Wandsworth council chamber, Mayor's chair and crestLabour did not cover themselves in glory at last night’s meeting.

You would expect me to say that, wouldn’t you?  But actually I’m rather disappointed in them.  I expected a coherent set of arguments and reasoned alternative budget from them.  Instead, it seemed every time one of them stood up to speak we got a slightly different line, and that is slightly worrying – for one because it’s always good to have a strong opposition.

“Raise tax, no, lower it, no, raise it.”
The council presented a strong budget.  We are keeping the council tax at the same level as last year, because of savings we have made we are still able to increase spending and put some money into contingency.  Perfectly sensible given that a lot of people are expecting a prolonged recession and worse times to come.  But, of course, you can argue if that’s the right thing.  If you think the recession is going to be short and shallow you might think extra spending or a cut in tax preferable.

It was clear the Labour party hadn’t decided what they thought was best.  Their formal amendment suggested putting nothing into contingency, creating about 50 jobs for a year (by my count, Tony Belton, their leader, put it at 30) and reviewing charging levels for various services.  But during the course of the evening some of the members suggested the contingency could be used to cut council tax, some suggested that taxes should be higher so spending could increase, one – during the course of his contribution – suggested we should both lower and raise council tax.  They may have put a formal amendment to council, but it seemed they’d not agreed it amongst themselves.

Big state to the rescue?
But it was also clear they were convinced that a big state could solve all problems.  One of their Tooting councillors complained bitterly that the council were, only now, cleaning up Tooting’s alleyways and attempted to give credit for this to Sadiq Khan.  Yes, we are cleaning up the alleyways as part of Tooting Together, but these are private alleyways, owned by the businesses that are frequently dumping the rubbish on them.  We are stepping in and cleaning up because the owners have not taken responsibility – but somehow the council is the bad guy on this one.

And dog fouling raised its ugly head.  It seems Labour believe the council doesn’t have the country’s largest dog control unit in the country, but actually have the country’s biggest state-owned pack of hounds, specially trained to go and foul our pavements.  Again, a fundamental belief that problems are not shared by the community but there to be solved by the state.  The idea that somehow a dog fouling the pavement is the council’s fault rather than the owner’s or even the dog’s is risible, but somehow this was trotted out as an argument against the council’s budget.

To be honest, the most coherent solution put forward was by Tony Belton: it’s like the 1930s, he reasoned, and that wasn’t solved by Keynes, but by 10 years of depression and a world war. So this is Brown’s plan B! I haven’t been able to divine any other plan from Labour either locally or nationally, and I might rest easier if I knew they had some ideas rather than the current floundering.

It’s up to all of us
Implicit in the council’s budget, and in the council’s recession response, is that we help people to help themselves.  Perhaps we do not push that enough, and Malcolm Grimston made a thoughtful contribution to evening (probably the most thoughtful speech of the night) highlighting that, actually, many the solution to many problems lies not with the council or government, but very simple actions by ordinary people.  Of course it’s right for the council to help, and it was shameful for the Labour party to vote against our recession support, but we need to be aware that we all can play a part.

It might yet prove that one of the benefits of recession and environmental crisis is that we all come out of it a bit more thoughtful of our impact on our communities.

Last night I Tweeted from Wandsworth’s council tax setting meeting. You can see the Tweets in my last post. As with anything in life, it’s worth a little bit of reflection.

Why I did it
It seemed a worthy experiment, but beyond that I can’t give any really good reasons. I’d seen a few examples of it happening elsewhere, but hadn’t seen any examples that I thought had ‘worked’; none had members of the public had responded or engaged during the meeting, and they seemed one way.  Obviously I don’t know how much interaction took place via direct message or after the event.  I’m sure someone can point me to an example where it did work.

How it went – Engagement
Was it successful ‘engagement’? Did people actually read it? I think the answer is yes. There were at least 4 Wandsworth residents reading and Tweeting during the meeting, and at least one afterwards. It’s obviously impossible to tell how many others read but did not Tweet about it.

Admittedly 4 is not a huge number, but it’s also 4 more than you usually get in the public gallery at a meeting. The argument I would make is that anything that increases involvement and engagement is a good thing. I rather suspect that, overall, far more residents will read those Tweets than will read the council’s minutes.

