In my last blog I drew attention to how the City Corporation was supporting non-essential construction work on its own COLPAI development, to the detriment of its residents - COLPAI: despite lock down work about to resume
On Thursday morning I sent an email to the Policy and Resources Committee, which is effectively the Corporation’s management committee, asking it to deal with this issue at its video conference meeting that afternoon. Below is the email, then some insight into the meeting.
To the Policy and Resources Committee (Thursday 16 April):
"The Policy Chair has defended the Corporation’s support of non-essential construction work on its own COLPAI development on two grounds.
Firstly, the Policy Chair has said that the Corporation would be in breach of contract if it were to require its contractor, ISg, to stop work.
It is counter-intuitive that the Corporation could be in breach of contract for not allowing work to continue that puts the health, and possibly the lives, of construction workers, their families and people they come into contact with at greater risk than if those workers were furloughed like others doing non-essential work. The law usually produces a result that ordinary people think is right.
Even if the Corporation were to be in breach of contract, and so liable to pay damages to ISg, why is that a satisfactory response? The amount of damages for delaying work for a few weeks in a three year project cannot be large, in relative terms. The Corporation’s purpose as a public authority is to serve its public, not to maximise its revenue. The only members of its public who are still in the City are largely its residents, as the office workers are mostly staying at home, and even the Guildhall is shut down. Some of those residents are badly affected by the continuation of this non-essential work, as described in my blog: http://www.goldenlaneestate.org/profiles/blogs/colpai-plans-to-reco.... For the Corporation to allow the welfare of those residents to be harmed in this time of crisis for the sake of saving a relatively small amount of money is to fail in its purpose.
Secondly, the Policy Chair said that “By continuing works on the COLPAI project the City will be in a better position to provide for those in need of social housing and the children in need of a new primary school building”.
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 existing 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 doubt whether any tenants or school children who will eventually occupy the new social housing and school would support that project falling a few weeks behind schedule at the cost of the welfare of people like them, or of the health or lives of construction workers, their families and people they come into contact with.
There is an irony in the Policy Chair’s advocating that this project keep to schedule. It has already been delayed by a year since planning approval because of the Corporation’s mishandling of its planning and execution. A few weeks of that wasted time shouldn’t be made up now at the expense of existing residents.
On behalf of the residents of Golden Lane, which is the largest concentration of social housing in the City, and with the support of several other councillors, I call upon the Policy and Resources Committee to show moral leadership in dealing with this issue at its meeting this afternoon.
Moral leadership doesn’t consist of:
- clinging to the small print of government guidance that begins by justifying construction work as being important "in ensuring public safety and the provision of public services”, when COLPAI doesn’t fall within either description
- devising legalistic explanations and bureaucratic PR to justify what ordinary people think is wrong; and
- patronising the residential electorate by saying things like they are "understandably anxious”, and we all need to "work together”, when the Corporation itself is not supporting them.
The Mayor of London (Labour) and our local MP (Conservative) are showing leadership by strongly opposing non-essential construction work on behalf of their residents and construction workers. Why isn’t the Corporation alongside them?
Members should not be dismissive of residents, considering them a nuisance in the Corporation’s promotion of private commercial interests. We will all emerge from this crisis into a changed economic and social landscape, and the Corporation can’t carry on the way it has done before. This non-essential construction work is becoming a test of its fitness for purpose as a public authority. So far it’s failing. I attach photographs of the failure of social distancing on site yesterday and of banners hanging from residents’ flats directed at ISg (“IS greed” and “I’m So Greedy”), but residents know that ultimately it's the Corporation, their landlord, that’s responsible.”
What happened at the meeting
The meeting lasted two hours. The time spent by the Chair of the Policy and Resources Committee on the non-essential construction work on COLPAI was two minutes. She said that:
- “the work on the COLPAI site is within government guidelines” and that this was “the most significant point” : evading the call made in my email for moral leadership. There was no explanation of why the City Corporation hadn’t joined the Mayor of London (Labour) and the local MP (Conservative) in calling on the government to end non-essential construction work
- “there is actually work on building sites across the City…and beyond” : This doesn’t justify the COLPAI work, particularly as it’s in such close proximity to a densely populated estate. So close, in fact, that the distance between the site hoarding and the nearest flat is five feet - less than the minimum space required for social distancing
“what is happening is not unusual: work is continuing on some essential buildings” : The fact that non-essential construction work is continuing on a minority of sites doesn’t justify irresponsible developers doing this or the Corporation being one of them. COLPAI isn't an "essential building”: it isn't a temporary hospital, or anything else needed in this crisis.
- “we need to be able to support the recovery and we know that certain further parts of the economy are going to be unlocked fairly soon, building will be among that” : If it’s correct that a suspension of work on the COLPAI site wouldn’t last long, why is it so problematic for the Corporation?
- “if we were to tell them to stop work, without good reason, we would be breaching a contract: that is a relevant consideration for us and indeed would have a significant financial cost” : Isn’t protecting the health and lives of construction workers, their families and people they come into contact with a “good reason”? Isn’t protecting residents on the other side of the hoarding from noisy work while they have to stay in their small flats for most or all of the day during this lockdown not a “good reason”? How can the cost of a few weeks' delay be “significant”? Why, in any case, is saving money more important than saving lives? How does clinging to the small print of government guidance justify that? 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, in order to save cost?
- “I am sorry for people who are unhappy about that”: the “people” deserve a council that listens and acts for its residents, not against them.
In case you wonder how the committee spent the other 118 minutes of the meeting, here are examples of other topics its members discussed:
They spent four times longer than they did on COPLAI on questions like committee structure: what happens if the chair of a committee resigns, the deputy chair of that committee then becomes the chair, but that deputy chair is already the chair of another committee, a member cannot be a chair of two committees … Questions like this, of no relevance to any of the Corporations’ voters, actively engaged members’ interest, and several of them spoke. By contrast, and with a single exception, members were silent in response to the Policy Chair’s statement on non-essential construction work.
The committee received a 23 page report about the elections of the Sheriffs and Lord Mayor due to take place this year. The nature of these elections is explained elsewhere on this website: http://www.goldenlaneestate.org/profiles/blogs/the-lord-mayor-and-t.... More interest was shown by members in this matter than in the welfare of the voters on Golden Lane estate.
My message to residents is that we shouldn’t take “no" for an answer. The Corporation’s contractor ISg has already breached the government guidance on social distancing after it started work again on the site, as shown in the photo above. Let’s keep up the pressure on it and the Corporation to do the right thing, which is to cease work until the lockdown ends. The Corporation may be a Goliath, but we know what became of him…
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