My post yesterday about the Redbridge YouChoose site reminded me of some work I’d done looking at what services people thought were important.

Back in 2008 and 2009 we were required to conduct the Place Survey. Now abolished by the coalition government, the Place Survey was, very simply, a survey of people about the place they lived.

The most recent I could find was reported to the council in paper 09-823 (link to PDF). It makes interesting reading, not least because it seems to generally reflect the views of Redbridge residents. My recent interest in it was a result of my thinking about what it was that made Wandsworth Wandsworth. Why do people like it here and what do they like about it?

In some ways it isn’t that illuminating, because it doesn’t really give any unique answers. But it does provide some insight into what people think is important.

The 2009 Place Survey
They survey asked two questions that I’m particularly interested in for the purposes of this post:

Thinking generally, which of the things below would you are most important in making somewhere a good place to live?


And thinking about this local area, which of the things below, if any, do you think most need improving?

The list provided was fairly generic, covering things like transport, crime, parks and the like. The results for Wandsworth, inner and outer London are all fairly much aligned. While there are differences, there are no major differences that would point to a specific ‘Wandsworth’ mentality or issue that is a major problem here compared to elsewhere.

Where it’s a little less useful is in helping the council allocate its budget in the way that Redbridge’s does.

Crime: feelings and practice
For example, the most important thing in making an area a nice place to live is ‘The level of crime’ – 69% said that was an important factor (people could choose more than one) and 34% went on to say that it was something that needed improving (again, people could choose more than one).

When you look at the council’s budget on this (using the 2009-10 actual revenue expenditure) it only spent just over 2.6% of its revenue budget on this, around £5.5 million which went on the community safety division, youth offending team and graffiti removal. Odd, you might think, to spend relatively little on resident’s highest concern. But, of course, this reflects that the council is not the biggest player when it comes to crime, that’s the police. Additionally, there are roles for other public bodies to play – for example housing associations – when it comes to preventing and tackling crime and antisocial behaviour.

Health: feelings and practice
The inverse happens with health where 36% said health services were important and 13% said they needed improving. Effectively half as important. But this takes (using the adult care services figure) £84.4 million from the revenue budget – just under 41%, nearly twelve times as much as ‘crime’. And that’s only the start of it, on top you would have to add the huge budgets of the NHS!

Evidence of ‘imminence’ affecting people’s views?
What, of course, is interesting about these two examples is that they also deal with very different attitudes and services.

When you consider the adult care services budget large sums of that will be spent on a relatively small number of people with significant needs. The crime budget will largely be trying to address the fear of crime amongst a community in which the majority of whom, thankfully, will never be a victim of crime in their lifetime.

Oddly, for many answering it’s probably more likely that they would eventually need some sort of care provision from the council or NHS than they would need the services of the council’s community safety team because they’d been a victim of crime. However, for many their responses would have been driven by the feeling that they could be a victim of crime at any time, but are unlikely to have imminent need of health services.

Does this help at all?
Does this help the council in setting the budget? I’m not sure it does, and I’ll give two reasons why.

First, we have no choice about a lot of this spending. This is especially true when it comes to spending on things like social services. While we can look at making our spending more cost effective, in many cases we are legally obliged to provide a service and we cannot cut it.

Second, there has to be an element of strategic thought in this. While that might be there in the Redbridge exercise, I don’t think it is here. Indeed, it’s telling that the majority of the top factors in making somewhere a good place are what I would call ‘doorstep’ issues, basically the things that strike you when you walk out your front door in the morning: is the transport working? are the streets clean?

And it certainly doesn’t get anyone any closer to working out why people like their particular borough.

[The data I used in this post are at]

I mentioned Wandsworth’s great results in the Audit Commission’s place survey in a post last week.

Over the weekend a short article by the council Leader, Edward Lister, appeared on the ConservativeHome website. (I’ve included the whole article at the end of this post.)

Obviously, I’m not going to disagree with his article – he’s basically my boss, and I’m not that stupid – but I would go further. Towards the end of the article Edward says:

…we should show above all that we are in tune with what people want in their lives – and relate this to a new understanding of what the public sector is for.

David Cameron will be elected with a mandate for radical change, and should use it. The UK has seen an unremitting tide of centralisation over the past 12 years and it’s time for it to be reversed.

Now many will point to the Thatcher government as centralising, but it tended to prescribe rather than control – councils were required to work in certain ways or prevented from undertaking certain actions – but in many ways it made little difference; it was remarkable, for example, how many Direct Service Organisations ‘won’ compulsory competitive tenders in old Labour authorities.

