Flash Says…

Archive for the ‘Leytonstone’ Category

[Crossposted to Where’s The Benefit where I am one of the team.]

While massive spending cuts hit us all, my council – Waltham Forest – has taken the step of asking its residents where they should make savings. A friendly green website presented me with 8 different categories such as “children’s services” and “your streets” and invited me to make cuts of £55m. Suddenly I realised the mammoth scale of this undertaking – the way that no facilities or services can escape unscathed. However, I gave myself the challenge of maintaining adult social care at its current rate.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think adult social care is currently even adequate in my borough. I have been told that if someone can manage to give themself a flannel-bath, then they are not entitled to any kind of care. Of course this doesn’t take account of any inability to cook safely, nor to take out the rubbish or manage laundry! But simply trying to juggle cuts while keeping rates of social care at their current level made me aware of the huge task that councils are facing.

Each topic came with a slider – I simply had to pick categories and drag them to save money, and the website would let me know the impact of my actions. For example as I removed all funding from “Sport & Leisure” I was informed that the impact would be “reduced support to voluntary sector sports clubs, reduced sports activities in parks and estates and reduced sports activities and participation in competitions and events”. While any cutback is a shame, I don’t feel guilty in removing sports activities when compared to helping disabled people to eat, be clean and maintain independence.

However, although there are eight categories and sliders to adjust, it is instantly clear that some categories will have little impact in making the £55m of required savings. After all, the total budget for Housing & Homelessness is just £4.85m. For Culture, Learning & Community Libraries the budget is £6.91m. In fact, if I set 6 of the 8 sliders to zero – removing all funding in those categories whatsoever – I still need to save another £28m. This money can only come from Children’s Services & Education, or the Adult Social Care that I am fighting to protect. In fact if I maintain adult care at its current level, the system shows me that I have no choice but to cut Children’s Services by more than 25%, removing several social workers and forcing large numbers of at-risk children to stay in their home rather than go into care – something which the real world would not tolerate. My changes would even impose the removal of care packages for disabled children; it seems that whichever way I go, with the huge quantity of cuts required, there will be a direct impact on disabled people one way or another.

Because adult social care comprises such a very large proportion of a council’s expenditure, it’s natural that many people will think that this is an obvious way to make savings. And although any such cutback is abhorrent to my mind, it may be essential in order for our councils to stay solvent. I am pleasantly surprised that although adult social care draws so much money, respondents to Waltham Forest’s website have only voted for a 7% reduction in our services. “Only” 7%. If the council implement cutbacks based on this consultation, they will “only” …increase charges for their services (when many service users may be on benefits and unable to contribute financially for their care) …reduce programmes to support vulnerable people and their carers …and make staffing cuts so there will be even longer delays for assessments than there are at the moment.

Wow. Yet when I play with the figures myself, I can see that this may be a lucky escape – no matter how bad it seems, things can always be worse!

Unfortunately, in the three weeks that this website has been running, only 733 people have responded. That’s a quarter of 1% of everyone who lives in the area. How disappointing, that we are offered this opportunity to have our say and shape service provision for the future, and yet barely anyone bothers? It’s not for want of publicity, as a flyer went out with “Waltham Forest News”, a council newspaper delivered to every household in the borough.

I am utterly opposed to cuts of services and benefits which help disabled and older people to remain independent. I am increasingly concerned about these “stealth” cuts made by boroughs, where there is no right of appeal. But even I must admit that I can’t see what the solution is, other than to hope the economy recovers quickly, and that disabled people are the first to have their services reinstated when more funds are available.

In the meantime, I fear hearing about the human side of these cuts. I already see case studies in the local paper, I know people who are struggling, and situations where older or disabled neighbours have to provide food for one another. I know this is already happening on my own doorstep and I am dreading the situation getting worse. It seems the councils are between a rock and a hard place. All we can do is tell them to cut anything, everything, but adult social care.

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I live near to the edge of Epping Forest. During the hot weather fires have been appearing on the Flats – and the Fire Brigade say it’s down to kids. What can we do, and what damage is being caused?

Wanstead Flats is an area on the edge of Epping Forest, at the end of my road. It’s an acid grassland habitat and although it might look like scrub to passers by, it’s actually rather important.

Scorched areas on the common
Burnt areas on Wanstead Flats

This might look like plain grassland but it is actually a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Apparently there has been heathland habitat in this space for over a thousand years. It’s acid grassland which supports a number of insects such as the Bee Wolf Wasp, and there’s a protected area where the Stag Beetles breed. In addition to use by a variety of insects and butterflies, the area is valuable habitat for the Skylark (which nests on the ground) and the pipistrelle bat. Also, one of the Sweet Chestnut trees on my doorstep is thought to be the largest tree in Epping Forest. Wanstead Flats may appear to be a boring grassy area but it is important as a habitat to many different species.

