Reporting, again, a pothole on Kingsley Street for repair made me realise what austerity actually means for most people: and it’s not that much.

I’d previously reported it at the beginning of June, but three months later the pothole remains, not massive, but still needing repair. It’s a sharp contrast from the level of response I’d previously had; when a pothole could be fixed in a day.

Of course, there are lots of reasons why the comparison may be unfair and the response times different. The example in 2010 was just before the national and local elections when more effort was put in and I was still in the Conservative group (the post was even copied across to the party website) while in 2015 paperwork may have gone awry or it might just not be seen as big enough.

Fundamentally though, the council just doesn’t have as much money as it once did: 2010 is very different to 2015. It cannot afford the resources to respond rapidly or on the same level as it once did.

But is this that big an issue? Possibly not. It brought to mind the concept of hedonic adaptation, that whatever changes—good or bad—impact on a person, they soon return to about the same level of happiness they experienced before.

I wonder if that is what is happening in the UK: things aren’t as good as they were, but expectations are changing. People will occasionally vaguely recall that things used to be better, but doesn’t everyone believe that the past was a golden age?

Is it really the case that, other than those directly affected because of cuts in public services, the only ones that care or notice are people like me with an unhealthy obsession with reporting street defects? If so, historians and sociologists of the future may well find themselves studying how austerity in the twenty-first century led to little more than an increase in mild swearing when people tripped on uneven pavements.

I’m just about old enough to vaguely remember pundits who made a living from Kremlinology and divining some meaning from the scraps of information that escaped Red Square. I was reminded of them watching the public utterances from Wandsworth on Formula E.

The first time I recalled it was seeing a council press release and thinking there must be something to the timings (it was published the day after a Conservative group meeting, but that was five days after Formula E and it described an event that took place a week before). Of course, it’s always preferable to trust the cock-up theory and not the conspiracy theory, but it was fun to speculate on the reasons for that specific timing.

Watching further it’s easy to see how pundits can make a living. I found the following couple of quotes interesting. In autosport.com an interview with Alejandro Agag contains the following:

Formula E has four more years left to run on its contract to use Battersea Park as the venue for the British round, though it does contain an opt-out clause for either party.

Agag expects the venue to remain the same, though it is understood final confirmation will not come until Battersea completes due diligence on last season’s round.

“We’re definitely not executing it [the opt-out clause] and we don’t think they will either,” he said. “We hope they won’t.

“There is a small minority of people who were unhappy and we’re trying to make them happy.”

Meanwhile motorsport.com speculates that Formula E’s desire to change the dates may prove to be an insurmountable problem.

Deputy leader of Wandsworth Council, Jonathan Cook, said: “If we continue (with Formula E) it would have to be the same weekend, as we have so many other events happening in the park, notably the Chase Corporate Challenge, a big running race which goes on immediately afterwards. We wouldn’t be able move that and nor would we want to.

“We have something like 600 events going on in the park throughout the year,” continued Cook. “They are not all on the scale of the Formula E event, but the ePrix has to fit in to the schedule of the other events, many of which have been going on for years.

So, are they quotes revealing that next year is not a certainty? Or quotes that are simply some public posturing ahead of contract negotiations? I don’t know. But what I did find interesting is that it was Formula E who referred to residents, whereas for the council the issue is not public opposition, but the competing demands of the park’s corporate users.

You can give the council your views on Formula E at their consultation site until 6 September, and if you are not a Formula E fan, you might like to visit the Save Battersea Park campaign site.

 I’ve reflected on being an independent councillor quite a lot since the last council meeting. In many ways the council meeting highlighted and formalised the transition, before things had gone on much as before: people would contact me, I’d raise issues with the town hall, nothing really changed.

But the meeting was the point when being independent made a difference. My seat in the chamber moved from the irrelevant margins to a spot I assume was seen by the whip as slightly more marginal. The usual greetings were thin on the ground, although the leader did deign to make strange noises (possibly mocking, possibly intestinal problems) to greet me when I presented the Formula E petition. My votes seemed to attract far more attention than ever before.

I was particularly amused when my vote was the same as the Labour group’s that there were accusations of collusion. There was, perhaps, a misunderstanding of the meaning of independence, but I also assume that if your normality is a group, then you assume everyone’s normality is a group. The truth was we didn’t even coordinate votes as independents.

