The following is the text of an article I wrote for the Local Government Information Unit‘s C’llr magazine as part of their Big Society edition:

The Big Society’s greatest strength is that no-one actually knows what it is, possibly not even the Prime Minister whose stroke of genius was to create a concept so vague, but so obviously ‘good’, that almost anyone can support it. Whether you want a small state, government involved in every aspect of community and social life or something in between you can find some- thing in the Big Society that will fill your needs.

Trying to divine what the government actually means by Big Society has become a small industry. Taking David Cameron’s speech in Liverpool as a starting point he outlined three strands, social action, public service reform and community empowerment and peppered his speech with words like philanthropy, innovation and ‘voluntarism’. But these are hardly new concepts, most have appeared in various government fads that have come and gone over the years (I was struck by how much the themes of public service reform and innovation resonated with the early 90s vogue for Osborne and Gaebler’s ‘Reinventing Government’). Indeed, David Cameron might view the philanthropic founding of Eton College several hundred years ago as nothing more than a proto-Big Society free school!

What is new is the need for central government to dramatically reduce public spending at a time when government – for good or bad – impinges on more aspects of people’s lives than ever before.

It’s tempting to take the cynical view that it’s a smoke screen policy to offer warm and fuzzy feelings the Treasury can no longer afford. Yet that would be overly simplistic and fail to reflect the reality. Big Society is the mantra of all politicians in government. Every department has a Big Society minister, every announcement a Big Society reference. UK government websites already contain over 13,000 Big Society references and the total grows daily. Across the country voluntary organisations and community groups are starting to think about the opportunities the policy gives them. Slowly and surely a Big Society is being built, even though no-one quite understands the architect’s drawings and vision.

If there is a common understanding it’s that local councils are not a part of the Big Society. While there may not be any diktat stating that local authorities can’t join the Big Society gang, the language rarely mentions them. In the Prime Minister’s announcement he may have named four councils as early pilots, but then went on to address the people of those boroughs and challenged them – not their councils or councillors – to identify the blockages they needed removed to build the Big Society.

And it almost seems that councils have rolled over and let this happen. Two months after the Prime Minister’s launch of the four pilot areas only Windsor and Maidenhead had published anything other than press releases related to the Big Society and how they were helping to make it work. Liverpool had not even published a press release, despite being host to the launch.

It is almost as if, after decades of centralisation and Whitehall direction, Town Halls are unable to take on the opportunity without being told. The irony is that while this is the biggest chance in a generation for councils to exercise freedom in shaping their areas, it might also be their only chance for another generation. The government’s approach to local government seems to have been populism rather than localism; should a localist minister really be telling Newham if it needs a chief executive, or Leicester its councillors’ IT needs?

If the vague nature of the Big Society is its greatest strength, it can also be a great opportunity for local government. The choice is simple, either stand back and watch the Big Society being built around us, or join in with the building and help our communities improve our neighbourhoods; and isn’t that the reason most of us got into local government?

Yet more democracy in action last night at the Environment, Culture and Community Safety OSC.

I was there for the community safety and town centre parts of the meeting which come under my portfolio. In many ways it was a relatively straightforward meeting. There wasn’t anything particularly contentious on the agenda, although as the deficit is addressed I’m sure that is to come. The full agenda is on the council’s website (which does work from time to time, I promise you) but to give a few selected highlights.

10-646 Domestic Violence Strategy
Domestic violence is woefully under-reported and, unlike most crimes, almost all victims are repeat victims. The problem is that domestic violence and abuse often take place in situations that are hard to leave, perhaps because they are in the home, and the victim has nowhere else to go, or it might be that children are involved. In many cases there is a feeling of shame or embarrassment, particularly where the situation doesn’t fit the stereotypical man abusing woman scenario (one of the specific areas of focus are abuse in LGBT relationships).

10-647 Community Safety Division – Annual Quality and Performance Review
This is one of those monster reports that covers everything (each service produces one of these a year), but worth dipping into if you are interested in the sorts of things the council does to make Wandsworth safer.

This prompted a lot of discussion on Neighbourhood Watch (NW), which is one of my pet subjects because I think NW has such great potential and is one of the policy priorities for the coming years. We’re trying to see how we can expand the benefits of NW into hard-to-reach areas, for example council estates have traditionally had much poorer coverage, but also to see how we can create networks of watches and whether we can help in strengthening communities.

Of course, one of the problems with this is that it is uncharted territory. Wandsworth is something of a leader in this field and it’s difficult to know what will and won’t work. It’s a subject that I’ve touched on before, that to develop and improve you often have to accept that your experiments may end in failure, which is not something that sits well in politics. While exciting, I won’t pretend that I don’t have the occasional worry!

