Mark spoke to the Paddington Rotary Club about a range of local issues. Below are his notes from the event, including an update on the future of hospitals in this part of London.
Situation on St Mary’s
- From next April new Commissioning Boards come into play that will be run by local GPs. The Westminster board will share its management with H&F, K&C, and Hounslow. They are currently looking at how hospitals should be reorganized in West London, although the soon to be defunct PCTs will formally make the final decision.
- On 25 June the Joint PCTs from NW London considered the business case for closing four A&E departments and has since recommended the closure of four A&E departments in west London, including both the Hammersmith and Charing Cross. The plan is that people can be steered away from A&E towards local health centres and GP services.
- For Charing Cross, losing the A&E effectively means closure of the entire site, to be replaced by a walk-in clinic, with specialisms moving to other hospitals. The majority of the Fulham Palace road site can then be disposed of commercially.
- The implications for our constituency could have seen the closure of St Mary’s Paddington. However thankfully that has been firmly ruled out, something for which I am sure we are all grateful. It surely must have been a temptation for the Joint Committee to realise one of its most valuable assets in the St Mary’s site, a prime piece of central London real estate, something I would have fought vigorously against. St Mary’s has a proud historical importance and is incredibly well served by public transport, which makes it a key local service for countless central London residents. Let us not forget that in the week of the seventh anniversary of the 7/7 attacks, St Mary’s had a key role in caring for the victims of the Edgware Road bombing.
- Nevertheless, the proposals will affect my constituents too, many of whom receive hospital treatment from some of the institutions earmarked for closure. There will also, of course, be an additional burden on the A&E departments of those hospitals remaining and the staff and facilities of St Mary’s will doubtless come under intense pressure in the coming years.
- I accept that there is wisdom in trying to steer traffic away from A&Es as far as possible but before we press ahead with closures, I have made clear both in parliamentary speeches and directly to management that we must ensure that alternative services are truly in place and we are not operating on some naïve hope that the pressure on A&Es will miraculously dissipate once four London departments are removed.
The Royal Parks
- As you might imagine, every year the programme of concerts in Hyde Park provokes a string of emails and letters to me from residents disturbed by noise and general disruption.
- In this Diamond Jubilee and Olympic year, the number of events increased and their impact, added to dreadful summer weather, gave our glorious Park a pummelling.
- Last summer, I tabled a debate in the House of Commons to outline my concerns about commercialisation of the Parks, set out my opposition to the transfer to the Mayor and alert the Minister to worries raised with me about the Olympic schedule. This was in part because of the increased number of complaints I had received about concerts in Hyde Park.
- The debate was successful in helping to stop the transfer to the Mayor. Instead the Parks are now managed by a new board which includes representation from the GLA but also stronger local representation to ensure issues such as noise, litter and disruption are better dealt with.
- I also unreservedly supported Westminster City Council in its action to shut down the Bruce Springsteen concert when it ran beyond the agreed time as an important reminder of the impact such events have on the local population.
- A week or so ago I had the pleasure of meeting Linda Lennon, the new Chief Executive of the Royal Parks Agency. She took on the role just before the busy summer season so it really was rather a baptism of fire for her. She is very keen to engage and work closely with local residents’ associations and has already attended a number of AGMs and met with a vast range of local stakeholders. She knows how concerned residents are by noise levels during the concert season and attended a number of events herself to see that terms were being met.
- As we all must appreciate, with the public finances as they are, the concerts represent an absolutely crucial revenue stream for the Royal Parks. However Linda is looking at ways to extract more value from contracts with concert organisers and through engaging with local people, hopes that the noise issues can be better managed going forward.
- We also discussed the landscaping of the parks. As a keen conservationist, Linda agrees with me that some of the wilder areas of Hyde Park work really well and she has assured me that the returfing of the damaged concert areas is proceeding well, with quality of regeneration prioritised over speed.
- Large infrastructure projects will never win local MPs many votes. I know this all too well. The £17 billion Crossrail project has disturbed, blighted and infuriated many local people in recent years. My unequivocal support from the outset for the new cross-Capital transport link has only brought me public approval (and by no means universal) from business owners, almost all of whom live elsewhere! However, it is also probably the case that many of us begrudgingly accept a state-of-the-art transport upgrade as a clear indication of progress, crucial to promoting economic growth in the decades ahead.
- Nevertheless, it seems to me that the government has NEVER properly made the case for HS2; financially, economically or logistically. It has been argued that it will open up opportunities to the regions, but if the Manchester to London journey is forty minutes shorter then surely this only makes the capital even more attractive to those from the North West. The fact is that the railways almost since Victorian times have never paid their way (the collapse of rail companies was a feature of the late nineteenth century stock market). After the West Coast Mainline fiasco (which we shall hear much more of, I fear) can we really trust the financial projections of the HS2 project? I think not…I also suspect that this will never go ahead, but we must not have to endure blight in the meantime.
