Wandsworth's town centres
Wandsworth’s town centres (taken from town centres website)

I remain a fan of the Portas Report (PDF). An unfashionable position in a time when it is often belittled and the process appears to have descended into an argument between Mary Portas and the government that commissioned the report.

But questions about the selection of pilots or Portas’ (or her television production company’s) motivation aside the report contains a lot that is good—even though not much is new—and part of the process, much to our surprise, involved giving Wandsworth £100,000.

But the windfall immediately raised the question of what we do with it. Dividing it between our town centres would only give each £20,000, which would not go far, thus was born the idea of a visioning and positioning exercise. While not tangible, it potentially has benefits far beyond £20,000 per town centre.

We are in the middle of the visioning exercise now, with consultations and focus groups already undertaken in each town centre, helping them create their vision and set out their stall in an increasingly competitive age.

The current stage involves as public consultation, via the Wandsworth Town Centres website to establish what local residents think of their town centres and what they want to see it offer.

It has certainly been an interesting exercise. I took part as a local councillor in one of the Clapham Junction focus groups and was surprised at how much people had in common. The focus group I attended, for example, was very much (just one exception) hostile to the use of Clapham to define the area. However, and what surprised me most, was a shared sense—even by those ‘representing’ the road—that the town centre can seem Northcote Road centric and more needs to be done to develop, promote and support other key roads in the centre like Battersea Rise, Lavender Hill and St John’s Road to create a broader and more balanced offer.

Wandsworth rightly has pride in its diverse, and generally strong, town centres, but in a competitive environment we need to make sure they are playing to their strengths and serving their local area not only as retail centres, but also as centres that reflect their communities. Taking five minutes to complete the online survey helps us do that.

The power in Balham Town Centre failed again today, affecting a number of businesses and residents. I thought it worth a quick blog post to mention a recent meeting I had with UK Power Networks to discuss the situation.

The history
To give a brief history this is not the first time it has happened. Two years ago, around exactly the same time, Balham was hit by a series of power failures. Not an idea situation when many businesses are in their busiest trading period of the year. At that time I (well, the council’s Economic Development Office and Balham Town Centre Manager) organised a meeting with EDF, who were responsible for power supply.

It must rank among the most pointless meetings I’ve ever attended. The EDF representative hadn’t even bothered to brief herself on the situation, throughout most of the meeting she refused even to apologise, and when she finally did it felt like a non-apology. So when we organised another meeting I wasn’t confident – but, in fact, it was totally different.

The current situation.
UK Power Networks are now responsible for the supply, they turned up knowing the history, with maps of the supply network there and an idea of the problem. And they apologised up front, they recognise their job is to get power through their network and to people.

They believe the problem is cabling (that would ordinarily be expected to outlive me and most of the people reading this blog) damaged by the 2009-2010 transformer failures. Unfortunately they cannot confirm this until that cable is replaced. And replacing that cable is a major job, involving excavating virtually all the pavement.

A solution?
They are planning to replace the cabling early next year. Ordinarily they would need to give three months notice to the council, but will work with the council to organise timing that is as convenient as possible to businesses who have already been badly affected (the EDO is also talking to the relevant council department to see if we can get the notice period waived to increase the options).

They also expressed a willingness to be as open and helpful as possible to businesses if there are any problems, and certainly to do a better job than EDF did a few years ago.

If you are affected and want any more details please get in touch, either via the comments, email or speak to the Balham Town Centre Manager. I know it’s not an idea situation for anyone there, but I’m far more confident that a resolution is coming with UK Power Networks than I ever could be with EDF.

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Businesses in Ritherdon Road in Balham are, together with the Balham Partnership, hosting a street party this Sunday.

The event is designed to raise the profile of the road, and the businesses in it, while also offering something for the community and raising money for the Thomas Pocklington Trust. It runs from midday until 4pm and if you go along you can enjoy anything from free wine tasting to children’s entertainment.