10-649 Policing in the 21st Century
This is the council’s response to the government’s white paper. It is generally supportive, although one of the biggest parts of the proposed reforms, directly elected police commissioners, will not affect London as the Mayor would take on that role.

The Labour group voted against this, disagreeing with the abolition of the Metropolitan Police Authority (a better reason than disliking the title of a white paper which they said they largely agreed) and I’m wondering if there’s a degree of oppositional politics starting to return. It is an unusual time for all tiers of government – national, London and Wandsworth to be (largely) politically aligned. It hasn’t happened for 13 years, and then probably only because there was no London government!

10-651 Petition – request for CCTV installation in the area of Leverson Street
This was the council’s response to a petition asking for CCTV to be installed in what is seen as a trouble black spot.

The council rejected this. For me there is a big issue about installing CCTV in primarily residential areas. As a matter of principal it feels wrong to me to have these areas surveilled. However, there are also practical concerns.

CCTV works well in areas where the problem is ‘contained’. So, for example, CCTV in town centre areas can help deter problems (or justify prosecutions, about half of all cases the local police bring use CCTV evidence) that are specific to that sort of area, for example issues around disorder or theft. When dealing with anti-social behaviour problems these can easily relocate, there is little difference between street-corners. In effect the problem is moved, not solved.

And that is the second problem, very often these problems are much better tackled by joint work between the police, council and (frequently) social landlords. Together they are able to tackle those who create problems and divert those on the fringes. Temporary, mobile, CCTV can be effective in gathering evidence for this. Personally I think we’re much better off going for a solution than seeing CCTV as a panacea – it never has been.

10-655 Town Centre Management – Annual review
The council’s approach to town centres has been one of the real success stories of Wandsworth, and has helped the borough avoid the problems faced by so many of having a single, fairly soulless, shopping destination and then nothing but residential areas with little focus.

The paper details some of the activity that has been taking place in each town centre to support, enhance and promote the businesses that are there. It’s split into sections of the five town centres so worth having a browse to see what’s been happening in your local centre.

Labour voted against this (disappointingly, I have to say). They felt that we should be putting equal support in for all shopping areas. The problem with that approach is that if you focus on everything you actually focus on nothing.

It’s also the case that we put a lot of support in to the ‘secondary’ shopping areas. Indeed, I’m meeting with a collection of the business associations representing them tonight to talk about how they and the council can work together. But increasingly we are seeing these areas, along with their local residents, developing their own initiatives (with some support from the council), Southfields and Battersea Square both being success stories of combined resident/business associations. It’s that sort of work we need to support and not applying a one-size fits all town centre management everywhere.

Battersea Arts CentreI accidentally found myself at the opening night of Battersea Art Centre’s One-on-One Festival.

The festival is clearly going to be a success, BAC was full to the extent that the staff and volunteers there were stretched and the festival programme looks fascinating, a series of performances for an audience of one, and while I don’t know the exact maths of the timings I suspect there is enough variety there that many people will have unique combinations.

Of course, it doesn’t appeal to me. I’m probably a Philistine, I suspect because – despite leading a middle class life now – my working class background does not leave me equipped for things artistic. I fear that as an audience of one there would be too much pressure on me to appreciate something that I just might not appreciate.

But that is part of the point of BAC. And will, eventually, bring me to a theme I regularly repeat here.

Looking through the programme there are several in there that I immediately find interesting; but there are several that I immediately question. For example, the second feature on the programme is ‘The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding’. Is that art, or is it just some guy giving you a bath and a bit of a cuddle afterwards? Is it art because it challenges us to think about how we interact with strangers? Or is it art only because it’s forced me to try and come up with an explanation for it?

BAC has a national reputation for its work, which is well deserved and rooted in it’s ability and willingness to innovate and challenge. It might not be for everybody, but it’s not meant to be, it is there to drive forward the arts and to do that it needs to be able to experiment.

In 1998, shortly after I became a councillor, I got a phone call from the then director of BAC explaining why the money Wandsworth Council gave BAC was vital to keep a regional resource running providing cutting edge theatre. And that, essentially, became an argument that ran for years. Why should a local council fund a regional resource that provides a niche product?

The most obvious answer was that if we didn’t no-one else would. So whenever we looked at what we were spending on BAC it would prompt a torrent of letters, emails and phone calls. I think I probably got the one from furthest away last time, from somewhere in New South Wales which was about the closest you can get to the exact antipode of BAC. But in a way this just reinforced one of those arguments, why was the local taxpayer funding something that was clearly serving not just Wandsworth, not even the immediate boroughs, but a huge area, covering not just south-west London, but arguably the whole south-east and beyond.

