I wrote this article for yesterday’s Sunday Express (I’ve copied it in full below to save you the link) about some radical new ideas from the New Local Government Network think tank.
They are huge backers of the potential of local government to do good and they want Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to devolve more powers to town halls.
To ensure these new “super-councils” would be fully accountable, the NLGN (whose communications boss is Phil Baker is a former chair of the Tower Hamlets Lib Dems by the way) says they should be elected by compulsory voting.
This would also avoid rogue results and naturally this got me thinking about Tower Hamlets as I went on my run today.
Then I reached Victoria Park.
Less than a month after I raised this warning, our council has allowed London’s most beautiful park to be ruined.
And that’s not just me saying that; those are the words of Eddie Gladman and his wife Iris.
They were in the park for a walk this afternoon. They said the damage caused by the Lovebox and Field Day festivals earlier this month was “heartbreaking”.
These photos don’t do the damage the full justice, but they give you a flavour:
As I was talking to Eddie and Iris, others who had been taking their grandchildren to play also stopped by.
There is real anger about what has happened. One man said the paths that have now been churned into mudtracks were now “dangerous”, that one child had already tripped on a rut.
The mums who use the One O’Clock Club are now forced to take a long detour to avoid the ruts.
The 400m athletics track, the only free one in east London, has been turned into a commandos’ assault course: what an “Olympic Legacy” that is.
The mud is now so inviting that it’s ripe for quad bikes: in fact, two little urchins screeched by on a mini-motorbike as I was taking pictures. Here they are: not a park warden in sight.
Eddie told me he’d lived here all his life. He said: “If I had a penny for every time I have walked around this park, I’d be a very rich man.
“They had allotments here during the war. They kept it better then than they do now.
“There’s no respect for it. I called the council to complain about the mess and the woman there told me ‘not to worry’. She said, ‘It’ll be back to normal next week.’
“What planet are they on? The’ve just spent £12million of Lottery money renovating it, and now look at it.”
Even a policewoman riding by on a horse rode agreed it was a disgrace: “And they used to moan about the marks from horses’ hooves!” she said.
Yes, we’ve had a lot of rain, but this was always an accident waiting to happen. That we haven’t had rain before during these events before has been quite fortunate.
The previous Labour run council and Mayor Lutfur Rahman just got greedy.
One of our councillors must now come out and say enough is enough. This has to be the last year that Victoria Park hosts these events.
Last weekend, tens of thousands went to Hackney Marshes for the Hackney 2012 gigs. Hackney Marshes are a far more appropriate venue for these events: there are far fewer neighbours affected by noise, they’re a much larger open space and they don’t pretend to be anything more than a wide expanse. They’re not a landscaped park like ours.
One park keeper told me today that the council was going to try and bill the organisers of this month’s events £30,000 for the damage. He also said there was no way it could be repaired in time for the next festival onslaught: the 17 consecutive days of Olympic Live Nation gigs next month.
A few weeks ago, Lutfur and his unofficial deputy Alibor Choudhury came calling on a neighbour of mine, former Lib Dem councillor Ray Gipson. Alibor told Ray that Labour group leader Josh Peck, a councillor for Bow West, had been letting Bow down and that he, Alibor, was there to fix things.
Well, Alibor, here’s a message: why not start with Victoria Park? Why not tell Live Nation that, aside from the health and safety issues, the muddy park simply won’t be able to withstand more than a million people jumping up and down next month? As the man in charge of our council taxes, you are quite happy to take money for our parking permits based on CO2 emissions, so come on, be consistent in your green credentials and protect our green spaces.
Anyway, here’s the Sunday Express article on localism: given the experience of Tower Hamlets, I think the NLGN needs to think about how local leaders and council officers are more responsive to residents’ views.
ENGLISH councils should be given new powers over benefits, prisons and “the levers of economic growth”, a think tank will urge this week.
The New Local Government Network is calling for a Devolution Bill that would enhance the role of councils in England just as the question of Scottish independence rages north of the border.
It wants a new generation of so-called “super-shires and city states” elected by compulsory voting to “balance the power of the Scottish parliament and Welsh Assembly”.
The structure would be modelled on Boris Johnson’s Greater London Authority, but with services such as prisons and benefits administration and job centres also pushed out to the local level.
Skills training would also be left to the authorities to match the business needs of individual areas. Think tank director Simon Parker said voting for the councils should be compulsory, with fines for anyone who failed to vote. He said the reforms would do away with any need for a separate English parliament.
Mr Parker said: “The Government needs an answer to the English question. This doesn’t require expensive new parliaments with yet more politicians – it can be done by giving more power to towns and cities.
“That way, local people are in the driving seat of change.”
In Westminster two weeks ago, Mr Parker told Communities Secretary Eric Pickles that the Government’s localism agenda “could be running out of steam”.
In the introduction to the manifesto, he urges the Minister to go further, adding: “England stands at a moment of profound political and constitutional stress.“The combination of economic crisis, spending cuts and an ageing population is forcing a historic reformation of public services, which has been grasped with varying degrees of enthusiasm by the UK’s politicians.
“This report argues that these challenges can be addressed in part by a renewed push for greater localism, by which we mean the devolution of substantial power from Whitehall to cities and shires and the further devolution of power from localities to neighbourhoods.
“At a time when the country desperately needs a return to robust economic growth, an emerging body of research shows that devolving funding to councils has the potential to increase GDP.
“We currently have a unique opportunity to create a new generation of self-governing shires and city states. The Government appears willing, but it must go further to give cities and shires control over the levers of economic growth.”
Only those existing councils willing to create larger strategic authorities would be eligible for more powers.
Mr Parker concludes: “The argument is for the kind of strong localities that can be found in places such as the US, Germany and the Scandinavian countries.”
Mr Pickles said he was looking forward to reading the full report.