This may just be an excuse to combine my politics, my geekery and love of Apple. Perhaps it is, but the launch of the new iPhone 3GS and the subsequent reaction to O2’s upgrade policy set me thinking about the relationship we have with businesses and councils.
The hype, and anger, surrounding the launch of the new iPhone has been covered elsewhere, so I won’t go into it here, but one comment from O2 caught my eye – that iPhone owners were not ‘special’. And to me, that missed the point, part of owning an iPhone (or any Apple product) is the form as well as the function which means it’s not just about ownership of a product, it’s also about the relationship with that product and brand. It’s why people queued outside O2 stores to buy an iPhone – something they never did for a new Nokia or Blackberry.
So what has this to do with Wandsworth? Well, it started me wondering about the relationship we have with ‘legal personalities’. If it is possible to feel an affinity for an inanimate object like a computer or phone and the company that makes those products, can you have feelings for a council? And if you can, does the council do anything to stimulate (or even stifle) those feelings? Do we foster pride in Wandsworth?
For example, I love living so close to Battersea Park. In fact, I find it very difficult to imagine living anywhere away from it and wonder what I would do for a morning run or afternoon stroll if I did. I also know that the council is responsible for its upkeep (and has done a fantastic job, particularly with the recent renovation), but I wonder how much credit the council would get for the park and how much people think it is “just there”.
To give another example, I also love Lavender Hill, which I think doesn’t get the credit it deserves. There are some fantastic, bars and restaurants along it (and if you’ve not been to Donna Margherita then go, now). Clearly much of that is down to the business owners and their staff. But the council plays a role too. A number of the businesses received Town Centre Improvement Scheme grants, and the council employs a Town Centre Manager to work with businesses to benefit the area. In both cases I’m well aware of the support the council provides because it’s part of my council portfolio, but I suspect most people hadn’t even thought about it.
Naturally, as a politician you would also expect me to highlight the low tax and quality services. And I won’t disappoint. Both of them go towards the Wandsworth brand and are probably what Wandsworth is best known for. It’s quite right for the council to be proud of its reputation for efficiency, but I sometimes wonder if that pride sometimes means people forget about some of the other services that we provide.
We’re not just about emptying bins; we provide schools, libraries, playgrounds and youth centres. We provide advice for businesses, advice on crime prevention and advice on planning. We make sure the borough’s roads are well maintained and the pavements are even and clean. We ensure the elderly and vulnerable are safe and looked after, and scrutinise other agencies to make sure they are doing the same. We licence bars and restaurants, and then make sure their customers and neighbours don’t suffer because of them. We provide housing, and then provide the services our tenants need.
Not an exhaustive list, but together, the council’s services create the environment that make it the sort of place in which people want to live – being in Wandsworth frequently features as a positive attribute in an estate agent’s property description – and all those services are highly regarded by (most) users.
So while the council’s focus on low tax and quality services is absolutely right, especially when the economy is not all it could be, it can give the impression that the council is quite hard edged, when all it means is that efficiency is applied everywhere – you can be efficient in maintaining an award-winning park in exactly the same way you can be efficient tendering a refuse collection contract.
And this then poses this question: should people have pride in individual aspects of Wandsworth, or should they have pride in their council for providing for facilitating them? Should we try for an Apple iPod type of halo effect, for example using our parks to encourage use of our libraries or leisure centres? It seems to me that local authorities (not just Wandsworth) have a huge role to play in creating and maintaining that pride in an area in exactly the same way a business encourages customer loyalty.
And this is where I risk the blog equivalent of tumbleweed rolling while a bell tolls or a lot of criticism of the council. Are you proud to live in Wandsworth, or do you just take pride in individual parts of the borough? And, if so,which and why?