If you had the choice of hiding in a number of UK cities, where would you go?

Google’s Street View launched in the UK yesterday with a Wally character hidden somewhere.  And it seems that given the choice of a number of major UK cities (and Scunthorpe) Wally decided that hiding out in London was the best bet… And if you are in London where would you want to go but Wandsworth?

Wally decided to do a bit of shopping on Putney High Street, and was spotted outside the O2 store:

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While I’d say our other town centres, Balham, Clapham Junction, Tooting and Wandsworth provide competition, I’m not that surprised he chose Putney over Scunthorpe.

I’ve written several times about Balham on this blog, largely the negative news surrounding the closures of Woolworths and Marks and Spencers. This time I get to be a little more positive and flag up the council’s ‘Beat the Credit Crunch’ seminar taking place tomorrow (Wednesday 18th March).

The seminar is one in a series of events the council is hosting to help businesses cope in the recession.  The session is led by BIG, a business development company and will run from 12 noon for an hour at the Balham Bowls Club in Ramsden Road.  The event will cover topics like driving sales, forming strategic partnerships and networking.

The council is doing all it can to help small businesses through difficult times, for example by encouraging claims small business rate relief nearly 2,000 business in the area have benefited by over £1,100,000.  You can find out more on the council’s business support webpage and find out more about what the council is doing generally on the fighting the recession webpage.

Unfortunately I cannot make the Balham event as I have a prior engagement (which will almost definitely feature on the blog) but if you want to attend then get in touch with the Balham Town Centre Manager, Kim Bellringer, on 020 8767 4082 or email kbellringer@wandsworth.gov.uk.

Please RSVP to Kim Bellringer, Balham Town Centre Manager: 020 8767 4082 or kbellringer@wandsworth.gov.uk

There is a bit of a fashion for things like Recovery.gov and realhelpnow.gov.uk (although the latter apparently only includes Labour Party ‘help’) and I wonder whether I should offer recovery.jamescousins.com.

While the council hasn’t developed a nifty front-end it has put together a substantial package of help and assistance for the borough’s residents and businesses that will be considered at next weeks Corporate Resources OSC and at next month’s full council meeting (when we will hopefully be approving the 0% increase in council tax).

The report is being submitted under the Leader’s name, as it is the result of co-ordination of every council department to deliver real assistance at a time when it matters.  But as this is my blog I’m going to boast about the work that, at least in part, falls into my council remit:

  1. A review of enforcement to ensure it’s carried out in a business friendly way
  2. Spreading business rate payments over 12, rather than 10, months
  3. Promoting small business rate relief (in 2008/09 nearly 2,000 businesses benefited by over £1,100,000)
  4. Organising ‘Beat the Credit Crunch’ seminars for businesses
  5. Helping small retailers by letting them take payments on behalf of the council
  6. Making it easier for small businesses to bid for work from the council
  7. Providing grants and interest free loans for businesses to improve their premises
  8. Looking at ways to reduce the impact of vacant properties on their town centres
  9. Launching Tooting Together to improve the environment in Tooting town centre
  10. Working with businesses who want to establish Business Improvement Districts
  11. Launching the ‘Go Green’ project to help businesses make more efficient use of energy and resources
  12. Investing £170,000 in the Northcote Road action plan
  13. Holding Inward Investment events around the borough to promote job-creating investment across the borough
  14. Participation in the Employment and Skills Partnership to fight the effects of the recession and help the long-term unemployed into work
  15. Programmes specifically targeted at getting  young black men and those with disabilities into work
  16. Increasing the availability of apprenticeships
  17. Launch the Personal Best project, which will help over 200 people into work by improving their skills through volunteering
  18. Working with Job Centre Plus to deliver the Job Shop next to the Power Station, which has helped over 2,000 people into work since 2005
  19. Spending nearly £2,000,000 to deliver Adult and Community Learning to support over 10,000 adults to provide more skills and job-readiness courses
  20. Keeping the country’s lowest council tax, keeping more money in people’s pockets and in the local economy.

Of course, this doesn’t include the excellent work the council does on a daily basis providing top quality services for businesses, especially through initiatives like our Town Centre Managers.

