QUESTIONS WITH NO ANSWERS
On Friday 24 April, in a live streamed virtual meeting of the City Corporation’s Community and Children’s Services Committee, the Chair was asked questions about the Corporation allowing non-essential construction work to restart on one of its own developments within touching distance of its own densely populated Golden Lane estate.
For the background, see: CITY CORPORATION FAILS TO SHOW LEADERSHIP IN THIS CRISIS
Councillor Sue Pearson, a resident of Golden Lane estate herself, put the first question:
"The Policy Chair told the Policy and Resources Committee last week that if the Corporation stopped work on its own COLPAI project “without good reason” it would be in breach of contract. That sounds more like a general statement of legal principle than definitive advice on whether this particular contract would be breached in these particular circumstances. Did the Corporation actually receive definitive legal advice to the effect that if it stopped work on COLPAI it would be in breach of contract? If so, did that advice state that “good reasons” for stopping the work didn’t include protecting the life and health of the construction workers, their families and people they come into contact with, or protecting the welfare of the residents on the other side of the hoarding?”
The Chair replied:
“Yes, we did get definitive advice on this specific contract…it wasn’t framed exactly in the way that you framed it, because the fundamental issue from assessing whether it would be a breach is if we had some reason to think that safety - either for the residents or for the workers on site - was somehow dramatically different from other construction and we could make a good case, then possibly we could avoid getting tagged with the breach. But even within that, fundamentally there is a very limited time under contract in which we can do this without being in breach, and given the government’s strong advice, and they’ve made it even stronger in the last couple of days, you will have seen that other sites...are opening back up.”
But why wasn’t the advice framed in the way she framed her question? Aren’t the life and health of the construction workers, their families and people they come into contact with, and protecting the welfare of the residents on the other side of the hoarding, relevant in considering whether there are “good reasons” for stopping the work? COLPAI is "dramatically different” from most other construction sites, because at its nearest point it is less than social distancing length away from residents' homes. Work done on a City office building surrounded by other, currently unoccupied, office buildings is not comparable.
One Golden Lane resident reported that last week he felt his flat shake. Here is a video of what caused it:
City councillors spending the lockdown in their main residences in the Home Counties or in their country retreats may not appreciate what it is like to live week after week within a few metres of a major construction site, and in present circumstances be unable to escape.
The Chair had earlier mentioned that this work was being done to provide social housing and to provide a school. But Sue Pearson had already addressed this argument in the link above, saying that:
"No-one opposes the provision of more social housing or another primary school. They will be built. All that is required is a delay of a few weeks in a three year project. Not delaying will harm the welfare of the City’s social housing tenants, who comprise half the population of Golden Lane estate, and a number of primary school children, who are at home on the estate during the lockdown."
I followed up with this question:
"Before I put my question, I will say that the answer is not that "the Corporation is following government guidance”, which has become the Corporation’s standard soundbite. The government has obviously been mismanaging this crisis, the ruling party receives substantial donations from the construction industry, so we can't look to the government for moral leadership. The City Corporation, however, has an opportunity to provide such leadership, particularly on one of its own projects affecting its own residents.
So my question is this: do you consider that it is more important for the Corporation to save a relatively small amount of money by allowing the non-essential construction work on COLPAI to continue than to protect:
- the life and health of the construction workers, their families and the people they come into contact with; and
- the welfare of the residents on the other side of the hoarding?
And I think that the City residents who are patiently listening to this call would appreciate a straight yes / no answer."
After a silence, the Chair said:
"I think I’ve already answered that question. First of all... it is a non trivial amount, but set that aside completely. What we really don’t want, and I would think many of the residents would entirely agree, is we don’t want this site to sit derelict for an extended period of time...Are we endangering the health of the workers or the residents? I think we believe that we are not. If we believe we were, there would be a different view.”
But he hadn’t already answered the question. The core of the question, about the Corporation showing moral leadership and not clinging to whatever the government says, has been consistently evaded by those speaking on behalf of the Corporation. As mentioned in the link above, if the government were to decree that it was acceptable for workers to remove asbestos without wearing protective clothing, would the Corporation allow workers to do that on its own projects, just because the government said so, and in order to save cost?
Regarding the derelict site point, I replied that :
“it’s the first time we’ve heard this particular reason for work not ceasing on COLPAI - we’ve heard many, and this is the first time we’ve heard this one - but you can just put it back into the question, and ask which is more important: a site being derelict, or the health of construction workers, their families and people they come into contact with. It’s a fact the workers are more at risk by working there than not - that cannot be disputed.”
The Chair replied:
‘’I think if ... [the workers] are properly socially distancing, they are not significantly more at risk, and I know there have been some discussions with some of the workers on the site who are happy to be at work because they are able to earn a living…I am very confident that we would not permit this if it were clearly unsafe. If ISG were prepared not to proceed for a period of time, we would probably welcome that, because obviously we have residents who would prefer that this would not be going forward…”.
