Council meetings and community leadership

I've long seen council meetings as pointless.

When I was part of majority group and on the executive I shared the view with most colleagues that council meetings were necessary formalities: set-pieces we had to put on to show democracy being served knowing that the decisions had all been taken in the Leader's office, before being ratified in a private group meeting and then whipped through a public committee meeting.

Now I'm just an independent councillor I think the same way. I just don't like it anywhere as much as before.

Having gone down to four meetings a year makes them even less relevant, too infrequent to be meaningfully effective at anything. But, occasionally, timings help. And so it was at this week's meeting when almost all the evening was given over to a debate surrounding the EU referendum and the Brexit decision.

The role of local government may seem unconnected with our membership of the EU, but like every other part of the country Wandsworth benefits from EU funding. Perhaps more importantly local government has its role in providing community leadership and after the worrying increase in hate crime since the referendum I'm pleased the opportunity was there last night.

The basis of the evening was a motion moved by the Conservative and Labour party leaders. Perhaps inevitably for a bipartisan motion it became something of a mishmash to satisfy everyone, but it contained what I think were key clauses to:

ensure that all voices and points of view are listened to, and in particular that all Wandsworth residents and employees continue to enjoy the respectful, inclusive and cosmopolitan quality of life which makes this such an attractive part of inner London;

and to

condemn racist language and behaviour in all its forms.

I was particularly pleased to see those elements. Following the referendum the failure of the council and its leadership to use its voice to condemn the increase in hate crime (and Wandsworth has not been immune from this) concerned me.

But while a bit late (and taking a bit of prompting from the independent's statement and motion) it became an evening of optimism and unity. While I suspect from many of the majority group speeches that their membership, from top to bottom, is far from representative of the 75% remain vote in Wandsworth, there was a unanimity among councillors to make the most of the situation and most importantly to condemn hate crime and racism.

There were two attempts to amend the motion, both from the Labour side. One sought to strengthen the commitment to fight hate crime by declaring Wandsworth a zero-tolerance zone and working with other agencies, like the police, use their combined resources to identify and tackle hate crime. The Conservative group defeated this.

The other was related to the refugee crisis, and sought to commit the council to signing up the government commitment and house 10 Syrian families. Again, the Conservative group voted against this. However, one Conservative councillor tweeted afterwards that it was because they felt it should be more than ten families. I can only assume that position had been agreed at the Conservative group meeting, so have written to the council leader asking for clarification to see exactly what number they are committing to accept.

There was one more motion, it came at the end of the night, despite being the first submitted and, arguably, the one that started it all. The motion was moved by Malcolm Grimston and me to allow the council to make a statement following the Brexit vote. Bizarrely the Conservatives amended this to something that meant almost exactly the same.

No-one could explain why, the closest we got to an answer was from Cllr Cook, who told Malcolm Grimston the amendment meant the same thing, but was different. In a rare night of a council meeting showing leadership, I suppose it had to have a little bit of what usually passes for leadership in Wandsworth too.

In the EU or not, we support Wandsworth’s diversity

However much I may be disappointed in the referendum result, it is now time to move on and make sure the country and the borough are as successful as it can be. It is, therefore, saddening to see reports of racist incidents that appear to be related to the referendum result.

While I do not believe for a second the result has somehow created racism, it may well have emboldened those who hold those racist views.

We should be unequivocal in saying that such views are as reprehensible now as they were before the votes had been counted.

As independent councillors Malcolm Grimston and I circulated the following statement among fellow councillors at the weekend inviting them all to endorse it:

As councillors we are all proud of Wandsworth’s diversity and cohesion. We are confident Wandsworth will remain a great place to live for everyone. However, we are aware that there have been examples across the country of people interpreting the vote to leave the European Union as an excuse for racism and other divisive behaviour, not just aimed at our good friends from the European Union.

We want to stress that we fully support the comments of Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, and our three local MPs, Jane Ellison, Justine Greening and Rosena Allin-Khan: to everyone who has chosen to make Wandsworth their home wherever they may hail from we reiterate you remain warmly welcome in the Brighter Borough.

