Liberal Democrat councillors have demanded Merton Council implements a name-blind recruitment process after it was revealed that it has a lower proportion of BAME senior managers than the average for councils across London.
A new report looking at the recruitment of senior council officers found that the proportion of BAME top earners was only 14.1% for Merton Council–against an average of 17% for all London boroughs. The current overall proportion of BAME council employees is 38%, potentially indicating that barriers to progression also exist.
Writing to Labour council bosses, Lib Dem Councillor Eloise Bailey said:
“We should be doing everything in our power to remove any barriers that limit the career opportunities of BAME candidates to ensure the Council reflects the people it represents. Again, we urge the Labour administration to adopt a simple, name-blind recruitment process”.
Despite this tried-and-tested approach being backed by the CBI, the body representing employers, as “needed to stop bias”, Council bosses have so far turned down the opportunity to implement this simple change.
Improving recruitment processes is one of a number of areas that Merton Liberal Democrats have been challenging the Council on to raise its record on equality. Others include calling on the Council to conduct a review into barriers to accessibility of being a councillor, and strengthening the process of Equality Impact Assessments.
A no-nonsense anti-littering campaign will be trialled in Merton following a proposal by Cllr Paul Kohler. It aims to tackle an increase in littering in the borough as lockdown restrictions have eased.
Anti-littering signs will carry robust messaging similar to that used in a successful campaign led by York’s Lib Dem Council (see right). The trial will run in Trinity ward after Cllr Kohler secured cross-party support from his fellow ward councillors from the Conservative Party, and Merton’s Labour-led council.
Cllr Kohler said:
"The easing of the lockdown has led to an increasing amount of litter in our streets and open spaces. A small minority of thoughtless people need to think about the consequences of their actions and I am convinced these signs will help.
“Reducing litter should not be a party political issue and I would like to thank the Labour administration and my fellow Tory councillors for agreeing to this Lib Dem initiative."
The council is now preparing to print the signs and display them across Trinity and if effective, a decision will then be made on whether to roll them out across the borough.
The trial is the latest initiative from Merton Lib Dems’ ‘Cleaner, safer streets’ campaign which has recently seen the local party challenge Merton Council to urgently review the contract it holds with waste contract Veolia after repeated failings.
For more information on the anti-littering trial, or to report litter problems in their area, residents can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Government has recently stated it “expects local authorities to make significant changes to their road layouts to give more space to cyclists and pedestrians”, as one way of enabling people to travel safely whilst observing social distancing rules - as an alternative to cars and public transport.
As part of this, Merton Council plans to introduce a `school streets’ for a number of streets in the borough. The objective is to deter car trips for `the school run’. This is achieved by restricting motorised traffic during the morning and afternoon peak periods (for most schools this will be 8:30-9:15am and 3:00-3:45pm).
As well as protecting cyclists and pedestrians, the proposed changes are intended to reduce air pollution around schools, improving children's health.
Signs advising of the restriction period will be erected. The restriction will be enforced by traffic cameras.
During these periods the roads will be predominantly pedestrian and cycle only zones. However, residents who live on the roads, as well as teachers and those with disabilities will be able to apply for an exemption from the Council.
This is initially being introduced as a temporary measure for a maximum of 18 months. During this time there will be a formal consultation process to allow residents to submit comments about the restrictions. Details of the consultation process will be communicated to residents by the Council.
Within 18 months of the restrictions being introduced, the Council will make a final decision which could include ending the scheme, modifying it, or making it permanent.
London Liberal Democrats are carrying out a survey of what steps councils across London have taken, and whether residents support the changes. You can complete the survey online.
Care workers have been on the front-line during the Covid-19 pandemic. They are also amongst the lowest paid in our community. While Council employees are paid at least the London Living Wage, the majority of care workers – who work for private companies that contract with the Council – are not.
We believe that the Council should: make a commitment in principle to pay care workers the London Living Wage; investigate the costs of doing so; and campaign to get the money from Government.
We submitted motions to this effect to Merton Council in 2017, and at the budget meeting in 2020 but they were blocked by Labour councillors.
At the Council meeting earlier this month we again proposed small but practical steps to secure the London Living Wage is paid to care workers working for Council contractors, and the motion was successful.
The Council has now made a commitment in principle to pay care workers the London living wage. It has agreed to investigate the costs of making this change, and to lobby Merton's MPs and central Government for sufficient funding to make the changes.
Two years ago, Cllr Paul Kohler won his court case to stop the Mayor of London closing Wimbledon Police Station.
Today he has some further good news. Paul said:
"I was contacted by the BCU commander Sally Benatar today and told that Wimbledon Police Station has been chosen as the site for a combined emergency response unit covering Merton & Wandsworth.
"This is brilliant news following the success of our legal action to prevent the station’s closure.
"And whilst it doesn’t guarantee the station’s long term future it is another positive sign that the operational arguments we have pursued for last 3 years are winning through. It also means Wimbledon’s 24 hour front desk, which was only saved because of our legal action, remains open."
As new research reveals the impact of lockdown on childrens’ education we’re calling on the Council to lay out its plans to support
vulnerable children and help schools reopen safely.
Research out last week suggests that as many as 20% of pupils are doing less than an hour of school work a day during lockdown, with some children doing none at all.
Here in Merton, Lib Dem councillors have discovered that in May the Council identified 666 children and young people as not having suitable computer equipment or internet access available to learn from home. On 22 June, 107 devices were distributed to children in year 10 but it is unclear when the rest of the needed equipment will arrive from the Government.
