Tuesday 31 January 2012

Is Getting Rid Of The Dear Leader Really Enough?

Over lunch at Saturday’s Counter Olympic Conference, I was once again pulled into a discussion with campaigners about Newham’s terrible directly-elected Mayor and how much better the borough would be without him. The plea I made in December not to hear another grumbled but inconclusive conversation about how vital it is that we are rid of Sir Robin Wales clearly hasn’t worked.

As I explained back then and again on Saturday, the means are now available under the Localism Act to change the way Newham is governed. However, even if there are enough people willing to put in the hard work to collect signatures and trigger a referendum, any local 'Bring Back Democracy' campaign would also need to be brilliantly organised, better than anything the borough has seen previously. It would need the confidence to guarantee that enough people actually turn out to vote for change: in January 2002, the referendum that created the Mayor and Cabinet system had only a 26% turn-out. That would mean ward-by-ward voter mobilisation, lots of willing volunteers and money: enough to pay for publicity to cover over 91,000 households.

Thinking more about this over the weekend, the organisational obstacles are only the start. If, by some Herculean effort, the position of directly-elected Mayor was eventually abolished, what would happen then? In an area where integrity mattered, it would be nice to think that the current incumbent would resign, but it’s just as likely that Wales would simply step back into the position of council leader, one he held from 1995 until 2002. Even if his position was untenable within the local Labour Party, look at the calibre of politicians in Newham and imagine who would take over – probably one of the long line of staggering mediocrities who have loyally served the Dear Leader over the last decade.

Nor would we ignore one of the principal reasons for the deference displayed by most councillors on key issues over the last ten years. Many are now dependent on a salary for representing their constituents that is far higher than the average local wage. Disobedience carries the risk of demotion, political exile and even the dole. No wonder they toe whatever line is given by whoever holds the power of patronage.

It will be tough to encourage a large number of local people to vote for a change in the governance of Newham when all that is on offer is a return to the way things were in 2001. Yes, seeing Sir Robin Wales humiliated might be satisfying, but perhaps it’s worth thinking a little more ambitiously?

Personally, I think a 'Bring Back Democracy' campaign needs to argue not only for a referendum on the Mayor and Cabinet system but for:

  • an end to full-time councillor positions and to automatic allowances, with elected representatives paid only for time off work (possibly as compensation to their employer, if they are working, to encourage companies to support the principle of local public service).

  • a right of local residents to demand an annual recall vote of their elected representatives if they believe their councillor is useless and can gather enough signatures in support.

  • far greater openness and transparency, including a presumption of automatic publication of everything unless the council can show that disclosure would cause genuine harm.

  • the establishment of Neighbourhood Forums in Newham that are created by local people themselves (perhaps with a minimum requirement for the numbers of streets) but formally recognised by the council and

  • the use of further local referenda to validate any large scale redevelopment plans (such as the proposals for Forest Gate, Canning Town or for Queens Market in Upton Park).
The system that has operated in this borough since 2002 has created a fiefdom in which, as I argued in 2009, “timidity crushes initiative, fear ingrains institutional inertia, culminating in a mixture of incompetence and officiousness”. Pulling it down requires a political earthquake in Newham, not just a change of personality at the top.

Sunday 29 January 2012

Report on Yesterday's Counter Olympic Conference

Yesterday's 'Countering the Olympics' conference at Toynbee Hall certainly didn't lack ambition: nothing less than constructing an alternative narrative to the constant, almost cult-like cheerleading in support of this summer's Games.

It brought together many of the local campaigns that have tried to resist the anti-democratic imposition of the Olympics on London, one that has pressed ahead with little regard for Londoners as anything other than passive spectators and with even less interest in the notion that 'consultation' means listening and acting upon the concerns of local people. There were valuable contributions from campaigners concerned with the issues that have dogged previous Games: the International Olympics Committee's obsession with satisfying the money-making needs of its corporate sponsors, the use of sweatshop labour in manufacturing athletes' kit and the dubious claims that the Games will be 'ethical and green'. Colin Toogood gave an interesting account of the campaign by the Bhopal Medical Appeal against the involvement of Dow as the 'official chemical company of the Olympics' and Anna Minton, author of 'Ground Control', was excellent in highlighting how London 2012 represents just as much of a government 'bailout' as the one gifted to RBS. Despite promises that £738 million would come from the private sector for core Olympic costs, companies have contributed only 2% of the overall figure.

