Party Superstore: Just how Golfrate likes it.

Steve Jobs once expressed frustration that Barack Obama focused on the reasons why things can’t get done instead of just doing them. Part of the problem may be that he doesn’t have as much power as people think. And this is true of all politicians; right down to the humble councillor.

The idea that there is a political class with huge executive power is a myth. The best politicians realise that, and lead by persuasion, they have a vision and invite – hopefully successfully – people to join them in making it a reality. Wandsworth can clean the streets, but we need successful businesses and people to shop there to make a vibrant town centre; we also need successful businesses and happy shoppers.

Which is why, ultimately, politics is mostly about frustration. You often won’t succeed; there will be a snag, people disagree, time runs out. You accept it, learn the lessons and move on, because you know when it does work out the hard work and failures are worth it.

And rarely do you talk about it. Perhaps because politicians don’t like failure. Perhaps because discretion is sometimes the better path.

Then sometimes you are, frankly, so pissed off by something that you want to point fingers.

And this is one of those times.

The Party Superstore on Lavender Hill is a highly visible reminder of last year’s riots. A scar on Clapham Junction that, because of the scale of damage done, will take a long time to heal.

But we wanted to put a plaster on it. Something to make the area look a bit nicer. The idea was some artwork, a backdrop of lavender, with butterflies drawn by local children.

Twee, perhaps, but a lot nicer than the currently boarding.

The council was keen, and would fund it. A local business was going to provide the artwork and materials. The Party Shop owner, Duncan Mundell, was enthusiastic every step of the way.

Sadly, Golfrate, the building owner, was not so keen. They said no.

This was a bit surprising, since it would be at no cost to them. And would make their property a little more attractive while it was repaired. And since they’d initially proposed a large advertising hoarding they can hardly oppose a display on the shop frontage.

Those less charitable than I might wonder if the council’s rejection of their massive advertising hoarding and their rejection of the artwork are related. There is an appealing simplicity in that conclusion but I have no idea how true it might be.

What I do know is that this appears to have become another example of where the council tried to bring people together to make something positive happen, but just couldn’t quite get everyone to agree. It’s sad that Golfrate, for whatever reason, couldn’t bring themselves to let other people pay to make their property a little nicer, but that is their decision.

Golfrate have every right to say no, and we have to respect that right. But I certainly don’t respect the decision.

The music video may, or may not, be to your taste. However, it is undeniably influenced by the events following last August disorder in Clapham Junction. (Something highlighted by the artist in his direct marketing of the video.)

What heartens me is that even months after the riots, the outcomes remain overwhelmingly creative and positive.

If you did like the music it was released today and is available from iTunes.

[I’ll confess, I’m not sure about the b-side cover on iTunes, but then I still carry emotional trauma from my school disco.]

I’m a self-confessed Philistine, and while I leave it to others to decide how honest I am about my Philistinism, I don’t think anyone would imagine I would have willingly chosen to spend last Friday evening at a “process-based, community-focused project that will be part of the Exchange Radical Moments! Live Art Festival.” But that’s what I did.

It actually provided an interesting contrast with my Saturday morning which saw me visiting the newly re-opened Party Superstore, to which I shall return.

I’ll confess my reasons for attending the workshop were not entirely positive. Instead they were motivated by concern (shared with several others from the area) that the project was also planning a video projection of images from the riots on the Party Superstore. The artistic merit of this can be debated, however, I was not alone in thinking it would be a fairly awful idea in an area that needs its confidence building – not reminding of a fairly horrific night for residents and businesses alike.

I have remarked on the strange dilation of time since the looting, which took place just two months and an age ago. While I’m one of those existing in a bubble, looking at how the council responds and discussing the Kinghan report, most people have moved on. And such was the case last Friday; those attending to express concern at the video projection outnumbering the four or five who attended for other reasons (what was particularly interesting was that only one of those, I think, was actually from Clapham Junction).

A lot of the discussion was inevitably about blame: MPs’ expenses, phone-hacking, government and council policy, war in Afghanistan and Iraq, even “men” – half the population – were hauled before the artistic court for judgement to be passed.

My blood pressure only just remained below fatal levels.

