I've long seen council meetings as pointless.

When I was part of majority group and on the executive I shared the view with most colleagues that council meetings were necessary formalities: set-pieces we had to put on to show democracy being served knowing that the decisions had all been taken in the Leader's office, before being ratified in a private group meeting and then whipped through a public committee meeting.

Now I'm just an independent councillor I think the same way. I just don't like it anywhere as much as before.

Having gone down to four meetings a year makes them even less relevant, too infrequent to be meaningfully effective at anything. But, occasionally, timings help. And so it was at this week's meeting when almost all the evening was given over to a debate surrounding the EU referendum and the Brexit decision.

The role of local government may seem unconnected with our membership of the EU, but like every other part of the country Wandsworth benefits from EU funding. Perhaps more importantly local government has its role in providing community leadership and after the worrying increase in hate crime since the referendum I'm pleased the opportunity was there last night.

The basis of the evening was a motion moved by the Conservative and Labour party leaders. Perhaps inevitably for a bipartisan motion it became something of a mishmash to satisfy everyone, but it contained what I think were key clauses to:

ensure that all voices and points of view are listened to, and in particular that all Wandsworth residents and employees continue to enjoy the respectful, inclusive and cosmopolitan quality of life which makes this such an attractive part of inner London;

and to

condemn racist language and behaviour in all its forms.

I was particularly pleased to see those elements. Following the referendum the failure of the council and its leadership to use its voice to condemn the increase in hate crime (and Wandsworth has not been immune from this) concerned me.

But while a bit late (and taking a bit of prompting from the independent's statement and motion) it became an evening of optimism and unity. While I suspect from many of the majority group speeches that their membership, from top to bottom, is far from representative of the 75% remain vote in Wandsworth, there was a unanimity among councillors to make the most of the situation and most importantly to condemn hate crime and racism.

There were two attempts to amend the motion, both from the Labour side. One sought to strengthen the commitment to fight hate crime by declaring Wandsworth a zero-tolerance zone and working with other agencies, like the police, use their combined resources to identify and tackle hate crime. The Conservative group defeated this.

The other was related to the refugee crisis, and sought to commit the council to signing up the government commitment and house 10 Syrian families. Again, the Conservative group voted against this. However, one Conservative councillor tweeted afterwards that it was because they felt it should be more than ten families. I can only assume that position had been agreed at the Conservative group meeting, so have written to the council leader asking for clarification to see exactly what number they are committing to accept.

There was one more motion, it came at the end of the night, despite being the first submitted and, arguably, the one that started it all. The motion was moved by Malcolm Grimston and me to allow the council to make a statement following the Brexit vote. Bizarrely the Conservatives amended this to something that meant almost exactly the same.

No-one could explain why, the closest we got to an answer was from Cllr Cook, who told Malcolm Grimston the amendment meant the same thing, but was different. In a rare night of a council meeting showing leadership, I suppose it had to have a little bit of what usually passes for leadership in Wandsworth too.

It’s an odd, but strangely liberating, experience to have broken rank and spoken out against the council.

Last night was the first time I’ve ever ‘rebelled’ by speaking (but not voting, as I’m not a committee member) against the proposed admissions policy for Belleville School.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I, or any councillor, usually agrees 100% with what their party or group or administration says or does. It means that we are all coalitions, even when it’s just one party in the coalition. We all have different views on different things, but our views have enough in common that we can work together on the shared ground and operate a system of give and take on those issues over which we disagree. But the consequence is a constant cognitive dissonance, and while it’s usually fairly insignificant and easily overlooked, sometimes it gets so large something has to give.

And so it happened over the Forthbridge Road site and the proposed admissions policy for Belleville – something had to give and thus three ward councillors (two who are in the council’s cabinet) found themselves in committee room 123 arguing against their own council’s plans.

I won’t beat around the bush; I’m really pleased about the way last night went.

There was a packed public gallery and I think it was a great example of how democracy can work well. The Education and Children’s Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee heard first from Ian Hamilton, who was representing Forthbridge Road residents in opposing the plans. Then from the chairman of governors at Belleville who was also opposing the plans. Then from Guy Senior and myself spoke, again, opposing the plans. When the committee started formal discussions Jonathan Cook (who is a member) moved an amendment requiring the council to re-think and he too spoke in opposition to the plans.