My own contribution was on the security implications of the Games, both on local people and on the right to legitimately protest. There are genuine reasons to fear that east London will resemble a militarised zone in July and August (more so now that soldiers drafted in to support G4S private security will wear their own uniforms) and concern about the excessive use of police powers to stop and question anyone, especially the young. It was good to focus on some positive plans already in place to deal with this: the lead by the Network for Police Monitoring on legal observation of protest and plans by Newham Monitoring Project to offer an Olympics civil liberties helpline, trained Community Legal Observers near to event venues, a basic rights information card and workshops for youth and community groups.

What I couldn't shake, however, was the feeling that 100 people in a hall in Whitechapel, six months before the start of the Games, have an enormous task in providing a critical perspective on the Olympics that will be listened to. It felt as though the yesterday's conference was happening rather late in the day, although it probably would have been impossible until now to both get everyone together and to encourage a disparate group of activists to recognise why the Olympics will have an enormous impact on everything from policing to planning. I also detect a degree of wishful thinking in seeing the experience of previous Olympic cities as a model for how opposition can be mobilised, particularly Vancouver's hosting of the Winter Olympics in 2010. The reality is that there has simply been no history of active anti-Olympic resistance in London since the announcement of the winning bid in 2005 that is anything like the scale that there was in British Columbia.

Nevertheless, there will be media organisations from all over the world in our city this summer and the majority, carrying no official accreditation from the London Organising Committee, will be eager for stories. The strapline that appears at the top of this blog has therefore never been more true: if you don't like what's in the news, then go out and make some of your own. If nothing else, London activists will need their own independent media centre to coordinate and distribute information on the news we create and, considering the Metropolitan police's enthusiasm for clamping down on the squatting of empty buildings, we preferably need one that is secure and cannot easily be raided and closed down.

So does anyone have an empty building or a hall they want to offer over the summer, preferably near Stratford and on a peppercorn rent, for a independent media convergence space?

Friday 27 January 2012

Anti-Olympics Poster Competition - The Results

Having announced an entirely unofficial and not entirely serious Olympics poster competition back in December, the deadline for publishing submissions has arrived (changed for tomorrow's Countering the Olympics Conference in Whitechapel, which I'm speaking at). I'm pleased to share some of the excellent designs, most provided anonymously, that I've been sent.

As 'lawgraduate' points out in a comment to my original posting, the London Olympic Games (Trading and Advertising) (England) Regulations 2011 do not apply to "advertising activity intended to demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person or body of persons" or to "publicise a belief, cause or campaign". These were only published on 1 December 2011, which is why I missed them, but they relate primarily to an attempt to control 'ambush marketing' by companies inside the 'event zone'.

However, several of these designs definitely are "a representation of something so similar to the Olympic symbol" under the Olympic Symbol etc. (Protection) Act 1995 that they could be illegal if someone were to "incorporates it in a flag or banner". It's something of a legal minefield and I'm not a lawyer, but whatever way you look at it, I doubt whether you'll get past G4S security into the Olympic stadium with a t-shirt bearing any of them. Anyway, enjoy:

A comment on the potential overall cost:

From the frankly obscene:

To this more cerebral comment on Olympic brand enclosures:
Thanks to everyone who sent in an entry (if 'teacherdude' wants to send me his original,I'll stick that up here too). I'll have these turned into PDFs shortly.


(Most of) the posters are now ready as PDFs. The set are available here or individually:

Olympigs - A4 | A3
CCTV - A4 | A3
"We Don't Want Your Olympics Here" - A4 | A3
"Go Ahead, Arrest Me!" - A4 | A3
Siege City - A4 | A3
Potential overall cost - A4 | A3
Brand Enclosures - A4 | A3

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Newham Seeks To Make Olympic ANPR Surveillance Permanent

There seems to be a fair amount of confusion and rumour about the exact impact of this summer’s Olympics on restrictions of movement, access, parking and surveillance of residents and businesses in Newham.

Due to a lack of clear and accessible information, I’ve therefore tried to gather together whatever detail I can find, although the problem is that the London 2012 “Local access and parking plans” web page is rather sketchy and the council’s “Games time access and parking plans” is little better. However, reports submitted to Newham’s Cabinet meeting in October 2011 and to this Thursday’s meeting shed more light on what we can expect. What they confirm is this:

Across Newham

The existing 18 Residential Parking Zones (RPZs) will be extended into one giant zone to cover the whole of the borough during the Olympics (not just 1.5 miles from venues as originally proposed), with parking restrictions covering every street from 8am to 9pm.