Wandsworth is all the stronger for its diversity and the different contributions made by all our residents and we as Councillors will do everything we can to make sure that you continue to enjoy the inclusive and peaceful life which characterises our Borough

The Labour Group on Wandsworth have endorsed the statement and I will update this post as others join.

Update: In response council leader Ravi Govindia has put out his own statement part of which touches on this issue alongside broader issues like Nine Elms and low council tax.

Cllr Marie Hanson (Con) has retweeted the initial statement.

Why I’m voting remain tomorrow

Ever since I’ve been politically aware I’ve been a eurosceptic. If I’m honest, I don’t know why. There were probably childish elements, as a young Conservative (though not, I stress, a Young Conservative) it was probably as much feeling a need to fit in at a time euroscepticism was de rigueur than any intellectual concerns about the EU project.

That euroscepticism remained with me for years. Again, possibly a consequence of the company I kept: you tend to be an average of the people with whom you spend most time and in any case the possibility of Brexit was only ever theoretical.

Somewhere though, something has changed and during the campaign I have never seriously considered voting anything but remain. I am instinctively ‘in’ just as I would have been instinctively ‘out’ only a few years ago.

The referendum will never be considered British democracy’s finest hour whatever the result. From its conception to the final debates it has been defined more by the negative. This was perhaps inevitable when the referendum had no real purpose other than helping a party leader keep his party together.

That’s a shame, because the referendum should inherently be about positive, but competing, visions: whether we’d be more successful as a part of Europe or as an independent nation outside. Instead the campaign’s negative tone has created a corrosive political environment which will continue to take its toll on democracy, and society, for years to come.

Even knowing that, when I try to rationalise my decision I find I’m drawn to the negatives: put off by Boris Johnson’s opportunism, offended by what might be racist undertones, or just Nigel Farage being Nigel Farage.

Trying to look at things more objectively, I can start to feel more positive about ‘remain’. I believe my family would be financially worse off out of Europe. Likewise, I am concerned that Brexit puts many workers’ rights we take for granted at risk. And while the leave campaign highlights all the trade agreements we could enter if we left the EU, it seems a trifle bizarre to leave the one we are already in with 27 other nations.

But these are hypothetical. I know and respect many people who would take the opposite view, that we’d be better off out. It’s impossible to prove one way or the other.

Ultimately, I wonder if it’s just a question of faith. Do I just believe we are better off in than out?

I always take my children with me to vote. While I know, logically, my single vote makes no difference, I feel it’s important they grow up seeing democracy up close. Because while we might just cast one vote, it represents a core truth that we are part of something much bigger and much more important.

The EU may be far from perfect (our own democratic system is far from perfect too, that’s the way these things are), and sometimes it means we have to accept things we might not like. That’s part of life for nation states as much as it is for people. And like anything in life, you don’t get better by walking away from challenges.

I want my children to continue growing up in a world that’s increasingly connected, not a country that’s isolated; a world where they see other nations as friends and neighbours, not a country that just sees foreigners we should fear or suspect; in a world where their potential is limited by their imagination, not by the the arbitrary borders of a nation state.

I’m voting to remain in the EU not just because I know it isn’t just me that will be better off in, my children are better off in.

Farewell, Formula E

I was not party to the now-withdrawn legal action brought by the Battersea Park Action Group to stop Formula E racing so can only speculate on the full contents of the agreement. (In doing so I can’t help but note the irony that one of the big complaints about the council’s handling of Formula E has been the use of ‘confidentiality’ as an excuse not to release details.)

However, it’s hard not to look on this as a major victory for the campaigners.

The public statement in itself is a pretty big win. The park will be reinstated to its previous condition and Formula E will pay costs. In return the protesters will not campaign against the 2016 event. Separately, but with interesting timing, both Formula E and the council announce that this will be Formula E’s last hurrah in Battersea Park.

How much difference the campaign made is anyone’s guess. It may well be that Formula E was looking to go elsewhere, many Formula E fans expressing disappointment appended the observation that Battersea Park was a poor venue. But even if that was the case, it’s clear that opposition to the event was getting far more attention from Formula E than it ever did in the council chamber.

