The Challenge Of Reaching Those Most In Need
Cllr Joanna Biddolph writes about cross-party working during the health crisis
Chiswick councillor Joanna Biddolph is leader of the Conservative Group on Hounslow Council.
Working cross-party and lobbying ministers
Not long after the lockdown, I wrote to the leader of the council stressing the importance of working cross-party on this crisis and Hounslow’s response to it – with our group, the official opposition, acting as a critical friend in private. It’s quite a leap for some to make but we remain resolute that it’s the best way to ensure our residents are protected and supported through these unprecedented times, without descending into back-and-forth arguments or posturing for party political gain. We started by providing a long list of actions, initiatives and pressures to anticipate, recommending mitigation, and discussed them and other issues in a three-way meeting with the council leader and chief executive.
As a consequence, our group now has a weekly briefing with the crisis team using MS Teams and, for urgent three-way discussions, conference calls. We hold our own group meetings on Zoom. Skype, previously a universal medium, seems so last year. And last year seems so long ago. I’m frequently reminded of the phrase, used by Lenin (obviously not a political hero of mine) "There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen". We’ve all lived through what seems like several decades in less than four weeks since lockdown started on 23rd March.
Looking for comparisons is useful so we can continue to hold the council to account, albeit behind the scenes. I’m active in a Conservative group leaders’ WhatsApp group which all but guarantees instant responses to questions about democracy (what are councils doing about their statutory planning and licensing committee responsibilities and their council AGMs); achievements (how many business grants have been paid, how and how quickly); and community initiatives (how many food boxes have been distributed to shielded residents and what’s the quality and range of their contents). A government minister is in the group which makes it particularly easy to highlight concerns raised by residents and businesses and lobby for policy changes.
How are we doing?
Our highest priority is, of course, social care. Hounslow is not as badly affected as some London boroughs but the aggressive nature of Covid-19 remains a challenge. We have 320 care homes; all of them need PPE (personal protective equipment) which is in short supply everywhere. The amount of co-ordination required to make sure everyone who needs PPE has it is extraordinary. Today (Friday) I delivered food boxes to shielded residents – people at greatest risk of being badly affected by Covid-19 – including in Hounslow homes. Our care-givers include our housing managers, and caretakers whose role is to maintain high standards of hygiene and cleanliness at blocks of flats. I was greeted by a housing manager wearing a mask, both of us doing the social distancing dance we’ve all learned – moving forward, standing back, stepping aside, a concerned question, a thumbs up – before I delivered the food box to the resident’s front door. Our grateful thanks go to all our care-givers, in whatever setting and whatever role.
Homelessness pulls all our heartstrings and even more so with the risk to homeless people of Covid-19. Over 30 homeless people in Hounslow have taken up offers of accommodation since the government instructed local authorities to house rough sleepers to protect them from the virus. A few rough sleepers remain resolutely resisting housing in Hounslow. The homeless team is regularly in touch with them, checking on their health and continuing to offer accommodation.
Not everyone in Chiswick is on Twitter so you might not have seen photos of messages of thanks, and the occasional bottle of fizz, left out for our recycling and waste collection teams who have continued as if nothing were different. They, and across the board at the council, have been working at 80 per cent capacity – roughly the same as normal when holidays and sickness absences are taken into account. It’s impressive and at least in part due to the fact that Hounslow staff were moved to WFH (working from home) rather earlier than in other boroughs.
Fly tipping has increased which is depressing. So, it seems, has graffiti if the number of reports some of us have put in is representative. Several of us – if we aren’t isolating – use our exercise time to walk briskly or cycle through our wards spotting and reporting problems. We’ve raised the need to manage what will inevitably be a surge in quantity of waste, including garden waste, when recycling and waste centres re-open. Hounslow, Ealing and Hillingdon councils’ recycling/waste departments are talking together about this, given that some of us use other boroughs’ centres because of where we live. Please hang on to the additional waste you’ve accumulated when clearing out sheds, lofts, garages, cupboards and drawers and be prepared for a phased or other system for taking them to a waste/recycling centre. Normal services are unlikely to be resumed in full overnight.
