Fairy cake and a cup of teaThings are getting quieter as we get close to Christmas. While we don’t have a ‘recess’ like Parliament (since we don’t sit, but meet every six weeks or so) the council carries on, there are no formal meetings over the Christmas period.

That’s not to say we do nothing. Obviously all the council staff have been working away providing their usual excellent service. And I’ve been doing various bits and pieces, but it makes for a fairly sparse end-of-week posting.

A lot of the stuff I’ve been doing is in preparation for the start of the year and the first committee meeting – discussing the agenda and reviewing and amending the reports.

I’ve also had some of my general meetings to discuss the broader issues and progress on specific projects and this morning had a fascinating session with the fire brigade on how they target their prevention work. Like crime and ill-health we are not all exposed to equal risk, so the fire brigade do a lot to target their prevention work where it will have the biggest impact.

But generally the week has been quiet from a council point of view, giving me a great opportunity to catch up, get on top of things and start preparing for 2010.

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.)

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.

Battersea Park treeSo, for this week’s collection of odds and ends. This week’s photo doesn’t really have any artistic merit – composition and exposure could be better – but it is from Battersea Park where autumn is making itself known. The park really is beautiful at this time of year, and almost magical if you see the early morning mist, and that attracts me to the photo.

I’ve become an unlikely cycling enthusiast this week, surprising even myself by my desire to use the bike following last week’s training. It has, so far, been an interesting experience and one that really validates the purpose of the scheme – empathy is all well and good, but putting yourself in the position is much better. I intend to write a little about it as time progresses. But it also makes me think I need to look out for more opportunities to try new things for myself.

Keeping to the cycling theme I managed to cycle to two of my three trips to the Town Hall this week! The first was:

Local Strategic Partnership
The Local Strategic Partnership (LSP) is the partnership of partnerships in Wandsworth. It has members from the council, police, health service, business and voluntary sectors and it responsible for the high level direction Wandsworth takes.

I was first made a member in 2006 (after a short period as a deputy member) and will not deny that it was not my favourite meeting. However, shortly after I joined the membership was changed and the meetings became far more productive and far more harmonious. I hope that will show in the Corporate Area Assessment report when published.

Full council
The second cycling meeting. And not a terribly interesting one. Most of the evening was consensual. The only real debate was over aircraft noise and Heathrow expansion (something the council has long campaigned against). Even there the Labour Party agreed with us, but then somehow voted against. So they support campaigns against airport expansion, but don’t. I confess I don’t understand the logic, but as long as they can justify it to the electorate I suppose that’s what matters.

Nine Elms Opportunity Board
Tuesday saw the first meeting of the Nine Elms Opportunity Board (with the great acronym NEOB). Actually the body has existed for a long time under the name Power Station Opportunity Board but has recently been expanded to include more of the major developers from the Nine Elms area. NEOB’s role is to make sure we get all we can out of the area, not only in terms of development, but also in opportunities for local residents.

It is an incredibly exciting time for the area, which is central London’s largest opportunity zone and things are, hopefully, finally starting to move. The US Embassy’s decision may have been a major coup, but New Covent Garden Market are starting consulting on their redevelopment and the Power Station put in their planning application (which fill two large chests) last week. I can’t wait to see how things develop.

Maurice Heaster
And finally last night saw a celebration of Maurice Heaster’s forty years on Wandsworth Council. Although being a councillor, and especially a Cabinet Member, is increasingly becoming a ‘paid job’, for over thirty of those forty years Maurice was effectively a volunteer so it really is no mean achievement to have dedicated so much of one’s life to the council and community.

It was a really good celebration of everything he has done, both on the council and outside and a pleasure to attend. It was particularly pleasing to see both parties there (even if Tony Belton was, for many people, far too pointedly political in some of his comments) recognising that, despite differences, public service is still something to celebrate.

My usual end of week wrap-up of bits and pieces I want to highlight or didn’t post about at the time.

Pre-summer council meeting
Wednesday saw the council had it’s last full meeting before the summer recess. Of course, the council doesn’t take a holiday in the same way that Parliament does, but there’s a break in meetings during August before starting again in September. And, like any large organisation, things get a little quieter because of holidays.

The July council meeting always seems to reflect a pre-summer lethargy. I’d always blamed the bad ventilation in the Council Chamber, which made it hot and stuffy in July. But following the collapse of the roof and our move to the Civic Suite I discovered that July is a flat meeting for other reasons.

The debates lacked spark (despite some excellent contributions on our side) and the meeting was other remarkably quickly for a full council.

Of course, there’s also a slight lull because everyone knows that a general election is coming and whatever there are going to be major spending cuts, but politics means that neither party can really address these. Hence the ridiculous language of “0% raises” from Gordon Brown and endless offers of cash that, mysteriously, end in 2010/11 (thus making the next guy seem like the scrooge).

This affects councils of every political complexion, not just Conservative, and while it might make for interesting politics, it’s not the way a country should be run.

