Runners take the final bend of the three-lap Tooting parkrun route

I found myself spending the early part of both Saturday and Sunday appreciating the effect running can have on a community. On Saturday I did my first volunteering stint at the Tooting parkrun. It was not an onerous task, acting as one of the marshals for the run. I took my son and we had a great time encouraging and congratulating runners and offering high fives to all those that needed them.

A few weeks into Wandsworth’s first parkrun it’s clear it’s generating a sense of community around the event and, to a degree, helping strengthen the community attached to the Common. Part of the marshalling job involved warning regular users of the Common about the runners (not that you can miss them) and not too inconvenienced.

I’d expected some annoyance or irritation, but all the non-parkrun users I spoke to were positive. Even those with no interest in taking part themselves seemed to appreciate the positive atmosphere. I can’t see how I’ll ever tire of seeing the magic that comes from the main pack of runners. There are, to be sure, some fast times recorded and I envy the speed and grace of those faster runners. But seeing those who come later, for whom parkrun provides that crucial opportunity for social exercise really highlights what a positive initiative it is.

My Sunday running, taking part in the North London Half Marathon, provided a slightly different perspective. The run, from Wembley Stadium to Allianz Park and back, goes through a lot of residential streets in Brent and Barnet. It must cause some inconvenience for residents, and I’m sure there are those that feel put out. But despite that it seems every road had groups of residents on the pavements, cheering runners on, offering jelly babies to give a bit of energy and, yes, giving plenty of high fives to the runners.

It’s too early to suggest a Wandsworth 10k or half-marathon—though the borough’s landmarks, parks and riverside would create an incredible route. I have broached similar events before, but the council is very resistant to close roads and levies big charges for doing so (the only time I’ve ever known the council willingly close roads was when the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment planned to parade in Battersea, presumably because they had tanks).

But while the Wandsworth half-marathon may be a pipe-dream, I can’t help thinking that even only a few months into the Tooting Common parkrun trial that it should only be the start, and not the extent, of such open sporting events in the borough.

Parkrun finally came to Tooting this morning with a few hundred runners gathering for a collective trot around a bit of Tooting Common.

I can’t remember how long ago it was that I first spoke to Andy Bullock, the man behind today’s event, nor how many obstacles he has had to overcome in getting to today. In some ways though, it doesn’t matter. There is finally a parkrun in Wandsworth.

In 2014 I wrote why I felt Wandsworth would benefit from a parkrun:

parkrun is attractive to non-runners and helps increase overall levels of activity, a study in the Journal of Public Health found the majority of registrants were not regular runners, a third were overweight or obese and that it attracts more people from older age groups who, generally, are less active. The study also found participants reported positive outcomes to their physical and mental health, weight loss and sense of community.

And anyone there today would have seen that.

I tucked myself in at the back of the crowd—a habit I’ve adopted to stop me starting off too quickly—and overheard an older woman approach one of the parkrun volunteers. “Are you the tail-runner?” she asked before explaining, almost apologetically, “you’ll be seeing a lot of me, I’ve just started running and I’m not very fit.”

But she was welcomed. When she passed the stewarding points the applause and encouragement that greeted her were every bit as enthusiastic as they were for every runner that passed before. What was important was not her speed or her stamina, but that she was there, that she was part of Tooting parkrun.

One of the objections the council made to me when I was lobbying for a parkrun was that, because it made money from sponsorship to cover the central administration, it was a business and should have to pay (ironically the council has now created a business, Enable LC, to run its parks). Anyone there today would see that it isn’t a business, it’s a community. And a community that will only benefit the borough.

Featured image from @wandsworthbecca’s coverage of the event.

Wandsworth's town centres
Wandsworth’s town centres (taken from town centres website)

I remain a fan of the Portas Report (PDF). An unfashionable position in a time when it is often belittled and the process appears to have descended into an argument between Mary Portas and the government that commissioned the report.

But questions about the selection of pilots or Portas’ (or her television production company’s) motivation aside the report contains a lot that is good—even though not much is new—and part of the process, much to our surprise, involved giving Wandsworth £100,000.

