Nearly three weeks after the local elections, Wandsworth formally became a Labour council on Wednesday.
One of the ‘perks’ of being an ex-councillor is invites to various civic events, including the annual meeting and mayor-making. I’ll confess, I haven’t been to one since I left the council. While worthy, they are not the most thrilling of events. But Wednesday felt like one I should attend. And one I should write a blog post about; as much as I tried, this was always a council blog, and it feels like Wednesday was a council ‘moment’.
Most people are familiar with fairly brutal Parliamentary elections, where the results take immediate effect and the Prime Minister faces eviction the next day. But councils work at a slower pace. Councillors do not assume their position until the Monday following their election, and changes in administration have to wait until the next council meeting.
So, while it was accurate, it was also slightly odd to hear Ravi Govindia introduced as the council leader, when he wasn’t even his group leader any more, while Simon Hogg had one last duty to perform as the leader of the opposition.
The meeting progressed much like any of the ones I had attended. Govindia, as council leader, did his job well, with the usual gravitas (save one barbed comment, apparently about Peter Carpenter, that felt beneath him) reflecting on the Mayor’s year. Hogg, responded in kind, perhaps with a little more levity and few hints of politics.
Then the Mayor responded, with the usual reflections on the duties of Mayor and what they had seen. In my first year on the council, the outgoing Mayor did this in the form of a poem they wrote, which stylistically sat between William McGonagall and Pam Ayres. I am grateful prose has been used ever since.
But it was for Tony Belton, now in his 52nd year on the council (and author of an excellent local newsletter) to really bring politics to the meeting. Returning to my first-ever council meeting, Belton was leader of the opposition, and his speech of thanks to the Mayor was undoubtedly political. Many felt it inappropriate. But, I was told, he felt that for much of the audience it might be the only five minutes of local politics they get in the year: it was the price of entry for the free food and drink they would enjoy afterwards.
And he was as right then as he was on Wednesday. Nominating Hogg as the new council leader, he discussed not just his personal merits, but the huge challenges he faces. With multiple crises, from climate to cost-of-living, or housing to inequality, it is little use pretending the Labour administration is inheriting a perfect borough or situation.
What was interesting, though, was the atmosphere afterwards. I won’t pretend it was like the 1997 election or the 2009 presidential inauguration were for many, but it had a tinge of those days. There were feelings of hope and optimism in the air.
Chatting with some council officers afterwards, it was obvious the new administration had come in with a clear programme and hitting the ground running. After 44 years of running Wandsworth with methods developed in the early 80s (much as some of us tried and failed to change that), things will be different.
The test is how those changes impact on the borough over the next four years. Will it be a fairer place, with better homes, and a focus on the people, not developers? I hope so.
Whoever won the election earlier this month would have faced a huge challenge, and would have deserved an evening of celebration before the hard work started. I was just glad I could watch from the sidelines, and be happy there has been a change of management.

So am I. I couldn’t help thinking that there must be some logic I’m missing. So pulled together more data. The table below uses data the excellent London Datastore to see if there was any discernible pattern.

Short story. I still haven’t found one.

If you want to look for yourself the table below is sortable (there’s a little black sort button on each column about half-way up on the right-hand side of each header). You can sort by multiple columns by holding ‘shift’ as you click. The size of the table does make it a bit unwieldy on phones, sorry.

I have tried to explore a few different explanations. The first is the good old Inner/Outer London split. You are a bit more likely to be in an open borough if you are inner London.

I looked at population density and school age children to see if this could offer any explanation. This might be the most logical reason for openings that looks odd, since the boroughs vary enormously in size, which might result in decisions that there odd at first sight, but made sense when looking at the numbers. Again, I couldn’t see any pattern here. I did explore by trying to look at the number of schools and how that might affect things. Again, this produced no obvious answers, although that might be skewed by things like cross-border and private schools.

I also wondered about educational need. Given the government’s repeated statements of the importance of keeping children in education it’s possible factors related to educational need might have relevance. I used English proficiency or children looked after as imperfect proxies for these but, once again, there was no obvious link.

The other possibility is that the government have been looking at trends, but given their inability to spot and act on nationally rising rates during the last national lockdown I suspect it’s unlikely they can do this on a borough level.

I have tried various combinations of factors and other data, but not managed to come up with anything. It is possible, of course, that the Department for Education is using a weighted combination that I’ve not come close to. I like to think that there is some logic to it. But unless and until the criteria used are published it’s very easy to conclude the reasoning behind the decisions is not entirely based in controlling the virus.

BoroughStatusInner/Outer LondonCase rateControlPrimary schoolsPopulation density (per hectare) 2017Proportion of population aged 0-15, 2015% of pupils whose first language is not English (2015)Rates of Children Looked After (2016)GLA Population Estimate 2017
Waltham ForestClosedOuter857Lab5171.221.862.443276,200
HaveringClosedOuter1,095Con (council NOC)6122.619.338.942254,300
Barking and DagenhamClosedOuter950Lab4457.927.241.769209,000
Richmond upon ThamesClosedOuter593LD4534.420.753.526197,300
Kingston upon ThamesOpenOuter595LD3647.119.639.330175,400
Tower HamletsClosedInner917Lab70153.720.151.147304,000
Hammersmith and FulhamClosedInner587Lab37113.017.448.958185,300
Kensington and ChelseaClosedInner476Con27131.116.445.837159,000
Data: London Datastore

Like many I was utterly bemused by some of the decisions made on which London boroughs would see their primary schools opening in the new year.

Clearly having children in school is the best outcome but this has to be balanced against the other public health considerations. A few weeks of education that can be caught up might not be worth the life-long cost of losing a loved one. While I fully expected all school’s to be closed I wasn’t at all ready for the irrationality of the decisions taken.

You would expect some pattern, but looking at data from the London Datastore and the list of schools that are open it looks to me much more like the correlation between opening and closing is much more down to political control.

How on earth can you suggest that Redbridge, with a case rate of 1,027 per 100,000 should have it’s school’s open, while Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, with a case rate of half that, should be closed? Or keeping Greenwich open when six of the ten boroughs with lower case rates are all closed.

There are 32 London boroughs, ten will be expected to open schools. Of those nine are Labour controlled and one Lib Dem. Not a single Conservative controlled borough is expected to open primary schools.

You would expect some incompetence from the government, but at first sight this looks much worse than than.

Update: Redbridge was omitted by the government in error (because this isn’t the sort of thing you would want to double-check before publishing). I have updated that in the list, but think the central point remains: why have places like Hackney and Haringey open when many others are closed.

Update 2: I returned to this with some additional data to try to understand the decisions. I was still none the wiser.

BoroughCase rateControlStatus
Havering1,095Con (council NOC)Closed
Redbridge1,027LabOpen Closed
Barking and Dagenham950LabClosed
Tower Hamlets917LabClosed
Waltham Forest857LabClosed
Sutton747Lib DemClosed
Kingston upon Thames595Lib DemOpen
Richmond upon Thames593Lib DemClosed
Hammersmith and Fulham587LabClosed
Kensington and Chelsea476ConClosed
Primary school opening status by borough, case rate and control. Data: London Datastore