But there’s someone who’s torn it apart

IMG_4353philippa_roe_1A LITTLE act of rebellion to report from Westminster, as the South East Bayswater Residents Association invited Westminster Council leader Philippa Roe to their annual general meeting last week.

As the guest of honour waited to take the stage, the Association mischievously played The First Cut Is The Deepest, the old Cat Stevens/PP Arnold/Rod Stewart song, over the PA system. Cllr Roe was later invited to sit in front of large sign at Porchester Hall which read: ‘Deep cuts to come’.

By all accounts, Cllr Roe, who wanted to stand as London Mayor next year but didn’t make the (all-male) candidate shortlist, took the jibe in her stride. She told the audience of more than 300 guests about how Westminster and London was a city of “aspiration,” “choice” and “heritage” (i.e. rather than cuts).

The MP for Hampstead and St John’s Wood

buckTO the west of Camden, Conservative schemers are rubbing chins, putting on their pensive faces and beginning to wonder about how the north of Westminster, and its neighbouring patches, could be divvied up in a parliamentary boundary review. You don’t need me to tell you how Westminster’s Tory campaigners feel frustrated at their ongoing inability to unseat Labour MP Karen Buck. They long for the days of Sir John Wheeler’s reign in Westminster North.

Despite Buck’s repeat success since 1997, her majority of 2,000 votes or so is not in the supersafe territory, while in neighbouring Hampstead and Kilburn, Tulip Siddiq’s lead is even less: she won by 1,138 votes in May. Why is Tulip’s result relevant to those hoping to finally turn things blue again? Conservative strategists, with an increasing lack of subtlety, are beginning to dream that a boundary review could ultimately lead to the formation of a new constituency called “Hampstead and St John’s Wood”, a playing field which they believe could make things easier for them.

There are so many ifs and buts still to resolve, but potential candidates for this new territory are said to already be making their interest known with a friendly chat here and a wink there. There would be quite a queue if the boundaries fall the way the Tories want them to.

Webb: I’m off

falflashdanceDURING the general election campaign this year, Labour’s Tulip Siddiq seemed to have a better contacts book than any showbiz agent. In the final weeks, there were snaps with Emma Thompson, Steve Coogan, Richard Wilson, Alan Davies, Eddie Izzard, the list went on. We didn’t quite get to see a selfie with Peep Show’s Robert Webb, but, as a starry local, he was apparently waiting in the wings for a supportive gee-up.

The comic actor might not be on speed dial for the Labour campaign next time, however. As widely-reported, Webb, who lives in West Hampstead, has had enough of this Jeremy Corbyn stuff and is fed up of handing Seumus Milne £11 a month, He’s cut up his card. We can only guess what he thinks of his local MP helping Corbyn onto the Labor leadership ballot paper in the first place…

Councillor Currie, you’re barred!

CONSERVATIVE councillor Tom Currie walked into an obvious heckle when he stood up at last night’s council meeting to celebrate the fact pubs in Hampstead have been granted ACV protection status last week. “You’re barred!’, came the toot from the other side of the room. He responded quickly: ‘I don’t wear a cardigan, so I’m alright’.

He was referring to Ella Jessel’s report last week that the Duke of Hamilton’s landlord Steve Coxshall has decided to bar 800 members of the Hampstead Neighbourhood Forum for applying for the extra planning protection – without consulting him. He doesn’t want it because he is worried how it could affect his future business interests. His line about ‘hypocrites in cardigans’ was picked up by a host of nationals from Ella Jessel’s report in the New Journal last week.

The escapee

Town Hall, Judd Street

IMG_4153THE head of democratic services at Camden Council, of all people, is spinning a quite outrageous lie in the corridors of the Town Hall. Asha Paul is going around telling people that she is 60, and therefore can retire.