Sometimes though, you don’t need to know the precise cause and effect, you can just celebrate.

I’m not even that sure the news will be taken that badly in the council. It was truly an example of Cllr Cook’s forceful leadership to get Formula E in there but I suspect he will be one of the few genuinely sorry to see it go. Despite the public face of unity in support of Formula E I know many councillors and officers were privately unhappy with the event.

For everyone else, whether their concern was instinctive or came more thoughtfully, it seems like there’s finally good news. Well done to the residents, park users and campaigners who have done so much to make sure Battersea Park can continue to be a vital asset for everyone, every day.

Stopping street-drinking… and other things

The new signs advertising the protected space (click for a larger version)
The new signs advertising the protected space (click for a larger version)
A Public Space Protection Order is coming to a large part of the area around Lavender Hill. The order is aimed at dealing with street drinking in the area by the cut-through from Queenstown Road to Ashley Crescent covers all the Shaftesbury Park Estate, many of the roads to the south of Lavender Hill and to the north on both sides of Queenstown Road.

I did a lot of work representing local residents in getting this even though, I have to confess, I am not a supporter of such moves. It is one of those peculiarities of representative democracy that occasionally you have to represent views you don’t share. However, having implemented several council policies with which I disagreed (although several of which have subsequently been reversed—one of the reasons I rate Ravi Govindia as a leader is his willingness to reconsider policy when he gets things wrong) I really can’t complain about this.

I do have several issues with such zones. One is that I do find it rather hard to believe that extra powers are needed, is there really a need to regulate defecation in public? Another is that if the resources aren’t there to deal with it at present, from where will they come now? My biggest issue is the concern that it doesn’t really solve problems, it changes them or shifts them.

A zone doesn’t cure alcoholism so the drinkers go elsewhere. When a similar zone was implemented in Roehampton one of my former colleagues commented that they didn’t care if the drinkers “went off and drank themselves to death, as long as they did it in their own home.” Perhaps I’m too much of a bleeding heart.

However, my views are academic and I have the luxury of not living near the affected area (although I do live in the zone). While I think there were faults with the consultation (I know very few people who received it, including the people most affected, I certainly did not get one) it seems to have resulted in a positive response: I was told that there had been about 30 responses in favour with only one objection which officers believed had misunderstood the question.

The street drinkers are being given leaflets to make them aware of the zone and signs are being erected to highlight the behaviours prohibited by the order. Once finally in place it will hopefully improve things for the local residents.

Running and high fives

I found myself spending the early part of both Saturday and Sunday appreciating the effect running can have on a community. On Saturday I did my first volunteering stint at the Tooting parkrun. It was not an onerous task, acting as one of the marshals for the run. I took my son and we had a great time encouraging and congratulating runners and offering high fives to all those that needed them.

A few weeks into Wandsworth’s first parkrun it’s clear it’s generating a sense of community around the event and, to a degree, helping strengthen the community attached to the Common. Part of the marshalling job involved warning regular users of the Common about the runners (not that you can miss them) and not too inconvenienced.

I’d expected some annoyance or irritation, but all the non-parkrun users I spoke to were positive. Even those with no interest in taking part themselves seemed to appreciate the positive atmosphere. I can’t see how I’ll ever tire of seeing the magic that comes from the main pack of runners. There are, to be sure, some fast times recorded and I envy the speed and grace of those faster runners. But seeing those who come later, for whom parkrun provides that crucial opportunity for social exercise really highlights what a positive initiative it is.

My Sunday running, taking part in the North London Half Marathon, provided a slightly different perspective. The run, from Wembley Stadium to Allianz Park and back, goes through a lot of residential streets in Brent and Barnet. It must cause some inconvenience for residents, and I’m sure there are those that feel put out. But despite that it seems every road had groups of residents on the pavements, cheering runners on, offering jelly babies to give a bit of energy and, yes, giving plenty of high fives to the runners.