Any one of the consequences has been that BAC and the council agreed it shouldn’t. The new arrangement is that BAC has a long lease for its building from the council, while the council only directly funds activities that meet its needs, for example with old or young people. A consequence of this independence has opened up extra funding opportunities for the centre. Based on last night BAC is continuing to thrive and provide cutting edge theatre – if anything the council’s funding was a crutch, not a solid foundation, for BAC.

And that theme I said I’d eventually get to… Well, it’s my Wandsworth sausage again. It’s about how the council can shape an area without, necessarily, being responsible for everything in that area. BAC is a clear example of how this can work. By coming to what is effectively a commercial agreement with BAC we have created an environment in which theatre and the arts can thrive in Battersea, this in turn affects the local culture and economy.

I was in a meeting the other night where someone referred to a phrase that the council, apparently, used to use to describe itself and its ambition: “An Enabling Council”. It has echoes of Big Society and, perhaps, it’s something we should be using more consciously again. Instead of bluntly funding directly, or doing things ourselves, BAC is a prime example of the success that can be created when the right environment is nurtured.

I spent yesterday morning out with the police and trading standards as part of the national day of action for Operation Liberal.

Operation Liberal is the national doorstep crime intelligence unit, targeting things like things like rogue traders and distraction burglars. Doorstep crime is a real problem, with many of the criminals sharing information and considering a career, rather than crime. They target the most vulnerable in our communities (the average victim is 79) and take tens of thousands of pounds off them, frequently doing no work at all or even leaving people’s properties in a dangerous condition (in one case they left not only their victim’s house, but also the neighbour’s properties at risk of imminent collapse). A story from this site at the end of last year was about an elderly lady who was about to be ripped off for £16,000 after already losing £14,000 in a con a few years previously.

Yesterday’s operation in Wandsworth was two pronged, one targeting ‘white vans’ to ensure they were legitimate tradesmen and the other visiting houses where work was being done with police and trading standards to speak to the owner and builders.

The second also gave the opportunity to provide information to neighbours. A frequent tactic used by criminals is to claim to be doing some ‘work’ nearby (using the cover of legitimate tradesmen working at neighbours houses) and to have noticed some loose tiles or guttering that they can put right. By far the most popular approach, used by 40% of con-men and distraction burglars, is to be from the “water board” despite it being decades since water boards existed!

Hopefully their potential targets now know to be careful and who to contact with information if con-men do visit

In all the day in Wandsworth caught 10 offences, resulting in two confiscated vans and one arrest. A good result for the council and police. Nationally the figures haven’t been collated, but last year’s operation saw more than 200 arrests and £200,000 of property recovered and as a result fewer people getting ripped off – hopefully this year will have the same impact.

I spent a good chunk of yesterday at the National Worklessness Advisory Panel (which reminded that I’d not done the usual post about JSA figures in Wandsworth). While I’m not going to go into most of the discussions there were some interesting topics raised. One which started me thinking was a discussion about the unintended consequences of local government finance – essentially that you are often effectively rewarded to fail. If you succeed as a council, for example, in reducing unemployment you may see yourself getting less grant from the government because you are less deprived, while other public services may see benefits.

Which set me thinking…

The graph is a comparison of the rate of working-age benefit claims against the recorded rate of violence against the person. It isn’t perfect, the data comes from two difference sources: benefit claims from Nomis are an average from the 2009 quarterly figures, crime from the Home Office’s RDS site and is for 2008-2009 and, because of local government reorganisation some areas couldn’t be compared.

However, I think it gives a clear picture of the relationship. And there’s probably no surprise that, generally the higher the rate of claims (and by extension unemployment) the higher the rate of crime. I will confess I was a little surprised that there wasn’t a tipping point at which recorded violent crime started shooting up. Instead it seems the range of broadens; it would be interesting to know why, for example, Knowsley has a relatively high rate of working age benefits (17.46%) but relatively low violent crime (11 crimes per 1,000 people) and whether that’s a consequence of effective policing and community safety work or something else.

As additionally evidence I would point to the increases in various crime types in Wandsworth, and elsewhere, during the recession.

While very few authorities fall bang on the trend line it rises at approximately 1.2 crimes per 1,000 for every 1% rise in claim rate. To give an example of what this means Wandsworth has a population of 282,000 (according to the Home Office, at least) so a 1% reduction in claim rate could be expected to result in 338 fewer violent crimes in a year if we followed the average trend. Perhaps not that many, but when you consider the costs of those crimes in police time, hopefully court time (processing the offender) and potentially hospital treatment (for the victim) it’s easy to see the that the impact on taxpayers’ money very quickly adds up.

Of course, Wandsworth is mature enough to recognise that the benefits of lower unemployment outweigh the potential loses in grants, but it is an interesting example of the inter-relationship of public services and something that every public service needs to consider carefully while we face the consequences of a huge deficit.