The council is currently promoting its scheme for reduced road closure fees for The Big Lunch in July. And Streetbook are offering to pay the reduced fee for you if you use their site to help organise your party.

Still nothing organised on the Shaftesbury Park Estate though, which is making me feel guilty, despite my lack of organising skills.

Fairy cake and a cup of teaIt seems to have been an oddly quiet week.

Regeneration and Community Safety OSC (well, cycling)
I posted about the meeting the following day, so will not repeat the points. Except, rather smugly, to point out that I cycled to the meeting. I’m rather pleased that I’ve been managing to keep the cycling up – and am finding it an interesting experiment.

Last Monday was the first time I saw some really bad driving. Hitherto I’ve found other road users considerate, much to my surprise. There had been a few annoyances, but nothing major. However on Monday I found myself braking as a car turned left right in front of me and being nudged into the back of the bus by someone who didn’t want to give me any room. Perhaps worst was the driver who ostentatiously pulled into the oncoming lane to pass while pointedly accelerating then swerving rapidly to avoid a head-on collision with cars coming the other way.

My other cycling experiences have all been positive, and I’m going to carry on, but a salutary lesson that it isn’t all good!

Oxford Circus and Balham
It’s mischief and a little childish. But I really enjoyed the whole Oxford Circus and Balham episode. I think what made it sweeter, however, was that Westminster responded. As far as I’m aware the conversation was a few people with Balham connections tweeting about the crossings there. I don’t think anyone was really seriously suggesting Balham and Oxford Circus were the same.

The episode got picked up in a few places. I know the Municipal Journal ran it. The Guardian’s Dave Hill mentioned it and I understand the Local Government Chronicle have also featured my apology blogpost.

Alertbox in Northcote Road
This morning saw a formal launch for AlertBox in Northcote Road. AlertBox is a remarkably simple system that connects retailers and allows them to alert each other to potential problems – for example if they spotted a shoplifter – and to call for help if needed.

The system already runs in Southfields and Tooting where many shopkeepers rave about it.

The installation in Northcote Road was funded by the council and Battersea Crime Prevention Panel, with the technical support coming from the Community Safety Division.

Weekend events
This weekend see two major events. The first is the Battersea Park fireworks on Saturday. The display has always been one of London’s best and I hope the weather holds out to make it another successful year.

The second are the Remembrance Day services on Sunday. The two ‘civic’ services are at St Mary’s in Battersea and St Mary’s Putney. But there are other services taking place across the borough.

A series of events over the past few weeks have left me realising quite how dangerous it is to hold opinions – to the extent I’m thinking of giving them up.

In recent weeks I’ve had two episodes in which my opinion has elicited a surprising response. First when I suggested in my weekly wrap-up a couple of weeks ago that Tony Belton was a little too political in comments he made during a long service celebration at the council. Then when I made a comparison between the diagonal crossing at Balham and the “country’s first” at Oxford Circus.

Far more high profile have been the the response to Jan Moir’s article on the death of Stephen Gately, the BNP appearing on Question Time and the furore over Stephen Fry taking offence at a comment made about him on Twitter.

The simple fact is that all these involve someone’s opinion. Nothing more, nothing less. We all have a fundamental right to have opinions. And we all have a fundamental right to disagree with the opinions of others. What worries me is not the opinions expressed (however much I may disagree with them) but the response to them.

I commented in my post on Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time that “mob rule isn’t suddenly justifiable because the cause is right.” A comment I stand by.

Returning to my experiences, after my comments about Tony Belton I received an email which disagreed with my interpretation. I responded that it was a personal and political blog and, as you would expect, it was my perception. While that perception was shared by everyone I spoke with that night, I’m not so vain as to think it is the only perception one might have. My offer and suggestion of commenting on the post was rejected (well, ignored) and the complaint restated. I was also offered the warning that unless my blog was more balanced it “will soon be totally ignored.”

Well, I could live with that – there are plenty of other things with which to fill my life. But it’s a shocking state of affairs that I am expected to be balanced, as if I have some sort of equivalent to the BBC Charter and don’t stand for election under a party label.