I will not deny that I have tended towards pessimism on the economic situation – but it has always been tinged with an optimism that Wandsworth is well placed, and while it won’t totally avoid the ravages of recession it will hopefully avoid the worst.

You can read the Leader’s full report on the council’s website.

marks-and-spencer-logoMarks and Spencer have confirmed their decision to close their Balham Simply Food store.

The store, which has been open for nearly six years, will close on 19 March.  I know this is going to be a big disappointment to many Balham residents.  And is a big disappointment to me, Balham is a Town Centre on the up and leaving it seems an odd step.

Unfortunately, the council’s arguments did not persuade M&S who will now be talking with their 25 employees about their options.

The council and Town Centre Partnership will continue to promote Balham as a destination for retailers, but unfortunately we have little control over who moves into the vacant unit.

Clapham Junction  Clapham Junction

One Clapham Junction development I am allowed to talk about are the council’s plans to improve the area around the road junction.

Anyone who knows the area will know the junction of Lavender Hill, St John’s Hill, St John’s Road and Falcon Road is something of a mess. Visually, it’s full of clutter, and it just doesn’t work that well as a junction for traffic or pedestrians.

Tonight’s Planning and Transportation Overview and Scrutiny Committee will, hopefully, be passing a report to make a start on improvements.

A decluttered Clapham Junction?
A decluttered Clapham Junction?

The overall scheme, which has been in development since 2007, it too expensive for the council to undertake alone, but elements of it can be done. The suggestion is to look at the ‘traffic management’ since, by improving the way vehicles move through the junction it will improve the quality for all users, including pedestrians – and most importantly improve safety.

Drivers will get a better junction to traverse, and some may be able to avoid it altogether, with a right turn now being allowed onto Falcon Lane (past Asda). Pedestrians will benefit from wider pavements and better crossings. And everyone will benefit from a visual improvement, with a much cleaner and more attractive gateway to one of our busiest town centres.

I wrote the other day (Why are M&S leaving Balham?) about why Balham should be on the up.  In one of those unfortunate ironies at least one business agrees Balham is a place to be.

The lease on the old Woolworths has been bought by a company called 99p Stores Ltd.  who will be opening this Thursday.  While there is part of me that is pleased that that a retailer has the confidence to move in and create jobs, I cannot deny a much bigger part of me would have preferred a more prestigious name.

Unfortunately, it is a side effect of recession that this type of store flourishes as people cut costs.  The company’s website even boasts about it in a job advert, “in the current economic downturn we are enjoying unrivalled growth and success.”

And even more unfortunately, even though the recession will pass (and even someone as bearish as me knows that) these shops will tend to remain. 99p Stores have bought a long lease on the site so they, presumably, are planning on staying put.

The council, particularly through the Economic Development Officer and Town Centre Manager do a lot of work to sell our town centres – not, I hasten to add, to recession stores – and promote investment in them but it is a hard slog and sometimes things aren’t going to develop how we would like.

marks-and-spencer-logoThe closure of Balham’s Marks and Spencer has left a lot of local residents puzzled about why M&S have decided to axe what is seemingly a busy and successful store.

And I’m puzzled too.  

We all know that the country is effectively in recession.  We know that businesses will be feeling the pinch.  But, as a whole, Balham has shown itself to be very resilient.

For a start, it’s a great location.  There are around 21,000 residents within half a mile of the town centre and it has great transport links, with an underground station and an overground station scheduled for improvements.

It’s also benefited from significant investment.  The council’s Town Centre Improvement Scheme has leveraged nearly £600,000 of private sector investment in the Town Centre and in the past 4 years 60 businesses have upgraded their premises or moved into or within the town centre.  

What’s more Balham has been bucking the trend:  footfall counters show an increase of 6% between December 2007 and December 2008, at a time that a national fall of 8% is being reported!  And there is significant anecdotal evidence that food sales for consumption at home are increasing as people eat out less as a result of recession.  If your main business if food sales, Balham would seem the place to be.

It is bizarre that M&S are leaving an area that a retailer, and a food retailer to boot, would surely be desperate to be in.  The council will be putting all these points to M&S to try and dissuade them from following through on their closure.

Clapham Junction
Clapham Junction

Many may find it odd that this blog doesn’t contain a single mention of the Clapham Junction planning application, often referred to as the ‘twin towers’.  How can a councillor whose ward is right next to the area concerned not say a word about one of the biggest planning applications Wandsworth (and even London) has seen?