The Blair and Brown centralisation has been much more directive while wearing the clothes of localism. Labour’s new localism may have involved delegating powers, but it would come with an array of targets and quotas that meant local government was little more than an agency of central government and often given extra duties without sufficient extra resources.

The Conservative government needs to push power as close to the people as it can be. We currently have a state in which power is wielded in Whitehall, leaving people dependent on, and dismissive of, a remote and disinterested ‘state’.

If people are to have faith in politics again, then politics needs to mean something. The easiest and best way is to empower local councils so their decisions, reflecting the will of their communities, can show what real politics is about – effecting positive change.

And Wandsworth has been more of an exception than the rule in this. The Conservative council has a clear mission to provide quality services with low tax, and has been incredibly successful in delivering this. But in the majority of councils where everything is driven by central targets and Whitehall diktat and it’s easy to see why people take the view that it doesn’t matter who you vote for.

To be sure, it would be a brave decision for the Cameron government to give real power back to local councils. It doesn’t just mean, in some cases, giving power to Labour and Liberal Democrat councils, it also means giving councils freedom to do things differently and sometimes make mistakes. But that would also be part of creating political accountability at a local level. Having real power exercised locally will mean that people will start to see how important their vote really is, and that it can make a difference.

The full ConservativeHome article:

Cllr Edward Lister: Lessons from Wandsworth for David Cameron

There’s lessons for David Cameron in this week’s survey results on people’s attitudes to their local authority and the place where they live.

In Wandsworth’s case the Government’s Place Survey gave us approval ratings to die for – top in the country on value for money (73 per cent) and top again for satisfaction with the council (75 per cent).

In London average satisfaction scores fell – down to 49 per cent. So what is Wandsworth doing that is different?

Well we do have the clear advantage of the UK’s lowest council tax – but that’s only one component. When residents are judging us on value for money they are influenced by their overriding perception of what the authority is about.

How was I treated last time I dealt with the town hall? Does the council share my concerns on quality of life issues? And how does it look after the local area?

The Wandsworth formula has been finely tuned over the years. Through a rigorous process of scrutiny and challenge that stretches into every corner of municipal activity we make sure we get the last pound of value from every service.

And like any sound business we don’t just do this once – it is a constant process of review which keeps asking why things are done the way are – and whether they could be done differently.

Wandsworth has a young and fast-changing population. Most people are here because they want to be here. It’s our job to identify with the aspirations of our residents and protect the character and quality of the place where they have chosen to live.

A Cameron government will have its work cut out getting the public finances in order – it will have to move very quickly to demonstrate that it knows how to get real value from all that hard earned taxpayers’ money.

Cutting waste and insisting on value for money from public services will be a popular strategy to start with. But it needs to go deeper if it is to generate and sustain voters’ trust in the longer term.

As Conservatives we should show above all that we are in tune with what people want in their lives – and relate this to a new understanding of what the public sector is for.

It’s about saying to the public ‘we are there for you’ – and meaning it.

The Audit Commission‘s place survey was published the other day and makes good reading for Wandsworth, especially as they reflect public opinion rather than the results of an external assessors checklist. Basically, it’s what you think of Wandsworth.

Of course, the temptation is just to highlight what you might think are the ‘top two’: value for money and quality services. In both Wandsworth came top in the country – more people in Wandsworth think the “council provides value for money” and were “very or fairly satisfied with how [the] council runs things” than in any other authority.

But there were a number of other good results. For example, by my reckoning we came fifth on parks and open spaces – impressive when you consider we are an inner London borough. And overall 85% of people think Wandsworth is a good place to live.

There were the odd results. 37.9% of people feel they can influence decisions in the area, but only 13.8% of people have been involved in decision making recently. It would be interesting to see if we can tease out more information to explain why the first figure is so low and why there’s such a difference between it and the second figure.

And there are, of course, results that show there is work that needs to be done. Wearing my community safety hat I was astounded that only 11% feel they would know what to do if there were a major incident. When you consider the government’s nationwide resilience campaign and the strong emergency planning we have locally along with the disproportionate fear of a major incident in Wandsworth (the latest survey showed around half the Wandsworth population feared a major terrorist attack within the borough) it’s very surprising that number is so low.

But these shouldn’t detract from those top two. The primary function of a council is to provide quality services to its residents, so it’s great to be told by residents that they think we are number one for service and value.