Mark’s campaign notepad

Notes from the LibDem parliamentary candidate for Westminster North

St John’s Wood Area Forum Nov 13th

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I was at the local Westminster Council Area Forum earlier in the week – I suspect some of the main issues are common to the whole Borough. Here’s some key points:
I saw a presentation on the Parking Sensor trial – not sure about Labour’s claim it’s a money-grabbing scam – at least not yet. As currently piloted, it would appear to improve efficiency and can be an aid to motorists. However there is a danger that the technology could be abused for enforcement/surveillance purposes in the future, and we need to keep an eye on that.
Yet again developers are trying to slink out of their commitment to social housing. Clearly maximum profits are derived from selling on units at the highest possible prices, but the Council needs to be pressured to monitor this and ensure such contraventions do not occur. The current spotlight is on Lodge Road, where the developers are trying to secure 47 ‘intermediate’ units and no ‘social’ at all.
A key issue locally has been the proposed development of St John’s Wood Barracks – the King’s Troop has now departed, but the site has lain vacant for nearly a year. Looks like the previous developes caught a cold on their £200+ million and sold it on – the new developers are expected to make a new application in due course. Isn’t Groundhog Day about this time of year?
Another local issue which has caused consternation is the redevelopment of Quintin Kynaston school – it seems some of the plans are going ahead despite not all planning conditions having been met. Clearly the Council should be held to account if it’s letting this happen.
Basement development has caused problems here as it has across the borough – there’s a call to have more control over this disruptive and potentially damaging trend. Karen Buck is championing this and running a survey with the St John’s Wood Society.
There’s much concern over cuts to police budgets and numbers. Looks like St John’s Wood police station is closing.
There’s £68,000 left in the Abbey Road ward budget! Anyone got any ideas how this could be spent? Who’s hurting most from the cuts? Can we help them?
Shame two of the six councillors didn’t turn up – these forums only happen three times a year, you’d think they could manage that.
The next forum will be held in the Spring

Written by markblackburn

16/11/2012 at 3:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Janice Turner’s Pensions Motion to Lib Dem Conference

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I haven’t blogged since I stood as a PPC but thought I’d use this space for Janice’s excellent motion, supported by the Social Liberal Forum and with Steve Webb’s approval

Pensions reform in the public and private sectors

 

Conference notes:

 

a) the commitments in the Coalition Agreement to “safeguarding key benefits and pensions” and to “simplify rules and regulations relating to pensions to help invigorate occupational pensions encouraging companies to offer high quality pensions to all employees”.

 

b) there is now a major crisis in private sector occupational pension provision and, while welcoming the introduction of auto-enrolment, NEST and the Coalition proposals for reform of the state pension as important steps forward, acknowledges that these proposals cannot in themselves resolve this major crisis.

 

Conference reaffirms:

a) the party’s historic commitment to fighting poverty in old age which a century ago  brought our introduction of the Old Age Pension

 

b) the fundamental Liberal Democrat principle that “none shall be enslaved by poverty”.

 

Conference notes with concern that:

 

a) the retreat of private sector employers from providing quality pensions is the result of the failures of previous Labour and Conservative governments.

 

b) the severe market volatility and its uncontrollable impact on Defined Benefit (DB) pension fund deficits demonstrates that current actuarial funding policies introduced by Labour are not fit for purpose and are needlessly damaging sponsoring employers’ finances and destroying DB pension schemes.

 

c) DB pension schemes are under further pressure from over-regulation, in particular regulatory demands to pay off longterm theoretical deficits in short term time frames.

 

d) growing numbers of private sector workers are losing confidence in occupational Defined Contribution (DC) pension schemes which push all risk onto the individual, are too expensive and complicated and provide no guarantee of even a minimum pension.

 

e) there is too little transparency in the fees and charges of pension industry companies including investment companies and that there is a case to answer regarding the levels and structures of fees and charges.

 

f) the growing number of pension schemes that have no oversight by representatives of the beneficiaries;

 

g) The proliferation of a multitude of local government pension schemes with their costly duplication of administration costs, fees and charges, inadequate regulations to ensure member-nominated representatives on all LGPS boards and inadequate provision of training for LGPS representatives.

