I wrote the other day (Why are M&S leaving Balham?) about why Balham should be on the up.  In one of those unfortunate ironies at least one business agrees Balham is a place to be.

The lease on the old Woolworths has been bought by a company called 99p Stores Ltd.  who will be opening this Thursday.  While there is part of me that is pleased that that a retailer has the confidence to move in and create jobs, I cannot deny a much bigger part of me would have preferred a more prestigious name.

Unfortunately, it is a side effect of recession that this type of store flourishes as people cut costs.  The company’s website even boasts about it in a job advert, “in the current economic downturn we are enjoying unrivalled growth and success.”

And even more unfortunately, even though the recession will pass (and even someone as bearish as me knows that) these shops will tend to remain. 99p Stores have bought a long lease on the site so they, presumably, are planning on staying put.

The council, particularly through the Economic Development Officer and Town Centre Manager do a lot of work to sell our town centres – not, I hasten to add, to recession stores – and promote investment in them but it is a hard slog and sometimes things aren’t going to develop how we would like.

It is not a terribly fashionable thing for anyone who is British to admit, but I am, and always have been, a great fan of America. And today, I believe, shows all that is great about the country.

The United States Capitol, Washington DC

I’m not particularly speaking about Barack Obama, but instead about the inaugural process.

That is not to say I am not a fan of the British political system, which has a lot to commend it. But when it comes to the transition of one government to another we have always been fairly ruthless. A party loses an election, and within hours its leader will be at the palace handing in their resignation. Meanwhile all his (we’ve never had a female Prime Minister defeated at an election) belongings will be packed up and moved out the back door while the incoming Prime Minister comes in the front. It is unceremonious.

And perhaps this is where we can learn something from the Americans. The process of transition allows a degree of separation, you can recover from the exhaustion of campaigning before you have to get down to the business of government, you can reflect and take stock rather than react immediately. But most of all I think there is something very special about the act of inauguration.

It’s a transparent (you get to see the President-elect become the President), open celebration of democracy – not a celebration of a particular candidate or party but of the peaceful democratic process as one government ends and another begins.

And it can serve as a rallying point – partly because of the distance from the electoral process the partisan politics can be left behind and a country’s President, rather than a party’s candidate, can speak.

A classic example is Kennedy’s first, and only, inauguration. Most will have heard phrases from it like “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”. Few remember that he had won the preceding election only narrowly – winning fewer states than Nixon and with only a 0.1% lead in the popular vote.

Indeed, how many today discuss the hard battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination. If anything it was that process (and the peculiarities of the Democrat’s primary process) that meant today’s ‘history-in-the-making’ will be the first African-American, rather than female, President.

But the sordid details of electoral politics are behind us now. And rather than dwelling on the past there is a poetry to the occasion, which gives it the ability to unite and focus a nation. Something clearly apparent today as millions crowd into DC to see Barack Obama become the 44th President.

It is incredibly self-indulgent of me to offer my thoughts on the occasion. There will be no shortage of opinions on the media or the internet about the significance of today’s event. And while I don’t want to take anything away from Obama’s achievement (and know I couldn’t even if I did) it is worth reflecting on and celebrating the system that made it possible, just as much as the man who did it.

It might seem a bit out of date, since students got their results last summer, but the breakdown of schools and boroughs have just been published and it’s pleasing reading for Wandsworth.

The council’s website has all the details (this press release contains the school by school results and you can get the national picture from the Department for Schools, Children and Families) so I won’t repeat them, but there is one key fact I think worth highlighting – Wandsworth’s results are now ahead of the national average.  For an inner London borough this is a significant achievement.

66.2% of Wandsworth students now get the benchmark 5 A*-C GCSE grades – this compares to 65.3% in the country as a whole.  As an indicator of the improvement Wandsworth was 8% behind the national average in 2001.

This doesn’t mean we should be complacent, there is still room for improvement in many schools, but it is a cause for celebration and congratulation of the borough’s teachers and students.

marks-and-spencer-logoThe closure of Balham’s Marks and Spencer has left a lot of local residents puzzled about why M&S have decided to axe what is seemingly a busy and successful store.

And I’m puzzled too.  

We all know that the country is effectively in recession.  We know that businesses will be feeling the pinch.  But, as a whole, Balham has shown itself to be very resilient.

For a start, it’s a great location.  There are around 21,000 residents within half a mile of the town centre and it has great transport links, with an underground station and an overground station scheduled for improvements.