I suppose there is an argument that if everyone is unhappy then the plans are, at least, balanced. And the chairman did remind the committee that, having heard from some of the people who oppose the policy they should also consider the people who supported it (he might also have pointed out that they need to consider the others who oppose it they didn’t hear from, like the Taybridge Road residents who were excluded from the priority zone).

But when it came to a vote Jonathan’s amendment (seconded by the Labour spokesman, Andy Gibbons) was supported 6-4. In other words, the council will have to re-think its plans. Thank-you to Cllrs Andy Gibbons and Wendy Speck, parent governors Dympna Kelly and Jon Cox and Diocesan representative John Russell. And most of all thank-you to all the parents and residents who turned up to show their opposition.

Technically the committee’s ‘decision’ is only a recommendation to the executive to act a certain way. Technically, the executive can choose to ignore that recommendation, but the practice is that the executive committee recognises that debate takes place at the committees and will follow this recommendation. I certainly hope that practice will be followed here.

It will be too late to do anything about the first lot of admissions to the Forthbridge Road site (and the objectors I spoke to recognise this; indeed, I was impressed at how practical they were when discussing how to balance the needs of Belleville parents with the desires of Forthbridge Road residents) so the first lot will be admitted based on distance from the Belleville main site. But it does mean that there will be a lot of time for discussion and drafting to get the new admission scheme right. I don’t think anyone believes everyone will be totally satisfied, but I think we all know we can do a lot better than a scheme that no-one really liked.

And I hope it goes without saying that Jonathan, Guy and I will be closely following what happens!

I’ll make no apology for reflecting on this personally, it has been a remarkably novel experience for me. I started by referring to the cognitive dissonance, that small tension caused by the difference between my belief and opinion and the broader programme to which I signed up as a Conservative candidate, then as a Conservative group councillor. It is hard to describe the feeling of freedom that comes with removing that tension, but it’s easy to see the attraction. And while I’ve no intention of becoming a serial rebel, I can see why for some people the threat of sanction (be it sacking or removal of the whip, and I’m sure there are those who think it should happen to me) is not a deterrent.
But most of all the episode has reinforced my faith in democracy.

I’d lost count of the number of times I spoke to somebody in the days leading up to the meeting for them to say, “there’s no point in objecting, the council has made up its mind.” For them it was quite clear that the council had weighed the views of Shaftesbury residents against the demands of Belleville parents (and potential parents) and decided firmly in favour of the latter. The council was obviously getting it wrong, but was an unstoppable juggernaut.

I’ve always been clear in my view that the council is not perfect, like any person or organisation it can make mistakes; what is important is that it can spot and rectify those mistakes. Last night, I was proud that the council proved it isn’t an unstoppable juggernaut, it is a mature and responsive organisation – it might not get things right first time, but it’s prepared to listen to make sure it’s gets there in the end.

There is no doubt the council’s current consultation on expansion at Belleville is stirring up heated debate. Reading through some of the conversations that are taking place on forums like Streetbook and NappyValleyNet it’s clear there are many different views about the council’s proposed solution to the ‘problem’.

I’ll be honest, I never thought that Belleville would ever impact on Shaftesbury. It is such a popular school that the most Shaftesbury parents could usually expect was disappointment that their children couldn’t get in, however, the council’s proposal to create a ‘satellite’ site on Forthbridge Road has changed all that. But not, I think, for the better.

To give a potted history of the issue Belleville is a popular school. Every year far more parents want their children to go there than there is space. As a consequence the school has been expanded several times. The most recent proposal, to expand into the Forthbridge Road site (previously the Vines and then Paddock school) came after local parents vigorously opposed plans to expand on the main Belleville site.

When the opposition meant expansion on the Belleville site was not an option the education department looked at using the Forthbridge Road site. As Shaftesbury ward councillors we have been involved throughout, quietly trying behind the scenes to influence and improve the proposals which we felt were far from ideal. Jonathan Cook (who has the same views as expressed here) has been particularly active after being thrown in the deep end with this issue straight after his election in May!

Unfortunately, although the proposals changed significantly we were never able to get our main concern addressed: that the council was effectively creating a new school which local children would not be able to attend.

The problem
The problem as the education department sees it is that there are not enough schools places in Northcote, basically the area around Belleville School. There are, however, enough school places in Shaftesbury, the area which contains the proposed satellite site. The logic is that, therefore, it’s not a Shaftesbury problem but a Northcote problem and any new capacity created should go to Northcote children.