But the windfall immediately raised the question of what we do with it. Dividing it between our town centres would only give each £20,000, which would not go far, thus was born the idea of a visioning and positioning exercise. While not tangible, it potentially has benefits far beyond £20,000 per town centre.

We are in the middle of the visioning exercise now, with consultations and focus groups already undertaken in each town centre, helping them create their vision and set out their stall in an increasingly competitive age.

The current stage involves as public consultation, via the Wandsworth Town Centres website to establish what local residents think of their town centres and what they want to see it offer.

It has certainly been an interesting exercise. I took part as a local councillor in one of the Clapham Junction focus groups and was surprised at how much people had in common. The focus group I attended, for example, was very much (just one exception) hostile to the use of Clapham to define the area. However, and what surprised me most, was a shared sense—even by those ‘representing’ the road—that the town centre can seem Northcote Road centric and more needs to be done to develop, promote and support other key roads in the centre like Battersea Rise, Lavender Hill and St John’s Road to create a broader and more balanced offer.

Wandsworth rightly has pride in its diverse, and generally strong, town centres, but in a competitive environment we need to make sure they are playing to their strengths and serving their local area not only as retail centres, but also as centres that reflect their communities. Taking five minutes to complete the online survey helps us do that.

For a long time it felt like my job on the council was explaining the council’s parking policy to business. I should add that my job on the council has never involved any responsibility for parking whatsoever (long may that continue) but it is inevitable when talking to businesses that they will raise the impact of parking on their business: it’s impossible to have the council’s economic development role without a good understanding of the dynamics of the council’s parking.

So it is a refreshing change, if not outright relief, to be able to talk about the council’s six-month pilot of reduced parking fees in Tooting. The scheme will see half price (well, £1.10 and not £2.30 per hour) parking in seven roads near Tooting Broadway. The roads currently have spare capacity and the town centre is one that we know does have shoppers travelling significant distances to visit.

I’ve always been fairly agnostic about the impact of parking on business. If you look at places like Westfield, or even Southside, it’s clear that people will pay to park in the right destination and in some cases pay a lot. The centres seem to use parking charges as a way of managing demand (encouraging shopping on quieter days, for example) than increasing demand.

There is always a steady flow of research on the impact of parking policy (the most recent I’ve seen was the British Parking Association’s Re-think! Parking on the High Street (PDF). Generally they have tended to conclude parking does not make that much difference in most cases (although it’s probably the edge cases in which we are interested). Sadly, however, the value of their insight to Wandsworth is limited by the comparative rarity of town centres reliant on on-street parking in residential roads rather than large off-street private or public car-parks.

It’s these residential parking areas in Tooting that are the focus of the council’s latest trial of reduced parking fees. What remains to be seen is what effect this will have on shoppers’ habits. Will more people come overall, or will it merely cause a change in their choice of transport or parking spot?

Today I (technically) start my fourth term as a Wandsworth Councillor after a long and hard election.

It’s been an interesting campaign. There’s no shortage of commentary about the national campaign, so I will add little to it, suffice to say I’m pleased to see Justine re-elected in Putney and Jane elected in Battersea. Obviously it’s disappointing that we didn’t get the clean sweep and Sadiq Khan held on in Tooting. I only wish he and his supporters could have exhibited the grace in victory shown in the Putney and Battersea results declared before his, but I think I always knew that would be too much to ask.

But moving onto the local results, I can’t help but think how good they were for the Conservatives and wonder how disappointed the Labour Party must be think weekend. The combined general and local election poll was a great opportunity for them to increase their representation on the council but now they must bitterly reflect that it was an opportunity missed.

Most of their gains came in Tooting, getting one seat that had been held by the Conservatives in Furzedown and two in Tooting ward. Fuzedown has always been an ‘odd’ ward, regularly returning a split and this is the first time in my memory that all three councillors have been from the same party. Tooting was always seen as a Labour safe seat and it was an upset when we took two seats there, defeating the then Labour leader Stuart King (who must also be disappointed with the night’s results for other reasons). This time our candidates in both wards put up a hard fight, but it wasn’t enough.

However, Labour failed to make any in-roads into any of the other wards, most notably Bedford, where they must have been hopeful of a Labour gain, but found themselves 350 votes short of taking a seat and over 1,300 short of all three.