When it came to Oxford Circus I was taken aback at Westminster’s response to the comments about Balham. I don’t think I would ever seriously compare the two crossings and it was tongue-in-cheek (as was my apology). I’m not sure if there’s an element of insecurity or unnecessary defensiveness on Westminster’s part, but I’m fairly certain their press team are lacking a sense of proportion or a sense of humour.

The simple fact is that I will display bias. You should expect that. I am a Conservative so I am far more likely to agree with them and disagree with any other party. I am a Wandsworth councillor and, naturally, everything in Wandsworth is better than anything anywhere else. Even within Wandsworth I would contend that it’s better in Battersea than the other bits of the borough. These opinions won’t always have an evidence base, they just reflect me and my position in the world. No human can ever be totally balanced and impartial, however much they strive towards that goal. With me, I would contend, at least it’s fairly transparent where my bias lies.

Equally, we shouldn’t be expecting balance from the likes of Jan Moir or Nick Griffin. But what I would expect is a sense of balance and proportion from the right-minded people who disagree with their bigotry.

I would have much preferred the BNP Question Time to be a discussion on policy, but can’t pretend to have shed any tears for Nick Griffin’s treatment. One could, at least, reason that while the ganging up was unpleasant, at least public opinion can be relied on to be right. Or can it?

The Stephen Fry episode suggests it can’t. The alleged assailant merely stated an opinion that despite his high regard for Fry he found his tweets boring. And they can be, just as mine often are. Just as anyone is boring unless the the person reading or hearing them has an interest. Boredom is rarely an issue with the person being boring – because it is a certainty that someone else would find it interesting – but with the person being bored.

Unfortunately, this caught Fry at a low ebb, and his response made news in both the online and offline media while the unfortunate opinion holder had to withstand a torrent of abuse for a perfectly valid opinion with people like Alan Davies suggesting an “Essex style” mob to persecute him for daring to call Stephen Fry’s tweeting boring.

This worries me since ideas, opinion and the expression of those are essential to progress. Many, if not most, scientific and social breakthroughs were, originally, totally contrary to the accepted order at the time. If we create a society in which people are afraid to air new ideas and opinions then maybe we should give up on progress. And maybe we should accept that people who think like the Griffins and Moirs of this world should be driven underground where their poison will do far more damage to society than it ever could out in the open where it can be held up, examined and defeated.

It is, perhaps, an extension of the Diana-isation of grief. It seems as if we can no longer hold an emotion on our own unless it is shared tribally. If we are disgusted by the beliefs of Nick Griffin and Jan Moir we should also be disgusted by the baying mobs that formed to attack them rather than attack their ideas.

The internet should be a wonderful tool for the sharing of knowledge and ideas, and the discussion and debate that leads to progress. Sadly, it might just prove that the internet is just giving us the tools to easily collectivise (and perhaps legitimise) our intolerance of what we perceive to be outside a shared norm.

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In previous posts on this blog I have made comparisons between the Oxford Circus diagonal crossing and the crossing installed some years ago at Balham. These suggested that Balham should have received more credit for installing such a crossing and being one of the first – if not the first – in the country.

I was wrong.

It has since been pointed out to me that such a comparison was foolish and misleading.

I want to say sorry to friends and family who must feel let down by my comments, and can only hope that – in time – I can make amends. I also want to apologise to Westminster Council, who clearly have the right to install crossings without anyone suggesting similar crossings had been installed elsewhere in the country. I regret reading too much into headlines like ‘Oxford Street opens first diagonal pedestrian system’. But most of all I want to apologise unreservedly to Oxford Circus, and hope my comments have not detracted from the enjoyment of the many thousands who will be using the crossing.

As part of making amends, I am pleased to be able to print a statement from Westminster City Council’s Press Office below.

