Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Skype surgeries

Residents need all sorts of ways to contact their local representatives.

When I started as a new councillor in 2002, most of our constituency work was expected to be accomplished by regular surgeries.

These are invaluable for people who don't use the internet and should always be part of a councillor's armoury - but the vast majority of concerns are now sent through to me via email.

Many councillors use twitter, and simple and easy way to highlight issues - especially to post a photo about street cleaning issues or sending a link to an issue.

Emails can be impersonal - we still need face-to-face - so after reading this post about local councillors setting up Skype surgeries I've decided to do the same on an ad hoc basis or Sundays between 6pm-7pm.

How to:  Contact me via email theo.blackwell@camden.gov.uk to set an online meet up or Skype me on the hours above.

Zero hours campaign launched in Camden

As part of Camden Labour's commitment to the principles of the Living Wage, we are asking residents to join our campaign to put an end to Zero Hours contracts. You can sign up here.

Last week there was challenge from Camden Unison on zero hours - in summary our approach with our own staff is:

Direct employment - the Council does not provide a ‘zero hours’ contract, there are a variety of flexible practices across the Council where services have directly engaged with sessional workers and we are in the process of reviewing how these work in practice. 

Private Contractors - we are not supportive of how zero hours contracts are used as the mainstay of most providers we contract with in the adult social care market and will be working with other partners and local authorities to influence private sector providers to bring an end the kind of zero hour contracts and practices causing legitimate public concern.

zero hours contract enables employers to employ staff without any commitment that work will definitely be offered although it might.   In some sectors, it appears that some employers have taken a less responsible approach to the application of zero hours contracts.  The arrangement requires flexibility from both parties and can create more flexible working opportunities but also has downsides.

It is important to recognise there are many different types of flexible working contracts with a range of terms and conditions that can apply as part of these contracts.  The best employers adopt flexible arrangements in a responsible way in order to ensure that the benefits are felt by both the employee and the employer.  The most responsible employers are using this approach to tap into the local labour market, explicitly targeting particular groups to resource their services: helping women, older workers; and mothers to get into employment

There is significant public concern that in some private sector organisations zero hours contracts typically require the employee to be available for work as and when required, sometimes at short notice in response.  At worst this can impose a significant lack of certainty and security for the employee.   In some cases these appear to have replaced alternative forms of contracts which could help both parties to manage when work levels fluctuate – for example annual hours contracts.
Last year we were accredited as an Living Wage Employer by the Living Wage Foundation.  Our diverse workforce has many needs including being able to work flexibly without providing zero hours contracts nor operating the type of practice described above.  We employ a workforce across a diverse range of disciplines promoting flexible working arrangements for all our staff including advertising roles as suitable for flexible working.  This includes the sensible and pragmatic use of a small number of sessional workers – for example individuals on ‘term time contracts’ where hours and length of contract are agreed up front as part of their working arrangements.  

The Council has for many years had this requirement to deliver some services using ‘sessional’ workers at various times of the year.  Typically these can be temporary assignments for a small number of hours per week.  

The types of services where ‘sessional’ workers might be engaged include our Youth Services; Camden’s Music Service; our Parents Partnership Service and our Active Health Programme in roles such as Youth Workers; Tutors; Fitness Instructors and Independent Parental Supporters where demand for such services may fluctuate and is often difficult to predict.  

The number of sessional workers engaged on these arrangements is currently 157 – this includes 77 individuals who have not been required to work for the Council in the past 6 months.  In some services sessional workers are engaged as ‘self-employed’ contractors – for example Music Tutors who typically provide specialist tuition to pupils across a number of London Boroughs; or our Active Health programme which makes use of specialist instructors in Tai Chi or dance. 

With private contractors Camden is keen to promote better standards in outsourced contracts:  in 2011 we published new guidance for contractors.  We keep our contractual arrangements across all our services under regular review, including workforce arrangements with contractors where much employment practice is shaped by the nature of the market and rules governing procurement, for example leisure and adult social care. 

