Monday, 12 September 2011

Boundary Review: All change for Lambeth

So, it seems it's all change in Lambeth as far as Parliamentary constituencies are concerned.

The Boundary Commission Review, due for public consumption at midnight, has already been leaked on the net and is being discussed widely. Under the proposals it appears as if Battersea, Streatham, Tooting and Vauxhall constituencies would be abolished and several new constituencies created instead, which would take in parts of both Wandsworth and Lambeth.

Three new constituencies are being proposed that each contain parts of the two boroughs. In addition a fourth new constituency would be created comprised of remaining wards in Lambeth.

Streatham and Tooting Constituency

The first is 'Streatham and Tooting' which would take four wards in from each borough. These are not specified by name, but look likely to be Tooting, Graveney, Furzedown and Bedford from the Wandsworth side, and Steatham Hill, St Leonard's, Streatham Wells and Streatham South from Lambeth.

Battersea and Vauxhall Constituency

The next is 'Battersea and Vauxhall'. Again, this would take four wards from each borough, and again they are not specified in the leaked Boundary Review.

Clapham Common constituency

The third is a new Clapham Common constituency, which would be slightly different in that it will take in just three Lambeth wards (probably Thornton, Clapham Common and Clapham Town) and five Wandsworth wards.

Brixton Constituency

A fourth constituency would also be created made up of the remaining eight Lambeth wards in the central part of the borough.

Predictably, jokes are already being cracked about which of Miliband's MPs would get the Labour nomination to fight the Streatham and Tooting seat - Chuka (Umunna) or (Sadiq) Khan. It's quite possible that Sadiq could fight Streatham and Tooting, whilst Chuka ends up fighting Brixton. But there is likely to be some healthy competition for the Labour nomination in Brixton, given that Tessa Jowell's seat would also go.

But that is to get ahead of the game... There will now be a 12-week consultation period on the proposals, and later a vote in the House of Commons. Given the many changes throughout the country, a lot of MPs may yet have a change of heart on whether scaling down their number in the House of Commons is such a good idea after all.

Lambeth Ward map available here and Wandsworth ward map here

Southwark to be hit hardest by rail cuts

Southwark could be the hardest hit area in the country if proposed cuts go ahead which would leave many railway stations unstaffed.

The Government is considering proposals in a report by businessman Sir Roy McNulty, which recommends cuts of £1 billion across the national network. This was highlighted last week by the TSSA union and reported in the Evening Standard as well as the South London Press.

The TSSA union drew up a “hit list” of 675 ticket offices to be closed nationwide. As there are no platform staff at these stations, they will be left unmanned.

Two stations in Lambeth could be affected: Brixton and Gipsy Hill. But the situation is even worse in Southwark, where eight out of eleven stations in the borough could be impacted, making Southwark stations ‘no-go’ areas for many travelers.

Southwark stations facing cuts: East Dulwich, Elephant and Castle, North Dulwich, Nunhead, Queen's Road Peckham, South Bermondsey, Sydenham Hill and West Dulwich are all listed as part of the “hit list” of 675 ticket offices to be closed nationwide. Only Denmark Hill, Peckham Rye and London Bridge would escape.

This is a case of rail users being kicked when they are down. Fares are already due to increase by 25% over the next three years, meaning lower safety levels at a much higher price. And it will be some of the most vulnerable members of our community who are most affected. With the huge increase in the cost of living, and cuts to benefits and services, more and more have no option but to rely a public transport system which is accessible and affordable.

At a time when the economy is struggling to maintain any momentum at all, as other countries in the world are recognising, we need more investment in transport infrastructure, not less. Indeed, cuts to station staff would be a false economy. Redundancies and the resulting increase in vandalism and other crimes, not to mention the detrimental impact upon rail use itself, call into question any hypothetical savings.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Caroline joins coalition to reform faith schools

It’s great to see it announced today that Caroline Lucas has joined the Accord Coalition to reform faith schools.

