No facelift: The recession has put paid to plans for improvement
No facelift: The recession has put paid to plans for improvement

The recession has finally put paid to hopes for a major regeneration project in Roehampton.

The scheme had been in development for a number of years and went through seemingly endless consultations with local residents, mixed feelings from the Labour Party (who couldn’t work out if they want to improve people’s quality of life or not) and an extensive period of work preparing for a planning application.

The plan would have seen improved social housing, a landscaped and usable ‘village green’ and overall lower building heights. Most important was the creation of employment in the area through the improvement of business units and provision of a supermarket.

Roehampton suffers a much higher rate of unemployment than the rest of the borough (in September the rate of JSA claims was 4.4% in Roehampton, against 3.2% in the borough as a whole). The picture is much worse when considering working age benefits; nearly one-in-five Roehampton residents are claiming a benefit (19.4%), almost twice the rate of the borough as a whole (10.9%).

But while supermarkets were keen – only Asda didn’t express an interest because of the proximity of an existing store – funding the overall regeneration has been looking less and less unlikely.

While Gordon Brown was promising we were well-placed to weather the recession we’ve suffered more than many comparable countries. And while he said we would be coming out of recession quickly our economy is still shrinking while other nations are back in growth.

We’ve just seen the sixth-successive quarter of decline in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and while the overall situation may be improving this isn’t the case for every industry – construction has been hit far harder than most. In the 18 months we’ve been in recession the overall drop in GDP has been 6.9%. In the construction sector that drop has been 15.6%.

So while the news in Nine Elms has been optimistic – fuelled by the location, investment by the US Embassy and relative ease with which the area can be developed – Roehampton, unfortunately, has none of those advantages and that, along with the high proportion of social housing included, meant that to interest a developer the council would have had to subsidise the scheme to a level that it just cannot afford.

Rather than have a scheme on ice waiting for a lengthy recovery to help we are now going to have to concentrate on the other elements of help we are providing Roehampton, like support for local businesses and targeted help to get people back in work. But it is frustrating to have got to this stage to see the plans be killed by factors outside of the council’s control.

The growth in unemployment slowed nationally, but in Wandsworth it fell slightly in September. Not much, just 43, but that’s still a fall!

Overall there were 6,673 people claiming Jobseekers Allowance in Wandsworth in September. A fall of 43 (0.6%) on the previous month. Of course that is dwarfed by the steady increase in previous months. The total is still some 2,711 (68.4%) higher than this time in 2008.
Wandsworth JSA claims, Sep 08 - Aug 09
Of course, small fluctuations are not much to get excited about, but so far they have tended to be favourable to Wandsworth. I’ll repeat my mantra: Wandsworth isn’t immune to recession, but is doing a lot better than many places during it.

Dried (and presumably ornamental) fruit at the Old York Road Fun Day
Dried (and presumably ornamental) fruit at the Old York Road Fun Day

Old York Road Fun Day
I popped along to the Old York Road Fun Day last Sunday. The last (I think) of this year’s street party style events supported by the council and town centre partnerships. A fantastic day and definitely bigger and better than previous years. Congratulations to all involved in organising it.

Labour Party conference
There is no doubt that the Labour Party conference has dominated the news and politics for the past week.  To me it seemed they had a promising start.  The issue of Gordon Brown’s alleged medication needs turned into sympathy for the Prime Minister and there were some good early performances by key ministers in his government.

Unfortunately it turned bad with the Prime Minister’s speech, that – I believe – wasn’t enough and certainly left The Sun thinking it was time for change. Whether The Sun‘s decision proves a motivator for Labour Party activists remains to be seen, but I can’t help but think Brown missed his best opportunity to remedy his dire situation.

Business Support
Last night I attended the last of our business support seminars which have been running around the borough to provide help and advice to businesses during the recession.

The event provided local businesses the opportunity to hear from professionals from the world of property, tax and insolvency and to network and mingle with them and other business support services afterwards.

Despite the recession I have real pride that Wandsworth is a business borough. While most of the credit for this belongs to the businesses, I can’t not point out the work that the council’s Economic Development Office do in supporting businesses, assisting new businesses to start or set-up in Wandsworth and make sure the council is as business friendly as possible.

As unemployment nationally rises to 2.47 million people the effects of the small dip in Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) claims in Wandsworth has been more than lost with subsequent rises.

In August there were 6,716 people claiming JSA in Wandsworth, an increase of 219 (or 3.4%) on the previous month and up 2,754 (or 69.5%) on August 2008. The graph shows a fairly consistent rise over the past year.

Wandsworth JSA claims, Aug 08 - Aug 09

I often point out that JSA and unemployment are not interchangeable. While everyone claiming JSA will be unemployed, it does not follow that everyone who is unemployed will claim JSA. To highlight the point nationally unemployment is 2.47 million, but JSA claims only 1.61 million – effectively there are 860,000 people choosing – for whatever reason – not to sign on.

