Wien Westbahnhof railway station at 5th September 2015: Migrants on their way to Germany

The campaign for Wandsworth to accept ten refugees seems woefully inadequate in the light of the scale of the refugee crisis. Even despite that, there are plenty who are arguing against it both locally and nationally, saying we should look after our own people first, that the country is already full or that those finding their way to our shores are motivated by economics not personal safety.

There might be some merit to that first argument. I long ago lost count of the number of people who had approached me as a councillor about their housing application I found myself telling that, however difficult their circumstances, they would have a long wait until they were likely to be at the top of the list.

Equally, the council can argue that it has a tried and tested procedure for assessing the merits of housing applications and that circumventing that would create a dangerous precedent and be unfair to those who were previously on the list. In any case, such a small number is tokenism given the scale of the issue.

Sometimes, though, a symbolic gesture is exactly what is needed. The council may have efficient bureaucratic processes, but it can also show leadership: a gesture, perhaps, but also a strong signal that we don’t simply turn our backs when we can help. That as a borough and a country we are not selfish and we are not full. And that when it really matters we can rise above parochial self-interest and rule-bound processes that so often rail-road our decision-making; to prove that we are not just human, we are also humane.

 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.

A model of Battersea Power Station in the Power Station's grounds
Battersea Power Stations

If you are at a loose end this weekend there are a plenty of Open House events in Battersea and Wandsworth.

One that is not listed on the Open House website (at least as far as I can see) is the Metropolitan Police’s event at Battersea Police Station on Battersea Bridge Road. It might not be the most interesting building in the world (although some might be curious to see how the Met is delivering a service despite a fairly poor building that isn’t really suited to a 21st century service) but the day offers an opportunity to see a little bit of what happens behind the scenes.

To my mind the real jewel in Wandsworth for the weekend is the opening up of Battersea Power Station. I’ve been lucky enough to visit the power station on numerous occasions over the years and it has never failed to take my breath away. If you have only ever seen it from a distance, perhaps across the river or from the railway or Battersea Park Road you have probably never appreciated the scale of the building since there is so little nearby to offer that perspective. It’s the last time the Power Station will be open before redevelopment, so it really is an opportunity worth taking.

If these aren’t your cup of tea there are plenty of other sites open across Wandsworth, including a rare opportunity to see the splendid interior of the Gala Bingo Hall in Tooting and not be shushed for breaking the intense concentration of dozens of bingo-players (bingoists, bingoers?) or the intriguingly bizarre Hanging Bathroom of Balham.

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.

Southside Wandsworth

Once again the Local Data Company are trying to make headlines with their regular report on the state of Britain’s high streets. This time, their story has been a little overwhelmed by the Cabinet reshuffle, Paralympics and the British Retail Consortium’s sales figures. And once again I feel the need to highlight that the Local Data Company could do with some local knowledge. (And I’m sure the process will repeat in six months time.)

Wandsworth is named as one of the ‘worst small centre performers’. For a start, I’d question the classification as ‘small’; Southside alone is over 500,000sq ft. But, most importantly, the LDC still fail to take account of what is happening in Wandsworth. As I mentioned last time:

the large numbers of vacant units are largely a result of a planned redevelopment of the Southside shopping centre.

The shops are not closed because Wandsworth is in “a spiral of decline” as their report might imply, but in preparation for a multi-million pound investment.

Anyone who has used the centre recently can see the work taking place. Most visibly at the moment on the first floor where new restaurants are being created, but work is also commencing on Garratt Lane where more retail space and restaurants is being built.

Fortunately most shoppers recognise the difference between a centre in decline and a centre being developed. If only the Local Development Company could recognise it too.

The ballot is a little more complex than this...

Until motivated by my letter from Brett Harrison yesterday, I don’t think I’d posted anything about the Mayoral and GLA elections this time around, so this is my last chance. I’ve tweeted a little about it, but not that much. What I have found myself doing (perhaps a little too often) is the campaigning.

I can’t help feeling that, at my age, I should have better things to do than deliver leaflets and knock on doors. And for a short while during this campaign I did: I had flu and stayed in bed. (My definition of better perhaps needs some work.) But apart from that I’ve been dutifully plodding the streets, mainly in Shaftesbury, doing my bit for Boris and Dick Tracey.

It has not been the most inspiring campaign for a number of reasons. I suspect it might have been better had Labour’s selection decision gone a different way. But I’m not going to get into those issues, if you want, perhaps read the Evening Standard’s endorsement of Boris or The Guardian’s endorsement of Ken.

Perhaps my mind was already made up, but I’ll be voting Boris for Mayor, Dick Tracey for the constituency GLA seat and Conservative for the London-wide GLA seats. I hope you’ll consider doing the same, but whatever you decide, it’s important to cast your vote.

If you live in Wandsworth the council’s election information pages contain useful information, including a postcode finder for your polling station (open from 7am until 10pm).

If you live in Shaftesbury and usually vote at the Devas Club your polling station for this election has moved to the grand hall at Battersea Arts Centre.

View Grit bin locations in a larger map

Following last night’s snow-fall I thought it might be worth re-publishing the locations of grit-bins in the borough.

The Google map details where they all are (roughly, but they are big yellow things, so I’m confident it gives more than enough information for you to find them) but if you want more information you can find it in the council’s winter service plan (PDF).

View Grit bin locations in a larger map

I’ve updated my map of grit bins now the council has expanded the scheme. The original 20 were well used so there’s another load being dropped around the borough this week.

As before they are placed in areas that are not part of the council’s priority gritting programme, So as before, if there isn’t one near you it isn’t because of some horrible town hall conspiracy, it’s either that other areas are higher risk, or your area is done by the council directly. Of course, it’s not a science – this is the first year we’ve done this and are learning as we go so placements will be refined over the months and years.

I will relate one anecdote from the last lot of snow. Although these could be seen as a ‘Big Society’ initiative, I was intrigued by the Nudge aspect. I was the first on my stretch of road to grit, doing the area outside my house and a couple of neighbours; a day later I counted five others that had done the same, all on that same stretch and all my side of the road. Around the corner or on the other side of the road where you couldn’t see the cleared pavement (because of buildings or cars obstructing the view) and the pavement remained white.

Statistically not significant, though the theory suggests that people are likely to emulate the behaviour of people like them. In this case, gritting outside their homes because one of their close neighbours has.

Which set me thinking about how well received the new grit bins will be, and I think it will be fascinating to see, comparatively, how well used they are (I have no idea how accurately we are logging usage, grit is inexpensive, and the effort of accurate weighing and recording may well quickly dwarf the cost of the grit itself). However, there are two which I think would be interesting to compare usage with bins in areas of street properties.

Nightingale Lane. This box has been placed outside some flats (I think the legally famous Hightrees House) and I wonder how that will play with the shared entrance and exit. With street properties it’s fairly clear which neighbour has cleared their frontage, but with flats? Will nudge work here, or will people assume it’s someone else who isn’t like them making the effort (perhaps someone from the council or the management company).

Bellevue Road. This box is at the bottom of the footpath on the bridge over the railway line, and isn’t that close to residential properties. The nearest are on the other side of the bridge, while the other sides of the road are Wandsworth Common and The Hope pub. The nudge example I gave, therefore, would only work if people saw someone gritting and recognised them.

[I produced the map using the council’s location list, Google maps and for some addresses Steve Morse’s address converter. You can download the list from my data page. Obviously any errors are mine.]