The simple answer is that I can’t say a word about it. Nada, nothing, zilch.

However, since I have had several emails about the scheme, I thought it might be worth setting out rules on this, since they don’t just affect me, but affect all councillors.  I must stress that nothing here should be interpreted as offering any opinion, either positive or negative, on the Clapham Junction planning application – nor, indeed, on any other application, past, present or future.

The application process
A common question is ‘how can the council even consider this application?’ The answer is that we have to consider every valid planning application and does not mean it is being viewed favourably or unfavourably.  The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the council has received a valid application.

This applies regardless of the size, so if you wanted to extend your house and made a proper application it has to go through the full consideration process.  If someone wants to build some towers, it has to go through the full consideration process.

A ‘tall buildings’ policy?
The council does not have a blanket tall buildings policy, instead the council considers what is appropriate for each area.  There are some very good reasons for this.

First, appropriate height is going to be different from area to area.  A tall office block might not look out of place on Upper Richmond Road, which already has several office buildings.  It would look downright unsightly in an area of two-storey houses.

Second, setting an arbitrary limit would probably just encourage developers to build to that limit.  If we set a height of 12 storeys I suspect pretty much every application would be 12 storeys as developers strive to maximise profits.

And you can’t say anything because…?
The reason councillors cannot comment on applications is something called ‘pre-determination’.  If I were to express a view, it could be said that I had already made up my mind without regard to the merits or otherwise of an application.  This would leave any decision open to legal challenge.

Instead, councillors have to demonstrate they approached the decision with an open mind and considered the application and representations fairly.  This is especially the case with a major planning application that might end up being discussed at a full council meeting.

Personally, I think the rules on pre-determination are a nonsense, since it effectively bars elected representatives from representing their residents in cases like this.  However, since they do exist I feel my role as a councillor is best served by retaining my right to vote than by commenting before the decision process has fully begun.

Tooting High StreetUpper Tooting Road

Last night I attended a meeting of the St John’s Hill traders to discuss the use of A-boards on the street outside their shops.  It is fair to say that the council’s enforcement of this had put a few backs up, not just there, but also on my own ward on Lavender Hill.

As with so many things, it is a balancing act, the council has to consider the needs of residents, some of whom may have accessibility issues and need to have clear pavements as well as the needs of businesses who want to advertise their businesses to the passing trade.  I would throw in a third consideration, that allowing businesses to display outside their store actually enhances the look of the street.

And of course what’s right for St John’s Hill is not necessary right for the rest of the borough.  We have a real problem in Tooting, especially places like Upper Tooting Road where pedestrians are forced to compete for narrow pavement with overflowing shop displays and illegal traders.

However, the compromise that council officers are proposing seems sensible and workable, allowing shops to use and enhance the pavement while also ensuring a minimum clearance so pedestrians can use the street without having to weave around obstacles.  The basic plan allows displays directly outside the shop, and requires a minimum 2 metres clearance on the pavement – so the narrow pavements of Tooting won’t be overcrowded and the wide streets of Lavender Hill and St John’s Hill won’t be barren.

Obviously nothing’s perfect, and this will have be reviewed once in place to make sure there are no anomalies, but the response of the St John’s Hill traders was uniformly positive, and hopefully everyone will be happy with the outcome.

The new enforcement protocol will come into force next month after going through the council’s Planning and Transport Overview and Scrutiny Committee and Executive.

Northcote Road market
Northcote Road market

I have already blogged about our Northcote Road plans so was pleased that these were agreed at the Regeneration and Community Safety OSC on Wednesday night.

Peter Dawson, one of the Northcote Councillors, attended the meeting and spoke in support of the plans.  Peter has been involved right from the start – standing up for the Northcote Road traders and doggedly pushing officers and me to come up with a good scheme for the road.  He deserves a lot of credit for the work he has done over the past two years.

The action plan seeks to protect Northcote Road as one of London’s special places and will look at de-cluttering the street, expanding the market, holding special markets and events as well as providing help to businesses and lobbying TfL to improve the awful junction with Battersea Rise.  Hopefully, we can create a vibrant street that can win the fight against the spread of mobile phone and coffee shops.