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.

Staff and Victorians at Clapham Junction's 150th birthday
Staff and Victorians at Clapham Junction’s 150th birthday

I attended the small event held to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Clapham Junction yesterday.

It is remarkable to think about the impact it has had on the millions of people who have worked, lived by, used and travelled through the station in those 150 years. Indeed, it defies comprehension. Having to say a few words at the event I was forced to think much smaller, and consider my own experiences of the station.

Like many, Clapham Junction, then a sprightly 133 years old, was my introduction to Battersea. And like many (I hope) I ended up leaving through the wrong exit and spending a cold, wet, winter night seeing a part of Battersea I probably wouldn’t have visited by choice that evening. But somehow, I found myself returning and realising Battersea was where I wanted to make my home.

After that, Clapham Junction punctuated my life. It was the start of unhappy commutes, and the end of happy commutes back home. But it was purely functional. A means to an end.

It was only after I had children that I started to see what it really is: a magical gateway. The hustle and bustle became exciting, and journeys were no longer drudgery, but adventures.

Whether it was the Overground to Westfield and the Lego Store, South West Trains to Waterloo and the London Eye and South Bank or – as we’ll be doing later this month – a pilgrimage to Wembley once we go through the barriers we become explorers. London and beyond is in our reach and the trip has untold potential.

And Clapham Junction’s metaphorical journey is the same. Over the past 150 years it has had a massive impact on Battersea; not least in confusing itinerant residents and corporate headquarters. It has driven change, allowing residents easy access to jobs and leisure, and bring others easily into the area. It plays a vital rôle in the local economy and with each improvement (and I will not pretend the station doesn’t need improvement) it creates even more potential for the area.

We’ve seen the physical improvements to the station and the arrival of the Overground in recent years. Soon we might be adding Crossrail 2 and, one day, maybe even an extended Northern Line from Nine Elms. Despite it’s imperfections, it serves as a wonderful heart of Battersea.

Adverts for the new app at Clapham Junction

At The Junction – the Clapham Junction iPhone app – was formally launched today. If you passed through Clapham Junction you would, hopefully, have seen the posters that adorned the doors and displays in the station.

The free app contains listings of all the local businesses, so you can find what you’re looking for by category or searching for what’s near to you. It also has guided heritage walks, so you can find out about the areas listings.

It’s been on my phone for a few months while it was developed (I fear I took an unhealthy interest in it, but rather enjoyed insisting on small changes to the user interface!) and I have to say it is remarkably useful. Despite thinking I know the area well it has often highlighted places that I might not otherwise have thought about.

If you have an iPhone you can download it from the App Store. I’d love to know what you think, so please let me have any comments, corrections, additions or deletions.

The music video may, or may not, be to your taste. However, it is undeniably influenced by the events following last August disorder in Clapham Junction. (Something highlighted by the artist in his direct marketing of the video.)

What heartens me is that even months after the riots, the outcomes remain overwhelmingly creative and positive.

If you did like the music it was released today and is available from iTunes.

[I’ll confess, I’m not sure about the b-side cover on iTunes, but then I still carry emotional trauma from my school disco.]

This sign, one of many that have appeared around Clapham Junction after the recent murder there, caught my attention. It struck me as a surprisingly innovative approach to witness appeals, especially as the police (with good reason) place a lot of faith in traditional, tried and tested, approaches.

A few thoughts, positive and negative, occurred to me.

  1. Positive. As this is generic, it can be used almost immediately. I often thought that the old yellow boards probably didn’t help that much: they took time to make and place and the human memory is unreliable, meaning they perhaps didn’t gather much information while also serving to increase the fear of crime.
  2. Positive. Because it’s different, it attracts attention. People go numb to familiar items, and even though the yellow information boards may crop up in new places, I wonder how many are largely ignored.
  3. Negative. How many people are missed, either because they don’t have a smart phone, or more likely, aren’t familiar with functions that they don’t use that often? And even though I am familiar with my phone, it took a few minutes to connect (and the Bluetooth option didn’t produce any message at all).
  4. Negative. For years community safety messaging has discouraged people from getting their phones out as soon as they leave the station because it merely helps advertise high value goods in crowded places (in much the same way as ‘pick-pockets operate here’ signs aren’t that great, because most people instinctively feel their pockets to check wallets and purses, helping the pick-pocket find a target).
  5. Negative. Given the rise in identity theft and the increasing amount of personal information we use online and through mobile internet, isn’t it a little dangerous to encourage people to connect to horribly generic hotspots?

