I’m a lover of Lib Dem campaign leaflets. For years they have had a few consistent themes.

One is the clipboard, the idea is that if you have a clipboard you are obviously (a) important, (b) working and, by extension (c) doing important work. So what better way to show how busy you are than to always have a clipboard with you. The Glum Councillors website shows a few fine examples from Lewisham and Woking and the James Sandbach, the Putney Lib Dem candidate is clearly a master.

But the classic Lib Dem theme is the ‘winning here/two horse race/can’t win here’ bar chart. These have been mocked and derided over the years since they bear no relation to actual figures, statistics or results – but instead give a misleading impression of Lib Dem chances. So I was amazed to see the Southfields version (where they are in second place and beating Labour) with the health warning: “not to scale”.

I actually did wonder what a to scale graph would look like, so made one, based on the average votes per party in 2006, which were Conservative 2,241, Liberal Democrat 773 and Labour 650. The Lib Dems weren’t that far out, they got the order right, at least.

What will be interesting is to see how those graphs look on 7 May. With an unpopular Labour party nationally it might well be that they will struggle to hold second place in many wards locally.

Back in 2006 candidates from the Lib Dems or Greens managed to insert themselves into the second place group (i.e. 4th to 6th place in 3 member wards) in 8 wards. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that when it comes to political campaigning – if not council administration – that the real opposition will be coming from those parties rather than Labour.

Finally, Brown has blown the starting whistle.

Thank God. It has got to the stage where I’m not just dreaming about elections, but actually had a nightmare over the weekend that Brown bottled it again and delayed the election until June.

Frankly, I’m ready to have a bit of a break from politics and campaigning. We’ve been at it for years, and as much as I’m pleased we’re finally getting a chance to see the back of this appallingly bad government, I’m over the moon that there’s only a few more weeks of campaigning left.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when we started our general election campaign. I can barely remember selecting Jane as the candidate, it seems that long ago. But in terms of campaigning we’ve been pretty constant since at least 2007 with various elections and election scares. Late 2007, of course, saw huge speculation about a snap election because of the Brown bounce. (How he must kick himself now for bottling that chance.) Then in 2008 we had the Mayoral and Greater London Assembly elections, in 2009 we were campaigning for the European Parliament elections and after that the speculation about another snap election kept us going pretty much up to this point.

Plenty of people will be using this opportunity to set out their stalls – stating why their particular party is the right one for Britain. I’m going to leave that to others because I suspect I’m in tune with the majority of people in the country in saying I’m just happy that Brown will soon be kicked out, and the politics can die down for a while.

I recognise that reports of meetings I attended are dull. Frankly, they are dull for me. Last night’s full council was a classic example of why.

I have a lot of time for the Labour Party in Wandsworth, I think they have provided some good opposition to the council, but actually, that’s mainly come from their leader, Tony Belton. Without him, I don’t think there’s any doubt they would not be much of a force. Last night’s debates largely proved this.

At the previous council meeting (which was only to set the council tax) their arguments were “Yeah, Lord Ashcroft”. Nothing to do with the council, and nothing to do with council tax setting. Last night, they developed a new line of attack: “Yeah, Mark Clarke.”

Rather than debating council policy they spent more time trying to attack a Conservative Parliamentary candidate than anything else. A sign, perhaps, that they are worried about the Tooting seat?

We did try and debate Tooting. Sadly Rex Osborn, a Tooting councillor, could offer nothing better than saying everything good in Tooting was because of the residents and businesses, and everything bad because of the council. Our problem, it seems, was that we are too heavy handed with enforcement, except when we aren’t because then we should be heavier. And we don’t have any vision, because if we did, we’d be encouraging more people to go to the bingo hall. And we’re not clairvoyant, because he had photos of problems which we subsequently had to clear up.

And that was the corker. Like a Liberal Democrat on Glum Councillors he had a series of photos where rubbish had been dumped or the pavement blocked, which the council had to clear up. The complaint was not that the council didn’t clear the problems, but that the problems existed in the first place – and here he conveniently forgot the residents and businesses good, council bad line. Perhaps hoping we’d all think the council has been dumping mattresses or re-arranging shop displays.

