Formula E Kremlinology

I’m just about old enough to vaguely remember pundits who made a living from Kremlinology and divining some meaning from the scraps of information that escaped Red Square. I was reminded of them watching the public utterances from Wandsworth on Formula E.

The first time I recalled it was seeing a council press release and thinking there must be something to the timings (it was published the day after a Conservative group meeting, but that was five days after Formula E and it described an event that took place a week before). Of course, it’s always preferable to trust the cock-up theory and not the conspiracy theory, but it was fun to speculate on the reasons for that specific timing.

Watching further it’s easy to see how pundits can make a living. I found the following couple of quotes interesting. In an interview with Alejandro Agag contains the following:

Formula E has four more years left to run on its contract to use Battersea Park as the venue for the British round, though it does contain an opt-out clause for either party.

Agag expects the venue to remain the same, though it is understood final confirmation will not come until Battersea completes due diligence on last season’s round.

“We’re definitely not executing it [the opt-out clause] and we don’t think they will either,” he said. “We hope they won’t.

“There is a small minority of people who were unhappy and we’re trying to make them happy.”

Meanwhile speculates that Formula E’s desire to change the dates may prove to be an insurmountable problem.

Deputy leader of Wandsworth Council, Jonathan Cook, said: “If we continue (with Formula E) it would have to be the same weekend, as we have so many other events happening in the park, notably the Chase Corporate Challenge, a big running race which goes on immediately afterwards. We wouldn’t be able move that and nor would we want to.

“We have something like 600 events going on in the park throughout the year,” continued Cook. “They are not all on the scale of the Formula E event, but the ePrix has to fit in to the schedule of the other events, many of which have been going on for years.

So, are they quotes revealing that next year is not a certainty? Or quotes that are simply some public posturing ahead of contract negotiations? I don’t know. But what I did find interesting is that it was Formula E who referred to residents, whereas for the council the issue is not public opposition, but the competing demands of the park’s corporate users.

You can give the council your views on Formula E at their consultation site until 6 September, and if you are not a Formula E fan, you might like to visit the Save Battersea Park campaign site.

Contact management

For the first time ever I got a performance report on councillor correspondence.

I had been emailed—I suspected with lots of others—by a business looking for a trading location. It was a fairly simple email to deal with, I replied, unable to immediately think of anywhere suitable but also forwarded their enquiry to the council’s economic development team (they have also followed up with the business).

Today the business emailed again with a thank-you for the response and the fascinating information that they had emailed 227 councillors and had 33 responses (a 14½% response rate). I have no idea who the 227 or the 33 were, and since the time between the two emails was fairly short I’m sure more would have subsequently replied.

But it set me wondering what people think are acceptable standards for councillors responses. Most public (and private) bodies will have targets for responding to enquiries and even as a councillor, rather than dealing with the relevant officers, I have to channel most enquiries through a central team who issue me with a reference number and a target date for a response. This type of behaviour must set an expectation of standards of service from public servants.

I certainly try to acknowledge emails within a few days but actually answering can take longer if I need to investigate something. The zeitgeist suggests councillors do pretty well at responding (considering they would be the only category on the list who don’t have dedicated staff to handle correspondence coming 2% behind MPs is good going). But I can’t help wondering if members of the public would agree 53% is good.

Gastronhome: a great restaurant on Lavender Hill

Gastronhome: a superb addition to Lavender Hill's food offer
Gastronhome: a superb addition to Lavender Hill’s food offer
I finally managed to try Gastronhome, which has been on Lavender Hill for a few months now. I’ve tried for a while to be a bit more active in supporting Lavender Hill’s restaurants (which in practice means when I can, since the family are of an age that means I don’t go out as much as I once did—and hope to again one day).

Several people had recommended it to me, and I was not disappointed. The food is immaculately presented and smelled and tasted delicious, even to a palette like mine which has paid the price of years of abuse. Small and intimate, it has all the hallmarks of a great local restaurant: and a great anchor for a stretch of Lavender Hill that has struggled but could be a real destination.

I’m not a food blogger, so won’t even try to describe the meal, but if you like good restaurants and great food and have even the smallest desire to support Lavender Hill’s struggling local economy then go there. You won’t be disappointed.

Coffee with a copper

Google is frankly useless in providing an image for coffee with a copper
Google is frankly useless in providing an image for coffee with a copper
Battersea sector police (which covers Shaftesbury ward, among many others) are hosting one of their ‘coffee with a copper’ events at McDonald’s on St John’s Road today.

If you want to let them know about your views on local policing or find out what the priority crimes in the area (as well as get crime prevention advice from them) they will be in McDonald’s from noon until 4.00pm.

