I’ve reflected on being an independent councillor quite a lot since the last council meeting. In many ways the council meeting highlighted and formalised the transition, before things had gone on much as before: people would contact me, I’d raise issues with the town hall, nothing really changed.

But the meeting was the point when being independent made a difference. My seat in the chamber moved from the irrelevant margins to a spot I assume was seen by the whip as slightly more marginal. The usual greetings were thin on the ground, although the leader did deign to make strange noises (possibly mocking, possibly intestinal problems) to greet me when I presented the Formula E petition. My votes seemed to attract far more attention than ever before.

I was particularly amused when my vote was the same as the Labour group’s that there were accusations of collusion. There was, perhaps, a misunderstanding of the meaning of independence, but I also assume that if your normality is a group, then you assume everyone’s normality is a group. The truth was we didn’t even coordinate votes as independents.

It did, however, bring home to me that I need to have some clear statement of what I believe and want to do as a councillor. If the main reason I left the majority group was the lack of vision, then it would be a meaningless gesture if I were not to have some clear vision of what I believe the council and I should be doing.

The difficulty is in creating a lucid definition: while the picture is clear in my head, putting it into words is harder. It has concepts of community and society, and perhaps especially enablement. It has degrees of innovation, but without the total control that seems to be required at present. Transparency is important, but perhaps goes further, and has a degree of almost open source government where people have the right and the power to see if they can change things.

I recognise I’m not in much of a position to effect change (although an example from another part of my life has reminded me that when you set challenging goals, you often surprise yourself by exceeding them) but I obviously have total control over how I work as a local councillor and that is a role in which I still know I can make a big difference: the first task is deciding how.

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.

Battersea's creative panel at work

It was Battersea’s turn to host the Wandsworth Business Forum last night and it adopted a creative theme, billing itself a ‘Creative Function at the Junction.’ A more creative aspect of it being the use of a panel – rather than speaker – format, composed of various people from various creative industries in Battersea.

Two questions asked have stuck with me: what constitutes a ‘proper job’ and in a climate of spending cuts, what should be saved?

The first, what is a ‘proper job’ resonated because I don’t think I have one (and wonder if I should) but also because it tied up with me as relevant to the spending cuts question. And the answers to that surprised me.

No-one said anything should be saved.

Yes, there were suggestions that ‘investment’ was necessary, but it was clearly indicated as such. David Jubb from Battersea Arts Centre and Jack Bremer from 3B Digital both highlighted the benefits of early investment, but differentiated it from subsidy – it shouldn’t just be cash that makes a theatre seat cheaper or directly employs, but cash that leverages extra resources, or develops people who go on to employ others.

But the key message was simple: we don’t want cash, just remove the barriers.

Anthony Laban used the example of the Lavender Hill Festival – “a day when 10,000 Londoners had a smile on their face and enjoyed being part of a local community” – but which had, at times, been painful to organise because of the hurdles public authorities put in their way. It was then made even more painful because it seemed different bits of the council didn’t talk to each other. It reminded me of one of the best descriptions of local government I’ve ever heard, “you shouldn’t think of a council as a single body, but as a loose federation of occasionally warring tribes.”

So how does this relate to a proper job? Well, the answers didn’t focus on hours, salary or perks, but creation. In other words, if you can somehow get money doing something that creates something worthwhile, even if intangible, then it’s a proper job.

Can a council do a ‘proper job’? We can look at individuals and argue yes or no to each. I suspect that most would have fairly firm views between, say, a Battersea Park gardener and a parking attendant, but as a collective body do we create or just regulate? We enforce so many things, but have we gone too far down the road of ‘these are the rules, we must enforce’ rather than ‘there are rules, but they work towards a bigger vision’?

Admittedly, it might not be pleasant to get (or give) a parking ticket. But should it simply be done because that’s what the rules state, or because it’s part of a wider vision in which residents have a good chance of parking near their home, and a decent turnover of parking spaces near shopping areas that helps keep our town centres vibrant?

One of my favourite anecdotes is of the NASA toilet cleaner. It appeals to my geek nature as well as being a superb example of the power of a vision to an organisation. The story goes that during the 60s you could approach anyone in NASA, even the toilet cleaner dealing with the most unpleasant part of their job, and ask “what are you doing?” and the reply would always be, with total sincerity, “I’m putting a man on the moon.” Everyone recognised that they had a crucial part to play, however small.

So what would the answer be in Wandsworth? I fear far too few would answer “making this a great place to live and work.”

Edward Lister, the Council Lister, is launching ‘Our Wadsworth’, the council and the Local Strategic Partnership’s vision for the next 10 years.
Thinking about how the borough has changed in the past 10 years it’s exciting to think about how it can change in the next 10 years. And this vision not only sets out our vision but also targets the council and its partners will be aiming to meet to make Wandsworth safer, greener and healthier over the next 10 years.

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