A piece in The Guardian’s Public Leader’s Network yesterday caught my imagination today. Although primarily about economic growth it referenced a previous publication (PDF) by the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) suggesting the creation of local Public Accounts Committees:

[CfPS chairman Nick Raynsford] raises the major challenge that without rethinking the basic forms and institutions of our democracy, leaders will “be haunted by the problems of public contempt”.

CfPS’s proposal for a local place-based Public Accounts Committee, which we floated last year and have been exploring further with stakeholders to develop ideas about how it might work in practice, is gaining traction in a range of places. We think that the principle of a single, powerful body to provide challenge to the leaders and managers of all local public services for their collective efforts to improve a local place is an important part of the case for more devolution.

After years of local government training my instinct is to think about why it is a bad idea and wouldn’t work. It would require genuine partnership between all parts of the public sector in an area but the old joke in local government partnership was that partnership is “something we do to other people,” a sadly prevalent attitude that needs to change. Yet the more I think about it, the more I can see the benefits.

The model, of course, is the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee which has had notable successes over the years. But perhaps more importantly has earned its status and, through its scrutiny of spending, has arguably created a culture in which more care is taken with public money.

A local public accounts committee would rarely capture the public imagination or media headlines, but by focusing on the how all public money is spent in an area it will also focus the minds of those spending it, and how they can collectively make that spending more effective. Ultimately, it will force those involved in an area to collectively think about what they are doing and—ideally—create a shared vision towards which they can work: something that happens incredibly rarely today.

Pessimistically I can see this as an idea that may never be implemented or, if it is, one killed off before it has a chance to prove its value. But if it were given a chance I’d bet we’d look at it in years to come and wonder why on earth we took so long to establish local PACs.

When did the looting end?

Reflecting further on the Neil Kinghan report I cannot help but feel a resonance with another report by David Hunter I read a few months ago on public sector health partnerships (which I think has relevance to all partnerships).

Hunter’s conclusion, after getting through more than £250,000 on research, is that there is no proof that partnerships improve outcomes. In fact, they sometimes hinder improvements by placing restrictions on the frontline staff, and often, improvements credited to ‘partnership working’ only happen because those frontline staff are just getting on with it.

In other words, if you got rid of the formal partnerships nothing would be worse, and may well be better.

This goes against the orthodoxy that has existed since the nineties that partnership working is ‘a good thing’. Indeed, it’s often cited as ‘the only way’ now we are in a time of strained public finance. But while Hunter found lots of unquestioning endorsement of partnership working – partnerships are good because they just are – it seemed that no-one had really thought to assess the value of them.

The traditional model of emergency planning involves some fairly hefty documents drawn up by the relevant agencies, attempting to detail the responses to various situations, which should interface with each other where appropriate.

Somehow, all those plans came together on the night of 8 August. Simplistically you might think that on 8 August the police were responsible during the actual disorder, then the council took over for the clean-up and any response. But the true picture was far more complicated, with several organisations being involved to varying degrees throughout the period.

But, of course, nobody’s plan involved large-scale disorder or looting or rioting in Clapham Junction, with the police stretched across the capital and unable to respond, and a large fire affecting retail and residential property. So how did it work?

For all their length and complexity, emergency plans can never foresee every eventuality. The military adage that ‘no battle plan survives contact with the enemy’ is true in emergency planning. You can plan for the start of a generic situation, like public disorder, and you can attempt to foresee and plan for what happens next, but ultimately events unfold in a different way and decisions made in response to changing circumstances. (I’ve already commented on my belief that across London the rioters and broom armies were able to respond to circumstances far more quickly than any public agency.)

In any event, given that few people will have a comprehensive understanding of any of the plans, it might all seem a bit irrelevant.

But what links Kinghan and Hunter? Let me provide a couple of examples.

Throughout the rioting, the town centre manager was on the scene, and is mentioned in Kinghan’s report:

the role played by Lorinda Freint, the Town Centre Manager for Clapham Junction, has been universally praised, and described as “heroic” by one interviewee. She spent the whole evening helping people who were frightened by the disorder. She and the manager of the Wessex House nightclub provided a safe place for people to go to and helped them to escape the area without trouble.

