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 I wrote in a draft blog post (which remains unpublished) at the time: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 finish of the Beijing Formula E race

Tonight the Community Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee will approve plans to agree, in principle, to running a Formula E race in Battersea Park starting the process of formal approval at full council and planning consent next year.

It’s a process I’ve been watching for a while. Indeed, when I first heard of it over a year ago I was a supporter of exploring the idea. Wiser colleagues were not, sensing the disruption and risk to the park was too much; but I felt the initial offer seemed suspiciously ’round’ (if I recall the Formula E proposal was £250,000 with four weeks of setting up and dismantling). Perhaps, I conjectured, if pushed they may offer more or be able to get in and out more quickly and if that was the case, we might get a stage at which both we and the Friends of Battersea Park think the benefits outweigh the inconvenience.

I’ve obviously not been a witness to the developments since May but it would seem there has been movement, I don’t know if it’s more cash, less set-up time or a combination of both, but we’re now on the brink of giving the go-ahead to Formula E.

But in that time my opinions have changed too.

I don’t know whether I’m a heavy user of the park. I am in and out of there a lot. Almost all my running incorporates Battersea Park in some way, I take the kids to the playground, they go to a sports club there, we are semi-regular attenders of the Pump House’s Sunday Socials, but while I may average more than a visit a day, I am sure there are those for whom the park is an integral part of their life, just as there are some for whom it is an irregular oasis of calm in an inner city.

But more and more I’ve become concerned that an event like this is a dangerous erosion of what makes the park special.

I know there is a need to raise revenue. And I know the park already does that. But it does it well, the park can almost hide events. You might have visited the park the other week and spent a day there without knowing a cinema screen was going up. You need never visit or use any of the concessions or pay to enter the zoo or use the Millennium Arena and sports facilities. There can be exhibitions or big parties taking place at the British Genius site, but other park users may never know.

Formula E strikes me as different. It’s hard to see how it can take place without total closure of the park to the ordinary public during a key period of (hopefully) good weather in June. It’s hard to see how you can set-up and take down all the facilities of a race track without a lengthy period of disruption. And while the council is proud that a 5am test run didn’t create any complaints I suspect the real disruption would be the 40,000 visitors, then the comings and going of crew, TV, support, and everything else associated with a race. That is before you consider the risk to the park’s environment and heritage.

So having been one of those who said we should look at it I now find myself thinking we shouldn’t look at it. But seem to be in a minority. The news has been out for a while, Battersea Park being touted as the preferred track for at least a year in various places (indeed, Googling it recently I discovered that they’d even said the council were keeping it secret until the elections, which shows how much it wasn’t being kept secret) but watching reaction it seems lots of people are keen. Even the Friends of Battersea Park seem to be, at least, neutral to the prospect.

I have, perhaps, lost sight of the bigger picture. Perhaps if Formula E offered me loads of cash to invest in Lavender Hill so they could race on it I’d be much keener (and, practically speaking, can see how roads would be much more suited than a park). But I can’t help coming back to the feeling that Battersea Park is something special. It’s part of what make Battersea such a wonderful part of London.

Perhaps everything does have a price. But if it does, you need to be absolutely sure you know what that price is, because once it’s been sold once, it simply becomes a bit of rental land. When that happens a lot of what makes it so very special will be lost forever; I can’t imagine a price tag worth that.

Not Wandsworth, for a change

After a few days of Jubilee-related events I found myself bloated and lethargic: the consequence of a little too much cake, ice cream and alcohol.

Battersea Park: with facilities for the 90,000
My weekend managed a degree of diversity. Saturday was spent in Kent, at a fair organised in my wife’s home village. It was the very image of what I imagined a village fête to be including morris dancers and a Women’s Institute tea-room.

On Sunday, along with tens of thousands of others, I braved the chill and rain to see the jubilee flotilla from Battersea Park. I was surprised, and rather proud to be British, to see the park absolutely heaving with people and portaloos despite the weather. I have no idea how many people were put off, but when we were looking for a place in front of one of the big screens to set-up a picnic it didn’t look like many had stayed at home.

Lavender Gardens' penultimate sing-a-long
Finally, on Monday, I popped along to the Elspeth Road and Lavender Gardens street party. A superb event that encompassed the whole community. The organisers deserve huge congratulations for all their work; it certainly paid off.

And all the car owners deserve credit for their parking.

Like any job, being a councillor changes the way you look at things. And even with the jubilee I couldn’t help noticing the parking.