I may be stating the obvious, but it’s dangerous to set fire here. The area is made up of peat, which means the fire can spread underground and pop up somewhere else – so it’s easy to be surrounded by fire unexpectedly. It is also a problem for the firemen as they never know when the fire is truly out, and struggle to extinguish all of the hotspots, leaving areas smouldering for days.

There have been new fires every day for a week, and as I walk my dog I have noticed the blackened area of grassland to be increasing. Firemen told me that it is children setting fires, and their busiest time comes just after the schools kick out each afternoon.

Fires have been an ongoing issue in the area every summer, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. In 2004 the Corporation of London had to remove a layer of ash and topsoil to reduce the nutrient levels and try and reinstate acid grassland. While many of us locals are used to the fires, we don’t enjoy calling the Fire Brigade out every day.

Grassland beginning to recover.
Grassland beginning to recover

As it is children setting fires, what can we do to discourage them? In 2005 there were over 400 fires on the flats, so surely it should  be down to parental supervision? The Fire Brigade advise that ‘Adults should look out for small burns in the carpets, children should not be able to find matches or cigarette lighters’ – but I have a friend who, at age ten, bought lighters claiming ‘the spark on the stove doesn’t work’. They then went and caused fire in a woodland. This was only discovered when their parent visited the same shop and was asked if they’d had their oven fixed yet! So where there is a will there is a way; perhaps we should be working to discourage fires and educate our children about the value of the habitat on their doorstep and the danger of setting fire.

I reported the fires to my local Police Safer Neighbourhood Team, and expressed the opinion of the Fire Brigade that better management of school kicking out time could be the answer to the problem. To be fair, the police then allocated mounted officers to patrol Wanstead Flats throughout the day, and since the horsemen were deployed there have been no more fires. Congratulations to the mounted police who seem to have nipped this issue in the bud.

At last there are green shoots in the dead, blackened patches. Goodness knows how this has happened, as we have been waiting over a month for any substantial rain, so the grass must be trying very hard to find a way to regenerate! The green shoots are a sign of hope and a reminder that many grassland species come back stronger after fire – although the insects and birds cannot be recaptured.

I am delighted that the mounted police have had an effect on the area – and the fires have stopped. With the end of term and the onset of school holidays, hopefully children will be kept occupied and are supervised so that forest fires are over for another year. It seems that the best thing we can do is to persevere with education, and not to give up hope.

Watching Tessa Sanderson on Masterchef this week brought back for me a memory of the 1984 Olympics, when I was seven years old. She and Fatima Whitbread were feted as great athletes, but I was confused. Why was the British flag flying, when they were obviously African?

It’s easy to be mistaken when you are young, but I had no experience of black people so when I saw our athletes on TV I naturally jumped to conclusions. White people could be British, but there must be some mistake about those with darker skin. After all, I’d never seen anyone like that, other than in geography books.

Nowadays I can look back with embarrassment and surprise. It doesn’t matter if I am reminded that times have changed, I am still slightly ashamed at my naive beliefs. I currently live in east London, in a street which has a diverse mix of race and nationality among its 40 households, and I think that the area is all the better for this variety and vibrancy. The primary school at the end of my road is a slightly extreme example, as a majority of the children speak English as their second language, and indeed many tens of different languages are spoken among its pupils, but at least there is no discrimination, deliberate or otherwise. As I walk my dog past the playground I watch children playing together, of all backgrounds and religions. It’s a happy scene and one among which I would much prefer to have been brought up than the closeted environment where everyone was white British.

One of the first albums I bought was “The Youth of Today” by Musical Youth. I was six. Back in 1982 they were the first black artists to be shown on MTV. I didn’t care about any of that – I just liked the song “Pass the Dutchie”. However, I didn’t associate them with myself. I had no idea that we were even from the same country.

Going back even further, my mother tells an awkward but humorous tale. As a family, we stayed on holiday in London at a time when I was an inquisitive toddler. One morning, we encountered a cleaner in the hotel; a very large black lady, wearing a denim overall. I started to say “Mummy…” but she shushed me. My cries grew in urgency “Mummy!” before I could restrain myself no longer and burst out: “Why is that woman all blue?”

