A non-voters landslide

A polling station.
Photo credit: Elliot Stallion (unsplash.com)

With a recount for one ward (Rainham and Wennington) due to take place on Monday, it is not yet clear who will be calling the shots at Havering’s Town Hall for the next four years. However, the most striking thing about this week’s election is the paltry turnout.

In the previous elections four years ago, turnout ranged from 26.6% in Harold Hill’s Gooshays ward to 45.47% in Upminster – with an overall turnout of 37%.  This time the figures are lower still!   The same two wards produced the lowest and highest turnouts, but this time they ranged from only 23.46% to 42.3%.   Overall, barely 35% of Havering’s electorate casted a vote.   Perusing the figures for earlier elections highlights this downward spiral – in 2002 for instance,  turnout was 45%.  The low turnout was a feature nationwide.  So what explains this electoral fatigue?

On a national level, the revelations about the flouting of lockdown rules by both the Tory PM and the Labour opposition leader no doubt caused many supporters of those parties to chuck their polling cards into the recycling bin.  And at a time when food and energy prices are rising at a scary rate, it’s likely that the minds of millions of others were focused on whether they would be able to eat and heat rather than on town hall comings and goings.

More locally, in many of Havering’s wards there was barely any sign of a forthcoming election at all – or at least if my experience is anything to go by.  Apart from one doorstep visit from a (swiftly dispatched) Conservative candidate, a couple of leaflets by the Havering Residents Association and one from Labour, I did not see any active canvasing in St Edward’s Ward.  Although it is true that a lot of election campaigning takes place online these days – as was the case here – most of this only reaches those who already feel politically engaged. 

Of course, there is a myriad of other reasons too. But all in all, the clear winners of this election are the non-voters. So what happens now?

The state of independents

The logo of the Hornchurch and Upminster Indepedents.

Havering has a long tradition of electing non-party independent councillors to the Town Hall, with the most well-known example being the Residents Association.  For many decades now the RA in each ward has published a regular newsletter, known as the Bulletin.   However, many Havering residents have been left perplexed recently by a different version of the Bulletin which has been posted through their letterboxes.  This Bulletin claims that it represents a brand-new group in the borough, the Hornchurch and Upminster Independents (HUI).  But who are HUI?  Havering Special has done a bit of digging around and found that there is something quite fishy about this group of ‘independents’.

HUI’s entry on the Electoral Commission’s online register lists two officers – Brian Eagling and Darren Wise.  Regular Havering Special readers may recognise these names, as both Eagling and Wise are councillors in the Harold Wood ward. Although they stood in the 2018 elections as Residents Association candidates, they now represent the North Havering Residents Group.  The NHRG are entirely separate from the Havering Residents Associations, and have stood in opposition to the HRA ever since they broke away from them shortly after they were elected.   Following the stalemate of the 2018 local elections, Brian Eagling and Darren Wise were amongst a small but significant number of (supposedly) non-Conservative councillors who switched sides and enabled the Tories to snatch control of the Town Hall. 

So, are the Hornchurch and Upminster Independents a genuine attempt to build upon Havering’s proud history of non-party politics?   Or are they a Putinesque ‘controlled opposition’ sham, cynically created to split the non-Tory vote in this year’s elections?  Havering Special will leave it for you to decide!

Vaccine Passports: the New Poll Tax?

Anti-vaccine-passport graphic.
Picture Credit: South Essex Radical Media/the Stirrer

This is the first and probably the only time Havering Special will ever say this, but we should all give Romford’s true-blue Tory MP Andrew Rosindell an almighty cheer! Defying his party’s whip, he was one of 126 Members of Parliament who voted against the introduction of vaccine passports.

Even the government’s scientific and health advisors have acknowledged that the vaccine does not stop transmission of the virus, so vaccine passports do will do nothing to help bring the pandemic to an end. If they can prove that they are double-jabbed, a vaccinated person full of Covid can still go to a nightclub or cinema to spread their germs around!  If the genuine aim is to stop such a scenario from occurring, then surely proof of a negative test result should be the requirement for entry to these venues?

But of course, you don’t need a tinfoil hat to doubt that ‘protecting public health’ is the real reason for these passes!  Successive governments have concocted all manner of excuses to propose the imposition of compulsory ID cards on us, and all have failed.  Until now, that is! 

If allowed to linger, these vaccine passports will at some point morph into high-tech ID cards – or in other words, Digital ID!  Supporters of vaccine passports will likely point out that they are not needed for access to essential services such as schools, shops and workplaces – but for how long?

Havering Special readers over a certain age will no doubt have good memories of the defiance, resistance and non-compliance that killed off Maggie Thatcher’s dreaded Poll Tax.  Who else thinks it’s time for this rebellious spirit to be revived?

Fash triggered by fish

 Protestors holding a banner which says "indigenous Britons built Britain".

A group called the Patriotic Alternative protested in Romford recently.  Their chosen target was – of all things – a fish fair!  Although vegan protests have taken place outside local branches of McDonalds and shops selling leather and fur, this is the first time the pseudo-fascist PA have disgraced our town.

