Battersea Park re-opens after Formula E

I took in Battersea Park on my morning run today. It is, again, open to mere mortals although a lot of evidence of Formula E remains. My route took me around the carriage drives, which were more or less fully open, although possibly more through oversight and perhaps not likely to remain that way all day, although there were no barriers, signs or security guards when I was there.

All around the park are collections of the fencing, concrete blocks and various bits and pieces of kit. Carriage Drive South was by far the worst, giving the impression that workers simply dropped everything where they stood yesterday ready to resume work this morning. The terracing and footbridge remain in place there.

Generally the concrete blocks have been removed from the course, although it looks like the barriers have still to be removed from the central road and the area around the junction with Carriage Drive East.

The only bit I couldn’t use was the new dual carriageway part of Carriage Drive West, where the amount of fencing and plant piled up meant I had to run on the tarmac where the boules area used to be.

So, you can get in and seem to be able to access most bits, but I suspect parts of the park will need to be closed off. A lot of freestanding fencing has been installed that I expect will be used to limit movement during work today. If nothing else there will be a lot vehicle movements there today, I spotted lots of forklifts and a couple of idling lorries.

Sadly, I must also report that I didn’t find the overnight tarmac job (which was impressive, when I report a pothole it takes three weeks for an acknowledgement!) on turn one made my run any faster at all.

Lighting Lavender Gardens

Lavender Gardens, between Dorothy Road and Asda Clapham Junction
Lavender Gardens when it’s not dark
After (at least) ten years of trying I think I’ve finally got to the stage that lights will be installed in the path by by the Lavender Gardens playground.

Those using the path today may wonder why it’s an issue, but anyone who has used the path in the dark (and for commuters using it, in winter it’s dark before they’ve even left work) will realise it doesn’t always feel the safest place, despite only being a few yards from the lights of Dorothy Road or Asda.

The issue may largely be a fear of crime, one of the arguments against lighting I always met was that there was no crime or antisocial behaviour associated with the area. That is not necessary a good measure, as many told me—and I have experienced myself—you just don’t bother reporting it when you may have felt intimidated but nothing happened; you don’t think it makes any difference other than wasting everyone’s time.

We had come close to getting lights a few times. Asda had once offered to provide lighting from their buildings, but unfortunately this proved impossible to do from their structures without flood-lighting the back gardens and windows of neighbouring houses. I was hopeful a petition from local residents and users last year might resurrect the issue, but sadly the council returned the issue back to Asda and it was back to square one.

The difficulty was that it was council land, and therefore needed a council solution, but the council wouldn’t fund it.

However, the Wandsworth Local Fund, which allows for payments from developers to be used for local projects provided a possible solution. While a lighting project was just outside the remit, the council was bidding to itself for various projects including lighting and paving that were also just outside the remit so I was hopeful a tiny project like this would be successful. I submitted a bid which was kindly supported by one of my ward colleagues in Shaftesbury and two councillors from the neighbouring Latchmere ward and several months later it has been approved, getting the nod from last night’s council executive meeting.

There’s still lots more to do (I’m already assuming they won’t be done for this winter) and it’s been wrapped up in a bigger and longer term repaving project for Lavender Hill where it might run the risk of being lost so I’ll be checking up on progress regularly and hopefully we’ll soon be able to use a properly lit path.

Formula E in Battersea Park: never again?

Battersea Park's new racetrack taking shape. Good for Scalextric, not so good for park users
Battersea Park’s new racetrack taking shape. Good for Scalextric, not so good for park users.

When I found myself unable to support Formula E in Battersea Park I was perfectly content with being in a minority position. It was almost a habit in Wandsworth, something I considered a strength, both personal and policy-making.

I assumed that Formula E would come, and go, and a few people would be a bit put out, but it would soon be forgotten.

I certainly hadn’t anticipated the concrete and metal mess that Battersea Park has become.

It’s incredibly hard not to think a line has been crossed. I was concerned about the principle of selling the park being breached. Yes, bits of the park are available for private rent, but they are small portions of the park: even when they are closed off the park can still function as a park.

Now, it is impossible to consider Battersea Park as a meaningful green space, whatever carefully framed pictures the council tweet there are plenty more detailing the rest of the park

Instead we are faced with weeks of excessive disruption. (It has been months this time, but I assume that’s only due to the tarmac “enhancements” that won’t need repeating for the 2016–2019 races). I can’t describe how saddening it was when my daughter got excited about a nursery trip to Battersea Park, only to hear her slightly older brother who had been that day, lower her expectations: “Battersea Park isn’t a nice place to visit any more.”

The council has been remarkably quiet in answering criticism. I wonder if this is because they are preparing for a change of heart but want to keep that to themselves until after the race. I hope so, but also worry they are hoping to ride out the criticism.

But the mood seems to be changing. The Labour Party, having previously supported the event, have started changing their tone and throughout the debacle residents have been mobilising, organising a petition and a public meeting for shortly after the event.

It has long been my concern that the council lacks a vision of what is important to Wandsworth. Perhaps this will be one of those occasions when local residents are going to make sure they know what is important to Wandsworth.

Why I mounted a token rebellion. Twice.

I have been muted in my blogging, feeling it was diplomatic to simply keep my head down. And it probably still is.