Indeed, the initial proposals were that the site would function purely as a part of Belleville, without any chance whatsoever for children from the neighbouring roads to go. In effect residents of Forthbridge Road would get all the pain of a school on the road, the increased traffic morning and afternoon, but no school. It would look like a school and sound like a school, but unless you lived within a few hundred yards of a school a mile away, it wasn’t a school!

The problems with the proposed solution
The ‘second priority area’ might be an improvement from having no local children attending, but making a bad idea a little bit better still results in, fundamentally, a bad idea.

It remains incredibly unlikely that significant numbers of children from the area will get a place. On the council’s projections local children would only be a majority in their local school in one year out of the next ten!

And, frankly, I have doubts local children will ever get places: while Belleville remains such a popular school, parents are still (if they can afford it) going to be moving as close to Belleville as they can. In effect the council is reinforcing and encouraging the behaviour that has already created a super-sized primary.

Even when you look at the details there are flaws: the biggest being that even in the second priority zone priority will still be decided by proximity to the Belleville site – in other words, when spaces are available to Shaftesbury children, those living next door to the Forthbridge Road site will still be at the back of the queue!

I believe in choice in education. Every parent should have the right to choose which school their child attends. However, I also recognise it’s impossible to exactly match supply and demand. As such, I do not think it is necessarily a bad thing that not every parent gets their first choice. However, when many parents fail to get their first choice, and this happens year after year then something needs to be done to address that.

The council deserve credit for trying to address it, even though I think the approach is wrong. It’s a mix of increasing supply (by creating an ever bigger Belleville) while attempting to choke off demand (by creating arbitrary areas outside of which you do not have the choice of Belleville). In effect it’s returning to an old system of catchment areas and reducing, rather than enhancing parental choice. It strikes me as an administrative solution to a difficult problem – it may address the numbers, but doesn’t really satisfy on qualitative issues like parental choice.

A better solution?
I believe there is a better, far more innovative, approach. Instead of tinkering with supply by expanding as far as possible and artificially limiting demand with arbitrary borders we need to address why Belleville is so popular compared to other schools and help create a more competitive education system. Otherwise in a few years time we’ll be having arguments about another satellite site and a tertiary priority zone.

A school is so much more than a building; it’s an ethos, an approach to education, it’s the leadership from the head and the involvement of the parents. Belleville is a successful school not because of the bricks and mortar, but because of all the people involved; teachers, staff, parents and pupils.

Actually Wandsworth is ahead of the game in realising this that a school and a building are not the same thing. We have, for example, the Wix’s Lane site containing both a Wandsworth School and a French Lycée, and are proposing that ‘Belleville’ isn’t just on the Belleville site.

So why aren’t we looking at expanding and duplicating the model? Instead of giving parents just one choice of a massive Belleville, why aren’t we creating new Bellevilles? Why aren’t we taking the Forthbridge Road site and offering it as a potential Free School? Or creating a system of mini-Bellevilles, using the expertise and ethos that already exists to spread a popular model as widely as possible.

Then, instead of having choice only for those who can afford to go private or move next to Belleville, we have choice for all.

I make no apology for, once again, asking people to vote for me. Putting yourself up for election is a fairly egotistical thing to do, as is having an eponymous blog. And although I’ve never introduced myself on the doorstep (my patter is to call “on behalf of the Conservatives” rather than putting a particular name forward) I have no shame in promoting myself as the best choice for Shaftesbury for the next four years.

But I’m actually not quite that egotistical. I think you should vote for some others as well.

Jane Ellison has been working hard for years and will make an excellent MP for Battersea and give it the voice it deserves.

And for the council Guy Senior has represented Shaftesbury for longer than me (since 1990) and worked hard to help keep Wandsworth providing value and excellent services. Finally, Jonathan Cook will make an superb addition to the team, he’s already been around, introducing himself to all and sundry and will make a great councillor.

Remember, ONE vote on the white paper for Jane ELLISON and THREE votes on the yellow paper for Jonathan COOK, James COUSINS and Guy SENIOR. We will all have the Conservative tree logo by our names.

I’m not sure if I will be blogging during the day, I hope to post a few bits and pieces from out and about, but I also know that it’s going to be an incredibly busy and long day – we shall see what it brings.