Far away from the action at a Wandsworth Council meeting.

Back seat councillor

I found myself, as I tweeted, at the back and on the left at my first proper council meeting on the back benches. It was an interesting experience, I’ve posted before that I often ask myself whose life is improved by various council meetings and recognised that the vast majority of people don’t care about full council meetings. Now my visits to the town hall are comparatively rare it brings those meetings I do attend into sharp focus: with the heavy focus on set-piece debates and whipped votes full council meetings do not add value to the democratic process. They are legally necessary and occasionally fun, but they don’t make the borough better. The meetings that make a difference happen elsewhere.

That’s not to say there aren’t interesting moments. The announcement that an article 4 direction1 would be granted to protect The Wheatsheaf in Tooting from change of use took many by surprise and even now I can’t help wondering if it wasn’t a slip of the tongue or some sort of mass mishearing given the lengthy resistance to article 4.

There were also some interesting speeches, especially the maiden speeches from newly elected councillors which indicate what is to come for the next four years. I was rather intrigued by the remarkably political contribution from Cllr Candida Jones. While it contained some bizarre claims (volunteers are all Labour supporters?) I’m actually a fan of politics, it helps frame arguments and give a clear sense of purpose and direction. Too often local government is too much about arguments over who would be the better managers rather than policy differences.

But I must be egotistical and highlight a question tabled about me. I didn’t realise it was tabled, since neither Peter Carpenter (the questioner) or the Leader (who answered) raised it with me beforehand.

(10) Shaftesbury Councillors: Question asked by Councillor Carpenter of the Leader of the Council –

Would the Leader respond to accusations by his former Cabinet Member, Councillor Cousins, that councillors in the Shaftesbury ward were not “the councillors they should have been over the past four years”? What steps will he be taking to ensure that all his councillors pull their weight over the next four years?

Answer:

I am pleased to learn that Councillor Carpenter is making a quick recovery from his recent illness. Social media is certainly a learning curve, and many different styles of writing and approach can be found. I rather like the modest, even self-deprecating, approach taken by Councillor Cousins but have looked for inspiration at Councillor Carpenter’s own contributions on Twitter. He adopts a somewhat different style. Councillor Carpenter is strong on ‘selfies’ and expands our cultural horizons with updates on his visits to Glyndebourne and Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. Every councillor is right to adopt their own authentic style, and I rather think our residents might find Councillor Cousins’ approach refreshing and disarming.

Interesting for a few reasons. First because I’ve always assumed none of my colleagues read this (and still assume that’s the case, since the answer may well have been drafted by an officer). As far as I’ve ever been able to tell most people come here searching for ways to control or kill foxes.

But it gives me the opportunity to give my answer. Obviously I stand by my original comments. The fact is that this was a ward with three exec members, two of whom with incredibly important jobs on the council. When there are finite resources of time and energy then something has to give. If anyone is to blame it is me.

The fact is that Shaftesbury didn’t get the attention it deserves. The leader, remarkably astutely, recognised and solved this when he sacked me.

The question is, however, what I do to address that. I’ll be honest, it’s still something I’m mulling, drafting my list of projects I want to tackle and planning on making a start after summer. There are a few things on there, some relatively easy, some much harder. And I’ll be clear that my expectation is that most will falter and fail: it is not my intention to only take on things with guaranteed success. This, in part, is the reason I’m spending so long researching and thinking about them all.

Taking Lavender Hill, for example. I know the traders there are drawing up their wish list, so if I were to want to do something to help, I would want to take account of that. But even then, what would success look like? Where would my efforts be best directed?

Or my sense that there should be more ‘community’ in the ward. Clearly I’ve not done enough to cultivate that. Shaftesbury is the only ward in the borough that has not seen a Big Society Fund application. While this reflects, in part, a relatively low level of community groups, equally I’ve not been pro-active in promoting the fund to those groups that are there. But how does one promote community activity? Indeed, should I even bother, if the community itself had not already done so?

And with some, there’s just a bit of inertia. I’m planning on trying to get a Neighbourhood Watch set up in my road. I’ve spent too long researching best practice in setting up Watches elsewhere and my JFDI instincts are taking over on that one.

Above all, I’m keen to be something different. I’m tempted by the idea of being an ‘open councillor’, following examples like open policy making or open data. Possibly I overthink it, but it’s on its way — I haven’t forgotten the commitment I made to the ward.


