I recognise that reports of meetings I attended are dull. Frankly, they are dull for me. Last night’s full council was a classic example of why.

I have a lot of time for the Labour Party in Wandsworth, I think they have provided some good opposition to the council, but actually, that’s mainly come from their leader, Tony Belton. Without him, I don’t think there’s any doubt they would not be much of a force. Last night’s debates largely proved this.

At the previous council meeting (which was only to set the council tax) their arguments were “Yeah, Lord Ashcroft”. Nothing to do with the council, and nothing to do with council tax setting. Last night, they developed a new line of attack: “Yeah, Mark Clarke.”

Rather than debating council policy they spent more time trying to attack a Conservative Parliamentary candidate than anything else. A sign, perhaps, that they are worried about the Tooting seat?

We did try and debate Tooting. Sadly Rex Osborn, a Tooting councillor, could offer nothing better than saying everything good in Tooting was because of the residents and businesses, and everything bad because of the council. Our problem, it seems, was that we are too heavy handed with enforcement, except when we aren’t because then we should be heavier. And we don’t have any vision, because if we did, we’d be encouraging more people to go to the bingo hall. And we’re not clairvoyant, because he had photos of problems which we subsequently had to clear up.

And that was the corker. Like a Liberal Democrat on Glum Councillors he had a series of photos where rubbish had been dumped or the pavement blocked, which the council had to clear up. The complaint was not that the council didn’t clear the problems, but that the problems existed in the first place – and here he conveniently forgot the residents and businesses good, council bad line. Perhaps hoping we’d all think the council has been dumping mattresses or re-arranging shop displays.

I’ve repeatedly said that the real strength of Tooting Together is the together element. We clearly rely on residents and businesses to keep pavements clear and not to litter or flytip – but when the minority (and it is a small minority) step out of line we will act quickly to rectify the situation. To try and spin the whole thing in the way Labour did shows they are out of ideas at exactly the time they need them.

If that is the best Labour have to offer, it can hardly be a surprise that they are worried about losing to the Conservatives, and maybe even to the pothole pointers of the Liberal Democrats.

The Balham and Tooting Community Association (BATCA) held another open forum last night and invited the council along to talk about Tooting Together. This had been something of an on and off affair, since it was running a little close to the council’s formal election embargo (when it stops pretty much all publicity and events in case they are seen as political) and our attendance nearly cancelled when Sadiq Khan wanted to attend and address the meeting. To Sadiq’s credit, he immediately agreed to stay away when it was explained that would put the council in a tricky position so close to an election.

And, as ever for BATCA, it was an overwhelmingly positive affair, focused on the good of Tooting rather than politics.

I’ve embedded a slideshare of my presentation above, which is largely images. But it concentrated on a few key themes.

First was litter; where there was a perception that Tooting was dirty, despite being (along with Clapham Junction) the most cleaned area of Wandsworth, getting 12 cleans a day. A number of measures have improved this. We’ve put more bins in, and adapted other bins with receptacles for cigarette butts. Along with the police we’ve introduced stricter enforcement, issuing fixed penalty notices to offenders. We’ve cleaned out a lot of the private alleyways (even though they are private land). But I think the biggest difference has come from time-banded waste collection, which has meant that rubbish from retailers and businesses clutters the streets for as short a time as possible. It has been so successful it is being rolled out across the borough.

Second was clutter; on the narrow and busy pavements there’s a real problem with shops spilling out of their premises, especially when there’s extra obstructions from sign-posts and bus-stops. We’ve worked, where possible, to minimise the obstructions from street furniture (as the signs and fixtures are called), but the biggest success has come from the trial organised with TfL that allowed the council to enforce restrictions. This meant for the first time the council could stop traders spreading over the pavement where they didn’t have the right.

Next was police; thanks and congratulations here are due to Wandsworth Police, and particularly the borough Commander Stewart Low, who have created a dedicated town centre team. The council have been asking for something similar for a number of years – so it was great when Stewart made it happen. The team have had a number of successes in their short time there.

