Presenting the cheque to launch the Business Loan Fund
Presenting the cheque to launch the Business Loan Fund

Wandsworth Enterprise Week has now been and gone and, I think, can be called a success. Over the course of the week hundreds of businesses, and potential business owners, attended the various themed events that had been put on by the council’s fabulous economic development team.

While I often joke that my rôle is merely to take the credit for the hard work of others, I think I can take some credit for starting the process a year ago when stood at the back of the 2013 Wandsworth Business Forum and deciding that the format of a stand-alone forum had become a little stale (although feedback for the event had always been positive). But a conversation on the fringes of an event is nothing compared to the inspiration and hard work of the economic development staff and town centre managers who put last week’s programme together. I’ve made a point of telling anyone (and there have been many) who complimented the events that the credit does not belong to me.

What is particularly pleasing are the comments from those businesses operating in several boroughs that Wandsworth has ‘got it’ and really is a business borough. We cannot do everything, and I know we don’t always get it right for businesses. Inevitably a council has to have a focus on residents, that is our statutory responsibility. But that doesn’t mean we can’t help businesses.

We are about to start offering business rate relief for small businesses that are either retailers, service providers or sell food or drink. The council estimates about 3,000 businesses will be eligible for the relief over the next two years and they will be invited to apply later this year.

It was also a pleasure to formally launch, in conjunction with GLE, the Business Loan Fund. And not just because it gave me a chance to hand over a novelty sized cheque. The fund, which will be £800,000 in total, will offer finance to those businesses that struggle to approvals for loans from traditional sources. More details are available from GLE Business Loans or by emailing

Not the most exciting image from last week's Wandsworth Business Forum.

There are over 12,000 businesses in Wandsworth, employing (if my sums are right) over 70,000 people, but for some reason business lacks a voice in Wandsworth.

That’s not to say business is ignored; we do plenty to communicate with businesses, each town centre has a council employed Town Centre Manager, working with the local town centre partnership. We have links with the major business and trading associations. We regularly communicate and consult with businesses.

But there hadn’t been a strategic voice for business until recently.

We held the Wandsworth Business Forum last week (another ‘service’ we give businesses, an information and networking event) and formally launched the Wandsworth Business Partnership. Last night the Partnership held its third meeting and elected its first chairman from the private sector (I had acted as chairman while it was established).

Why is it important? Well, the borough’s business has never had a strategic voice with the council.

But arguably business is a key part of what makes the borough great. Most people form an opinion of an area not on the neighbours, or the quality of the housing, but the nearby retail offer. If you have ‘nice’ shops, you think it’s a nice area. If the nearest parade can only offer cut-price drink, gambling and kebabs you might draw a different opinion.

Business brings people and money into the local economy. Without it Wandsworth would be a dormitory, where people slept when they weren’t working elsewhere.

And the irony is that businesses, arguably, are the biggest funders of the council. While localisation of business rates is still a year away, and technically business rates are paid – ultimately – to HM Treasury the fact remains that the amount the Treasury pay to councils (which massively outweighs the money councils raise themselves) comes from somewhere and is remarkably close to the amount businesses pay in rates. Businesses find themselves paying a lot in taxation, but getting little representation.

This article on O2, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea’s plan to introduce free wifi is mainly focused on residents, but highlights the importance of a strong business voice.

It is exactly the sort of project that could help Wandsworth’s emergent creative sector to thrive by giving it a competitive edge, but hitherto we haven’t had a body that could either call for, or support, strategic projects like that.

It will be fascinating to see how the Wandsworth Business Partnership develops and works. (I sometimes wonder if we are just going through a corporatist cycle of government, and couldn’t help think of the Neddys.) I know it won’t always see eye-to-eye with the council – if only because it has chosen parking policy as one of its initial priorities – but on the other areas, like attracting investment to the borough or the creation of employment space we would hopefully be of one voice and seeing some exciting times together.

(If you are a Wandsworth Business you might be interested in joining the Wandsworth Business Partnership group on LinkedIn.)

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.”

Lonely: For the speakers at the Business Forum it was a big lonely stage in front of a big audience.
Lonely: For the speakers it was a big lonely stage in front of a big audience.

A few bits that I’ve not posted about separately during the week.

Clapham Junction
This week saw the (superficially) good news that Clapham Junction is to receive some funding for improvements, combined with the bad news – which we all sort of knew – that it’s the country’s second worst station. I’ve not written anything about this because I have been trying, and failing, to get some more information. It doesn’t seem like there’s much out there, just that the total pot is £50 million. Obviously any improvements to the station are good, but my fear is that the amounts suggested are nowhere near enough to make the difference needed. The major problem is congestion in the tunnel, and there’s no easy solution to that.

Wandsworth Business Forum
Thursday saw one of the regular, council organised, Business Forums. I don’t think there are many equivalents elsewhere in the country, but these serve two purposes. Part is information, they usually have a few interesting speakers and part is networking. Thursday’s event saw over 350 local businesses gather at the Wandsworth Palais for an evening largely focused on culture and the creative sector.

A great night, and I understand it continued long after I left at 9pm – and when people linger it’s usually a good sign.

If you are a business and aren’t already on the guest list and getting regular invites you can get more information from the council’s website.