  1. An article 4 direction basically requires a planning permission where it would otherwise not be needed. In this case from change of use from a pub to a shop. 

Why I’m finding Ed Miliband a bit more attractive

I can’t help but like Ed Miliband’s small piece in today’s Guardian on his promise to lead a localist Government. A lot of the article is, unsurprisingly, a mix of political and platitude. It’s difficult to see, without details, how some of the pledges are different from the status quo. However, what caught my eye was his pledge to set up local Public Accounts Committees:

Labour will introduce a statutory requirement for authorities to set up a public accounts committee (PAC) with powers to scrutinise value for money for all local services. The role played by Labour’s formidable chairman of the Commons PAC shows what can be done – and every town or city should have its own Margaret Hodge.

These committees, coupled with new requirements to publish performance data, would be led by councillors so they can challenge, hold to account and improve all public services in their area.

It’s an idea about which I wrote a brief post nearly a month ago having seen the Centre for Public Scrutiny’s somewhat older suggestions.

It is, perhaps, evidence that I’m optimistic (despite my usual demeanour), and over-estimate the volume of liquid in containers, to see this as positive. I recall I clung to the mistaken belief that Eric Pickles was a localist long after it was quite clear he was anything but. There is a tendency for oppositions—at whatever level—to be localist until they get power, at which point they realise that localism works best at exactly their level and no lower.

This is merely a trailer for a policy a potential Labour government would introduce, and I just can’t see Ed Miliband winning an election: whatever the polls say and whatever efficiency of the Labour vote under the first past the post system. However, it does look like a manifesto commitment from a major political party, which starts the debate.

Most public money in the area is spent with remarkably little public oversight and accountability. Even that spent by the council often isn’t directly scrutinised, but instead via the performance of a contract, and innovations like staff mutuals mean some of that gets another step further away from councillors. The Centre for Public Scrutiny’s (and now Ed Miliband’s) idea won’t shine a spotlight on every single penny spent, but councillor-led public accounts committees will bring into focus how public money is collectively spent and how effectively it is being used in achieving common aims.

It won’t be discussed in many living rooms and pubs tonight, but it’s a debate about the machinery of local government rather than merely whether councils collect bins weekly or fortnightly and regardless of who starts it, I’m glad someone has.

Van Gogh Walk, from the LGIU's 'People Shaped Places' report

Learning from Lambeth

On this side of the Wandsworth-Lambeth border there is a tendency to sneer at Lambeth. Some of this, I think, dates from the 80s and 90s when Lambeth represented ‘loony left’ councils while Wandsworth was a Tory flagship and sustained by a neighbourly rivalry. However, that overlooks huge improvement in both boroughs since the 80s: even the ever-present comparison of council tax belies the fact that, across London, Lambeth is well towards the bottom end of charges; Westminster and Wandsworth as unusually low outliers.

Wandsworth was a radical Conservative council in the 80s and the early 90s but has increasingly become something of an older statesmen of local authorities. Stable political control and strong financial management mean that it offers few surprises, even when I first joined the council in 1998 it was privately noted that while we had a reputation for innovation, we were rarely innovative. We were never first with any new policy, although we often managed to be the first to make a new policy work after others did the dangerous (and potentially expensive) experimentation.

Lambeth, of course, has not shared that history. It had its radicalism in the 80s and early 90s, but does not entirely share Wandsworth’s political stability. From 2002 until 2006 Labour lost control to a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition. That lack of stability has an impact on the council’s membership, meaning a greater turnover of councillors and, therefore, an arguably richer pool of policy formation.

To get my heresy out of the way: I’ve got a bit of borough envy going on. And I have for a while.

The current source of my envy has been Lambeth’s ‘co-operative council’ work. This envy is driven by several factors, sheer novelty is a big factor: I’m interested in seeing how things could work differently (I recognise the council tax payer and voter does not share my enthusiasm for straying from the tried and tested). More fundamentally, I cannot help but think—pessimistically—that the end is near for traditional local government and, if we want to keep it in any meaningful way, we need to start looking at different ways of delivering services.

Lambeth’s policy was the subject of an LGIU report People Shaped Places. This report, in turn, was the subject of a blog post on Public Strategist, the author of which, coincidentally, lives by one of the projects featured in the LGIU report, Van Gogh Walk, has been a “modest beneficiary” of Lambeth’s Neighbourhood Enhancement Programme1.

Together they make fascinating reading.

