The view from my lowly seat on the backbenches at Wandsworth Council.

Why I mounted a token rebellion. Twice.

I have been muted in my blogging, feeling it was diplomatic to simply keep my head down. And it probably still is.

My silence, along with the disappearance of a few blog posts and editing of a third, was stimulated by a colleague who pointed out that I made things difficult when I expressed different opinions to others in the group; a point of view I accepted at the time. But increasingly it grated. I’ve always been fond of George Patton’s line: “If everybody’s thinking alike then somebody isn’t thinking.”

The line was with me when I voted against the controlling group for the first time at the last meeting. I wrote in a draft blog post (which remains unpublished) at the time:

The first debate marked the first time I’ve voted against the group in council. Not something I did lightly, and not on a sexy subject: ward budgets for councillors. I suspect many would see it as being a grandiose councillor, but I have long thought there’s a strong argument that ward budgets (which would give councillors a small spending power for projects in their ward) would improve local democracy and accountability. If nothing else I can think of plenty of small projects in Shaftesbury, most recently the suggestion of lighting in the Lavender Gardens path by Asda, that would improve people’s lives with just a small investment. Additionally, I was not comfortable with over-turning the tradition that OSC decisions are respected.

I’m sure it hasn’t made me popular (I’ve already had one call to resign), but I felt it was the right thing to do.

During my re-selection process last year I highlighted my tendency to provide different thinking within the council, something the selection meeting seemed to welcome. Representing other points of view, bring new perspectives and thinking differently got me re-selected. Sullenly thinking what I’m told did not.

And so once again last night I felt it was the right thing to do when it came to supporting Formula E. Or not supporting it, as the case was. It won’t make me popular with colleagues, I’m sure, but I have already rehearsed my views on here, and while I have been quiet since, those views haven’t changed.

It is, of course, irrelevant to the final result. I was just one of three voting against (I was surprised to find Martin Johnson and Malcolm Grimston also taking the same view) with everyone else supporting the proposal. Being in a small minority isn’t necessarily a bad thing although it might be a strong indicator I’m totally wrong. It does, however, indicate that everyone is thinking, just that some are thinking differently. Above all, being in a minority doesn’t change my feeling that Battersea Park is something special and we risk that at our peril.

The council is absolutely right to look at options

The council has undoubtedly been going through a little local difficulty recently. That’s politics, it happens. What has surprised me is the feigned shock and surprise that the council, or more precisely the Conservative group, looks the various options that have been highlighted.

It is well-known the money just isn’t there like it used to be for the public sector. It’s perhaps less widely that councils are bearing the brunt of spending cuts. This may or may not be fair, depending on how you look at it; councils are responsible for a huge share of public spending, but in large part because they are at the frontline and the spending is on the most vulnerable in society. Whatever the rights and wrongs, councils have no choice but to make savings. It’s not just a Wandsworth thing.

Labour may be on a high horse in Wandsworth, but I have no doubt that similar lists exist in local authorities of every colour and hue. If they don’t, I’d question whether that council is doing their job.

I grew up as a heavy user of my local library, so know the benefits they offer. But equally as I have grown I have seen the way access to information has changed. Internet access is not quite universal, but is getting there. The net book agreement is no more, increasing retail competition and increasing book sales. People carry devices that can be used as ereaders with them as a matter of routine.

And I have changed too. My need for access to expensive reference books largely ended when I finished formal education. Commuting and bedtime reading replaced daytime breaks. Increasingly I would purchase—rather than borrow—books and then either keep them or donate them to charity or occasionally to (never) be tracked on sites like bookcrossing. I only used libraries occasionally, the last time was over ten years ago.

I won’t pretend I am representative, but when we’ve looked at libraries before the data show relatively few people use them, but those that do tend to use them heavily. Likewise, the books stocked see a small proportion borrowed frequently, while most languish, unloved, on the shelves for years.

If we were starting a library service from scratch, would we constitute it as we do now? I doubt it. I suspect we might put a much higher emphasis on children’s lending, perhaps look at the need for study areas at some libraries, consider whether internet access is as important as it was ten years ago. I also think we might not see quite the same need for big rooms full of shelves of books for adult lending.

But maybe I’m wrong. I would have absolutely no way of knowing without looking at the data, considering options and weighing those options against the council’s vision, policy objectives and other options.