Of course coming from such a young child this is an amusing anecdote, but if that child is not ultimately educated in the ways of the world then it becomes embarrassing. When I changed schools at the age of eleven, I encountered a black girl for the first time. I remember touching and pulling at her hair, finding it wiry and waxy. I cringe to remember asking her “is it real?” Of course she didn’t like this attention and tried to stop us girls from tugging her hair, but I was genuinely entranced. I thought it was somehow not real, and was intrigued as I had never felt anything like it before. Nowadays, I feel ashamed of the way I treated her, but by sixth form we were friends and I do hope our early fumbling encounters were forgotten.

I was brought up in Somerset, at a time when there were no black people in the town and the only Asian people present ran the Chinese restaurants. When a Chinese boy joined our primary school all the boys ran up to him saying “Ah! Kung Fu!” but as he spoke no English, these primitative attempts to communicate with familiar concepts may have actually been useful and at least broke the ice. By the time I left the school he was as fluent in English as the rest of us.

When I moved to London as a university student, I was soon immersed in a range of new sights, sounds and experiences. I rented a room in the east end where multiculturalism was all around. It was new to me but I embraced it, enjoying the variety and the influences from a range of different backgrounds. It wasn’t long before I – being naturally fairly unobservant – would describe an acquaintance without mention of their skin colour. I assumed that if I hadn’t noticed, they must be white – which led to several friends being wrongly described, before I realised that I genuinely did not notice this detail anymore and in fact many of my friends were black or mixed race.

Therefore, having absorbed and appreciated everything and everyone around me, I was shocked when my Irish grandmother in law came over for tea. We took her for a walk around a nearby lake in Epping Forest, very popular for boating, fishing and just relaxing. As we passed busy picnic tables, she loudly asked “What are THEY doing here? Are they on holiday?” I glanced around to see several black families having fun and had to explain “No Nan, they live here…” I felt mortified, but I knew my nan-in-law was only asking out of curiousity, not bigotry. She, like me, had been brought up in a very white area.

As I  said earlier, I now live in a cul-de-sac of around 40 households. I’m sure my street is representative of east London as a whole and you could find people of all origins and skin colours there; in fact I know that you can. This is one of my street’s best features –everyone rubs along together well, without even noticing it.

Give me east London any time. When I return to Somerset something feels strange – sooner or later I realise awkwardly that I am white, and so is everyone else I see. I enjoy variety and integration, and believe it can only be for the good of everyone. As a music fan I love world music festivals, enjoying the vibe and working out how different styles have influenced each other. I sometimes feel ashamed by my childhood self, but at the same time I recognise that my behaviour was based only on  experience.

Give me London, give me the world! Let me discover everything in one place, and let me appreciate living here, among such fantastic diversity, and among such kind and generous human beings. It may have taken until my adult years for me to learn and understand equality, but having experienced it I would never want to leave such a vibrant, multicultural and trusting place as the street where I live. This is my home, and I hope it will also be an open and welcoming home for anyone who chooses to come here.

This is not the article I intended to write.

I had planned to analyse how well each of my local parliamentary candidates responded to a question I sent them – but that hardly matters now.

A fortnight before last week’s general election I emailed each of the candidates to ask for their policies on health, home care and the future of my local hospital. Only one (the Conservative Ed Northover) engaged with me – an independent referred me to his leaflet and then followed up with spam, and the others didn’t bother to respond. The BNP and UKIP candidates didn’t even advertise an email address, so they were out of the loop from the start.

I had been genuinely uncertain which way to vote and hoped that my candidates’ responses would help me decide. I was surprised that so few made the effort to answer. However at the end of the day it made little difference – our safe Labour seat remains in Labour hands (though how safe they might be, I don’t know).

Instead, I find myself rocked by the results from the local elections. Somehow, despite opinion polls showing national support for Tory and Lib Dem, there has been a swing to Labour – believed to come from people who are scared of the Tories taking over, trying to defend themselves against this possibility.

Previously a borough under No Overall Control, my area (Waltham Forest) now has a majority of Labour councillors. I think our council has operated quite well in recent years and I’m concerned that now one party has a majority, policies, planning applications and spending cuts can be rushed through and rubberstamped without adequate debate in the Town Hall.

What has really shaken me is the loss of the most effective councillor in my area, Keith Rayner, beaten by just a few dozen votes. After 20 years of service, getting things done with his effective but friendly manner, he has been rejected by the electorate – my own friends and neighbours.

I don’t mind admitting that I cried at the news, and I hear that I’m not the only one. Now residents are questioning themselves, wondering which neighbours played Judas. The situation is upsetting, and uncomfortable.

So this may not have been the article I intended to write, but it still has a point to make. If you value someone, vote for them. Put your X by the name of someone you actually want to see in power, rather than being sucked into nervous tactical voting. It looks like we may soon be facing another general election, and hopefully this time people will be brave enough to follow their guts, and the results will put the country in a position for real change at last.