Don’t panic: swine flu and Wandsworth

The council recently issued ‘advice’ on swine flu.  More accurately, it did a  cut and paste of some advice already issued by the Health Protection Agency and featured it on the council website.  And this has caused some mockery and criticism – why are we issuing it when there are only five cases in the UK?

I have described myself as a sceptic on this sort of issue, but fear that’s the wrong way to describe my view.  I would not trot out the cliche that nothing happened with SARS or bird flu, for example.  But do feel that the media sometimes over-hypes the risk.  There were risks that SARS or bird flu would become pandemics, just as there are risks that swine flu will be a pandemic.  But that risk should be considered proportionately, sometimes the news media struggles with proportionate coverage.  The excellent Ben Goldacre covers this far better than I ever could on the Guardian website.

And of course the government is on the bandwagon, helped by the traditional increase in public expenditure as elections approach and the drop in advertising costs caused by the recession.  You could argue that this increases panic and that the council’s press release does exactly the same.  But it seems to me that it’s a no-win situation.  We warn of a danger and offer prevention advice, possibly averting the threat, but are criticised for the “needless” warning.  We don’t warn, something happens, and, of course, we should have done something.

So is there anything wrong in the council’s approach or the government’s advertising?  I don’t think there is.  The advertising is largely about covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze, no bad thing whether there is a potential swine flu pandemic or not.  Ordinary flu kills thousands each year and is transmitted in exactly the same way.  It reminds me of the government’s incredibly stark AIDS advertising in the 80s.  It has been criticised for over-hyping an epidemic that never materialised, but the then health minister, Norman Fowler, has commented that the fact there wasn’t an epidemic was testament to the campaign’s success.

But while these various messages have a prevention slant it also shows that authorities are thinking about the issues involved.  Wandsworth would have a key role, along with emergency service partners, in dealing with the consequences of a pandemic, and that takes preparation.  To use a very recent example the council responded remarkably well to the heavy snow in February and received some praise for its work.  But that response was no accident, but a consequence of robust contingency planning.

Only this week I was at a meeting looking at the lessons we had learned from February’s snow, what we’d been doing to implement them and discussing how we could test what we’d learned before they were needed for real.  While we coped with the snow magnificently, it does not mean there weren’t areas for improvement, and these aren’t just things that affect planning for heavy snow, but issues that can affect any event that requires an emergency response.  It doesn’t really matter if a meals-on-wheels driver can’t come to work because of snow or because they have flu; the council still has to make sure food is delivered to vulnerable people.

It’s sensible for a council to prepare, plan and offer advice.  The size of the risk may be small, but the consequences could be enormous.  So mock all you want, because while I hope the council’s emergency plans are never needed I know that if they are then Wandsworth will respond admirably to the challenges.

How do you get rid of foxes?

I’ve had a couple of complaints about foxes recently, perhaps brought on by increased activity caused by a clement spring and new cubs.  It’s a tricky issue, because the council is very limited in the action it can take.  Indeed, no London council offers a control service for foxes.

The city dwellers’ view of foxes
There are two distinct opinions on this.  The first is that foxes are lovely animals and our neighbours in the urban environment.  The second that they are vermin and if hunting could be re-introduced to Wandsworth it would be a good thing.  While I recognise a fox can be an attractive animal, I also know they can be a vermin.  Alongside the disturbance from rooting through our rubbish and their excessively loud mating they carry various pests and parasites, including toxocara canis.

Personally, I have never spoken to anyone who likes urban foxes, but do know of one case where a resident tried to start a campaign so save some foxes the council planned to kill.  The result was that the council received lots of phone call and emails demanding that we carry on and get rid of them.

The problem with control
One of the problems with ‘controlling’ foxes is that it’s virtually impossible to do.  Even if we were to eradicate the foxes from an area the neighbouring foxes will expand their territory to fill the gap, often within 24 hours.  And the council has very few options, most forms of control are illegal.

Trapping is not possible, largely because of the risk to domestic animals.  Live trapping, which would at least do no lasting harm to an unfortunate domestic animal is ineffective because the other foxes in the group rapidly become trap shy.