But do people really want to be involved in the formal decision making processes of the council. This is where I have doubts, last night perhaps had a certain novelty value – but given that hardly anyone bothers with the public gallery isn’t that a message that residents look for their engagement elsewhere, perhaps where they can interact and have their say rather than just listening to councillors?

How it went – doing it
It was much harder work than I expected. There is, clearly, a skill to summarising in 140 characters, giving a flavour of the meeting but not overloading followers with unnecessary Tweets. Perhaps I don’t have that skill, because it took effort to keep the Tweets up to date, respond to incoming Tweets and follow the discussions.

I was speaking in the debate on the council’s response to the recession and decided not to Tweet so I could concentrate on what was being said and plan what I was going to say in response. The consequence was that the most interesting discussion of the evening went untwittered.

Will I do it again?
Probably not. I don’t expect huge waves of disappointment, it was an interesting experiment but not one I’m planning on repeating.

My view would change if there were other councillors, even from the other side, to share the load, but as (currently) the council’s lone Twitterer it is quite a burden. It definitely does change your view and approach to the meeting and leaves you a little detached while you analyse and think of Tweets and that was something I didn’t enjoy.

Additionally, I suspect I might have breached the council’s standing orders by Tweeting during the meeting!

As always, I’m interested in your thoughts, you can always comment below, contact me or even follow me on Twitter.

As an experiment I posted some updates from last night’s council meeting. They follow, in chronological order below, along with a few others that didn’t carry the #wwcnl hashtag. Most notably the shocking revelation that I stayed up to watch Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason when I got back. I am in touch with my feminine side.

It’s worth highlighting the second tweet from me, these will have some political bias.

From: jamescousins at 18:49, Tue 10 Mar
As an experiment I’ll be Tweeting from tonight’s council tax setting. Feel free to join in, I don’t want to be the only one using #wwcnl

From: mario at 18:51, Tue 10 Mar
RT @jamescousins I’ll be Tweeting from tonight’s council tax setting. Feel free to join in, I don’t want to be the only one using #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 18:53, Tue 10 Mar
I should add that I’m a Cabinet member and I’m the council’s controlling group, ao won’t be entirely impartial. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 19:06, Tue 10 Mar
That’s the first bit out of the way, the Executive have formally recommended a 0% increase. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 19:30, Tue 10 Mar
Kicking off the formal meeting now, in the Civic Suite following the roof collapse in the Chamber. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 19:47, Tue 10 Mar
Formalities, including tributes to former Cllr Julian Proudman, and a petition from Eccles Road residents done, now onto questions. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:02, Tue 10 Mar
Fascinating question from the opposition: while don’t you spend a few months consulting on your response to the recession? #wwcnl

From: agentoffortune at 20:04, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins Anyone would think that the Labour response to anything is to spend money on consulting. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:09, Tue 10 Mar
@agentoffortune I did find it bizarre, you can guess the result: would you like the council to do something to help? Y\/N #wwcnl

From: agentoffortune at 20:11, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins I was slightly off, the standard procedure should be spend a fortune on consulting, then try and take away civil rights #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:13, Tue 10 Mar
@agentoffortune You missed off setting up a national database! #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:24, Tue 10 Mar
Just noticed two people in the public gallery, bringing the total audience including Twitter, to three! #wwcnl

From: agentoffortune at 20:29, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins sorry only 140 chars you see 🙂 I’ve taken the data base as read 🙂 #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:31, Tue 10 Mar
Questions over, first item for discussion are children’s services grant allocations for the coming year. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:47, Tue 10 Mar
Short debate on awarding a grant to an organisation whose original application was unsuccessful. Lost 38-6. Council tax setting next. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:50, Tue 10 Mar
Deputy Leader presenting our budget. 0% rise in tax, some extra spending, some money in reserves for when the days get rainier. #wwcnl

From: LouiseBrown at 20:51, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins it’s a bad night for the council tax discussion … the liverpool game is AMAZING! #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:53, Tue 10 Mar
Labour presenting their alternative. They’ve been reading Keynes; 0% rise, use reserves to create around 50 jobs & re-visit charges. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:54, Tue 10 Mar
@LouiseBrown I only watch Liverpool when Grimsby are beating them! #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:58, Tue 10 Mar
Labour takes the pessimism award, comparing the situation to the 30s when it "took a world war to fix the economy". Brown’s plan B? #wwcnl

From: agentoffortune at 21:02, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins Wow Brown has a plan B? I think he would be relieved if you could get in touch and let him know what it was. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 21:04, Tue 10 Mar
We’re getting into discussion on Friedman and John Maynard now – it’s Milton Keynes! (sorry, couldn’t resist). #wwcnl

From: ingridk at 21:06, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins is tweeting a Wandsworth Council meeting #wwcnl and making bad economist puns.