Finally are better shops; this is something the council, and most others have little control over. We have long been trying to encourage retailers to Tooting, but with little success. In part this is down to the nature of town centre, the retail units are generally small, and not attractive to many large retail chains. It’s also down to the success of the town centre, even during the recession there were relatively few vacancies, and those there were ended up being filled quickly. My worst fears of a high street of empty shops didn’t come close to fruition. But one thing we can do is encourage improvement among existing retailers – the Good Neighbour Scheme is one way we are doing it, accrediting shops that meet minimum standards and encouraging them to share tips with their neighbours.

To me though, the most important point of the whole exercise is the ‘Together’ element of it, simply because it is together that the problems are solved. At it’s most basic, it’s a shared responsibility to keep basic standards in our town centres (the council were not littering the streets, for example), but it’s also a shared opportunity for everyone to play a part in the improvement. Whether it’s TfL delegating their enforcement powers, the police actively patrolling the town centre, retailers striving to make their shops as good as possible or shoppers boosting the local economy we all can play a small part that makes a big difference.

Following on from The Guardian‘s filming in Tooting here’s another Tooting based film. This time made by students from South Thames College about Tooting Together. And egotistically I include it because I’m on it. But before that, there’s lots from local residents, visitors and businesses saying what they like about Tooting and what they think could be better.

(And yes, I know this is shot just outside of Wandsworth: proof that life is better in Wandsworth came when someone tried to egg us during filming.)

As I said last week I was stopping doing my weekly report because it didn’t quite work, and, instead, replacing it with a weekly round-up.  Already, I’ve broken the promise (a politician, a broken promise, never!) by changing the name.  I obviously don’t know if this will work any better – only time will tell.

Dealing with a backlog
For anyone going on holiday having work build up while you are away is just one of those things you have to live with.  For most people you can delegate or ask someone to cover for you while you are away.  For a councillor, that just isn’t possible.  We don’t have admin support and don’t work in an office where people can keep an eye on your desk.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to chip away at the back-log of emails and mail that built up – while all the time new stuff is arriving.  Of course, much of this falls into the spam category (for example, as a councillor there are an amazing number of companies who think the council would like to pay several hundred pounds for me to attend their latest conference) but I don’t know that until I’ve opened the envelope or double clicked the email and read it.

As someone who likes to keep his inbox empty it is frustrating.  And if you are waiting for a reply from me and haven’t had one yet.  I apologise, I promise it will be coming as soon as possible.

One of the real highlights of the week has been Tooting.  We had a bit of a review of how the work under the Tooting Together programme has been going – and I hope most will agree that it’s made a real difference and has been a great example of how all the council’s departments can work together to astonishing results.

One of the real successes has been the time-banded waste collection, which has meant Tooting’s streets are much much cleaner.  It has also meant that we have identified a lot of businesses that were illegally dumping their waste.  It was a common cry from Labour that Wandsworth wasn’t cleaning the streets enough.  In fact Tooting was (jointly with Clapham Junction) the most cleaned area in Wandsworth, some parts were cleaned every couple of hours.  But Labour’s political convenience ignored the fact that it wasn’t the council littering the streets in the first place.

The subsequent crack-down has made a huge difference – even though there are still a few businesses resisting, feeling they have the right to dump their rubbish on our streets.

Hopefully the successes from Tooting can be copied in our other Town Centres in coming months.

Shaftesbury Ward News
We’ve also started putting together the July/August edition of the new ward newsletter.  Summer is always a quiet time, with people going on holiday and the formal business of the council taking a mini-recess (though that doesn’t seem to make any difference to how often I am there).  The newsletter should be out in a week or two, but if there’s anything you’d like to see in there, or even any local events you’d like to advertise, let me know.

Wandsworth council chamber, Mayor's chair and crestLabour did not cover themselves in glory at last night’s meeting.