 

Conference welcomes

a) the Coalition government’s concessions in November/December 2011 regarding its public sector pension proposals;

 

b) the announcement dropping ideologically motivated proposals that would have allowed companies winning public sector contracts to lower their bids and increase profits by abolishing the privatised workforce’s “Fair Deal” entitlements;

 

c) the ‘big pots’ proposals to allow private sector workers to put their pension savings from multiple schemes into one place.

 

 

Conference calls upon Liberal Democrats in government to:

 

1) Act with great urgency to protect private sector DB schemes including

a) immediate reform of pension scheme actuarial valuation rules that make pension scheme costs so volatile for employers,

b) lifting such overly interventionist regulatory practices as automatic investigation of longer deficit repair periods; and

c) opposing European-level legislation that would inadvertently have the effect of closing DB schemes.

 

2) radically reform and simplify the design of occupational defined contribution pension schemes in order to achieve greater certainty of pension;

 

3) Legislate to ensure real transparency and accountability to scheme beneficiaries of contract-based schemes and make it a requirement that all trust-based schemes have member-nominated trustees;

 

4) investigate and act in relation to pensions industry charges, fees, annuity prices, benchmarks, transparency and disclosure, including investment charges and charging structures, in order to ensure that pension schemes and their members achieve better value for money.

 

5) Save money from the local government pension schemes by merging them into one or more schemes, while ensuring more effective control by member and employer representatives, with the resulting benefits shared with the scheme members.

 

6) Investigate the extension of the Pensions Regulator’s Online Toolkit, the foundation stone of private sector trustee training, to include training modules for public sector representatives, and introduce an entitlement for all pension scheme trustees and representatives to have specified minimum levels of paid time off for training and preparation.

 

………..

 

 

 

 

Explanatory notes:

 

The proposer has sought the advice of Conference Committee on drafting and all advice has been followed.

 

This motion has been discussed with Lib Dem Pensions Minister Steve Webb and he supports the motion.

 

Conference notes with concern b): The 2004 Pensions Act and subsequent 2005 regulations forced pension schemes to carry out their three-yearly valuation using a method based on theories of efficient markets. Schemes have to value their liabilities over a 30 or 40 year timeframe, but the new law forced them to value their assets on the basis of market prices on the day the valuation fell due. So if the markets did really well that day the scheme’s prospects would look good, but if the market did disastrously then the pension scheme could face closure. This has made DB schemes wildly unstable: last July the Pension Protection Fund stated that the combined pension scheme deficits were around £8.3 billion, but six weeks later it was £117.5-billion. Pension funds should plan for the long term but this makes it impossible and nearly 2.5-million people’s pension schemes are at risk of closure. Closures are being announced almost every week.

 

Conference welcomes

(b): announced by Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander in advance of the 30 November strike.

(c): the “Fair Deal” agreement made some years ago between the government and the public sector unions ensured that public sector workers who were compulsorily transferred out of the public sector as a result of contracting out kept their entitlement to either remain in their existing pension scheme or transfer to a scheme with similar benefits. The government decided to review this policy and one option was to abolish this entitlement completely.

 

 

Conference calls upon…

1a) this is not a reference to international accounting standard IAS 19 or FRS 17, it refers to the 2004 Pensions Act and subsequent regulations.

 

1c) Solvency 2 is one such proposal. A European Commission green paper published last July aimed to launch a public debate on how to ensure adequate, sustainable and safe pensions across the EU. Its proposals include increasing capital requirements and possible pan-European regulation of pension funds. Pensions Minister Steve Webb, who is building an international coalition against it, believes the proposed “Solvency II” rules could burden DB schemes with a £100-billion bill which could trigger massive numbers of scheme closures.

 

6. There are more than 100 local government pension schemes. Unison commissioned a report from the world’s third-largest public sector pension fund management company which concluded that over £1-billion could be saved by merging them into around 14 schemes. The savings would be by removing duplication, negotiating better fees and obtaining better returns. By comparison, the government’s public sector pensions proposals were requiring £900-million savings. 

 

In conclusion

Public sector:

In November the Coalition’s controversial proposals on public sector pensions reform led to one of the biggest strikes of recent years. This motion, which welcomes the concessions the government made, will allow this to happen. It also sets out a way of making substantial savings in the LGPS to be shared with the scheme members.

