Masterplan, South Acton and Post Office Closures

An interview with Jason Stacey, Leader of Ealing Council

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Jason Stacey, Leader of Ealing Council, doesn't waste any time. While waiting outside Vanilla on Churchfield Road, he took the opportunity to notice rubbish placed on the pavements and made sure someone at Ealing Council knew about and would investigate the rubbish bags placed on the pavement. (More about rubbish later).

He also took the opportunity to take a look at the green kiosk. "I think it should be a case of use it or lose it. It's pretty much just a blob for storage. Money was spent on installing utilities there so that the kiosk could operate as something meaningful." He says the process of making a decision as to the fate of the kiosk is "on-going."

From the kiosk it was only a short mental hop to the market so I asked him what plans he has to make the Market Square more suitable for its purpose. "The Council is looking at re-designing that space to get rid of the wind-tunnel effect. We have to look at the Market in terms of the short and the long-term. This space will be part of the Acton regeneration plan - and Acton desperately needs regeneration. The next few months are set to be quite controversial."

I asked whether this was all part of the London Development Forum consultation, but Mr Stacey said: "No - the plan we are working on at the moment will obviously be taken into consideration by those working on the LDF consultation, but this masterplan is set to be in the public domain by the end of March."

"There are companies (retail businesses) who want to come to Acton. They want to come here to make money. The trouble is, there are currently no sites available for them to occupy and we want to make that possible."

I asked whether the smaller businesses we value in Acton would suffer if another large retailer came to town. "A retailer such as the ones we are talking to acts as an 'anchor' and will mean that small businesses flourish with the increased footfall and people shopping more in Acton and less in other town centres.

"The sites we are looking at developing are the Town Hall, the Priory Centre, the Library and the Swimming Pool. We really want to try to address the segregation between the High Street and Churchfield Road. I'm well aware that the plan, once it comes, is going to spark off a heated debate.

"Let's start with the Town Hall. This building isn't used to capacity. It's a great site for development right at the centre of Acton. And it's a listed building.

"As for the swimming pool: this is a building with lots of history and architecture - it has a listed chimney - but which eats money. It's difficult to maintain and very tricky to restore. it's a contant struggle to keep it up-to-date for health and safety regulations - disabled access and so on. And ditto for the Library which is much-loved but not well-used.

"The Priory Centre is falling apart. I really don't think we can make it work and I believe it needs to be demolished to make way for a new facility."

I asked Mr Stacey whether he knew that statements about pulling down these public facilities would lead to a storm of protest. He said: "I love doing meetings with local groups. This plan is going to form the basis of a formal public consultation. I really want to move things along in Acton and if people don't want change, they won't get it. Starting off a process like this with a consultation often leads to compromise, so that's why we've asked outsiders to come forward with a plan."

So with the 'consultation' word ringing in my ears, I asked about the trees coming down on South Acton recreation ground. "This debate took place 3 years ago. The plan was formulated to take account of the views of the majority of residents who had said they didn't want to send their children to a play area which situated too far away from their home. I would like to give my assurance that there is no overall loss of green space. What is happening now is the implementation of the planning permission given 3 years ago. This is a massive project. There will be disruption and changes to this estate.

"The Council worked really hard to consult people at the time we were drawing up a plan. There are always going to be elements of a plan people don't like. We're not ignoring people, but sometimes these things have to happen for a project to succeed. This project is now a joint vehicle with the private sector and we think that gives it the best chance of being successful."

It was time to turn to dog mess and other gutter topics. Having experienced a not exactly inspiring response from Council Customer Services for myself recently (dog mess in my street took over 2 weeks and 3 phonecalls plus 2 'escalations' to remove - and a letter instructing me to contact the ombudsman if I wasn't satisfied was not the response I had hoped for) I asked what is supposed to happen about dog poop. "Street cleaners should pick up dog poo," said Mr Stacey.

However, the reality is not always like this. "It's down to the individual street cleaners and the people you speak to on the phone in Customer Services. On April 1st there is going to be a reorganisation of Customer Services at Ealing as it's not how we want it to be at the moment."

Mr Stacey told me he regularly rings Customer Services himself to see how they are dealing with calls and knows himself that some operators are better than others.

"We do rely on residents to report problems to us. If they don't, we can't make efforts to improve things. We've found that in areas where we have made things look nice, people respond to that. In our "Showcase Streets", for instance, we find there is community pride. It doesn't work like that in every case, but we have had some good results.

"Where there are issues with rubbish, dog mess etc we do investigate as much as possible, but in order to prosecute people at fault, we need photographic evidence."

On Post Offices threatened with closure, he says: "I'm with residents on this one. I think this issue should be brought up as a Government debate. Royal Mail have made their business case not on usage, but by saying "there's another one nearby which people could use". We need to be regenerating town centres, not closing down businesses. The Council is responding to the plans on April 1st. We're really up against it with consultations, what with Heathrow and Post Offices."  Perhaps in due course there will be something on the Council's website to help and encourage residents to respond to the Post Office's own consultation.

Perhaps it is indeed as Mr Stacey says: "As a council there is nothing we can do to stop Post Offices being closed down." But this seems rather defeatist for someone whose personal handling of various local issues has impressed many.

Indeed, some who have experienced his personal intervention have expressed a wish that Ealing Council could be staffed entirely by Jason Staceys. He is a Council Leader with vision and who will do his level best to make sure things happen. It will be interesting to see what he has in store for Acton over the next few weeks.

Clare Gittins



March 11, 2008