Afterwards I reflected on the five stages of grief. I remember denial on 8 August. I remember very real anger on the 9 and 10 August. I would like to think I’ve moved to acceptance, as have most of the people in the area. This doesn’t mean it’s forgotten or ignored, but that it’s time to move on, look at how we complete the recovery and, ideally, the area is left even better than it was on 7 August.

Yes, we still have lessons to learn, the police and justice processes are still rolling, but generally we are focussed on the future, not a snapshot from the past. I’m not sure we can still do that when we are seeking to excuse looting by blaming the actions of politicians or journalists. And I’m not sure what drives people to travel to raise these issues.

Instead we could focus on the positives, which seem to come to light on an almost daily basis (indeed, only last Friday I heard about plans for a local ‘apprenticeship’ scheme being developed).

But what better symbol of what the future holds is there than the Party Superstore: now open on the third floor of Debenhams and the old Dub Vendor. An incredibly positive symbol of a community that works, because without Debenhams goodwill the Party Superstore would not have returned for a long time – achieved without European funding and something I know will benefit Clapham Junction far more than any video projection!

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.

Neil Kinghan’s report in the looting at Clapham Junction (and elsewhere) was published today.

It is, by necessity, not an in-depth look into the riots, they causes and consequences, but instead a first look: trying to show what happened and draw out some key recommendations. And it is, by the nature of the process, a balanced report. Having undertaken similar sorts of work (although never into anything like August’s looting) I know exactly how hard it is to divine anything exhaustive or definitive when you are interviewing people on issues that will often are a matter of opinion and recollection and not hard fact.

Reading through the final report I can see where I probably complicated matters for Mr Kinghan, but, even so, other than small matters (for example, I recall seeing photos of a vandalised Starbucks fairly early on the evening of 8 August) there is nothing with which I particularly disagree and much with which I agree.

Communication comes across as one area that can be improved, in pretty much every direction. This even when Wandsworth, I think, has a pretty good track record in communication. The lesson, perhaps, is that it can always be improved.

One of the things that struck me soon after the 8 August, is how the public sector lagged far behind rioters and broom army when it came to communication. This is even despite similar tools already existing; I was Wandsworth’s sole Yammer (which is effectively a private Twitter) member for over two years until after the riots; since then membership has swollen to a mighty three users!

Business recovery is the area that most directly affects me, and we’re already looking at what we can do and the funds that are being made available. Here the trick is in successfully managing the transition from the immediate response – helping businesses recover from the aftermath – to a longer term plan that supports and develops local businesses.

It is very much a “watch this space” until plans are more fully developed.

The whole report is publicly available via the council’s website. It is not – and openly admits it isn’t – a conclusive or definitive report on the disorder, and many questions remain unanswered, but a fascinating first look at the issues around 8 August.

Last week I wondered if most people had moved on from the riots, mentally consigning them to history and getting on as if they had happened in another time or place.

Last night I might have got an answer when 50 people attended the first of three public meetings being held at Battersea Arts Centre as part of the Kinghan review into the disorder.

I really didn’t know what to expect, and as a result am finding it hard to work out my reaction. Was an attendance of 50 good, and if so, why? To be sure, having 50 people to a public meeting (and I’m not a great fan of public meetings) is a large number by Wandsworth standards. But then this was also held in the most affected part of the borough, where thousands of people – residents and businesses owners – can legitimately claim to have been affected by the riots, so maybe 50 wasn’t such a good number.

In fact, the numbers weren’t even that good. A significant number of the audience fell into the category of ‘usual suspects’. (The term might seem derogatory, but isn’t intended that way, I include councillors as usual suspects.) At least thirteen councillors were there, as was the MP, Jane Ellison, and I would guess about half the people attending had some ‘political’ involvement in the area. This is not to discount their contribution, but we all have the advantage of being able to feed into the process in other ways.

The meeting itself was interesting. Neil Kinghan chaired it remarkably well and people were polite and courteous in hearing out others, even if they disagreed. Indeed, it struck me that the audience was remarkably balanced. For each burst of applause for someone speaking out against eviction or looking to blame the riots on social or economic factors, there was applause for someone putting the contrary view that most people managed to resist the temptation of a new TV and trainers regardless of deprivation.

