The council has undoubtedly been going through a little local difficulty recently. That’s politics, it happens. What has surprised me is the feigned shock and surprise that the council, or more precisely the Conservative group, looks the various options that have been highlighted.

It is well-known the money just isn’t there like it used to be for the public sector. It’s perhaps less widely that councils are bearing the brunt of spending cuts. This may or may not be fair, depending on how you look at it; councils are responsible for a huge share of public spending, but in large part because they are at the frontline and the spending is on the most vulnerable in society. Whatever the rights and wrongs, councils have no choice but to make savings. It’s not just a Wandsworth thing.

Labour may be on a high horse in Wandsworth, but I have no doubt that similar lists exist in local authorities of every colour and hue. If they don’t, I’d question whether that council is doing their job.

I grew up as a heavy user of my local library, so know the benefits they offer. But equally as I have grown I have seen the way access to information has changed. Internet access is not quite universal, but is getting there. The net book agreement is no more, increasing retail competition and increasing book sales. People carry devices that can be used as ereaders with them as a matter of routine.

And I have changed too. My need for access to expensive reference books largely ended when I finished formal education. Commuting and bedtime reading replaced daytime breaks. Increasingly I would purchase—rather than borrow—books and then either keep them or donate them to charity or occasionally to (never) be tracked on sites like bookcrossing. I only used libraries occasionally, the last time was over ten years ago.

I won’t pretend I am representative, but when we’ve looked at libraries before the data show relatively few people use them, but those that do tend to use them heavily. Likewise, the books stocked see a small proportion borrowed frequently, while most languish, unloved, on the shelves for years.

If we were starting a library service from scratch, would we constitute it as we do now? I doubt it. I suspect we might put a much higher emphasis on children’s lending, perhaps look at the need for study areas at some libraries, consider whether internet access is as important as it was ten years ago. I also think we might not see quite the same need for big rooms full of shelves of books for adult lending.

But maybe I’m wrong. I would have absolutely no way of knowing without looking at the data, considering options and weighing those options against the council’s vision, policy objectives and other options.

Exactly the same argument applies to any other council service. Just because a need existed five years ago doesn’t mean it exists today. Likewise the council might have to address new needs today that just weren’t relevant five years ago. Nothing exists in a vacuum, including council budgets. While there might be an argument about policy making transparency, no-one should be getting on a high horse to discover the council considers options, they should be worried if it weren’t.

The preferred option for the Winstanley Estate and neighbouring York Road Estate is taking shape
The preferred option for the Winstanley Estate and neighbouring York Road Estate is taking shape

The preferred option exhibition for the Winstanley and York Road estate regeneration starts this weekend at York Gardens Library (taking place this Saturday from noon–3pm, then Monday 5–8pm and Wednesday 10am–1pm).

Throughout the process so far I’ve been surprised at the appetite for change. There was undoubtedly a consensus that improvements were desperately needed, and a significant majority of people recognised that—for whatever reason—the estates don’t ‘work’. I have my own views on why they don’t work, although re-reading them I’m struck that I didn’t explicitly mention the loss of a traditional street pattern which has to be one of the biggest problems (and hardest to address because it means removing buildings).

Despite that appetite, I remain surprised at how strong that appetite for change has been. I perhaps blithely assumed people would plump for the middle option, but when I’ve been there and talking to residents I’ve seen demand for radical change, some even wanting to go further than the council’s options.

Of course, not everyone shares that desire. The fact I’ve met so many people keen on change owes much to chance, because there are those who prefer other options, including the minimal refurbishment, and those who prefer hybrid schemes, taking elements from different options.

The whole process is evolutionary, and while the suggested designs are becoming more detailed, feedback from this stage will be incorporated as the plans and delivery are more fully worked up. So if you are affected it’s worth attending one of the sessions.

More details are on the council’s website.

The first presentation of the options to Winstanley and York Road residents
The first presentation of the options to Winstanley and York Road residents

If there was anything from last week’s launch of the Winstanley and York Road consultation exercise that surprised me it’s that it was generally positive.

To those looking at it from the outside that statement itself might be surprising. Why on earth wouldn’t anyone be positive about the council potentially spending millions improving your neighbourhood? Well, there are lots of reasons.

From the emotional (people develop strong emotional ties to their homes), to the cynical (what is the council’s ulterior motive) to the pessimistic (the idea is nice, but it just isn’t going to happen): there are those who are not happy with any of the proposals. And there is, undoubtedly, a big job for the council to do in addressing all three, whether it’s reassuring people that they won’t lose out because of the plans or persuading them that the council’s motives are honourable.

Generally though, it seemed people were there to find out more and engage positively in the process that will shape the outcome.

Certainly among those residents to whom I spoke I could feel some warming towards the council. They were all in the pessimist camp, they’d seen such things suggested before and they amounted to nothing so why would this time be any different. But talking to them I felt that a change was taking place, not necessarily because of anything I said, but because as the consultation process progresses there is a better mutual understanding between the council and residents, and a growing faith and trust that something is, actually, going to happen.

I mentioned in my last post on the topic that I didn’t think the minimal option would be that well supported, and certainly from the conversations I had and responses I saw on the day (admittedly a very small sample) it seemed fairly clear that there was appetite for some of the wider ranging options, which bring more disruption, but also more benefits. Despite my desire not to prejudge I hope that remains the case. It’s perhaps easy for me to say, since I’m not one of those who is going to be directly affected by the scheme, but I think the benefits of the options which involve various degrees of demolition are worth far more and will last far longer than the disruption and inconvenience they will entail.

The next stage of the process involves more direct consultations, often on a block-by-block basis to ensure as many people as possible have their say. I’m planning on attending a few of these sessions as well, and am looking forward (I think!) to meeting more residents to hear their views so I can better represent them as the Winstanley and York Road steering group chairman.

There will be difficult times ahead. However well supported the final proposals are, there will still be some who oppose them–for whatever reason–and may well oppose them vociferously. Ultimately, the council will have to decide based on the balance of support, benefits and opposition to whatever option or options emerge. For the time being, though, it’s pleasing that the process remains largely positive.

You can find out more from the council’s regeneration pages