Liberal Democrat Cllr Hina Bokhari said:
“As a parent, school governor, and former teacher I am profoundly concerned by the deepening educational inequality that lockdown is causing.
“Local charities have been doing incredible work securing laptops and other equipment to allow children to access school work from home. And I know that schools and teachers are doing everything they can to support students.
“But the Government and local authorities need to sit down with teachers, and work out a strategy to enable children to catch up on the education they’ve missed. Otherwise we’re risking the educational development of a generation of children.
“As part of this we’re calling on Merton Council to consider using local public spaces to ease pressure on schools by allowing them to make more space for socially distanced learning.”
Restore Free Travel for Under 18s in London
Siobhan Benita, Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London, has called on the government to urgently reverse the temporary suspension of free travel for under 18s in London.
The condition was part of the recently announced support funding package for Transport for London.
Benita described the scrapping of the concession as “unjust” and said that it will be “a disaster for the capital’s poorest families”.
Local authorities remain responsible for providing free travel between home and school for children eligible for free school meals, and who need to travel over 3 miles. Following questions from Liberal Democrat councillors, Merton Council estimated this would cost close to £100,000 per year.
Cllr Jenifer Gould added:
“Many young Londoners rely on free travel to get to school. Taking away this concession at a time when so many families are struggling financially is indefensible. And there doesn’t appear to be any plan in place for those in need. The most sensible thing to do at this stage is to urgently reverse the decision.”
You can sign the London-wide petition against this here.
Labour Council bosses have come under fire over plans to return millions of pounds to the Government that was supposed to be for Merton’s businesses.
Local authorities were given money to cover the Business Rates of premises in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors. Within the guidance they were allowed a discretion to support businesses that were similar to those specifically listed.
Lots of councils up and down the country are doing this. Merton however, is refusing to use this discretion and therefore denying support to businesses like Wimbledon’s three English Language Schools and large numbers of other other companies.
Wimbledon’s Lib Dem Parliamentary spokesman Cllr Paul Kohler said:
“Given that Merton still has money to support local businesses I am at a loss to understand why we have not adopted a similarly more expansive approach, particularly as the Government guidance explicitly states "[t]he list… is not intended to be exhaustive as it would be impossible to list the many and varied uses that exist within the qualifying purposes" and continues by saying "[a]uthorities should determine for themselves whether particular properties not listed are broadly similar in nature to those above and, if so, to consider them eligible for the relief."
“I am concerned that Merton is taking an overly legalistic approach that fails to recognise the flexibility that they have clearly been given. This is not in keeping with its claims to be a business-like and business-friendly Council. I understand that Merton is proposing to return undistributed funds to Central Government - over currently £3 million- which makes the failure to fully exploit the discretion they have even more perverse.
Businesses have cried out for help.
Jane Dancaster, Managing Director of the Wimbledon School of English said:
“Wimbledon School of English is a family company which has been in Wimbledon since 1964. We have dedicated years to developing a successful business that brings financial and other benefits to the community, and are proud to be ranked as the number one English language centre in the UK. Covid 19 has had a devastating effect on our business and we are asking the London Borough of Merton to use the Government aid at their disposal to help us survive”
Peter Allan, Managing Director of plusfour market research Ltd in Wimbledon said:
“Why would Merton Council ignore the plight of local businesses, instead choosing to return £3m to the Government? For probably less than 5% of that they could help all of the businesses they are currently rejecting. Why are they not recognising the scope that the Government has given them? Don’t they care about local businesses?”
We want local planning decisions to be transparent, and for residents to have a real say.
So we were disappointed by Merton Council’s decision last year to stop publishing residents’ comments on planning applications. At the Council meeting in February Merton Liberal Democrats put forward a motion to reverse that decision. Unfortunately our plan was blocked by Labour councillors.
At the time we argued that as well as making planning decisions less transparent, the Council’s actions would make it harder for residents to send in effective comments, and for councillors to do their jobs.
Unfortunately our concerns have been realised, and recently a councillor was unable to access all public comments on a planning application - making it more difficult for him to stand up for local people.
We asked the Council what steps they were taking to prevent similar issues in future, and were told it would be looked into.
Cllr Paul Kohler said:
“As councillors our job is to make sure that residents’ voices are heard. By making the planning process more restrictive the council is making this difficult.
“The Liberal Democrats believe that democracy is more than voting once every four years - residents should be able to engage with the council’s decision making process at all times. That’s why we’ll continue fighting for transparency in planning.”
As the Government begins to ease the current lockdown, Liberal Democrat councillors have written to the Chief Executive and Leader of the Council to thank council staff for all their hard work during this difficult time.
The Open Letter published by the group also outlines their views on the borough’s vision and approach, as the Council begins to examine what recovery looks like.
Lib Dem lead councillor Anthony Fairclough said: "We wanted to highlight some of the key questions and challenges we think the Council should reflect on as we move into the 'new normal'. We hope to start a discussion of the borough’s future.
"Merton needs to be bold, imaginative and not afraid to occasionally fall short of its ambitions – because to do so means to learn and then improve. We need to show courage and energy, and be willing to do things differently. Our local communities need to be able to trust us to work out what needs to be done, but to be open about why things don’t work sometimes".
"More than ever, our area needs a fresh start. That's about engaging with residents; strengthening local decision-making; building resilience in our communities; rebuilding the local economy; and maximising safety in public spaces".
For the letter in full, please click here.