I can’t not mention the debate, opened up by the BBC, on CCTV cameras. It is definitely an interesting one; but what I found fascinating (as well as a little reassuring given my feelings on civil liberties) was the common ground I had with Shami Chakrabarti on them when I did BBC Breakfast. It might be a strange alliance, but I think it was something of a victory for common sense. As is often the case, it’s not the sensationalist headline, but the detail behind it. It doesn’t really matter how many cameras any organisation has, it’s the controls behind them that counts.

Another bit from the last week I’m rather pleased with is the discussion started on this blog and continued here, here and elsewhere, about surgeries. Yes, it might seem a minor issue – over the course of the year it’s only 150 man-hours in Wandsworth – but it’s good to see that a blog can start a little debate which, I hope, might lead somewhere.

Meeting the police
This week also saw one of my more formal meetings with the police. While I seem to see them fairly often, one way or another, I do have a regular session with the Borough Commander, Chief Superintendent Stewart Low so we can both catch up with what each side is doing.

Obviously a lot of the meeting is not for repeating here. However, one thing did come across clearly (and shows in the crime maps on this site) is that the recession is having an impact on crime. This is not just a Wandsworth phenomenon, it’s happening across London and the rest of the country.

Burglary is one of the crimes that really seems to be on the up. While the police are doing a great job there’s still a lot we can do to avoid becoming a victim of crime. The Met’s crime prevention pages and the Council’s Community Safety Division both suggest lots of ways you can make yourself safer.

This blog is coming up to its half-birthday.  Well, sort of – there are all sorts of dates I can use, for example the blog went live on 17 December, a great time when everyone is thinking about Christmas and no-one gives a stuff about a mere councillor blog.  However, before it went live I had it as a private blog to see if I could actually keep the posting momentum going; I don’t think there’s anything sadder than an abandoned blog.

The earliest of those blog entries I’ve kept was from 24 November, in which I questioned the value of the VAT cut.  So merely for my convenience I’m using that date since I can then say six months is a good time to re-assess the value of the blog and my Twittering.

First of all though, thank-you.  I want to say thank-you to all those who read this little effort at blogging.  Thank-you to all those who comment, and thank-you in advance to all those who will comment (seriously, just write something, no need to register and you can use a fake email address if you want – comments are there for discussion, nothing else).  And while I’m at it, thank-you to everyone who follows me on Twitter.  I was genuinely flattered, when I was openly thinking of quitting Twitter, to have people tell me I should stay and was adding value to it.  I should, of course, thank all sorts of other people, like my parents, or Mrs Robinson (my English teacher who never seduced me) but I shall refrain.

But most importantly I’d appreciate some feedback on the blog and my efforts, and don’t feel you have to pull punches.  I started off blogging and using Twitter as a way of engaging and would like to know how you find it.  Are there elements you don’t like?  Are there things you think are missing?  Is there anything you think it particularly good?

And there are two questions that I have been thinking about specifically:

  1. Should I keep the content solely to politics and the council?  While I know that is why most people come here I do have some (not much, but some) life outside of the two and wonder if possibly letting some of that on here would provide a bit more flavour and balance.
  2. Should I start using other media?  I really want to have a play with AudioBoo and have been toying with Vimeo and YouTube as well.  Would they add value, and what sort of content would you be interested in seeing?

So it’s over to you; either that or tumble-weed blowing through the comments while a bell tolls, slowly…

This blog will be taking a few days off over Easter (unless anything really exciting happens) so I’d like to wish you all the best for the long weekend.

If you’ve come this way on a Wandsworth related search, it’s worth pointing out the council’s website is unavailable this weekend.  If you need to access council services the following is straight from the council:

The council’s website will be offline and unavailable over the Easter bank holiday weekend while essential maintenance works are carried out to the town hall’s computer networks.

The website will close down at 6pm on Thursday, April 9 and come back online at 3pm on Monday April 13.

However, it is likely to take some time after the switch on for all online services to be fully restored.

The council would like to apologise for any inconvenience this may cause and thank users for their patience.

In an emergency you can contact the council’s out-of-hours emergency services on (020) 8871 6000.

Residents are also being advised that the technical services department’s ‘One Stop Counter’ will be closed over the Easter bank holiday weekend. It will close at 5pm on Thursday, April 9 and re-open at 9am on Tuesday, April 14.

The borough’s parking shops will also be closed on Good Friday, Easter Saturday and Bank Holiday Monday.

Anyone who wishes to make a payment for a parking ticket can however do so in the normal way over the Easter weekend by dialing 0845 130 5758. Callers will need to have their parking ticket reference number to hand.

People who need to visit the car pound used by the council’s vehicle removal contractor will need to use either cash or a cheque to recover their vehicle. This is because the essential maintenance work being carried out to the council’s computer network means staff at the pound will not be able to accept credit card or debit card payments.

