Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Boris Johnson Slashes We Burn: Lambeth unites in opposing cuts to Fire Authority budget.

London the most diverse city on the face of the planet.
I attended Lambeth Town Hall a few days ago for a "consultation " on the Draft London Safety Plan that outlined huge cuts to London Fire Service planned by Mayor of London Boris Johnson.  

The event took place in the main hall and was full illustrating the extreme anxiety felt by Lambeth residents at the prospect of seeing Clapham Fire Station and other inner London stations close, in addition to the planned removal of fire engines and cuts to firefighter numbers.

Prior to the meeting I was part of a Lambeth Trades Council and Unite Community Branch contingent that marched from Brixton Fire Station to the Town Hall demonstrating our opposition to Boris's plans. 

Lambeth's Unite Community Branch had mobilised to support the Fire Brigades Union in their efforts to stop cuts and closures.

The event itself was the usual GLA fare when it comes to these things, a sort of "consultative abuse" where all the major decisions have already been made and the public is expected simply to turn up and rubber stamp the Mayors proposals. 

I refer to this as an abusive process because such sham consultations actually degrades community and public confidence in democracy. Communities are routinely asked their opinion by statutory agencies and in the majority of cases duly ignored.

The whole process of statutory consultation is a deeply alienating process that reaffirms the powerlessness of communities to effect change. 

The meeting itself began bizarrely, with a statement read out by the Fire Commissioner Ron Dobson from London's Fire Emergency Planning Authority opposing the Mayors plans.
London Fire Commissioner Ron Dobson.
Then confusingly, he then went on to wax lyrical about the Mayors plans subjecting us to a powerpoint PR exercise, that was intended to convince us, that despite his own Authority’s objections, we had nothing to worry about. 

Dobsons general thrust was that the incidence or fire is falling and as result of ' better organisation" Lambeth residents and Londoners will see no loss of service or increased loss of life as a consequence of the cuts. 

We were assaulted with a blizzard of London average statistics relating to the incidence of fire, response times and how many times they get called to deal with people stuck in lifts.

The presentations were designed to placate and sooth anxieties however they achieved neither.

The Commissioner was joined on stage by Assembly members Tory Cllr James Cleverly and Lib Dem Cllr Stephen Knight and Labour Fiona Twycross.

Cleverly’s contribution was the usual diet of waffle and verbiage delivered in that impenetrable bureaucratise policy twonk speak that was polite, condescending and irrelevant. 

James Cleverly Tory AM
Lib Demmer, Mr Knight despite him being a member of the Coalition Government articulated his complete opposition to the cuts, slightly undermined by the savage cuts imposed on London by his Government.

I was impressed by Labours stance adopting outright opposition to the cuts taking exactly the right position in defence of vulnerable communities.  Ms Twycross was both effective and articulate in her presentation.  She was supported by the Leader of Lambeth Council Cllr Lib Peck who pointed out from the floor, the potential devastating effects of these cuts on Lambeth residents.

Labour is right to oppose the Mayors plans and this approach should be extended to opposing all such Government cuts that unfairly target the poor and the vulnerable.

Susan Matthew's Lambeth TUC.

From the floor Susan Matthews Chair of Lambeth Trades  Council slammed the proposals as failing to take account of Lambeth's unique diversity for which she received warm applause. Fire fighters lined the back of the room and made several interventions that exposed the reality of the Mayors cuts, slower response time and fewer fire fighters would cost lives and all to save all paltry 7p per week. 

Jon Rogers Unison Branch Secretary and Lambeth SOS pressed the Commissioner about whether the London Fire Authority and The Mayor had completed an Equality Impact Assessment (EQIA) as legally required by the Equality Act 2010.  This requires the Mayor to duly assess any major proposed policy changes with regards to its effects on a range of protected groups.

The Commissioner waffled and tentatively offered to arrange a meeting with those responsible for his EQIA. He clearly had no clue what was in this assessment.

A poignant contribution came from the floor summed up the mood of the meeting, "I'd prefer to have more firefighters sitting idly by in fire stations than more Londoner's in coffins". The top table endured a relentless barrage of criticism for the audience. The meeting seethed with anger and throughout the course of a three-hour meeting not one person spoke in favour of the Mayors proposals.
August 2011 London burning. 

The notion that there had been big reduction in the incidence of fires in London was challenged more than once. I began to wonder if the August 2011 disturbances had inflated the figures being quoted.

My own small intervention came toward the end of a meeting where the Chair refused to take a vote from the floor, this being Lambeth the vote went ahead anyway and was unanimous in rejecting the cuts to the fire service budgets. 

I had followed up Susan and Jon’s interventions with a statement and a question. You can see the whole meeting here. My own contribution (part two at around 01:08:21) was that surely everyone knows that the incidence of fire increases during a period of recession, that deprived neighbourhoods suffer more than most and that quite unbelievably, the Commissioner had come to one of the most diverse boroughs in London and not bought any copies of his Equality Impact Assessment. I also pointed out that Lambeth’s Council’s estates bore many similarities to the Southwark’s Lakanal House.  The failure to target resources towards at risk groups, the majority of whom had been black and living in Council property had resulted in tragedy

Larknal House Southwark 
I asked a direct question of the Commissioner: 

"Are there a disproportionate number of fire death in London Black and ethnic minority community?" 

He responded by saying " I can’t answer. It’s more complicated than that" 

When pressed again and again, as can be seen on the video, the Commissioner finally responded to the challenge of failing to bring copies of his EQIA to Lambeth.

Firstly, he said it was a matter of cost, as if race equalities in London was some sort of bolt on extra and not part of mainstream provision. Then when asked why he failed to include and equalities information ion his presentation he went on to blame the London Fire Authority, saying they had agreed his presentation and had not specifically asked him to included equalities.