From: jamescousins at 21:06, Tue 10 Mar
@agentoffortune Well, from tonight’s discussion it seems to be 10 years of depression and 6 of world war. Might keep that to myself! #wwcnl

From: agentoffortune at 21:10, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins The annoying thing is that if the govt announced that as the plan I’d feel a bit better cos at least they had a plan. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 21:19, Tue 10 Mar
There are some odd arguments coming from Labour, we should have higher tax and spend more, but also lower tax to stimulate spending. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 21:29, Tue 10 Mar
Moving to a vote, Labour’s proposal loses 44-6. Tory 0% rise approved 44-6. So no rise in tax for Wandsworth residents this year. #wwcnl

From: agentoffortune at 21:30, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins I love the idea that Labour want to raise taxes. They really are out of ideas. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 21:32, Tue 10 Mar
Recession debate. Apparently we should have a credit crunch task force. Wow. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 21:32, Tue 10 Mar
@agentoffortune Hmmm, but they are also open to lowering taxes. One person suggested both. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 21:37, Tue 10 Mar
Another suggestion from Labour that we should be reducing tax. Why can’t they at least be consistent? #wwcnl

From: agentoffortune at 21:41, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins I’m so glad I’m not there. I certainly don’t have the tact or patience for local politics. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 21:44, Tue 10 Mar
@agentoffortune I sometimes wonder if I do! #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 21:45, Tue 10 Mar
A lull in Tweeting, have to speak later on in this debate, although the arguments I’m answering are fairly incoherent. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 22:00, Tue 10 Mar
Well, my speech went down well, rapturous applause & a standing ovation (if only). Now for the opposition leader to have a go at me. #wwcnl

From: peterholt99 at 22:00, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins (even!) – sod the tweeting about the agenda – what the hell did you do to cause the roof to collapse?

From: jamescousins at 22:03, Tue 10 Mar
@peterholt99 Apparently it was just old age (the roof’s, not mine). It’s been there since the 30s and decided enough is enough. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 22:14, Tue 10 Mar
And the last vote: council’s recession package approved 44-6. Apparently Labour don’t think we should do anything to help. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 22:16, Tue 10 Mar
And that’s that. Meeting over, let me know if you enjoyed it. Or not. #wwcnl

From: agentoffortune at 22:19, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins Labour don’t want to help apart from rasing and cuting taxes whilst consulting to see what can be done? #wwcnl

From: wandsworthdog at 22:32, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins Thanks. Did other councillors think you were txting the whole evening?

From: jamescousins at 22:48, Tue 10 Mar
@drodeh I can’t say they put forward the most coherent arguments. But I have a little bias, I suppose. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 22:49, Tue 10 Mar
@wandsworthdog I think I’ve probably breached council standing orders and did feel a little self-conscious. But was it worth it? #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 22:52, Tue 10 Mar
@agentoffortune Well, it isn’t my job to put them in a good light, but yes, it was opposition, rather than constructive debate. #wwcnl

From: mario at 22:54, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins interesting following your tweets from #wwcnl tonight. not on your side politically but appreciate you pushing the envelope!

From: jamescousins at 22:57, Tue 10 Mar
@mario Thanks. Thought it was worth a go. I’m not sure about the benefit, to you, the council or democratic engagement, but we’ll see #wwcnl

From: jesscousins at 23:36, Tue 10 Mar
RT @jamescousins Well, home from the meeting, and my wife is watching Bridget Jones. Should have gone to the pub!

From: jesscousins at 23:37, Tue 10 Mar
I’m off to bed. My husband is staying up to watch the rest of Bridget Jones!

