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CITY CORPORATION CONTINUES TO FAIL RESIDENTS

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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Comment by Anna Parkinson on April 28, 2020 at 11:45
In a recent email to us in Hatfield House, Andrew Carter advised:
"We have asked ISg to be as considerate as they possibly can in terms of noise from the site, operatives arriving and departing from it and to avoid any unnecessary noise.  I think you will see that the number of works on site over the next few weeks will be considerably reduced."
After experiencing the noise from yesterday morning's extreme metal bashing, our response to him was: 
We are pleased you have asked ISG to be as considerate as possible, however the evidence on the ground is otherwise. Yesterday, we were subjected to relentless crashes and metallic banging noises reverberating off surrounding buildings for an hour during the morning ‘reduced impact’ period.  I called both site ‘emergency’ numbers and received an ‘out of office' voicemail message from both.  I called the Colpai team number published on their communications and was told someone would call me back.  They haven’t.  I called the other published number for Paul Murtagh and was told he would call back.  He hasn’t.  The Community Nurse came [to our medically vulnerable son] to take regular blood samples and couldn’t find anywhere to park near our flat, adding to her stress and delaying her essential work.  The dust from the building site continues to coat everything on our balcony and our windows haven’t been cleaned in months despite a firm promise at the last consultation meeting before the lockdown.
These are just a few examples of many daily frustrations that the operations on site are inflicting on us and our neighbours.  And remember we cannot escape these during the lockdown.
Please urge your members to reconsider the decision to continue work on site during the lockdown.
Comment by Tim Godsmark on April 27, 2020 at 19:34

I too watched the virtual meeting and was surprised at the dismissive nature of the responses and the Chair's repeated attempts to close the debate down by saying 'we could make this discussion private'. Subsequently I sent him the following email. I have not as yet had a reply.

Dear Randall,

It was interesting to observe your virtual meeting today. I was disappointed by the discussion in relation to a suspension of works at the COLPAI site and felt that for a committee of elected representatives the issues did not get the scrutiny that they deserve.
Further to the question from Common Councillor Sue Pearson about the advice received on whether it would be a breach of contract to suspend works it would go a long way to help with residents confidence that the City is looking after their interests if the advice could be published or circulated. I do not see why this needs to be kept confidential. I am afraid that I must disagree with you that the site will become ‘derelict’  if work is suspended. It did not do so for the previous suspension and there is little on site that can deteriorate unless left for perhaps several years.
From your remarks I got the impression that the City were willing to suspend work but that ISG were refusing to do so. As you are no doubt aware a building contract can be amended by mutual consent so long as the contractor receives an Extension of Time for the period suspended and their costs for any preliminaries expended. Currently the site is working, we are told, with less than half the workforce and to social distancing rules so the contract will be delayed anyway. If an extension of time needs to be issued for this delay I would assume that ISG will be in a position to claim full preliminaries as the site setup is still functioning. As the preliminaries claimed will be at a lower rate if work is suspended there may not be a much greater cost to the City than there is anyway. A cost analysis needs to be carried out if one has not been done anyway.
If ISG will not countenance suspending work then I would expect the City as the Employer under the Contract with the ultimate liability for site safety under the Construction Design Management Regulation 2015 to make sure that the guidance produced by the Construction Leadership Council and referenced by the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, is implemented in full. I attach the guidance below. I wrote to the COLPAI Team on 16th April but have yet to receive an answer. Residents in Basterfield House are daily seeing social distancing ignored and we can have little confidence that new measures are being adhered to unless they are policed properly. One suggestion is that the City employ a full time Clerk of Works with a remit to police site safety.
 
If there are 35 workers on site and we have been told that they are all travelling by private transport I would question where they are all parking as there is no evidence of this number of cars locally. You may also be interested to look at ISG’s website where, in a comments forum, there are comments from workers saying how reluctant they are to be forced to continue work and how any social distancing is being ignored.
My main concern, and that of fellow residents, is that the City is putting cost over and above its moral and legal duty as a landlord to have a care for its tenants and also the workers employed on the site. The surrounding blocks have a large number of vulnerable residents and in continuing work while everyone is shut indoors can only have health implications and increase the strain on the NHS. I do not understand how the City can say that it is acting our best interests at this time.
The workers should not have a significant loss of income from a suspension due to either the Government’s Job Retention Scheme or the scheme for the self-employed. At the same time this needs to be set against the adjacent residents many of whom will will be on these schemes with a loss of income or will have been made redundant and trying to get by on benefits. This may affect residents’ mental health and I asked the COLPAI team if a risk assessment had been carried out before work recommenced but got no reply.
I have lived on the Golden Lane Estate for 17 years and in this time the City has not always acted in a manner that looks after tenant’s and leaseholders best interests. Unfortunately over the past ten years the impression has developed that it is not a responsible landlord and the lack of concern evidenced by the building work continuing reinforces this.
Lastly actions resulting from the committee meeting that I hope to see are:
  1. Publish the legal advice why the site cannot be suspended without breaching the contract.
  2. Let residents’ know the reasons given by ISG for insisting on continuing work.
  3. Provide a proper cost analysis for committee members for the costs of suspending work as opposed to the current slower work.
  4. Provide a risk assessment into the health of adjacent residents if work continues.
Regards,
Tim Godsmark
I have also sent the COLPAI team a number of reasoned emails recently saying why the works should be suspended. Again I have not received a reply from them but have received a reply from our MP who has written to the Secretary of State for Business about work on construction sites continuing.

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