Thursday, 11 March 2010
Jules Pipe, Mayor of Hackney, answers Blood and Property questions
Blood and Property: What would happen to Hackney if the Conservatives win the next election? How much less money would the borough receive?
Jules Pipe: Whoever wins the general election, the next public sector spending round will be tight. From the noises Conservative shadow cabinet ministers have been making, I think that it’s clear it will be far worse under the Conservatives. The experience of the 1980s and 90s suggest that the Conservatives have a great capacity for taking decisions that are particularly tough on communities such as Hackney. Over the last 4 years of the last Tory government there was a 7% cut in real terms in local government spending, but in Hackney it was worse with a real terms cut of more than 20% which saw absolute cash reductions in total grant.
Over recent years, Hackney has made huge efficiency savings that have been recycled into covering cost inflation (pay and prices), demand-led service growth (eg adult community services), service improvements (eg street cleaning, recycling), and capital projects (eg Lido, Clapton Library, schools) so avoiding borrowing, cuts, and having to transfer additional costs onto the taxpayer – allowing us to freeze council tax. Naturally, if reductions were made in funding, backfilling such shortfalls in grant would have the first call on funds generated by future efficiency savings.
The progress made so far with medium term planning forecasts for the end of 2011/12 to 2013/14 show prudent, cautious assessments of current and future spending pressures. These regular assessments will of course continue, and continue to be revised as the situation becomes clearer in time.
Blood and Property: Do you think that the main opposition in Hackney is the Conservative Party or the Orthodox Jewish councillors who make up its majority?
Jules Pipe: The Conservative Party. As well as in Hackney North, they are also the main electoral challenger in the mayoral and both parliamentary contests, as well as council seats in Hackney South.
Blood and Property: You had a run-in with Councillor Steinberger last year over his actions as head of scrutiny, do you believe that he put the planning needs of his community above the financial needs of the rest of the borough? (Reference: 23,000 Hackney tenants used as bargaining chip)
Jules Pipe: I believe that it was the adopted principle of the entire Hackney Conservative group to oppose the Council’s clarification of planning policy regarding residential extensions. In my opinion, in attempting to negotiate the removal of the item from the Cabinet agenda in return for his acquiescence to allowing an urgent item that lowered council housing rents, he put furthering his group’s political position above operating correctly as Chair of Overview and Scrutiny. I believe that Cllr Steinberger has offered a different explanation of events.
Blood and Property: How do you react to claims by some members of the OJ community that the Labour Party in Hackney is anti semitic?
Jules Pipe: I would refute such claims entirely, whether this is a reference to the political party in the borough, or the Council’s political administration.
Blood and Property: Do you think it is odd that Orthodox Jewish councillors so rarely stand against each other - would it matter if there was some kind of agreement within the community not to do this? (Reference: Democracy problem in Stamford Hill)
Jules Pipe: As you have acknowledged, it is not completely unknown for members of the Orthodox Jewish community to stand against one another. Hackney Labour wants all political parties in the borough to be representative of all of Hackney's diverse communities. We have reached out to the Orthodox Jewish community (as we do to all communities) and that's why Cllr Joseph Stauber joined us.
It's a matter for the individuals and communities concerned whether they stand as candidates and how they vote, but personally I think communalism is very unhealthy. People should be looking at the manifestoes and candidates of the different parties and voting for the ones who seem to have the best ideas, qualities and relevant experience. It is unhealthy for democracy if people vote for candidates from their own community for that reason alone and not on merit. It is also unhealthy for community cohesion – whilst there are specific communities within Hackney, we are all part of one wider civic community.
However, it should be noted that the maths of recent borough election results suggests that the Orthodox Jewish community in Stamford Hill must have been perfectly happy to vote for Muslim candidates (and vice versa) and I think that is very healthy and says something very positive about community cohesion in Hackney.
Blood and Property: How important do you think religion and an understanding of religion might be in Hackney. Do you think that it will become more or less of an important factor in Hackney politics in the future? (Reference: Hackney Christians: Money, power, demonic possession) and the orthodox jewish community is said to be growing fast and has specific requirements.
