Wandsworth Council Chamber, from a councillor's view
In my new seat, 2,300 name petitition at the ready
Last night was my first full council meeting as an independent councillor, and in some ways one of the more interesting meetings I’ve attended, because I could attend and make up my own mind rather an having each of my votes pre-determined by the whip. It was remarkably refreshing, as a councillor, to be genuinely undecided and make a decision on my vote on the basis of the debate.

It is also, effectively, the only meeting at which independent councillors have any formal role, since the Conservative group flexed their majority to give us the most marginal of committee places. They even attempted to bury a question from Cllr Grimston about the proposed Richmond merger down the order, although the Mayor, to her credit, insisted it be put higher on the order.

One thing I thought I would try to do is record my votes. As a general rule votes aren’t recorded at the council although you could generally guess which way people voted based on the vote size (there had never been any real examples of people disobeying the party whip). The agenda is available on the council’s website, there were lots of votes taken—many uncontentious—so this isn’t comprehensive, but my thoughts and votes on those that had some debate or interest.

Shared arrangements with Richmond: I voted with Labour on their amendment. Then voted against the paragraph.

I was undecided going into the meeting, but I had reservations. Richmond is very different to Wandsworth, it doesn’t even run some of the big ticket services that Wandsworth runs. Above all the whole things seems to be be drawn up remarkably quickly, an opportunistic merger after Richmond’s talks with Kingston failed. It might be the right thing to do, but that would be luck rather than judgement: a decision of this magnitude needs to be taken with proper consideration, not when Richmond are on the rebound.

Political Groups and Committee Appointments: Mildly interesting. Essentially the Conservatives deciding on which committees the two independent councillors can serve, with the two of us suggesting something different. Unsurprisingly I voted for the independent proposal. Unsurprisingly it was defeated.

Motion on Airport Expansion: This was a rather dull debate of lots of people agreeing with each other. It seemed half the councillors left the chamber for the duration of it. We debate this subject again and again (I assume because it’s a big issue in key Conservative areas!) but I don’t think there’s ever been a different outcome other than unanimous support.

Motion on Private Renting in Wandsworth: I would have had no problem supporting the motion, but equally found myself having not having any problem with voting for the Conservative amendment which was pretty bland, so supported that and the amended motion. This was essentially about supporting private renters in the borough, a rapidly growing tenure and one that is often characterised by insecurity.

It is, I decided early today, far too nice to blog. So instead I’m just going to feature the environment video which accompanies our manifesto.

I’m a regular user of Battersea Park and have seen the difference that council investment has made, both directly and by leveraging funding from elsewhere. The green spaces in Wandsworth are a real jewel in the crown for the borough.

But it’s not just about green spaces. Over the past few weeks I’ve realised the enormous impact the noise from aircraft on the Heathrow flightpath make. And, of course, it’s about the council being as environmentally friendly as possible, and making green choices as easy as possible for residents.

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.

The April edition of Martin Linton’s Bugle dropped through my door this morning.  The newsletter, funded by his Parliamentary communications allowance always makes interesting reading.

One of the stories is on his successful campaigning against the third runway, to which he is “opposed… on environmental grounds.”  Apparently he “has voted against the third runway twice and will continue to campaign against it.”

Hold it though, that’s not quite right is it? In January he voted with the Government in support of the third runway.  He claimed afterwards that he was confused and tried to blame the Conservatives.  It was all fine though, because “sometimes funny things happen in Parliament.”  Yes, indeed.

I’m glad that, as a taxpayer, he gets some of our money to tell me what he’s up to, it helps transparent government.  I’m not so happy that when he decided to support his beleagured government on Heathrow than stand up for his constituents, but that’s the nature of representative government.  What I am unhappy about is that he’s using our money to pretend he’s always been on our side.  Would it have been to much for him to have taken the opportunity to say sorry?

We all make mistakes. It is human nature. But I cannot help but wonder what Battersea’s MP is up to when he posts his explanation for his Heathrow vote on his website.*

Apparently he voted FOR the third runway because he was trying to vote AGAINST it.  Got that?  The reason he made that mistake?  Well, it was all the Tories fault.  In his own words:

 I was expecting two votes and instead of voting for an Opposition motion on the first vote I was going to vote against a Government motion for a third runway on the second vote. But the Opposition decided not to call the second vote.