It did, however, bring home to me that I need to have some clear statement of what I believe and want to do as a councillor. If the main reason I left the majority group was the lack of vision, then it would be a meaningless gesture if I were not to have some clear vision of what I believe the council and I should be doing.

The difficulty is in creating a lucid definition: while the picture is clear in my head, putting it into words is harder. It has concepts of community and society, and perhaps especially enablement. It has degrees of innovation, but without the total control that seems to be required at present. Transparency is important, but perhaps goes further, and has a degree of almost open source government where people have the right and the power to see if they can change things.

I recognise I’m not in much of a position to effect change (although an example from another part of my life has reminded me that when you set challenging goals, you often surprise yourself by exceeding them) but I obviously have total control over how I work as a local councillor and that is a role in which I still know I can make a big difference: the first task is deciding how.

 

Wandsworth Council Chamber, from a councillor's view
In my new seat, 2,300 name petitition at the ready
 
Last night was my first full council meeting as an independent councillor, and in some ways one of the more interesting meetings I’ve attended, because I could attend and make up my own mind rather an having each of my votes pre-determined by the whip. It was remarkably refreshing, as a councillor, to be genuinely undecided and make a decision on my vote on the basis of the debate.

It is also, effectively, the only meeting at which independent councillors have any formal role, since the Conservative group flexed their majority to give us the most marginal of committee places. They even attempted to bury a question from Cllr Grimston about the proposed Richmond merger down the order, although the Mayor, to her credit, insisted it be put higher on the order.

One thing I thought I would try to do is record my votes. As a general rule votes aren’t recorded at the council although you could generally guess which way people voted based on the vote size (there had never been any real examples of people disobeying the party whip). The agenda is available on the council’s website, there were lots of votes taken—many uncontentious—so this isn’t comprehensive, but my thoughts and votes on those that had some debate or interest.

Shared arrangements with Richmond: I voted with Labour on their amendment. Then voted against the paragraph.

I was undecided going into the meeting, but I had reservations. Richmond is very different to Wandsworth, it doesn’t even run some of the big ticket services that Wandsworth runs. Above all the whole things seems to be be drawn up remarkably quickly, an opportunistic merger after Richmond’s talks with Kingston failed. It might be the right thing to do, but that would be luck rather than judgement: a decision of this magnitude needs to be taken with proper consideration, not when Richmond are on the rebound.

Political Groups and Committee Appointments: Mildly interesting. Essentially the Conservatives deciding on which committees the two independent councillors can serve, with the two of us suggesting something different. Unsurprisingly I voted for the independent proposal. Unsurprisingly it was defeated.

Motion on Airport Expansion: This was a rather dull debate of lots of people agreeing with each other. It seemed half the councillors left the chamber for the duration of it. We debate this subject again and again (I assume because it’s a big issue in key Conservative areas!) but I don’t think there’s ever been a different outcome other than unanimous support.

Motion on Private Renting in Wandsworth: I would have had no problem supporting the motion, but equally found myself having not having any problem with voting for the Conservative amendment which was pretty bland, so supported that and the amended motion. This was essentially about supporting private renters in the borough, a rapidly growing tenure and one that is often characterised by insecurity.

Battersea Park in seasonal racing attire
Battersea Park in seasonal racing attire
Battersea Park is almost back to normal, or at least the new normal with a lot more tarmac than there was before but many are still angry about it.

A number of local residents affected are organising a public meeting do discuss possible responses to Formula E this Friday.

The meeting takes place at Ethelburga Community Centre at 60 Worfield Street at 7pm on Friday 10 July.

While the complaints leading up to and during the event were certainly noticed by the council and I wondered if the town hall press office’s silence indicated a shift in opinion was coming (the press office is essentially part of the leader’s office, so a good indication of what’s going on) that silence was broken last Friday.

The timing of the press release is important. It was already out-of-date, detailing an event that was a week old, but was released the the day after the Conservative group meeting (a private meeting of Conservative councillors to which the party organiser and chief activists are also invited) which might imply the decision to try for another four years has been taken.
If the council is to reverse that decision, then public pressure has to be applied now, and not just when the park is disrupted in years to come. Friday’s meeting may be the start of that.