Community v council leadership

The FT are running a series on how austerity is affecting local councils. I rather enjoyed this article about Oldham, detailing a scheme in which the council helped residents transform a bit of open space, showing that even when times are hard it needn’t all be bad.

Oldham 'hidden' garden“You can’t leave everything to the council as far as keeping places tidy. You’ve got to take responsibility for your own little patch, really,” adds another member of the secret garden team, Dave Owens.

Such sentiments are music to the ears of Jim McMahon, Oldham’s Labour council leader.

The council previously enjoyed the sense that it was “big and important, because we ran the place and it was all ours”, Mr McMahon says. “The measure of success used to be ‘how big’s your budget and how many staff do you employ?’ ”

I think Jim McMahon is one of the country’s better council leaders, in part because he appears to recognise the importance of leading and area and a community rather than just a council.

On being an independent

 I’ve reflected on being an independent councillor quite a lot since the last council meeting. In many ways the council meeting highlighted and formalised the transition, before things had gone on much as before: people would contact me, I’d raise issues with the town hall, nothing really changed.

But the meeting was the point when being independent made a difference. My seat in the chamber moved from the irrelevant margins to a spot I assume was seen by the whip as slightly more marginal. The usual greetings were thin on the ground, although the leader did deign to make strange noises (possibly mocking, possibly intestinal problems) to greet me when I presented the Formula E petition. My votes seemed to attract far more attention than ever before.

I was particularly amused when my vote was the same as the Labour group’s that there were accusations of collusion. There was, perhaps, a misunderstanding of the meaning of independence, but I also assume that if your normality is a group, then you assume everyone’s normality is a group. The truth was we didn’t even coordinate votes as independents.

It did, however, bring home to me that I need to have some clear statement of what I believe and want to do as a councillor. If the main reason I left the majority group was the lack of vision, then it would be a meaningless gesture if I were not to have some clear vision of what I believe the council and I should be doing.

The difficulty is in creating a lucid definition: while the picture is clear in my head, putting it into words is harder. It has concepts of community and society, and perhaps especially enablement. It has degrees of innovation, but without the total control that seems to be required at present. Transparency is important, but perhaps goes further, and has a degree of almost open source government where people have the right and the power to see if they can change things.

I recognise I’m not in much of a position to effect change (although an example from another part of my life has reminded me that when you set challenging goals, you often surprise yourself by exceeding them) but I obviously have total control over how I work as a local councillor and that is a role in which I still know I can make a big difference: the first task is deciding how.

Going to full council. Independently


Wandsworth Council Chamber, from a councillor's view
In my new seat, 2,300 name petitition at the ready
Last night was my first full council meeting as an independent councillor, and in some ways one of the more interesting meetings I’ve attended, because I could attend and make up my own mind rather an having each of my votes pre-determined by the whip. It was remarkably refreshing, as a councillor, to be genuinely undecided and make a decision on my vote on the basis of the debate.

It is also, effectively, the only meeting at which independent councillors have any formal role, since the Conservative group flexed their majority to give us the most marginal of committee places. They even attempted to bury a question from Cllr Grimston about the proposed Richmond merger down the order, although the Mayor, to her credit, insisted it be put higher on the order.

One thing I thought I would try to do is record my votes. As a general rule votes aren’t recorded at the council although you could generally guess which way people voted based on the vote size (there had never been any real examples of people disobeying the party whip). The agenda is available on the council’s website, there were lots of votes taken—many uncontentious—so this isn’t comprehensive, but my thoughts and votes on those that had some debate or interest.

Shared arrangements with Richmond: I voted with Labour on their amendment. Then voted against the paragraph.

I was undecided going into the meeting, but I had reservations. Richmond is very different to Wandsworth, it doesn’t even run some of the big ticket services that Wandsworth runs. Above all the whole things seems to be be drawn up remarkably quickly, an opportunistic merger after Richmond’s talks with Kingston failed. It might be the right thing to do, but that would be luck rather than judgement: a decision of this magnitude needs to be taken with proper consideration, not when Richmond are on the rebound.

Political Groups and Committee Appointments: Mildly interesting. Essentially the Conservatives deciding on which committees the two independent councillors can serve, with the two of us suggesting something different. Unsurprisingly I voted for the independent proposal. Unsurprisingly it was defeated.

Motion on Airport Expansion: This was a rather dull debate of lots of people agreeing with each other. It seemed half the councillors left the chamber for the duration of it. We debate this subject again and again (I assume because it’s a big issue in key Conservative areas!) but I don’t think there’s ever been a different outcome other than unanimous support.