So that’s all right then.  He’s only been in Parliament since 1997, and it’s not as if the issue was getting major news coverage or anything – so it’s all perfectly understandable.

Yes, we all make mistakes, and, to be honest, I am sure that plenty of votes in the Commons are cast the wrong way. But when it’s on one of the biggest issues facing his constituency (and he doesn’t live too far from me, so  know he suffers from Heathrow noise too) you would rather hope your representative in Parliament would do his job and take the time to check especially when he’s defending a wafer thin majority.

Either way you look at it, he’s either not representing his constituents, or he’s not up to his job.  He needs to go.


* UPDATE Martin Linton’s website seems to have lost the page explaining his vote.  Fortunately ConservativeHome had a copy which I’ve pasted below.  It is an interesting read, but I just cannot understand how someone with over 10 years experience of Parliament, and who has worked so hard to fight the 3rd runway which (after the recession, surely the biggest issue facing his constituents) can get this utterly wrong.

This is a mix-up for which I am entirely responsible. I was expecting two votes and instead of voting for an Opposition motion on the first vote I was going to vote against a Government motion for a third runway on the second vote. But the Opposition decided not to call the second vote.

I now wish I had taken my opportunity of voting against the runway on the first vote and I feel not a little embarrassed at the confusion this has caused, but I can only say that I remain against a third runway and I shall not miss an opportunity to vote against if one comes up.

I lobbied the Aviation Minister and the Transport Minister and went with a group of London MPs to see the Prime Minister twice to try to persuade them against any increase in flights into Heathrow and we were successful in persuading them to drop the idea of all-day flights. This would have meant an increase in flights over Battersea and an end to the system of runway alternation, which gives people under each flightpath a break of eight hours each day without aircraft landing overhead.

I think there is still a chance of persuading the Government to drop the third runway and I shall certainly keep trying. It is not due to be started until 2015 and it has to go through a long planning inquiry first, and then it has to meet noise and pollution targets that are so high that some people think they may never be met.

The first vote was on a Conservative motion to ask the Government to ‘think again’ and the second vote would have been on a Government amendment supporting the third runway, which I would have opposed.  Only the first was put to the vote and was defeated by 19 votes.

So the government have given the go-ahead to the 3rd runway, not good news for those in the north of the borough who will face more disturbance as a result.

Now, I must confess that I have changed my opinion on this.  Up until a few years ago I really couldn’t understand the fuss about Heathrow.  I had chosen to live in London, and one of the things you accept about living in a big city is the noise, but over the years I’ve come to realise that not only is the Heathrow flightpath having a huge effect, but that it has slowly become worse and worse.

If you follow me on Twitter you will have seen an exasperated early morning tweet:

Damn those early morning arrivals at Heathrow – I want another hour asleep!

Although written at 6.14am, it followed a couple of hours of the incessant drone of engines, approaching then fading, then realising that the fading engine noise is actually the next plane.  (That this followed a sleepless night with an unsettled baby just compounded my frustration.)

It is a difficult subject to tackle, and I’m aware of the risk of seeming to be a NIMBY politician, but the government is railroading a decision without consideration of the alternatives.

We could expand existing airports.  My council colleague, Nick Cuff, has written a thoughtful article – ‘There are alternatives to expanding Heathrow’ – on the ConservativeHome website detailing some of the smaller airports in the south-east that already have expansion plans and could accommodate increased air-traffic.

We could invest in high-speed rail.  The 2M Group, of which Wandsworth Council is a member, published a report on how a high speed rail network could connect the UK to many European cities in under four hours (good when you consider the time wasted at airports in addition to flight times)

Or we could take the radical option of building an airport that is actually designed to be a good modern airport, rather than one that has evolved since the 1930s.  Apparently, one of the reasons the car-parking is so far from the terminals is that originally it was assumed passengers would be chaffeur driven and wouldn’t need to park nearby.

Boris Johnson has suggested that the best solution would be a new airport in the Thames Estuary (with most flights over water and therefore not causing the disruption we currently suffer), that could be designed to meet the demands of modern air-travel and modern passengers.  Sadly, it seems no-one in the government has his foresight.