In fact, it was notable that the first round of applause wasn’t given to anyone making political points, but to someone speaking up for Battersea in the Battersea/Clapham debate!

A large part of the meeting focused on the police. A few people pondered whether the police themselves were part of the cause, through heavy-handed use of stop and search, but by far the biggest area of comment and questioning was the police response, with people asking about the availability of officers on the night (52 Wandsworth officers had been deployed elsewhere) and the likely subsequent actions that will be taken.

Reflecting on the meeting today it struck me that there were two schools of thought about the causes: pure criminality or social and economic. Obviously it’s overly-simplistic see it as totally black-and-white, but most people leant more towards one school than the other.

I moved towards the criminality theory during the course of the evening.

So while some blamed bankers, I just couldn’t reconcile that with people attacking local businesses and sports fashion retailers rather than the banks.

And while some asked exactly what youth facilities were open on 8 August, I couldn’t help wondering whether that means the council has to act in loco parentis 24/7 if it wants to avoid criminality (or what difference it would make when over half those arrested are adults).

And if others believe we’ve discovered the price we pay for heavy-handed policing, does protesting against that really need people to plan drop-off points and collection vans for their stolen goods?

Fundamentally I couldn’t help listening to the different viewpoints and realising that it is deeply offensive to the vast majority of people who, regardless of circumstance, manage to go through their lives as law-abiding members of their community.

Everyone involved in the riots knows the difference between right and wrong. The question is not what excuse they (or we) offer for making the wrong decision on that night, but rather how they got to a stage where their moral compass was so weak, they could over-ride it at the expense of their local community.

The council has started an independent review of last month’s disorder. Leaflets with details are going through doors as I write.

Neil Kinghan interviewed me yesterday; an interesting experience, not least because it forces you to think a little more objectively about something which has deeply affected the area. And I daresay it had something of a therapeutic affect, I think this is as much a healing as a learning process for many.

And even though we have moved quickly in setting up the review one of the things I have noticed, in myself and others, is a strange dilation of time. The riots seem a long time ago, a different age. I cannot say with certainty why that is. Possibly because they were so unusual, so markedly different from ‘ordinary’ events that they don’t really have a hook in the memory’s timeline. You remember Christmases for years, because they fit into a regular and familiar continuum – autumn, winter, panicked shopping, over-eating and over-drinking and then the cold reality of a new year. Not so a riot that came almost without warning, then just went, leaving surprisingly few lasting visible scars.

I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing. By the Tuesday I was already saying to people that we had to move on quickly; while we had to respond we also had to ensure we didn’t paint ourselves as poor victims, thereby further reducing confidence in the area and compounding the harm already done. But then, just moving on and returning to the pre-riot normal also implies losing that fantastic community spirit so apparent in the broom army and at Battersea Buzz. I’m very curious about what the turnout and mood of the public meetings will be…

If you want to take part in the review you can:

Attend a drop-in session where you can speak to Neil Kinghan on a one-to-one basis. These will be held on 12 and 13 September at Battersea Library at 3.30-5.30pm.

Attend one of the public meetings at Battersea Arts Centre (6.30-8.30pm 12 September), Samaj Hall, 26b Tooting High Street (6.30-8.30pm 13 September) or Wandsworth Civic Suite (7.00-9.00pm 19 September).

Online at

By email to

Via social media by marking your post ‘Commission’ at or using the hashtag #commission and tweeting @wandbc

Or by writing to Neil Kinghan, Room 148, Wandsworth Town Hall, London SW18 2PU.

Comments must be received by 19 September.

Battersea Buzz: Community and improvised flip-charts came together

The riots sometimes seem such a long time ago, and it’s almost tempting to say that things are largely back to normal. Yes, there are a few scars remaining – perhaps most notably the boarded up Party Superstore – but most shops are fully restored and back in business.

But some scars will remain for a while, we will have to wait and see if there’s a long-term effect on trade in the area. It looks like a few stores will not re-open as a result. And the arguments about how those involved are dealt with looks like it will rage for a while yet.

Battersea Buzz, however, looks like it was a success. I’ve said from the start that it really was a means to an end, something to help the community come together and share their ideas. It cannot, therefore, take any credit for anything that happens. But I hope it played a part in what comes next.