The Van Gogh Walk project, put simply, took a backstreet and turned it into a community space. The process attempted to be resident-driven (although the two sources vary in their interpretation of what this actually meant in practice) meaning that residents made the proposals, not simply responded to council consultations.

From the LGIU’s report:

Speaking to George Wright, the project lead at Lambeth Council, he explained: “key to this project was that it was community-led and there was lots of momentum already”. The community already had a good idea as to their aspiration … this marks an important contrast and may explain why the project idea was bolder …
George also emphasised the importance of “Lambeth’s radical and open-minded leadership” in contrast to a risk-averse tendency found in some councils, which can serve as a barrier to new ideas or different ways of doing things … George pointed out the value of what can be achieved through taking these risks, highlighting the sense of community pride that Van Gogh Walk has created – evidenced by the fact there has been no vandalism. “People treat it better because they feel better”.

The Public Strategist blog seems a little more cynical (my interpretation) when describing how the process went in his area2:

The dialogue went something like this:

Council: Tell us what you would like.

Residents: We want to stop speeding and rat running. And have better communal bins. And some other stuff. And a pony.

Council: That’s too difficult. How about we just send the traffic on a more circuitous route round more narrow residential streets in the hope that people will give up and go away. And there’s nothing we can do about the bins. Or the pony.

Clearly there would always be a distance between resident ambition and administrative delivery. However, the project overall does give the impression of something that is better because of meaningful resident involvement.

Of course, you could argue that resident involvement is effectively possible at any stage in any council. People can comment on consultations, raise objections to planning and licensing applications, organise petitions or campaign for changes. They sometimes even email their councillors and, I guess, get a variety of responses.

In the longer term the way they do, or don’t, use services or areas will shape their future. Northcote Road has undoubtedly been shaped by local residents and their demographic (which then raises the question of what shaped that demographic, and there are all sorts of chickens and eggs there).

However, you do not often see something quite as ambitious as Lambeth. Even in programmes with a strong element of consultation, there’s usually an imbalance in favour the council, they have plans which can be shaped, rather than plans that are created in conjunction.

I can’t help thinking about Lavender Hill. I’m certain people don’t want the steady decline, I’m confident they don’t want a widespread conversion of commercial space into residential space. The difficulty is in divining what residents do want. What are the sort of businesses and shops they would want to see, and most importantly use? I don’t think we’ve ever asked in any meaningful way. I have conversations with people (some sparked by posts on this blog), but there’s never been a consistent dialogue.

And what does that mean? Surely, without real dialogue between a municipality and its residents the council becomes little more than a service delivery vehicle, a contractor of waste collection, funder of schools, commissioner of public health. Functions that can be undertaken just as easily at a regional or even national level as they are by a local council.

You might argue that a four-yearly mandate means that isn’t the case, but I’m not sure an election which most people ignore is enough. If local government is to have meaning in the future then it needs to have meaning for residents, and Lambeth might be an example from which we should learn.


  1. I incorrectly assumed Stefan Czerniawski, the author of the Public Strategist blog, lived near Van Gogh Walk. But you know what they say about assuming. I’ve edited my post to make the changes clear, though I don’t think it affects my main point, which is about having a dialogue (and although not stated explicitly, that it needs to be honest and lead to mutual understanding and shared goals). 
  2. Another edit, the italicised words were added to avoid it appearing like the comments related to Van Gogh Walk. 

Why does the Government prefer chuggers to councils?

Birmingham had been the council to watch on chuggers: they were hoping to introduce a by-law that would enable them to ban chugging in the city centre. Unfortunately the government has refused them permission.

Councils are generally powerless when it comes to dealing with chuggers. When I was attempting to get a solution the response from the charities minister, requesting that he simply activate an already existing law that would allow councils to licence chugging was a flat no. Instead, he suggested, we should enter a voluntary agreement with the Public Fundraising Regulatory Assocation, the chugging trade body.

However, our contact with the PFRA revealed they thought a voluntary agreement meant they would volunteer to chug when and where they wanted, and the council would agree to it. I found that an impossible stance, when businesses here report chuggers’ aggressive tactics causing loss in trade, as they did in Birmingham, I was not prepared for the council to be put in the position of effectively sanctioning loss of trade in certain areas.

Birmingham found “96% per cent of visitors to Birmingham said they had suffered unsolicited approaches by ‘chuggers’ and 84% said this would put them off walking around the city centre.” I simply do not see how any council can pretend to support business or high streets allowing that to happen, and Birmingham deserve credit for finding a creative way to deal with it.