Exactly the same argument applies to any other council service. Just because a need existed five years ago doesn’t mean it exists today. Likewise the council might have to address new needs today that just weren’t relevant five years ago. Nothing exists in a vacuum, including council budgets. While there might be an argument about policy making transparency, no-one should be getting on a high horse to discover the council considers options, they should be worried if it weren’t.

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Four Thieves licensing application

The newly opened Four Thieves, 51 Lavender Gardens has applied to the council for some changes to its licence, mostly to tidy up—rather than change—the conditions attached to the licence, but also to allow them to open from 8am for breakfast.

The Four Thieves has not been open that long, but to me seems a good replacement for the Battersea Mess, operating as a community pub with some character. Talking to the manager on the opening night he seemed as passionate about the quality of coffee he could serve at breakfast as of the beer he serves in the evening (a passion I can share).

If you want to make a representation you have until 17 October. Representations must relate to the four licensing objectives:

  • The prevention of crime and disorder
  • The prevention of public nuisance
  • Public safety
  • The protection of children from harm

The council’s licensing pages provide more information.

If you wish to make an observation you can do so by writing to:
Head of Licensing
Licensing Section
London Borough of Wandsworth
PO Box 47095
London
SW18 9AQ

or by emailing licensing@wandsworth.gov.uk

The parkrun logo

Wandsworth needs a parkrun

Earlier this week saw the launch of a petition to bring a weekly parkrun to Wandsworth, and having written a blog post disagreeing with the Formula E proposals I might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb and say this is another bit of council policy with which I disagree.

Parkrun is a weekly five kilometre run, measured, timed and run by local volunteers so it is free to enter. There are currently 289 weekly parkrun events around the country.

I did try to help a few people (including those behind the petition) who wanted a parkrun in the borough. Unfortunately I drew the same blank as they did, the council would not allow an event without payment of a licence fee. I did wonder if there might be a creative way around the fee issue, perhaps finding someone who could fund it. Unfortunately parkrun themselves were opposed to this, a similar situation happens elsewhere and is often cited to them as a precedent. Their fear (a reasonable one, based on experience) is that aside from the sustainability of a parkrun that needs annual funding, is that extending the precedent reduces the chances of new parkruns being established and could jeopardise those already in place.

My intervention, therefore, only resulted in the continuation of a stalemate. Both sides were probably better informed, but it was a stalemate nonetheless.

The petition, then, can be seen as a last attempt to persuade the council of the demand for an event in the borough. Yet even without that I think there are compelling reasons for a parkrun.

You might think parkrun is something of an exclusive event, a freebie for runners who, frankly, don’t really need an organised run to go out and do a 5k. In fact parkrun is attractive to non-runners and helps increase overall levels of activity, a study in the Journal of Public Health found the majority of registrants were not regular runners, a third were overweight or obese and that it attracts more people from older age groups who, generally, are less active. The study also found participants reported positive outcomes to their physical and mental health, weight loss and sense of community.

I know the council needs to maximise revenue and minimise its expenditure. As a councillor it’s impossible to avoid the simple fact that there isn’t as much money as there was. I’m also fully aware that one of Wandsworth’s strongest features is the rigour it brings to financial management: it watches every penny.

But sometimes that means the balance sheet wins because it’s hard to put a price tag on common sense. I think this is one of those occasions. The council may forgo a £600 or so a year in licensing fees (though I’m not aware of any other event like parkrun who would pay it), but the benefits to the wider community far outweigh £600.

I’d love to see a parkrun in Wandsworth. If you’re a Wandsworth resident (the organisers are keen to keep the signatures local, they’ve turned down celebrity endorsements to do that) please consider signing too.

The finish of the Beijing Formula E race

Why I was (repeatedly) wrong on Formula E in Battersea Park

Tonight the Community Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee will approve plans to agree, in principle, to running a Formula E race in Battersea Park starting the process of formal approval at full council and planning consent next year.

It’s a process I’ve been watching for a while. Indeed, when I first heard of it over a year ago I was a supporter of exploring the idea. Wiser colleagues were not, sensing the disruption and risk to the park was too much; but I felt the initial offer seemed suspiciously ’round’ (if I recall the Formula E proposal was £250,000 with four weeks of setting up and dismantling). Perhaps, I conjectured, if pushed they may offer more or be able to get in and out more quickly and if that was the case, we might get a stage at which both we and the Friends of Battersea Park think the benefits outweigh the inconvenience.

