Battersea Arts CentreI accidentally found myself at the opening night of Battersea Art Centre’s One-on-One Festival.

The festival is clearly going to be a success, BAC was full to the extent that the staff and volunteers there were stretched and the festival programme looks fascinating, a series of performances for an audience of one, and while I don’t know the exact maths of the timings I suspect there is enough variety there that many people will have unique combinations.

Of course, it doesn’t appeal to me. I’m probably a Philistine, I suspect because – despite leading a middle class life now – my working class background does not leave me equipped for things artistic. I fear that as an audience of one there would be too much pressure on me to appreciate something that I just might not appreciate.

But that is part of the point of BAC. And will, eventually, bring me to a theme I regularly repeat here.

Looking through the programme there are several in there that I immediately find interesting; but there are several that I immediately question. For example, the second feature on the programme is ‘The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding’. Is that art, or is it just some guy giving you a bath and a bit of a cuddle afterwards? Is it art because it challenges us to think about how we interact with strangers? Or is it art only because it’s forced me to try and come up with an explanation for it?

BAC has a national reputation for its work, which is well deserved and rooted in it’s ability and willingness to innovate and challenge. It might not be for everybody, but it’s not meant to be, it is there to drive forward the arts and to do that it needs to be able to experiment.

In 1998, shortly after I became a councillor, I got a phone call from the then director of BAC explaining why the money Wandsworth Council gave BAC was vital to keep a regional resource running providing cutting edge theatre. And that, essentially, became an argument that ran for years. Why should a local council fund a regional resource that provides a niche product?

The most obvious answer was that if we didn’t no-one else would. So whenever we looked at what we were spending on BAC it would prompt a torrent of letters, emails and phone calls. I think I probably got the one from furthest away last time, from somewhere in New South Wales which was about the closest you can get to the exact antipode of BAC. But in a way this just reinforced one of those arguments, why was the local taxpayer funding something that was clearly serving not just Wandsworth, not even the immediate boroughs, but a huge area, covering not just south-west London, but arguably the whole south-east and beyond.

Any one of the consequences has been that BAC and the council agreed it shouldn’t. The new arrangement is that BAC has a long lease for its building from the council, while the council only directly funds activities that meet its needs, for example with old or young people. A consequence of this independence has opened up extra funding opportunities for the centre. Based on last night BAC is continuing to thrive and provide cutting edge theatre – if anything the council’s funding was a crutch, not a solid foundation, for BAC.

And that theme I said I’d eventually get to… Well, it’s my Wandsworth sausage again. It’s about how the council can shape an area without, necessarily, being responsible for everything in that area. BAC is a clear example of how this can work. By coming to what is effectively a commercial agreement with BAC we have created an environment in which theatre and the arts can thrive in Battersea, this in turn affects the local culture and economy.

I was in a meeting the other night where someone referred to a phrase that the council, apparently, used to use to describe itself and its ambition: “An Enabling Council”. It has echoes of Big Society and, perhaps, it’s something we should be using more consciously again. Instead of bluntly funding directly, or doing things ourselves, BAC is a prime example of the success that can be created when the right environment is nurtured.

James Brokenshire, the minister for crime prevention, visited Wandsworth today as part of Neighbourhood Watch week to see one of our training sessions in action.

I like to think that Wandsworth was ‘doing’ Big Society long before it became a part of Conservative and government policy. Our commitment to Neighbourhood Watch has been more than just putting up signs; we offer support to get them started, ongoing help and advice once running, central and localised messaging services to keep everyone informed and training sessions to help prepare co-ordinators so they can help in the event of an emergency (from floods and ‘flu, through to terrorism) and are better equipped to look out for and after their neighbours.

And at the risk of being boastful I believe the small team of dedicated staff in in the council’s community safety unit, with the help of partners in the police and fire brigade, and, of course, all the people who are Watch members in Wandsworth have created the best Neighbourhood Watch system in the country.

It has played a key part in making Wandsworth the safest borough in inner London, but that doesn’t mean we should rest on our laurels. Strengthening and expanding Neighbourhood Watch was a key part of the local Conservative manifesto.

The challenge we have now set ourselves is to expand coverage so those who have not traditionally been part of watch schemes, council and social housing, transient populations and large private developments, are covered – while maintaining the high quality of support and training we offer – to ensure everyone has the same opportunity to play a role in making inner London’s safest borough safer still.

Tomorrow sees the start of summer – in Battersea Square at least.

Nigella Lawson will be kicking off the Summer in the Square event at 11am and the event will include a farmers market, crafts and entertainment (including stilt-walkers and jugglers).

Although my days responsible for regeneration and economic development may be coming to an end, these sort of events show how the council can be at its best helping others to do things, rather than trying to do everything itself – working in partnership to provide the help and support that allow businesses and communities to organise events that help themselves and the area. And also an example (if you forgive the politics) of the ‘Big Society’, albeit one that pre-dates the Conservative manifesto, as it’s all being done by the Friends of Battersea Square.