SW11 Literary Festival launch
On duty: Jane at last year's SW11 Literary Festival launch

Much as I’m a fan of directly elected mayors, I recognise they have one weakness: they can never, ever, compete with the civic value of the traditional mayor.

Tonight sees the annual change of Wandsworth’s mayor from Jane Cooper to Adrian Knowles, and the council and local press will mark this with their retrospectives.

I’ve known Jane for a long time, almost from the day I moved to London when she was akin to a surrogate aunt looking out for a bewildered northerner while he tried to find his way in the big city. It was typical of Jane that when she found out I was helping with elections in Battersea and then trekking all the way to Brent (where I first lived in London) each night she immediately offered her spare room. Although that might have been a device to eke even more work out of me!

That welcoming nature and generosity of spirit – matched with an uncanny knack of getting people to do things – made her an exceptional mayor.

Over the past year I’ve been incredibly grateful to her for hosting new business receptions – where some of the many new businesses that have started in the borough can come together, meet each other and get to know some of the people in the council that can help them.

It is also worth highlighting her ‘pins’; they are a civic thank-you to those that give their own time to enrich their local community. Given to those who have undertaken some voluntary work within the borough, Jane has managed to recognise and thank 2,500 people who all help make Wandsworth the brighter borough. I’m sure Jane would be the first to admit that this only scratches the surface of the enormous amount of voluntary work in the borough and I hope that it’s an innovation that continues for many mayors to come.

Finally, I understand her year has been a record-breaker for the mayoral charities St George’s Hospital Charity and Age UK Wandsworth. Two charities that will have a lasting legacy of Jane’s great mayoral year.

Adrian will be a great mayor for 2012–13, and for the Olympic and Jubilee celebrations, but he certainly has a hard act to follow.

Birmingham City Hall
Birmingham: Not home to directly elected mayors

A week after the elections one set of results particularly disappoints me.

Not the Conservative and Lib Dem losses – while I’m sure we lost many fine councillors this election was a typical mid-term where the government is traditionally punished. Coming from a high point four years ago the losses were not at all surprising.

What really disappointed me were the results of the mayoral referenda.

As a localist, of course, I’ve no problem with the people all those cities exercising their right to not to have mayoral government. But I can’t help thinking they have missed an opportunity. Mayoral government isn’t right everywhere, but surely some of those cities would be better with a mayor than a traditional council.

The result that disappointed me most was Birmingham. I’ve a soft spot for the city, I don’t know why – I’ve no connection and probably wouldn’t particularly want to live there. But I have enjoyed every time I have visited or worked there. And I’ve always pondered the oddity that leaves it struggling to be seen as the second city ahead of Manchester, when on all objective measures Manchester shouldn’t even be in the running.

And one should not forget Birmingham’s magnificent local government heritage. It is the place that made local government. Led by Joseph Chamberlain Birmingham initiated massive improvements in the lives of its residents, and remains a great example of innovation at local level that would be impossible now after decades of centralisation and prescriptive legislation.

Chamberlain was not directly elected, but used the position of mayor to provide exactly the sort of personality-driven leadership a modern directly elected mayor should provide. In doing so Birmingham became a laboratory of democracy which changed both the city and Britain for the better.

His contribution was so significant that I write about him under the assumption that you have at least a vague idea of who he was. But I’d also bet you couldn’t name either new or old leaders of Birmingham.

'Diamond' Joe Quimby, dressed as a sandwich
An avatar for British local democracy?

As an aside, a few years ago I ran, with someone else, a website called Cllr Tweeps. It was a fairly simple searchable directory of councillors by name, party or council on Twitter in the days before Twitter became mainstream. In its day was the biggest, and I like to think best, directory of its type. (We eventually ended it because of the cost in both time and money, and because a publicly funded equivalent was created, although even now I think ours was more useful to councillors and residents).

The accompanying Twitter account needed an avatar, a picture to represent local government. After much searching we decided the best image was ‘Diamond’ Joe Quimby.

Animated, American and directly elected though he was, not a single person complained, or even commented, that it wasn’t the best representation of British local government. He was just accepted.

And this country’s existing mayors all seem to have been accepted too. I didn’t see any serious debate in the recent London mayoral compaign about the existence of the position. Doncaster actively voted to keep their mayor, despite being seen as ‘controversial’.

Perhaps it is simply that those cities who voted no don’t want to be laboratories of democracy. Maybe they will re-consider after Liverpool, Salford and Bristol have had mayors in post for a few years. Though by then they will be playing catch-up.

Returning to Birmingham, I can’t help feeling that some of the reasons suggested for Bristol’s yes vote on the LSE’s Politics and Policy blog should have applied:

Even those in favour of a mayor recognised a yes vote would be a leap of faith. But it was a leap worth taking. Why? The overarching narrative of the ‘Yes’ campaign was an appeal to civic pride and to a sense of underachievement. Bristol may be one of the richest cities outside of London but there is a feeling that it is less than the sum of its parts.

The no votes were an expression of localist will. That should be respected and celebrated. But I wonder if Chamberlain, having seen so much changed by his time in local government, would be comforted or shocked to see that Birmingham’s government still works in much the same way as it did when he ran it.

