Ham&High letters: Food poverty, the Ponds, Covid testing, public spaces, voting and government

New-found solidarity between neighbours from the coronavirus pandemic was on show during last weeken

New-found solidarity between neighbours from the coronavirus pandemic was on show during last weekends heatwave, as the South End Green porch socials made the most of the scorching weather. The socially distanced events are held every fortnight by the South End Green support group, which was set up during the lockdown to provide neighbourly support, including cooking, shopping and reading. They also held online coffee mornings, camp fire discussion evenings and other digital events. The next social for people living in South Hill Park, South End Green, Nassington Road and nearby roads is on August 22. Picture: Dr Eva Loth - Credit: Dr Eva Loth

Letters, contributions and comments sent in from Ham&High readers this week.

Ensuring no one gets left behind

Cllr Jonathan Simpson (Lab, King’s Cross), cabinet member for promoting culture and community services, writes:

I am writing regarding last week’s article on food poverty in the borough.

It’s no secret Covid-19 has exacerbated the levels of food insecurity and for many of our residents this has and continues to be a very challenging period. That’s why we’re doing everything in our power to support those in need during this pandemic and beyond.

As part of the extraordinary community response, we’ve provided over 100,000 meals to residents, 46,000 meals in schools and delivered 13,000 free school meal parcels to families alongside local charities, community groups and volunteers. Through the Camden Food Hub, we’ve also organised a network between offers of food distribution and community organisations to distribute food to all areas of Camden. We’re also continuing to work with VCS and local mutual aid groups to provide food parcels and other support to previously shielded residents who still need this support.

In July, we held Camden’s first ever Food Poverty Summit which marked the first meeting of the Camden Food Poverty Alliance which was established to help better co-ordinate actions to support those in need. This summit brought together a range of VCS organisations to co-develop the borough’s approach to find real solutions to end food poverty and we’re currently developing our draft food poverty action plan which we’re aiming to publish later this year.

I’d like to end by saying a huge thank you to our residents and local partners who together have gone above and beyond to ensure everyone gets the help they need. Ensuring no one gets left behind has been our main priority during this crisis and I’m certain through this action, we can make a real difference.

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Sustainable as what?

Robert Sutherland Smith, chairman, United Swimmers’ Association of Hampstead Heath, writes:

Anne Fairweather, chair of Hampstead Heath Management Committee, is a charming person. She is also, more significantly, a politician from the gothic, darkly closeted, inner workings of the City Corporation’s system of control and operations: a system which discretely ended any possibility of representative democracy in the recent charging for swimming in three of Hampstead Heath’s duck ponds - for long, as free as walking over Kite Hill with a kite on a long string.

The various swimming associations democratically came up with a solution which the Heath’s oddly named ‘consultative committee’ (it was ignored) endorsed as worthy of trial. Its aim, the socially desirable one of keeping the duck ponds open for swimming, for those Londoners who can’t actually afford £4 to a swim in them.

To keep them free, as they always have been, for everyone regardless of rank and wealth. Especially for those who need the services of food banks - not the kind of banks, that the City Corporation is familiar with.

Anne Fairweather (Ham&High) says that charges make Hampstead’s ponds sustainable.

But sustainable as what?

Not as they have been for more than 150 years, a place of freedom and generosity towards all Londoners. In an act of social nihilism, it has craftily alienated part of the Heath and commercialised it. By a local authority body with access to £2.3 billion of charitable funds which in part subsidises, on a significant scale, the eating and drinking of City councillors and aldermen.

That, one assumes, is what the Corporation really wishes to sustain. If the Corporation of London is impoverished it is not by lack of cash but in spirit and philosophy; the abandoned spirit of philanthropy; the dumped philosophy of the Quaker Banker, John Gurney Hoare, who saved the Heath from commercialisation, as a free good for all.

And to fill the gap, the City Corporation vaguely hints at a ‘poor’ box approach.

The indignity, no doubt, of testing the poorest of us in a proposal that seems more in the keeping with the old work house and poor laws of earlier history; a costly and humiliating social policy, which became too repugnant to sustain politically, socially or morally. Charles Dickens, who knew the ponds, famously used the word ‘workhouse’ as a demeaning term of abuse against poor Oliver Twist. Is that what the City Corporation wishes to replicate in contemporary London? If so it is a regressive and unwieldy idea.

Where is the logic?

