In the coverage of the sheds with beds issue there is a clear difference in the comments being made by the government and by Ealing council and its Labour councillors.
In the BBC News piece last Friday Grant Shapps, Minister of State for Housing and Planning, said:
This is a pretty sophisticated shed if I ever saw one. Had that been stopped at the early stage we wouldnâ€™t be ending up with streets of buildings like this with lots of people shoved into small spaces. This needs to be actually tackled by the councils on a planning basis from the outset and they need to show an example by knocking some down.
Shapps clearly feels that councils could have done more, earlier. By coming down hard on the first few sheds councils might have stopped the thousands from being built. Quite.
The councilâ€™s position is summed up by leader Cllr Julian Bell:
Weâ€™re doing everything we can to tackle this issue and have created a special team dedicated to investigating illegal outhouses, but we need more funding and greater powers.
The government clearly doesnâ€™t buy this line. Indeed a CLG press release announcing a grant of Â£280K to Ealing Council to tackle this issue specifically said:
Some councils have argued that they need to have a new legal power of entry into premises without notice. However, councils already have this ability provided they obtain a magistrates’ warrant – which provides a proportionate check and balance on the use of such powers.
The CLG press release covering last week’s raid also delicately pointed out:
Magistrates’ warrants were issued ahead of the dawn raid, granting Ealing Council the legal power to enter the premises without notice.
The government is quite reasonably pointing out that the council can enter premises without notice but they need to be overseen by a magistrate. Does the council really want the power to enter premises at will?
Bellâ€™s position is essentially â€œNot me Guvâ€. He is trying to kid us that this is all some kind of surprise to him and that he is dealing with it as best he can in trying circumstances. This is nonsense.
Bell is in a difficult position as is Ealing Southall MP Virendra Sharma. Donâ€™t forget that Julian Bell isnâ€™t just a Greenford councillor and leader of his party group on the council. He is Virendra Sharmaâ€™s paid employee working as a researcher in Parliament and has been since Sharma was first elected as an MP in 2007. This problem didnâ€™t just emerge this year or last year. It has been building up over decades. Decades during which 15 Labour councillors in Southall were effectively silent except for a few ineffectual complaints that something should be done from one or two. Sharma started as a Southall councillor in 1982, thirty years ago. These sheds were literally built around him during his time as a councillor. To claim ignorance is risible.
If you can bear it you can read three yearâ€™s worth of minutes of the Southall Area Committee from 2005-2008 (the area committee was wound up in 2008 and I can’t get minutes before 2005 off the website) there is not one mention of back garden buildings or sheds with beds in three years and certainly no substantive discussion of planning enforcement or overdevelopment beyond some muttering by Cllr Kang about planning enforcement.
The Labour party isnâ€™t some kind of irrelevant, minority cult in Southall. The constituency Labour party in Southall is the largest in the country. At the time of the 2010 Labour leadership election it had 1,206 members. Only 4 CLPs had a membership of over 1,000 and Ealing Southall was the biggest. The idea that the Ealing Southall Labour party hasnâ€™t known that this was going on for decades is incredible.
According to theyworkforyou.com Virendra Sharma has spoken or asked questions in Parliament on 441 occasions. The only time I can find any mention of the sheds with beds issue was on 13th June this year. This statement, which is very much in keeping with the council line, came after the Sun article in October 2011 and after Chris Rogers’ pieces on the BBC in February. He was hardly breaking new ground here. This was just a statement designed to allow Sharma to say that he had raised this issue in Parliament. Great. The technical term is covering his arse. Sharma regularly asks questions and makes interventions on TB, Sri Lanka and health issues and foreign affairs more generally. He clearly has interests that he pursues in Parliament. This clearly isn’t one of them though.
I look forward to hearing more from Councillor Bell and ex-councillor Sharma listing the things they have done to highlight this issue and even to tackle it but I suspect I won’t. Southall is owned by Labour politically speaking. Labour might own this problem of its own making too.