The impact of the significant financial challenges faced by the Council has meant that in some of our services such as adult social care there has been a requirement to work with private and voluntary sector providers to deliver these essential services in a different way. In doing so we have become aware that there are fundamental issues in the private sector in particular in the way that zero hour contracts are being used by some of these providers in the adult social care market.   

Whilst the Council alone cannot resolve these private sector provision problems, we are not supportive of how zero hours contracts are used as the mainstay of most providers in the adult social care market and will be working with other partners and local authorities to influence private sector providers to bring an end the kind of zero hour contracts and practices described above.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Hotel Bed Tax could raise £4m for cleaner streets in Camden

A new 'Hotel Bed Tax' for hotels could raise substantial sums to fund front-line services, such as street cleaning and keeping our public realm attractive, and help maintain services against another £50m wave of government cuts the council will have to implement after 2015. 

The recently concluded cross party London Finance Commission - commissioned by the Mayor of London - argued strongly for new powers of taxation for the capital, including the freedom to levy a ‘tourist tax’ (a small levy on hotel rooms) common across Europe and the USA.
Camden argued for a levy in its submission to the Commission. The intention is that the funds raised will primarily be used locally by boroughs to compensate them for the higher costs they have to incur to cater for tourists. In general would welcome the ability to generate additional revenue streams that reflect the unique circumstances Camden finds itself in.

So how would it work?

There are a number of ways of modelling what potential income this would give Camden. Based on 50p per room per night we estimate this would give us £3.4m to £3.9m per year. This could be simply scaled up – i.e. a charge of £1 per night would double the estimates.
  • Based on the number of rooms from the last full hotel survey (2010) and average occupancy this would give £3.4m a year
  • Using Visit England room stock data by Local Authority – Camden had 26,530 tourist rooms in 2012 (including hotels and non-serviced accommodation) – and occupancy rates by region for 2012 (London annual occupancy rate is 80%). This would give annual revenue of £3.9m.
  • Basing a calculation on the number of visitors to the borough and the average nightly stay gives a figures of £3.7m.
These are very rough calculations and could vary significantly with level of tourism activity. We haven’t factored in cost of collection or the impact of differential charging would have on where tourists stayed in London.

Introducing such a tax will be hard, where it has been floated before there has been a vociferous response from the hotel industry - but we should take no lessons from some of these big conglomerates, who have failed to secure local jobs for local people and should be more socially useful to the borough.  

Last year hotels in Camden only offere 6 apprenticeships to local people. 

The annual revenue boost, at a time of continuing government cuts, could be used to invest in a better public realm.  

The 2011 cuts to street cleaning removed the twice-weekly from residential streets and kept only one.  This is supplemented it with 'hotspots' targeted by council teams.

The street cleaning budget was cut from just under £10m to £6m.

However, we preserved the cleaning capacity for Camden Town and south of the Euston Road because of high tourist and business numbers putting pressure on the street environment.

In these areas daytime population is roughly double our resident numbers.  We know that good levels of cleaning impact on both business location decisions and assume that this applies also to visitor numbers, but it seems unfair that this is paid for by residents elsewhere in the borough.

We can't currently levy these charges - we are dependent on national government to give London and the boroughs the power to do this - but it is good to see the development of some cross party consensus on this from the Mayor to Labour's Sadiq Khan: lobbying for a new tourism tax should be priority.

But residents hoping for retained street cleaning shouldn;t hold their breath,  immediately after our announcement, the proposal was slammed by Conservative Minister Eric Pickles and his friends in the hotel industry lobby - attacking Camden for having the temerity of suggesting a local policy.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

TfL Plans to scrap cash payments on buses - have your say

Transport for London is proposing to go cashless on its bus services in 2014. 

If, after consultation, the proposal is approved the option to pay by cash will be removed on all TfL bus services.
Please TfL wants to know your views here by 11 October 2013.

Initial views: I think people will be concerned about late night transport for those without Oysters - TfL would have to increase the number of automated ticket stands, and ensure their maintenance. 