In reality of course it wasn’t so much dead fish that the PA were triggered by, but instead the presence of Aklu Plaza, a new shopping mall specialising in Asian goods which is due to open early next year.  As a taster of what’s to come, the owners of Aklu Plaza ran a week-long ‘fish mela’ (an Asian-style fish fair).  A clever bit of marketing perhaps – but in the fevered eyes of the Patriotic Alternative, this is the Great Replacement plan in action!

The new plaza is in the former Debenhams department store, which closed in April.  This huge building has been empty ever since – which is no surprise, as bricks-and-mortar retailing has been in decline for some time.  As a result, many of us locals expected the site to be snapped up by a housebuilding corporation, to be turned into pokey legoland flats.  So the news that the building is to remain as a shopping venue is to be welcomed! For one thing, this new venture is likely to attract many new – and much needed – shoppers to the town.  The PA however do not view it this  way – as they see it, this is an Asian incursion, as if a group of mad mullahs overthrew Debenhams at gunpoint!

Just as no vegans were forced to attend the fish mela, no PA supporter will be mandated to shop at Aklu Plaza.  Romford may have a reputation of being prone to tubthumping nationalism (at least in some people’s eyes) –  but us locals aren’t afraid of ‘foreign’ foods, so the white-nationalist PA are wasting their time if they expect the community to boycott this new outlet.

Beam Park blues

Beam Park flats under construction. Photo credit: Glyn Baker (Geograph.org.uk)

Straddling the borders of Havering and Barking and Dagenham, Beam Park is a huge and much-needed housing development currently being built.  One of its big selling points is the proposed railway station. Once opened, Beam Park station will give commuters a quick and easy ride into London. It will also enable residents in general to go out and about without having to depend on a car.  Or at least, that was the idea!  But it has now emerged that central government has never endorsed the proposal to build a railway station – and now appear extremely reluctant to do so due to penny-pinching concerns. 

With climate change being the issue of the moment, the last thing we need is a huge new neighbourhood with no decent public transport network. We are, after all, being nudged to cease our reliance on petrol-guzzling private cars. So what are the residents of Beam Park supposed to do?  Especially when the housing there consists primarily of flats with few parking spaces. It is not as if everyone can work remotely – something that senior Civil Servants seem to forget as they ‘work from home’ in their massive kitchens!  

The whole debacle shows how piss-poor the communication is between the different layers of government – as well as the lack of joined-up thinking amongst our politicians and bureaucrats.  Local MPs and councillors have teamed up with TfL and City Hall to pressurise the Department of Transport to reconsider.  However even if a station is approved and funded, it will be years before work even starts on building it. In the meantime Beam Park residents will have to trek to neighbouring stations in order to take the train, both of which are some distance from the community.

Homeless people and peopleless homes

A row of houses with the words 'These houses are not for sale or rent. Please keep out' painted on them.
Photo credit: unknown.

Havering has at least 734 long-term empty homes, according to recently released statistics.  This means that for every 1000 homes, 7.2 are unoccupied. Although these figures may look shocking, this borough actually fares much better than the Greater London average, which is 10.6 per 1000.  The area with the highest proportion of empty properties is the City of London, where there are 42 empty homes per 1000 properties.  Southwark has the highest number of empty homes overall – a massive 2,358, which works out as over 17 empty homes per 1000. This data comes from a Freedom of Information request made by the insurance firm Admiral, and can be viewed here.

There are many different reasons why perfectly decent homes are left empty for long periods.  In some cases, the reasons are innocent enough.  For instance, arranging Power of Attorney when an incapacitated parent moves out of their home is usually a costly and lengthy process – as can be sorting out Probate following a sad death.  In other cases, a homeowner with no known beneficiaries dies without leaving a will.  

But let’s be honest here, in many (if not most) cases, the reasons are far from innocuous!  Property spivs who treat houses merely as ‘investments’ are amongst the main culprits.  But sadly, the idea that a residential property  is primarily an ‘investment opportunity’ rather than a place to live has taken too much of a hold – as shown by the way house price decreases tend to be reported as bad news.  In many other cases, the empty stock is owned by local councils or other public bodies, the original residents turfed out to make way for grandiose schemes which never materialised.  Regardless of the reasons – at a time of rising homelessness, ever-increasing waiting lists and more and more families living in overcrowded conditions, is there any excuse for homes to be wilfully left empty?

Face masks and the fake culture war

Picture of teddy bear wearing a face mask.
Photo credit: Daniele Levis Pelusi (unsplash.com)

From personal observations it appears that  most shoppers in Romford’s town centre shops are wearing masks.  Chattering class types have been promoting the idea that only the lovely  tolerant Remainers are observing the requirement about wearing masks in indoor public spaces, with Leavers apparently endangering the future of mankind by declining to cover their mouths and noses.  National surveys have also suggested a correlation between attitudes towards masks and views on Brexit (But were you asked?  I certainley wasn’t!).   The Romford area voted 70% for Leave in the 2016 referendum.    And yet its residents are  diligently wearing masks when browsing  shoes in TK Maxx and buying their teabags in Sainsbury’s.   So that blows that idea right out of the water!  Please make sure you do not fall for these attempts  to create a phoney culture war that distracts us from the real issues that divide our world.