Battersea Poems
Following on the culture theme; this morning I served as the token Philistine on the judging panel for Battersea Poems. There were some excellent poems submitted and going through and selecting the poems for the anthology was a lengthy process. The winners will be notified in coming days and the book should be published in time for Christmas.

I’m posting weekly reports as an experiment to see how well received they are. You can read some of my thoughts about it in a blog-post I wrote before commencing the reports. My main concern is that these reports will, by necessity, have to omit so much routine council work they are not a good representation of my work.

Picking up from last week’s report, after posting I headed down to Tooting for the town centre police team launch publicity. While there I also took the opportunity to catch up with the Town Centre Manager and Town Centre Partnership Chairman.

Neighbourhood Watch
Saturday didn’t provide a break. The morning saw the Neighbourhood Watch Conference. Rather shamefully I have not posted about it. It was an incredibly successful event, organised by the council’s Community Safety team for Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinators. The session saw presentations on subjects ranging from art and antiques to dog control and bio-diversity. The conference was attended by representatives from the National Neighbourhood Watch Trust, and it was pleasing that they commented it was one of the best events they’d attended.

Devas Club
On Tuesday I visited, along with Peter Dawson in his capacity as chairman of the Children and Young People’s Service OSC, the Devas Club in Stormont Road. The visit took us from their commercial standard (and hit making, some number ones have been recorded there) music studios in the basement to the sub-standard basket-ball court on the roof (which has a spectacular view that my camera phone just couldn’t do justice).

The club does some great work in engaging youngsters in a building designed for a 1960s, rather than 21st century, youth club. And that shows. First, not all the facilities are what they should be for the users. Second, it means it causes problems for neighbours and coincidentally I’m also dealing with noise complaints from the club.

Wandsworth Business Forum
Last night was the Wandsworth Business Forum in Balham. I posted about it earlier today, so rather than write about it again, will refer you to that post.

Shaftesbury Park School
Finally, this morning, I went into Shaftesbury Park, the school I serve as a governor. For the second time to meet Peter Dawson, who was making an official visit along with David Walden. We spent time looking around the school and chatting about some of the challenges it face and successes it has had.

Last night saw the Wandsworth Business Forum at Balham (with huge thanks to The Bedford for hosting us). And I came away feeling very upbeat about Wandsworth, and business in Wandsworth.

The council’s Economic Development Office run the meetings, rotating around locations in the borough at various business friendly times. The basic concept is to have some speakers on business related topics, followed by a networking session.

I was one of the speakers and was live-tweeted by Ian Fenn, something both flattering and scary – because it makes you realise how much of what you do can be public and instantly accessible. I’ve included his Tweets at the end of the post.

My spot was a real gallop through two topics. The first was what Wandsworth is doing to help fight the recession – the easiest thing to do is point you to The second was to highlight the positive signs that are coming from the recession.

It’s easy to be negative in a recession, and I’m probably as guilty as any for that, but there are some good reasons to be postive in Wandsworth.

We monitor a wide range of indicators, like unemployment and benefit take-up to vacancies on our high streets, to watch how the recession is affecting Wandsworth. I won’t pretend we’ve not been hit, but we seem to be suffering much less than other places. So unemployment remains below the London and national averages and our vacancy rates are still remarkably low.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems around the corner. It might be unemployment is low because people are living off redundancy payments rather than signing-on, but so far we seem to weathering the storm well.

And there’s a lot to be positive about. Wandsworth is incredibly well placed to recover rapidly when the recession ends. We have a real vote of confidence in Nine Elms from the US Embassy. We have a highly skilled and flexble workforce. We have a prime, inner London, location.

But the main reason I came away upbeat was not because of what I know from the statistics, but from talking to businesses afterwards. No-one I spoke to pretended they weren’t having to tighten their belts, but there was a confidence and desire to succeed beyond that. We’ve always prided ourselves on being a business friendly borough – but when you meet the businesses here, it’s hard not to be business friendly.

Ian Fenn’s Tweets are below. The ‘From…’ is a link to the original Tweet on the Twitter website.

From @ifenn
Heading to the Wandsworth Business Forum and my ‘showdown’ with @jamescousins 🙂

From @ifenn
@jamescousins I don’t think you have too much to worry about. 🙂

From @ifenn
I now know I am at the Wandsworth Business Forum but for a moment there I thought I was at some bizarre fan club for deep-fried party food.

From @ifenn
.@jamescousins is speaking. Started tweeting it but Twitter gave me an error. Grr…

From @ifenn
.@jamescousins: Wandsworth Council is also trying to speed up it’s processes. They aim to pay suppliers, for example, quicker.

From @ifenn
.@jamescousins: a variety of business loans are available from the council through central goverment and London mayoral initiatives…

From @ifenn
.@jamescousins Wandsworth Council is now more relaxed about allowing businesses to advertise on pavements…

From @ifenn
.@jamescousins: we have a good location, the lowest level of inner London crime, and five great town centres.

From @ifenn
.@jamescousins: Being positive, we have evidence Wandsworth is doing well in the face of the recession. We are in a good position.

From @ifenn
Had a short but good chat with @jamescousins then walked home, breaking my Fitbug step target for the day. Phew!