Lots of Unanswered Questions at the Borough Council Meeting

Chiswick Homefields ward councillor Patrick Barr reports back on his week

Councillor Patrick Barr
Councillor Patrick Barr

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Easing lockdown – no complacency

This week we have seen the easing of lockdown across England, with the ‘stay at home’ order coming to an end. Whilst this is a positive move reflecting the gradual suppression of the COVID-19 virus, it does not mean we can now become complacent in our actions – as you'd expect me to say, given my role as a nurse! The government is still asking that we remember 'Hands, Face, Space and Fresh Air' and to wash our hands regularly, particularly when coming back from being elsewhere, cover our mouth and nose when outside, maintain a safe space from each other, get some fresh air and increase ventilation in enclosed spaces.

Borough Council Meeting

Throughout the pandemic my time and duties have been dominated by supporting the NHS in my role as a clinical services manager (wards manager) in a private hospital that treated patients from the local NHS trust for just over a year throughout the height of the pandemic. But I have done my best to maintain my council duties to our residents.

Earlier this week, on Tuesday, Hounslow council held a full council meeting which I attended for as long as I could before having to leave to return for a sleep-in at the hospital to be on call overnight. I have seen first-hand the effects of the virus and fully support the council and its stakeholders in their positive work in responding to the crisis but it's also important to hold the council to account where necessary.

We had tabled three strong motions – on the council's response to and recovery from the pandemic; on homelessness; and on public health. I was dismayed that, as so often happens, and it is one of the many frustrating aspects of borough council meetings, the motions on homelessness and public health were amended to such an extent by Labour that it entirely changed their emphasis and point.

On homelessness, in a motion proposed by Cllr Michael Denniss (Chiswick Riverside ward), we called for the council to devote further resources to homelessness. Despite the additional funding the council received from government to get everyone in during the pandemic, there is more to be done and we think the council should devote additional resources to this important area of work.

On public health, in a motion proposed by Cllr Gerald McGregor (Chiswick Homefields ward) we called for the council to use government funding to support the mental health of council staff, teachers, tutors, looked-after children and vulnerable adults in care and in the community. Everyone has experience of someone whose mental health has deteriorated during the pandemic. Even the strongest people have been vulnerable to the confines of lockdown and the extra pressures, and reduced contact with others, it has imposed on our lives. A debate would have given us a chance to add important context and contribute to a subject that concerns all of us.

We did, however, debate the council's response to and recovery from the pandemic in a detailed motion proposed by Cllr Joanna Biddolph (Turnham Green ward). She's a crisis management consultant in her other life and has worked through several international crises. It is essential to learn lessons so mistakes are not repeated and best practice becomes embedded in successive crisis management plans. Council leader Steve Curran does not understand the importance of everyone being asked to make contemporaneous (taking place at the same time as, as later clarified by Cllr Gabriella Giles of Chiswick Riverside ward) notes of what went wrong, well or was missed that shouldn't have been. Councillors have not been asked for their experiences and he repeated his determination that this will not happen until after the pandemic. As Cllr Biddolph said, it is very hard to remember what happened a year ago, a few months ago or even in January because the effects of the pandemic have been so fast-paced. She offered a bespoke record-keeping chart, a system that has worked well for crises such as air crashes and bombings. Does Hounslow want to capture those problems and experiences and possible remedies? No. As she said during the debate, Labour's amendment showed the council's disregard for the experiences of the people and business rate payers it represents and from its democratically elected councillors. All it did was to serve the interests of the leader and his very wobbly majority in his Labour group.

Cllr Giles (Chiswick Riverside ward) emphasised the need for transparency, respect, good governance and best practice, themes she returns to again and again because they are so lacking in Hounslow. As she said, the role of a good opposition is to scrutinise, and preventing us from doing so doesn't serve those we serve.

These important points of principle were also discussed in a debate on the council's constitution which proposes to restrict the ability for call-ins to succeed. A call-in enables councillors who are concerned about a council decision to call it in to be reviewed by the overview and scrutiny committee. There are no national restrictions on who can sign a call-in and councils have different approaches. In one London borough, call-ins can only be signed by members of that council's scrutiny committee. In others, it is a certain number of councillors with or without being on the scrutiny committee. Here in Hounslow, the constitution is to be changed so that no member of the overview and scrutiny committee can both sign a call-in and vote on the call-in. Given that eight councillors must sign a call-in, and that of the Conservatives' 10 councillors three are members of the scrutiny committee, it is clear that Labour is trying to prevent the opposition from scrutinising its decisions.

Screenshot of the recording of the meeting

The full proceeding of the meeting can be viewed here on YouTube.

While there is a competition to table the three motions allowed at each council meeting, each party can table three questions. Ours were on education, housing failures and whistleblowing.