In that small Kentish village cars were absent. No-one parked in the village square, or the village hall car park, or on any of the roads used for the celebrations.

Not that big a deal, perhaps. While those spaces are usually full a nearby field was turned over to parking and only added a few minutes inconvenience to residents.

In Lavender Gardens, though, no such alternative was available. Residents had to take their luck finding a space elsewhere. And this in an area where parking has a premium, created by the cost of a parking permit and charge for a parking bay suspension. But compliance was near total. Just two cars acted as blemishes on the otherwise pedestrian-only southern half of Lavender Gardens.

Like I said, being a councillor changes the way you look at things, my correspondence often sees parking elevated to the status of human right, the space immediately outside a house becomes consecrated ground being plundered by infidel neighbours parking their cars there.

So having experienced fourteen years of parking rights extremism it was refreshing to see such widescale voluntary compliance. In Lavender Gardens, at least, I know Her Majesty is truly valued.

Anyone who was there will know that Saturday’s Battersea Park fireworks were superb. Congratulations to the council and Pains Fireworks for organising them.

If you missed them, or want to see them again, but you don’t have a full 20 minutes, then my video might help. 20 minutes of fireworks compressed into 2 minutes… well, more accurately, 19 minutes of fireworks compressed into one minute, and then the final minute in full.

The reaction on Twitter was certainly positive, some going as far as to rate them as the best they’ve ever seen:

Some made cultural references I just don’t understand:

Some just made me proud to be a Battersea, rather than Clapham, resident:

Although some people were facing the wrong way:

Looking through photos I’ve taken recently I can’t believe I didn’t post anything about the pro-celebrity football that Wandsworth hosted at Battersea Park as part of Fostering Fortnight. While I can’t say I knew any of the people playing football, I did recognise Keith Chegwin, who was offering a rather unique style of commentary on the event.

One perk of being a councillor is the occasional opportunity to see cult-figures in action. Even if only briefly before being dragged around the Millennium Arena track by a MiniMe who was wearing his explorer hat.

It is, I decided early today, far too nice to blog. So instead I’m just going to feature the environment video which accompanies our manifesto.

I’m a regular user of Battersea Park and have seen the difference that council investment has made, both directly and by leveraging funding from elsewhere. The green spaces in Wandsworth are a real jewel in the crown for the borough.

But it’s not just about green spaces. Over the past few weeks I’ve realised the enormous impact the noise from aircraft on the Heathrow flightpath make. And, of course, it’s about the council being as environmentally friendly as possible, and making green choices as easy as possible for residents.

The Tour trophy: I'm troubled he (she?) doesn't have a name.
The Tour trophy: I'm troubled he (she?) doesn't have a name.

Although I usually use this last post of the week to witter on about the past week I’m going start off with an event two weeks ago.

Battersea Police Ball
I can’t believe I forgot to mention this last week, but on Saturday 28 November I attended, along with about 1,500 other people, the Battersea Police Ball. This is a fantastic annual event organised by the Battersea Crime Prevention Panel to raise funds for their work throughout the year.

As ever it was held in Battersea Park, and was a truly fantastic evening. It’s my 13th year of going and in all the time have never had anything but a great night out.

My congratulations to everyone involved in the organisation of the event.

Community Safety stall
Returning to the past week I spent some time on Saturday with the Community Safety Team who were manning, with the Shaftesbury Safer Neighbourhood Team and London Fire Brigade, a stall at Clapham Junction Asda. The purpose was to get out and offer advice (and a few freebies) to local residents. I posted earlier today about one incredibly positive aspect of their work and this is another.

Wandsworth Employment and Skills Partnership
In the middle of the week I chaired the Wandsworth Employment and Skills Partnership. The Partnership was set-up to try and improve joint working between everyone and to achieve some very challenging targets for getting people off benefits and into work.

Frankly, the recession has had a massive impact (the body and targets all pre-date the recession) but the body still serves a purpose. For example, during the meeting we discovered that Jobcentre Plus is ‘poaching’ people from a service we use to help long term unemployed people people back into work.

There’s nothing sinister about it, Job Centre Plus are now required to work more closely with the long term unemployed. But while that is a positive it means that the work that had already been done is lost as the Job Centre start from scratch. We’re now looking at whether we can prevent the poaching altogether, and if we can’t how we can ensure the unemployed person sees a progression, rather than getting halfway through one service to then have to start afresh with another.