I’ve repeatedly said that the real strength of Tooting Together is the together element. We clearly rely on residents and businesses to keep pavements clear and not to litter or flytip – but when the minority (and it is a small minority) step out of line we will act quickly to rectify the situation. To try and spin the whole thing in the way Labour did shows they are out of ideas at exactly the time they need them.

If that is the best Labour have to offer, it can hardly be a surprise that they are worried about losing to the Conservatives, and maybe even to the pothole pointers of the Liberal Democrats.

If you were expecting (though I suspect you hadn’t even thought about it) a post on the budget on this blog, you will be disappointed. There are far more qualified people than me who have analysed and commented on it at length.

For that matter there are far less qualified people than who have analysed and commented on it at length.

However, one of the proposals – taken straight from the Conservatives – of abolishing stamp duty for first time buyers for two years did catch my eye.

Although it’s taken from the Conservatives I’m not 100% sure I think it’s a great policy. For a start, how on earth is it to be policed? Is it really going to be cost-effective to check that all buyers have never owned a property anywhere for something that’s only saving the buyer a maximum of £2,500 (and costing the Exchequer the same), why not just extend it to all sales? Perhaps the bigger problem is how you stop sellers and estate agents simply adding a couple of thousand to the asking price, now that buyers don’t need to find stamp duty. Foxton’s, I’m mainly looking at you here.

However, it make me think about Wandsworth’s record of affordable housing. Which despite what you might think, is actually quite good.
For a start, council house sales has created a market of affordable properties. My first step on the housing ladder was an ex-council leasehold flat. It wasn’t the greatest first step, but the only way I was able to afford to get onto the property ladder. I doubt I could have ever started in any other inner London borough that hadn’t had a council sales policy.

The other factor is that Wandsworth is, amazingly, one of the country’s largest builder of new council homes. Surprising as it might seem Conservative Wandsworth is responsible for a significant proportion of the new council homes in the country through its Hidden Homes policy. Shelter’s recently published ‘league table’, placed Wandsworth in 16th place nationally, and 3rd in London, for provision of affordable housing. Admittedly, I’d quibble with some of the figures they used, but it does show that despite the opposition’s claims, nationally and locally, Wandsworth has a good record when it comes to offering and creating opportunity for those starting out.

It’s not really news, since the intention has been known for weeks – and could have been guessed for months, if not years – but Wandsworth formally set a 0% increase in council tax for 2010/11 last night at a special meeting of the full council.

They are always odd meetings. You would expect them to be something of a set-piece occasion, it is, after all, the council’s budget. But we don’t have red boxes, or quaint traditions that the relevant councillor is allowed, on this one occasion, a sip of whiskey in the chamber. Instead we have a fairly dry affair in which the Conservatives lay out their proposals and Labour try and argue against them; try and fail.

It must be hard, you’ve got a good council, well rated independently, with incredibly high resident satisfaction and the lowest council tax in the country. What, exactly, do you go for?

To give the Labour party their due, they did try. Their argument was for exactly the same council tax, but with three key differences.

  1. Pay people more,
  2. Except high earners who should be paid less (they implied senior council officers were “socially useless” which suggests they’ve already given up hopes of winning the council and working with them in May), and
  3. Lord Ashcroft.

It was a truly bizarre argument. Essentially socialist on pay with attempts at political point-scoring as if Ashcroft were also funding the council. (And missing the point that they have their own non-dom funder in Lord Paul, not to mention the numerous peerages they sold to taxpayers.) Indeed, I wonder why I am even airing their arguments here, since not a single member of the public or press was in attendence for the meeting.

But aside from their bluster the business of the council went through. And council tax stays the same for the third year running. Wandsworth is an incredibly well-run and managed authority, and credit it due to all the people involved, from top to bottom.

Labour again shows its commitment to fighting crime by slashing the budget.

The Local Government Chronicle is reporting on the Conservative leak of Labour’s plans to slash Safer and Stronger Communities funding by 50%.

And yes, Wandsworth got the letter a couple of days ago, explaining in the most hand-wringing terms, that our grant was to be cut in half. The council does a lot of work to help design out and prevent crime, and the Safer and Stronger Communities Fund was the sort of money that could be used to improve security on housing estates and schools, or enhance lighting in dark alleyways and paths, or buy equipment like AlertBox that helps business communities fight crime, or contribute to lock fitting schemes for the elderly and vulnerable, or buy equipment used in innovative schemes like Junior Citizen. And that’s before you start looking at how the police use their element of the funding.