Lowest Energy tariff pledge a lot of hot air

Remember when David Cameron promised that fuel poverty would be tackled by forcing companies to offer customers "the lowest energy" tariffs?

This is how the policy is progressing...

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Camden to target 'Ghost home' Buy-to-Leave speculators with 200% Council Tax

Government powers introduced last year for local authorities as an “extra weapon in our armoury” to incentivise empty homes back onto the market should surely be extended where councils - like Camden - feel they need it.

Bringing empty homes back into use is a key priority for local authorities, and they will of course choose to pursue a variety of means to meet this objective which they feel politically or operationally acceptable.

Most residential properties in Camden are occupied by the residents as their main home. However, 1 in 16 is not lived in on a full time basis and it is these homes that Camden is keen to see either put quickly back in to use or taxed appropriately.

- removing the Second Homes tax discount of 10% on second homes (the vast majority)
- charging a 50% Premium (150% Council Tax) on properties left empty ('ghost homes') for over 2 years.

Since agreeing to a new 150% Council Tax Premium on long-term empty properties last year, the number of properties in Camden has fallen by 34.7% from 248 to 162. 

The table below shows where these properties are in the borough, with exclusive Frognal ward leading the way with Ghost Homes.

Camden now wants to extend the Premium and see a change to the law in relation to unoccupied, furnished property to prevent what the press have called "Buy-to-Leave” international investors from gaming the system and claiming empties are 'second homes' and thus avoiding the extra charge. 

We estimate that, out of a total of 380 homes empty between one and two years, a further 190 would be brought back into use if a premium of 100% Council Tax were to be charged after one year, further assisting supply.

This week I wrote to Conservative Local Government Cabinet Minister Eric Pickles asking for more powers to vary Council Tax.

The Council Tax Premium for long term empty homes

I am writing to inform you of the success in Camden of the Council Tax premium for empty homes and to ask you to consider extending the powers available to local authorities in this area.  

You will recall that the Government gave local authorities the flexibility in the Local Government Finance Act 2012 to raise up to an additional 50% council tax from properties that have remained empty for more than two years.

Bringing empty homes back into use is a local priority in Camden as well as for the Coalition government. It is a key plank of our strategy for the private rented sector which in turn supports our strategic priority to promote sustainable neighbourhoods.

We believe the premium is effective in encouraging empty home owners to bring their properties back into full time use, contributing to the housing supply to meet local needs. In addition, empty property is susceptible to squatting with the associated risk of fires, criminal damage, stripping of fixtures from properties and anti-social behaviour. Reducing the risk of such activity can only contribute positively to neighbourhood well being.

This is borne out by our experience in Camden since adopting the premium.  While the additional Council Tax income from premiums is relatively modest and recycles back into the collection fund for the benefit of all taxpayers, its real effect of bringing empty homes back into use can be clearly seen in Camden. Since agreeing to adopt the premium in December 2012 and publicity in the local and regional press, the number of long term empty properties in Camden has fallen by 34.7% from 248 to 162. The relationship between the drop and the introduction of the premium is surely no coincidence.

We would like to draw to the Secretary of State’s attention the demonstrable effectiveness of this policy and to ask him to consider giving local authorities the discretion to reduce the minimum period from two years to one year and to levy a premium of up to100% (i.e.; double council tax).

We would also like to see a change to the law in relation to unoccupied, furnished property to prevent what the press have called “Buy to Leave” international investors from storing a few sticks of furniture in aproperty in order to claim it is a “second home” and thus avoid the Premium.

We estimate that, out of a total of 380 homes empty between one and two years, a further 190 would be brought back into use if a premium of 100% Council Tax were to be charged after one year.

Housing costs and availability are consistently one of the biggest concerns for our residents and we believe we have reached a crisis point in private rented sector housing in the borough. The additional powers as outlined above would be one way alongside others for the council to make a further progress on the supply of housing in the borough.

Needless to say, the Camden Tories (who have a number of property managers in their Town Hall ranks) have immediately snubbed this ask in the New Journal, accusing us of interfering in "private, personal housing choices" and questioning how we would do this impartially. 