It’s also benefited from significant investment.  The council’s Town Centre Improvement Scheme has leveraged nearly £600,000 of private sector investment in the Town Centre and in the past 4 years 60 businesses have upgraded their premises or moved into or within the town centre.  

What’s more Balham has been bucking the trend:  footfall counters show an increase of 6% between December 2007 and December 2008, at a time that a national fall of 8% is being reported!  And there is significant anecdotal evidence that food sales for consumption at home are increasing as people eat out less as a result of recession.  If your main business if food sales, Balham would seem the place to be.

It is bizarre that M&S are leaving an area that a retailer, and a food retailer to boot, would surely be desperate to be in.  The council will be putting all these points to M&S to try and dissuade them from following through on their closure.

  • Ploughing through a huge in-tray. But deep down, just excited about ’24’ starting tonight. What would Cllr Jack Bauer do, I wonder? #
  • Right, my inbox is empty for the first time since before Christmas, and it’s staying that way. Nobody email me, ever! #
  • Three emails… Already… My pristine inbox defiled! #
  • Heading up to St John’s Hill to talk with traders about A-boards – fingers crossed we’ve got our policy about right. #
  • Back from my first run of the year, I feel a lot better for it, but could feel I’m still carrying a lot of Christmas pud. #
  • RT @jonworth Read past customary rant and look at UK airport stats – fascinating. No 3rd Runway! http://is.gd/fEsW in reply to jonworth #
  • Starting to prepare for our crime strategic assessment – and deciding what should be the priorities for the next year. #
  • My new year buzz has come late, but started feeling really positive about what we’re doing on crime and (surprisingly) the economy in 2009. #
  • I quite fancy adding YouTube to my engagement experiment, but just can’t think of a good use… Any ideas? #
  • Why I have no opinion on the proposed towers at Clapham Junction… I’m not allowed to have an opinion – http://is.gd/fRDX #
  • On my way to Leadership Centre session on ‘The Future of Politics’ with Hazel Blears, Eric Pickles and Julia Goldsworthy. #
  • I’m somewhat enthused by the ‘Future of Politics’, but worry the analysis about why people don’t become councillors is slightly off. #
  • 3rd runway gets go-ahead – not great news. http://bit.ly/9kjC #
  • A day of solid achievement ahead: casework, CRB check, Heathrow (!) and only one council meeting. I might even do some touting for work. #
  • Heathrow expansion has got the expected go-ahead. http://bit.ly/VapN #
  • My HD is down to 4.29GB free space & my iMac is crawling. I remember when I had a 20MB HD (& 25MHz processor) and thought I was lucky. #
  • I’m ashamed to admit that ‘Come Dine With Me’ is on my TV – but I need to ask the question… exactly what is the point of Abi Titmuss? #
  • And tonight I shall be mostly engaging the community. #
  • More meetings about the community safety strategic assessment this morning. Am very coffee dependent today. #
  • On my way to meet @ingridk to apologise profusely for being late and then have a chat about social media, and local government stuff. in reply to ingridk #
  • Does anyone know of any *UK* crime-mapping sites that map by location like my attempts, e.g. http://is.gd/g7mO rather than averages? #
  • Wow, this is my 200th tweet! So, something profound. Um, yeah, right… 200. Don’t suppose anyone can answer no. 199? http://is.gd/g7My #
  • Heading to Balham for some belated New Year drinks with the Town Centre Partnership. #
  • It’s Friday, a great day for fish and chips. Unfortunately, judging by the queue, half of Battersea have had exactly the same idea. #
  • Is it possible to get a hangover from coffee? I have the symptoms, but didn’t drink last night – I did have way too much coffee though. #
  • How cow. Grimsby won. 1-0 against Wycombe. How on earth did that happen? #
  • I curse the manufacturer of my crappy modem router. #
  • I can’t workout if ‘Total Wipeout’ is a symbol of all that’s wrong with British broadcasting, or actually quite entertaining. #
  • Just had the first & second Heathrow arrivals of the day – & its only just gone 4.30! What was I saying the other day? http://bit.ly/14aEF #
  • I wish I’d stayed off Twitter today – then I would never have found out about Tony Hart dying. #
  • I’m paying Sky a small fortune each month and there is absolutely nothing on worth watching. Thank God for YouTube, which is, um, free. #
  • I was thinking of publishing casework maps, e.g., http://is.gd/gmAh a good idea for engagement & transparency… or politically ‘brave’? #

Many of the issues that needed addressing in the council and police’s communication have been resolved, but a few kinks still need ironing out before the crime briefings can resume.