What is deeply disappointing that the local government minister, despite agreeing that “chugging techniques are deeply unpleasant” has decided that local government shouldn’t have the power to do anything about it. It makes you wonder what happened to localism.

A vintage Thirsty Camel

Return of the Thirsty Camel

I’ve said before how grateful I am to Thirsty Camel on Lavender Hill for so tirelessly helping me with content for this blog. However, even I’m finding it tiresome. Indeed, I’ve dug out an old photo to remind me how Thirsty Camel looked when (it feels like) it all started.

To do a brief recap: they had a temporary licence suspension a few years ago for selling booze to children, then they lost their licence for selling counterfeit and smuggled cigarettes. They appealed this decision, but in the meantime the owners wife, and a company director, applied for another licence. This was rejected. And now the story continues…

Thirsty Camel have applied for another alcohol licence. The application is for the sale of alcohol from 8am until midnight on Sunday to Thursday, and from 8am until 2am the following day on Fridays and Saturdays.

I believe (but have been unable to confirm) that this application is from another person associated with the current management, and therefore continue to have little confidence that the business’s operation will improve. I know several residents objected to the previous applications, but since this is a new application they would need to repeat that objection.

If you wish to make a representation you have until 17 July. 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

Given the premises track record of selling counterfeit and smuggled cigarettes and underage sales I consider the first and last items on that list are relevant to this application, although the last application drew some complaints about anti-social behaviour associated with the shop, so they are getting close to objections on all four criteria.

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.

Empty shops on Lavender Hill

How do you solve a problem like Lavender Hill?

It is impossible to deny that Lavender Hill is struggling, especially the eastern end as the road approaches Lambeth. Old commercial agent signs blight the buildings, it has a high vacancy rate (markedly high when compared to the traditionally very low vacancy rate in the borough) and even some of the occupied units have a high turnover of tenants who try, and fail, to make a go of it there. Some of the shops, I suspect, have been vacant so long most people would struggle to have a memory of what was there before the doors closed for the last time.

The fate of our high streets is an issue that bubbles around in the national press. Recently Martin Vander Weyer wrote an optimistic piece concluding it is too soon to write off the high street in The Telegraph. Mary Portas has been criticising the coalition government of failing our high streets. Bill Grimsey’s review for the Labour Party proposes a rebalancing, using business taxes from more affluent areas to support less affluent areas.

It is, perhaps, a typical case of calls that “something must be done,” but not much consensus, and possibly not that much will, to do what is necessary.

I remain optimistic that Lavender Hill can survive and thrive. So often it seems to be on a tipping point, with new businesses opening and starting to create a destination, only for some bad news elsewhere just to take the edge off the good. But when several excellent shops, bars and restaurants do survive, and there is an affluent demographic living in the immediate area, it’s just not plausible to say the road has no potential.

So what can be done for Lavender Hill? And that’s a question I pose, rather than one to which I think I have an answer.

I can make plenty of suggestions. Perhaps the best change would be a reform of business rates. This would make a huge difference to traders on Lavender Hill, and elsewhere, who are often crippled by a system that just doesn’t work in the modern world. Or changes to planning law, so a more dynamic framework can be put in place and the gradual creep of residential halted. But that sort of reform is probably out of the scope of a local councillor, and there are plenty of people already calling for those reforms.

However, there are plenty of things that can be done locally. Dealing with the pox of agents’ signage would change the feel of the road. I think parking can be improved, as can the general environment (just look at how different St John’s Hill feels, which has similarly wide pavements and a mix of bars, restaurants, shops and homes to Lavender Hill). It would be useful for Lavender Hill to have a stronger collective identity (everyone knows what Northcote Road is about, even if they may not like it).

Lavender Hill will, barring a U-turn, be losing council support this year or next, and I’m keen to dedicate time as a born-again ward councillor trying to support it. But what do you want to see on Lavender Hill? Is there anything that puts you off? What would attract you to the road?

The Thirsty Camel off-licence on Lavender Hill

Thirsty Camel licence application rejected

I’ve just found out that Thirsty Camel’s application for a new licence was rejected at last night’s licensing panel hearing.

The current licensee had lost his licence after being found selling counterfeit and smuggled cigarettes but a new licence application was made by an associate, presumably so they could continue trading in exactly the same way as before.