I’ve obviously not been a witness to the developments since May but it would seem there has been movement, I don’t know if it’s more cash, less set-up time or a combination of both, but we’re now on the brink of giving the go-ahead to Formula E.

But in that time my opinions have changed too.

I don’t know whether I’m a heavy user of the park. I am in and out of there a lot. Almost all my running incorporates Battersea Park in some way, I take the kids to the playground, they go to a sports club there, we are semi-regular attenders of the Pump House’s Sunday Socials, but while I may average more than a visit a day, I am sure there are those for whom the park is an integral part of their life, just as there are some for whom it is an irregular oasis of calm in an inner city.

But more and more I’ve become concerned that an event like this is a dangerous erosion of what makes the park special.

I know there is a need to raise revenue. And I know the park already does that. But it does it well, the park can almost hide events. You might have visited the park the other week and spent a day there without knowing a cinema screen was going up. You need never visit or use any of the concessions or pay to enter the zoo or use the Millennium Arena and sports facilities. There can be exhibitions or big parties taking place at the British Genius site, but other park users may never know.

Formula E strikes me as different. It’s hard to see how it can take place without total closure of the park to the ordinary public during a key period of (hopefully) good weather in June. It’s hard to see how you can set-up and take down all the facilities of a race track without a lengthy period of disruption. And while the council is proud that a 5am test run didn’t create any complaints I suspect the real disruption would be the 40,000 visitors, then the comings and going of crew, TV, support, and everything else associated with a race. That is before you consider the risk to the park’s environment and heritage.

So having been one of those who said we should look at it I now find myself thinking we shouldn’t look at it. But seem to be in a minority. The news has been out for a while, Battersea Park being touted as the preferred track for at least a year in various places (indeed, Googling it recently I discovered that they’d even said the council were keeping it secret until the elections, which shows how much it wasn’t being kept secret) but watching reaction it seems lots of people are keen. Even the Friends of Battersea Park seem to be, at least, neutral to the prospect.

I have, perhaps, lost sight of the bigger picture. Perhaps if Formula E offered me loads of cash to invest in Lavender Hill so they could race on it I’d be much keener (and, practically speaking, can see how roads would be much more suited than a park). But I can’t help coming back to the feeling that Battersea Park is something special. It’s part of what make Battersea such a wonderful part of London.

Perhaps everything does have a price. But if it does, you need to be absolutely sure you know what that price is, because once it’s been sold once, it simply becomes a bit of rental land. When that happens a lot of what makes it so very special will be lost forever; I can’t imagine a price tag worth that.

Lavender Grocers and Best One licensing reviews

Shaftesbury has become something of a hot-bed of licensing activity recently. While the ongoing issues with Thirsty Camel seem to be over (the licensing sub-committee on 5 August granted the licence after the applicant assured them he had no personal or business relationship with the Kapoors, the previous managers of the business), two other licensed premises in the ward are having their licences reviews.

The first is Best One on Eversleigh Road. Trading Standard have requested the review following the sale of products to underage customers in test purchases. In February 2013 a test purchase resulted in the sale of tobacco to a 15-year old girl and the business owner was cautioned. This May a subsequent test purchase took place when another 15-year old girl was able to buy alcohol. Trading Standards are requesting a three month suspension of the licence in this case.

Lavender Grocers on Lavender Hill are the subject of the other review. In this case a 15-year old girl (I have no idea if this is the same 15-year old, it seems like a rather Victorian approach to child labour if it is the same girl all the time) was able to buy tobacco. Trading Standards are requesting conditions be added to the licence in order to prevent a recurrence.

As ever, if you wish to make observations on either of these reviews they must be made by 1 September 2014 and they must relate to the four licensing objectives:

  • The prevention of crime and disorder
  • The prevention of public nuisance
  • Public safety
  • The protection of children from harm

The council’s licensing pages provide more information.

If you wish to make an observation you can do so by writing to:
Head of Licensing
Licensing Section
London Borough of Wandsworth
PO Box 47095
London
SW18 9AQ

or by emailing licensing@wandsworth.gov.uk.