Poisons and repellants again carry a risk to domestic animals and are, in any case, very strictly controlled by law

Shooting is one of the few effective options available, but can only be used in very limited circumstances.  We could not, for example, undertake a shooting operation in an area that might be used by the public.  Effectively this limits shooting to contained council properties that form part of a foxes run – meaning that most foxes need have no fear of the marksman.

In any event, given the foxes ability to quickly repopulate an area the council only undertakes control where there is a risk posed by them (most especially schools).

The inhumanity of control
It is worth pointing out (though I know many will not be bothered) that there is no humane method of controlling a fox population.  Every method of control will result in the fox’s death, and if the fox has a litter, then the cubs will also need to be tracked and killed.  Relocation is not an option, since foxes are territorial and a relocated fox will be attacked and either kill or – more likely – be killed by the resident foxes.  The RSPCA consider relocation so cruel they will prosecute anyone found doing it.

What can be done?
Given the limits on action the council can take, by far the most effective control is to limit their food.

For most people this means being careful about what food is thrown out.  In my area, for example, foxes seem very partial to eggs and will rip open refuse sacks to get to them, but (and this is purely my own anecdotal experience) crushing and rinsing the egg-shells seems to have entirely stopped this.  Where possible, you should put out your food waste as close to the collection as possible.

For some this means not deliberately leaving food out for foxes.  There are a number of residents who actively encourage their local fox populations by leaving out food for them.

The council has produced a fact-sheet with other advice which can be found (along with other information and links about foxes) within the Environmental Services section of the council website.

I’d be interested in your thoughts.  Am I a cruel and callous person for disappassionately writing about the slaughter of foxes?  Or do you think the council should be employing more marksmen to deal with a pest-carrying vermin?

More recession workshops

The council are running two more ‘recession workshops’ for local businesses.

The first is tonight (Wednesday 29 April) for businesses based in Wandsworth, Earlsfield and Southfields.  It is being held at Blend, 111-113 Wandsworth High Street at 7pm.  Attendees will be lucky enough to hear me speak on the council’s reponse.

The second is tomorrow (Thursday 30 April) for Clapham Junction businesses.  Held at Battersea Arts Centre on Lavender Hill it starts at 5.45pm.

GLE oneLondon will be at both events to provide advice and are offering ongoing mentoring to businesses.  Both will also provide networking opportunities for attendees.

I can’t help it, I still feel sorry for Gordon

I’m sure he wouldn’t want my sympathy, if he even knew he’d got it, after all he looked very happy in his recent YouTube video.  But I can’t help myself, my opinions remain the same as the beginning of the year.

To add to his woes someone has set up a petition calling on him to resign.  Amazingly this seems to have gathered over 22,000 signatures in just a few days and is the fifth most popular petition on the Number 10 site.  You can see for yourself at http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/please-go/

Of course, one of the problems with petitions is that they don’t allow people to put forward the opposing view.  Luckily, someone has set up a petition calling on the Prime Minister to stay.  It hasn’t got quite as many signatures yet (currently 10, including Joy Wendy Endcomes and D N Disnigh) but I’m sure it will soon have thousands.  You can sign that one at http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/support-the-PM/

And now I’m going to be serious and slightly sniffy.  These petitions are a bit of political fun.  In practice they are going to make no difference.

While it is interesting that the resignation petition has gained such traction, 22,000 people is still a long way short of the 15,000,000 who voted for the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties in the 2005 election.  Labour, under Tony Blair, formed the government and no-one seriously claiming they lacked legitimacy or called for his resignation.  And every day opinion polls shows a significant lead for the Conservatives suggesting that more people want another guy in Number 10.

Even when you have a popular Prime Minister the nature of politics means that there will still be millions who would not support them.  You could argue on that basis that the relatively small number of petitioners shows there is general support for the PM.

So while I’m happy to participate and advertise the petition I also recognise that petitions, by their very nature, push a single issue.  They do not require people to consider the alternatives or potential consequences and are often signed by people largely ignorant of the issues (the majority of people will willingly sign a petition calling for a ban on Dihydrogen Monoxide).  Of course I think Britain would be better without Brown, and without a Labour government, but know that what does matter and will make a difference are votes at the ballot box.