However, since our call - we've received the backing of the Empty Homes Network and supportive tweets from Homes from Empty Homes

Monday, 12 August 2013

Kilburn to benefit from Digital Deal money to tackle digital deficit

A Digital Deal Challenge fund has been set up by central Government to enable social housing landlords to trial innovative projects which will help to reduce the ‘digital exclusion’ experienced by social housing residents - an area identified as in need of direction investment. Camden’s project is one of only 12 projects nationwide which has been funded and have been awarded £20,000.

This will be match funded by Camden Council. The project will be coordinated by officers within the Housing Department, who will work with a range of Council services and community based partners to deliver the pilot.

This pilot project aims to use digital inclusion and education as a tool to empower some our most vulnerable residents to tackle underlying social inequalities.

We aim to do this through combining community based promotion and education regarding the benefits of ‘going digital’ alongside a trial of installing free internet connections into a number of  our residents homes.

The project will be based in the Kilburn ward, concentrated in area around the Kingsgate Community Centre, who we are working with as partners on the project.

This area was selected on the basis of evidence which shows that there is a lower than average take up of residential broadband, that the area has higher  unemployment and also a higher numbers of school age children as residents.

What we will do:

  • Install free broadband in a number of tenanted residential properties in selected blocks in the Kilburn area
  • Provide residents in these households with appropriate devices which will allow them to access the broadband provision
  • Work with Kingsgate Community Centre to extend existing digital inclusion activity provided by the centre, by recruiting additional volunteers and promoting the available facilities to our residents in the area
  • Work with schools, the children’s centre and community centres to identify families who could benefit from this pilot
  • Work with ACL, the community centre, and residents to develop an IT course which will build tenants’ IT skills, while also helping them to develop key employability skills
  • Explore how Camden CAB’s digital inclusion ‘toolkit’ developed through a grant from the Council’s innovation fund can be integrated into this project
  • Work with libraries to promote the use of their IT services with residents and increase visits to libraries
  • Develop the project to integrate provision with the borough-wide public wi-fi when it is launched in the area
  • Measure the impact of our work through regular engagement with residents
This forms part of a wider package of measures - soon to be announced which will see Camden lead the way on digital innovation and equity. 

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Labour needs to find its Inner Geek

Austerity is not the only thing happening on the high street, or to people’s jobs and public services. This decade will see massive change as the ‘digital revolution’ accelerates and impacts on citizens, the state and businesses in fundamental ways. Traditional methods of distribution, communication and exchange are all changing, in often unpredictable ways, creating significant opportunities for innovation and growth – but also the potential for greater uncertainty and alienation.

As Paul Krugman has argued in an important series of articles, we live in a decade where more than ever we need to talk about robots and robber barons. Yet if we were to look at Ed Miliband’s most recent speech to a tech-savvy crowd at Google, we have lots to say on monopolists but less to say on how technology impacts the Ordinary Joe.

Whether through the promotion of Tech City, intellectual property reform, ‘Open Data’, tech entrepreneurialism and online advocacy – in opposition and in power the Conservative party has developed a distinctive sales pitch on technology, focused around the ‘small state’ deregulation and ‘elite entrepreneurialism.’ They have framed a meta-narrative shaped a view about the ‘Global Race’ and future growth.

Now there are many holes in this approach – not least whether the coalition has an aversion to developing active industrial strategies – but, working in the tech sector, it’s less clear to me whether Labour has distinctive or joined-up enough world view on digital change reaching right across shadow departments.

In its absence, the Conservative versus Labour narrative is in danger of being presented like this:

These dividing lines matter because how everyone responds to digital change is now mainstream within the business community and in the public sector.

Being able to understand and articulate its dynamics is seen as central to a credible and forward-looking economic strategy.

It is vitally important that the Labour party develop a wide approach based around promoting growth, skills, opportunity, and collaboration – and ensuring that no one is left behind.

