Not the most exciting image from last week's Wandsworth Business Forum.

There are over 12,000 businesses in Wandsworth, employing (if my sums are right) over 70,000 people, but for some reason business lacks a voice in Wandsworth.

That’s not to say business is ignored; we do plenty to communicate with businesses, each town centre has a council employed Town Centre Manager, working with the local town centre partnership. We have links with the major business and trading associations. We regularly communicate and consult with businesses.

But there hadn’t been a strategic voice for business until recently.

We held the Wandsworth Business Forum last week (another ‘service’ we give businesses, an information and networking event) and formally launched the Wandsworth Business Partnership. Last night the Partnership held its third meeting and elected its first chairman from the private sector (I had acted as chairman while it was established).

Why is it important? Well, the borough’s business has never had a strategic voice with the council.

But arguably business is a key part of what makes the borough great. Most people form an opinion of an area not on the neighbours, or the quality of the housing, but the nearby retail offer. If you have ‘nice’ shops, you think it’s a nice area. If the nearest parade can only offer cut-price drink, gambling and kebabs you might draw a different opinion.

Business brings people and money into the local economy. Without it Wandsworth would be a dormitory, where people slept when they weren’t working elsewhere.

And the irony is that businesses, arguably, are the biggest funders of the council. While localisation of business rates is still a year away, and technically business rates are paid – ultimately – to HM Treasury the fact remains that the amount the Treasury pay to councils (which massively outweighs the money councils raise themselves) comes from somewhere and is remarkably close to the amount businesses pay in rates. Businesses find themselves paying a lot in taxation, but getting little representation.

This article on O2, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea’s plan to introduce free wifi is mainly focused on residents, but highlights the importance of a strong business voice.

It is exactly the sort of project that could help Wandsworth’s emergent creative sector to thrive by giving it a competitive edge, but hitherto we haven’t had a body that could either call for, or support, strategic projects like that.

It will be fascinating to see how the Wandsworth Business Partnership develops and works. (I sometimes wonder if we are just going through a corporatist cycle of government, and couldn’t help think of the Neddys.) I know it won’t always see eye-to-eye with the council – if only because it has chosen parking policy as one of its initial priorities – but on the other areas, like attracting investment to the borough or the creation of employment space we would hopefully be of one voice and seeing some exciting times together.

(If you are a Wandsworth Business you might be interested in joining the Wandsworth Business Partnership group on LinkedIn.)

Nat Wei, the Government’s Big Society advisor, has an interesting blog which often highlights good Big Society examples. It now appears he’s rating them as well and recently introduced his ‘power rating’ (and thanks to Warren Hatter for highlighting it) which “seeks to express the increasing degree in which a platform or initiative takes power from those who currently possess it and puts it in the hands of citizens” giving it five ratings:

  1. does something good for citizens,
  2. shifts power, data, and opportunities closer to where citizens live, perhaps by reducing bureaucracy, enabling different providers to operate services, or using the web and other means to allow more direct access,
  3. seeks to harness cognitive surplus, presenting tasks and activities in more accessible ways by changing the way we think about them to appeal to our interests and passions,
  4. strengthens social capital (particularly the bridging kind) by encouraging peer to peer activity online and offline,
  5. finds ways to open its governance, funding, and surplus involving employees, members, and users using cooperative or other methods to create a strong sense of group ownership over the venture

Now, the language is not the best, even as someone who rather likes Clay Shirky’s concept of ‘cognitive surplus’ I cannot imagine any circumstance in which I would attempt to use the phrase. But the principle is an interesting one.

I’ve recently been talking to a friend about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and it was impossible to see this and not make a connection.

Despite some critics, the principle of Maslow is common-sense. Some needs take priority over others: you need air to breath and food to eat. Once you have them you can start thinking about shelter and security. Then onto more fulfilling needs like friends, family and self-development. Even blogging, if that’s a need…

But when you tie that back to government, it’s rooted firmly at the bottom. We’ve all heard variations of “the first duty of government is…” Most often it involves protection or security.

To a degree that has to be right. For example, as a council we have certain statutory duties. We need to protect the vulnerable. We have to provide housing for those that cannot get it themselves. We have to provide education. Perhaps, though, we need to think more about how we help people with those less existential needs.

One of the criteria of the Wandsworth Challenge is that it should improve the quality of life of our residents. I’ve touched on the problem with this before, that people all have different opinions, and what enhances one persons quality of life might diminish another’s. We could plough lots of money into, say, a Wandsworth Opera Company, but that would offer little direct benefit to those who don’t like opera.

A Maslow for government, therefore, should address those crucial needs (care, education, housing) but then act as an enabler. Nat Wei may be on to something – and while the wording needs work – it really needs to a test before decisions are taken, not a rating afterwards.

Another edict extending direct democracy has come forth from Eric Pickles. This time that a local referendum will be forced whenever a local council increases council tax by more than a pre-set amount.

As a government fan boy you would expect me to support it, but while I’m definitely in the fan boy category (why else did I sacrifice so much of my life knocking on doors through each and every general election false start from 2007 onwards?) I can’t quite make my mind up on this one.

On the face of it, it is perfectly sensible. The notion that Whitehall should be deciding what is, and isn’t, an appropriate level of council tax is just crazy. The key word in the phrase local democracy is local. The current system – which will remain in place until the law is changed – has nothing local about it at all, since it can see a minister from a totally different part of the council (and a different party) making decisions about areas of which he or she knows nothing. So the principle of moving power from Whitehall to local people is not one with which I can disagree.