 

Private sector:

If these proposals are adopted, they will bring back more stability into DB schemes and corporate financial planning and allow these schemes – the best in the private sector – to better ride out market downturns. But in radically reforming and simplifying DC schemes they will improve the retirement prospects of millions of private sector workers who are not in DB schemes. And by investigating and acting on the issue of pensions industry fees and charges, in particular investment fees and fee structures, the Lib Dems will be ensuring better value for money for all private sector pension schemes (and funded public sector schemes). This positive action for private sector workers’ pensions will put our party far ahead of both Labour and the Conservatives on this issue.

 

This motion is on the long side, on a par with the longest motions at the autumn conference. But most of the issues in this motion have not been debated by conference since 2004 and so much has happened to pensions since then that it has inevitably led to substantial proposals for change.

Written by markblackburn

10/01/2012 at 4:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2010 in review

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The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is on fire!.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 3,000 times in 2010. That’s about 7 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 57 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 61 posts. There were 14 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 20mb. That’s about a picture per month.

The busiest day of the year was May 5th with 121 views. The most popular post that day was Election Day -3 & -2: Just time for a little story….

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were westminsterlibdems.org.uk, libdemblogs.co.uk, libdemvoice.org, twitter.com, and forum.notobikeparkingtax.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for mark blackburn, body scans at airports, markblackburn.wordpress, mark blackburn blog, and expressing embarrassment.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Election Day -3 & -2: Just time for a little story… May 2010
1 comment

2

Full Body Scans at Airports? January 2010

3

Election Day -55: Something is Rotten in the State of Westminster Parking March 2010
3 comments

4

Election Day +5: Thank You May 2010
3 comments

5

Election Day -12: Sex and Gambling April 2010
3 comments

Written by markblackburn

02/01/2011 at 12:13 pm

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London Assembly Report on Small Shops

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Before the election, I combined my long experience in retail and my short experience in politics by making a submission to the London Assembly Planning and Housing Committee review on the future of independent shops. As a result, I received a copy of the report recently and these are my thoughts on it, which I’ve submitted to the committee as invited.
(You can see the report at http://www.london.gov.uk/who-runs-london/the-london-assembly/publications/housing-planning/small-shops )
 
I welcome the good news that the planning system can be used to protect small shops, but I do feel more must be made to encourage councils and planning authorities both to be aware of this and to act upon it.
 
I also think it will be an improvement on the status quo to require planning permission for a change of use from A1 to A3, under an amended Use Classes Order. This would stop small retailers of useful goods being turned into yet more cafes without any examination. Incidentally, I was once in the advanced stages of taking over a small retail outlet in a North London suburb when a global coffee shop operator entered the proceedings offering the landlord a £50,000 reverse premium, i.e. a financial inducement to let them take on the lease. You can guess who got the outlet. The result: a local high street with one more coffee house and one less provider of goods. 
 
At the moment planning regulations do not require that a competition test as recommended by the Competition Commission takes place; I endorse the suggestion that it now do so, as far too many small businesses have gone under the cosh as a result of irresponsible granting of permission to new entrants. Similarly I encourage “106 provision” (where developers are given planning permission only if they also make a financial contribution to public amenities) towards town centre rejuvenation and affordable shop units, though I would query how these could be protected in the long term with rent reviews and lease renewals.
 
However, I am concerned that much of the report deals with attempting to ameliorate the situation rather than deal with its root cause. I realise that the national structure of property ownership, investment and management is outside the remit of this report, but I do think an opprtunity to address and question this has been lost. Too often because of the need of institutions to see a theortically high and secure income stream and therefore have tenants with a stronger covenant, independents misses out. When an institutional landlord has to decide between a global multiple or a local independent, the independent will always lose out. As is rightly pointed out in the report, the obligations of a 25 year long upward-only rent review lease are often too burdensome for the independent, even assuming they can overcome the hurdles of covenant and rent deposit.
 
There is a further problem caused by the upward-only aspect of rent reviews – what happens when the type of ill-advised property development referred to above is built, and local shops see their revenues fall? If rents too could fall in line with the market, then maybe they could survive – but rents are kept artificially high and the shops either go bust or become the likes of charity shops.
 