(As a small codicile, one benefit of petitions is that they can raise awareness and make governments and councils consider an issue.  If you are happy to sign the petition calling on Gordon Brown to go, or even calling on him to stay, then perhaps you could spare a moment to add a signature to some of these lesser known causes:

  • Maternal Health – raised by Jessica’s Trust calling for monitoring of new mothers to help provide early warning of a potentially fatal condition.
  • Bletchley Park – which calls on the Prime Minister to save Bletchley Park, home of Britain’s code-breaking which proved crucial in the Second World War.
  • Photo restrict – which asks for a change in the law to remove the ludicrous restrictions on photography in public places.

I’m sure there are many more, feel free to advertise any causes in the comments of this post.)

Crime briefing, 16 – 23 April

It’s Monday so it must be crime mapping!

If you have any information on any of these crimes you can get in touch with the local police on 020 7350 1122 or via Crimestoppers (anonymously, if you wish) on 0800 555 111.

The map is hosted by Google, who seem to provide a fairly unreliable service. If the map does not load, or will not load the flags, try refreshing the page or following the link directly under the map; I assure you the map is there! As usual there are some health warnings following the map.

You can click on the individual markers for more information.

  1. Yellow flags represent burglaries and red flags represent street crime reported between 16-23 April, 2009.
  2. The briefing only contains details of burglaries and robberies. Other crimes are not included.
  3. You can see more detail by following the link to the Google website.
  4. The flags are not placed precisely (it would be irresponsible to advertise victims of burglary) but instead are spaced roughly equally on the roads they took place. The idea is to give a visual representation of the spread and range of crime in Wandsworth, rather than pinpointing crime locations.
  5. While I try to ensure the data is accurate it is reliant on the information I receive, and I’m only human, so it may be mistakes have crept in. Please let me know if you think you’ve spotted one.

Tweets for week ending 2009-04-26

  • Having some fascinating conversations on & off Twitter following my blog post http://is.gd/tF7I but sadly have to go and get a haircut… #
  • What do you think about Wandsworth’s news? Feel free to say you want to hear more about me! http://snipurl.com/gd90x (via @wandbc) #
  • At the BATCA Open Forum, do they look friendly? http://twitpic.com/3q5dw #
  • Am I the only one slightly disturbed by the Chancellor talking about the 30s? #
  • How many billion are they borrowing, did I hear that right? #budget #
  • From 2010, as economy starts to recover, borrowing will fall to £173bn, then £140bn, £118bn and £97bn #budget (via @hmtreasury) Just WOW. #
  • After hitting the high earners, we’ll hit smokers and drinkers next… #budget #
  • Wandsworth’s first (that I know) local Twitter listing: Balham Twits site is live – http://is.gd/tXOp Pls spread the word (via @balhamtwits) #
  • Just been to see ‘In The Loop’ (in a cinema full of babies). Scary how much has actually happened since it must have been written. #
  • My beloved Monkey (my old iSight-less G5) has died. Am I going to be forced to buy a new 24″ iMac after a suitable period of mourning? #
  • I’m loving Tweetie for Mac… http://is.gd/r9H8 and love the look of Birdhouse – but isn’t it against everything Twitter is meant to be? #
  • Part of me thinks Birdhouse is bad for Twitter, but a bigger part is a sucker for a good looking app. #
  • Graham Norton, Peter Andre and Jordan all on the same show. Some sort of horrific disaster in the studio would be good. Sorry, Jimmy Carr. #
  • Is it me or is tonight’s Newsnight Almost suicidally depressing? Thank God I’m not a Labour canvassed. #
  • Looks like Disk Warrior will be working its magic on my iMac (Monkey) overnight. But I’m beginning to fear Monkey has lost his mojo. #
  • Anyone able to help with a #Mac query? Do I need to restore anything but the Users folder from a failed HD to get all my personal data back? #
  • In Battersea Park wondering why the hell I didn’t bring a decent camera. http://twitpic.com/3w43d #
  • Totally irrespective of politics, I’m fascinated to see if we can get #Brownmustresign to trend and what the effect will be if we do… #
  • Got a direct mail from my Labour MP about the budget. Not well targeted & I do so wish he’d bothered to straighten his tie for the photo. #
  • I would stress I think he should go at an election, but it would be fascinating to see if we can get enough moment to trend #Brownmustresign #
  • Economy the ‘weakest in 30 years’ http://is.gd/uhCh erm, that’ll be the weakest since the last time Labour were clinging to power then. #
  • Thanks to @Neil_Robertson, @sassylad & @cabbiescapital for the #followfriday recs – I’m going to start doling out my own from next week. #
  • Another Wandsworth Cllr on Twitter. Please say hi to Cllr @Angela_Graham. #
  • What better way to spend a Saturday than waiting for the plumber to arrive… #
  • Grimsby 1-0 up at Bournemouth. Chester 1-1 at Aldershot. Looking good for avoiding relegation, and with a game to spare. #
  • Damn you, Bournemouth, for equalising, like the results matters for you! And while I’m at it, Blackpool was a much better conference venue. #
  • And Aldershot take the lead against Chester – excellent. I bet they’d be better for conferences than Bournemouth as well. #
  • Curses. Mariners lose and Chester draw, so down to the last match of the season. We should have had this sewn up by now. #
  • Feeling rather pleased with myself for spotting an obscure Quantum Leap reference on Chuck. #
  • Went for long-ish run yesterday, no #londonmarathon, but long enough to get runners’ nipple. My sympathy to today’s underprepared men. #
  • Just had a stint of tidying my followers/followings. Tried to be ruthless, wasn’t at all… #
  • An absolutely fantastic afternoon. There can only be one thing to do, since everyone will be in on a day like this, yup, canvassing! #
  • A #mac question – is migration assistant horrendously slow? It’s been claiming my user folder will take 19 hours to copy for 3hrs. Give up? #
  • And while I’m asking questions (& getting few answers) any recommendations for #iphone RSS with some form of sync to a desktop. #
  • I’ve had enough watching my backup slowly restore and looking for RSS apps. I’m going to watch some Sky+d ‘Come Dine With Me’. Rock and Roll #
  • Someone should produce a list of words linked to auto-followers, so I could studiously avoid using any of them. #

