My freedom of information flight of fancy was shot down in flames. Having spent months trying to get some data from the town hall as a councillor I thought I’d give the Freedom of Information Act a try.
informed the meeting that a full inspection was carried out on pavements across the Borough; the Council is currently undertaking a 5-year programme of repairs, spending had been increased by £2m and the works were being prioritised to deal with the worst cases first.
I thought this was interesting. For a while I was reporting a lot of road and footway faults, but these often went unrepaired for months. Aside from wanting an overview of the state of the pavements, I also thought it might help me form a better picture of what repairs would be completed, since not much in Shaftesbury Ward ever got prioritised and perhaps I was reporting problems that just weren’t bad enough.
I never got the details of the inspection since—I was told—it had to be cleared by the leader of the council before it could be shared with me.
I tried a few more times before, at the beginning of the year, trying a freedom of information request. Surely, I reasoned, something that announced in a public meeting, detailing defects that are in full view of the public, should be information available to the public, if not a lowly councillor.
I was wrong. The response to my request was that the data is incomplete and releasing such information “may be misleading to the public” (imagine the horrors of people knowing about potholes and uneven pavements they can already see every day on their street) and because “the council needs to be able to consider and fully explore all the options available to them and exchange views within a safe place”.1
Of course, some might think that referring to a document as complete that has not been finished some three months later is misleading. But maybe it’s a case of two wrongs making a right, because it turns out the evidence base that doesn’t exist informs a five-year programme that doesn’t exist either.
It is, of course, symptomatic of a council lost in its own arrogance and right to rule.
I missed last night’s council meeting—attending a school governor training session and only making the town hall in time to see people leaving—but I’m rather glad. Having read the questions, followed it on Twitter and heard about it from people who were there it seemed to be a meeting with similarly weak foundations as the council’s street maintenance plan: the council may be long on self-love but it’s desperately short on self-awareness.
Having wasted many hours of my life in those safe places, I can imagine the considerations; they were usually a debate about how far they could let the state of roads and pavements decline before the pain of complaints outweighed the saving on council tax. ↩
The council failed to collect Christmas trees for the second week running in Shaftesbury Ward.
My children are actually quite pleased about this. They were sad to see the tree leave the house, so being able to walk past so many on their way to school each day has been a small compensation for them. However, it does create problems. Many block the pavements, leaving then inaccessible for those with mobility problems or pushchairs, and they tend to attract fly-tipping.
There is, of course, a degree to which people should be considerate in disposing of their trees, but after the council’s heavy publicity of the Christmas tree collection (and warning of fines for people who dumped trees) it was not unreasonable for residents to leave trees out with their usual refuse in the expectation they would be collected.
I took this up with the council last week (but have not yet had a response, as an opposition councillor their target for replying to me is two weeks). I have chased them up again for what it’s worth. It seems to have been a problem across the borough, so I don’t know how rapidly they might be able to respond and suspect Shaftesbury is low down on their political priority list.
I’ve also written to Jonathan Cook, the cabinet member responsible. He is also one of the ward councillors for Shaftesbury. I’m sure he is already aware of it, but thought it worth writing just in case he’s not visited the ward recently.
I’ve no doubt the planning applications committee are bored of me attending their meetings. I know the Conservative side have never reflected a point I made when representing residents (unless it happened to be a point also made by a Conservative) but I do think it’s important residents are represented.
I don’t think I have ever referred to any of those meetings in this blog though, since they are invariably very local issues and, I assumed, perhaps of limited interest. Indeed, this post is perhaps stimulated more by the Let’s Talk meeting (the echoes of Cllr Senior shouting about his role at a meeting he never attended, while criticising me for missing a meeting when, as I apologised to residents, I was on holiday) than by high-minded desires for transparency.
Since I once again find myself missing a meeting, this time unable to rearrange work and travel commitments to attend a meeting, I am hoping to avoid such unfounded accusations and instead am submitting my comments via email and publishing them below.
However, I did find myself, while drafting them, considering the council’s approach to planning policy. Many suspect, perhaps with good reason, that it favours the developer over local residents. It is certainly a view that many local residents have started to share having seen small, but contentious, applications decided in the favour of developers despite vociferous opposition. Policy is always the excuse.
But policy is (and should be) flexible, its implementation open to the exercise of discretion.