However, I do wonder whether a local referendum is the right way. While many of my youthful beliefs in the constitution have disappeared I’m still a fan of representative democracy – we elect people to act as representatives, not as a delegates, and tend not to use direct democracy.

Of course, many of the old arguments against direct democracy are disappearing. People are (generally) more intelligent and informed than at any time in history. The argument that they don’t, or can’t, have the full information to take a decision applies less and less each day. However, the fact remains that we live in a representative democracy and there are problems in trying to blend the two. If you have a council elected on a specific platform one year it’s hard to then vote to remove the budget they need to enact that platform the next. And this starts getting towards where my concerns about this lie.

I have no problem with the principle that power should be devolved as far as possible. And am not someone who believes for a second that the lowest level of devolution is the council; the lowest level is the individual. But I am very keen on local democracy. And it’s the other key word in that phrase that causes my concern with this proposal. To my mind the key to a strong and successful democracy is linking the vote you cast with the consequences of that vote, and that vote alone.

Local democracy isn’t that healthy in this country. One of the key reasons is that so much local government funding comes from central government. When this is combined with the huge amount of regulation laid down over the years it meant that impact of a local vote on your life was significantly less than the impact of a national vote, to the extent that many council elections are seen as little more than verdicts on the government of the day.

The best way to improve local democracy, to my mind, is to strengthen the link between people’s votes in local elections with what happens in their area. This means giving councils freedom, so they aren’t just acting as agents for Whitehall and can innovate (or even make mistakes) to make a difference to their area. And it means ensuring that people recognise and see the consequence of their votes so that when they are casting them the next time it is a referendum on their local council, not on whoever is in No 10.

I’d be interested in seeing how the proposals work and the reaction of others to them (I’m quite prepared to accept I’m wrong on this). But it seems to me that just as we don’t have a referendum on income tax or VAT rises, but instead will allow the country to pass judgement in 2015, we should be reminding people how important it is to pass judgement on their local councils and councillors in local elections.

Government at every level tends to be set up like a machine. You put something in one end, and a set process is followed until something else comes out of the other. To misquote Bismarck it is a sausage machine.

Quite how efficient this machine is varies enormously. I’m tempted to suggest it’s correlated to the engineering and manufacturing capability of the place in question. But while that holds true for Germany or 70s Britain, it rather falls down when you consider the government of Italy, and, say, Ferrari.

Of course, this has many benefits. Not least that it allows an easy check on how public money is being spent, you know the inputs (money going in) and can count the output (bins emptied, children educated, library books issued). It allows for easy measurement and management, and it allows for easy comparison since -theoretically – the costs should be roughly the same in each borough.

But what’s missing is the humanity. People make judgements on fuzzy feelings not on the percentage of missed bin collections (hopefully low), children educated (hopefully high) or books issued (hopefully high). Yes, these play a part, if your bin was never collected then you would probably not be pleased with the council. But generally, I think, people are willing to accept the occasional mistake, as long as it is rectified and not repeated.

So they know their bin will get emptied and they judge their satisfaction on things like their local shops, the transport, the nightlife (which they may, or may not, want) near them. It is not about numbers but a whole collection of individual factors that contribute to how they feel.

To give an example, when I first moved to London I lived in Brent for a very short while. I lived there for a short while because I didn’t like it. To be fair the services that I used were good, transport excellent, I felt safe on the street and there was a strong sense of community. If you looked at all the measures that government traditionally use there is no reason at all I shouldn’t like it. But I didn’t.

Conversely, it’s very difficult for me to say exactly why I liked Wandsworth immediately and have lived here ever since. Bins are emptied and public transport is good (well, acceptable if you can bear the crush) but there’s more to it than these fairly binary measures. And while I know the council has played its part, even been a key driver, in getting all these sums to add up to a great borough I’m not sure I fully understand the maths. 

The new government and my new job on the council has started me thinking about the maths quite a lot, and its amazing how much a new hat changes your way of thinking, even if you are dealing with the same issues. We do, of course, need these binary measures, we need to check that what we are doing is effective and making a difference. But there is also the question of how these fit into the bigger pictures, because somehow all these individual factors, added to those of local business, the police, health service and so many others are added together to make the Wandsworth we all live in. 

So, what is it about Wandsworth that you like… or love… or hate? And what do you think are the ingredients of that particular sausage?

Today Alistair Darling will announce that Labour have finally seen the benefits of low taxation.

Or has he?  The BBC is currently reporting an expected temporary reduction in VAT to 15%, along with the introduction of a new higher rate tax band and the postponement of various other changes.  In other words, we’re increasing taxes, not immediately, but it’s coming.

And it’s questionable who will benefit from the reduction in VAT.  Any reduction in tax is not to be scoffed at, but if you take a low income household and consider where their income goes, much of it is spent on VAT exempt goods.  The weekly food shop – mostly VAT free.  Children’s clothes – VAT free.  Fuel bills -already at a lower VAT rate.

Of course, they’ll save a few quid on their Christmas shopping, but I suspect that’s small consolation when the parents fear for their jobs as we head into recession.

Is there another way?  Well, there was a good article in today’s Telegraph that points out that Conservative controlled councils are about the only places you see efficient, well-run and affordable government nowadays.