It’s too early to suggest a Wandsworth 10k or half-marathon—though the borough’s landmarks, parks and riverside would create an incredible route. I have broached similar events before, but the council is very resistant to close roads and levies big charges for doing so (the only time I’ve ever known the council willingly close roads was when the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment planned to parade in Battersea, presumably because they had tanks).

But while the Wandsworth half-marathon may be a pipe-dream, I can’t help thinking that even only a few months into the Tooting Common parkrun trial that it should only be the start, and not the extent, of such open sporting events in the borough.

Removing estate agent signs from Lavender Hill

The blight of estate agent boards will soon be gone from Lavender Hill now the Secretary of State has approved the council’s application allowing the signs to be banned from certain areas.

The application—under the town and country planning regulations—essentially removes the deemed consent for advertising in the area. While it might be reasonable for estate agents to advertise properties, such signs are less relevant in an internet age. Instead the signs are often left in place as a advert for the agents themselves, but leave the area looking tatty and down-at-heel.

Town Centre Partnerships across the borough have been campaigning for years to see this introduced, it has been very effective across the river in large parts of Kensington and Chelsea for several years. More locally, the inclusion of Lavender Hill in the scheme is largely down to one local resident’s tenacity in standing up for the road.

It’s a small step for Lavender Hill, but one in the right direction.

A seven-year-old’s take on the mayoral campaign

My son picked up Zac Goldsmith’s latest leaflet from the doormat this morning and asked me what it was about. He wanted to know about the experiments.

I tried to explain, but he didn’t quite understand: “Aren’t experiments good, because you learn.”

And he was right. There’s a lot of negativity in this campaign (no side is innocent) but the Goldsmith attack is that Khan might try something different, he might innovate, and that would be bad.

I actually think Goldsmith is a good candidate—certainly better than Johnson—but can’t help finding the main attack, that trying anything new is bad, is inherently disappointing.

I’ve always been a fan of the laboratories of democracy concept and a recent Alliance for Useful Evidence and Institute for Government report highlighted the (under utilised) potential for Devolution as a Policy Laboratory in this country.

Sadly, whatever problems we might have (and the candidates often agree on those) when the mere implication someone might try something different to solve them is seen as a valid negative attack we have a long way to go.

Fortunately for my son, he’s only seven, so he’s got until the 2028 Mayoral election for things to change.

Can a damning Ofsted report help Wandsworth improve?

I think it’s fair to say Wandsworth’s poor Ofsted report has been a big shock for many, including me. While I might have my differences with the council, it has always been a good, competent, council. Even when I disagreed with what it was doing (and even when I was part of the leadership, I didn’t always think it was right) I couldn’t deny it did it well.

If I am really honest, I would say I expected to see mistakes being made (I remember a few years ago highlighting the risks that were inherent in the massive changes the council were making, politically and administratively) but not in something as important as children’s services. Looking after vulnerable children is about the most important responsibility of the council.

Reading through the Ofsted report, there was one thing that really stuck out to me. In a report that found the council inadequate we discover:

The local authority self-assessment, dated June 2015 and completed in anticipation of this inspection, assessed most services as good. This is inaccurate.

To me, this is the most worrying aspect of the report. At best it indicates a lack of self-awareness. At worst it indicates a cultural problem in which the belief that Wandsworth is a top-performing council overrides evidence to the contrary. So when the evidence was gathered, people were too ready to accept the good and dismiss the bad.

That self-belief has always been incredibly strong at the council. To give an example, Wandsworth never, to my knowledge, took up any opportunities of peer development from the Local Government Association (although it would generously allow other councils to come to SW18 to learn from it). Suggestions from newer, more naïve councillors, that we might want to learn from elsewhere was usually met with scoffing laughter and then a gentle explanation that other councils come to learn from us.

Even coming to write this, I started off by talking about how good the council once was: it’s the easy, default, stance to take.

However, perhaps the Ofsted report will give a kickstart to an improvement process that benefits all of Wandsworth. A sense of crisis often allows previously unseen leadership to flourish; already it seems there’s more willingness to see what it can learn from others. Perhaps this will help arrest that headlong slide into being just another council.

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.