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.

Thinking of the children

“Won’t somebody think of the children?” sums up a large part of the Conservative side of the debate at last night’s council meeting. The reason we should think of them was hidden away in a report, published late, on restructuring for the merger with Richmond. The relevant section, titled Modifications to senior management arrangements gets off to an anodyne start:

As a consequence of recently identified weaknesses in Wandsworth children’s services, the report also proposes some interim modifications to the provisionally agreed senior management arrangements, to take immediate effect in order to provide a heightened level of managerial oversight.

The cost of these changes comes to over £500,000, adding posts so the existing managers can focus on the areas of weakness.

When discussed at a committee meeting this it was revealed the ‘weaknesses’ were identified by an Ofsted inspection of the council’s children looked after functions and the report, not yet published, is likely to criticise the council. What’s more, time after time tonight we were told no-one has actually read the Ofsted report—which is embargoed—but these changes are based on the verbal feedback from the inspectors.

It might well be that spending £500,000 on senior staff is the best way to address the weaknesses. It might actually be that we should spend £1,000,000. Or that we could address them all spending £200,000 elsewhere. But not having seen the report, nor having had details of the report shared, it’s impossible to know.

The Conservative argument was that while it was far too hasty to suggest any criticism of the leadership, it was not too hasty to suggest spending half a million. Indeed, anything else would be talking down the service and making the problems worse rather than fixing them. We should, instead, trust the recommendations of people who haven’t read the report to fix problems we aren’t told about and vote an extra £500,000.

I’ll confess that even though all my logic was telling me I just couldn’t vote to spend £500,000 without knowing why it was hard. Not only is the emotional call to think of the children is hard to resist, but I also have a huge amount of respect for Kathy Tracey, the children’s lead, who is by far the most able member of the council’s Leader’s group. Going beyond that I might criticise the council’s lack of vision, but I can’t deny historically it has a great track record for strong administrative management and competence on the basics.

But this issue seems to me a symptom of the constant restructuring a process that grinds down staff and performance, and now services are suffering as a result.

Once upon a time I think Wandsworth could be trusted to get on and do the right thing, last night I realised that it doesn’t deserve that level of trust any more. There are valid concerns that the council isn’t managing change well; the council and councillors need to understand why.

Formula E: Residents speak, the council ignores them

Imagine having organised the largest campaign in recent (and no-so-recent) memory in Wandsworth and, at the end, you attend the relevant council committee: the opportunity for you to have your say. You’ve filled the public gallery, the overspill room is standing room only and, for the first time ever, the public are filling the council chamber to listen to a council meeting. And after the first resident deputation what is the Tory approach?

To accuse the organisers of lying and inflating their support.

I was ashamed by association. Rather than discuss the issues or concerns the first instinct of the majority group on the council was to attack the people.

It got a bit better as the evening progressed, but the writing was already on the wall. There were five excellent deputations, representing local campaigners, residents, the Friends of Battersea Park and the Battersea Society. I also had my say.

When it came to Formula E’s supporters Cllr Cook maintained a Trappist silence throughout the meeting, as did most of the Conservative side. The managing director and team from Enable, the company with the contract to manage Wandsworth’s parks did most of the talking. The council’s finance director, unable to talk about amounts, gave some hypotheticals, if the income was this much, we could pay this many social workers, if this much we could re-surface this many roads… or if it was £350,000 we could pay off one senior officer I saw one person mischievously tweet.

But it was all largely irrelevant. Despite one hint it would be a free vote (the hinter being one of those who stayed silent throughout) the decision had been made behind closed doors long before it got to committee. The Conservatives followed the whip and voted as a block, recommending renewal by seven votes to four.

I know a few of those voting for Formula E had reservations, and one contacted me afterwards to explain their position: “but what can you do?” They asked.

“Well,” I thought, “you could vote against, I did.”

How safe was Battersea Park?

One issue that has troubled me enormously during the build-up to the council’s Formula E decision has been the attitude towards health and safety and risk assessment. Allegations that the construction phase was not done safely have never gone away, and there are plenty of pictures floating around that strongly suggest best practice was not always followed.

In August someone told me they had asked the council about the risk assessments and but was told they were destroyed. This, I thought, had to be a misunderstanding. Aside from not being the sort of document you destroy immediately (I know, for example, that in my day job risk assessments are retained indefinitely, even if they are superseded or become irrelevant) it just didn’t seem much like the council. When I followed up with the council I expected to be able to quickly correct the complainant. In fact I found myself in for months of repeatedly being told the council had absolutely no responsibility for the safety of residents in Battersea Park when it came to Formula E.

Initially I intended to detail the exchanges I had with council officers in trying to get to the bottom of this, but when looking through the email chains decided that it really didn’t make good reading. A simple query that I raised in August took nearly ten weeks to reach its conclusion, the period being filled with lengthy delays for responses from the council, suggestions that other parts of the council were responsible and answers that didn’t really address the questions raised. Having been on the other side of the fence I know there is occasionally a perverse pride taken in not actually answering questions, the Yes, Minister approach. Clearly I’m no longer in a position to appreciate it but the upshot is that I’m still left with a number of questions which remain unanswered.