Piers McCauslandI go through phases of Twitter evangelism, and while I have my doubts about its value, I cannot deny that I enjoy using it enormously. But my passion alone has not been enough to persuade one of my colleagues, Piers McCausland, to use it actively.

I did get him to set up an account, which he tweeted from a few times but then left.

He is now, however, the Mayor of Wandsworth and I think that would make tweets from him incredibly interesting.

The mayoralty in Wandsworth is ceremonial (there are only a couple of London boroughs that have executive mayors). The mayor acts as the borough’s first citizen, and is often called upon to be the dignitary at various events and functions, and presides over council meetings as the chairman.

However, this does mean he gets to see an enormous amount of the best of Wandsworth; from charities and community groups, through to schools, care homes, new and old businesses Piers will visiting them all over the coming year. Combine with this that Piers is an incredibly insightful character and I think he could provide a really fascinating insider view of Wandsworth at it’s best.

If you’re on Twitter, would you consider sending a short tweet to @PiersMcC to tell him you’d love to know what the Mayor is up to? It might not be the best Twitter campaign going, but I think it’s worth it.

Piers McCausland
My favourite photo of Piers, and not because he's walking away from me!

After the tragic death of the Mayor of Wandsworth, Brian Prichard, it’s time to choose a new Mayor. And I’m delighted that Piers McCausland will be taking on the responsibility of first citizen tonight.

Piers and I were both elected to the council in 1998 and I don’t think anyone would disagree with me saying that he is one of the council’s bigger characters.

He has a dry sense of humour and (I hope he won’t be upset by me saying) a slight eccentricity that hides a sharp intellect. All qualities that will go towards making him a fine Mayor for the borough.

I wish him luck for the forthcoming year.

Brian Prichard, in Mayoral chain, when he opened the Northcote Road street party last year

I’ve already written about Brian Prichard, the Mayor of Wandsworth, who died this month, but as last night saw the last pre-election council meeting dedicated mainly to tributes to him and today is his funeral service I thought it worth a few more moments of reflection.

At a time when political emotions are heightened and, unfortunately, some are seen at their worst it’s worth remembering that the overwhelming majority of people involved in elected politics are in it for the right reasons, to serve their community. That community might be a ward, constituency or the entire country, but they hope to do some good – the disagreements come over the method or precise priorities.

Brian epitomised that. His dignity, respect and intellect were applied to the benefit of the community for over 40 years. And in total his family dedicated over 150 years of service to the people of Wandsworth, virtually all of which during a time when being a councillor was unpaid and almost certainly cost you money in lost time and earning.

Election or not, I think the political and administrative parts of Wandsworth will come to a bit of a standstill for Brian’s funeral service this afternoon. And it’s only fitting for a man who gave so much to Wandsworth and provided a shining example of all that can be good in politics.

Brian Prichard, in Mayoral chain, when he opened the Northcote Road street party last year

I was incredibly saddened to hear the news that Brian Prichard, the current Mayor of Wandsworth, died last night.

Brian had been a councillor in Wandsworth for over 40 years. Although he started off in the Labour Party, he realised that he was in the wrong party in the 70s and left, resigning his seat to join the Conservatives. He returned to the council at a subsequent election. He continued as a councillor ever since, and was retiring at next month’s election, so when he became Mayor of Wandsworth for 2009/10, I couldn’t think of a more fitting way for him to end his council career than as the borough’s first citizen.

I obviously knew him for the last twelve years when we were both on the council together, and although we were very dissimilar characters I think we got along well.

Part of that was his desire to correct some of my flaws. As a teetotal professor of medicine my smoking and drinking were abhorrent to him. Indeed, the small card I’ve featured in this post were scattered around the tables at the event held to commemorate his forty years on Wandsworth – a health warning he felt we should all heed, since he didn’t want us ending up with alcohol related conditions as a result of a celebration in his honour.

He scored a small success with me, as I gave up smoking in 2003. Although even then he couldn’t help but warn me that the method I was using, nicotine patches, still had their dangers since the nicotine affected blood and increased the risk of certain conditions (how and what I don’t remember, and if I’m honest didn’t understand at the time).

Brian and I were on several committees together during my first few years as a councillor, so I saw very early on the quick wit, deep intelligence and occasional sense of mischief he brought to the council. They were something that remained with him throughout and I always looked forward to meetings we attended together – even if he would never go for a drink afterwards!

I obviously only knew him as a councillor so can only begin to imagine the hole his passing will leave in all the other areas of his life, he was a truly inspirational councillor and man. My thoughts are with his family and loved ones.

I’ve managed to get this three times so far (which makes it borderline spam, but I am on quite a few Mayoral and GLA lists) but it’s quite interesting reading.

One of the odd things about confidence in policing and fear of crime is that the biggest driver is not changing policing methods or tackling specific problems but communication and engagement. Even if everything else remained unchanged the levels of those two activities would affect public confidence.

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The Tour trophy: I'm troubled he (she?) doesn't have a name.
The Tour trophy: I'm troubled he (she?) doesn't have a name.