The council will use Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) surveillance to monitor whether vehicles are owned by residents. It will operate its own enforcement database with information provided by the DVLA on every vehicle registered to addresses in Newham. These vehicles will have an automatic right to park.

Vehicles not registered to an address in Newham will need permission to park and need to apply for inclusion on the database. This includes businesses and service providers needing vehicular access to the area. Residents will be required to register any visitor’s vehicle online or by phone when the visitor arrives and will be offered up to 40 “games time only” all day visitor vouchers, at a subsidised cost of £1 per day. Applications are likely to be limited to those residents registered on the electoral roll. Non-resident/business visitors and commuters will be prohibited from parking in the borough during the Games.

LOCOG-provided ANPR vehicles will provide “real time” information on cars and vans that are not on the database and Newham has contracted Mouchel Ltd to enforce parking restrictions, including vehicle removal (it’s a timely contact for the company, who in December announced annual losses of £65m). Mouchel will employ a team of 18 mobile Civil Enforcement Officers (on mopeds) and 33 Parking Marshals. Enforcement is likely to be stringent and there are plans for a back-up system if the technology fails.

Newham is lobbying to increase the penalty charge to £200 on the entire borough’s roads, bring it in line with the charge for the Olympic Route Network (see below).

This is the alarming legacy issue: the council papers for Thursday’s Cabinet [PDF] say that LOCOG has indicated that after the Olympics are over, “they would be willing to negotiate with Newham regarding the sale of their ANPR vehicles”. Moreover, whilst the DVLA have said that supplying vehicle registration for the Games is a one-off, “Newham and other London Authorities will continue to lobby to have direct access to the DVLA data base to assist with improved efficiencies in administering parking permits to Newham residents and businesses”. The report adds:

Notwithstanding direct access to the DVLA data base it is the intention of Newham to roll out its own virtual permit system as a way of reducing administration costs and providing a more accessible service to all residents and businesses. ANPR would be used to automatically recognise vehicles parked without a valid permit which in turn will improve parking enforcement and enable Newham to have a much more proactive enforcement regime with regards to identifying persistent evaders.

Olympic surveillance using ANPR is to become a permanent feature, in other words.

The Olympic Route Network

In Newham, the Olympic Route Network (ORN) and Paralympic Route Network (PRN) will primarily affect residents in Stratford, Canning Town and Custom House. The roads affected are:
It will mean changes to traffic signal timings, restricted turns, side road closures to general traffic, bus diversions and the suspension of parking, waiting bays and some pedestrian crossings. In addition, around a third (35 miles of the ORN in London) of the ORN/PRN will include temporary Games Lanes that are only accessible to the 4000 BMW cars for VIPs and a fleet of 1500 coaches for athletes, games officials and the media. Enforcement will operate between 6am and midnight, seven days a week from 25 July to 14 August for the Olympics and from 27 August to 11 September for the Paralympics. The fixed penalty charge will be £200.

Not all the details of local restrictions or the ORN/PRN arrangements have been finalised. I’ll write more when I hear about it – and if anyone has any extra information they’d like to share, please let me know.

Monday 23 January 2012

In Memory of NMP Supporter Rhona Badham

Sadly, pressure of work mean I was unable to attend the funeral in Brentwood today of Newham Monitoring Project supporter Rhona Badham, nor the wake held at the George pub in Wanstead this evening.

Rhona (on the left in the picture, appropriately) was a local activist and campaigner, one of those sometimes-maligned and always overworked individuals that are essential for helping in some small way to glue their community together. I knew her as a regular volunteer for NMP's Emergency Service in the early 1990s, someone who was always willing to step in if we were short of someone to cover the telephone helpline, as well as someone who I saw on numerous anti-racist and anti-war demonstrations. Rhona was also a trade unionist, a socialist and a peace campaigner who was very active in Labour CND and in Newham's voluntary sector too: running the Citizens Advice Bureau at Lawrence Hall in Plaistow during the 1970s and serving as a director of the Parents' Centre (from which Newham Bookshop was founded).

The history of resistance to racist violence in Newham is a proud one. That resistance was always made possible by the many individuals who never sought acclaim or political influence from their activism, but who worked hard to offer practical support to communities under attack. Rhona was one of those people and, speaking for everyone at Newham Monitoring Project. I know she deserves to be recognised and remembered for the contribution that she made over many, many years.