She was a fabulous resource, working at the frontline, but doing so under her own direction. A prime example of that would not have been out-of-place in Hunter; exceptionally good work taking place despite the emergency plan and partnership structures which would not have had her on-site at all.

But if the communication had been in place, it’s not hard to see how much more use she could have been not only in helping those affected, but also in providing intelligence to the police and others, while still working within the general framework of the response laid out within the emergency plans. The response was good, but an opportunity was missed for it to be better.

Then consider the broom army. Again, not something that featured in any of the emergency plans, and again a fabulous resource ready to help everyone meet the aims of cleaning up Clapham Junction. In this example, however, that resource was used (after a few hiccoughs) to great effect. Perhaps because it was impossible not to communicate with several hundred broom-wielding residents!

Even before 8 August I’d been thinking about Hunter’s report in the context of emergency planning (and in the context of real examples like Norway and Japan), so immediately Neil Kinghan’s recommendation that frontline staff be involved and informed as part of the emergency plan struck me as absolutely right – the evidence of Hunter and 8 August backs this up. I just wonder (and since emergency planning is well above my pay-grade it can only be idle speculation) if we could go even further in thinking about the invaluable role, and discretion, of frontline staff.

Tomorrow sees the start of summer – in Battersea Square at least.

Nigella Lawson will be kicking off the Summer in the Square event at 11am and the event will include a farmers market, crafts and entertainment (including stilt-walkers and jugglers).

Although my days responsible for regeneration and economic development may be coming to an end, these sort of events show how the council can be at its best helping others to do things, rather than trying to do everything itself – working in partnership to provide the help and support that allow businesses and communities to organise events that help themselves and the area. And also an example (if you forgive the politics) of the ‘Big Society’, albeit one that pre-dates the Conservative manifesto, as it’s all being done by the Friends of Battersea Square.

The council and police won the Metropolitan Police’s snappily titled Problem Oriented Partnership Award last night for their work talking problems in Strathan Close, Putney.

A great example of how effective targeted work can be in solving, rather than just moving a problem, the area has seen reports of anti-social behaviour drop from one per day to just one per month.

The council worked at improving the area, re-designing aspects that caused groups to congregate, while helping residents form a residents’ association and Neighbourhood Watch. And while this was happing the Anti-Social Behaviour Unit, Youth Offending Team and police targeted the ring-leaders while Youth Services did work with the others.

Congratulations to all concerned.

I don’t often (if I ever have) republish council press releases on here, but the one below is – I think – a great story and worth repeating. There’s something particularly callous about this type of crime, where the vulnerable are conned out of huge sums of money by criminals who are pretending to help.

A few things I want to pick out.

First is the warning: it’s is disappointing that we have to be suspicious, but there are a lot of rogue builders and various other con-artists out there. A genuine tradesman won’t mind if you check their credentials or ask for other quotes.

Second is the value of partnership working: we scored a major success here partly because of the quick thinking of the victims nephew and partly because of the great work between the council and the police in responding quickly to the call.

Third I have to congratulate the Community Safety Team: they have put a huge amount of work into this area and it’s fantastic when it pays off like this. I was being updated while this particular incident was taking place so know all the work that was put in both before, during and after.

If you have any concerns, or know anyone about whom you are concerned, contact the council’s Community Safety Division on the number at the bottom of the press release.

Rogue builders foiled in £16k OAP scam

The council’s crime prevention team is warning residents, especially the elderly, to be on their guard against rogue builders and doorstep con artists after a pensioner in Roehampton was almost swindled out of £16,000 earlier this week.

The woman was visited by two men who claimed to be builders and said that her roof needed urgent repairs. They said the job would cost £16,000.

It was the second time that the woman had been targeted in two years. In 2007 a similar scam ended up costing her £14,000.

Fortunately this time the fraudsters luck ran out, thanks to a long-standing council initiative designed to prevent burglary and con-trick victims being hit a second time.

When the woman was swindled two years ago, she was visited by council officers who advised her and her relatives on ways of avoiding a repeat offence. One of the solutions suggested to the family was to give one of her nephews power of attorney over her finances so that she would not be able to write cheques or pledge large amounts of money without consulting them.

So when the woman rang her nephew last Thursday to tell him she needed a cheque for £16,000, he realised something was amiss and called the council’s community safety team for advice.