My silence, along with the disappearance of a few blog posts and editing of a third, was stimulated by a colleague who pointed out that I made things difficult when I expressed different opinions to others in the group; a point of view I accepted at the time. But increasingly it grated. I’ve always been fond of George Patton’s line: “If everybody’s thinking alike then somebody isn’t thinking.”

The line was with me when I voted against the controlling group for the first time at the last meeting. I wrote in a draft blog post (which remains unpublished) at the time:

The first debate marked the first time I’ve voted against the group in council. Not something I did lightly, and not on a sexy subject: ward budgets for councillors. I suspect many would see it as being a grandiose councillor, but I have long thought there’s a strong argument that ward budgets (which would give councillors a small spending power for projects in their ward) would improve local democracy and accountability. If nothing else I can think of plenty of small projects in Shaftesbury, most recently the suggestion of lighting in the Lavender Gardens path by Asda, that would improve people’s lives with just a small investment. Additionally, I was not comfortable with over-turning the tradition that OSC decisions are respected.

I’m sure it hasn’t made me popular (I’ve already had one call to resign), but I felt it was the right thing to do.

During my re-selection process last year I highlighted my tendency to provide different thinking within the council, something the selection meeting seemed to welcome. Representing other points of view, bring new perspectives and thinking differently got me re-selected. Sullenly thinking what I’m told did not.

And so once again last night I felt it was the right thing to do when it came to supporting Formula E. Or not supporting it, as the case was. It won’t make me popular with colleagues, I’m sure, but I have already rehearsed my views on here, and while I have been quiet since, those views haven’t changed.

It is, of course, irrelevant to the final result. I was just one of three voting against (I was surprised to find Martin Johnson and Malcolm Grimston also taking the same view) with everyone else supporting the proposal. Being in a small minority isn’t necessarily a bad thing although it might be a strong indicator I’m totally wrong. It does, however, indicate that everyone is thinking, just that some are thinking differently. Above all, being in a minority doesn’t change my feeling that Battersea Park is something special and we risk that at our peril.

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.

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

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.

Why I was (repeatedly) wrong on Formula E in Battersea Park

Tonight the Community Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee will approve plans to agree, in principle, to running a Formula E race in Battersea Park starting the process of formal approval at full council and planning consent next year.

It’s a process I’ve been watching for a while. Indeed, when I first heard of it over a year ago I was a supporter of exploring the idea. Wiser colleagues were not, sensing the disruption and risk to the park was too much; but I felt the initial offer seemed suspiciously ’round’ (if I recall the Formula E proposal was £250,000 with four weeks of setting up and dismantling). Perhaps, I conjectured, if pushed they may offer more or be able to get in and out more quickly and if that was the case, we might get a stage at which both we and the Friends of Battersea Park think the benefits outweigh the inconvenience.

I’ve obviously not been a witness to the developments since May but it would seem there has been movement, I don’t know if it’s more cash, less set-up time or a combination of both, but we’re now on the brink of giving the go-ahead to Formula E.

But in that time my opinions have changed too.

I don’t know whether I’m a heavy user of the park. I am in and out of there a lot. Almost all my running incorporates Battersea Park in some way, I take the kids to the playground, they go to a sports club there, we are semi-regular attenders of the Pump House’s Sunday Socials, but while I may average more than a visit a day, I am sure there are those for whom the park is an integral part of their life, just as there are some for whom it is an irregular oasis of calm in an inner city.

But more and more I’ve become concerned that an event like this is a dangerous erosion of what makes the park special.

I know there is a need to raise revenue. And I know the park already does that. But it does it well, the park can almost hide events. You might have visited the park the other week and spent a day there without knowing a cinema screen was going up. You need never visit or use any of the concessions or pay to enter the zoo or use the Millennium Arena and sports facilities. There can be exhibitions or big parties taking place at the British Genius site, but other park users may never know.

Formula E strikes me as different. It’s hard to see how it can take place without total closure of the park to the ordinary public during a key period of (hopefully) good weather in June. It’s hard to see how you can set-up and take down all the facilities of a race track without a lengthy period of disruption. And while the council is proud that a 5am test run didn’t create any complaints I suspect the real disruption would be the 40,000 visitors, then the comings and going of crew, TV, support, and everything else associated with a race. That is before you consider the risk to the park’s environment and heritage.

So having been one of those who said we should look at it I now find myself thinking we shouldn’t look at it. But seem to be in a minority. The news has been out for a while, Battersea Park being touted as the preferred track for at least a year in various places (indeed, Googling it recently I discovered that they’d even said the council were keeping it secret until the elections, which shows how much it wasn’t being kept secret) but watching reaction it seems lots of people are keen. Even the Friends of Battersea Park seem to be, at least, neutral to the prospect.

I have, perhaps, lost sight of the bigger picture. Perhaps if Formula E offered me loads of cash to invest in Lavender Hill so they could race on it I’d be much keener (and, practically speaking, can see how roads would be much more suited than a park). But I can’t help coming back to the feeling that Battersea Park is something special. It’s part of what make Battersea such a wonderful part of London.

Perhaps everything does have a price. But if it does, you need to be absolutely sure you know what that price is, because once it’s been sold once, it simply becomes a bit of rental land. When that happens a lot of what makes it so very special will be lost forever; I can’t imagine a price tag worth that.

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.