Dog control in Wandsworth

I’m going to resist using lines like “taking the next step in the dog mess issue” and instead be fairly dull and straight-forward about this one.

The council are currently consulting on introducing dog control orders to various parts of Wandsworth.  These orders will add further conditions and controls on dog ownership in the borough and give the council a little more power to deal with problem dog owners.

Many people will be surprised that the rules don’t already exist.  For example, one suggested rule is that dogs should always be on the lead on the public highway.  At the moment dogs need to be under control, but this does not necessarily mean on a leash.  Another will make it an offence for a dog to foul the road.  While it’s already an offence to let a dog foul the pavement, it’s legally (though I would say not morally) absolutely fine to drag the dog to the gutter and then just walk away once its finished.

I think it’s a shame these are necessary.  I instinctively dislike anything that introduces more regulation, and  think it’s a shame we have come to the stage that we need to introduce rules that affect all dogs owners when the vast majority have never caused a problem of any sort with their dog.

Of course you might disagree with all or some of the proposed rules and that’s the point of consultation.  The council’s website provides full details of the rules and how you can comment.  And I’d be interested in hearing your views via the comments.

How politics are done: Lesson 1 – Taking Credit

After Tuesday night’s BATCA Open Forum I was pointed in the direction of Sadiq Khan’s website, and, specifically, his coverage of the news that Tooting town centre is to get its own police team.

Sadiq Khan welcomes Tooting police teamObviously I’m glad that he also welcomes the team. But I was drawn to the comment that “Labour Councillors and Sadiq have lobbied Wandsworth Council to introduce” the new team.

I have to take issue with this for two reasons:

  1. I’m not aware of Sadiq ever asking Wandsworth Council to introduce a police team in Tooting.  As the Cabinet Member responsible for community safety I would expect council officers to have told me if he had. However, even if he had I wouldn’t be that disappointed if officers hadn’t let me know because of my second point…
  2. Wandsworth Council (like every other council in the country) does not control, manage or in any other way direct the police.  We may work in partnership with them, but we do not have any operational control.

Now Sadiq is a minister in the Department for Local Government.  He was also a Wandworth Councillor for many years before becoming an MP.  I suppose it’s entirely possible you could do both those roles without  knowing what’s going on (Gordon Brown was Chancellor for ten years, after all), but it is stretching credibility a bit far.

The more realistic explanation is that he knows the council is not responsible for the police, but took the gamble many people don’t know.  And to his credit it’s actually a pretty good gamble, I’ve spoken to many residents who assume the police are just a part of the council.  And it makes good political sense for a Labour MP in a marginal seat.  You take credit for good news, and get to imply the Conservative council are the bad guys.