Motion on Private Renting in Wandsworth: I would have had no problem supporting the motion, but equally found myself having not having any problem with voting for the Conservative amendment which was pretty bland, so supported that and the amended motion. This was essentially about supporting private renters in the borough, a rapidly growing tenure and one that is often characterised by insecurity.

Stop Formula E public meeting

Battersea Park in seasonal racing attire
Battersea Park in seasonal racing attire
Battersea Park is almost back to normal, or at least the new normal with a lot more tarmac than there was before but many are still angry about it.

A number of local residents affected are organising a public meeting do discuss possible responses to Formula E this Friday.

The meeting takes place at Ethelburga Community Centre at 60 Worfield Street at 7pm on Friday 10 July.

While the complaints leading up to and during the event were certainly noticed by the council and I wondered if the town hall press office’s silence indicated a shift in opinion was coming (the press office is essentially part of the leader’s office, so a good indication of what’s going on) that silence was broken last Friday.

The timing of the press release is important. It was already out-of-date, detailing an event that was a week old, but was released the the day after the Conservative group meeting (a private meeting of Conservative councillors to which the party organiser and chief activists are also invited) which might imply the decision to try for another four years has been taken.
If the council is to reverse that decision, then public pressure has to be applied now, and not just when the park is disrupted in years to come. Friday’s meeting may be the start of that.

Battersea Park re-opens after Formula E

I took in Battersea Park on my morning run today. It is, again, open to mere mortals although a lot of evidence of Formula E remains. My route took me around the carriage drives, which were more or less fully open, although possibly more through oversight and perhaps not likely to remain that way all day, although there were no barriers, signs or security guards when I was there.

All around the park are collections of the fencing, concrete blocks and various bits and pieces of kit. Carriage Drive South was by far the worst, giving the impression that workers simply dropped everything where they stood yesterday ready to resume work this morning. The terracing and footbridge remain in place there.

Generally the concrete blocks have been removed from the course, although it looks like the barriers have still to be removed from the central road and the area around the junction with Carriage Drive East.

The only bit I couldn’t use was the new dual carriageway part of Carriage Drive West, where the amount of fencing and plant piled up meant I had to run on the tarmac where the boules area used to be.

So, you can get in and seem to be able to access most bits, but I suspect parts of the park will need to be closed off. A lot of freestanding fencing has been installed that I expect will be used to limit movement during work today. If nothing else there will be a lot vehicle movements there today, I spotted lots of forklifts and a couple of idling lorries.

Sadly, I must also report that I didn’t find the overnight tarmac job (which was impressive, when I report a pothole it takes three weeks for an acknowledgement!) on turn one made my run any faster at all.

Lighting Lavender Gardens

Lavender Gardens, between Dorothy Road and Asda Clapham Junction
Lavender Gardens when it’s not dark
After (at least) ten years of trying I think I’ve finally got to the stage that lights will be installed in the path by by the Lavender Gardens playground.

Those using the path today may wonder why it’s an issue, but anyone who has used the path in the dark (and for commuters using it, in winter it’s dark before they’ve even left work) will realise it doesn’t always feel the safest place, despite only being a few yards from the lights of Dorothy Road or Asda.

The issue may largely be a fear of crime, one of the arguments against lighting I always met was that there was no crime or antisocial behaviour associated with the area. That is not necessary a good measure, as many told me—and I have experienced myself—you just don’t bother reporting it when you may have felt intimidated but nothing happened; you don’t think it makes any difference other than wasting everyone’s time.

We had come close to getting lights a few times. Asda had once offered to provide lighting from their buildings, but unfortunately this proved impossible to do from their structures without flood-lighting the back gardens and windows of neighbouring houses. I was hopeful a petition from local residents and users last year might resurrect the issue, but sadly the council returned the issue back to Asda and it was back to square one.

The difficulty was that it was council land, and therefore needed a council solution, but the council wouldn’t fund it.

However, the Wandsworth Local Fund, which allows for payments from developers to be used for local projects provided a possible solution. While a lighting project was just outside the remit, the council was bidding to itself for various projects including lighting and paving that were also just outside the remit so I was hopeful a tiny project like this would be successful. I submitted a bid which was kindly supported by one of my ward colleagues in Shaftesbury and two councillors from the neighbouring Latchmere ward and several months later it has been approved, getting the nod from last night’s council executive meeting.

There’s still lots more to do (I’m already assuming they won’t be done for this winter) and it’s been wrapped up in a bigger and longer term repaving project for Lavender Hill where it might run the risk of being lost so I’ll be checking up on progress regularly and hopefully we’ll soon be able to use a properly lit path.