The network upgrade also means that the council tax service’s automated telephone payment line as well as its online payment facility will be unavilable while the website is down. Residents with bar-coded council tax bills can however still pay at either the post office or any paypoint outlet.

Battersea In TouchWe are currently in the process of distributing the latest issue of ‘In Touch’, our consitutency wide paper.

If you prefer paperless, you can download a copy by following this link (543kb).

The issue contains:

  • Zero council tax increase this year
  • A message from Wandsworth Council Leader Edward Lister
  • Boris tackles City Hall waste to deliver tax freeze this year
  • What Wandsworth is doing to help combat the recession
  • David Cameron on the change our country needs

I have been wondering exactly how you describe the role of a councillor for quite a while. This was partly prompted when a business owner in the borough recently asked where I fitted in relation to their Town Centre Manager (a council employee) and other Economic Development Office staff. And it’s also prompted by a bit of CV writing; being a councillor is not a full-time role, and I try to fill the rest of my time with some freelance work (not helped by the recession) so constantly tinker with my CV.

In turn, this post was prompted by a post on The Local Government Officer that declared ‘local government is a lot like cricket‘ and used the analogy to categorise various types of councillor (thanks to Ingrid Koehler at the Policy and Performance blog for highlighting it).  The comparison is fairly simple, essentially batsman have the vision and drive the council forward, bowlers scrutinise the batsman and keep an eye on what they are doing and fielders are the community based politicians dealing with casework.  It is an interesting analogy.

The MP/Councillor comparison
A more commonly used comparison is with Parliament, and to see councillors as some form of ‘MP lite’.  This always reminds me of the late Tony Banks’ comments on MPs being a “sort of high-powered social worker and perhaps not even a good one,” not because I share his analysis that casework is tedious, but because it always seemed that a goodly chunk of an MP’s casework would be better directed towards councillors.  Indeed, from time to time Martin Linton directed his residents towards me – though this seems to have stopped now he’s defending a small majority.

In many ways the MP comparison is a better one, if only because most people have an understanding of how Parliament and Government work and can translate this to the local level.  Both have Cabinets which are responsible for the overall direction and vision, and Cabinet Members with individual portfolios.  Parliament as a whole scrutinises the work of the Government, in much the same way as councillors scrutinise the work of the council Cabinet.  And finally councillors have a casework load, not as large as an MP’s, because we tend to have a lower profile, but equally we don’t have a staffed office to help process it.

The councillor and officer relationship
What I find harder to explain is the relationship between councillors and officers.  And this relationship is the key relationship when it comes to councillors delivering results to their residents.  Councillors do not repair roads or collect rubbish, that is done by council employees.  I’ve illustrated two possible comparisons for councillors, but struggle to come up with a widely understood comparison for the way councillors ‘lead’ their council.  Primarily our work is based around medium and long term results, rather than initiating immediate actions.  Councillors are sort of non-executive directors, but I don’t think that’s a readily understood comparison, how many people know what a non-executive director does?!

And this creates problems because there is so much a councillor just cannot do.  I cannot, for example, help you with your parking ticket unless I saw the ticket being incorrectly issued.  I cannot help you with your housing problems, I can only raise your case and have it re-examined.  In cases like this I’m limited to the role of advocate; and with good reason, if councillors were able to influence these decisions it would not take a great leap of imagination to see lots of councillors parking with impunity and living in some of the best council properties going.

I don’t know if I just lack imagination in coming up with a simple metaphor, and hope someone will tell me if there is one.  I tend to use the MP/Cabinet member model, but I’m not sure many people fully understand the relationship between politicians and civil servants, and their expectations of central and local government are different in any case.  But in the absence of anything better, it will do because I think for engagement to really work well, there has to be a good understanding of both positions; council and resident.

Eccles Road Thames Water worksThames Water, like Jack and Jill, have headed up the hill for their flood alleviation works. I confess I dont understand the logic (doesn’t water run downhill?) since I’m not an engineer, however I do know it’s caused huge disruption for the residents.

On Tuesday I presented a petition to the full council on behalf of over 100 of them, a significant proportion of the road’s residents.   The petitioners raise some of the problems they’ve faced during the works and ask for the council’s support and commitment in getting the problems addressed and residents suitably compensated by Thames Water.

The problems have been fairly horrendous, you can get a feeling for the noise and size of the works from YouTube videos residents have posted here, here and here.  But aside from the noise disruption the works have impacted on parking, restricted the pavements (creating refuse collection problems) and potentially caused damage to the neighbouring properties.

Thames Water haven’t handled this at all well.  While no-one would dispute the need for essential works to take place, the residents who have to suffer during them deserve to be consulted and the impact on them taken into account.  Thames Water have only just started undertaking consultation meetings with residents, even right at the beginning the council was only told the precise location and scale of the works shortly before they commenced.

The petition will be presented, along with the council’s response,  to the Planning and Transportation Overview and Scrutiny Committee.