Battersea Park's new racetrack taking shape. Good for Scalextric, not so good for park users
Battersea Park’s new racetrack taking shape. Good for Scalextric, not so good for park users.

When I found myself unable to support Formula E in Battersea Park I was perfectly content with being in a minority position. It was almost a habit in Wandsworth, something I considered a strength, both personal and policy-making.

I assumed that Formula E would come, and go, and a few people would be a bit put out, but it would soon be forgotten.

I certainly hadn’t anticipated the concrete and metal mess that Battersea Park has become.

It’s incredibly hard not to think a line has been crossed. I was concerned about the principle of selling the park being breached. Yes, bits of the park are available for private rent, but they are small portions of the park: even when they are closed off the park can still function as a park.

Now, it is impossible to consider Battersea Park as a meaningful green space, whatever carefully framed pictures the council tweet there are plenty more detailing the rest of the park

Instead we are faced with weeks of excessive disruption. (It has been months this time, but I assume that’s only due to the tarmac “enhancements” that won’t need repeating for the 2016–2019 races). I can’t describe how saddening it was when my daughter got excited about a nursery trip to Battersea Park, only to hear her slightly older brother who had been that day, lower her expectations: “Battersea Park isn’t a nice place to visit any more.”

The council has been remarkably quiet in answering criticism. I wonder if this is because they are preparing for a change of heart but want to keep that to themselves until after the race. I hope so, but also worry they are hoping to ride out the criticism.

But the mood seems to be changing. The Labour Party, having previously supported the event, have started changing their tone and throughout the debacle residents have been mobilising, organising a petition and a public meeting for shortly after the event.

It has long been my concern that the council lacks a vision of what is important to Wandsworth. Perhaps this will be one of those occasions when local residents are going to make sure they know what is important to Wandsworth.

I have been muted in my blogging, feeling it was diplomatic to simply keep my head down. And it probably still is.

My silence, along with the disappearance of a few blog posts and editing of a third, was stimulated by a colleague who pointed out that I made things difficult when I expressed different opinions to others in the group; a point of view I accepted at the time. But increasingly it grated. I’ve always been fond of George Patton’s line: “If everybody’s thinking alike then somebody isn’t thinking.”

The line was with me when I voted against the controlling group for the first time at the last meeting. I wrote in a draft blog post (which remains unpublished) at the time:

The first debate marked the first time I’ve voted against the group in council. Not something I did lightly, and not on a sexy subject: ward budgets for councillors. I suspect many would see it as being a grandiose councillor, but I have long thought there’s a strong argument that ward budgets (which would give councillors a small spending power for projects in their ward) would improve local democracy and accountability. If nothing else I can think of plenty of small projects in Shaftesbury, most recently the suggestion of lighting in the Lavender Gardens path by Asda, that would improve people’s lives with just a small investment. Additionally, I was not comfortable with over-turning the tradition that OSC decisions are respected.

I’m sure it hasn’t made me popular (I’ve already had one call to resign), but I felt it was the right thing to do.

During my re-selection process last year I highlighted my tendency to provide different thinking within the council, something the selection meeting seemed to welcome. Representing other points of view, bring new perspectives and thinking differently got me re-selected. Sullenly thinking what I’m told did not.

And so once again last night I felt it was the right thing to do when it came to supporting Formula E. Or not supporting it, as the case was. It won’t make me popular with colleagues, I’m sure, but I have already rehearsed my views on here, and while I have been quiet since, those views haven’t changed.

It is, of course, irrelevant to the final result. I was just one of three voting against (I was surprised to find Martin Johnson and Malcolm Grimston also taking the same view) with everyone else supporting the proposal. Being in a small minority isn’t necessarily a bad thing although it might be a strong indicator I’m totally wrong. It does, however, indicate that everyone is thinking, just that some are thinking differently. Above all, being in a minority doesn’t change my feeling that Battersea Park is something special and we risk that at our peril.

The council has undoubtedly been going through a little local difficulty recently. That’s politics, it happens. What has surprised me is the feigned shock and surprise that the council, or more precisely the Conservative group, looks the various options that have been highlighted.