Labour needs to find its inner geek and articulate a more values-based view of digital change which:

•    challenges the status quo and is radically changing how we operate in the 21st century, enabling new solutions for old social and economic problems – especially in the public sector;
•    is inherently progressive: the internet and new devices connected to it are empowering to individuals and communities, acting not just as lone challengers to the ‘big state’ but working collectively and collaboratively together;
•    requires an active policy approach which ensures that education, skills and support for everyday entrepreneurialism are at the heart of our response to these radical changes to the production and distribution of goods and services.

Digital change will raise three key public policy questions for a Labour government:

•    How can everyone benefit, not just the elite?
•    How do we identify those who stand most risk of missing out and how do we mitigate against growing inequality?
•    How do emerging technologies create new risks and how do we mitigate against them?

These questions go to the heart of the Labour movement’s values and approach: when citizens are faced with risk and uncertainty (inability to access healthcare, better education) we provide assurance (creation of the NHS free at point of use, education investment for all).

When we talk about Labour’s historic policy goals – for example, full employment as a response to welfare reform – will also need to discuss the sizeable shifts in the labour market caused not only by austerity but by digital change.

Previous Labour administrations had a comfortable relationship with technology when preparing for power. In the 1960s, a period of significant social and industrial transition, Harold Wilson successfully associated his government with technological innovation – in contrast to perceived old-fashioned ideas in the Conservative party. Today’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is the distant relative of Tony Benn’s Ministry of Technology – or ‘Min Tech’ – a manifesto pledge to create a super-coordinating body for technology in Whitehall.

Similarly, New Labour had a strong emphasis on new technologies throughout its administrations, and we are doing a lot in local government.

As we develop our manifesto for 2015 there is an opportunity for the leadership to set out a narrative which would bring assurance to a wide audience, one which can:

•    Create a One Nation Labour story about the digital revolution across successive administrations
•    Rebut the attempted fit between the principles of ‘the internet’ and neo-Conservative philosophy
•    Acknowledge, where appropriate, past policy failures (eg ‘big IT’ procurement) and have a clear view on how a progressive Labour policy would address these issues in the future
•    Develop a nuanced and distinctive approach to change and job insecurity arising from it
•    Engage the hitherto-dormant wider Labour movement in responses to digital change
•    Provide assurance to the tech sector and business community that it will have a central voice in the new administration

Originally at: http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2013/08/01/finding-labours-inner-geek/#sthash.S3tHU6EI.dpuf

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Council-funded green works to Gospel Oak Primary sees 34% carbon savings

Camden's self-financed Community Investment Programme, put in place after the Coalition cut capital funding for Camden schools, enters a new phase this summer.

Locally Gospel Oak Primary school will see:
  • Partial roof renewal; 
  • Remedial work to boundary walls and concrete cladding panels; 
  • Upgrade and replacement of fire doors and internal walls, upgrade to fire detection system, and
  • Repair of rainwater goods; water hygiene works to pipes and tanks. 
There will be a remodelling of the nursery and reception to provide Foundation Stage to follow once planning permission received.

Green works over the summer 2013 include: kitchen extract controls; insulation in boiler room, energy efficient lighting; provision of local electricity display, optimisation of heating controls.

The anticipated annual emissions savings are 67 tonnes of carbon dioxide (or 34%).

16 million reasons the Coalition is bad for Camden schools

Coalition proposals to take £16 million away from children’s education in Camden have been deeply criticised by Camden Labour.

Under Lib Dem and Tory Proposals, the “Dedicated Schools Grant will be cut by 10% in Camden, as the government presses ahead with its plan to “equalise” per pupil funding across the country. Camden currently also uses this money to fund a significant proportion of its early years service, including affordable childcare subsidies to help parents into work.

Labour Councillors are warning that this reversal threatens the work of the previous Labour government that helped inner London schools to improve so dramatically from the dark days of the eighties and nineties.

Labour will highlight the devastating financial impact this decision will have on Camden and will be lobbying the government to reconsider.

Read more in the Ham and High.