Lavender Hill road works

If you are travelling on Lavender Hill for the next few evenings you might want to allow a few extra minutes for road works taking place.

The works are overnight, to minimise disruption, but affect a significant part of the hill: between Lavender Walk (basically the library) and Town Hall Road (next to Battersea Arts Centre). Four way traffic signals will be in place while resurfacing work takes place, currently scheduled from tonight until Friday morning.

Lavender Gardens, between Dorothy Road and Asda Clapham Junction

Lavender Gardens clean-up

If you use the Lavender Gardens playground, the small park between Asda and Dorothy Road, I hope that you’ve noticed it’s been looking a bit cleaner.

It has been a lesson for me that familiarity might not breed contempt, but it certainly breeds complacency. I’m a fairly regular user of the park with my children, but it was only after a complaint from a resident—and a bit of pushing—that the park got a thorough clean and I realised that I’d just got used to a fairly tatty park. Frankly, I don’t think the contractors had been quite as thorough as they should. (I noticed a discarded paper from the World Cup there some two weeks after the tournament had finished.)

In the contractor’s defence, I suspect it might have just been familiarity on their part. I’m sure we’ve all been aware of problems and little defects that we overlook simply because we see them everyday at home, work or on the street.

A further result of the complaint has been that the recent resurfacing was found not to be of a high enough standard, so the path—used by so many as a short-cut—will be re-laid soon.

I’m going to keep a closer eye on the park, but if you spot any problems there (or anywhere else in the ward) let me know so I can get them fixed.

Big Society Fund opens for bids again

Wandsworth’s Big Society Fund opens for another round of bids (although at the time of writing the web page doesn’t reflect this) on Monday.

The Big Society Fund exists to give small grants to smaller community based projects, so does not have hugely restrictive requirements on being a formally constituted body or requiring years of accounts in an overly formal bidding process. The sums are not huge, the biggest grant is £5,000, but are the sorts of money that make a difference to a grassroots project.

The types of organisations that can bid include residents’ associations, sports clubs or parent and teacher associations. Bids over £1,000 are usually expected so be able to show some other form of contribution, either monetary or in time, to match any council grant.

Bids need the support of a Wandsworth councillor so if you are in the area, or perhaps have a project with which I have a particular affinity, I’d be more than happy to consider giving my backing.

The council’s website has all the forms or feel free to contact me if I can help.

More pro-Milibandism

Ed Miliband is getting lots of stick for his speech, suggesting he’s damning photo ops despite being a culprit. Having read his speech I don’t think that’s what he is doing at all, and even if he were, would he ever have got to his position were he not guilty of an occasional photo opportunity?

Welcoming the 'Welcome to Battersea sign'
Balloons + sign = photo op
They pervade every level of politics. Even in local government, where I’ve found myself having my photo taken with a man in a nappy to posing with balloons and a sign (probably my last photo op ever, since I won’t be in any council ones any more and doubt I’ll be allowed in any party ones either).

He accepts that photo op and soundbite are pervasive. But also argue that there should be more to politics.

The middle of his speech contains the following passage:

so often the terms of trade of politics—the way it is discussed and rated— has become about the manufactured, the polished, the presentational.

Politics is played out as showbiz, a game, who is up and who is down.

Rather than the best chance a lot of people have to change their lives.

That last line, for me, is the killer. Do I think Ed Miliband has the right ideas or politics? No, not really. But do I agree with him on that point? Yes, absolutely.

The silly focus on how photogenic he is (or isn’t), doesn’t belittle him, it belittles politics, which should be about a battle of ideas and how they can be practically applied to improve people’s lives.

I’ve been guilty, I know, of finding fun in Miliband photos. But equally I’ve always believed that politics should be better, and more about ideas. I highlighted the speech by Cllr Jones at the last council meeting which continues to intrigue me, because—I think—it stuck out as a speech that was ultimately about how politics can affect people’s lives and, ultimately, invited disagreement and argument. Too often political speeches seem to be written as if they are the only logical viewpoint, negating the possibility that perfectly sensible people can have opposing opinions.

But politics, those opposing opinions, are why people sit in council chambers or in Parliament. It would be interesting to see if, when the current trolling of Ed Miliband with his past photo ops ends, we might be able to move on and discuss political ideas. I’m confident the nation is intelligent enough, if the media and politicians can rise to that level.