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.

I’ve only really given the proposed US Embassy mention in passing, most recently when touching on discussion about it at the last Regeneration and Community Safety Committee.

Last night, however, saw it pass the first formal milestone with the council when it was granted outline planning permission.

The embassy, like any other major developer, is in regular contact with the council as their plans develop. But this is the first time the scheme has been considered – except in passing – at a public committee meeting.

I’ve already stated that I consider myself pre-determined on this issue because of public statements I have made and through my role as chairman of the Nine Elms Opportunity Board (of which we hope the Embassy will become a member) so I feel I can say I’m really pleased the planning committee granted permission – this is a major boost for Nine Elms and an integral part of the wider vision for the area.

I know that there are still concerns about the scheme, for example the visual impact of a modern embassy worries some, while others fear that the area will suffer the same problems as Grovsenor Square.

However, to my mind they are issues that can be dealt with as part of the planning process – ensuring a quality development which can be self-contained when it comes to security.

For me the real benefits come from the aspects of the embassy that aren’t self-contained. Jobs, for example, will be created. The embassy will employ approximately 800 people, and currently about half their staff are ‘locally employed’. They also estimate that their presence will create around 3,000 jobs when you factor in the boost from people moving to the area and businesses and services that will spring up to be close to them.

Even if those figures are generous, it still compares favourably when you consider that the largest employer currently on the site employs around 90 people.

This is only the first step. They still need to run their design competition and get detailed planning permission – but already their intention to move to Nine Elms has helped transform the area from a south of the river industrial site to a central London destination. There’s a huge buzz about Nine Elms now, and with the developments at the power station and Mew Covent Garden Market there’s a lot of good news there for Wandsworth residents.

Union Jack at WandsworthThe Union Jack now flies over Wandsworth Town Hall every day.  Not the greatest picture, but I’m rather pleased with the result from a phone camera.

The council had previously taken a ‘high days and holidays’ approach to flag flying, but recently changed this to keeping the Union Jack flying every day and to be replaced with special flags as required (e.g. the Armed Forces Day flag, or the council flag on full council days).  I’m pleased with the decision.  Flag flying is a small thing, but makes an enormous difference – there’s certainly something uplifting about seeing the two flags flying when you are coming down East Hill.

Meeting the Chamber of Commerce
The Leader and I had one of our regular meetings with the Chamber of Commerce this week. The meetings serve a ‘keeping in touch’ purpose as much an anything, and allow both sides to raise issues, concerns or just share information. Of course, one of the key topics over recent months has been the recession and the impact it is having. While the mood hasn’t changed dramatically I think it can now be best described as a ‘weary optimism’ – there’s still a feeling that it’s hard, and will continue to be hard, but a sense that we can weather the storm fairly well – along with the knowledge that there are a lot of bright lights on the horizon in Wandsworth.

Regeneration and Community Safety OSC
I attended the Regeneration and Community Safety Overview and Scrutiny Committee last night. I have to say these meetings are usually fun, but last night’s was a little flat. While the items on the agenda were all interesting and useful, they weren’t the type to spark off some of the debates and discussions that can make council meetings incredibly interesting.

Perhaps the closest we came to a disagreement was over the US Embassy. Tony Belton (who is also the Labour leader) suggested the embassy’s move to Wandsworth might not be unalloyed good news. His argument was that the security cordon might leave an isolated and sterile building, while little or no employment would be created because staff would move from Grosvenor Square. While he was putting a potential point of view – I think he was acting more as a devil’s advocate than putting across his own views – I would not claim the arguments are entirely without merit, but there are huge positives to the embassy move.

Employment benefits may not be immediate, but embassies everywhere employ a lot of local staff – and as current US Embassy staff retire and resign they will need to be replaced. There are also indirect benefits, from the businesses that will develop nearby to serve the staff there (cafes and even shops) to the people who will now move to Wandsworth in order to be closer to the embassy. Perhaps more important is how it will serve as a catalyst to kick start the development of the area.

You can’t put a value on is the kudos such a development brings. While a large parcel of industrial land in Battersea may be attractive, I think that providing the home to one of the United States premier embassies, makes makes it even more attractive – it proves that it is a viable destination and base for investment, and highlights the area’s potential as an international centre. While it might bring some disadvantages, I think these will be massively outweighed by the advantages.

Not a stock photo, but MiniMe's first digger

Being a new man
Actually a fairly quiet week this week.  Partly because it’s still summer, and consequently everything is just a bit quieter, and partly because I started my new man duties this week – which effectively limited me to half-days consisting of an hour’s work during the morning nap and a few hours after bedtime.  It also provides me with the photo of the week:  The Digger.  I rather like the photo for some reason, the lighting and aperture worked far better than it normally does for me.  Indeed, I like it so much it’s now my wallpaper (though that was a close run thing against the man in the nappy).