Jules Pipe: As I’ve said before, this is a proudly diverse borough and a place where government surveys have consistently found that residents are of the view that people of different backgrounds in Hackney get on well together. I don’t think it’s up to local politicians to talk about religion in any other context than that we welcome the diverse mix that people of all backgrounds bring to Hackney and the contribution they make to life here. Of course, the elected members of a council should reflect the population it serves, and so in that respect I’d welcome more people of different backgrounds standing to become local councillors. Hackney has a pretty good record on this, but there’s always room for improvement everywhere – here, in parliament, and in council chambers across the country.
Blood and Property: Do you think it is healthy that so many of the boroughs schools are now academies - and does it matter that these schools are not subject to the freedom of information act? - (Reference: Hackney academies: too good to be true?)
Jules Pipe: My priority and that of local parents is that the standard of education for Hackney school pupils keeps on improving, and that they can access better training and jobs than a number of years ago.
In Hackney, we have a range of secondary schools, Voluntary Aided, Community and Academies. The fifth new Academy will open in September 2010. The five mixed, non-denominational, non-selective academies will provide 1,800 new secondary school places in the borough. Mossbourne Academy, rated by Ofsted as 'outstanding in every respect', was the first to enter pupils for GCSEs in 2009 and saw 84% of pupils gain five or more good grades. Nearly all of our secondary schools are now graded as good or outstanding by Ofsted and the significant improvement of results from our existing schools, together with the first set of GCSE results from Mossbourne Academy, have all contributed to Hackney's outstanding GCSE results of 2009, which are now above the national average for the first time ever.
I’m puzzled by the accusation that this rise in results should be the result of the disproportionate use of equivalent vocational qualifications at Academies. Not only am I sure Mossbourne would be willing to provide evidence to the contrary, it is the first and only Academy to contribute results to the aggregate figure. Furthermore, Mossbourne results contributed to the aggregate for the first time this year – the previous year-on-year increases in results have relied entirely on Hackney’s existing VA and community schools.
The Freedom of Information of Act should indeed apply to Academies. They are not currently subject to the FoI Act, however, under section 5 the Secretary of State has the power to designate as a public authority a body that appears to exercise functions of a public nature, or that provide public authority services under contract. A consultation last year considered to which bodies this should apply. Academies are now being proposed for inclusion, along with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Financial Ombudsman Service, and UCAS. The Ministry of Justice has consulted with these organisations about their potential inclusion and is considering their responses.
Blood and Property: Although crime in Hackney has fallen, other boroughs complain that Hackney has more policemen. On top of that, Hackney seems to be able to rely on outside agencies like Operation Trident. Do you know how much support Hackney's police get in fighting crime and whether this might no longer be available either if the conservatives win or if the government has to cut police budgets? References: Hackney has too many cops say Waltham Forest and Croydon and Hackney is second biggest customer of Operation Trident
Jules Pipe: Hackney Police are able to draft in services provided by serious crime operations such as Operation Trident and Operation Blunt, but they don’t get any extra funding or long-term resources for these operations to keep down crime. Support from the two operations are triggered by serious incidents in Hackney, which can then allow Hackney Police to access short-term resources and support from officers of other London boroughs, as and when we need it. Rather than budgetary constraints resulting in reduced support, it is the fact that serious crime is on a downward trend in Hackney – and therefore may no longer meet the requirements to get extra support from these operations – which might result in a reduction.
Blood and Property: The BNP wants to stand in the Hackney Mayoral elections this year. How do you think this will affect the elections in the borough? (Reference: BNP to stand in Hackney mayoral elections)
Jules Pipe: Hackney is one of the country’s most ethnically diverse boroughs, and also one that is renowned for how well its residents get on together. Without the community tensions that the BNP would seek to prey upon, neither they nor the National Front have contested Hackney for many years. If the BNP were to field a candidate in 2010, overwhelmingly Hackney residents would see through their pretence at respectability, and reject their racism at the ballot box. An enthusiasm to reject the BNP may lead to an increase in turnout, with or without a specific campaign, but this is likely to be masked by any increase resulting from the council and general elections being coincident.
Blood and Property: How much has the borough changed in the last 10 years - demographically (Reference: 50% of people in Hackney North have degrees) - do you think this will change the make up of the voting patterns in the borough?
Jules Pipe: Hackney North and Stoke Newington has a high density of people with degrees, at 50.5%, but according to the ONS Annual Population Survey in 2008, Richmond Park is the highest in the country, with 63.6%. Regardless of the level to which someone was educated, and as I inferred previously, I would hope that they will vote for who they think has the best vision for an area and can continue to improve local services. (This answer contained a long list of parliamentary constituencies showing what percentage of residents had degrees. If it would be helpful to see this, please let me know.)
