Merlene Emerson is the Liberal Democrat candidate hoping to win your vote to represent Shepherd's Bush in Parliament.
Merlene was born in Singapore and came to London in 1979 as a law student. Both her parents are overseas born Chinese, therefore she has inherited a strong sense of colonial history and identity. To that extent she describes feeling a kindred bond with immigrants from other ex-colonies now in the Commonwealth. After graduation from King's College London she obtained a Master of Laws degree at Cambridge University. She qualified as a Solicitor and worked at a leading City law firm in the high adrenalin-fueled world of corporate finance and banking. She returned briefly to work in Singapore and was made partner at a medium sized firm specialising in the areas of joint ventures and cross-border finance. In 1990 she became a CEDR accredited commercial mediator in the UK .
Merlene is the mother of three boys aged 12-18. As she believes passionately that children are our future, she regularly fund-raises for the charity Save the Children. She is currently a Director of the Chinese Welfare Trust and the registered social landlord, Richmond Housing Partnership. Her interview follows:
Why do you want to be the MP for Shepherd’s Bush?
After years in legal practice in the corporate and banking area, I have come to understand the importance of politics, lawmaking and the need to forge a better society. To take the next step of becoming a Parliamentarian is but a natural progression from political activism. It is also the toughest decision that I have had to make in my career!
As for why Shepherd’s Bush (or rather Hammersmith under redrawn boundaries), it is a locality which I have grown to know and love having worked here in the last 10 years. Whilst I enjoy its diversity and dynamism, I am also aware of the problems it has as an inner London borough, ranging from demands for cheaper housing and sustainable development to creating real jobs and opportunities for the next generation.
It would be a huge privilege for me to be able to represent and improve the lives of the people of Hammersmith.
What background knowledge and experience can you use on behalf of the Bush?
Since leaving full time legal practice, I retrained as a commercial mediator (CEDR accredited) and also worked on the management boards of a number of charities including a registered social landlord (Richmond Housing Partnership), an immigration advisory body (Chinese Immigration and Advice Centre) and for community mediation service provider (C.A.L.M , which was based in the borough). More recently I received training in Restorative Justice and will bring with me a restorative approach to problem solving.
I have raised a family of 3 boys now aged 13, 17 and 19. I believe the skills involved in raising a family are not to be taken for granted. We know that young people are our future and that we should be working to provide each and everyone with a good education so that they will be able to reach their full potential.
I have on occasions been asked the relevance of my ethnicity. There are currently 646 MPs of which only 2 are ethnic minority women. Should I be elected, I hope to inspire others from under-represented groups of which there are many in the Bush who may feel disengaged and disempowered. I will also be able to bring to the table a fresh perspective and different world view.
What do you see as the key issues facing Shepherd’s Bush in the next 5 years and what will you do about them?
Recent crime figures released have shown an increase in knife and violent crime in Hammersmith (as opposed to Fulham) as well as increase in homophobic crime and domestic violence. It is not simplistic to say that the wider the disparities between the rich and the poor in society, the more we are likely to witness social ills such as increased crime, delinquency and social unrest.
High on the list are issues relating to growth in the local economy, job opportunities, social cohesion and the need to ensure that new developments will have a positive impact on the local population.
Walking around Shepherds Bush, one may see a bustling community, full of retail shops and restaurants ranging from the high-end such as in the £1.6 billion development that is Westfield, to more modest stall-holders in the Shepherds Bush market. However, the UK economy has been in recession and we will need investment both from the public and private sector to stimulate the local economy.
The good news is there are a number of developments in the pipeline: there is the proposed expansion of Hammersmith Hospital with added GP facilities in White City. More developments are also anticipated on and around the Green and all these should create more jobs opportunities. The important thing is to ensure that training will be available for local residents so that they will be able to compete for these openings.
The Liberal Democrat approach to these issues is to correct the imbalance in the economy through fairer taxes, such as taking the lowest paid out of the tax bracket altogether, prioritise funding for social projects, build more affordable housing and improve public transport and amenities to improve the quality of life for all residents.
There have been a number of very controversial planning decisions in Shepherd’s Bush and the local area recently, such as 282 Goldhawk Road and the ‘Goldhawk Block’. What are your views on those decisions and what do you think could be done differently to avoid a lot of unhappy local people?
Last year I joined the residents in the Brackenbury area in protesting against the redevelopment of the site at Goldhawk Industrial Estate. It was generally felt that the borough should value our commercial tenants and businesses as they bring employment and diversity to the borough. What the borough didn’t need were more luxury apartments especially in the present climate. The planning approval has since been called in by the Secretary of State and we await their decision.
