Why parkrun is good for Tooting and Wandsworth

Parkrun finally came to Tooting this morning with a few hundred runners gathering for a collective trot around a bit of Tooting Common.

I can’t remember how long ago it was that I first spoke to Andy Bullock, the man behind today’s event, nor how many obstacles he has had to overcome in getting to today. In some ways though, it doesn’t matter. There is finally a parkrun in Wandsworth.

In 2014 I wrote why I felt Wandsworth would benefit from a parkrun:

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.

And anyone there today would have seen that.

I tucked myself in at the back of the crowd—a habit I’ve adopted to stop me starting off too quickly—and overheard an older woman approach one of the parkrun volunteers. “Are you the tail-runner?” she asked before explaining, almost apologetically, “you’ll be seeing a lot of me, I’ve just started running and I’m not very fit.”

But she was welcomed. When she passed the stewarding points the applause and encouragement that greeted her were every bit as enthusiastic as they were for every runner that passed before. What was important was not her speed or her stamina, but that she was there, that she was part of Tooting parkrun.

One of the objections the council made to me when I was lobbying for a parkrun was that, because it made money from sponsorship to cover the central administration, it was a business and should have to pay (ironically the council has now created a business, Enable LC, to run its parks). Anyone there today would see that it isn’t a business, it’s a community. And a community that will only benefit the borough.


Featured image from @wandsworthbecca’s coverage of the event.

Thinking of the children

“Won’t somebody think of the children?” sums up a large part of the Conservative side of the debate at last night’s council meeting. The reason we should think of them was hidden away in a report, published late, on restructuring for the merger with Richmond. The relevant section, titled Modifications to senior management arrangements gets off to an anodyne start:

As a consequence of recently identified weaknesses in Wandsworth children’s services, the report also proposes some interim modifications to the provisionally agreed senior management arrangements, to take immediate effect in order to provide a heightened level of managerial oversight.

The cost of these changes comes to over £500,000, adding posts so the existing managers can focus on the areas of weakness.

When discussed at a committee meeting this it was revealed the ‘weaknesses’ were identified by an Ofsted inspection of the council’s children looked after functions and the report, not yet published, is likely to criticise the council. What’s more, time after time tonight we were told no-one has actually read the Ofsted report—which is embargoed—but these changes are based on the verbal feedback from the inspectors.

It might well be that spending £500,000 on senior staff is the best way to address the weaknesses. It might actually be that we should spend £1,000,000. Or that we could address them all spending £200,000 elsewhere. But not having seen the report, nor having had details of the report shared, it’s impossible to know.

The Conservative argument was that while it was far too hasty to suggest any criticism of the leadership, it was not too hasty to suggest spending half a million. Indeed, anything else would be talking down the service and making the problems worse rather than fixing them. We should, instead, trust the recommendations of people who haven’t read the report to fix problems we aren’t told about and vote an extra £500,000.

I’ll confess that even though all my logic was telling me I just couldn’t vote to spend £500,000 without knowing why it was hard. Not only is the emotional call to think of the children is hard to resist, but I also have a huge amount of respect for Kathy Tracey, the children’s lead, who is by far the most able member of the council’s Leader’s group. Going beyond that I might criticise the council’s lack of vision, but I can’t deny historically it has a great track record for strong administrative management and competence on the basics.

But this issue seems to me a symptom of the constant restructuring a process that grinds down staff and performance, and now services are suffering as a result.

Once upon a time I think Wandsworth could be trusted to get on and do the right thing, last night I realised that it doesn’t deserve that level of trust any more. There are valid concerns that the council isn’t managing change well; the council and councillors need to understand why.

Formula E: Residents speak, the council ignores them

Imagine having organised the largest campaign in recent (and no-so-recent) memory in Wandsworth and, at the end, you attend the relevant council committee: the opportunity for you to have your say. You’ve filled the public gallery, the overspill room is standing room only and, for the first time ever, the public are filling the council chamber to listen to a council meeting. And after the first resident deputation what is the Tory approach?

To accuse the organisers of lying and inflating their support.

I was ashamed by association. Rather than discuss the issues or concerns the first instinct of the majority group on the council was to attack the people.

It got a bit better as the evening progressed, but the writing was already on the wall. There were five excellent deputations, representing local campaigners, residents, the Friends of Battersea Park and the Battersea Society. I also had my say.

When it came to Formula E’s supporters Cllr Cook maintained a Trappist silence throughout the meeting, as did most of the Conservative side. The managing director and team from Enable, the company with the contract to manage Wandsworth’s parks did most of the talking. The council’s finance director, unable to talk about amounts, gave some hypotheticals, if the income was this much, we could pay this many social workers, if this much we could re-surface this many roads… or if it was £350,000 we could pay off one senior officer I saw one person mischievously tweet.

But it was all largely irrelevant. Despite one hint it would be a free vote (the hinter being one of those who stayed silent throughout) the decision had been made behind closed doors long before it got to committee. The Conservatives followed the whip and voted as a block, recommending renewal by seven votes to four.