(Given my occasional bleatings about open data, if you are interested feel free to download the data I used to produce the chart and let me know if I’ve got it totally wrong. While I’m confident of the basic premise I caveat it all with the fact that I am not a statistician, and this is a result of procrastination and far too much coffee today.)

It has always puzzled me how local democracy, while incredibly important to everyone’s day-to-day lives barely impinges on people’s consciousness.

I’ve never quite been sure whether that’s because we don’t do enough to publicise it (although politically and administratively I think we’re good at communications) or because people just don’t care. And I’m not sure which of those I would rather it be. While it’s not great to think we’re not doing something well, would that be preferable to people just not caring?

Of course, there is the argument that when things are going well, people just aren’t going to complain. There is some truth in that, and experience shows that people are quick to raise issues, complain and campaign if the council is doing something wrong or they don’t like.

The problem with this approach is that it just supposes that councils are there to provide services, that it exists with a set of fairly binary functions rather than to create the sort of areas we live in. Actually, when you look at the decisions made in Wandsworth ten, twenty or thirty years ago you can start to see that they helped shape the Wandsworth we live in today.

I was blundering around that subject with a post about the Wandsworth sausage the other week: while we do provide those sorts of services, cumulatively they create something that’s not quite as easy to measure or assess. Subtle variations in the services we do (or don’t) provide add up to make the borough we live in. And obviously something is guiding those choices towards, hopefully, that bigger picture.

Last night was a meeting of the Local Strategic Partnership. This is one of those bodies that few outside the public sector know about, but which theoretically wields a huge amount of power over a local area. Everyone there is signed up to ‘Our Wandsworth’, our sustainable community strategy and, therefore, it guides the council, police, NHS, Jobcentre Plus and many others in their binary choices today that collectively building the Wandsworth we want to see in 2018.

The report was just a progress update on how well the medium term targets were progressing. A refresh of the strategy takes place next year, but given my pessimism will anyone outside the public sector contribute their view on the Wandsworth they want to see? Or are we doomed to live in a set of neighbourhoods that are formed as a reflection of the major public sector organisations that serve them? I hope to God not.

I was disappointed at the lack of response to my sausage post. Perhaps it was because of the Carry On innuendo. Or maybe people were disappointed it wasn’t about actual sausages. I’m hopeful it isn’t because people don’t actually care. When I’ve posed similar questions in the past I’ve had plenty of responses, so it was perhaps a poor attempt at engagement by me…

But if I can’t engage people with sausages, what can I engage people with?

I’m currently doing some work in a local authority elsewhere in the country, hopefully helping them improve their (already good) community safety function. Inevitably you draw comparisons with your own experiences and the quality of what you provide. Of course, it’s impossible to do, because each partnership has different needs and priorities – what might be important to the residents of a London borough like Wandsworth might not be important to the residents of a rural district or an urban unitary council.

But it did remind me of my visit to see Wandsworth’s Safer Citizen scheme in action during April. Because it was in an election period so I couldn’t really write about it; now, however, it’s something I want to flag up because it’s something of which Wandsworth should be really proud.

The Safer Citizen scheme is an extension of the Junior Citizen scheme, developed to give children in the borough’s special schools their own Junior Citizen that is adapted to their particular needs, so, for example, children with hearing problems are taught different to children with mobility problems to ensure they are getting the benefits of fire safety training.

We’re lucky to have excellent partners helping us. As always the local police were there along with the fire brigade and Leonard Cheshire (who host the scheme). On the day I visited the London Fire Commissioner, Ron Dobson, and the Chief Executive of Leonard Cheshire, Eric Prescott, were also there to see the scheme in action.

Both left incredibly enthused by what they saw, with Ron Dobson particularly keen for the knowledge and experience of what Wandsworth are doing to be spread to other parts of London. It is a scheme that ensures everyone benefits from our services by recognising that equality is not about equal treatment, but ensuring everyone has the opportunity to benefit equally; a distinction that is all too often lost.

Nigella Lawson opens Summer in the Square
Nigella Lawson opens Summer in the Square

Saturday saw the first ‘Summer in the Square’ event organised by the Friends of Battersea Square.

I popped along with Jess and MiniMe and managed to stay the entire day, from the opening by Nigella Lawson to the end – I even managed to avoid participation in the mass events, especially the line dancing (which coincided with a longish lunch)!

It was a fabulously well-attended, organised and fun event – and it’s been great seeing events like this spring up across the borough over the past few years (not least the Lavender Festival in my own ward). They really show the strength and cohesion of our community and show how much can be achieved when we all work together.

Congratulations to all the organisers.