The objections to the development at 282 Goldhawk Road were slightly different. They related more to whether the designs for new housing were sufficiently sympathetic to, and in keeping with, the character of the surrounding area, preservation of the trees and foliage. Also at issue here is the heavy handed way in which the planning meeting was brought forward in time before expiry of the consultation period.
What residents look for in Planners that they stick to their own planning rules, conduct the process in a transparent and honest fashion and respect the views and interests of residents. I wouldn’t think that those were too much to ask for.
What are your views on the Thames Tideway Tunnel and the Council’s campaign against locating the entry to the tunnel within the Borough?
I certainly have grave concerns over the concerted efforts made by the local Council to campaign against the Thames Tideway Tunnel (dubbed the ‘super sewer’) including preventing Thames Water drilling investigatory bore holes in Furnival Gardens (since overturned by the Court at added expense to the tax payers). Mayor Boris Johnson has reiterated his support for the Thames Tideway Tunnel in his Water Strategy but the Council have continued to scaremonger, suggesting that it is not only a threat to our green spaces (including Ravenscourt Park), but may even lead to loss of homes.
There is without doubt a huge cost to all Londoners (not just residents of this borough) as the Tideway tunnel will be as long as the Channel tunnel and is estimated to cost £2.2 billion with no obvious return on capital investment. However the old Victorian sewers are regularly spewing out raw sewage into our beloved Thames and we are in breach of environmental laws.
Instead of a Nimby approach to the problem, the Council needs to work more co-operatively with the Environment Agency and Thames Water to find a viable solution. There could also be more innovative ways of financing the work such as used in other countries (such as the City of Atlanta whose ex-Mayor Shirley Franklin financed the renewal of their sewers through issue of bonds) rather than purely through increases in water rates.
A number of local businesses have closed in the Bush recently, including a local pub on Askew Road this week. What would you do as a local and national figure to regenerate the local economy?
Pubs in UK have suffered from increased excise duties on alcohol, restrictions on smoking and further red tape on pubs and small businesses. Whilst I agree that the smoking ban and disincentives for alcohol consumption are necessary for health reasons I am equally concerned to hear of small businesses folding.
I support the Save the Pub campaign and am in favour of promoting a policy environment that encourages consumers to choose low alcohol drinks and recognise the traditional role of pubs as the place for responsible, social drinking. A more balanced strategy for tackling alcohol abuse would be to work in partnership with the brewing and pub sector to promote social responsibility through support for initiatives like Pubwatch, Crime and Disorder Partnerships, Campaign for Smarter Drinking etc.
Aside from pubs, I would fight for reduced red tape for small shops and businesses, ensure that the Council employs local retail champions to look after the interests and concerns of local shop owners and contribute towards joint marketing efforts. Having spoken to some local shop owners, initiatives by the Council to improve the streetscape, provide clear signages and improved transportation and parking for shoppers could go a long way towards helping their businesses thrive or at least survive.
Do you think there is enough affordable housing in Shepherd’s Bush at the moment, and what would you do on this issue if you were elected?
In a word, ‘no’. According to figures obtained from colleagues in City Hall there were more than 8 492 people on the Council’s waiting list in 2009 and this does not even include householders currently living in over-crowded accommodation. The Tory controlled Council have made clear their vision in the Local Development Framework not to increase affordable housing capacity over the next 15 years. Cllr Greenhalgh claims that they have plans to build more intermediate housing but this is very much a question of definition. Most residents who seek social housing will not qualify for intermediate housing and I believe the Council strategy is to encourage the homeless to relocate out of the borough instead. The redevelopment of old estates and break up of communities combined with residents being priced out the borough may be viewed as a positive step to some. To others, it smacks of gerrymandering.
The Liberal Democrats launched our new housing manifesto this year to bring a quarter of a million empty homes back into use, making homes available for people who need them and creating 65,000 jobs. Locally there are over 3000 vacant homes in the borough that could be brought back into use, which would be a good start.
Do you want to say anything else to readers?
The voter registration and turn out rate is low in this borough. I would urge readers who are eligible to vote to register with the local Council and to vote on polling day. I would also like to remind them that a vote is not a bet on a winner but an expression of support for the candidate and party whose policies and views they agree with. There is a choice in the coming elections beyond the 2 major parties and I hope that men and women of all ages and ethnicities will come out to support me. Please feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out my website at http://merlene.org.uk