Last night, we were told, was to be Asha’s final full council meeting before she heads off to spend more time with her grandchild. As this tall tale was circulated to councillors by the Mayor, Asha flooded herself in tears as the politicians stood and applauded her contribution of more than 36 years of service… and presumably the audacity of developing such a shaggy dog story about her age. I could not help but steal a selfie with a woman so brazenly sticking to her story.

Sixty – come now. Nobody gets to 60, and looks that good. Correction: Nobody gets to 60, and looks that good if they have spent years and years at the front table of Camden’s full council meetings, this dreary festival of half-hearted point-scoring and sucky cue-ups. People age in front of your eyes at these meetings, not escape the room dazzling; looking 40 while claiming to be 60.

Appropriately, Asha’s last meeting was an almost perfect illustration of why Camden’s full council meetings remain in dire need of revival if they are to ever be more than an inconvenient obligation. Like kids at a family dinner that has gone on too long, the front bench of Labour cabinet councillors look particularly fatigued. The opposition look across the carpet and see the tops of their heads almost permanently buried in iPads and smartphones. Occasionally, one of the executive members gets up to urge the Tories to join them in a crusade against one central government policy or another, and then sits back down to the glow of their tablets.


In return, the Conservative benches sometimes look as if they may have benefited from a dress rehearsal. On one vote, their finance spokesman, Don Williams, wasn’t quite sure if he was voting against or abstaining. Dynamite laughed off his indecision amid predictable heckles from Theo Blackwell. Later, Siobhan Baillie misread a prompt from a colleague to ask about child obesity and asked about child abuse instead.

No surprises then that at a presentation given by some of the teenagers which Camden looks after as corporate parents – a genuinely worthwhile section of the evening – the youngsters had said they had found the councillors not to be ‘serious’ or ‘intimidating’. We can only hope it was not considered a treat for them to be taken to the public gallery after they had spoken to watch some of the meeting unfold. Even a 16-year-old could surely see through this haze of clock-watching.

As the numbers watching upstairs quickly decreased (no doubt, the masses now watch live on the webcast), it was not until Flick Rea had a mid-meeting nip of ginger ale that the wax came to life. With customary theatrics, she launched into a tirade about Camden’s plan to close public conveniences, particularly in West Hampstead where she said that a mystery ‘somebody’ had been trying to close down the loos since 2002.

‘There are some bodily functions you can’t do on the internet’ was a good line, a sort of one-two jab on Camden’s rush to get everybody to do their business online and the fact some residents are not happy that public toilets are now on the never-ending cuts list. Ahead of publication, this week’s New Journal letters page postbag suggests a significant level of discontent. Flick said there would be a fight if anybody tried to turn the West End Lane lavs into a ‘nail bar’ or a ‘cocktail bar’. She’s mistaken. It’s West Hampstead. It’ll be converted into an estate agents.

Oliver Cooper, the Tory, was also lively, having been provoked into one of his dramatic set pieces in which he explains Conservative policy on housing and the Labour members, as if shocked by where their opponents stand on the issue, groan with fresh animation. He had been brought to his feet by a Labour motion attacking the government’s controversial housing bill. Yes, folks, a meeting which normally fillibusters its way to ten o’clock so that motions attacking Camden Labour are never heard, suddenly had found time for TWO of them.

IMG_2359Only a cynic would suggest that the pace had quickened so that Labour could get here, the second motion, ten minutes directly attacking the government dressed up as a debate. It’s fake to suggest such an issue can be dealt with in less than ten minutes. Yet, as if equally deadened by the two hours and 50 minutes that had gone before and the number of times they had heard ‘thank you for your excellent report’, even the proposers seemed ready for their cocoa. ‘This is the fight of our lives’, whispered Labour’s Danny Beales.

Now, you could say this assessment of the meeting comes from journalists who are only attracted to the shouty-ranty speeches; the headline noise rather than the substance. You might fairly say that some of us have been honking out the press box for too long for our own good. But it’s not a question about whether the reporters are sat in the corner of the chamber wondering where it all went wrong, whether its too late to retrain as a Buzzfeed list-maker, the councillors themselves look visibly tired of it all themselves.

