOG's Remuneration Committee and I'm sure he knows what he is doing...

POSTSCRIPT

The FT reports that LOCOG chief executive Paul Deighton has decided to donate his £220,000 performance and loyalty bonus to charity. As Sir Robin already has a full-time job working as the elected Mayor of Newham, perhaps he might consider donating his £10K towards, say, the youth projects that have been cut in the borough?

Monday, 5 September 2011

Wanstead Flats Campaign Update

The judicial review of the Home Office's plans to amend the 133-year old law that protects Wanstead Flats and stands in the way of the proposed Olympics police base, will soon mean a weekday hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand.

As regular visitors to this blog will know, the 'Legislative Reform Order' amending the Epping Forest Act was passed with little debate by Parliament some months ago. However, the Save Wanstead Flats campaign has continued to argue that because the consultation carried out by the Home Office was so poor, denying local people a proper chance to challenge the decision, it should be overturned. One resident, Dr Michael Pelling, has therefore sought a judicial review of the Home Office consultation process, with the Save Wanstead Flats campaign named as an 'interested party'. At some point within the next eight weeks, a hearing date will be set and as soon as it is, the Save Wanstead Flats campaign plans to hold a protest outside of the court. Local residents will then be able go in and witness the hearing.

A leaflet is circulating to homes locally asking if residents want to receive an update on the final court date. A copy can be downloaded from here [PDF].

Meanwhile, over on the 'Protect Wanstead Flats and Epping Forest' FaceBook page, some unscrupulous rumour-mongering about the prospect of a compulsory purchase order of the Wanstead Flats site, if the Home Office loses the judicial review, has attracted the attention of the Metropolitan Police. On 5 August, someone called Tim Knight posted the following:

The implication is clearly that any blame for a compulsory purchase order would fall upon Save Wanstead Flats campaign members, for refusing to "just let it happen for a couple of months". I only became aware of this dubious piece of shit-stirring when I received an e-mail from Detective Chief Superintendent Alaric Bonthron from the Met's Olympics community relations team, who said:


"In response to the comment posted earlier on a social networking site, the Met have not issued a compulsory purchase order for land at Wanstead Flats and have no intention to. As set out in the Met's planning application, the use of the fairground area of Wanstead Flats is for a temporary period of 90 days in the summer of 2012 and awaits the outcome of the judicial review process which is currently with the High Court. "

As Mr Knight went on to suggest on FaceBook that the source of his claim is "Epping Forest HQ", I have contacted the Head of Open Spaces at the City of London Corporation asking for confirmation that no discussions about a compulsory purchase order have taken place. As soon as a reply comes through, I'll pass on the Corporation's comments too.

POSTSCRIPT - 6 September

Sue Ireland, the Director of Open Spaces at the City of London Corporation, has e-mailed with this:

I can confirm that, since the decision was taken to apply for a LRO, there has been no discussion with the Met about use of a Compulsory Purchase Order and we await the outcome of the judicial review process.

So Tim Knight, whoever you are - where did you get your information from, eh?

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Yesterday's Anti-EDL Protest In Whitechapel

There were around 1500 anti-fascist protesters out on the streets of Whitechapel yesterday, along with about 3000 police. Unfortunately I missed the eventual arrival of around 600 members of the English Defence League at Aldgate on the border of Tower Hamlets, the arrest of EDL leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (dressed, bizarrely, as a rabbi) and the march by anti-fascists back along the Whitechapel Road, which proved that the Home Secretary's ban on processions in five east London boroughs is unenforcible if protesters have the numbers. But here are a few photographs at yesterday's 'static demonstration' at the junction of Vallance Road:

Friday, 2 September 2011

LAZY FRIDAY - Your Ad Here

I'm guess I'm not the only one who gets irritated by adverts in front of YouTube videos. Today's Friday lunchtime distraction features Mario and Fafa from Glove and Boots discuss the finer points of YouTube advertising as they try to figure out how to make money their video blog.


Hat-tip: The Laughing Squid

Thursday, 1 September 2011

'Preventing Violent Extremism' - More Wilful Obfuscation By Newham Council

The battle to try and persuade Newham council to explain how it has actually spent hundreds of thousands of pounds allocated for its ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ programme has been rumbling on since February 2010. In July this, as I reported at the time, a series of specific questions put to the senior officer responsible for PVE, following a meeting in May 2011, had still not been answered. But yesterday, after more than three months, a reply finally appeared: an eighty one word e-mail of more wilful obfuscation.

Up until now, I haven't named the council officer who is stonewalling questions about the council's lack of openness, but considering how insulting and evasive his latest response has been, I feel it only right that I now do so. As council tax payers, we fund the salaries of senior officers after all and, as the campaigner Heather Broke points out in her book The Silent State, the ability of bureaucrats to hide behind anonymity often contributes to an even greater lack of transparency. So anyway... the official in this case is Geraint Evans and he is the 'Community Resilience Manager' within the Safer Newham Partnership Team.

In May, Evans had been asked two questions about the way Newham council had consumed a large chunk of its PVE funding – what had happened to £200,000 for projects in 2010/11, what they were and what their intended outcomes had been; and exactly how an allocated £67,425 in 2010/11 to “undertake a programme of communications and events to improve community cohesion throughout the borough” was actually spent. Unfortunately, my 2010 Freedom of Information request (PDF) had failed to elicit any detail, which makes Evans’ response all the more infuriating:


"As for the questions on budgets and spending, I would refer you to the Freedom of Information section on the Newham website, where similar questions have recently been answered".

But sadly, they haven’t been answered. It is impossible to comprehend why these questions couldn’t just receive a straight answer, instead of requiring a trawl through pages and pages of the council’s FOI Disclosure logs. But I have searched through them – and the FOI requests on PVE budgets are my own and they did not answer the specific question on how huge sums of council money were actually spent. That was the point of asking for more detail in the first place – and Evans’ response is nothing short of utter nonsense.

Evans was also asked about the PVE ‘Channel’ programme, which identifies those who are allegedly vulnerable to recruitment by extremists and then seeks to channel them in a different direction. Newham has one of the largest ‘Channel’ caseloads in the country. In May’s meeting, Evans had dodged the opportunity to confirm the proportion of Muslims caught up in the programme, insisting there is no discrimination and that the council is concerned with all forms of terrorism. We still have no way of checking how true this is, for Evans has found a new and imaginative way to avoid giving an answer, saying:

“I should also remind you that any questions regarding Channel should be put to the Police, rather than to LBN, as they are responsible for such things”.

So despite insisting that Prevent doesn’t target the Muslim community, Evans now insists that Channel has nothing to do with him. How, then, can he claim to know?

Finally, Evans was asked for a copy of the London Borough of Newham’s current strategy document for delivering the Prevent programme locally. A simple request, surely? Sadly not, for the response simply said:

“LBN are currently working on a new delivery plan."

You will note that there is no indication when the new plan might be ready or whether it would ever be made publicly available once it has been finalised. Neither is there what was asked for: not even an invitation to spend hours searching through the council's website for its current strategy document. It's hard to imagine how this reply could have been any more unhelpful.

The only potentially useful information provided was a copy of an external assessment of the delivery of the PVE programme in Newham, conducted by the Office for Public Management (OPM). This report is interesting, for it raises serious questions about why Newham has such a huge PVE caseload, as many of those questioned by OPM felt that Muslim radicalisation in Newham “was nonexistent, limited or ‘moderate’ at worst”. I’ll cover the 108-page document in a further blog post soon.

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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