Peter Rutherford, Pandora Road, West Hampstead, writes:

The massive NHS advertisment, (Quick test helps stop the spread of virus) says “NHS Test and Trace is the most effective way of controlling the spread of the virus” but fails to tell us that people who are asymptomatic carriers, believed to be a substantial proportion of the public, are being denied the test.

Where is the logic in this? Is it a cost issue or do they have insufficient testing kits? Maybe there is not the staff to run the extra load on their system.

When one sees the performance of other countries, whatever the excuse is, it is not good enough.

The government and the NHS must provide the Covid-19 test and the antibody test on demand since, as they rightly say, testing “is the most effective way of controlling the spread of the virus”.

Our public space

Simon Jackson, Maresfield Gardens, writes:

Just writing to say how the outdoor ‘streatery’ in Belsize Village has transformed the atmosphere. It feels like it has become what it always should have been – our own continental-style café society. It’s really magical!

Sophia Robinson, Belsize Park Gardens, writes:

Benches have been moved and wooden boxes installed to create a blockade to stop residents walking through and sitting in Belsize Village. Despite there being plenty of room for tables and chairs outside of the businesses. Should people who live there have to pay to sit in their own public space?

This social segregation wouldn’t be happening in other parts of London. Is this really the way Camden Council wants to be seen to be treating people in 2020?

Proportional representation

David Brown, Crouch Hill, chair Make Votes Matter North London, writes:

Hornsey and Wood Green CLP is one of the growing number of constituency Labour Parties to come out in favour of proportional representation (PR), Unfortunately, PR is opposed by Hornsey and Wood Green’s hard working MP, Catherine West, no doubt to the surprise and disappointment of many of her loyal supporters.

Polling shows at least two thirds of Labour members and supporters favour the electoral system of PR. Democracy has always been a Labour party article of faith and Labour supporters instinctively understand that to have an equal society you have to equalise power by equalising votes. A joint study by the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and Make Votes Matter ‘For the Many not the Few’ illustrated that countries with systems of Proportional Representation had more equal social and economic outcomes and more of the progressive policies that Labour wants.

In our present day situation of increasing inequalities and social division Labour supporters across north London must be hoping Catherine West will soon join fellow north London Labour MPs David Lammy and Tulip Siddiq in supporting electoral reform.

May I suggest...

Keith Martin, Friern Park, Barnet, wrote to Boris Johnson, prime minister, and Rishi Sunak, chancellor of the exchequer:

The UK is facing a crisis, and I suggest to you a plan for resolving our problems by:

1 Inviting the Labour Party to join you in forming a coalition government.

2 Inviting several Labour MPs to join your cabinet, perhaps deputy prime minister - Keir Starmer, foreign secretary - Jeremy Corbyn and minister of culture - Tracy Brabin.

Each of these appointments will catch the current mood of the public, many of whom are disillusioned by the contradictory nature of recent government advice.

A fundamental approach is needed to tackling the myriad of policy decisions which have been brewing ever since the misguided policies of austerity became fashionable several years ago. The effect on industry and jobs, on the economy, and on public services including public libraries, has demoralised the majority of the electorate, who have a thirst for policies fit to combat the current crisis.

One area too little publicised has been the disintegration of the infrastructure of the media, arts, culture and libraries, which has been misread by the latest of a string of culture ministers, Oliver Dowden. He has spent much effort in negotiating deals to help Sky TV receive income from live transmission of advertising between coverage of league football from empty stadiums, and he put his oar into the Huawei debate. He has a day job – indeed a statutory duty - as culture minister to monitor how local authorities are complying with their own statutory duty to provide a comprehensive library service under the 1964 Libraries Act.

This is a vital component of the education of schoolchildren, which has been neglected by many local authorities and which it is his responsibility to protect. His failure must be rectified. The chancellor has begun to make announcements on a £1.57 billion package to help theatres, the arts, culture and libraries – all in the DCMS domain. Does this include the restoration of public libraries to their 1964 level as required by the 1964 Act? Rishi, we have yet to receive your assurance. It would be salutary to see if and where libraries feature in your package.

My own back-of-the-envelope estimate of the cost of restoring libraries to their former proper state is £14 million, a drop in the ocean compared to the announced package of £1.57 billion. I am sure CILIP can help you make an informed calculation of how much is needed by the libraries.

Then you yourself, Boris, took to criticising the very experts who had been giving sound advice to the public about health issues and controlling further spread of the virus, then supporting Dominic Cummings who broke the rules which he himself had counselled you to impose.

A coalition government presenting solutions to these acknowledged problems is urgently required.