You would expect me to say that, wouldn’t you?  But actually I’m rather disappointed in them.  I expected a coherent set of arguments and reasoned alternative budget from them.  Instead, it seemed every time one of them stood up to speak we got a slightly different line, and that is slightly worrying – for one because it’s always good to have a strong opposition.

“Raise tax, no, lower it, no, raise it.”
The council presented a strong budget.  We are keeping the council tax at the same level as last year, because of savings we have made we are still able to increase spending and put some money into contingency.  Perfectly sensible given that a lot of people are expecting a prolonged recession and worse times to come.  But, of course, you can argue if that’s the right thing.  If you think the recession is going to be short and shallow you might think extra spending or a cut in tax preferable.

It was clear the Labour party hadn’t decided what they thought was best.  Their formal amendment suggested putting nothing into contingency, creating about 50 jobs for a year (by my count, Tony Belton, their leader, put it at 30) and reviewing charging levels for various services.  But during the course of the evening some of the members suggested the contingency could be used to cut council tax, some suggested that taxes should be higher so spending could increase, one – during the course of his contribution – suggested we should both lower and raise council tax.  They may have put a formal amendment to council, but it seemed they’d not agreed it amongst themselves.

Big state to the rescue?
But it was also clear they were convinced that a big state could solve all problems.  One of their Tooting councillors complained bitterly that the council were, only now, cleaning up Tooting’s alleyways and attempted to give credit for this to Sadiq Khan.  Yes, we are cleaning up the alleyways as part of Tooting Together, but these are private alleyways, owned by the businesses that are frequently dumping the rubbish on them.  We are stepping in and cleaning up because the owners have not taken responsibility – but somehow the council is the bad guy on this one.

And dog fouling raised its ugly head.  It seems Labour believe the council doesn’t have the country’s largest dog control unit in the country, but actually have the country’s biggest state-owned pack of hounds, specially trained to go and foul our pavements.  Again, a fundamental belief that problems are not shared by the community but there to be solved by the state.  The idea that somehow a dog fouling the pavement is the council’s fault rather than the owner’s or even the dog’s is risible, but somehow this was trotted out as an argument against the council’s budget.

To be honest, the most coherent solution put forward was by Tony Belton: it’s like the 1930s, he reasoned, and that wasn’t solved by Keynes, but by 10 years of depression and a world war. So this is Brown’s plan B! I haven’t been able to divine any other plan from Labour either locally or nationally, and I might rest easier if I knew they had some ideas rather than the current floundering.

It’s up to all of us
Implicit in the council’s budget, and in the council’s recession response, is that we help people to help themselves.  Perhaps we do not push that enough, and Malcolm Grimston made a thoughtful contribution to evening (probably the most thoughtful speech of the night) highlighting that, actually, many the solution to many problems lies not with the council or government, but very simple actions by ordinary people.  Of course it’s right for the council to help, and it was shameful for the Labour party to vote against our recession support, but we need to be aware that we all can play a part.

It might yet prove that one of the benefits of recession and environmental crisis is that we all come out of it a bit more thoughtful of our impact on our communities.

I had the privilege of presenting the first six ‘Good Neighbour’ awards at a short breakfast ceremony this morning.
The scheme is part of the council’s ‘Tooting Together’ programme of work to improve Tooting Town Centre. Businesses are independently judged not only on meeting their statutory requirements (like safety and cleanliness) but also, and importantly, in their customer service and their understanding of the role they can play in improving their local community.
It was great to see a fantastic turnout this morning and give the first winners their certificates. One of the reasons I’m particularly pleased is because it is a recognition that we all have a role to play in improving our neighbourhoods and promoting that sense of community. To my mind, promoting those communities is one of the most important things a council can do.
The first six good neighbour businesses are (in no particular order): Aradhana, Sajna Hair and Beauty, Minar Jewellers, Pooja Sweets and Savouries, Russell’s DIY and Spice Village.

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