He seemed utterly oblivious to the fact that London is a city where majority white ethnic Britons are in the minority according to the 2011 census. It mattered not a jot to him that Lambeth is one of the most hyper diverse boroughs in London.  This constitutes a serious and fundamental profession error and further I believe fails to reach the minimum threshold of meaningful "consultation" required by legislation.

To consult with the inhabitants of the most diverse city on the face of the planet and fail to include detailed information about the how the proposed Draft London Safety Plan is likely to effect protected groups is a monumental and on this occasion, a potentially catastrophic failure.

Of course under Boris Johnson's administration, such breaches are a part of the dominant Tory political culture that sometimes condescends, pays lip service too, but largely sneers, undermines and attacks the principles of equality and multiculturalism.  If I were a millionaire I would launch a series of legal challenges in the courts on this and many other of Mayoral policies that have, in my view failed miserably to undertake professional EQIA’s.

The woeful degradation on the edifice of world-class equalities standards established under the Livingstone Mayoral regime has spread across the GLA like a virus. The best example of the resurgent level of institutional racism in the GLA is the Metropolitan Police Service You can more read about that here, here and here, here and here 

Back to the lamentable performance the Fire Commissioner, after I pressed him again for an answer re disproportionality he eventually denied that there was any overrepresentation in fire deaths of Black and ethnic minority communities in London.

I knew this to be untrue and since the meeting I have trawled the LFEPA web site looking for evidence that that an adequate EQIA had been done and any information that pointed to the incidence of fire in deprived and Black communities.

Firstly, I found a report of the Governance, Performance & Audit Committee 10th September 2012 and under the section Q1 monitoring of performance indicators in the London Safety Plan 2012/13 (Prevention, Protection & Response), point 15 I found the following;

"Reaching London’s diverse communities is a key aspect of the Brigade’s community safety activity, which is helping to drive down the number of fires and the casualties that result from fires.  Our community safety strategy targets risk by addressing people’s lifestyle.  This approach gives a broader understanding of the risks different groups face rather than focusing on a single factor such as a person’s age or ethnicity.  However, within the lifestyle groups which are the target for our home fire safety visits, both age and ethnicity are factors that are over-represented in these at risk groups. "

So Commissioner Ron Dobson not only failed to meet the general equality test, but he mislead the meeting by denying the disproportionate impact of fire
deaths on Black and ethnic minority communities in London.

That’s a serious charge and one that the recording of the meeting bears out. His level of complacency in addressing a multicultural audience was appalling. His professional negligence on the issue of equalities was worse.

Having now studied the EQIA (Appendix 16) I can say it is derisory. There is no serious or effective assessment of the anticipated impact of these plans on equality groups.

In the report under Operational efficiencies section 3 point 19 the Authority reaches this unbelievable and incredulous conclusion;  

“Reducing the numbers of stations would mean that physical access to the closed stations is removed. However, each borough is served by a Borough Commander, and local community and partnership initiatives, particularly those that target people most at risk will remain in place, either delivered centrally or by area teams. Removing the station will not affect this important work, and there will be no anticipated impact on people with protected characteristics. Indeed our prevention and protection work is focussed on those who are most at risk, many of whom will share protected characteristics, and this will continue to be our priority.”

This is followed (section 4, point 16) by a classic piece of Orwellian double speak;

Whilst it is true that certain lifestyles identified as being at higher risk will also contain people who share protected characteristics, belonging to a protected characteristic group in the first place does not place individuals at risk.

Once you have waded through the interminable waffle about “lifestyle” it is absolutely clear that the Mayors proposals will negatively and disproportionately effect Black and ethnic minorities and inner London boroughs. 

There is no specific account taken of the fact that Lambeth has six large Council estates with many high-rise blocks. There is no account taken of the Lambeth deprivation or any fire risk assessment related to a long period of recession, no account take of homelessness, overcrowding and increased incidence of squatting or the increasing use of Calor gas and Paraffin heaters.

The Authority has abandoned ethnic monitoring ( see Targeting people at risk) and used instead a complex lifestyle matrix that targets lifestyles instead of ethnicity or gender, poverty or unemployment.

I defy anybody to understand the matrix or how priorities are arrived at. The use of this psychobabble management speak is impenetrable. This leaves ethnic groups in London at a higher risk of fire as a result of the failure to target resources where the problem is greatest or target particular communities who suffer disproportionate risk.

The EQIA also asks with whom did you consult for the most part this is answered by the following statement repeated ad nauseam.

To be completed following consultation”.

It can’t be answered by Lambeth’s consultation because the Commissioner failed to include specific equalities information in our consultation.

There are no general equalities events listed as part of the consultation programme; there is no specific consultation with London’s with black communities or any other equalities groups. Where when and with whom are they intending to consult? Your guess is a good as mine and no doubt a hastily arranged event will now be organised. Too little too late.

As such I think both the Commissioner and the London Fire Authority have serious questions to answer. This consultation failed to meet the test of a modern multicultural city. The proposals cut resources of Labour inner city authorities where the majority of black and ethnic minority people live and provides extra resources to Conservative outer London boroughs.

Of course when civil disturbance come round again, as is almost inevitable, given the economic situation and the resurgent racism of the Metropolitan Police Service, the effect on inner London will be both dramatic and tragic.

In August 2011, we saw the Police leaving poor areas to burn, whilst they were deployed to protect wealthy areas. These fire proposals consolidate that strategy, moving fire services to protect high value properties and retail areas.  We are being left to burn.

It’s a scandal.