For the sake of not only our independent stores, but more generally our high streets and established shopping centres, I encourage action on the  progressive ideas in this report and ask for real engagement with central government planning policy.
 

Written by markblackburn

10/12/2010 at 3:39 pm

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What’s Philip Green got to do with Tuition Fees?

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The obvious answer is that there are two lots of protesters out on our streets, the UK Uncut bunch who are protesting over tax avoidance and the students with regard to tuition fee increases. But it goes beyond that; both are totemic of higher than ever levels of discontent with our political machine, and we are in part responsible for that because, having promised the electorate and especially young people that we were the “new politics”, we have broken our pledges and promises and shown that actually there is little to distinguish us from our predecessors.

I was proud to stand as a Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate in May and among the many commitments I gave as PPC was a promise to the NUS that I would support their funding pledge. I felt secure in doing so; I’m a so-called “social Liberal” anyway and was brought up on Beveridge and Keynes, but more importantly in this instance I’d received a personalised message from Nick Clegg telling me that we’d developed a plan to phase out tuition fees over the next six years, which would ensure this vital policy would be affordable even in this time of recession. Additionally I received an email from party HQ saying that the pledge was consistent with party policy and I was free to sign it. So I did, along with about 500 others.

I appreciate we’re in a Coalition and compromises have to be made. And I appreciate that tuition fees have to be funded somehow. But that’s not the point. The point is what we said to get elected. On the basis of the pledge and our policy, I replied to emails from students telling them I backed the pledge, and some of our election literature made reference to our support of it. I’ve finally got round to putting all my old cuttings away, and a headline in Liberal Democrat News caught my eye. “The Fight to End ‘Old Politics’”, all about our radical plans and our difference to the two main parties. And that’s where Philip Green comes into it – one of the first actions the Coalition took was to appoint an alleged tax avoider to advise us on potential civil service savings – a poor decision which sent out all the wrong signals and which we should never have allowed to take place. Tax evasion, broken promises, bankers off the hook - it’s too much the “same as it ever was”, no wonder people are disappointed and angry. Meanwhile, just how many students could have been funded by the unpaid tax on the £1.2 billion Arcadia 2005 dividend?

Nick Clegg tells us that it’s time to grow up and take on the responsibilities that go with belonging to the party in power. But the irony is that the million extra votes which put us in that position were given because of the pledges and promises we made to the electorate, and in particular young people. Our MPs need to remember that tomorrow.

Written by markblackburn

08/12/2010 at 4:15 pm

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City of Westminster Planning Committee: Quintin Kynaston School

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(nb this is my own view of last night’s events, no more, no less)

Last night Westminster’s planning committee met to discuss among other matters two applications relating to QK School. First there was an outline application relating to the redevelopment of the main secondary school (QK) and then a detailed application relating to George Elliot, the infant and junior school (GE) and the Alternative Provision Centre (APC).

The outline application for QK was merely a report on progress, and was duly noted, but the GE and APC application was a detailed submission, where planning permission was being requested. The application quickly ran into trouble, the main issue seeming to be the difficulty of dealing with the applications for different parts of the site as separate unrelated entities. There are so many issues relating to GE and the APC that have to be dealt with in conjunction with QK, and indeed the Chair (Cllr Alastair Moss) stated that a “more holistic approach” was needed in dealing with the planning process for what is a major educational facility.

Although not on the planning committee, Abbey Road Councillor Lindsey Hall spoke on behalf of the residents and I must say she made a very powerful case for the holistic approach generally and for careful further examination of the GE/APC part and its impact on the local community.

There are particular issues with both pedestrian and motor traffic, parking, floodlighting in a residential area and the Environmental Impact Survey, especially with regard to the loss of green space.

Indeed, it was interesting to me how important the loss of trees is becoming in the planning process. As Cllr Robert Rigby said, every application which goes before the committee seems to involve cutting down trees, and he implied that this could not be allowed to go on unabated. Indeed there was a suspicion that the developers had pulled a fast one in that an aerial photograph of the area in question produced by a local residents group showed a greener space than that in the drawn illustration by the applicants. The Chair feared the possibility of “a landgrab of the most sensitive part of the site”.

