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.

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.

The real impact of austerity

Reporting, again, a pothole on Kingsley Street for repair made me realise what austerity actually means for most people: and it’s not that much.

I’d previously reported it at the beginning of June, but three months later the pothole remains, not massive, but still needing repair. It’s a sharp contrast from the level of response I’d previously had; when a pothole could be fixed in a day.

Of course, there are lots of reasons why the comparison may be unfair and the response times different. The example in 2010 was just before the national and local elections when more effort was put in and I was still in the Conservative group (the post was even copied across to the party website) while in 2015 paperwork may have gone awry or it might just not be seen as big enough.

Fundamentally though, the council just doesn’t have as much money as it once did: 2010 is very different to 2015. It cannot afford the resources to respond rapidly or on the same level as it once did.

But is this that big an issue? Possibly not. It brought to mind the concept of hedonic adaptation, that whatever changes—good or bad—impact on a person, they soon return to about the same level of happiness they experienced before.

I wonder if that is what is happening in the UK: things aren’t as good as they were, but expectations are changing. People will occasionally vaguely recall that things used to be better, but doesn’t everyone believe that the past was a golden age?

Is it really the case that, other than those directly affected because of cuts in public services, the only ones that care or notice are people like me with an unhealthy obsession with reporting street defects? If so, historians and sociologists of the future may well find themselves studying how austerity in the twenty-first century led to little more than an increase in mild swearing when people tripped on uneven pavements.

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.