Over 200 people packed into a church hall this evening to hear the Conservative Party Leader David Cameron answer questions directly from an audience of local people, from which Tory party members were actually excluded. Overall the event has to go down as a success, if only for getting 200 folk out of their houses on a freezing cold night to sit in a church. A feat most churches can only dream of! It should also be noted that there were people from various housing associations protesting outside as the first snows of the night came down. Now there's dedication. Highlights for me were:
- Cameron said he was here because this was a seat they needed to win - he was only doing these events he said in target seats and that the people in the hall and in halls in parliamentary seats like it, had the power not only to return a Conservative MP but a Conservative Government. He made no apology for that, he said.
- A reference to Stephen Greenhalgh's claim that his Cabinet could not, in our esteemed Council Leader's opinion, "run a piss up in a brewery", quipping that he'd done several of these 'Cameron Direct' events in breweries, but this hadn't been considered apt for Hammersmith! The venerable Cllr Greenhalgh was nowhere to be seen.
- Cameron said he supported residents of local estates who, so angered by the Council's proposed redevelopment of their homes, have launched a bid to oust the council as a 'rogue landlord'! He said he supported the legislation that allowed them to do so but that he thought the Council had been doing the right thing in trying to improve housing stock
- In fact Cameron, in response to some persistent questioning from a number of residents about various planning decisions made and yet to be made, said that he was "proud" of the Council and highlighted that they had delivered consistent tax cuts in a recession, had achieved successive improvements in residents satisfaction surveys and had been upgraded from a three to a four star council by the Audit Commission. (The same Audit Commission of which Stephen Greenhalgh recently said "“Who cares what some Audit Commission bureaucrat sat in their ivory tower thinks of services in Hammersmith & Fulham? In all my years as council Leader I can count on one hand the number of times I have been asked what rating the Audit Commission gives the council.")
- He went on to state that if anything he wanted stronger local authorities doing more and had plans to introduce more City Mayors
- Cameron also won warm applause for coming down hard on the Heathrow third runway, which he vowed "will not happen under a Conservative government"
Opened by local candidate Shaun Bailey, the event was chaired by Cameron himself, supported only by a glass of water and a couple of backdrops. And in fairness to him he received and dealt with the hard time that he must have been briefed to expect from the various housing association residents that had turned up to challenge the leader over decisions like this. Faced with persistent questioning from the likes of Maxine Bayliss from the 'Hands Off Our Queen Caroline Homes' campaign, who contrasted what she said were the plans to drive people out of their homes with Cameron's talk of 'compassionate conservatism', Cameron went on the attack. He mounted a strong defence of the Council and accused Labour of putting out "black propaganda" (yes he did say that) which had no basis in fact. He said that not only had the Conservatives built twice as many social houses as the previous Labour administration, but he stated repeatedly that he was 'proud' of their record. Then he went further and issued a challenge. Democracy was a wonderful thing he said, we're in an election year - why don't you stand yourselves? Stand against those councillors with whom you disagree!
Challenged by one questioner on what she thought had been a 'wobble' in the Conservative's opposition to the third runway at Heathrow, Cameron cut the end of her question off with a blunt declaration of "Not happening. No. No third runway under a Conservative government. No wobble, not even a wibble." Cue more applause, goodness this man's good, he quite obviously knows it and no prizes for guessing who he would like you to contrast that with.
And just to rub that last point in there were frequent references to, yes you guessed it, Blair! From taking his suit jacket off "excuse me if I do a Tony Blair", through to "I thought Blair was just getting the hang of it before he went". Mr Cameron was on form.
Back into defending the Council again Mr Cameron was challenged by one elderly gentleman who charged Hammersmith Tories with having broken their election promise not to introduce charges to vital services for the most vulnerable. This he said had indeed happened, to the extent that some of the poorest in society were being charged upwards of £12 for services like Meals on Wheels while over a thousand other people had been arbitrarily disqualified from receiving the services altogether. The angry man said that this meant the poorest were paying more for less in Hammersmith and subsidising the much-trumpeted tax cuts that had benefited the more well-off. Cameron was having none of this and flatly disagreed with the man, repeating his pride in the Council and challenging critics to not only criticise but stand in the forthcoming elections.
By now in his stride, punctuating his words with sweeping statesmanlike gestures, Mr Cameron got a little carried away as he emphatically declared: "politicians who say they don't look at the polls..bullshit! of course they do! we all do!" Cue some nervous giggling and glances from the Conservative Head Office wonks standing at the back. But they needn't have worried, the audience loved it, he's certainly looking at the polls in Hammersmith.
Finally, for me at least, I found Cameron's declaration that he wanted more City Mayors quite interesting. In fact my reading of his defence of Hammersmith & Fulham Council's controversial approach to planning decisions was basically "look, at least they're getting things done, and you shouldn't believe everything Labour say. And if you really don't like it why don't you get involved yourself?"
Some people standing outside in the freezing cold did just that, with the event taking place against a backdrop of whistles and a (light) police presence. Those affected by the Council's plans to redevelop housing and those that fear they are next joined forces with disability campaigners to make their criticisms heard. That they did, and they'll no doubt be heard again, but tonight has to be said to have been a success for Cameron, and of course he will hope Shaun Bailey.
I spoke to Shaun just after the meeting and will be posting on that later, together with a fuller interview with both him, Andy Slaughter MP and the Liberal Democrat candidate Merlene Emerson in the coming weeks and months as election day draws nearer, the result of which will shape the future of Shepherd's Bush. Watch this space.
But for now it's late and the snow's coming down. Night night.