The courtyard entrance to Wandsworth Town Hall

However much I may be disappointed in the referendum result, it is now time to move on and make sure the country and the borough are as successful as it can be. It is, therefore, saddening to see reports of racist incidents that appear to be related to the referendum result.

While I do not believe for a second the result has somehow created racism, it may well have emboldened those who hold those racist views.

We should be unequivocal in saying that such views are as reprehensible now as they were before the votes had been counted.

As independent councillors Malcolm Grimston and I circulated the following statement among fellow councillors at the weekend inviting them all to endorse it:

As councillors we are all proud of Wandsworth’s diversity and cohesion. We are confident Wandsworth will remain a great place to live for everyone. However, we are aware that there have been examples across the country of people interpreting the vote to leave the European Union as an excuse for racism and other divisive behaviour, not just aimed at our good friends from the European Union.

We want to stress that we fully support the comments of Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, and our three local MPs, Jane Ellison, Justine Greening and Rosena Allin-Khan: to everyone who has chosen to make Wandsworth their home wherever they may hail from we reiterate you remain warmly welcome in the Brighter Borough.

Wandsworth is all the stronger for its diversity and the different contributions made by all our residents and we as Councillors will do everything we can to make sure that you continue to enjoy the inclusive and peaceful life which characterises our Borough

The Labour Group on Wandsworth have endorsed the statement and I will update this post as others join.

Update: In response council leader Ravi Govindia has put out his own statement part of which touches on this issue alongside broader issues like Nine Elms and low council tax.

Cllr Marie Hanson (Con) has retweeted the initial statement.

Runners take the final bend of the three-lap Tooting parkrun route

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.

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.

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.

The courtyard entrance to Wandsworth Town Hall

“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.

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.”

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.

The council has withdrawn the intended paper on the future of Formula E in Battersea Park. The issue was originally to be discussed at the Community Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee on 22 September. However, the council has now withdrawn item from the agenda citing the need to properly analyse and consider the responses to the consultation.

I understand that the council has received around 3,000 comments from various sources. I have no idea how they balance between those supportive and those opposed to Formula E but this is a significant level of response for a council consultation and it doesn’t seem all that unlikely they were unable to complete a proper analysis in time for the committee.

I know many people were planning to attend the meeting to watch from the public gallery, and that many more were interested in the outcome. The decision will still have to be made at some stage. The question is when that will be. The next scheduled committee is 24 November, but this will be after the date by which the option to exercise a break clause will have passed.

Since it’s possible the decision may be referred to full council it does raise some interesting timing questions. We’re still not quite at the finish line for Formula E in Battersea Park.

School poster ONE jpegShaftesbury Park School on Ashbury Road hosts the first Lavender Hill Farmers Market tomorrow.

I’m rather pleased to see it coming to the area. Wearing my pro-Lavender Hill hat, every little helps when it comes to increasing footfall in the area (even if it is a few minutes walk from Lavender Hill itself). But as a school governor at Shaftesbury Park it’s great to see the school being used and opening itself up outside of the normal school week.

Additionally the relationship has potential benefits for the school beyond merely, and I know the organisers have been talking with the school and the PTA about how the school can be involved.

The market is open from 10am until 2pm, and will be returning every week.

Wien Westbahnhof railway station at 5th September 2015: Migrants on their way to Germany

The campaign for Wandsworth to accept ten refugees seems woefully inadequate in the light of the scale of the refugee crisis. Even despite that, there are plenty who are arguing against it both locally and nationally, saying we should look after our own people first, that the country is already full or that those finding their way to our shores are motivated by economics not personal safety.

There might be some merit to that first argument. I long ago lost count of the number of people who had approached me as a councillor about their housing application I found myself telling that, however difficult their circumstances, they would have a long wait until they were likely to be at the top of the list.

Equally, the council can argue that it has a tried and tested procedure for assessing the merits of housing applications and that circumventing that would create a dangerous precedent and be unfair to those who were previously on the list. In any case, such a small number is tokenism given the scale of the issue.

Sometimes, though, a symbolic gesture is exactly what is needed. The council may have efficient bureaucratic processes, but it can also show leadership: a gesture, perhaps, but also a strong signal that we don’t simply turn our backs when we can help. That as a borough and a country we are not selfish and we are not full. And that when it really matters we can rise above parochial self-interest and rule-bound processes that so often rail-road our decision-making; to prove that we are not just human, we are also humane.