The every-two-years-or-so Let’s Talk meeting took place at Shaftesbury Park school on Wednesday. About 35 residents attended to hear councillors and raise issues affecting the Shaftesbury ward. The three ward councillors were joined by Rex Osborn, leader of the local Labour party, and by Paul Ellis, Cabinet Member for Housing, who was standing in for the council leader (which seemed a peculiar slight to Jonathan Cook, who is the actual deputy leader and chaired the last meeting).

While I always wonder about the relevance of public meetings in the 21st century (it was 35 residents from a ward population of over 10,000, although it’s a fairly open secret it’s more a justification to fund a leaflet to every household) they do offer an interesting evening and are a great way of finding out if my sense of the public issues actually match public issues.

So what were the issues? Well, in something like the order raised.

Pavements… and trees
The poor state of the pavements were raised and particularly the effect of tree roots on them. This expanded into a wider discussion on the impact of trees generally, those that are seen as overgrown and the impact they have during autumn.

Fly tipping
There was lengthy discussion about a number of fly tipping hotspots in the ward. The council tends to be quite good at removing fly tips when it knows about them. And that is the key, if fly tips aren’t reported, they may as well not exist as far as the council is concerned. You can report fly tips on the council’s website.

Neglecting the Shaftesbury Park Estate
One person expressed the opinion, and several agreed, that the council neglected, and had perhaps even abandoned, the Shaftesbury Park Estate. I don’t think that’s true at all, but equally I can understand why the perception has formed. The roads, for example, seem noticeably worse than elsewhere, and even though I have been through a phase of assiduously reporting faults it doesn’t seem to make much difference.

However, I think that is far more a factor of the age of the surfacing than any policy of neglect and I’ll certainly continue to highlight those places where I see (or am told about) issues.

Waste collection
There were several complaints associated with waste collection, including concerns about the timing of street cleans in relationship to rubbish collection, the provision of recycling facilities and the collection process itself.

Antisocial behaviour
A couple of antisocial behaviour hotspots were raised: action is being taken at one already, while the other perhaps needs a bit of attention. The sad fact is that such ASB hotspots tend to be recurrent because they have features that make them attractive, perhaps being comfortable and convenient places to loiter, being out of areas of natural surveillance and therefore having a degree of privacy.

The council’s planning policy, and specifically a concern that it didn’t do enough to protect special places like the Shaftesbury Park Estate, sparked some discussion, partly on extensions and then on the protection of frontages.

Formula E
One resident raised Formula E. I won’t go into length on this because I have written enough about it already. I was, however, pleased to see that most (if not all) those pleasant appeared to share the residents opposition to holding the event in Battersea Park.

I did find it an interesting and useful meeting, and was pleased to be able to chat with several residents afterwards to pick up some more issues and get contact details so I can follow up on some of those raised. However, if you have something you want to bring up, you don’t need to wait two years for another meeting, just get in touch.

A resident's response to dog fouling
A resident’s response to dog fouling

The two big issues that came out of the Shaftesbury Let’s Talk were dog fouling and fly-tipping. Poos and dumps.

These were unsurprising, several had written to us before to raise the issues and they are running problems. I often report fly-tips and have raised the issue of dog fouling repeatedly. But these are problems that just don’t seem to go away.

They are also interesting because they are indicative of a particular type of problem, where the council get a lot of the blame for someone else’s misbehaviour. Somewhere in the act of an owner letting their dog foul the pavement or someone illegally dumping their rubbish the fact it needs cleaning up becomes the council’s responsibility. It is, however, worth remembering that responsibility would never be needed if people were just a little more considerate of their neighbours.

I take a fairly hardline view of both. A lot of the discussion on the night featured ideas like spring cleans, when the council would offer a once a year collection and invite everyone to dump on that day. But while superficially attractive I wonder how many people would change their lives to fit in around it. Would everyone buy a new bed the week before so they didn’t fly-tip their mattress? Would fridges and washing machines only break down and need replacing to the council’s spring clean schedule? And if they didn’t would (or could) everyone store their rubbish for up to a year?

Others highlighted the cost (which can be waived in some instances) but again, I’m fairly hardline. In most of these cases we happily pay the cost of delivery for something new (which may be included in the price), but some balk at the cost of disposal for the old as if the decision that something is trash somehow removes responsibility for the item.

Finally, some believe the council collects rubbish from certain spots or from certain groups for free. One person said it was unfair home owners and housing association tenants had to pay when council tenants and leaseholders could have their rubbish collected for free. This is not the case, but if you see the council regularly collecting rubbish from a fly-tipping hotspot it’s easy to see how the misconception starts. I have spoken to several who have, totally innocently, fly-tipped because they thought the fly-tipping hotspot was a legitimate collection point.