Despite my libertarian instincts, this is a good result: in trading illegal cigarettes (and previously selling to underage drinkers) the shop was competing unfairly with other retailers and putting customers at risk with products that were potentially harmful.

A local Public Accounts Committee?

A piece in The Guardian’s Public Leader’s Network yesterday caught my imagination today. Although primarily about economic growth it referenced a previous publication (PDF) by the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) suggesting the creation of local Public Accounts Committees:

[CfPS chairman Nick Raynsford] raises the major challenge that without rethinking the basic forms and institutions of our democracy, leaders will “be haunted by the problems of public contempt”.

CfPS’s proposal for a local place-based Public Accounts Committee, which we floated last year and have been exploring further with stakeholders to develop ideas about how it might work in practice, is gaining traction in a range of places. We think that the principle of a single, powerful body to provide challenge to the leaders and managers of all local public services for their collective efforts to improve a local place is an important part of the case for more devolution.

After years of local government training my instinct is to think about why it is a bad idea and wouldn’t work. It would require genuine partnership between all parts of the public sector in an area but the old joke in local government partnership was that partnership is “something we do to other people,” a sadly prevalent attitude that needs to change. Yet the more I think about it, the more I can see the benefits.

The model, of course, is the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee which has had notable successes over the years. But perhaps more importantly has earned its status and, through its scrutiny of spending, has arguably created a culture in which more care is taken with public money.

A local public accounts committee would rarely capture the public imagination or media headlines, but by focusing on the how all public money is spent in an area it will also focus the minds of those spending it, and how they can collectively make that spending more effective. Ultimately, it will force those involved in an area to collectively think about what they are doing and—ideally—create a shared vision towards which they can work: something that happens incredibly rarely today.

Pessimistically I can see this as an idea that may never be implemented or, if it is, one killed off before it has a chance to prove its value. But if it were given a chance I’d bet we’d look at it in years to come and wonder why on earth we took so long to establish local PACs.

The Lavender, on Lavender Hill

The Lavender licensing application

The council have received a licensing application from The Lavender, 171 Lavender Hill. They are seeking to extend the hours of playing recorded music, providing late night refreshment and the sale of alcohol until midnight Monday to Wednesday, until 1.00am the morning after Thursday and Sunday and until 2.00am the morning following Friday and Saturday.

The recorded music license is requested from 10.00am, alcohol sales from 8.00am.

It has been a long time since I regularly used The Lavender. Indeed the last time I can recall spending any length of time in there was the night after the riots, when I probably drank a bit too much while discussing the previous night’s events with a group of local traders.

As such, it’s difficult for me to make any comment, since I have little idea how the place has changed since its recent makeover. Having said that, it might some on the neighbouring residential roads might think it is a little too late for a school night.

If you want to make a representation you have until 26 June. 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 courtyard entrance to Wandsworth Town Hall

Sacked. Any job offers considered

Eight years on exec and eleven in the council’s leader’s group came to an end this morning when I was gently sacked in the post-election reshuffle. A smaller group needs a smaller exec, and by implication I wasn’t up to the job. I probably want to spent more time with my family, as well.

It will probably come as little surprise to those that know me (or could pick up the oblique references in the blog). It was fully expected. I have increasingly been out-of-line with the council’s groupthink. I even joked in my re-selection meeting that being in a minority of one was the unique attribute I brought to the council. However, while it makes a nice joke, when someone is doing the serious business of running a council they need support and not challenge.

Nor will it come as a surprise to many that it is a blessed relief. I have not found these past few years on the council terribly happy, the past year in particular (when I found myself pushing through a policy with which I disagreed) was not a fun time for me in SW18. Of course, a lot of that unhappiness was of my own making: I chose inertia. And I can’t pretend that the job didn’t have perks. Being Wandsworth and largely home-based with meetings tending to be in the evening meant I could spend a lot of time with my children, something for which I will forever be grateful.

Now I need to focus on plugging an income hole—all job offers are welcome—but it also gives me freedom to start being a more proactive ward councillor and seeing what I can achieve from the backbenches for Shaftesbury. I was not entirely without guilt last Thursday, since I don’t think any of us have been the ward councillors we perhaps should have been over the years, but re-election gives me a chance to redress that.

But before I do that, and before I polish up my CV and LinkedIn profile, I’m taking my boy away for a few days of adventure, camping in the glorious half-term weather we’re having!