Martin Low, City Commissioner for Transportation at Westminster City Council, said: “I’m extremely flattered that Wandsworth council is so impressed by our new Japanese-inspired diagonal crossing that its members now wish to draw parallels to a diagonal crossing in Balham built in 2005. But with all due respect, the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo has far similar challenges in terms of handling huge numbers of pedestrians to Oxford Circus, than Balham.

“The West End attracts 200 million visitors a year and the engineering involved in developing and building the Oxford Circus crossing, which handles 38,000 pedestrians an hour at its peak, is nothing like the relatively simple crossing suitable for an area like Balham. Also, we never claimed it was the first – the Japanese got there around two decades before us both.”

I hope that the Oxford Circus and Balham crossings can join me in putting this unfortunate incident behind us and concentrating on a future of pedestrian road safety.

I couldn’t help myself back in April when the idea of a diagonal crossing for Oxford Circus was was first publicised, and I cannot help myself now: BALHAM GOT THERE FIRST!

Of course, it would be dishonest to pretend Balham’s was the world’s first diagonal crossing. Without wanting to waste officer time getting a precise answer a search on the council’s website reveals the idea was first proposed in 2002 and, by 2005, had been implemented (both links open PDFs) – so it is only between four and seven years old.

But it’s slightly galling to hear Oxford Circus praised as a “a triumph for British engineering, Japanese innovation and good old fashioned common sense” when actually that’s what Balham is – Oxford Circus is just a copy.

(I’m not the only one defending Balham’s good name; Adam Bienkov has also covered it on the ToryTroll blog, Dave Cross bemoans Balham’s lack of credit at SW12.org and Jon Silk, in his PR Geek blog, suggests Balham’s diagonal crossing isn’t as well used as it could be.)

Regrettably this post has caused some considerable offence, which was never my intention – please see Oxford Circus: An apology.

Another slow-ish week council-wise, as the summer slow-down truly takes hold.

But a few things to include this week.

My weekly wrap-up last week was posted during the lunch break of GoogleLocalgov. Google are clearly targetting local government as a market and, as part of that hosted a whole group of local government types to a day at their offices. The morning was a sales pitch, frankly, for their AdWords and AdSense services.

I’ve always assumed I wouldn’t run ads on this site – so didn’t see it as terribly relevant.

The afternoon session, for which I had high hopes, covered the more creative offering of Google’s business. While better, it seemed to miss the needs of local government and just a little tacked on.

So while I got a few ideas from it, I can’t say I came away buzzing with them as I expected I would (and have to admit that Google’s offices lacked the buzz I was expecting). The upside of this is that you won’t have to put up with endless new ‘features’ being introduced just for the sake of it!

Balham Street Festival
Continuing the recent tradition of street festivals and events (in Lavender Hill and Northcote Road, with more to come in St John’s Hill, Wandsworth and – I understand – Southfields) Balham had their event last Sunday. Unfortunately I couldn’t make it, but have heard nothing but praise for the event. You can read the Balham Town Centre manager’s review of it on the Balham Blog.

19 Lavender Hill
I usually don’t report on casework on this blog, because of the fairly obvious privacy issues. However, I have been asked what is happening with 19, Lavender Hill – a property I blogged about last April. Some months on and the property still looks fairly derelict.

It is still in council ownership, since some of the legal issues took longer to wrap up than anticipated. However, it is expected to go to sale within the next two months and the sale will be covenanted to ensure the new owner brings it back into use quickly. So hopefully it won’t be long before we finally see some improvement.

Finally, I have to highlight my post on chugging. There have already been a number of comments on the post, largely supportive of my view. You would perhaps expect that – but I would encourage anyone, whatever their view, to comment. I do genuinely like to see debate and have never deleted or edited a post just because I disagree. So, please, add your voice.

If you are in Balham this weekend then make sure you get along to the Balham Street Festival this Sunday between 1 and 5pm on Hildreth Street.
The event boasts a packed programme of entertainment.
You can get more information from the Balham Town Centre Manager’s blog at http://balham.squarespace.com/tcm-news/2009/7/17/balham-street-festival-sunday-9th-august.html

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