Photo: Labour CND

Sunday 22 January 2012

Stratford - A Scrap Metal Paradise

Remember the 'titanium trees' that I mentioned back in June 2010? They're designed to hide the old Stratford shopping centre from the delicate gaze of Olympic visitors and were originally rejected by Newham council’s own design review panel. But now they are nearing completion and unless the 'canopies' that come next can somehow transform them, they really are quite spectacularly ugly:

Another far from stunning steel construction, the 115-metre high ArcelorMittal Orbit observation tower in the Olympic Park, has also come a long way since I last dropped by at the end of July 2011. More photos from a brief visit today can be found here.

Left: July 2011 Right: January 2012

Exhibition Remembers 25th Anniversary Of Wapping Dispute

Yesterday afternoon I stopped by at the Bishopsgate Institute near Spitalfields to visit the exhibition marking the 25th anniversary of the Wapping Dispute, made all the more interesting for having a long chat there with John Bailey, a former print worker and and NGA chapel father at The Sun.

John very kindly suggested that I couldn't possibly be old enough to remember the strike, but it began on 24 January 1986, the year before I started a degree at City of London Polytechnic in Aldgate. Indeed, I still have old copies of flyers and "Don't Buy The Sun" stickers buried in a trunk in my flat, many of which are included in an exhibition that quite deliberately sets out to provide a workers' perspective on the strike. I also remember the staggering police violence against print workers and protesters, which having probably had more impact on me as an 18-year-old than the Miners' Strike a couple of years earlier. Equally, having pitched up in Tower Hamlets in 1987, the legacy of the dispute, its effect on local communities in Wapping and the defeat of the print unions was a prominent part of the political background of my first year at college.

The other legacies of the strike have become clear: removing trade unions from Wapping gave Rupert Murdoch the absolute power to ensure that his journalists did whatever was necessary in the pursuit of greater profit - even when, as we've seen with the phone hacking scandal, the methods used were illegal. It also cemented a cosy and corrupting relationship between News International, the government and the Metropolitan Police that has continued for 25 years, one that only now is the Leveson Inquiry beginning to pick apart.

The exhibition continues at the Bishopsgate Institute until 29th February. It is open Monday to Thursday and Saturday from 10am to 5.30pm and on Friday from 10am to 2pm. This video gives a flavour of what is on display:

Saturday 21 January 2012

London Mayor Rejects Forest Gate Redevelopment Plans

In a letter sent on Wednesday to Newham council, Mayor of London Boris Johnson has rejected the planning application for major regeneration in Forest Gate centred around Earlham Grove, which would have involved 800 new homes and a highly controversial 27 storey tower block.

The letter from the Senior Planning Manager at the Greater London Authority says:

"The Mayor considers that the application does not comply with the London Plan... Having consider the report the Mayor takes a different view on the acceptability of the tall building in this location. He does not consider that this location is suitable for a tall building on this scale."

The decision to reject the application also sets out (in paragraph 141) a number of other concerns, including insufficient information on housing quality, the impact on equalities, community facilities and heritage considerations.

In a statement e-mailed from the Save Forest Gate Campaign, local resident Paul Holloway said:

"This is fantastic news for the community in Forest Gate, which has been overwhelmingly opposed to this development since it first became public knowledge in the summer.

The GLA also criticised the planning application regarding the Retail Strategy, loss of community facilities, the impact on ethnic minorities, lack of affordable, family housing – and the GLA also makes it clear that the housing density is excessive – and that it had been under-stated in the planning application".

Dr Opara-Mottoh, Member of the Methodist Church Council added:

“We are very glad that Boris Johnson has seen sense in rejecting the planning application and we hope that Newham Council will also see sense when they consider the application in February”.

The rejection of the plans does not necessarily mean that the project is dead: the GLA report sets out (in paragraph 142) a number of remedies that property developers Obsidian can consider "that would possibly lead to the application becoming complaint with the London Plan." However, the decision by Boris Johnson's administration to reject another planning application in Newham, one that also centred around a huge tower block, completely killed off efforts by developers St Modwen to redevelop Queens Market in Upton Park.

Obsidian will have a massive task - and potentially an hugely expensive one - if they intend to rescue their deeply flawed proposals. As Dr Opara-Mottoh says, it will be interesting to see what Newham council decides to do next.