From: sliah at 7:31, Wed 11 Mar
Yah! Sorry catching up on tweets, am at the no rise in council tax one

From: sliah at 7:36, Wed 11 Mar
@jamescousins my last tweet was in response to your no council tax rise tweet (yah), hmm found the twmeeting somewhat interesting from afar

From: LouiseBrown at 9:52, Wed 11 Mar
@jamescousins thanks for tweeting from #wwcnl last night, between you, @sadiqkhan and other Wands people i’m feeling much more connected

Every now and then I use Twitter to offer my help to anyone in Wandsworth who wants it, this has prompted questions and requests ranging from parks to parking.

But for some reason I’ve never done it on my blog.  It’s not something I’ve really thought about, but think I’ve assume that if you have made it this far, you know what a councillor is and does and how they may be able to help or answer questions you have.  Of course, often this isn’t the case.  As I discovered on Twitter people don’t always think to ask, and just assume that nothing can be done about their little niggles.

So here’s the question:
Is there anything Wandsworth related I can do for you, you want to know, or with which I can help?

I can’t promise to help with everything, but I’ll certainly try my best and, at the very least, give a full explanation.  You can email me at cllr@jamescousins.com and find my other contact details on this website’s contact page.

I’m away from a computer for most of today, but couldn’t not link to this story from the Wandsworth Guardian – Recycling crew find widow’s lost letters.

Essentially, and quite by accident, a recently bereaved woman had the letters and cards of condolence she had received thrown out.  When this was discovered she phoned the council and the crew went through around 1,000 orange sacks to re-unite her with the letters and cards.

It’s not the first time a story like this has been published, in which a council employee goes above and beyond the call of duty.  Some time ago there was a similar story which resulted in the retrieval of an engagement ring and more recently the story of an street enforcement officer re-uniting a woman with her stolen purse.

The recycling team – Nathan Hearne, Lee McSweeney and Mark Hudson – all deserve congratulation.  It is actions like there’s that make such a difference to people’s lives.

twitter logoTwittering is a form of microblogging which, along with this blog, I started as a bit of an experiment.  I will freely admit that it hasn’t taken the course I expected – but there are some fascinating conversations taking place on there, especially around subjects of democratic and social engagement, so it is something I will definitely be continuing.

Wandsworth Council is now twittering, so if you are already on twitter (if you aren’t, you can get an account for free at twitter.com) you can follow the council – @wandbc.

My tweets are featured on this blog, although over Christmas I’ve spent too much time on the sofa and doing my ‘real’ job, so they have been a bit light of late.  Feel free to follow me, @jamescousins, if you want to find out what I’m up to or, like today, my thoughts on Karate Kid III!

Last night saw Wandsworth’s last full council meeting of the year.  My main part was speaking in a debate on the results of the business survey carried out earlier this year.

It showed that business confidence was declining (even though it was carried out before the news started to turn really bleak) but Wandsworth was generally feeling more confident than businesses elsewhere in London and the country.  There was also good news that the council’s business support services are generally highly regarded.

What astounded me, however, is that the Labour Party really do seem to have fallen for the spin that Gordon Brown is some sort of world leader stirring everyone through a financial crisis.  They applaud his VAT cut, but fail to notice that shops are having to have 10%, 20% and even 50% sales just to get them through Christmas!

On a day he said he’d saved the world (and while we all make slips of the tongue, they often reveal what we are really thinking) we also had the German finance minister calling Brown’s plans, “crass” and saying they would take a generation to pay off.  It seems Brown is a world leader with no followers.

In the midst of this it’s down to Wandsworth to try and make things as good as we can for businesses in the borough, while no-one should be under any illusion times will be easy for business, hopefully we will be able to avoid the worst of it.

While is hasn’t quite got the recognition of the red ribbon or the red poppy today was white ribbon day – when men are asked to wear a white ribbon as a symbol of their pledge not to cause, threaten or condone harm to women.

These hands are not for hurtingAlong with several other councillors I attended an awareness event organised by Wandsworth Victim Support to promote the day and highlight the problems that still exist with domestic violence.

Of course, domestic violence is not purely a problem of men harming women, but can exist within any home, with both men and women suffering as victims at the hands of partners and other family members.  Wandsworth has always had a comparatively low incidence of domestic violence, but that always carries the fear that there is under-reporting.

The council and Victim Support run a one stop shop every Monday at Battersea Arts Centre.  More information can be found via the council’s website at wandsworth.gov.uk/domesticviolence