Full council
Wednesday was the year’s last full council, and the year ended not with a bang but a whimper. It has to be said that the formal meetings of the council can be a bit, well, dull!

I’m tempted to suggest that it’s because the council is so well run it’s hard for anyone to disagree with what we do. But that isn’t the case. Despite only having one-sixth of the council seats the Labour group get, effectively, half the time of the council meeting to ask question and debate their issues. I don’t think the lack of spark at these meetings is for want of opportunity – but am at a loss to suggest why it isn’t there at the moment.

Police Borough Commander
I also had one of my regular meetings with Chief Superintendent Low, the borough police commander. These are useful catch-ups, making sure we both know what’s on each others minds and both sides are working together as well as they can. I believe (and I hope that he would agree!) the working relationship between the council and police has continued to get stronger over the years, and the fact that we are inner London’s safest borough reflects that.

Architectural Tour
And finally, last night was the council’s ‘Architectural Tour’. I did ponder whether I should include this or not, since it could be seen as cliquey or worse – but decided transparency is by far the best way to avoid that. Besides, on reflection I’m rather proud of it. I was one of the people who started it in 2002 and since then it has raised thousands for various supported by the Mayor each year, this year’s beneficiaries were the Boys’ and Girls’ Brigades, Scouts and Guides

The evening is, fairly simply, a tour combined with a quiz around various sites of architectural merit in Wandsworth, which all happen to be pubs. The council divides into tribal loyalties, with department pitting themselves against department (and councillors) and being able to host the trophy – and even the wooden spoon – for a year has become quite an honour to a department.

Congratulations this year go the Housing Department, who are not only one of the country’s biggest social landlords, but also fairly hot on music, literature history and able to take a good guess on how many animals in London zoo are of unknown sex!

(Incidentally, the zoo don’t know the sex of 13,811 of their 14,665 animals at the time of writing.)

Battersea Park memorialFollowing on from my post about the Act of Remembrance at Battersea Park last week I was contacted by someone who felt the memorial looked a bit, well, dirty.

I followed up on it with the council staff responsible for the park. It seems the dirt is here to stay for two reasons.

First, cleaning the statue carries a risk of damaging the memorial which, obviously, we want to avoid.

Second, the build-up of dirt is seen as symbolic of the dirt, mud and smoke of the trenches. While I’m no artist having had it pointed out I can see how it adds to the drama of the memorial.

The artist’s daughter lives locally and the council talks to her about the statue (she originally advised the council against cleaning). We are also looking at getting a consultant to advise on the long term maintenance of the parks statues and sculptures. So while the memorial might be getting the occasional brush-up it won’t be getting a deep-clean any time soon.

Battersea Park memorialI took my son along to the Act of Remembrance in Battersea Park this morning.

It might, at first sight, be a slightly odd thing to do. He has just turned one and I can’t claim he showed much awareness of the service – the passing ‘planes interested him far more. But I felt it was an important thing to do. Now, more than ever, we should observe these small acts that force us to stop and think.

This was the first Remembrance Day for which there were no veterans of the First World War alive in this country. Indeed, we will soon be in the situation in which the ‘war to end all wars’ will have moved out of living memory. Even for the Second World War a veteran will have to be in their eighties (or have enlisted illegally) to have seen active service.

For people born in my generation such wars are unimaginable, and our links to them fairly distant. While my mother was old enough to remember WWII most of my classmates’ parents were either born after the war or were too young to recall it. Growing up the Falklands Conflict happened at a time when I was young enough to see it as exciting, and would watch the news marvelling at the Harrier. Our first involvement in the Gulf came when I was a teenager, and while I could intellectually grasp the issues I fear I had neither the age or the life experience to fully understand what a war really entailed.

Even now, with our troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, we perhaps allow distance and trivialities to crowd out what is happening and what our troops are facing on a daily basis.

We have, perhaps, become slightly arrogant. I think the UK, in particular, views relatively peaceful Western-style democracy as a stable end-point of a country’s development. In fact, it isn’t. History, both classical and modern is littered with examples of democracies failing or being overthrown, by internal and external forces, to be replaced by dictatorships and tyrannies.

If we value our freedoms and our liberty we must be vigilant and fight for them just as much now as our armed forces have done, almost continually, since the first Remembrance Day in 1919. As those terrible, all-encompassing, wars fade from living memory, those two minutes and everything they represent becomes all the more important.

We will remember them.