Thursday 19 January 2012

New Monitoring Role For Wanstead Flats Campaign

Rather like the very first public meeting on plans to place an Olympics police operations base on Wanstead Flats, back in July 2010, I had no idea how many people would turn up at Durning Hall in Forest Gate last night to discuss what residents wanted to do next. After the disappointment of December's court decision, would people vote with their feet or was there still a popular commitment to defend the Flats?

Attendance by around forty people yesterday, almost half of them teenagers, was therefore very welcome. The 90-minute debate ranged from concerns about the scale of Olympic security (an issue I'll return to in more detail in a future article) to how decisions were made by the City of London Corporation and Redbridge council. Encouragingly, a number of important decisions were made - most notably that the Save Wanstead Flats campaign will continue. Its new role will focus on monitoring the impact of the Metropolitan Police's base on the local neighbourhood and on people who use Wanstead Flats, as well as the extent of damage to the site after the Olympics are over. The campaign is looking for written assurances from the police that there will be no restrictions on access to the Flats beyond the boundaries of the fenced enclosure and on our ability to enjoy the remainder of the land for its intended recreation and leisure purposes.

The Save Wanstead Flats campaign website will soon include a reporting form so that local people can feed back and report any concerns or complaints. The intention is both to highlight immediate problems and draw together lessons that illustrate why any future attempt to use the Flats for security purposes would be completely inappropriate. Some residents also want to take up issues such as challenging the undemocratic nature of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 and changing the way planning permission on the Flats is solely the responsibility of Redbridge council, in situations that mainly affect people from other boroughs. But the main decision, overwhelmingly supported last night, was to mark the beginning and end of the police occupation of Wanstead Flats with a reminder that the land remains public and belongs to us.

On Sunday 10th June, the campaign is inviting everyone to 'Come Dine With Us On Wanstead Flats' with a community picnic on the planned site of the operations base, similar to the event organised in September 2010. A further gathering, to welcome the Flats back to full open access for all, will be held once the site is restored in late September. More details on this and a further campaign meeting will follow soon - but for the time being, keep 10th June in your diary free.

Sunday 15 January 2012

Is Police Database Abuse Becoming Endemic?

On Twitter, I regularly share (from @copwatcher) news stories about policing in Britain that interest me. An item today on the Daily Mail website, about eight Essex police officers losing their jobs after illegally accessing confidential police databases, made me realise that lately I’ve been seeing similar stories appear again and again.

Looking back over my Twitter timeline, I have noticed that from November 2011, there have been six reports in only three months that involve abuse of personal data by serving officers. As well as today’s story, these include:

In addition, a news report in November on breaches of the Data Protection Act in Norfolk and Suffolk since 2008 identified 22 incidents within Norfolk Police, a number that involved the dismissal of police officers or community support officers.

Today’s report about Essex Police reveals that it took a whistle-blower, rather than strict rules and policies usually defended by police press officers, to highlight ‘routine abuses’ of IT systems. Although browsing back through my Twitter timeline involves a far from vigorous methodology, the number of stories from around the country does point to the possibility that this kind of routine police misuse of personal data may be far greater than reported, perhaps even commonplace.

If this is the case and if even a small proportion of these abuses of power are for financial gain (the Mail on Sunday alleges Essex officers had routinely attempted to access the private details of celebrities), then this would represent a significant level of police corruption and the kind of unhealthy relationships with the media that go way beyond the ‘drinking and flirting’ focused on by the recent report by Elizabeth Filkin. Perhaps the Levenson Inquiry, currently considering the culture, practices and ethics of the press, should consider asking for details of data protection breaches from all 43 constabularies, along with information on the number of incidents where there were suspicions that personal information was passed on to journalists?

The failure of the surveillance society to maintain control of the data it routinely hoovers up is one of the reasons why its defenders’ claim, that "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear," has always been a myth. Data gathering is a huge operation, the depth and breadth of information held is unprecedented and it can be incredibly difficult to have personal data removed from police databases – and as two teenagers in Bishop Auckland found out in December, after helping a five-year-old girl asleep in the back of a stolen car, far easier to wrongly end up on one.

That’s what makes the prospect of endemic misuse of IT by police officers across the country so alarming.


17 January 2012: A civilian worker at Lancashire Police who was sacked for accessing personal data has told an employment tribunal that police officers and staff regularly checked files for their own benefit.

9 December 2011: the Leicestershire police inspector Tobias Day, who murdered his wife and daughter, had just been sacked for misusing his force's computer systems.

