Westminster Matters: An update from Cllr Nickie Aiken, Leader of Westminster City Council
It has been an incredibly busy time since I last updated you on the work of Conservative-run Westminster City Council.
We are well on track to deliver on the major announcements we made following last year’s local election:
- We undertook a wide-ranging consultation on our ideas for the Oxford Street District with two thirds who took part expressing their support. Design work has now begun with physical works set to start this Autumn if they secure the relevant approvals.
- 1st April is the date for the hand over from arms-length housing provider to direct control of our 25,000 homes that City West Homes currently manage. I’m convinced that it was the right decision and I am grateful for the support of residents, local councillors and staff during the handover period. Housing Cabinet Member, Cllr Andrew Smith, along with his deputy, Cllr Murad Gassanly, have led from the front to keep our plans on track and make the whole project as seamless as possible. I know from speaking to frontline members of staff that they share our determination to provide the best possible housing management service. I am under no illusions that it will not be without its challenges once the transition is complete but being under the Council’s direct control will mean we can react quickly and decisively to correct problems if and when they arrive.
- Speaking rights for the public were introduced on 26th February. Local people from St James’s led the way by being the first to express their views to a Planning Sub Committee on an application in their ward.
In this latest Leader’s Update I am reporting back on how we are continuing to tackle air pollution; our campaign to secure more police on our streets; and our ongoing work to support more rough sleepers turn their lives around.
Air Quality – tackling the invisible killer
Since becoming Leader I have made improving the air we breathe a top priority.
Westminster has some of the most polluted streets in the country and we must do all we can to improve on these unacceptable levels. We are currently implementing what we outlined in our Air Quality Manifesto, which we launched last year. It includes a range of new and ambitious policies to move us to World Health Organisation air quality standards.
To date we have:
- Launched our Schools’ Clean Air Fund thanks to the diesel surcharge pilot in Marylebone
- Launched two new flexible vehicle sharing schemes to reduce the number of cars on our roads
- Launched our Don’t Be Idle campaign persuading thousands of drivers to turn their engines off when parked at the kerbside.
- Increasing the Electric Vehicle charging points across the city, we already have over 200 which is more than any other borough in London
- Planting an extra 3,000 new trees by next year.
- Consulting now on making Westminster a 20mph borough
- Launching the next phase of Don’t Be Idle aimed at delivery and transport companies
- Implementing our Walking and Cycling Strategies to encourage and promote the way we travel around the city
Rough Sleeping – helping our most vulnerable
I know so many of you are concerned about the huge growth in the number of rough sleepers we are now seeing. I’m also aware of the concerns you express about the anti-social behaviour that sometimes accompanies such lifestyles.
Despite the outstanding work of the Council’s Homelessness and Outreach Support Teams the number of rough sleepers are at unprecedented levels. As the “capital of the capital”, Westminster sees more rough sleepers on its streets than the next four highest London boroughs combined, but only 3% of those sleeping on our streets have a connection with Westminster.
I am proud that Westminster City Council spends £6.5 million every year on a diverse range of front-line services, more than any other local authority in the country. Our dedication to helping those in need into the appropriate support services ensures that nearly 80% of new rough sleepers in Westminster do not spend a second night out on the streets. Despite all this good, and often unseen, work, the reality is that the Council faces a huge task that will not be solved by outreach work alone.
We must and do treat anyone who has fallen on difficult times with the utmost care, compassion and respect, but it cannot be right that local people are increasingly afraid to walk the streets for fear of witnessing drug dealing, drug taking, urination and defecation around their homes and increasingly aggressive behaviour.
Over the past 12 months, we have seen a more than threefold increase (320%) per cent rise in the number of European Economic Area (EEA) nationals sleeping rough on our streets. This particular group makes up around two thirds of our overall rough sleeping numbers on most given nights. They have no recourse to public funds and are thus unable to claim the benefits or housing. All we can do is give them shelter for a short while and help them return home.
A rough sleeper’s life expectancy is 47 and at present we are seeing an EEA citizen passing away on our streets every six weeks so it is right that we do all we can to help them off the street.