In the meantime, you can view the Met’s crime mapping – but to save you time the latest figures for Wandsworth on there are November 2008.  Crime for the borough is ‘average’.  Crime for each of the 20 wards is ‘average’.  And if you zoom into what the Met call sub-wards, you’ll find that for all but five crime is ‘average’ – the five that are not average are basically in town centres around transport hubs: Two sub-wards Clapham Junction and one each in Balham, Putney and Tooting.  They are all above average.

I briefly cover why I think the Met’s crime mapping is far from ideal as part of my first crime mapping post.

The Mayor of London is about to invest £6 million into some of London’s parks: but which parks will be decided by a public vote.

In the best tradition of reality competitions, 47 parks across London have been shortlisted and the ten with the most votes will receive some of the funding for improvements.

Two of the shortlisted parks are in Wandsworth, so please considering voting for one of them. It can be done by text or online.

The two parks are:

King George’s Park (Wandsworth)
You can vote for King George’s by:
texting PARKS SW18 3HS to 62967
using the voting form on Help a London Park.

Latchmere Recreation Ground (Battersea)
You can vote for Latchmere by:
texting PARKS SW11 5AD to 62967
using the voting form on Help a London Park.

Texts will cost 10p, in addition to any charge you pay to your network and voting ends on 30 January. You can find out more details from Wandsworth council’s parks vote page or the GLA’s Help a London Park.

So the government have given the go-ahead to the 3rd runway, not good news for those in the north of the borough who will face more disturbance as a result.

Now, I must confess that I have changed my opinion on this.  Up until a few years ago I really couldn’t understand the fuss about Heathrow.  I had chosen to live in London, and one of the things you accept about living in a big city is the noise, but over the years I’ve come to realise that not only is the Heathrow flightpath having a huge effect, but that it has slowly become worse and worse.

If you follow me on Twitter you will have seen an exasperated early morning tweet:

Damn those early morning arrivals at Heathrow – I want another hour asleep!

Although written at 6.14am, it followed a couple of hours of the incessant drone of engines, approaching then fading, then realising that the fading engine noise is actually the next plane.  (That this followed a sleepless night with an unsettled baby just compounded my frustration.)

It is a difficult subject to tackle, and I’m aware of the risk of seeming to be a NIMBY politician, but the government is railroading a decision without consideration of the alternatives.

We could expand existing airports.  My council colleague, Nick Cuff, has written a thoughtful article – ‘There are alternatives to expanding Heathrow’ – on the ConservativeHome website detailing some of the smaller airports in the south-east that already have expansion plans and could accommodate increased air-traffic.

We could invest in high-speed rail.  The 2M Group, of which Wandsworth Council is a member, published a report on how a high speed rail network could connect the UK to many European cities in under four hours (good when you consider the time wasted at airports in addition to flight times)

Or we could take the radical option of building an airport that is actually designed to be a good modern airport, rather than one that has evolved since the 1930s.  Apparently, one of the reasons the car-parking is so far from the terminals is that originally it was assumed passengers would be chaffeur driven and wouldn’t need to park nearby.

Boris Johnson has suggested that the best solution would be a new airport in the Thames Estuary (with most flights over water and therefore not causing the disruption we currently suffer), that could be designed to meet the demands of modern air-travel and modern passengers.  Sadly, it seems no-one in the government has his foresight.

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.

Trees do a lot to make our streets look greener and more pleasant, unfortunately, like all living things they don’t last forever and sometimes the council has to remove them.

Trees in the following eight locations in the ward will be removed shortly (with the reason for removal):

Brassey Square – opposite number 17 (root rotting fungus)
Elsley Road – outside 14 (tree is dead), outside 76 (extensive decay)
Eversleigh Road – outside 203 (tree is leaning into, and obstructing, the road)
Grayshott Road – outside 109 (tree is 60% dead)
Holden Street – outside 62 (root rotting fungus), outside 46 (dead sapling)
Sabine Road – outside 122 (root rotting fungus)
Town Hall Road – outside 1 (tree is 60% dead)

Where possible a replacement sapling will be planted in the next planing season – unfortunately that isn’t until November.