It is frankly unbelievable that the government has got itself in such a mess that it has to take such measures with such a high priority budget (most surveys show crime is a top three, if not the top, issue for the electorate) and an indication of the problems any incoming Conservative government will have to solve.

LFB Fire Safety Check
Re-using the LFB photo, if only because my wife likes it!

It isn’t unique to being a councillor (although it might be exacerbated by the lack of structure) but I struggle to think of the things I have been up to this week! So when I can look to my diary to remind me of what meetings and appointments I’ve had I find myself thinking “was that really this week?” So, in a slightly different format, this week’s wrap-up.

Stuff I’ve already blogged
A few of the things I have already blogged about, I attended a fund-raising dinner with Ken Clarke on Monday and spent time with the London Fire Brigade on their fire safety visits on Wednesday.

Stuff I missed
Annoyingly I missed two Christmas light switch-ons this week – Tooting last Tuesday and Northcote Road yesterday. I like to attend them where I can, partly to show support for our Town Centres, but also because it appeals to the child in me!

A prior commitment meant I also had to miss one of the regular meetings between the council and Chamber of Commerce. These are useful meetings, if only because it means we get to hear directly from local businesses. And I would have loved to hear how the season is going. We did, of course, get the good news that Wandsworth is going to benefit by £52,000 from the Department for Communities and Local Government. An early Christmas present (although probably too late to use before Christmas) that will help us with our plans, which are already fairly well advanced, to ensure Wandsworth’s high streets are blighted by the recession.

Stuff I did, but didn’t mention
I’ve had a few of the fairly ‘routine’ meetings this week. Next week sees a Full Council meeting, the last before Christmas and New Year, so we had our usual Conservative group meeting to discuss it. It has an element of smoky rooms to it, since while we’re sat talking in one room the Labour Party are having the same sort of discussions just down the corridor. And afterwards the two whips compare notes to agree the agenda of council meeting!

I also had one of my regular policy meetings with the officers in my portfolio area. Checking on how things are going (a much nicer task as the recession seems to be easing and the spate of gun crime has ended) and discussing how various projects and ideas can be taken forward. Or not, if you’re of the Yes, Minister school of government.

Finally, I was at the inaugural meeting of the national Advisory Panel on Tackling Worklessness. I was a little surprised, as a councillor from a borough with fairly low unemployment, to be asked onto a body like that. I often wonder if I’m wheeled out as a token cynic because I do like to focus and concentrate on the deliverables, if you will allow me a little jargon. But an interesting body and one I hope will be productive, not least because, as a national group made up of many fairly frontline people, so many different perspectives can be brought to bear on the problem.

Stuff I’m not going to mention
A fairly self-defeating headline. But I occasionally worry I give the impression that everything is blogged and, therefore, if it’s not on here I didn’t do it. As usual the week has been peppered with reading, emailing, casework and small meetings and discussions; none of which ever get close to a blog post. While I’d love to pretend it’s because they are important and super-secret, it’s mainly because they are quite dull!

For those that like symbolism today is just 164 days until the (or a) likely date of the general election.

While Brown could wait until 3 June next year – and there have been rumours that 25 March might be the date – for a long time the main betting seems to have been on a combined poll with the local elections on 6 May 2010.

So why do I think the 164 days are significant?

Well, here in Battersea Labour’s Martin Linton has a majority of just 163 votes. In the incredibly unlikely event that the electorate in Battersea remained the same between 2005 and 2010 the Conservatives would need to find just one vote per day between now and the election to gain the seat from Labour. An easy task? I don’t know. It’s certainly not one that is taken for granted, and the weekend’s poll showing Labour “slashing” the Conservative lead shows exactly why the election isn’t a foregone conclusion.

The poll has certainly created jubilation among Labour supporters who now feel there is still a chance they can win next year. And in response a degree of denial from Conservatives. Personally, I’m sitting on the fence. I remember being one of the underdogs in 1997, 2001 and 2005. And I remember how tempting it is to jump on any poll that gives you hope.