Is it a use of technology for the sake of it? I don’t know, but I’d be fascinated to see any long-term study of the results of different methods of witness appeal. And of course, the value of evidence may well outweigh the disadvantages of any particular method and that’s a judgement call the police have to make.

This particular appeal relates to the murder of Richard Ward, for which two arrests have been made, but if you have any information you can call the incident room on 020 8721 4961 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

The other thing happening in Clapham Junction this weekend apart from my surgery (well, tonight) is the finale of Offret, the EU funded ‘process-based, community-focused project’ that I commented on last month.

Apparently it is

the culmination of the project will be an artistic intervention on the building that has been affected by arson, a video-collage of the different visions, as a collective memory to be projected in the night of 11/11/11.

Considering the complexity of the events, the aim is to gather multiple perspectives: from the affected community, business owners, rioters, their families, police officers.

The project hopes to provide a communal experience for participants, local community, festival visitors and general public. It will discuss the self-determination of society and its capacity to regenerate itself. By bringing people together for discussing an unwanted act of violence we hope to empower and inspire people into believing that they can also shape the future of their cities and society.

I’m still nervous about exactly what they will be projecting onto the Party Superstore, but also a little curious about how it will work.

The projection is from 6pm until 8pm tonight, at Clapham Junction and online.

* A prize for the first person to correctly identify the reference in the title. Judge’s decision is final. Terms and conditions apply.

When did the looting end?

Reflecting further on the Neil Kinghan report I cannot help but feel a resonance with another report by David Hunter I read a few months ago on public sector health partnerships (which I think has relevance to all partnerships).

Hunter’s conclusion, after getting through more than £250,000 on research, is that there is no proof that partnerships improve outcomes. In fact, they sometimes hinder improvements by placing restrictions on the frontline staff, and often, improvements credited to ‘partnership working’ only happen because those frontline staff are just getting on with it.

In other words, if you got rid of the formal partnerships nothing would be worse, and may well be better.

This goes against the orthodoxy that has existed since the nineties that partnership working is ‘a good thing’. Indeed, it’s often cited as ‘the only way’ now we are in a time of strained public finance. But while Hunter found lots of unquestioning endorsement of partnership working – partnerships are good because they just are – it seemed that no-one had really thought to assess the value of them.

The traditional model of emergency planning involves some fairly hefty documents drawn up by the relevant agencies, attempting to detail the responses to various situations, which should interface with each other where appropriate.

Somehow, all those plans came together on the night of 8 August. Simplistically you might think that on 8 August the police were responsible during the actual disorder, then the council took over for the clean-up and any response. But the true picture was far more complicated, with several organisations being involved to varying degrees throughout the period.

But, of course, nobody’s plan involved large-scale disorder or looting or rioting in Clapham Junction, with the police stretched across the capital and unable to respond, and a large fire affecting retail and residential property. So how did it work?

For all their length and complexity, emergency plans can never foresee every eventuality. The military adage that ‘no battle plan survives contact with the enemy’ is true in emergency planning. You can plan for the start of a generic situation, like public disorder, and you can attempt to foresee and plan for what happens next, but ultimately events unfold in a different way and decisions made in response to changing circumstances. (I’ve already commented on my belief that across London the rioters and broom armies were able to respond to circumstances far more quickly than any public agency.)

In any event, given that few people will have a comprehensive understanding of any of the plans, it might all seem a bit irrelevant.

But what links Kinghan and Hunter? Let me provide a couple of examples.

Throughout the rioting, the town centre manager was on the scene, and is mentioned in Kinghan’s report:

the role played by Lorinda Freint, the Town Centre Manager for Clapham Junction, has been universally praised, and described as “heroic” by one interviewee. She spent the whole evening helping people who were frightened by the disorder. She and the manager of the Wessex House nightclub provided a safe place for people to go to and helped them to escape the area without trouble.

She was a fabulous resource, working at the frontline, but doing so under her own direction. A prime example of that would not have been out-of-place in Hunter; exceptionally good work taking place despite the emergency plan and partnership structures which would not have had her on-site at all.

But if the communication had been in place, it’s not hard to see how much more use she could have been not only in helping those affected, but also in providing intelligence to the police and others, while still working within the general framework of the response laid out within the emergency plans. The response was good, but an opportunity was missed for it to be better.

Then consider the broom army. Again, not something that featured in any of the emergency plans, and again a fabulous resource ready to help everyone meet the aims of cleaning up Clapham Junction. In this example, however, that resource was used (after a few hiccoughs) to great effect. Perhaps because it was impossible not to communicate with several hundred broom-wielding residents!

