The council is absolutely right to look at options

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Four Thieves licensing application

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

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

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

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

The council’s licensing pages provide more information.

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

or by emailing licensing@wandsworth.gov.uk

The parkrun logo

Wandsworth needs a parkrun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lavender Grocers and Best One licensing reviews

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

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

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

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

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

The council’s licensing pages provide more information.

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

or by emailing licensing@wandsworth.gov.uk.

Lavender Hill road works

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

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

Lavender Gardens, between Dorothy Road and Asda Clapham Junction

Lavender Gardens clean-up

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

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

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

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

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

Big Society Fund opens for bids again

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

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

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

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

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

More pro-Milibandism

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

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

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

The middle of his speech contains the following passage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.