I can almost hear Conservative Andrew Marshall typing out a comment which disagrees, but they could re-energise themselves by changing the format to one which either leads to either greater interaction with the public or one that holds a genuine debate. At the moment, the public continue to stay away. This isn’t to say residents should be crowding the gallery hanging on every word; more that they don’t come to talk to the councillors. In all of Camden, and with all of the problems and issues that are out there, nobody, other than the teaching union, thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to raise their worries and concerns in front of the all-member meeting.

The lack of genuine discussion is also a killer. Instead of talking about almost everything for a little bit, they could talk about one or two things for longer, and more seriously. There could be 40 minutes or one hour set aside for an actual debate on a single subject. At the moment, a wide topic is pegged for the agenda, the cabinet councillor involved delivers their excellent report and then the rest ask them questions. On virtually every single occasion, there are so many questions that the department chief has no time to answer them all and ends up pledging to email a response to the unanswered. There are no opportunities for follow up questions.

Both of these suggested changes, however, would require the ruling Labour group to give a little, take a risk. Public interaction and longer debates comes with the prospect of being more thoroughly challenged. It can be awkward dealing with an angry member of the public. Similarly, longer, more searching debates on single issues are harder to sidestep and circumnavigate. An element of control would be lost, but, you know, if they have confidence in what they are offering us, this shouldn’t even be the slightest concern.

Unfortunately, it’s too late for Asha to see anything better.

Her service surely deserved a better soundtrack, but they’ve been talking about changing the structure of the meeting for as long as anybody knows without actually doing it. After a lifetime of listening to this hum, she’s off to spend her 40s in retirement; a blessed escaped. Like prisoners left in the clink, watching enviously as a long-serving inmate finally sees the front doors open and their first look at the beautiful outside again, there must have been one or two she leaves behind in the chamber – officers and councillors – jealously wondering when their own release date will come.

The George Bernard Shaw memorial toilet


ONE of the first things in Camden Council’s proposed overhaul of public toilets is to find a private contractor to run the underground loos outside Camden Town tube station. They will become pay-per-use services. How they can turn those subterranean toilets into a charged service will be interesting; on the face of it it’s difficult to see how barriers could work down there, and a toilet attendant in that part of Camden might want a little extra danger money. There’s unlikely to be a tray of lollipops on the way out.

In making people pay for this particular set of loos, the council risks turning George Bernard Shaw over in his grave. The Pygmalion playwright (and St Pancras councillor) fought for those urinals when they were first installed at the bottom of Parkway, around 1900. There had been no plans to create a set for the ladies, because ladies don’t wee.

The vestryfolk of the day were eventually badgered into being less bigoted by Shaw and co – but they then insisted that the women would have to pay spend a penny for each visit… because they always used the ‘water closet’.

A little how Labour councillor Julian Fulbrook was warning last week that men ‘down on their luck’ in Holborn would struggle to pay any charge, however small, at the Lincoln’s Inn Field loo in the future, Shaw argued that this fee for women to use the toilet was “an absolutely prohibitive charge for a poor woman”.

Councillor suggests La Marseillaise is played before full council meeting

THE French tricolour flag is flying above the Town Hall, and Camden’s councillors will fall silent for a minute at tonight’s full council meeting in solidarity with those who died in the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday evening.

This afternoon, one well-meaning Labour councillor has suggested that Camden goes further and plays the French national anthem before the meeting starts. This hasn’t been so far been agreed, but the words to La Marseillaise just in case (English translation):

♫ Arise children of the fatherland
The day of glory has arrived
Against us tyranny’s
Bloody standard is raised
Listen to the sound in the fields
The howling of these fearsome soldiers
They are coming into our midst
To cut the throats of your sons and consorts

To arms citizens Form your battalions
March, march
Let impure blood
Water our furrows ♫ 


When one goes on the website

IT’S another full council meeting up at the Town Hall tomorrow evening, including the session where backbench and opposition councillors can ask council leader Sarah Hayward and her cabinet colleagues anything pressing about council policy. Absolutely anything.