I know a few of those voting for Formula E had reservations, and one contacted me afterwards to explain their position: “but what can you do?” They asked.

“Well,” I thought, “you could vote against, I did.”

How safe was Battersea Park?

One issue that has troubled me enormously during the build-up to the council’s Formula E decision has been the attitude towards health and safety and risk assessment. Allegations that the construction phase was not done safely have never gone away, and there are plenty of pictures floating around that strongly suggest best practice was not always followed.

In August someone told me they had asked the council about the risk assessments and but was told they were destroyed. This, I thought, had to be a misunderstanding. Aside from not being the sort of document you destroy immediately (I know, for example, that in my day job risk assessments are retained indefinitely, even if they are superseded or become irrelevant) it just didn’t seem much like the council. When I followed up with the council I expected to be able to quickly correct the complainant. In fact I found myself in for months of repeatedly being told the council had absolutely no responsibility for the safety of residents in Battersea Park when it came to Formula E.

Initially I intended to detail the exchanges I had with council officers in trying to get to the bottom of this, but when looking through the email chains decided that it really didn’t make good reading. A simple query that I raised in August took nearly ten weeks to reach its conclusion, the period being filled with lengthy delays for responses from the council, suggestions that other parts of the council were responsible and answers that didn’t really address the questions raised. Having been on the other side of the fence I know there is occasionally a perverse pride taken in not actually answering questions, the Yes, Minister approach. Clearly I’m no longer in a position to appreciate it but the upshot is that I’m still left with a number of questions which remain unanswered.

After ten weeks of trying, I realised I would never get an answer that satisfied me.

I was repeatedly told that risk assessment was entirely Formula E’s responsibility, because, were the council to undertake such assessments, or to approve them in any way, it “potentially renders the council responsible”.

I was, however, assured the council required Formula E to undertake risk assessments as part of the terms and conditions. I did ask if I could see these terms and conditions, but that request was refused because it was “commercially sensitive.” I could not see the risk assessments themselves. The council had, indeed, deleted them and Formula E, for their part, declined to share them again because they felt reinstating the Dropbox link was “an unnecessary administrative burden”.

In summary, the council requires risk assessments, but does not approve them (that being the case, does it even assess their adequacy?) and takes no responsibility for what happened in the park since they merely handed over the park as and when construction started.

There are lots of other issues that were never resolved to my satisfaction. How the council handled potential conflicts of interest when they appeared to use the same health and safety consultants as Formula E had during their planning, for example, was never really addressed nor was a request for details of changes made at the request of the council.

Fundamentally, though, I struggle to understand how the council can so fully hand over its responsibility for the safety of the public. It is for others, be they members of the public or members of the council committee, to decide if that is an appropriate approach.

Shaftesbury Let’s Talk: What did the public say?

The every-two-years-or-so Let’s Talk meeting took place at Shaftesbury Park school on Wednesday. About 35 residents attended to hear councillors and raise issues affecting the Shaftesbury ward. The three ward councillors were joined by Rex Osborn, leader of the local Labour party, and by Paul Ellis, Cabinet Member for Housing, who was standing in for the council leader (which seemed a peculiar slight to Jonathan Cook, who is the actual deputy leader and chaired the last meeting).

While I always wonder about the relevance of public meetings in the 21st century (it was 35 residents from a ward population of over 10,000, although it’s a fairly open secret it’s more a justification to fund a leaflet to every household) they do offer an interesting evening and are a great way of finding out if my sense of the public issues actually match public issues.

So what were the issues? Well, in something like the order raised.

Pavements… and trees
The poor state of the pavements were raised and particularly the effect of tree roots on them. This expanded into a wider discussion on the impact of trees generally, those that are seen as overgrown and the impact they have during autumn.

Fly tipping
There was lengthy discussion about a number of fly tipping hotspots in the ward. The council tends to be quite good at removing fly tips when it knows about them. And that is the key, if fly tips aren’t reported, they may as well not exist as far as the council is concerned. You can report fly tips on the council’s website.

Neglecting the Shaftesbury Park Estate
One person expressed the opinion, and several agreed, that the council neglected, and had perhaps even abandoned, the Shaftesbury Park Estate. I don’t think that’s true at all, but equally I can understand why the perception has formed. The roads, for example, seem noticeably worse than elsewhere, and even though I have been through a phase of assiduously reporting faults it doesn’t seem to make much difference.

However, I think that is far more a factor of the age of the surfacing than any policy of neglect and I’ll certainly continue to highlight those places where I see (or am told about) issues.

Waste collection
There were several complaints associated with waste collection, including concerns about the timing of street cleans in relationship to rubbish collection, the provision of recycling facilities and the collection process itself.

Antisocial behaviour
A couple of antisocial behaviour hotspots were raised: action is being taken at one already, while the other perhaps needs a bit of attention. The sad fact is that such ASB hotspots tend to be recurrent because they have features that make them attractive, perhaps being comfortable and convenient places to loiter, being out of areas of natural surveillance and therefore having a degree of privacy.