But if there is confusion and different opinions on fly-tipping, I suspect few would be forgiving of dog fouling. Occasionally being responsible for a push-chair and a child on a scooter I know of some patches I avoid simply because the stress of making sure all the wheels and feet avoid the faecal land mines is just too much.

The fact that there are particular roads and pavements with a problem rather implies it is an issue with a few owners (were all dog owners irresponsible the problem would be more uniform). It also suggests that they and their dogs have developed fairly consistent toilet habits. Yet, even with this intelligence it’s hard to do anything.

The council has traditionally had one of the largest dog teams of any council and at times been responsible for most of the prosecutions in the country, let alone London. The difficulty is that most people tend to behave when being watched, so however big our dog team is they will struggle to catch anyone in the act and, therefore, be unable to take any action.

In both cases the council is largely reliant on education in an attempt to change behaviour; while we will attempt legal action it will only ever get a small minority of offenders. Sadly this is a slow process, even when the overwhelming majority of people are responsible, the impact of the irresponsible few is disproportionate.

The council’s website provides more information about the dog control team including contact details should you wish to report anti-social behaviour involving dogs, including fouling. The street cleaning section also provides contact details should you witness any fly-tipping in the borough.

Some of the early arrivals at Shaftesbury's Let's Talk
Some of the early arrivals at Shaftesbury’s Let’s Talk

Having posted about the behaviour of the crowd at the Shaftesbury Let’s Talk event I have remained silent on the issues raised, in part because there were some I wanted to cover in a bit more detail, in part because – despite being there – I had formed the opinion it would be a harder task that it actually is.

In fact the issues raised, with the exception of Nightingale Square, were largely those we’d expected and those raised with us before the meeting (and, indeed, are raised with us regularly). The Nightingale Square issue was something of a surprise: mainly because it isn’t in the ward, or even the neighbouring ward.

The following is a quick run through of the issues I noted. I hope this is complete and reflects the issues raised as the meeting progressed but are from my notes, rather than the council’s official record, so there may be errors and omissions. On a few I have added some comments, to clarify, expand, respond or simply note something of interest.

  1. Making the Gideon Road estate a residents only area
  2. Dog fouling.
    I fear I’m going to return to this. As a councillor I’m well below my quota of dog poo posts.
  3. Poor state of repair of pavements
  4. Speeding in the Shaftesbury Park estate. One of the problems of 20mph zones is that they don’t seem to work. I was looking at the results of one scheme elsewhere recently and rather surprised that while the overall speed reduced fractionally, some roads saw some fairly hefty increases in speed. The real problem with these is that the police (nationally) will not enforce them.
  5. Controlled Parking Zone costs
  6. Nightingale Square. A range of issues, from lack of playspace to lack of wi-fi, from a temporary accommodation hostel in Balham. I can’t help but see this as a bit of political showmanship by the organiser since, despite their claims the council had ignored requests for a meeting, a meeting between the council and the hostel to discuss these issues was taking place the next day. They pop up again later.
  7. Gritting
  8. Access to Nine Elms during the works and the suitability of the last expo venue
  9. Fly-tipping. Something to which I want to return (along with dog fouling). In fact several of the topics below could be included with this as a general waste collection discussion.
  10. Boris bikes
  11. Nightingale Square
  12. Litter after a refuse collection. This was concern about the lack of alignment between refuse collection and street cleaning. This did surprise me since my experience of the new contract, once everyone had adapted to the new collection day, is that it has been very good.
  13. Bulk collection costs
  14. Spitting
  15. Closure of Cringle Dock
  16. Nightingale Square
  17. NW bulletins
  18. Difficulty of getting housing
  19. Being spied on by MI5
  20. Elsley School development. There were some concerns about the impact of the building work and the effect that an influx of new residents would have once the development was complete. I suspect the latter is related to the suggestion of making the Gideon Road estate residents only.
  21. Fly-tipping

If there was a disappointment for me it’s that some of these issues could so easily be resolved by us as councillors. While I sometimes wonder what the point of a councillor is, one thing I do know they can do is get those niggling little problems fixed (although I’m powerless when it comes to the massive hole caused by a water leak in my road, which is into the fourth month of waiting repair by Thames Water).

To balance that disappointment I have some satisfaction that the standards of Wandsworth and Wandsworth residents is high. My run the following Saturday morning took me out of Wandsworth, through Lambeth, Southwark, the City of London, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea and while I took some pride that it was only in Wandsworth that I ran without the perils of deep puddles it didn’t do much to warm feet soaked from Lambeth onwards. Of course, people do not get to choose their council, so such a comparison is not relevant to most.