Valuing our volunteers
Another surge has impressed us all – the wonderful offers of time and tasks from people wanting to support others. Our churches have networks of helpers. The Chiswick COVID-19 Mutual Aid group moved fast to establish itself and is already adapting, setting up hyper-local WhatsApp groups by street or small clusters of streets to make it even easier to ask for help. The group is on Facebook – a challenge for people who are not online so please help neighbours in need by letting them know about it and contacting it on their behalf.
As always, residents in blocks of flats find it hardest to know what is going on. If you live in a block, please help by checking on residents and letting them know that practical support (for shopping or collecting medicines) is available. They might have been managing – working through store cupboard food for example – but this might change and become critical now that lockdown has been extended. Today Turnham Green ward councillors received an impassioned plea for shopping help from an elderly couple living in a block. We have raised the need to contact residents of blocks without increasing the risk of taking the virus into blocks.
The Chiswick Shops Task Force continues its work
Supporting our independent shops is always a priority – it’s why I set up the Chiswick Shops Task force with Cllr Patrick Barr of Chiswick Homefields ward and Cllr Gabriella Giles in Chiswick Riverside ward. When I emailed all those on our then current list about initiatives in the Chancellor’s Budget on 11th March I had no idea that less than a week later I’d be emailing again with news of more government initiatives to support them through Coronavirus; then again three days after that; four days later; and a further nine days later. Today’s announcement of an extension of the furlough scheme means another email is due. Anyone who thinks it’s a simple send-to-all admin task hasn’t experienced the council’s tech. It’s a slow process taking several hours.
Inevitably, there are replies to act on including desperate pleas for faster payment of grants (we have pressed for improvements that speed up the council’s processes); appeals by businesses that aren’t eligible for grants to be included in the scheme; and grim examples of landlords threatening eviction despite a ban on such actions (the callous tone of those letters makes my stomach churn).
We were criticised for compiling, before lockdown was imposed, a list of shops open for business including those who trade online. There’s nowt so queer as folk but thank you to everyone who is supporting our independents – indeed, all our retailers – not simply turning to distant international giants. We need to support our shops so they continue trading after the virus. Chiswickw4.com has taken over our list of cafés, restaurants, fruit and veg stalls and other businesses offering takeaway and/or delivery, some diversifying to sell other goods, others trading on-line instead of in-store. The arrival of spring means that the addition of Wheelers, our garden centre, has enabled people lucky enough to have a garden or balcony to do more than weeding and clearing; borders, pots and in my case an urn are gradually filling with cheerful colour. Find the list of traders still trading here:
As we know from the daily 10 Downing Street briefings, and from our own experiences here in Chiswick, there is a high degree of compliance with the lockdown but pockets of rebellion, or care-less-ness, still exist. Enforcement teams are out dealing with violations and police have started issuing fines.
We are in lockdown until at least the end of the first week of May. Whether it is extended, or lifted in its entirety or in phases, we are already looking ahead to the end of lockdown and the all-important recovery. Some say our lives and lifestyles will have changed forever; others are less sure. While helping today at the community support hub, opinions were divided on the long-term sustainability of WFH. Some miss their colleagues, the team culture and bouncing ideas off each other. Others want to escape family dynamics – and the fridge. We want to get back to the democratic process, which has been hampered by the lack of appropriate technology, and start reinvigorating our local economy. Some things will have to change so normal life can continue. In the meantime, stay home and stay safe.
Councillor Joanna Biddolph
Turnham Green Ward
Phone: 07976 703446
CONTACT YOUR LOCAL COUNCILLORS
All council meetings, including surgeries, have been cancelled. Your local councillors are, however, still available to take up your concerns so please get in touch:
Chiswick Homefields ward
Cllr Patrick Barr
Cllr Gerald McGregor
Cllr John Todd
Chiswick Riverside ward
Cllr Michael Denniss
Cllr Gabriella Giles
Cllr Sam Hearn
Turnham Green ward
Cllr Joanna Biddolph
Cllr Ranjit Gill
Cllr Ron Mushiso
April 18, 2020