Battersea Arts CentreI accidentally found myself at the opening night of Battersea Art Centre’s One-on-One Festival.

The festival is clearly going to be a success, BAC was full to the extent that the staff and volunteers there were stretched and the festival programme looks fascinating, a series of performances for an audience of one, and while I don’t know the exact maths of the timings I suspect there is enough variety there that many people will have unique combinations.

Of course, it doesn’t appeal to me. I’m probably a Philistine, I suspect because – despite leading a middle class life now – my working class background does not leave me equipped for things artistic. I fear that as an audience of one there would be too much pressure on me to appreciate something that I just might not appreciate.

But that is part of the point of BAC. And will, eventually, bring me to a theme I regularly repeat here.

Looking through the programme there are several in there that I immediately find interesting; but there are several that I immediately question. For example, the second feature on the programme is ‘The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding’. Is that art, or is it just some guy giving you a bath and a bit of a cuddle afterwards? Is it art because it challenges us to think about how we interact with strangers? Or is it art only because it’s forced me to try and come up with an explanation for it?

BAC has a national reputation for its work, which is well deserved and rooted in it’s ability and willingness to innovate and challenge. It might not be for everybody, but it’s not meant to be, it is there to drive forward the arts and to do that it needs to be able to experiment.

In 1998, shortly after I became a councillor, I got a phone call from the then director of BAC explaining why the money Wandsworth Council gave BAC was vital to keep a regional resource running providing cutting edge theatre. And that, essentially, became an argument that ran for years. Why should a local council fund a regional resource that provides a niche product?

The most obvious answer was that if we didn’t no-one else would. So whenever we looked at what we were spending on BAC it would prompt a torrent of letters, emails and phone calls. I think I probably got the one from furthest away last time, from somewhere in New South Wales which was about the closest you can get to the exact antipode of BAC. But in a way this just reinforced one of those arguments, why was the local taxpayer funding something that was clearly serving not just Wandsworth, not even the immediate boroughs, but a huge area, covering not just south-west London, but arguably the whole south-east and beyond.

Any one of the consequences has been that BAC and the council agreed it shouldn’t. The new arrangement is that BAC has a long lease for its building from the council, while the council only directly funds activities that meet its needs, for example with old or young people. A consequence of this independence has opened up extra funding opportunities for the centre. Based on last night BAC is continuing to thrive and provide cutting edge theatre – if anything the council’s funding was a crutch, not a solid foundation, for BAC.

And that theme I said I’d eventually get to… Well, it’s my Wandsworth sausage again. It’s about how the council can shape an area without, necessarily, being responsible for everything in that area. BAC is a clear example of how this can work. By coming to what is effectively a commercial agreement with BAC we have created an environment in which theatre and the arts can thrive in Battersea, this in turn affects the local culture and economy.

I was in a meeting the other night where someone referred to a phrase that the council, apparently, used to use to describe itself and its ambition: “An Enabling Council”. It has echoes of Big Society and, perhaps, it’s something we should be using more consciously again. Instead of bluntly funding directly, or doing things ourselves, BAC is a prime example of the success that can be created when the right environment is nurtured.

It has always puzzled me how local democracy, while incredibly important to everyone’s day-to-day lives barely impinges on people’s consciousness.

I’ve never quite been sure whether that’s because we don’t do enough to publicise it (although politically and administratively I think we’re good at communications) or because people just don’t care. And I’m not sure which of those I would rather it be. While it’s not great to think we’re not doing something well, would that be preferable to people just not caring?

Of course, there is the argument that when things are going well, people just aren’t going to complain. There is some truth in that, and experience shows that people are quick to raise issues, complain and campaign if the council is doing something wrong or they don’t like.

The problem with this approach is that it just supposes that councils are there to provide services, that it exists with a set of fairly binary functions rather than to create the sort of areas we live in. Actually, when you look at the decisions made in Wandsworth ten, twenty or thirty years ago you can start to see that they helped shape the Wandsworth we live in today.

I was blundering around that subject with a post about the Wandsworth sausage the other week: while we do provide those sorts of services, cumulatively they create something that’s not quite as easy to measure or assess. Subtle variations in the services we do (or don’t) provide add up to make the borough we live in. And obviously something is guiding those choices towards, hopefully, that bigger picture.

Last night was a meeting of the Local Strategic Partnership. This is one of those bodies that few outside the public sector know about, but which theoretically wields a huge amount of power over a local area. Everyone there is signed up to ‘Our Wandsworth’, our sustainable community strategy and, therefore, it guides the council, police, NHS, Jobcentre Plus and many others in their binary choices today that collectively building the Wandsworth we want to see in 2018.

The report was just a progress update on how well the medium term targets were progressing. A refresh of the strategy takes place next year, but given my pessimism will anyone outside the public sector contribute their view on the Wandsworth they want to see? Or are we doomed to live in a set of neighbourhoods that are formed as a reflection of the major public sector organisations that serve them? I hope to God not.

I was disappointed at the lack of response to my sausage post. Perhaps it was because of the Carry On innuendo. Or maybe people were disappointed it wasn’t about actual sausages. I’m hopeful it isn’t because people don’t actually care. When I’ve posed similar questions in the past I’ve had plenty of responses, so it was perhaps a poor attempt at engagement by me…

But if I can’t engage people with sausages, what can I engage people with?

Government at every level tends to be set up like a machine. You put something in one end, and a set process is followed until something else comes out of the other. To misquote Bismarck it is a sausage machine.

Quite how efficient this machine is varies enormously. I’m tempted to suggest it’s correlated to the engineering and manufacturing capability of the place in question. But while that holds true for Germany or 70s Britain, it rather falls down when you consider the government of Italy, and, say, Ferrari.

Of course, this has many benefits. Not least that it allows an easy check on how public money is being spent, you know the inputs (money going in) and can count the output (bins emptied, children educated, library books issued). It allows for easy measurement and management, and it allows for easy comparison since -theoretically – the costs should be roughly the same in each borough.

But what’s missing is the humanity. People make judgements on fuzzy feelings not on the percentage of missed bin collections (hopefully low), children educated (hopefully high) or books issued (hopefully high). Yes, these play a part, if your bin was never collected then you would probably not be pleased with the council. But generally, I think, people are willing to accept the occasional mistake, as long as it is rectified and not repeated.

So they know their bin will get emptied and they judge their satisfaction on things like their local shops, the transport, the nightlife (which they may, or may not, want) near them. It is not about numbers but a whole collection of individual factors that contribute to how they feel.

To give an example, when I first moved to London I lived in Brent for a very short while. I lived there for a short while because I didn’t like it. To be fair the services that I used were good, transport excellent, I felt safe on the street and there was a strong sense of community. If you looked at all the measures that government traditionally use there is no reason at all I shouldn’t like it. But I didn’t.

Conversely, it’s very difficult for me to say exactly why I liked Wandsworth immediately and have lived here ever since. Bins are emptied and public transport is good (well, acceptable if you can bear the crush) but there’s more to it than these fairly binary measures. And while I know the council has played its part, even been a key driver, in getting all these sums to add up to a great borough I’m not sure I fully understand the maths. 

The new government and my new job on the council has started me thinking about the maths quite a lot, and its amazing how much a new hat changes your way of thinking, even if you are dealing with the same issues. We do, of course, need these binary measures, we need to check that what we are doing is effective and making a difference. But there is also the question of how these fit into the bigger pictures, because somehow all these individual factors, added to those of local business, the police, health service and so many others are added together to make the Wandsworth we all live in. 

So, what is it about Wandsworth that you like… or love… or hate? And what do you think are the ingredients of that particular sausage?