Although I usually use this last post of the week to witter on about the past week I’m going start off with an event two weeks ago.

Battersea Police Ball
I can’t believe I forgot to mention this last week, but on Saturday 28 November I attended, along with about 1,500 other people, the Battersea Police Ball. This is a fantastic annual event organised by the Battersea Crime Prevention Panel to raise funds for their work throughout the year.

As ever it was held in Battersea Park, and was a truly fantastic evening. It’s my 13th year of going and in all the time have never had anything but a great night out.

My congratulations to everyone involved in the organisation of the event.

Community Safety stall
Returning to the past week I spent some time on Saturday with the Community Safety Team who were manning, with the Shaftesbury Safer Neighbourhood Team and London Fire Brigade, a stall at Clapham Junction Asda. The purpose was to get out and offer advice (and a few freebies) to local residents. I posted earlier today about one incredibly positive aspect of their work and this is another.

Wandsworth Employment and Skills Partnership
In the middle of the week I chaired the Wandsworth Employment and Skills Partnership. The Partnership was set-up to try and improve joint working between everyone and to achieve some very challenging targets for getting people off benefits and into work.

Frankly, the recession has had a massive impact (the body and targets all pre-date the recession) but the body still serves a purpose. For example, during the meeting we discovered that Jobcentre Plus is ‘poaching’ people from a service we use to help long term unemployed people people back into work.

There’s nothing sinister about it, Job Centre Plus are now required to work more closely with the long term unemployed. But while that is a positive it means that the work that had already been done is lost as the Job Centre start from scratch. We’re now looking at whether we can prevent the poaching altogether, and if we can’t how we can ensure the unemployed person sees a progression, rather than getting halfway through one service to then have to start afresh with another.

Full council
Wednesday was the year’s last full council, and the year ended not with a bang but a whimper. It has to be said that the formal meetings of the council can be a bit, well, dull!

I’m tempted to suggest that it’s because the council is so well run it’s hard for anyone to disagree with what we do. But that isn’t the case. Despite only having one-sixth of the council seats the Labour group get, effectively, half the time of the council meeting to ask question and debate their issues. I don’t think the lack of spark at these meetings is for want of opportunity – but am at a loss to suggest why it isn’t there at the moment.

Police Borough Commander
I also had one of my regular meetings with Chief Superintendent Low, the borough police commander. These are useful catch-ups, making sure we both know what’s on each others minds and both sides are working together as well as they can. I believe (and I hope that he would agree!) the working relationship between the council and police has continued to get stronger over the years, and the fact that we are inner London’s safest borough reflects that.

Architectural Tour
And finally, last night was the council’s ‘Architectural Tour’. I did ponder whether I should include this or not, since it could be seen as cliquey or worse – but decided transparency is by far the best way to avoid that. Besides, on reflection I’m rather proud of it. I was one of the people who started it in 2002 and since then it has raised thousands for various supported by the Mayor each year, this year’s beneficiaries were the Boys’ and Girls’ Brigades, Scouts and Guides

The evening is, fairly simply, a tour combined with a quiz around various sites of architectural merit in Wandsworth, which all happen to be pubs. The council divides into tribal loyalties, with department pitting themselves against department (and councillors) and being able to host the trophy – and even the wooden spoon – for a year has become quite an honour to a department.

Congratulations this year go the Housing Department, who are not only one of the country’s biggest social landlords, but also fairly hot on music, literature history and able to take a good guess on how many animals in London zoo are of unknown sex!

(Incidentally, the zoo don’t know the sex of 13,811 of their 14,665 animals at the time of writing.)

Last week I touched on the Labour gimmick of freezing council tax in the eight London boroughs they control and suggested that, actually, if you wanted value and quality services you were better sticking with Conservative authorities that already had a track record.

I failed to mention yesterday the Boris Johnson has again frozen the GLA’s budget. The second year he’s done it and, no coincidence, the second year he’s controlled the budget!

Compare this with Labour’s Ken Livingstone, who managed to double what he took from you over his eight years in office.

Wandsworth council chamber, Mayor's chair and crestI hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that how the council is run is another of those subjects that those people involved, but no-one else, gets terribly exercised about.

Wandsworth currently runs a ‘Leader and Executive’ system. Every four years there’s an election – and residents choose 60 councillors. Those councillors then elect a leader (there’s an annual election for leader) who then appoints his cabinet. It effectively works the same way as national government.

My guess is that people are far more concerned about the council being run efficiently and effectively than the precise way it it run. The Government, however, think it’s very very important we ask again – largely, I suspect, because they are unhappy not that many people took up their ideas for directly elected mayors. Since the concept was introduced at the beginning of the century only twelve boroughs have opted for the directly elected mayor model. So the Local Government Act 2007 forces councils, once again, to consult on the model they operate.

The council is running its consultation in the current issue of Brightside and online at wandsworth.gov.uk/yourcouncil. Personally, I think the current system serves Wandsworth well, and hope you agree.

Under the current system Wandsworth has provided excellent services and the lowest council tax in the country – the simple fact is that the system of government isn’t the really important thing, it’s the ethos behind it.