The question on education from Cllr John Todd (Chiswick Homefields ward) gave him a chance to raise the very worrying case of an autistic child whose education during the pandemic was neglected, resulting in the local government ombudsman upholding the parent's complaint, saying that the failure meant that the child was " without suitable education for a year and caused the complainant unnecessary stress, time and trouble". The cabinet member responsible, Cllr Tom Bruce, was unable to provide an answer in the meeting – incredible, in our view.

The council's record on collecting rent arrears was raised in a question from Cllr Denniss (Chiswick Riverside ward). The total projected by London Councils for Hounslow council tenants for 2019/20 was £3.8m – an eye-watering sum and an increase of 40% on the outcome for 2018/19 of £2.7m. The average level of rent arrears projected by London Councils for all councils stands at £3.9m.

Our third question was on the council's whistleblowing policy, tabled by Cllr Biddolph (Turnham Green ward) who was concerned about the very low number of whistleblowing reports made. She asked for improvements to the description of the whistleblowing policy, specifically to give staff more confidence to report wrongdoings, and for the policy to be much easier to find including by embedding it in the council's constitution.

The Chiswick Shops Task Force

Cllr Biddolph wrote last week of the work the task force, of which I'm a member, has been doing throughout the pandemic including the fact of the 31st March deadline for grant applications. This resulted in a flurry of businesses wanting help with their applications, to get round IT problems and seeking clarity on what they were eligible to apply for, prompted by our reminder emails. It is now too late to apply for this round of grants.

The next significant government grant to be distributed is the Restart Grant, helping non-essential retailers, hospitality, accommodation, leisure, personal care and gym businesses with the inevitably increased costs of opening up again. Business owners will have to apply for these grants – there is no automatic payment – and councils have been asked to pay them more quickly. The details were announced as I was typing this and are here. In total, the government has given councils more than £25bn to pass on to businesses, part of over £352bn to protect jobs and livelihoods through the pandemic.

Patrick in front of shops in Devonshire Road, Chiswick Homefields wardPatrick in front of shops in Devonshire Road, Chiswick Homefields ward

Traffic schemes and transport management As usual, the road closures and traffic schemes dominate our days. The success and hard work of our group's Chiswick traffic and transport committee, chaired by Cllr Sam Hearn (Chiswick Riverside ward) in bringing to the attention of residents and businesses the wholesale disruption of their lives by illegitimate changes in the east of the borough, has led to us expanding our work to the whole of the borough. It isn't only Chiswick that is being treated badly – though we certainly do have the worst and the most damaging schemes here.

Helping residents

Some of the most difficult cases councillors are asked to help with are when a resident needs to be rehoused, for what can often be very serious reasons. The process can be unhelpfully bureaucratic; they must register for a computer-driven home swap but the swaps aren't always acceptable. Councillors can intervene to escalate their cases and achieve a compassionate move.

One Chiswick resident and her adult son, the subjects of anti-social behaviour, were offered a flat in a part of the west of the borough where the resident had been attacked. Her whole life was in Chiswick; being swapped out of it, and to a place where she would not feel safe, and which would have exacerbated her struggles with mental illness, made no sense. They have now moved within Chiswick.

We are all well-aware of the effect of lockdown and the stay at home policy on people in violent or abusive relationships. Intervening to rehouse a resident fleeing domestic abuse required speed and sensitivity.

Elections are coming

Patrick Barr at Woodstock Road
Patrick Barr at Woodstock Road

On 6 May, the UK will have its biggest ever set of local elections. People will choose almost 5,000 councillors, 16 mayors and 40 police and crime commissioners up and down the country. Here in Hounslow there are two by-elections, in Cranford and Hounslow Heath, and of course we will be casting votes in the Mayor of London and London Assembly elections.

This is an opportunity for us to decide who we wish to represent us in the London Assembly, and who we wish to add to our current council body. Just as importantly, it is about building back better after this pandemic and focusing on people's priorities. So, I'll be out campaigning for Shaun Bailey as mayor of London and Nick Rogers as our local GLA member.

Cllr Patrick Barr

Chiswick Homefields Ward



Meetings are now taking place virtually and residents can attend online. Joining instructions will be on the council website, in the  agenda reports pack for each committee, here

8th April: Planning Committee    

20th April: Cabinet    


Face to face surgeries are still currently not taking place. When they are reinstated – we hope from 17th May - you will be able to meet a Conservative councillor in Chiswick on Saturdays at 9.30am in Chiswick Library and in Gunnersbury on the first Saturday of every month at 10.00am at the Gunnersbury Triangle Club. Until then, please contact your ward councillors by email or phone, as listed below.  

Chiswick Homefields ward

Cllr Patrick Barr
07976 703263

Cllr Gerald McGregor
07866 784821

Cllr John Todd
07866 784651

Chiswick Riverside ward

Cllr Michael Denniss
07976 703274

Cllr Gabriella Giles
07966 270823

Cllr Sam Hearn
07833 376222

Turnham Green ward

Cllr Joanna Biddolph
07976 703446

Cllr Ranjit Gill
07976 702956

Cllr Ron Mushiso
07976 702887

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April 4, 2021