Clapham Junction
Clapham Junction

Many may find it odd that this blog doesn’t contain a single mention of the Clapham Junction planning application, often referred to as the ‘twin towers’.  How can a councillor whose ward is right next to the area concerned not say a word about one of the biggest planning applications Wandsworth (and even London) has seen?

The simple answer is that I can’t say a word about it. Nada, nothing, zilch.

However, since I have had several emails about the scheme, I thought it might be worth setting out rules on this, since they don’t just affect me, but affect all councillors.  I must stress that nothing here should be interpreted as offering any opinion, either positive or negative, on the Clapham Junction planning application – nor, indeed, on any other application, past, present or future.

The application process
A common question is ‘how can the council even consider this application?’ The answer is that we have to consider every valid planning application and does not mean it is being viewed favourably or unfavourably.  The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the council has received a valid application.

This applies regardless of the size, so if you wanted to extend your house and made a proper application it has to go through the full consideration process.  If someone wants to build some towers, it has to go through the full consideration process.

A ‘tall buildings’ policy?
The council does not have a blanket tall buildings policy, instead the council considers what is appropriate for each area.  There are some very good reasons for this.

First, appropriate height is going to be different from area to area.  A tall office block might not look out of place on Upper Richmond Road, which already has several office buildings.  It would look downright unsightly in an area of two-storey houses.

Second, setting an arbitrary limit would probably just encourage developers to build to that limit.  If we set a height of 12 storeys I suspect pretty much every application would be 12 storeys as developers strive to maximise profits.

And you can’t say anything because…?
The reason councillors cannot comment on applications is something called ‘pre-determination’.  If I were to express a view, it could be said that I had already made up my mind without regard to the merits or otherwise of an application.  This would leave any decision open to legal challenge.

Instead, councillors have to demonstrate they approached the decision with an open mind and considered the application and representations fairly.  This is especially the case with a major planning application that might end up being discussed at a full council meeting.

Personally, I think the rules on pre-determination are a nonsense, since it effectively bars elected representatives from representing their residents in cases like this.  However, since they do exist I feel my role as a councillor is best served by retaining my right to vote than by commenting before the decision process has fully begun.

Wandsworth Borough NewsIf not a total surprise, I was saddened to hear that Wandsworth’s local paper is no more.  Even more so that it passed with no-one noticing, the issue published just before Christmas, it was announced, was the last.  It has now been merged with the Wandsworth Guardian meaning, effectively, it is no more.

As I said, it was not a surprise, we all knew that its circulation was low and I suspect that it may well have been reliant on advertising revenue from all the ads the council are legally required to publish in their local press.  But it is worth remembering it was not always like that.

When I first got involved in Wandsworth politics it was viewed with the utmost importance.  As a council candidate I was encouraged to get letters published in it so I would have some name recognition, and I remember pushing press releases and photos (taken with old fashioned film and developed at Snappy Snaps) through the door of their offices on West Hill.  But while it might seem horribly naive, it really wasn’t that long ago that local newspapers were the main, if not the only, source of local news.

The rise of the internet
The internet wasn’t always the pervasive font of all knowledge it is now.  Many people simply did not have access, those that did were forced to endure tortuously long downloads on a dial-up connection that got cut off when someone used the phone in the other room.  Even when you were connected, there just weren’t trusted sources of local news or if there were, Google didn’t exist to help you find them.

But now the Internet is everywhere, on our computers at work and at home, sitting in our pockets on our phones or waiting to be summoned, like a genie, from our low-cost netbook.  And with it comes an expectation that curiosity about news will be satisfied immediately, not when the local paper is published next Wednesday.

The regionalisation of news
Alongside came a change in the way we view ourselves.  It has always been there, to a degree, but I think we are far more Londoners now than we were.  Most people, if asked to name their local paper, would immediately answer the Evening Standard (and some might even suggest the Metro or thelondonpaper or London Lite).  After all, many people spend the daylight hours at work in the City or Westminster rather than at home in Wandsworth.

I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing: I have enormous pride in being a Londoner, and being a very small part of the greatest city the world will ever know.  But I don’t think that pride is incompatible with my pride in being a part of Wandsworth, or Battersea, or even a resident of the Shaftesbury Park Estate.  Each one brings with it a unique source of pride – whether it’s the joy of the Wandsworth diversity, living so close to Battersea Park or being a temporary resident in a fabulous Victorian housing project – that I just can’t get from living anywhere else.

Defending our communities
My sadness comes from the fact that a little symbol of one of those communities, Wandsworth, has now gone.  We don’t really have a local paper anymore, that you could nip to your newsagent once a week to get with some milk.  That does not mean we have lost the fight and are all part of a big homogenous London and nothing else.

The council has always defended our town centres, which provide distinct and vibrant hubs rather than giant anonymous shopping centres.  We have the amenity societies in Battersea, Putney and Wandsworth that stand up for what they believe is best about their patches.  In Battersea there is even the SW11tch campaign fighting hard against the dreadful Clapham-creep that estate agents seemed determined to impose on us good Battersea folk.

Communities will change.  That is inevitable.  Be it 100 years or 1,000 years some historian with a niche interest will look back on the communities I am passionate about with a mixture of bemusement and intellectual curiosity because the concepts and areas are as alien to him as the feudal system is to children in our schools.  But that does not mean we shouldn’t fight for the communities we love, and it does mean we should spare a moment to pay our respects to a fallen comrade:  The Wandsworth Borough News: 1885 – 2008.

Last night saw Wandsworth’s last full council meeting of the year.  My main part was speaking in a debate on the results of the business survey carried out earlier this year.

It showed that business confidence was declining (even though it was carried out before the news started to turn really bleak) but Wandsworth was generally feeling more confident than businesses elsewhere in London and the country.  There was also good news that the council’s business support services are generally highly regarded.

What astounded me, however, is that the Labour Party really do seem to have fallen for the spin that Gordon Brown is some sort of world leader stirring everyone through a financial crisis.  They applaud his VAT cut, but fail to notice that shops are having to have 10%, 20% and even 50% sales just to get them through Christmas!

On a day he said he’d saved the world (and while we all make slips of the tongue, they often reveal what we are really thinking) we also had the German finance minister calling Brown’s plans, “crass” and saying they would take a generation to pay off.  It seems Brown is a world leader with no followers.

In the midst of this it’s down to Wandsworth to try and make things as good as we can for businesses in the borough, while no-one should be under any illusion times will be easy for business, hopefully we will be able to avoid the worst of it.

Last night I attended the celebration of volunteering the council held to say thank-you to the many people in the borough who give their time to help others.  It was an inspirational event not least because it powerfully illustrated that there is still a strong sense of community and selflessness in the borough.

volunteerawardsth There were 140 nominations for awards, which barely scrapes the surface of the amount of volunteering that takes place – apparently the volunteering ‘economy’ is worth over £20 million a year in Wandsworth, and that’s assuming a minimum wage payment to the volunteers we know about.

I found myself as a standing for the second time in a week, presenting the award of volunteer of the year to Kitty Gilbert.  I lost count of the number of places she volunteers, giving her time to help with reading.  It was a real delight to see her enthusiasm and joy at winning.

Congratulations must go to the council’s economic development office and Wandsworth Voluntary Sector Development Agency, (who can provide information on volunteering opportunities in the borough) for organising such a great night.  But the biggest congratulations and thanks have to be to all the people volunteering throughout Wandsworth.