This is an initiative that I was involved in founding a few years ago. It brings together teaching unions such as the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, religious groups, identifiably secular organisations like the British Humanist Association, as well as a range of individuals like author Philip Pullman, former education minister Polly Toynbee, former Minister for Education Baroness Blackstone and the former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway.

The idea is to make faith schools more inclusive by bringing an end to their discrimination in both employment and admissions. Accord has a good databank of independent evidence on faith schools, but in summary they are more likely to have homophobic bullying, and take fewer children with Special Educational Needs and fewer eligible for free school meals.

The Accord Coalition also seeks an end to the legal requirement for all maintained schools (faith schools and others) to hold an act of collective worship each day. A BBC survey showed this week that not only do most parents not want their children to have to take part in this, but also that most schools aren’t holding them regularly.

I did an interview with Nicky Campbell on Radio 5 live on the subject on Tuesday. You can listen to a snippet here.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

London elections – a choice between policy and celebrity

The news that ‘I’m A Celebrity…’ participant Brian Paddick is to stand as the Lib Dem candidate for mayor, seems to confirm that next year's contest for London mayor will be a clear choice between policy and celebrity.

The attraction to the limelight of both Livingstone and Johnson is well known. Indeed, Lembit Opik, who was unsuccessful in his bid to be the Lib Dem candidate stood on an explicitly ‘celebrity’ platform, arguing that his party needed someone of similar status.

“Boris and Ken are celebrity politicians. I fear the party doesn't grasp the implications of this”
...he told the Standard, as he conceded defeat. His point? Paddick is a celebrity of sorts, but the Lib Dems needed a bigger one.

But the choice of celebrity politicians with which Londoners are now faced, should be of concern for a different reason entirely. As we have seen with Boris Johnson over the last few years, celebrity can be compensation for some very uncreative, and poor policy-making. It also appears to contribute to a lack of accountability. It makes it easier for policians to charm their way out of difficult situations, without addressing the issues that really matter.

As Green mayoral candidate Jenny Jones has pointed out, what London needs is not more of the same, but fresh ideas for the economic and social climate which London now faces. If celebrity was ever affordable in easier times, it certainly isn't now that the stakes are so much higher.

As the cuts bite, times get tougher, and the election approaches, the importance of the choice between policy and celebrity will become even clearer.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Money for disabled children fails to bring about accessible play area

Norwood Park water play areaLast week I had a second meeting with representatives of Lambeth council to try and address what can reasonably be described as huge failings concerning the new play area in Norwood Park.

The new playground is based on water play, which if implemented correctly can produce activities which children of varying abilities can enjoy together.

The new play area is located 20 yards from another playground which is designed only for able-bodied children. Like most playgrounds in the borough, this has few (if any) accessible activities for children with impairments. The playground for able bodied children

The idea of the new water play area located next to it was that it would provide an additional space with facilities that disabled children could access, but which would also be inclusive, so young people of all abilities could play together.

Accordingly, the new project brought together a number of funding streams and cost in excess of £250,000 including around £60,000 of Aiming High money for disabled children.

The project has been plagued by problems from the beginning, with allegations of mismanagement. Lambeth has already apologised for some of the events.

But now the play area has finally been completed it is being publicly celebrated as a great resource which can be accessed by all children in the area. Rather than being inclusive and accessible however, most of the area and activities are completely inaccessible to children and parents who use wheelchairs, and have impairments to their mobility. This is a moumental failing, given that it was funded and created to be quite the opposite. What in effect has been created is another segregated play area, despite the funding for disabled children.

Inaccessible sand play areas There are for example three new sand play areas, but these have foot high rims all the way around making it impossible for a wheelchair user to access them. When I asked how these were inclusive and accessible, I was told that the have special bottoms under the sand, made of material that provides a firm base for wheelchairs and buggies. At present however no wheelchair or buggy can utilise them to discover whether they work.