It is difficult to make a similar comparison for Wandsworth, since the figures are not collected in the same way, instead unemployment for the whole year is calculated. However, to give an indication, unemployment for January to December 2008 (the most recent available) in Wandsworth is calculated at 9,600. The average of all the JSA claims for those 12 months was 3,939 – implying a significant proportion of Wandsworth residents were choosing not to register at their local job centre.

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.

After last month’s small drop in Jobseekers Allowance claims the number rose again in July. However, the rise was small, and I will – again – say there is a lot to be positive about in Wandsworth. However, we cannot buck the trend entirely, so it was hoping a bit too much that we’d see another fall when the national backdrop is of continued rises.

The chart shows the climb, but apparent slowing, of JSA claims in Wandsworth between July 2008 and July 2009.
Wandsworth JSA claims, Jul 08 - Jul 09

The The Wandsworth total of JSA claimaints (people actively signing on as unemployed) was 6,497 (a rate of 3.1%). This is an increase of 149 people, or 2.3%, on the month. And an increase of 2,637, or 68.3%, on the year.

Russell's DIYI mentioned in last week’s weekly wrap-up that I, along with Nick Cuff, had a fairly lengthy chat with the the police last week.

One of the key topics was rising crime. There is no doubt it is on the up – you need only look at the crime mapping on this site to see that recent months have seen an increase, especially in burglaries.

This presents two challenges. How do you tackle the rise in crime, and how do you communicate it without creating a disproportionate fear of crime?

The problems of ‘fear of crime’
I had always been a ‘fear of crime’ sceptic, thinking the real issue is not fear of crime, but crime itself – that if crime itself was tackled successfully then the fear would dissipate. I was wrong.

Fear of crime is a major issue. People can spend their entire lives fearing crime, even letting it change their behaviour, despite there being a good chance they would never be a victim. Ironically, things you might anticipate would reduce fear of crime actually increase them. For example, people in high crime areas often fear crime the least, because they become desensitised and realise that, while not pleasant, most crime will not place them in physical danger.

And fear of crime doesn’t just have personal effects. From the takings in a shop to the use of community facilities, when people fear crime their behaviour changes and that impacts on those around them.

The impact of recession
A key message I always try and get out is that Wandsworth is the safest inner London borough. The past few years in particular have seen rates of crime in Wandsworth fall to incredibly low levels. Wandsworth is still the safest inner London borough, but realistically we cannot expect the rates of crime to remain at those very low levels during recession.

And the recession is a major driver. A few months ago I met a borough commander from the north of England and discussion turned to the effects of the recession. He was seeing a rise in crime and also a change in patterns, some of which we have seen here, for example an increase in robberies and thefts of cash (rather than items that still need to be sold on). And some we have not, such as an increase in the theft of necessities rather than luxuries (they identified one suspect because he’d help himself to nappies for his newborn child when he was robbing a store).

But while we need to be open and honest about the rise of crime we also need to keep the perspective that Wandsworth is still a very safe borough. For example, my latest crime map includes 92 crimes. While this may seem a lot for a population of over 280,000, it’s still a fairly low rate – about one crime per week for every 3,000 people. If I were to offer you odds of 3,000 to 1 on an event, you probably wouldn’t think twice before saying no. Yet there are a lot of people whose quality of life suffers because they think the odds are much much lower.

The lessons from Tooting
And this brings me to my little walkabout in Tooting with Timothy Watford from the new town centre team (in the picture with Nick, me and Bob Singh from Russell’s DIY). I believe Tooting is one of those places that people have a disproportionate fear of crime – it sometimes seems there’s an assumption that Tooting has the borough’s highest crime (actually, it has less than the borough average). One of the biggest problems in Tooting is overcoming these negative perceptions.

That’s why initiatives like Tooting Together are so important. For example, it’s amazing how much cleaner the streets look because of time-banded waste collection and the council taking responsibility for pavement enforcement from TfL. Whether you believe in the broken window theory or not most will agree they feel a lot better about a place when it’s clean and doesn’t have bags of rubbish from various shops scattered all over.

And often solutions lie within communities, and not with police or council enforcement. Russell’s DIY, along with lots of their neighbours have signed up to AlertBox, a fairly simple system which allows the businesses to warn each other if they see something they consider suspicious or call for help if they need it. So far there’s only been one use, which was accidental, but resulted in several people immediately gathering to offer assistance – but the key is not so much that it’s there, but that businesses feel safer, largely because they are part of a directly linked community looking out for each other.

I think there’s a huge amount to be positive about in Tooting (and not just from the community safety perspective) with schemes like AlertBox and the Good Neighbour scheme within the community, along with the work the police and council are doing there. And a lot to learn and apply in the rest of the borough.

My usual end of week wrap-up of bits and pieces I want to highlight or didn’t post about at the time.