Even before 8 August I’d been thinking about Hunter’s report in the context of emergency planning (and in the context of real examples like Norway and Japan), so immediately Neil Kinghan’s recommendation that frontline staff be involved and informed as part of the emergency plan struck me as absolutely right – the evidence of Hunter and 8 August backs this up. I just wonder (and since emergency planning is well above my pay-grade it can only be idle speculation) if we could go even further in thinking about the invaluable role, and discretion, of frontline staff.

Neil Kinghan’s report in the looting at Clapham Junction (and elsewhere) was published today.

It is, by necessity, not an in-depth look into the riots, they causes and consequences, but instead a first look: trying to show what happened and draw out some key recommendations. And it is, by the nature of the process, a balanced report. Having undertaken similar sorts of work (although never into anything like August’s looting) I know exactly how hard it is to divine anything exhaustive or definitive when you are interviewing people on issues that will often are a matter of opinion and recollection and not hard fact.

Reading through the final report I can see where I probably complicated matters for Mr Kinghan, but, even so, other than small matters (for example, I recall seeing photos of a vandalised Starbucks fairly early on the evening of 8 August) there is nothing with which I particularly disagree and much with which I agree.

Communication comes across as one area that can be improved, in pretty much every direction. This even when Wandsworth, I think, has a pretty good track record in communication. The lesson, perhaps, is that it can always be improved.

One of the things that struck me soon after the 8 August, is how the public sector lagged far behind rioters and broom army when it came to communication. This is even despite similar tools already existing; I was Wandsworth’s sole Yammer (which is effectively a private Twitter) member for over two years until after the riots; since then membership has swollen to a mighty three users!

Business recovery is the area that most directly affects me, and we’re already looking at what we can do and the funds that are being made available. Here the trick is in successfully managing the transition from the immediate response – helping businesses recover from the aftermath – to a longer term plan that supports and develops local businesses.

It is very much a “watch this space” until plans are more fully developed.

The whole report is publicly available via the council’s website. It is not – and openly admits it isn’t – a conclusive or definitive report on the disorder, and many questions remain unanswered, but a fascinating first look at the issues around 8 August.

SW11 Literary Festival launch
SW11 Literary Festival launch
The Mayor and Sponsors of the SW11 Literary Festival

This year’s SW11 Literary Festival launched at the Bellevue Pub on Battersea High Street earlier this week.

The theme for the year is Monsters: which might be offensive to some of the more genteel authors on the programme, but is all good fun. The festival runs from 17 September until 3 October (you can download a programme or get more information from the Clapham Junction town centre website).

Running throughout the festival is the SW11 Monster Hunt, where you can find various monsters hovering around the SW11 area. They are either in shop windows or found using an iPhone or Android app (I’m afraid I don’t have a link to the Android Marketplace version).

Rarrr, scary monster
Rarrr, scary monster

The launch event also created the opportunity to create your own monster – mine, of which you will see I’m very proud, is small but clearly that’s only so he can create terror in the most confined of spaces. You’ll also note that his wings are uneven. This is an evolutionary advantage, so he can fly in circles. Or something.

The festival always features a range events so there is something for everybody – and it provides a good excuse to get out and show support for your local town centre businesses.

Battersea Buzz: Community and improvised flip-charts came together

The riots sometimes seem such a long time ago, and it’s almost tempting to say that things are largely back to normal. Yes, there are a few scars remaining – perhaps most notably the boarded up Party Superstore – but most shops are fully restored and back in business.

But some scars will remain for a while, we will have to wait and see if there’s a long-term effect on trade in the area. It looks like a few stores will not re-open as a result. And the arguments about how those involved are dealt with looks like it will rage for a while yet.

Battersea Buzz, however, looks like it was a success. I’ve said from the start that it really was a means to an end, something to help the community come together and share their ideas. It cannot, therefore, take any credit for anything that happens. But I hope it played a part in what comes next.

And what is coming next?

Well, the Clapham Grand will be hosting a benefit called ‘Up The Junction’ on 8 September, featuring Chris Difford. This will raise money for Victim Support and St Marks.

There is an (unrelated) ‘Up The Junction’ Facebook group discussing a range of ideas to raise money and build the community.

Meanwhile a lot of people are looking at how they can get involved in mentoring – and James Mummery from Future Foundations is helping co-ordinate this.

Some events have already taken place: last Tuesday over 200 runners raised cash with the Clapham Pioneers running club, for example.

I’m sure there’s plenty else going on that I don’t know about (as well as plenty of ideas in their formative stage where we’re continuing to try to put the right people in touch with each other).

Counter-intuitively it seems that the overall effect of the disorder will be to have created a stronger Clapham Junction. The tragedy is that the foundations include so many tales of irreparable loss.