It is well-known the money just isn’t there like it used to be for the public sector. It’s perhaps less widely that councils are bearing the brunt of spending cuts. This may or may not be fair, depending on how you look at it; councils are responsible for a huge share of public spending, but in large part because they are at the frontline and the spending is on the most vulnerable in society. Whatever the rights and wrongs, councils have no choice but to make savings. It’s not just a Wandsworth thing.

Labour may be on a high horse in Wandsworth, but I have no doubt that similar lists exist in local authorities of every colour and hue. If they don’t, I’d question whether that council is doing their job.

I grew up as a heavy user of my local library, so know the benefits they offer. But equally as I have grown I have seen the way access to information has changed. Internet access is not quite universal, but is getting there. The net book agreement is no more, increasing retail competition and increasing book sales. People carry devices that can be used as ereaders with them as a matter of routine.

And I have changed too. My need for access to expensive reference books largely ended when I finished formal education. Commuting and bedtime reading replaced daytime breaks. Increasingly I would purchase—rather than borrow—books and then either keep them or donate them to charity or occasionally to (never) be tracked on sites like bookcrossing. I only used libraries occasionally, the last time was over ten years ago.

I won’t pretend I am representative, but when we’ve looked at libraries before the data show relatively few people use them, but those that do tend to use them heavily. Likewise, the books stocked see a small proportion borrowed frequently, while most languish, unloved, on the shelves for years.

If we were starting a library service from scratch, would we constitute it as we do now? I doubt it. I suspect we might put a much higher emphasis on children’s lending, perhaps look at the need for study areas at some libraries, consider whether internet access is as important as it was ten years ago. I also think we might not see quite the same need for big rooms full of shelves of books for adult lending.

But maybe I’m wrong. I would have absolutely no way of knowing without looking at the data, considering options and weighing those options against the council’s vision, policy objectives and other options.

Exactly the same argument applies to any other council service. Just because a need existed five years ago doesn’t mean it exists today. Likewise the council might have to address new needs today that just weren’t relevant five years ago. Nothing exists in a vacuum, including council budgets. While there might be an argument about policy making transparency, no-one should be getting on a high horse to discover the council considers options, they should be worried if it weren’t.

The parkrun logo

Earlier this week saw the launch of a petition to bring a weekly parkrun to Wandsworth, and having written a blog post disagreeing with the Formula E proposals I might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb and say this is another bit of council policy with which I disagree.

Parkrun is a weekly five kilometre run, measured, timed and run by local volunteers so it is free to enter. There are currently 289 weekly parkrun events around the country.

I did try to help a few people (including those behind the petition) who wanted a parkrun in the borough. Unfortunately I drew the same blank as they did, the council would not allow an event without payment of a licence fee. I did wonder if there might be a creative way around the fee issue, perhaps finding someone who could fund it. Unfortunately parkrun themselves were opposed to this, a similar situation happens elsewhere and is often cited to them as a precedent. Their fear (a reasonable one, based on experience) is that aside from the sustainability of a parkrun that needs annual funding, is that extending the precedent reduces the chances of new parkruns being established and could jeopardise those already in place.

My intervention, therefore, only resulted in the continuation of a stalemate. Both sides were probably better informed, but it was a stalemate nonetheless.

The petition, then, can be seen as a last attempt to persuade the council of the demand for an event in the borough. Yet even without that I think there are compelling reasons for a parkrun.

You might think parkrun is something of an exclusive event, a freebie for runners who, frankly, don’t really need an organised run to go out and do a 5k. In fact 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.

I know the council needs to maximise revenue and minimise its expenditure. As a councillor it’s impossible to avoid the simple fact that there isn’t as much money as there was. I’m also fully aware that one of Wandsworth’s strongest features is the rigour it brings to financial management: it watches every penny.

But sometimes that means the balance sheet wins because it’s hard to put a price tag on common sense. I think this is one of those occasions. The council may forgo a £600 or so a year in licensing fees (though I’m not aware of any other event like parkrun who would pay it), but the benefits to the wider community far outweigh £600.

I’d love to see a parkrun in Wandsworth. If you’re a Wandsworth resident (the organisers are keen to keep the signatures local, they’ve turned down celebrity endorsements to do that) please consider signing too.