Water pumps that can't be reachedThe central activity for the water play are water pumps, which children use to dispense the water which then flows down channels. They are fundamental to the play activity. The pumps however are all too high for children in wheelchairs to use. Observation showed that they were even too high for some small children to use (the playground is designed for children up to 12 years of age). One has a large rock placed underneath it for children to climb on, but this means a wheelchair user cannot get near it.

Inaccessible water channels When it comes to the central feature of the area - the channels down which the water flows, and in which children are supposed to play - all have been made too narrow for wheelchairs to fit. Even if wheelchairs could fit many of the channels have high rims which can not be crossed. The sides are also far too steep. This all has implications for many other children with physical impairments. It is only really agile, able-bodied children, who can climb down into them. This is a tragic, as wider, less steep, accessible channels might have provided an inclusive play environment throughout the area.

The exclusion continues across the other play activities. I was told that some activities were designed so that able-bodied and children with impairments could play together. However in many activities there is little, if any, chance of collaboration. Many tasks are clearly for the sole use of able-bodied children, with no realistic possibility of collaborative play. For example, this water mill over which water can be poured, is on the side of some rocks behind a wooden barrier, under which water can't even be transferred from one child to another. It would be hard to find a more inaccesible area in the whole playground in which to place the activity.

Some activities are located behind wooden railsOther activities are also located behind wooden rails, presumably placed there for safety. Whilst safety is crucial, the decision to place key play activities on the other side of these barriers is extremely puzzling in an environment which is supposed to be inclusive.

One redeeming feature is a ramp (in addition to many steps) which children can climb, at least to approach (if not use) some of the activities. But even with that, I was told, only half has been made usable for wheelchairs or buggies. 50% of the surface is too uneven. There is therefore only one way up and down for wheelchair users, whilst able-bodied children have an additional ramp all to themselves. Rather than an oversight, this I was told, was deliberate, in order to provide a challenging play environment for able-bodied children. It is important that able-bodied children have challenging play environments. However, the decision to create such a thing on a ramp has to be questionned, particularly given the predominance of steps and rocky terrain throughout most of the rest of the play area.

The list of problems and barriers goes on and on. The most serious concern however are the exposed edges which run throughout the playground, next to drops and sheer inclines of between a foot and several feet. Whilst in some areas wooden rails are used innapropriately and unnecessarily, in other areas it appears there are no safeguards at all. If a wheelchair user puts a wheel over the edge in many places, they are likely to have a serious accident (possibly a fatal one, particularly if a powered wheelchair user). This is compounded by the fact that some edges are already cracking and breaking. (This one moved when applied with pressure) Edges cracking and breaking The issue of safety was highlighted last year but the concerns were apparently dismissed.

Some parents I have talked too are incensed. Children I have talked too are extremely disappointed. And it comes at a time when Lambeth Council has announced that it has signed up to the Every Disabled Child Matters Disabled Children’s Local Authority Charter.

As it currently stands, the play area is a monumental and expensive failure in its aim of providing accessible and inclusive play.

A lot of information has still to emerge. I have been told that much of the Aiming High money for disabled children was used to refurbish the toilets in the adjacent playground.

Along with parents and children, I have now met twice with representatives from Lambeth council and others who organised the project. It seems that there are a number of reasons for the failings – not least mis-management and a lack of proper consultation. I will continue to press for a full explanation about what has brought this situation about, and assurances that the same things do not happen again in the future, elsewhere.

The immediate task however is to try and do something to rectify the situation, and ensure changes are made to make as much of the play area as accessible as possible, within the constraints of what has now been created. Some of the failings are so large and inbuilt - such as the inaccessible water channels - that it may take huge upheaval and large expense to put things right. There are also the immediate safety concerns which must urgently be addressed.

Along with representatives from Lambeth, I have been with parents and children to visit the playground, highlighting the (dozens of) problems, and making suggestions for what changes might be made.

Now that the project is completed and the budget all spent, this will be a challenge. But inaction is simply not an option when such a sizeable number of children and parents have been so let down. Whether the council has a real commitment to inclusive play will be judged not just by the project, but the way that they respond to its huge failings.