Thursday 12 January 2012

A Brief History Of The Save Wanstead Flats Campaign

The Save Wanstead Flats campaign meets next week to decide its next steps and a request from the Wanstead Village Directory website for a brief history of the campaign has meant I've been able to write up an account of what has been organised between June 2010 and January 2012.

This is something I've meant to do with other campaigns that I've been involved in: the activities of the Jean Charles de Menezes Family Campaign, for example, really needs recording properly. But anyway. Here's the unfinished story of the battle to defend Wanstead Flats from the Metropolitan Police.

On 18 January, a residents meeting at Durning Hall community centre in Forest Gate will decide whether to continue the campaign begun in 2010 against plans by the Metropolitan Police to set up a deployment base, for thousands of officers during this summer’s Olympics, on Wanstead Flats.

Back in June 2010, news of these plans was leaked to the Evening Standard and as a result, a number of local people from Forest Gate who were concerned about the implications of this proposal came to see me where I work at Durning Hall. The charity that runs the building was able to offer help with publicity and a free venue for a residents meeting to test the true level of local opposition. This was held on 14 July and to everyone’s surprise, the centre’s main hall was packed to capacity: instead of the expected 50 people attending, there was nearer to 250. It was only after this meeting that the Metropolitan Police launched a public relations campaign, a website for their plans and a ‘pre-consultation event’ in August at the Cherry Tree Cafe in Wanstead. The response of the newly-formed Save Wanstead Flats campaign was to organise local people to gather together, on, 5 September 2010, for a well-attended Community Picnic on the Flats.

From the start, one of the main objections raised by campaigners to the police’s plans was that it undermined the protection given to Wanstead Flats by the Epping Forest Act, a law passed in 1878 after hard-fought battles by local people against building and enclosure. The worry has always been about the precedent this would set for future enclosure of parts of the Flats, especially as other major sporting events at the new Olympic Park (for the World Athletics Championships in 2017, for example) will inevitably involve further concerns about policing and security. We objected to the idea that Wanstead Flats is just ‘waste ground’, rather than public land that is valued by local people.

The Home Office planned to use a parliamentary process called a Legislative Reform Order (LRO) to overturn parts of the Epping Forest Act, even though a promise had been made, when the legislation creating this procedure was passed in 2006, that not be used for controversial proposals. An LRO had never been used for anything more than minor administrative ‘tidying-up’ of existing laws before and never in the face of significant opposition. On 14 September 2010, the Home Secretary launched consultation of the LRO and gave residents until December to comment.

In early October, a second residents meeting was held at Durning Hall, this time with representatives of the police and the City of London Corporation (the ‘conservators’ of Wanstead Flats) on a panel facing questions from another packed audience. Their responses were vague and largely unhelpful, with an underlying message that local people had had their opportunity to complain but that the plans would go ahead anyway. However, later that month the Save Wanstead Flats campaign made it clear that opposition would continue and issued a 'pre-action' warning to Home Secretary Theresa May, reserving the right to take legal action by way of judicial review. On 21 November, campaigners also organised an event called Take Back Wanstead Flats, which involved staking out the dimensions of the proposed site (using gardening canes and over a kilometre of 'Police Do Not Cross' tape) to show just how massive the Olympic operations base would actually be.

In December, Redbridge council opened consultation on the planning application for the site. During the planning period, the Home Office responded to its LRO consultation by acknowledging it had failed to understand the legislation that protects Epping Forest and Wanstead Flats – but said that it nevertheless intended to plough on anyway with an order to overcome legal hurdles standing in the way of a police operations base. On 24 February 2011, Redbridge council’s Regulatory Committee met to consider the planning application and rubber-stamped it with little debate, despite an 1800-strong petition from local residents, more than 80 formal objections and the objection of neighbouring Newham council. It was becoming clear how difficult it is to stand in the way of the Olympics juggernaut.

In March, the Home Office published the draft Legislative Reform Order, which meant that the future of Wanstead Flats was now in the hands of the obscure parliamentary Hybrid Instruments Committee. In May, the Regulatory Reform Committee of the House of Commons decided by 5 votes to 3 in favour of granting the LRO but was highly critical of it.