Before I could reply, a senior officer interjected to remind the Chair that time was passing. What I would have said was that:
- I understand some ISG workers are in fact concerned about continuing to work;
- for those who aren’t, this isn’t just a matter for them: the point of lockdown is to minimise non-essential activity, as it potentially spreads the virus among others; and
- construction workers who are not working are entitled to the same government support as others.
The workers on site are not “properly socially distancing”. While a resident was listening to the livestream of the meeting, she saw from her window workers standing less than two metres apart. Below is a photograph taken this morning showing a group of workers bunched together.
The Corporation claims it will monitor compliance on the site closely, but is someone going to watch CCTV on the site ten hours a day? I don’t think any resident believes that.
Although the Chair of the Community and Children’s Services Committee faced these questions, he is not individually responsible for the Corporation’s policy. That is decided by the Policy and Resources Committee. At its last meeting, the members of this committee were more concerned with discussing questions like whether a deputy chair of a committee could succeed a retiring chair when that deputy chair was already the chair of another committee, than in the lives of City residents being made intolerable by this non-essential construction work.
CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE
Golden Lane estate has the largest concentration of social housing in the City. Support for those in need during the lockdown has been largely provided by a group of resident volunteers, led by Sue Pearson and Jacqueline Swanson, working closely with the Square Mile food bank run by Barbican residents Liz King, Melissa Ramos and Antonia London.
The City Corporation has described them as “our” volunteers whom it is “utilising”, thus implying it is controlling front line support on the estate, which it isn’t. It often hasn’t even met requests for limited assistance from the volunteers on a timely basis (although an individual manager has been as helpful as he can). When name tag lanyards were requested for volunteers making deliveries on the estate, it took a whole week and a tussle with bureaucracy to get a batch from the Corporation, which has an abundant supply currently unused in the Guildhall.
The Corporation has praised itself for making a currently unused community centre available to the food bank, and for eventually providing it with some funding, the amount of which is less than 4% of what it plans to spend on a communications campaign to persuade uninterested business voters to register in the Corporation’s unique electoral system. The purpose of this campaign is to avoid “reputational and political risks” for the Corporation, as only 40% of eligible businesses bother to register, and of those that do, typically less than half of the employees they nominate bother to vote. For more information on this system that escaped the electoral Reform Act of 1832, see: THE LORD MAYOR AND THE ELEPHANT.
CAN'T PAY, WON’T PAY…
Earlier in the meeting last Friday, a member urged the Corporation to establish a Covid testing facility in the City. The idea was rebuffed, because it would entail the Corporation “entering into a world that central government has not yet opened up”. The member replied:
“Central government is not the 'be and end all'. I think we sometimes have to take the lead…the Corporation is big enough to do something like this... let’s be very bold.”
The Chair of the Policy and Resources Committee remarked:
“We don’t want to be big and bold and broke. We are suffering our own significant financial loss…”
That remark reveals the chasm between the Corporation’s leadership and reality. This chasm was already evident when the Corporation distributed a special Covid edition of its magazine “City Resident” during the fourth week of lockdown. It was, incidentally, the only communication residents had received from the Corporation by post since lockdown began, apart from their council tax bills. In spite of the magazine being called “City Resident” and distributed to City residents, it devoted space to the Lord Mayor and Policy Chair reassuring them that:
“London will always be one of the world’s leading financial centres…with… more international HQs than any other European city. The timezone that spans Asia and North America will not change.”
Why would anyone living in social housing on Golden Lane estate, confined to a small flat for most or all of every day, suffering noise and vibration from the Corporation’s own non-essential construction work, and facing an even more perilous financial future than before, feel reassured by being told that global financial institutions will continue to flourish in the City? In case anyone invokes trickle-down economics, it doesn’t apply to residents in the City: only 18 months ago the Corporation planned to start and finish an external refurbishment of Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s palatial residence, before it even began the decades overdue replacement of decaying windows on Golden Lane estate: see City A.M.
Going back to the Policy Chair’s concern about the Corporation incurring a “significant financial loss” during the lockdown, it needs to be put into the perspective of the Corporation controlling £1.4 billion in its "City Fund" (for public authority purposes), £1.5 billion in its “City Bridge Trust” (for charitable purposes) and £2.6 billion in its “City’s Cash” (for non public authority purposes). It uses “City’s Cash”, among other things, to:
- fund the promotion of the UK financial sector, which can well afford to pay for itself;
- fund the promotion of vanity projects, including the proposed Centre for Music, which will be located only a few hundred metres from the existing concert hall in the Barbican;
- host a range of banquets in the Guildhall and Mansion House for local and foreign dignitaries, with no measurable outcomes;
- subsidise, at a quarter of million pounds a year, the "Guildhall Club”, to which all elected members of the Corporation belong without subscription, and which provides them with free or subsidised meals and drinks in spacious private facilities in the Guildhall; and
- provide a number of bedrooms for elected members to use in the Guildhall for free or at nominal rates.
When people everywhere emerge from this crisis into an economically devastated landscape, and discover how much money the Corporation has and how it’s spent, it’s hard to imagine that the Corporation will be able to return to business as usual.
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