So, lesson one: if it’s good, take credit for it.  If possible, do this while suggesting your opponents were to blame for whatever wasn’t so good before.

I won’t pretend that I or my party are whiter than white.  Only this morning I was accused of doing much the same thing, and re-reading my announcement of the news feel I should add to it.

I will still give some credit to this to the Mayor, neighbourhood resources are allocated centrally and very little flexibility is allowed.  When we’d previously tried to address this, by seeing if resources could be moved to priority areas it was refused out of hand: Boris deserves credit for allowing a more pragmatic approach.

And I will still point out that we have repeatedly asked for town centre teams for Tooting and Clapham Junction.  What’s more, we were asking the right people.

However, I didn’t give credit to the police borough commander, Chief Superintendent Stewart Low, who actually made it possible by re-organising his teams to free up the sergeant, constables and community support officers necessary to create the team.  If there is a single individual who deserves credit it is him, and I’m happy to apologise for not pointing that out when I first had the opportunity.

Happy St George’s Day

It’s not a commonly celebrated day, perhaps because it isn’t generally associated with drinking copious amounts of alcohol, but it’s St George’s Day today.

And finally London is doing something to mark it.

If you can make it, Boris Johnson will be at an event to mark the day in Leadenhall Market (Gracechurch Street, EC3V) at 10.45am.  Alternatively Trafalgar Square will see a free concert celebrating English music this Saturday.

It’s bizarre that, after all England has given the world, we seem keener on celebrating the patron saints of Ireland, Scotland and Wales than we do our own – but hopefully this year’s small start will see a change in that.

Last night’s BATCA Open Forum

An, as yet, unfilled audience for the Open Forum

An, as yet, unfilled audience for the Open Forum

Last night’s Open Forum organised by the Balham and Tooting Community Association was an interesting and, I think, useful event.  It was fairly well attending (I’m hopeless at judging numbers, but I’m guessing at least 50 or 60 people) and there were some good questions and useful points made.

Perhaps unsurprisingly a lot of the discussion was about young people and crime, but even then the main thrust did not seem to be about a lack of facilities.  You will commonly hear the complaint that ‘there aren’t enough youth clubs’ when actually there’s one just around the corner and the problem is that it isn’t being used by the perceived problem youths.  Instead, the complaint was about the type and quality of provision.  One comment made a few times was that kids have XBoxes, Wiis and PS3s at home; putting them in youth clubs isn’t that constructive!

A valid point, but I know that council officers would contend that without them, people just don’t attend youth clubs and they serve the purpose of ‘bait’ which gets young people into the youth club so they can try and engage them more creatively and constructively.

A second point was the cleanliness of Tooting.  Again, however, it seemed incredibly constructive and was directed more towards how everyone can work together to improve Tooting.  Indeed, when one person tried to blame the council they got very little support and I seemed to be speaking to nodding heads when I explained that Tooting currently gets more cleaning than any other town centre and at some point we have to look at how rubbish is getting on the streets and who is putting it there.

I was shocked to learn recently that over 100 businesses in Tooting did not have Trade Waste Agreements.  Legally a business should have an agreement with a refuse collection company to collect the waste they produce.  When council officers visited businesses in Tooting to explain the introduction of time-banded collections (refuse collections now take place at specific times, and refuse should not be left out for lengthy periods before) they discovered a huge number of businesses had simply not bothered making arrangements.

Effectively these 100 businesses were fly-tipping Tooting on a regular basis.  While I accept Wandsworth Council has a duty to clean our streets, I also believe that our residents and businesses have a duty not to litter them.  Having said all that when I left (at around 10pm) I took a quick stroll around Tooting as I’m rarely in the area that late at night, and was impressed at how clean it was.  The new time-banded collections have obviously made a real difference.

A number of other issues were raised, including the development plans for Springfield, open spaces in town centres, parking, traffic management and use of the markets.  I know I will have missed some.  The session lasted over two hours and I’m sure could have lasted another two without running out of steam or value.

I asked the organisers to let me have a copy of any notes they captured from the evening so I can arrange fuller responses and consideration by the relevant council departments.  I’ll report back on that here if appropriate.