In a last-ditch attempt to stop the police’s plans by legal means, Forest Gate resident Michael Pelling decided to take 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 was named as an "interested party" in the case. In early October 2011, the original request for permission to apply for a judicial review was turned down and after a renewal hearing in November, the case was finally argued on 5 December at the Royal Courts of Justice. However, Mrs Justice Dobbs refused leave for the presentation of the case for overturning LRO, a judgement that campaigners believe 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.

This is why, over eighteen months since the first leak to the Evening Standard, those who have fought to protect Wanstead Flats are now meeting again to decide what steps, if any, they wish to take next. There are question of how to prevent the use of the Flats as a 'security exclusion zone' in the future and what, if anything, can be done to strengthen the Epping Forest Act, which has been severely undermined by the Legislative Reform Order. When the base opens, the immediate issues facing residents in Forest Gate, Wanstead and Leyton include the potential disruption, restricted access to the Flats and the impact of heightened security on freedom of movement.

Ultimately, the residents-organised Save Wanstead Flats campaign will also decide whether it can do any more to try and stop the Metropolitan Police plans - or whether it is time for the campaign to call it a day.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

What Happens To Bookshops at Night?

If you have ever been curious about happens at night inside the wonderful Newham Bookshop on Barking Road, this brilliant animation from a store called Type in Toronto gives the game away:

Monday 9 January 2012

Ain't Gonna Ride In London No More

This evening at 6pm, the cyclists direct action group Bikes Alive are protesting outside King's Cross station, at the junction of York Way, Pentonville Road and Euston Road, to highlight the 60 percent rise in cycling deaths in London in the last two years.

This is the spot where, on 3 October 2011, student Min Joo Lee was killed, one of a number of cycling fatalities at the end of last year that included the death of Brian Dorling on 24 October at Bow roundabout and Svitlana Tereschenko, a Bow resident who died at the same junction on 11 November. Bikes Alive accuses Transport for London of exacerbating the risks for cyclists on major roads and junctions in London by prioritising speed and volume of motor vehicles over safety. Albert Beale, in a statement on behalf of the campaign, said:

"Monday’s event is the first step in a campaign to stop – by whatever nonviolent means needed – the completely unnecessary level of deaths, injuries and fear inflicted by motorists on the more vulnerable. I urge cyclists to join us on Monday. And if you don’t have a bike, bring your dancing shoes…"

Even before last year, London was the most dangerous place for cyclists in the UK , according to Department of Transport figures. The Mayor of London's cycle superhighway project, which essentially involves painting part of the road blue and encouraging motorists to avoid it (but with no legal sanctions if they don't), has been criticised as providing the illusion of greater cyclist safety without reducing traffic flows, particularly the number of heavy goods vehicles. The other big issue is the speed and carelessness of drivers, particularly at junctions, which often makes cycling in the capital a terrifying experience.

Unfortunately, I can't join the protest this evening: I do have dancing shoes but my dancing days are over and I can no longer cycle. In March 2010 I was hit by a car that sped out of Vallance Road in east London whilst I waited at the junction to turn into Whitechapel Road. I was lucky, in a way: stupidly I wasn't wearing a helmet, so I was fortunate not to have joined the grim fatality statistics after a head-on collision with a speeding vehicle. But the impact completely shattered my shoulder, has left me in constant pain over the last 22 months and has resulted in three unsuccessful operations (a fourth may eventually be scheduled this year). To add insult to these injuries, the Metropolitan police's Traffic Criminal Justice Unit failed to secure CCTV images of the accident before they were wiped after 30 days and after six months, had not even managed to get hold of the notebook of the attending police officer. It was therefore hardly a surprise that the driver was not charged with dangerous driving.

The accident and injuries I sustained have been life-changing. I'm an activist that can no longer take part in demonstrations (the slightest jolt on my shoulder is agonising), a former keen cyclist who has been relegated to an exercise bike and a person who rarely took anything more than the occasional paracetamol who is now addicted to industrial-strength pain killers. Whilst I may have had few illusions about the competence of the police before the incident, even I was flabbergasted by how cursory their investigation was. More importantly, my injuries are permanent. I may never be able to cycle again - but even if this changes and eventually it becomes possible to ride once more, I'm not sure that I'll want to, at least not in London.

There was a time when I would argue passionately that cycling was the best way to get around the city - and I'd ride 40 or 50 miles every week to prove it. But as long as such an overwhelming priority is given to impatient motorists over the safety of cyclists and pedestrians, my advice to potential riders is now always: it is just too dangerous.