Housing and Homelessness
- Numbers taken over the summer indicated that 28% of London’s rough sleepers are from eastern and central Europe and many of us will have been alarmed in particular by the gathering of rough sleepers around Marble Arch in advance of the Olympics.
- Following the enlargements of the European Union of 2004 and 2008, Westminster in particular experienced a sudden influx of new arrivals from Eastern Europe, often via Victoria Coach Station. That brought a different dimension to homelessness in central London. In advance of these enlargements, Westminster City Council and I warned repeatedly of the increased dangers of jobless and unqualified nationals from the new EU accession countries ending up sleeping rough on the streets but the former government failed to put into place proper plans to deal with the sudden influx.
- These nationals were particularly at risk of homelessness as the law prevented them from accessing benefits provided by local authorities to residents, as well as state benefits such as income support, shelter and drug treatment services. So while most new arrivals arrived with a firm idea of where they would work and live, for those that did not the likelihood of them descending into street life was exacerbated as they had no other means of support and the government lacked the power to remove them from the country owing to EU freedom of movement.
- Since that time, I have engaged regularly with local residents if a particular pattern has been noted with regard to homelessness or if there is a regular rough sleeper in a local area. I then connect that information with the local neighbourhood policing teams and WCC’s rough sleeping unit so that we can get the individual or individuals the right help. I am a close supporter of St Mungo’s and launched an exhibition in parliament to draw attention to the various reasons why people find themselves sleeping rough, often related to addiction and family breakdown.
- The Mayor of London also has a programme underway which aims to ensure that no person spends more than one night sleeping rough and this is now the case for 8 out of 10 rough sleepers. While I support the broad thrust of the changes to housing benefit entitlement, both the Mayor and I made the case to the government that the changes to the housing benefit system would have a disproportionate impact on central London where rents are at their highest. I have expressed those concerns to the ministerial team and in parliament.
- Carrying on from the Right to Buy revolution from the 1980s, the government has increased the discount tenants can receive if they wish to purchase their property. It has also committed itself to ensuring that this policy will not reduce the number of affordable homes with any additional properties bought under the scheme leading directly to the provision of new affordable homes for rent. I have long bought into the notion that ownership is a good thing for communities, particularly here in central London where the transience of the population can mean that insufficient numbers feel they have any stake in an area. Similarly I have long encouraged the idea that housing associations should be able to use their stock more flexibly via products such as intermediate rent that encourage a mix of people in Central London to counter the polarisation between rich and poor.
- A New Approach to Child Poverty: Tackling the Causes of Disadvantage and Transforming Families’ Lives sets out the Government’s approach to tackling poverty for this Parliament and up to 2020. At its heart are strengthening families, encouraging responsibility, promoting work, guaranteeing fairness and providing support to the most vulnerable. This includes a stronger focus on ensuring that families who are in work are supported to work themselves out of poverty, families who are unable to work are able to live with dignity and not entrenched in persistent poverty, and that those who can work but are not in work are provided with services that will address their particular needs and help them overcome barriers to work.
- Local authorities will be at the forefront of solutions to meet that challenge and WCC are conducting pioneering work in this regard under the leadership of Nickie Aiken. In particular here in Westminster, we have the “Your Choice” programme, whose focus is on the key transition stage for children between primary and secondary school. It has also developed targeted gang exit programmes and support to get young people into sustained employment and training.
- It is important to recognise that turning around the lives of what are regarded as problem young people and families takes time, patience and, inevitably, resources. All too often, local authorities have to rely on one-off funding pots, which often fail to deliver an impact or may deliver that impact only in the very short term, with the problem ultimately reoccurring before too long. I have helped to make that case to the government for programmes here in our borough.
- The Secretary of State has a passionate commitment to driving up standards and providing choice in the state sector. In Westminster we have a number of applications underway for new free schools including in the southern part of the borough and in Marylebone. Hopefully this will help counter some of the concerns that have been put to me in recent years about non-faith state provision and the government’s commitments in this area will ensure that state sector students are given the tools they need to compete on a level playing field with their peers in the independent sector.
- The ministerial team instinctively understands the damage that has been done in recent years by the levelling down of standards and opportunities to the lowest common denominator that has so entrenched underachievement. I am the product of a grammar school, and I remember various episodes when I was there that allowed me to aspire to the university place to which my parents could never aspire, and also to running my own business, becoming professionally qualified and eventually becoming a Member of this House. We must push pupils upwards and not hold back their talents.
- Our wont in recent years has been to tinker with our educational system to engineer particular social outcomes, but the attitudes of our competing nations could not be more different. It is that sense of being in a highly competitive globalised world that will, and should, remain an important element of all our thinking. One need look only at the high number of highly skilled school leavers and graduates, not just in India and China but in Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, to understand that the world is not waiting for Britain to churn out the brightest and best any more.