And what is coming next?

Well, the Clapham Grand will be hosting a benefit called ‘Up The Junction’ on 8 September, featuring Chris Difford. This will raise money for Victim Support and St Marks.

There is an (unrelated) ‘Up The Junction’ Facebook group discussing a range of ideas to raise money and build the community.

Meanwhile a lot of people are looking at how they can get involved in mentoring – and James Mummery from Future Foundations is helping co-ordinate this.

Some events have already taken place: last Tuesday over 200 runners raised cash with the Clapham Pioneers running club, for example.

I’m sure there’s plenty else going on that I don’t know about (as well as plenty of ideas in their formative stage where we’re continuing to try to put the right people in touch with each other).

Counter-intuitively it seems that the overall effect of the disorder will be to have created a stronger Clapham Junction. The tragedy is that the foundations include so many tales of irreparable loss.

I’ve just been into the council’s Community Safety division to thank some of the staff for their response to Monday’s disruption.

It’s all too easy to overlook those that often work unseen, or who you might just think it’s their job. However, I felt it worthwhile publicly noting their work over the past few days which have been anything but their normal job.

They have, for example, been volunteering to take shifts in our CCTV control room so it can work round the clock (it normally closes after peak hours).

They have become the council’s central point of contact for anyone who wants to volunteer (and if you want to add your name to the list you can email

They’ve been hard at work collating and distributing information from many sources to whoever needs it, the council’s civil disorder web pages and the Safer Wandsworth Twitter feed and Facebook page.

There’s even one person in there who has returned from holiday to help out!

I was responsible for Community Safety for five years, and was always proud of what the Wandsworth team did. The past week hasn’t surprised me, because I knew they would rise to the occasion. But hearing about how they all pulled together and went above and beyond their usual duties touched me. Wandsworth is incredibly lucky to have such dedicated staff, and I had to offer them a small bit of publicity they so richly deserve.

Persian cooking at Tarragon

Going through Clapham Junction is surreal experience. I went along it early on Tuesday morning and for a large part of it you would be hard pressed to know anything had happened. The council, businesses and some fleet-of-foot glaziers had tidied up so well it was business as normal for most. Even the cordoned off area didn’t seem that bad, largely because the cordon kept you so far from the worst of the damage.

Now you can get to the central Clapham Junction area you can see more of the destruction. This morning it was a mix of boarded up shops, semi-permanent broadcast locations and a bit of traffic congestion caused by ranks of tradesmen’s vans supporting the repairs being carried out.

But the key thing is that Clapham Junction is open for business. Even the boarded up shops are open, serving customers while they wait for new windows.

And this is a key message: Clapham Junction is open, and we should be shopping there.

The response on Tuesday was fabulous and inspiring. But the damage is not just cosmetic; many businesses – especially the independent businesses – will be hurt by Monday’s vandalism and looting.

Many will be having long and difficult discussions with insurers, and many will find that they aren’t covered for riot.

Even those that escaped unscathed will have concerns that cash-flow, still recovering from the recession, will suffer if Clapham Junction’s reputation has suffered.

And, could anyone be blamed for wondering if it’s worth going on when some of the people you serve can suddenly decide they are entitled to come and help themselves to your stock, trashing the place while they are at it?

After the clean-up, the one thing that will really help, is that we all shop local.

That doesn’t mean we all have to spend every penny locally or close our Amazon accounts. But if we all decided to choose a local restaurant instead of heading into town or did our convenience shopping near home in SW11 and not near work in the West End or City. The cumulative difference would be enormous.

I’ve been trying to make my difference over the past few nights. On Tuesday I had a fantastic meal at the relatively new Tarragon. Last night I went along, with some visiting American friends, to the excellent Donna Margherita – one of London’s best pizzas. I’m not sure where tonight’s meal will be, but it’s not like Lavender Hill doesn’t offer plenty of choice.

Of course, that isn’t sustainable. I’m just too old for so many nights out and am already feeling the pace. But from now on whenever I reach for my wallet outside of Battersea I’m going to ask myself a simple question: “Could I buy this in SW11?”

I’d like to challenge everyone to do that too.