I am incredibly hesitant to raise this again. Not because it’s an issue that has gone away, or because I think I was wrong (feedback has been overwhelmingly in favour of the council’s position) but largely because the majority of the discussions on here were negative circular and, in one case at least, borderline offensive. While I’ve no problem with allowing and responding to the comments (which a few people have suggested I would have been better deleting or at least ignoring) I recognise it all gets rather dull for the reader.

[Within a few hours of writing this I have temporarily (and possibly permanently) removed several comments which appear to be from sock-puppets supporting chugging.  I’m a little sad since  this is the first time I’ve had to do this on the blog. I’ve no issue with publishing comments disagreeing with, or in outright opposition to, my views – and there are many comments like this scattered through the blog – and I don’t have any issue with comments being anonymous but feel it’s perfectly reasonable to remove comments purporting to be from multiple people when there’s some evidence it’s all the same person.]

Having said all that we are continuing to monitor the situation (one trader reported counting 11 – that’s eleven – chuggers operating the Tooting Broadway piazza area earlier this week, most using aggressive tactics) and are taking up the issues with the charities directly, since the PFRA are unwilling or unable to deal with the problems themselves.

New Covent Garden Market and Nine Elms
Perhaps one of the most interested meetings I had this week was with New Covent Garden Market (NCGM) to get an update on their progress towards redevelopment. It really brings home the scale and scope of development that is taking place in Nine Elms when you go there. It is a massive site.

It also brings home the complexities involved in redeveloping the whole area – since it won’t just be NCGM developing the area, but also the new US Embassy and the Power Station alongside a number of smaller developments. Moving beyond our borough boundary Lambeth are ambitious to redevelop Vauxhall. None of these developments will exist in isolation, and making sure the whole area ‘works’ instead of just creating a series of individual developments will not be easy, but will definitely be worth it.

Bank Holiday Weekend and crime maps
I will, as I usually do, be taking a blogging break for the bank holiday (unless there’s something so amazingly urgent I can’t wait) – so the crime maps will appear on Tuesday rather than Monday. In the meantime have a great bank holiday weekend.

One event I’m going to miss is the the launch of our promotion of Nine Elms tonight.

Nine Elms is central London’s largest regeneration area – anchored by the Power Station to the west and New Covent Garden Market in the east there are about 450 acres on the Thames riverside, at one point just a mile from the Houses of Parliament.

The event will launch Nine Elms, Wandsworth – Regeneration in the heart of London which forms part of Wandsworth’s recession fighting programme.

Nine Elms has already got a major boost with the decision of the US Embassy to move to land around the Ponton Road area.  Not only will this generate direct employment (most embassy staff are locally employed, and the embassy is likely to twice the size of the current Grosevenor Square) but it is likely to attract other businesses associated with the embassy to the area.

The recession will not last forever, and the council, through events like this, is seeking to ensure Wandsworth not only fights the effects of recession, but comes out strong on the other side.

Last Wednesday’s Regeneration and Community Safety Overview and Scrutiny Committee was the first in the ‘new’ format in which the focus moves from each meeting to a different part of the portfolio. This time it was the turn of regeneration and, not surprisingly, the recession took up a large part of the meeting.

It is difficult to get the tone right when talking about the recession. While I don’t want to make the mistake same mistake as Gordon Brown of pretending that Britain would never have bad times I also don’t want to make the situation in Wandsworth seem worse than it is.

The simple fact is that Wandsworth is not immune and will be hurt by the recession, and while there’s good reason to believe we won’t be as hard-hit as other other areas, we need to take what measures we can to help residents and businesses.

At the meeting some specific measures were approved by the committee.

Employment Support for Young Black Men
Unemployment amongst you black men is disproportionately high, and we have appointed Talent to work with clients to overcome the most common difficulties they face in getting jobs. You can read more in the council’s press release or the report considered by the committee.

‘Best Buy’ Wandsworth
The council constantly promotes Wandsworth to businesses and potential investors – as a borough and a specific areas. I have great pride in seeing the sterling work undertaken by the Town Centre managers of Balham, Clapham Junction, Putney, Tooting and Wandsworth in developing and promoting their areas. The programme of promotion will continue to highlight the town centres as part of the ‘Best Buy’ but will also start promoting other areas in Wandsworth.

Nine Elms
The Nine Elms area represents the largest potential development area in inner London and it got a real boost with the announcement that the American Embassy will be moving there. The council will continue to promote the area to create more jobs and homes.

Roehampton suffers the borough’s highest rate of unemployment and is currently the focus of a major regeneration scheme. This is reliant on attracting a private sector partner, which will be hard in the current climate.

The Wandle Valley
The Wandle Valley covers several boroughs, and there is a scheme to create a Wandle Valley Regional Park and this will provide an opportunity to promote the business and investment opportunities along the river.

The scheme will have several elements (you can read more in the report) but the main purpose will be to sell Wandsworth as a destination for business and leisure. However hard the recession is, and however long it lasts, when people start thinking about investment again, we want Wandsworth to be top of their list.