The Mayor was WRONG to approve the homebase 17 storey tower with 35% affordable housing NEAR a conservation area whilst we were RIGHT to approve this 26 storey tower WITHIN a conservation area which will have 10% affordable housing. pic.twitter.com/0qeJMOKcPW
There are lots of factors to consider, and they do not always neatly align, so the committee has to choose how to apply them. A classic one in Wandsworth is affordable housing where it seems that, all too frequently, the committee is persuaded of the benefits of lowering that requirement.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the decision is not based on the scheme’s individual merits, or some discernible weighting of the factors, but on the desired outcome: which is usually to support the developer. While a small example I am amused by the Crosland Place application which in the space of three paragraphs is both close and not close to Clapham Junction, depending on which is most convenient to the approval recommendation.
Perhaps this is unsurprising. Leading councillors have very close relationships with developers and lobbyists. The planning department spend a lot of time talking with the same developers about their applications which are refined and honed before they are ever made; no time is spent with residents who might have different opinions.
But the flexibility that leaves people feeling planning favours developers could also be used to reach decisions that favour local residents; that leaves them believing the council is on their side. Unfortunately I fear we’ve a long way to go until we are there.
My email comments to the planning applications committee on Crosland Place (application 2017/3214):
Residents asked me to represent them on this application. Unfortunately I have not been able to rearrange work and travel commitments to enable me to attend the committee, but I hope members will permit me some comments on this application by email.
Residents and others have commented on some of the more practical points, including the overlooking, loss of outlook, overshadowing and parking concerns.
It is difficult to ignore these issues. Car use is declining, but the area surrounding Crosland Place still has high demand for parking spaces and it’s hard to imagine there will never be demand from Crosland Place residents (current policy would allow 10 or 11 parking spaces for a scheme of this size). And while the developer has addressed some of the overlooking concerns it remains the case that there is significant overlooking, particularly of the gardens and rear of no. 13 and other neighbouring properties.
The council’s policy DMS 1a and 1c requires “buildings ensure a high level of physical integration with their surroundings” and avoid harming “the amenity of occupiers/users and nearby properties through unacceptable noise, vibration, traffic congestion, air pollution, overshadowing, overbearing, unsatisfactory outlook, privacy or sunlight/daylight.”
This scheme fails on both counts. It does not easily fit into the style of Victorian buildings in the area, but it’s not just the aesthetic impact that affects the nearby residents. Taking the building to the northern edge of the site will deprive Craven Mews residents with south facing windows of significant levels of direct sunlight. The element of the building adjacent to the garden of 13 Taybridge Road will overlook significant amounts of private space of the residents at 13 and beyond. All those who have windows that face onto the site will see the quality of their outlook reduced, but especially those who live at the lower numbers of Taybridge Road who will have residential properties a short distance from their rear windows (even if the apertures in the walls have been removed from the first floor, the perception of loss of privacy remains and impacts quality of life).
I would also like to address some broader matters.
Cllr Belton commented at the last committee that my points about the history of the site were not relevant. A point on which I must disagree (and to which I will return), although recently it has fallen into disuse the site has a history of employment.
While the report plays this down, stating that it is not in an employment cluster, it is close to the Clapham Junction town centre (the report takes the usual planning approach of judging distance based on desired outcome rather than as an objective measure, stating it’s “not near to a town centre” in paragraph 1.4, while also stating it’s “close to Clapham Junction town centre” in paragraph 1.7), immediately adjacent to the Lavender Hill/Queenstown Road local centre and is a close neighbour of the fully occupied Battersea Business Centre.
Given that a significant proportion of employment currently being created is through self-employment and small business we should not be so easily relinquishing B1 space. Local plan 4.49 and 4.64 are particularly relevant to this, stating it “is important that new housing is not provided at the expense of employment land needed to support the prosperous, local economy in Wandsworth” and seeks “employment floorspace specifically targeted at the needs of the local economy, in particular the provision of flexible business space will be sought … to cater for the full range of Class B1 uses to accommodate a range of business uses.” While paragraph 1.5 of the application report argues that employment space is not enough to merit rejection on its own, this should be given some weight, and I would argue far more than the report suggests, by the committee.
Like some local residents I’m also concerned about the lack of affordable housing. While below the 10 unit threshold at which affordable units should be provided. Policy DMH 8a (iv) states that where developments fall below the 10 unit threshold but exceed the London Plan space standards the affordable housing requirement can be applied.