The APC deserves particular comment – on top of general concerns about such a facility being sited in the middle of a residential area Cllr Hall declared that we are “on the verge of merging education services with Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea” (not sure how these Supercouncil ideas fit in with the Big Society/localism justification for listening to residents’ concerns) could mean that excluded pupils from all three boroughs end up here.

In short, the Chair felt the committee was “incapable of making a decision at the moment” and the application was not approved, with an acknowledgement that a full site visit needed to be convened asap (slightly surprising this hadn’t already taken place?!) and the application urgently re-submitted – there was a suggestion that a central funding window was imminently closing, if it hasn’t already.

The residents were delighted, the applicants naturally less so – round two mooted for January 2011.

Written by markblackburn

03/12/2010 at 11:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

St John’s Wood Ward Forum Nov 18

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Well, I said I’d be back, in five years or five months.  And here I am and coincidentally it has been five months – reason being www.twitter.com/stjohnswood1 suggested I report on the St John’s Wood Forum I attended last night.

Cllr Lindsey Hall chaired the evening and there are not many Tories I like (yeah, I know we’re in Coalition but this is WESTMINSTER) but Lindsey does an excellent job as a Councillor and these ward forums have improved exponentially since she took it by the scruff of the neck. She bravely offered to take questions from the floor straight after her intro – a moment’s silence so I launched in. She promised me that local residents would have a genuine influence on how the ward budgets (now reduced to £50k from £100k) would be spent – which she later followed through on – see below.

The formal business of the evening came next – three workshops; one on crime, one on parking and one on planning. Having spoken to Rob Saunders from Parking earlier in the evening (parking policy more user focused, revenue generation no longer prime consideration, NSL = experienced contractor) I thought the planning session most relevant.  Amanda Coulson from Westminster Planning is excellent – listens to feedback, acts on it, behaves dispassionately and professionally – which is more than can be said for her boss who occasionally seemed to be losing himself in his bureaucratic jargon, let alone the rest of us. Amanda was in the spotlight as she’s handling two major planning applications in the area – the redevelopment of the St John’s Wood Barracks by its owners the Eyre Estate and the redevelopment of Quintin Kynaston School.  She expects the Barracks to be given the go-ahead by year-end once legal and technical queries have been dealt with, and QK is coming before committee on Dec 2nd, when an outline application for the main QK facility will be heard alongside a detailed application for George Eliot. The outline application hearing is more of a progress report as there are still issues to be resolved, eg completion of Environmental Impact Survey.

Residents are deeply concerned about both of these – the Barracks will take four years to complete from 2012 to 2016, with a whole year spent excavating and building at basement level. My understanding is that the Sustainability rating of the new scheme is level 4, which the team leader referred to as “incredibly high”. Either it’s changed or it’s disturbing that he believes this – a flagship development not starting for two years with extremely deep-pocketed developers should surely be the optimum level 6? Main concerns for QK seem to be more pupil presence over a longer period of time and loss of trees, as well as the usual noise and disruption caused by a major development.

Other planning issues concerned proposals for a 12 storey block of flats in Lodge Road (on a plot the size of a postage stamp – local resident) which is yet to come to committee and the number of basement developments happening in the area – again the team leader did his best to confuse us, but he seemed to be saying that there wasn’t a lot the council could do as you didn’t necessarily need planning permission for them.

After that, we moved onto a discussion about ward budgets and Cllr Hall read a list of activites which were taking place for the benefit of local residents, mostly the young and the elderly. To popular approval, she promised that CCTV would be relocated from a parking/traffic oriented location to Marloborough Hill, where there have been several violent incidents of late.

We finished on a lighter note with the announcement of the Christmas Fair in SJW High Street on Sun Nov 28th – from a couple of clues, I guessed the fair is to be opened by Gary Lineker – seems I’m right! Next forum is March 14th 2011.

NOTE: THIS IS MY PERSONAL VIEW OF LAST NIGHT’S EVENTS – IT IS NOT INTENDED AS A FACTUAL RECORD OR FORMAL REPORT.

Written by markblackburn

19/11/2010 at 5:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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