Pre-summer council meeting
Wednesday saw the council had it’s last full meeting before the summer recess. Of course, the council doesn’t take a holiday in the same way that Parliament does, but there’s a break in meetings during August before starting again in September. And, like any large organisation, things get a little quieter because of holidays.

The July council meeting always seems to reflect a pre-summer lethargy. I’d always blamed the bad ventilation in the Council Chamber, which made it hot and stuffy in July. But following the collapse of the roof and our move to the Civic Suite I discovered that July is a flat meeting for other reasons.

The debates lacked spark (despite some excellent contributions on our side) and the meeting was other remarkably quickly for a full council.

Of course, there’s also a slight lull because everyone knows that a general election is coming and whatever there are going to be major spending cuts, but politics means that neither party can really address these. Hence the ridiculous language of “0% raises” from Gordon Brown and endless offers of cash that, mysteriously, end in 2010/11 (thus making the next guy seem like the scrooge).

This affects councils of every political complexion, not just Conservative, and while it might make for interesting politics, it’s not the way a country should be run.

I can’t not mention the debate, opened up by the BBC, on CCTV cameras. It is definitely an interesting one; but what I found fascinating (as well as a little reassuring given my feelings on civil liberties) was the common ground I had with Shami Chakrabarti on them when I did BBC Breakfast. It might be a strange alliance, but I think it was something of a victory for common sense. As is often the case, it’s not the sensationalist headline, but the detail behind it. It doesn’t really matter how many cameras any organisation has, it’s the controls behind them that counts.

Another bit from the last week I’m rather pleased with is the discussion started on this blog and continued here, here and elsewhere, about surgeries. Yes, it might seem a minor issue – over the course of the year it’s only 150 man-hours in Wandsworth – but it’s good to see that a blog can start a little debate which, I hope, might lead somewhere.

Meeting the police
This week also saw one of my more formal meetings with the police. While I seem to see them fairly often, one way or another, I do have a regular session with the Borough Commander, Chief Superintendent Stewart Low so we can both catch up with what each side is doing.

Obviously a lot of the meeting is not for repeating here. However, one thing did come across clearly (and shows in the crime maps on this site) is that the recession is having an impact on crime. This is not just a Wandsworth phenomenon, it’s happening across London and the rest of the country.

Burglary is one of the crimes that really seems to be on the up. While the police are doing a great job there’s still a lot we can do to avoid becoming a victim of crime. The Met’s crime prevention pages and the Council’s Community Safety Division both suggest lots of ways you can make yourself safer.

The number of claims for Jobseekers’ Allowance in Wandsworth dropped, very marginally, in June.  Given that the national news is reporting a record rise in unemployment, the fact we’ve had a small drop in claims has to be good news.
Wandsworth JSA claims Jun 08 - Jun 09

The fall was small, just 82, and there are caveats (these are people claiming benefit, which isn’t the totality of unemployment) but as I have said before there is reason to be confident in Wandsworth.

I’ve also put together this chart, which shows the rate of claims over the past year for Wandsworth, London and Great Britain.

JSA claim rates Jun 08 - Jun 09

It shows two things.  First, Wandsworth has a significantly lower rate of JSA claims than London or Great Britain as a whole.  Second, and most importantly, the gap has widened.  Last year Wandsworth’s rates were 0.8% and 0.4% below London’s and Great Britain’s rates respectively.  This had increased to 1.1% and 1.0% this June.

Again, I can add caveats, Wandsworth’s economy is a small part of the nation and will be affected by the national recession.  And because it’s small it can be more susceptible to large swings.  However, although I am pessimistic about the recession nationally, I remain confident that Wandsworth can weather the storm better than many other places.  We’ve created a dynamic economy here; we aren’t immune to recession, but we can fight it better.

The Wandsworth total of JSA claimaints (people actively signing on as unemployed) was 6,348 (a rate of 3.1%).  This is a drop of 82 people, or 1.3% (or a -1.3% increase, as Gordon Brown would probably call it) on the month.

The figures are still considerably higher than last year, 2,607 extra claimants, an increase of 69.7%.

Gordon Brown’s economic miracle doesn’t seem to show any sign of slowing.  My observation that the rate of increase seemed to have slowed last month was shown to be idle conjecture this month as the rate grew again.

JSA claimants May 08 - May 09

I will continue to say that Wandsworth seems to be weathering the recession better than most places.  There are a lot of reasons to be confident, indeed, part of my spot at Balham last Thursday was to highlight the reasons we should be positive in Wandsworth.  But that does not mean we aren’t being hit by the recession, nor does it make it any easier for those who are losing their jobs.

The Wandsworth total of Jobseekers Allowances claimaints (i.e. people who have signed on as unemployed, and excluding those who are unemployed but have chosen not to register) rose to 6,430 – a rate of 3.1%.  As I say every month, this still compares favourably to the London and national rates of 4.2% and 4.1% respectively.

The total was 341 higher than last month and 2,656 higher than this time last year, increases of 5.6% and 70.4% respectively.