If there are any issues, mentioned here or not, you want to raise with me then get in touch and I’ll do my best to help.

The other thing about crowds: they always fill from the back
The other thing about crowds: they always fill from the back (also, note the name-plates are recycled from previous meetings)

Last night was the Shaftesbury Ward Let’s Talk event. I’ll confess surprise at the turnout, especially as it was not the most clement of evenings, and should perhaps review my previous scepticism to this type of meeting because of the way the meeting self-managed.

I will save most of the topics raised for another post because I want to focus on that self-management aspect.

While I think the turnout was good, that is a relative term. It was good compared to previous meetings, but I think using the maths I applied to our last meeting the attendance was still 0.00% of the ward. When you have small numbers it becomes easy for a small number of people to dominate.

Last night it was a group of residents from the Nightingale Square temporary accommodation hostel. This is a council facility for the homeless in Balham. They came , led by Pastor Des Figueiredo, to complain about issues there – lack of wi-fi, play facilities and poor relations with neighbours were the ones I noted – and that they had not had a meeting with the council to discuss these. As it turns out such a meeting was taking place at the hostel today, which does call into question their attendance last night.

In even criticising them here I’m aware I’m attempting to tread a fine line of concern about their tactics without appearing unsympathetic to what may be legitimate concerns. But they repeatedly tried to interrupt other discussions and cut in before Shaftesbury residents who had been called could speak. They also used the presence of their children, for whom it was late, to justify a platform (this I particularly disliked, since it was little more than emotional blackmail, despite it being their choice to bring children to give “testimony” at a meeting scheduled for 7.30-9.00pm). The more I think back, the more I think it was deeply irresponsible and reflects badly on Des Figueiredo’s motives.

But if I run the risk of appearing unsympathetic in detailing it here, imagine how much harder it is to handle in a live meeting. Do you take an easy approach and let them have their say? Do you take the hard-line and insist it’s a meeting for Shaftesbury residents and local concerns? Both approaches have their pros and cons.

In fact, mob rule took over, and mob rule did a superb job. Every time there was an attempt to interrupt the meeting, local residents reminded them it was a Shaftesbury meeting and moved the business back to local issues. There was remarkably little need for a chairman at all, when it came down to it the crowd were self-chairing.

Even when the Nightingale Square delegation persevered the audience suggested giving them one opportunity to speak and say their piece, since they had come up from Balham, but would then have to allow residents their meeting back.

It was a fine example of the wisdom of the crowd in action, and I’m not sure any individual chairman could have handled the situation as well as a few dozen residents did.

I haven’t fully changed my views on public meetings; I still think they are often used when other forms of communication or consultation would work better. However, having seen and reflected on last night I can’t help feeling that I’ve been deeply unfair in underestimating the ability of an engaged audience to make a public meeting work in spite of its drawbacks.

Let's Talk (previously Listening to You, but that's probably a bit close to The Thick of It's 'Here to Hear')
Let’s Talk (previously Listening to You, but that’s probably a bit close to The Thick of It‘s ‘Here to Hear’)

The Shaftesbury ward ‘Let’s Talk’ event takes place a week today, Thursday, 21 March from 7.30pm at Shaftesbury Park school.

The meetings are an opportunity for residents to come and tell local councillors and council officers what is important to them. There’s no need to register so you can just come along.

Having advertised it I am, as I did last time, going to say that I’m not a great fan of them. They seem somehow dated and not representative of the way I think councils and councillors should do business. Is a public meeting really the sort of place that people want to come to raise their concerns? Or would they prefer more direct contact where there is dialogue and the opportunity to discuss detail without everyone else in the room having to listen in?

As I wrote after the last meeting:

The large (or small, in this case) public meeting … is probably the best way to handle a single issue with significant public interest and are useful when the flow of information is largely from the platform to the public. However, in my opinion it just doesn’t work for the sort of session Listening to You [the old branding for the sessions] should be, a dialogue between council and residents, and an opportunity for people to raise specific issues …

But I can’t help reflecting that, with around 30 people attending, it represented 0.00% (rounded to 2 decimal places) of the ward population [and] we are missing some tricks in the way we engage (or don’t engage) with residents and that leaves the council poorer: because if last night was a positive experience with around 0.0025% of the population, imagine what could come from 99.9975% of the population.

But having dealt with my negativity, there is always the opportunity to talk directly with councillors or officers before or after the meeting, and if numbers permit I would hope we follow the pattern that happened last time with a short formal session followed by a much longer, and much more productive, session of mingling, talking about and dealing with the issues and concerns of local residents.

There are some (but not much) more details on the council’s flyer for the event.