Image of ghost bike for Min Joo Lee from I Bike London

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Some Thoughts On The Stephen Lawrence Convictions

Yesterday's announcement of the conviction of racist thugs Gary Dobson and David Norris for the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 led to a busy afternoon of messages from activist friends and some mixed feelings, including a certain amount of ambivalence that I know others shared.

The phone calls came because Newham Monitoring Project played a key role in supporting the Lawrence family during the public inquiry. In May and June 1998, I remember dashing around the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, organising events, plotting in meetings and, memorably, carrying the massive iconic painting of Stephen (that was placed by the entrance to the inquiry) through the labyrinthine underpass tunnels between the New Kent Road and Hannibal House. However, the person who spent the most time with Doreen and Neville during that period and who worked for the Family Campaign was my old friend Gilly Mundy, who died in 2007 (pictured at the inquiry on the left of the picture above). Yesterday reminded me and his many friends of just how much we miss him and of the satisfaction he may have felt yesterday at news of the jury verdict.

Perhaps satisfaction is the wrong word, though. My surprising ambivalence about the verdict comes from the knowledge that the police had the names of the five suspects within 24 hours of Stephen's murder and that a successful prosecution could have happened years ago if police racism hadn't dismissed Stephen as a probable gang member. As a result of the botched investigation, Doreen and Neville have devoted a significant part of their life to fighting for justice and have paid a heavy price for doing so, including the breakdown of their marriage. The Metropolitan Police, inevitably, has been keen to rewrite history, emphasising that the convictions were the result of "previously unavailable scientific technology and techniques which led to the discovery of the new evidence". They would prefer the public to forget that a prosecution would never have been reliant on evidence from microscopic DNA samples if the original investigation hadn't been handled so disastrously and the subsequent Barker 'review' hadn't been a whitewash. It also has to be said that, considering the way exhibits were handled back in 1993 and the strong possibility of contamination, the CPS were extremely fortunate to have secured a conviction at all.

On top of that, the choice of Deputy Commissioner Cressida Dick as the senior officer speaking for the Metropolitan police yesterday was a particularly poor one: it was Ms Dick who had overall responsibility for the operation that led to the execution of Jean Charles de Menezes and she is about the worst person to praise a bereaved family for "campaigning tirelessly for justice" when the Met has denied any for Jean Charles' relatives. Equally infuriating was the way that certain MPs were so keen to emphasise the 'dignity' of the Lawrences, as if a refusal to express anger and disgust at the way they have been treated for so many years might in some way have been the deciding factor in their search for justice. Here are just a couple of examples:

Outside the Central Criminal Court yesterday, Doreen Lawrence was having none of this opportunistic bullshit or of the police's attempts at media spin. Her statement was overtly angry, political and pointedly blamed the failure to secure an earlier conviction squarely at the police:

How can I celebrate when I know that this day could have come 18 years ago if the police who were meant to find my son's killers (had not) failed so miserably to do so. These are not a reason to celebrate.

All I now feel is relief that two of my son's killers have finally been caught and brought to justice; relief that these racist men can no longer think that they can murder a black man and get away with it; relief that despite the defence being able to raise issues of contamination, the jury saw through it.

I feel relieved that, to some extent, I can move forward with my life. But mixed with relief is anger - anger that me and my family were put through 18 years of grief and uncertainty, not knowing if or when we would ever get justice.

Had the police done their job properly, I would have spent the last 18 years grieving for my son rather than fighting to get his killers to court.

Anger that despite the police saying that this case was so important to them, the exhibits were treated in such a way the defence could suggest contamination.

This result shows that the police can do their job properly but only if they want to. I only hope that they have learnt their lesson and don't put any other family through what we have been put through.

The fact is that racism and racist attacks are still happening in this country and the police should not use my son's name to say that we can move on.

So, leaving aside any my own hesitance to celebrate, where do yesterday's much-analysed events now leave us? Has Stephen Lawrence's death really 'changed Britain'? I argued in 2008 on the tenth anniversary of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report that the window of opportunity opened up by the inquiry, particularly around stop and search. has now closed. The stereotypical view of black communities within the police that was briefly suppressing after the inquiry's recommendations were published is once again a major cause of complaint, as we have seen in evidence from young people in Newham. And as Doreen said yesterday, racist attacks still continue every day in towns across Britain.

Meanwhile, three of the five original suspects - Luke Knight, Jamie Acourt and Neil Acourt - remain free. Yesterday was a victory of sorts - but in many ways it was still a hollow one.

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