Who wants to live in a ‘Rotten Borough’?

 

Rotten boroughsShortly before the Covid lockdown began (and Havering Special’s hiatus), Havering Council submitted its suggestions for the proposed ward changes to the Local Government Boundary Commission.  Whilst looking at the local authority’s submission I (and no doubt many others!) immediately became suspicious about the motives behind the council’s submission.  So it is shocking but not surprising that secretly-recorded footage has just come to light of leading Tory councillors bragging that they broke protocol to ensure that any ward changes will work firmly in their party’s favour!

“We’ve come up with a set of proposals that I think are really politically advantageous for us” council leader Damian White is quoted as  as saying in the covert recording, before boasting that he and his colleagues were able to influence the decisions of the council Chief Executive Andrew Blake-Herbert.  Legally, boundary change proposals should only consider population changes and other practical issues, with party politics strictly off-limits.

The proposed 'Gidea Park' ward.
The proposed ‘Gidea Park’ ward.

The suggestions for the wards in and around the Romford area are one of the main bones of contention.  The current Romford Town would vanish, to be divided awkwardly into its various neighbouring wards.  A new ‘Gidea Park’ ward would be created to cover some parts of it.   As well as being a very odd shape  it is  also  inaccurately-named,   as it  includes the  Brewery and Mercury Mall shopping areas – both of which are firmly in Romford Town centre.  Not even the dodgiest estate agent could market those areas as Gidea Park!  However, there would be enough homes  (and therefore voters) in the actual Gidea Park portion of this ward to strongly influence its future election results.  The Romford part has seen many new housing developments imposed on it in recent years, which have both irked  existing local residents and also changed the future demographic make-up of the ward.  And more housebuilding is on the way…  Is it cynical to think these events might be related?  After all, in recent years the Havering Conservatives have been relying on the Romford wards to give them enough councillors to maintain control at the Town Hall.

Fans of Blackadder will recall the ‘Dish and Dishonesty’ episode, in which Edmund Blackadder plots with his masters to take advantage of the ‘rotten borough’ scam.  That was set in the days of Pitt the Younger, but 200 years later why does this gerrymandering still take place?

 

 

A turn-up for the books

Harold Wood Library
Harold Wood Library. Photo Credit: Julian Osley (geograph.org.uk)

Havering Council have quietly shelved their plans to make savage cuts to the borough’s library service!  Had the minority Tory administration got their way, employees in five of Havering’s libraries (Collier Row, Elm Park, Gidea Park, Harold Wood, and South Hornchurch) would have been handed their P45s – and then replaced by unpaid locals.

The consultation the Council ran attracted a much higher response than they expected, and the message from the respondees was clear – ‘save our libraries!’.  Had the plans gone ahead, it is highly likely that opening hours in those branches would have been reduced to only three or four days a week, as has been the case in neighbouring Barking and Dagenham.  No doubt this was one of the main reasons why Havering people were dead against the proposals.

In a complete turnaround the Council have now pledged an extra £200,000 for our libraries, in order to reverse the reduction in opening hours that most branches have suffered in recent years. As  libraries play such a vital role in community life, this is a rare bit of good news for our area.

No to greenwashing!

Before Havering Special went on its unplanned break, we reported about Havering Council’s proposals to build on Gooshays Green, a vital and much-cherished piece of green open space in Harold Hill.   Fortunately the Town Hall bods have now seen sense and have abandoned that plan!  Another positive story regarding Havering’s green credentials is that the borough now has one of the lowest air pollution mortality rates in Greater London.   However,  all this is now in peril – although this time the potential threat is not from within our own borough, but instead from a neighbouring area.

geograph-2576887-by-David-Anstiss(1)
The current Belverdere Incinerator. Photo credit: David Anstiss (geograph.org.uk)

To the south-west of our borough, the Secretary of State is currently considering plans submitted by the Cory Group for its ‘Riverside Energy Park’ in Belvedere.  Although greenwashed by Cory as a way of reducing landfill, the electricity-generating incinerator it wants to build has – understandably – caused a huge outcry from local communities. There is already a small incinerator at the site, but the proposed one is much larger. Of particular concern is the amount of nitrous oxide the incinerator will emit.

As Rainham is just across the Thames from the energy park, its MP John Cruddas has become one of its most vocal opponents.  Last year, the Romford Recorder reported on  Cruddas’s visit to the existing incinerator.  “We could clearly see Dagenham Dock, South Hornchurch and Rainham from the plant and (Cory representatives) agreed that the prevailing wind direction was towards my constituency” the MP commented.

Priti Patel, the current Secretary of State, is due to announce her verdict in April.  Let’s hope that Cory’s plans are thrown into the dustbin!