Staff at the town hall immediately rang Wandsworth police and arranged for “a welcoming committee” of officers to wait at the woman’s house for when the builders returned for their money.

Community safety spokesman Cllr James Cousins said: “Thanks to the nephew’s quick thinking and the immediate responses from both the staff at the town hall and local police, these two con artists have been stopped from swindling an elderly woman out a large portion of her life’s savings.

“After the lady lost so much money to thieves a couple of years ago, her family was given useful advice by the council’s crime prevention team to try and prevent it happening again. I am delighted that they took that advice on board and used it not only to stop this money being stolen, but also had the presence of mind to contact us so that the fraudsters could be caught.

“This case highlights the importance of never agreeing to have any work carried out by workmen who tout for business and call at front doors unannounced.

“If this happens to you then there is a strong chance you are about to be ripped off. The work is usually totally unnecessary and the householders face being overcharged and sometimes bullied and intimidated if they refuse to pay.

“If any building work is required it is always best to get at least two written quotations beforehand from established and reputable businesses, together with a detailed specification of the works needed. People should also never pay in full until the work is actually completed.”

Householders are also being advised to refuse to give cold calling builders permission to get up on their roofs. There is evidence to suggest that once on the roof, the workmen cause damage to try and persuade people that repair work is necessary.

Cllr Cousins added: “Our advice is to not let anyone into your house who calls unexpectedly. If you do speak to them, do it through the door or from an upstairs window – and never agree to employ them to carry out any work. We would also urge neighbours to be alert to builders, in particular roofers, who turn up to carry out such work and to report any suspicions they have to the council or the police.

“We are working closely with the police to track down these con-artists, but we do need residents to keep an eye out for their neighbours – especially if they are elderly or vulnerable.”

The council is also appealing to bank and building society staff to be on the lookout for elderly customers withdrawing large amount of cash. They are being urged to try and glean what the money is being used for and if they have any concerns that it may be suspicious, to contact the police or town hall.

People wanting to report suspicious traders to the council should call (020) 8871 6603 and if possible provide details of any vans or cars that are being used, including the registration number, plus a description of the builder/workman.

Anyone wanting advice about home security or crime prevention can use the same number to speak to an officer in the town hall’s community safety division.

I’ve been producing these weekly reports for a few weeks now, you can read why and some of my thoughts about it. As I commented in there, it’s far from complete, it misses out a lot of the ‘private’ meetings and casework but you may find it interesting…

Lavender Hill Street Party
I take no credit for the Street Party, as I posted on Monday, all the credit belongs else where – but it took up a good chuck of my Sunday and was a truly fantastic event, if you were there I know you’ll agree, if you weren’t then make sure you don’t miss it next year.

Local Strategic Partnership
I attended, as one of the council’s representatives, the Local Strategic Partnership on Wednesday. The Partnership comprises bodies like the council, police, local NHS as well as representatives from local business, the voluntary sector and community groups.

Wednesday saw us spending a lot of time discussing the services we provide for young people, which provided a great example of the importance of partnership working. The council has a target of reducing the number of young people entering the criminal justice system, but the police are meant to increase their arrests – meaning that, unless we co-operate, we are undermining each other’s work!

John Burns School
As posted earlier today I went along for the opening of John Burns School’s new playground. Which is also a new community playground! It is really well equipped, so worth popping along if you have children in the 5-12 age range. It was also great to have a look around the school. I was a school governor there up until around 2002, so it was also good to see how the school had changed and improved over the years.

I’m currently putting the finishing touches to my presentation for tonight’s public meeting on our community safety priorities for the year.

I’m told that, from the acceptances we’ve received so far, the venue is nearing capacity and we may have to open up the public gallery as an overflow!

However, if you are interested in finding out and influencing what the council, police, probation service and other partners have as their priorities for the year then come along tonight, we should be able to squeeze you in!

The annual ‘Face the Public’ meeting is being held in the Council Chamber at the Town Hall on Wandsworth High Street.  It starts at 6pm and should last no longer than 90 minutes.

UPDATE: The venue has now been moved.  The meeting will be in the Civic Suite, still on Wandsworth High Street.  Police Cadets are helping with the organisation and will be able to point you in the right direction.