Planning
The council’s planning policy, and specifically a concern that it didn’t do enough to protect special places like the Shaftesbury Park Estate, sparked some discussion, partly on extensions and then on the protection of frontages.

Formula E
One resident raised Formula E. I won’t go into length on this because I have written enough about it already. I was, however, pleased to see that most (if not all) those pleasant appeared to share the residents opposition to holding the event in Battersea Park.

I did find it an interesting and useful meeting, and was pleased to be able to chat with several residents afterwards to pick up some more issues and get contact details so I can follow up on some of those raised. However, if you have something you want to bring up, you don’t need to wait two years for another meeting, just get in touch.

Shaftesbury Ward Let’s Talk meeting tomorrow

The next of the council’s regular Let’s Talk meetings takes place in Shaftesbury Ward tomorrow night.

The meeting, at which the three ward councillors and council officers are present, takes place tomorrow (Wednesday 11 November) from 7.30pm at Shaftesbury Park School on Ashbury Road.

It’s an opportunity to find out what the council is doing in the ward (and since they take place every two years or so, it’s probably a better way to keep up to date than this blog) and to raise issues that you think should be considered or investigated. There’s no need to pre-book, just turn up.

The council produced leaflet has more details.

An Italian for Big Fat Panda?

Two planning applications have been made for 281 Lavender Hill, currently Big Fat Panda.

Earlier in the year the Grand Union pub chain had made a very unpopular pair of planning and licensing applications which met with robust opposition from local residents. I was pleased to be able to help them by voicing my opposition at the licensing committee meeting.

The new planning applications have been made by Valentina, an Italian restaurant and deli chain. The initial reaction I’ve had from residents has been positive, and I can see how it would be a welcome addition to Lavender Hill in a way that Grand Union most definitely was not. The application still has provision for use of the outside area so there is the risk of some local disturbance, but the proposed opening hours only extend to 11pm which is a far cry from the late night revelry there might have been.

The risk after the rejection of Grand Union was a succession of inappropriate applications and one finally getting through. This, however, might be an almost ideal outcome for those who did such a great job in opposing Grand Union.

You can comment on the applications on the council’s planning portal, applications 2015/5107 and 2015/5108.

Council delays Formula E decision

The council has withdrawn the intended paper on the future of Formula E in Battersea Park. The issue was originally to be discussed at the Community Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee on 22 September. However, the council has now withdrawn item from the agenda citing the need to properly analyse and consider the responses to the consultation.

I understand that the council has received around 3,000 comments from various sources. I have no idea how they balance between those supportive and those opposed to Formula E but this is a significant level of response for a council consultation and it doesn’t seem all that unlikely they were unable to complete a proper analysis in time for the committee.

I know many people were planning to attend the meeting to watch from the public gallery, and that many more were interested in the outcome. The decision will still have to be made at some stage. The question is when that will be. The next scheduled committee is 24 November, but this will be after the date by which the option to exercise a break clause will have passed.

Since it’s possible the decision may be referred to full council it does raise some interesting timing questions. We’re still not quite at the finish line for Formula E in Battersea Park.

Lavender Hill Farmers Market starts tomorrow

School poster ONE jpegShaftesbury Park School on Ashbury Road hosts the first Lavender Hill Farmers Market tomorrow.

I’m rather pleased to see it coming to the area. Wearing my pro-Lavender Hill hat, every little helps when it comes to increasing footfall in the area (even if it is a few minutes walk from Lavender Hill itself). But as a school governor at Shaftesbury Park it’s great to see the school being used and opening itself up outside of the normal school week.

Additionally the relationship has potential benefits for the school beyond merely, and I know the organisers have been talking with the school and the PTA about how the school can be involved.

The market is open from 10am until 2pm, and will be returning every week.

Why Wandsworth should make a token effort in the refugee crisis

The campaign for Wandsworth to accept ten refugees seems woefully inadequate in the light of the scale of the refugee crisis. Even despite that, there are plenty who are arguing against it both locally and nationally, saying we should look after our own people first, that the country is already full or that those finding their way to our shores are motivated by economics not personal safety.

There might be some merit to that first argument. I long ago lost count of the number of people who had approached me as a councillor about their housing application I found myself telling that, however difficult their circumstances, they would have a long wait until they were likely to be at the top of the list.

Equally, the council can argue that it has a tried and tested procedure for assessing the merits of housing applications and that circumventing that would create a dangerous precedent and be unfair to those who were previously on the list. In any case, such a small number is tokenism given the scale of the issue.

Sometimes, though, a symbolic gesture is exactly what is needed. The council may have efficient bureaucratic processes, but it can also show leadership: a gesture, perhaps, but also a strong signal that we don’t simply turn our backs when we can help. That as a borough and a country we are not selfish and we are not full. And that when it really matters we can rise above parochial self-interest and rule-bound processes that so often rail-road our decision-making; to prove that we are not just human, we are also humane.