Labour’s only other gain of the evening was in Roehampton. This was a ward we won in 1998 (totally against the odds, the Conservative candidates were so sure of defeat they’d gone for a curry instead of to the count) and have managed to hold ever since. But despite another fierce Labour campaign they only managed to gain one seat, instead of all three. And they totally failed to make an impression in West Hill, the other Putney ward they had been targeting.

In Battersea no seats changed hands, Labour held onto Latchmere, but failed to take their target seat of Queenstown. I think this must be one of the few constituencies in London were all council seats were successfully defended, no mean feat and a credit to all the candidates and activists involved.

The net result is a gain of four seats for Labour, giving them 13 councillors to our 47. But given that they must have been expecting at least 15-21 seats doing worse can’t be a good feeling for them.

The challenge for them now is making sure they use what they have effectively. I do not think they were a strong team over the past four years, and were heavily reliant on their leader, Tony Belton (for whom I have a great deal of respect). Time will tell if this will change.

As I mentioned at the end of last week the nominations for the council elections closed last week and the statement of people nominated was published today. The full list can be downloaded from the council.

This is the sort of thing that only really interests anoraks like me, but to give you the highlights.

Every ward has a full slate of Conservative, Labour and (surprisingly) Liberal Democrat candidates. I don’t think the Lib Dems have managed that in my memory. Having said that, I’m not sure how committed they are, I know at least one has publicly stated being a paper candidate, and Layla Moran, their parliamentary candidate is also standing for council in Latchmere.

The Greens have fielded a number of candidates, with at least one per ward. Four years ago they managed to beat Labour in a number of places, so might be interesting to watch.

Then there are a few ‘others’:

  • A Christian Peoples Alliance candidate in Latchmere
  • An independent candidate in Southfields
  • A Communist in Tooting
  • And most disappointing of all, a BNP candidate in West Hill

I believe Wandsworth is a remarkably cohesive borough, so it’s a real pity that they feel there’s enough division here to field a candidate (even worse, they are supposedly fielding a candidate in the Putney parliamentary election). What’s particularly interesting, however, is the ward and constituency they have chosen: the BNP takes votes from Labour – so choosing a Conservative-held ward and a Conservative-held constituency does not seem terribly logical. Given that they won’t win and their aim is, one assumes, a good showing, they’d have been better somewhere with a stronger Labour vote.

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.

I suppose I should be honoured to be deemed noteworthy enough to appear in an April’s Fool ‘joke’, even if it is only Third Sector.

In an article bylined by ‘May Dupp’ they reveal that a street fundraising ban unites main parties and I’m quoted as saying what good news a ban would be. Not the best April Fools joke ever – but good to see they are thinking of me!

Meanwhile, the temporary ban on chugging in Tooting Broadway remains while we try and talk with the Professional Fundraising Regulatory Association (PFRA). Theoretically there shouldn’t be any chugging there at all, although we know the agencies ignore this from time to time. The main sticking point in the discussions is a fairly fundamental difference of opinion over what licensing means – the PFRA believe it means the council rubber stamps their applications to chug, the council believes that it means assessing applications on their own merits and against council policy.

When I did my presentation for BATCA (which I’ve embedded again below) last week I commented that I felt one of the best things to come out of it was the the time-banded waste collection – a remarkably simple idea that has had a huge impact on the cleanliness of the streets.

The idea is mind-numbingly simple – it’s effectively waste collection by appointment. Businesses can only leave waste out during specific time bands during the day, one during the day and one during the night. While this might seem a small thing, it means waste isn’t littering the streets waiting to be collected. Aside from the detriment to the look of an area, having waste out, however tidily bagged, tends to attract other waste – you’ll often find small piles of litter placed their by pedestrians who assume that it will be collected along with the rest (sadly, it usually isn’t, because the waste is collected by a business contractor, not the council).

I’m not the only one who admires the idea for its simplicity, it was highly commended for innovation by Keep Britain Tidy last week. The idea has already been replicated in Balham, and is being rolled out in Clapham Junction this summer. Congratulations to everyone in the council’s waste department who worked on making it a success, it may be a simple thing, but it will make a huge difference in the town centres as it is spread across the borough.

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.