We are working with Government, charities and the police on new measures that will help encourage the minority of the street population who refuse any form of assistance to do so. This is not about criminalising anyone. Our focus is to protect those neighbourhoods that are witnessing the effects of people living on the street who won’t engage and choose to behave in such a way that can make life very unpleasant for everyone.
This is also why Westminster City Council has just launched its new Chat, App, Tap campaign to encourage the public to help us support more rough sleepers. Three straightforward ways in which you can help make a real difference to the most vulnerable in our society.
For more information and details on how you can help and support our work please click here
Policing – backing our Bobbies on the Street
We have sadly seen an increase in knife crime and drug activity across the capital over recent years and Westminster has not been immune. I have personally witnessed drug dealing outside my own flat and know how unpleasant and frankly terrifying it is.
In my January letter to Commissioner Cressida Dick I made it clear that the situation could not continue: we had to see more officers on the beat and a change from what I feared was a “walk on by” attitude. The Commissioner I believe is listening. We have secured more officers for Westminster and there has been a major emphasis on tackling drug dealing. It is early days but I am hopeful that we will now see an improvement.
I am delighted that thanks to your support our campaign to secure more police on our streets and across our neighbourhoods as well as a more proactive and zero tolerance attitude to such criminal activity has been successful.
We still need to ensure our voices are heard and that the Commissioner continues to listen to our shared concerns that we are still facing a 12% shortfall in the current police numbers in Westminster and our two new Borough Command Unit - Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea.
There is still time to support our Back Our Bobbies campaign by clicking on the link here and signing our petition. Help us send a clear message to the Met’s Commissioner that we need our police back on our streets!
In Other News
Royal Oak Coach Station stopped in its tracks
My congratulations to all those involved in the Battle for Royal Oak campaign which brought together local councillors, local people and businesses across Bayswater, Lancaster Gate, Hyde Park, Westbourne and Little Venice to persuade TfL and the Mayor not to progress with plans to move Victoria Coach Station. It clearly shows that when we all work together, we can succeed and protect our neighbourhoods. I remain convinced that central London is not a suitable place to host an international or national coach station and that there must be a better solution if we are going to improve air quality and cut congestion.
Lobbying for an Overnight Levy moves a step closer
I am fully aware of the sheer nightmare many of you are living with because of neighbouring homes being turned into full time short term lets on platforms such as AirBnB and Booking.com. My colleagues and I have worked tirelessly to lobby Government to give us more powers to deal with the fall out of such lettings. The noise and disturbance, the litter and fly tipping and the concerns of not knowing who is living next to you for a night or two.
Westminster launched our Rogue Landlords Housing Task Force last year, bringing together specialists from Planning Enforcement, Environmental Health, Trading Standards and Public Protection, which is having some affect. However, I believe these landlords should pay their fair share towards what it costs the council to police and clean up after these “businesses”. I have been lobbying the Government for the last two years to introduce an Overnight Levy which would give us the ability to charge short lets landlords as well as hotels £1 per person per night for their stay.
The millions of pounds raised will be used to pay for street cleaning, refuse collections, as well as licensing, noise and other enforcement and street management services. Following recent meetings with Ministers I believe our case is being taken very seriously and I am more optimistic that we are a step closer to succeeding in securing agreement for such a Levy.
Common Sense Victory Over Unwanted Phone Boxes
Over the last year or so we have been inundated with 170 new applications from telecommunication companies wanting to erect modern telephone boxes across the City. On top of this we already have around 1,000 boxes, many of which are neglected, disused and often out of service. Unfortunately, many are used for anti-social behaviour, drug dealing and prostitution advertising. It seems a little strange when the vast majority of us have mobile phones and the use of telephone boxes are at an all-time low and I can’t see them coming back into use. The reason we suspect for the applications is that these boxes can make their owners a big income from selling advertising.
Westminster recently took one applicant, New World Pay-phones, to court and a High Court Judge ruled that phone boxes with digital screens for advertising need planning permission. We hope that this landmark judgement will send a clear message that we will not be hoodwinked into having to grant planning permission for something that is a money spinner and does nothing for the look and feel of our streets.
Cllr Nickie Aiken
Leader of Westminster City Council
Westminster Conservatives, 90 Ebury Street, Westminster SW1W 9QD