Sadiq Khan and the doubting firefighters

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 21.59.02_1IF Boris Johnson won’t talk to us about his views on the fire service in the wake of the Finchley Road inferno and the fatal blaze in Camden Town on the same day, we thought we would seek the views of Sadiq Khan, the Labour candidate hoping to take over from him next May.

You might think this was something of a free hit for Sadiq: Boris’s administration after all has closed stations and removed fire engines, insisting the city had enough cover – and yet when we had two major incidents on the same day, an elderly man died at a fire to which a clearly-stretched team of firefighters arrived late to.

But in his answers, Sadiq doesn’t do much more than cautiously prod around the edges, making no promises about re-instating what’s been lost. In fact, he didn’t go too much further than pledging a review of fire cover in London, which you’d assume any new Mayor would do when taking up the post, regardless of the recent events in north London. This caginess – a sort of reluctance not to commit to too much, which reminded some of us in the office of the interviews we did with Ed Miliband over the years of his leadership  – may just count against him the long run. He can’t just tell his life story over and over again and be satisfied with that as a campaign. He needs to be bolder than relying on London to simply vote for a bus driver’s son ahead of a rich guy; as dazzled as we are all meant to be by his endlessly-repeated family tree. If Andy Burnham and co’s defeat to Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest told us anything, smothering opinions and ideas for fear of losing has become a real turn-off.

The frustration is apparent among members of the London Fire Brigade Union who clearly want a street-fighter politician to back them up ahead of the London elections. There are more cuts to the service in the offing, and they seek a bit of protection. The response to Sadiq’s CNJ interview among some members follows the caricature of him being a Tory apologist.

There is also this counter-story going around that he could be the guy who pledged what he likes, but, due to the fact he openly changed his mind on scrapping Boris’s garden bridge project, nothing is ever set in stone with Sadiq. He needs to get rid of that image smartish if he doesn’t want it to play a part in the polls.

The union, meanwhile, is holding a special conference later this month to discuss whether it should re-confirm its allegiance with Labour.


That time Warren Mitchell gave tranquilisers to his dog

3000WHEN a well-known face dies during an international crisis, you can’t help thinking they miss out on the due celebration of their life and achievements. So it is that actor Warren Mitchell’s death this weekend has been relegated to filler spots in some of today’s newspapers, when on another weekend he would have commanded page leads and reams of tributes.

Even if people didn’t tune into the Alf Garnett comedies or have the taste for his blunt caricature, they knew who he was. The 89-year-old was an instantly recognisable face.

Living in Highgate, he put his name to the New Journal’s Save The Whittington campaign; for which we were grateful. Rightly or wrongly, those celebrity endorsements helped the campaign gain even greater exposure.

But it was an issue closer to his home which seemed to get him most irate: the noise from the old Kenwood summer concerts. As his complaint was picked up by the newspapers, it was inevitably presented with a variation of some sorts on the following, drop intro theme: He is best known for playing the old curmudgeon Alf Garnett xx xx xx and in real life Warren Mitchell has a rant of his own xx xx xx.

Mitchell, a socialist at heart, didn’t like people thinking he was like Garnett in real life, however, and in terms of the summer noise, he wasn’t joking. He was seriously fed-up. He once told our reporter Sunita Rappai that he’d begun giving his dog tranquilisers during the end of show fireworks to calm its nerves, explaining: “Our little dog gets very trembly and has to hide under the bed. I asked the organisers last year why they had to have fireworks at all and they said it was one of the main attractions. We are planning to move away over the summer. It’s awful – you can not sit in the garden at all and simply contemplate nature.  As well as the noise from the concerts, there’s some terrible MC making inane comments disturbing the peace. It’s noise pollution.”