After ten weeks of trying, I realised I would never get an answer that satisfied me.

I was repeatedly told that risk assessment was entirely Formula E’s responsibility, because, were the council to undertake such assessments, or to approve them in any way, it “potentially renders the council responsible”.

I was, however, assured the council required Formula E to undertake risk assessments as part of the terms and conditions. I did ask if I could see these terms and conditions, but that request was refused because it was “commercially sensitive.” I could not see the risk assessments themselves. The council had, indeed, deleted them and Formula E, for their part, declined to share them again because they felt reinstating the Dropbox link was “an unnecessary administrative burden”.

In summary, the council requires risk assessments, but does not approve them (that being the case, does it even assess their adequacy?) and takes no responsibility for what happened in the park since they merely handed over the park as and when construction started.

There are lots of other issues that were never resolved to my satisfaction. How the council handled potential conflicts of interest when they appeared to use the same health and safety consultants as Formula E had during their planning, for example, was never really addressed nor was a request for details of changes made at the request of the council.

Fundamentally, though, I struggle to understand how the council can so fully hand over its responsibility for the safety of the public. It is for others, be they members of the public or members of the council committee, to decide if that is an appropriate approach.

Shaftesbury Let’s Talk: What did the public say?

The every-two-years-or-so Let’s Talk meeting took place at Shaftesbury Park school on Wednesday. About 35 residents attended to hear councillors and raise issues affecting the Shaftesbury ward. The three ward councillors were joined by Rex Osborn, leader of the local Labour party, and by Paul Ellis, Cabinet Member for Housing, who was standing in for the council leader (which seemed a peculiar slight to Jonathan Cook, who is the actual deputy leader and chaired the last meeting).

While I always wonder about the relevance of public meetings in the 21st century (it was 35 residents from a ward population of over 10,000, although it’s a fairly open secret it’s more a justification to fund a leaflet to every household) they do offer an interesting evening and are a great way of finding out if my sense of the public issues actually match public issues.

So what were the issues? Well, in something like the order raised.

Pavements… and trees
The poor state of the pavements were raised and particularly the effect of tree roots on them. This expanded into a wider discussion on the impact of trees generally, those that are seen as overgrown and the impact they have during autumn.

Fly tipping
There was lengthy discussion about a number of fly tipping hotspots in the ward. The council tends to be quite good at removing fly tips when it knows about them. And that is the key, if fly tips aren’t reported, they may as well not exist as far as the council is concerned. You can report fly tips on the council’s website.

Neglecting the Shaftesbury Park Estate
One person expressed the opinion, and several agreed, that the council neglected, and had perhaps even abandoned, the Shaftesbury Park Estate. I don’t think that’s true at all, but equally I can understand why the perception has formed. The roads, for example, seem noticeably worse than elsewhere, and even though I have been through a phase of assiduously reporting faults it doesn’t seem to make much difference.

However, I think that is far more a factor of the age of the surfacing than any policy of neglect and I’ll certainly continue to highlight those places where I see (or am told about) issues.

Waste collection
There were several complaints associated with waste collection, including concerns about the timing of street cleans in relationship to rubbish collection, the provision of recycling facilities and the collection process itself.

Antisocial behaviour
A couple of antisocial behaviour hotspots were raised: action is being taken at one already, while the other perhaps needs a bit of attention. The sad fact is that such ASB hotspots tend to be recurrent because they have features that make them attractive, perhaps being comfortable and convenient places to loiter, being out of areas of natural surveillance and therefore having a degree of privacy.

Planning
The council’s planning policy, and specifically a concern that it didn’t do enough to protect special places like the Shaftesbury Park Estate, sparked some discussion, partly on extensions and then on the protection of frontages.

Formula E
One resident raised Formula E. I won’t go into length on this because I have written enough about it already. I was, however, pleased to see that most (if not all) those pleasant appeared to share the residents opposition to holding the event in Battersea Park.

I did find it an interesting and useful meeting, and was pleased to be able to chat with several residents afterwards to pick up some more issues and get contact details so I can follow up on some of those raised. However, if you have something you want to bring up, you don’t need to wait two years for another meeting, just get in touch.

Shaftesbury Ward Let’s Talk meeting tomorrow

The next of the council’s regular Let’s Talk meetings takes place in Shaftesbury Ward tomorrow night.

The meeting, at which the three ward councillors and council officers are present, takes place tomorrow (Wednesday 11 November) from 7.30pm at Shaftesbury Park School on Ashbury Road.

It’s an opportunity to find out what the council is doing in the ward (and since they take place every two years or so, it’s probably a better way to keep up to date than this blog) and to raise issues that you think should be considered or investigated. There’s no need to pre-book, just turn up.

The council produced leaflet has more details.