Blood and Property: To what extent do you think that changes in the borough are related to property prices and new people moving here - how easily do you think that this process could be reversed (i.e. do you think that many hackney residents see their homes as investments or just as homes?)
Jules Pipe: Hackney is a very popular borough for a variety of reasons, including its improving transport links, its vastly improved schools, popular leisure facilities such as London Fields Lido and its many parks, its status as a vibrant arts and cultural hub, amongst many other reasons.
The Council’s research suggests that many of those moving into the borough since 2003 have been young, childless households on higher incomes than the current borough average, who rent privately. The impact of rising property prices in Hackney - as for London and the whole country - means that while owner-occupiers who bought during the past few decades will have benefited considerably from capital gains or opportunities to rent out their homes, the market has become very expensive for first-time buyers. This would suggest that the driving factor for today’s incomers is the desire to live in the borough, rather than seeking investment opportunities.
The Council is committed to ensuring high quality, affordable housing for all Hackney residents. Right now across Hackney construction work is taking place to build hundreds of new social-rented and affordable homes, including council housing, after the Council lobbied the Government and received a total of over £43million in Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) funding since last September.
For almost 30 years, affordable housing across the country often only got built as a spin-off of new private developments, and the downturn in the housing market threatened to bring even that to a halt. The commercial marketplace cannot be left as the only force to drive how housing is delivered. The Council has been working with the Government and its agencies and has successfully strengthened their confidence to give Hackney their social housing investment directly, so that we can deliver homes that are much needed by local residents.
Blood and Property: Do you think that Hackney has suffered the worst effects of the financial crisis? Why is Hackney's employment situation improving more slowly than other boroughs? (References: Feb 2010: Hackney Unemployment deteriorates fastest Jan 2010: Hackney slowest employment recovery )
Jules Pipe: I think it’s very difficult for anyone to say with confidence whether we have suffered the worst. There’s a very diverse mix of people living in Hackney, whose employment prospects in a recession can be affected to different degrees and at different times. The fluctuation of employment rate will naturally be determined by the nature of the work (part time, casual, employment sector etc) and when that sector experiences the effects of the downturn.
The figures to which you refer are relatively short-term and relate only to those claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance and should be seen in context of the Office of National Statistics data, which shows that employment has risen from 55.4 per cent in 2005 to 68.7 per cent in 2009, putting Hackney very close to the London average. Nevertheless, Hackney has been putting significant resources into getting the long-term unemployed into work, from job-readiness programmes through to apprenticeships. In the longer term, Hackney has concentrated on preventing a future skills gap in its young population by prioritising investment into schools and raising educational attainment.
Blood and Property: Can you rule out speculation that you might stand for a parliamentary seat in the next general election?
Jules Pipe: I can rule it out entirely. I have never approached a parliamentary constituency, or even expressed an interest in standing in a parliamentary constituency. I can say the same for the European parliament, the GLA (both list and constituency) and the London Mayoralty. I have absolutely no intention, desire or even vague thought of doing so now, and have no plans to do so in any future election. I am personally committed to continue leading the Labour administration in the borough in which I live.
Blood and Property: How many Hackney Labour councillors are in the process of trying to become labour parliamentary candidates in the next general election? And if there's more than Nargis Khan and Sophie Linden - it would be great to know who they are.
Jules Pipe: I am aware that both Nargis and Sophie have entered constituency contests. Beyond the Cabinet, there is no expectation for councillors to keep me informed of such intentions, so I wouldn’t be aware of a definitive list. Furthermore, if there were any, it would be a matter for them to disclose to you directly.
Blood and Property: Do you think it matters that Hackney's legal department was 25% understaffed during a major development period - Olympics, Bishopsgate Goodsyard, Dalston development. (Reference: Hackney legal department recruiting crisis)
Jules Pipe: All major and high profile schemes have been fully supported by Legal Services with appropriately experienced lawyers advising as necessary. There have been no instances of work being externalised because Legal Services has not had the capacity to deal with it.
The Corporate Director has had the opportunity to review Legal Services and a restructure is under way with recent permanent appointments made to senior manager and senior lawyer positions. The recruitment process will continue until all vacant permanent posts have been filled.
DIANE ABBOTT ANSWERS BLOOD AND PROPERTY QUESTIONS