I also remember how depressing it is when the next lot of polls all show that it was just a rogue.

But what the poll does show, however, is exactly how hard the battle will be for the Conservatives. If you pop over to the Electoral Calculus website you can play with percentages and see how they would play out. In this case the 6% lead to the Conservatives makes them the bigger party (with no overall majority) by just 18 seats with 296 MPs to Labour’s 278.

If we look at previous elections you can see that the electoral system is skewed in Labour’s favour. In the 2005 election Labour won just a 3% bigger share of the vote than the Conservatives, but this netted them 158 more MPs. In 2001 a 9% lead gained them 227 more MPs. And both elections produced substantial Labour majorities.

However if you go back to the last election the Conservatives won, in 1992, their 7.5% lead represented the most votes ever cast for a single party in the UK but garnered them just 65 more MPs than Labour and an overall majority of just 21 that had eroded to nothing by the time of the 1997 election.

I should be clear this isn’t a complaint about the electoral system, which I like and greatly prefer to any system of ‘proportional’ voting – but an observation current distribution of constituency boundaries means, overall, the electoral system heavily favours the Labour Party. And that means the Conservatives have an almighty task ahead of them. They need to lead by around 8% before they have an overall majority.

But while the overall figures may suggest a there’s a huge mountain to climb, that’s not the case in individual seats. In Battersea it might ‘only’ be 164 votes needed, but they will only be won with hard work on the ground. Exactly the same as all the other majorities that will be over-turned next year when each seat will makes its contribution to an historic election.

Wandsworth council chamber, Mayor's chair and crestI attended the Regeneration and Community Safety Overview and Scrutiny Committee as Executive Member last night. The meeting was largely focused on community safety matters, and was one of the longer ones for a while, perhaps because there were some interesting items on the agenda. You can see the full agenda on the council’s website. A few I’d pick out…

Fire Service presentation
When people think about ‘community safety’ they tend to immediately think of the police. Some will also think of the rôle the council plays. Relatively few, sadly, think of the work the Fire Service play. During my three years as executive member I’ve never ceased to be impressed at the energy and dedication the local fire service have brought to the partnership and it was great that the committee had the opportunity to hear and talk about it last night.

Battersea crime
This was the second report on the overall picture of crime by geographical area – a few months ago the committee had considered the Tooting area and makes for interesting reading. The distribution of crime is quite telling, but not that unsurprising, in its link to relative deprivation. Battersea also suffers as it appears to ‘import’ crime from Lambeth.

As I did with Tooting, I would recommend having a look through the report which gives a fairly full picture of the pattern of crime in Battersea. As before, Ordnance Survey copyright means I can’t reproduce the maps from it here.

Roehampton Regeneration
I’ve mentioned the decision to withdraw the regeneration scheme twice before on the blog. Last night saw the report that formally informed members. It generated a discussion for all the wrong reasons, with Labour saying that we shouldn’t have listened to Gordon Brown’s optimistic prognosis for the recession. Good to know that they are now disowning their leader in public meetings!

The fact is that I had always been bullish about the recession, and during internal discussions was invariably the most pessimistic participant. Despite that, I also knew that the recession was a temporary thing and would, eventually, end. But I never expected it to last 18 months (the longest on record). Nor did I imagine we would be the last industrial economy out of recession. And I certainly did not realise it would be so deep.

It was right that the council were ambitious for Roehampton, rather than giving up on it at the first sign of trouble (the Labour party’s line last night was that they supported regeneration, but we should have given up earlier), and a tragedy that circumstances outside the council’s control have put an end to it.

Safer Neighbourhood Team review
Finally, the committee decided to undertake a review of the way Safer Neighbourhood Teams (SNTs) work in the borough, and particularly how they communicate with other agencies.

My personal experience of SNTs, both in Shaftesbury and across Wandsworth, has been positive. There are some dedicated officers doing some great work in their wards. However, this is often marred by poor communication between the panels and the council. And that’s not really a complaint, they are police officers rather than administrators or communication professionals. But it means that, for example, an SNT panel in the west of the borough might not be learning from an SNT panel in the east or the south. I think there’s potentially some very exciting work to be done in this area that will improve the way the council and the panels work with the SNTs and it will be interesting to see the outcomes.

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.

Cycling
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.