The scheme gives the impression of being designed to avoid triggering the affordable housing requirement. The total space of the nine proposed units has, by my reckoning, 108 sq. m. of space above the London Plan requirements (although unit 8 is currently slightly under standard). Almost enough for two 1-bed apartments, or for 11 2-bed, 3-people apartments over two floors if the scheme were reconfigured that way.
While spacious, the committee may want to consider whether this part of inner London would benefit more from affordable housing than a few lucky owners (or perhaps more likely private tenants) would from those extra square metres.
To return to Cllr Belton’s point, I accept there is a limited role for local history in a planning decision. However, if planning policy is to have meaning to local residents it should be able to reflect their community, of which their history is part. This is an application that does not complement the local area, and offers very little—if anything—to compensate for that. I hope members can reflect local opinion, and policy, and reject the application.
My last blog post was about the Shaftesbury Let’s Talk meeting, a rather dispiriting experience to say the least. National and local politics have been similarly dispiriting since then. The government seems determined to plunge to ever greater depths of incompetence in its negotiations to leave the EU (somehow taking back control seems to have ended up with us ceding even more control to other nations).
I’ve whiled away the last few months focusing on residents and doing my best to make their lives a little better but some of the issues raised at the fractious Let’s Talk meeting have not gone away, with considerable dispute over what was, and wasn’t, said.
Unfortunately the minutes from the meeting have not been published. The general procedure is that they are agreed with all the participants first. I know the meeting chair and I gave the OK, so can only assume that other participants have not had time to consider them yet. However, since it’s been two months and subsequent meetings already have their minutes published I’m publishing the draft minutes here (PDF). For those interested in whether or not Cllr Cook promised a tree-by-tree audit it is not mentioned in these minutes, although I recall it being promised during the relevant exchange).
Some caveats. While these minutes were drafted by council officers they are not an official record since they have not been approved by everyone. Indeed, I suspect that some will strongly disagree with the contents and, in the interests of balance, Cllr Cook’s comments on the meeting at a recent council meeting are below.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Shaftesbury Let’s Talk meeting last week.
It was a shocking meeting. While I’ve done my fair share of heated public meetings, it’s the first time I’ve ever known all the heat and tension be generated by the people on the panel. And I am sorry for those who witnessed it.
Looking at a dry list of the topics raised it was fairly typical of any Let’s Talk meeting (I’ve detailed some of them here, here and here): pavements, litter, dog fouling, planning, refuse collection, education, they all came up. The two specific issues that were new were the felling of Chestnut Avenue on Tooting Common and the proposed redevelopment of Northcote Road library and Chatham Hall. And these were the issues that ignited the meeting.
I wouldn’t say it was particularly because those issues affected residents directly, but they touched a nerve. They spoke of a council that doesn’t listen and doesn’t respect local residents, a theme that resonated. The heat though, came from Cllr Senior. The second real question of the night was directed at Cllr Cook, as the executive member responsible for bull-dozing through the Chestnut Avenue decision, but it was Cllr Senior who jumped in, shouting down the resident.
While there were Shaftesbury residents who were unhappy with non-Shaftesbury issues being discussed, they all expressed their discomfort and unhappiness with a totally inappropriate response.
Sadly it set a tone for the night, with aggressive answers right up to the last question of the night (Cllr Senior once again shouting at a resident).
I want to apologise for my part in it all. While I think my behaviour on the evening was fine, I cannot help but feel I played a part in getting there because the shouting, the ignoring, the lack of empathy from the Conservative councillors was reflective of the culture that exists on the council.
My sins may not have been direct. I would hope I’ve never treated any resident with such disrespect (indeed, one resident who contacted me afterwards commented that he didn’t realise exactly how respectful I had been in our disagreements until he saw what could have been), but in all those years I was in the Conservative group or on the Executive I didn’t speak up.
Perhaps it would have made no difference—in all probability it would not—but I can never know that because like everyone else I just kept quiet.
So when Cllr Senior started his shouting or Cllr Cook spoke at length without actually addressing the question or showing any empathy I realised this was a symptom. They are coming from a culture in which people who disagree are never just people who disagree. They are somehow outsiders.
The most frequent explanation is that campaigns are politically motivated. Since a right-minded person would support the council, it’s likely a Labour or Liberal Democrat (or ‘dog-killer’, as Cllr Senior calls them1) campaign. But in the case of the report back meeting it can also be literal outsiders, residents from Tooting or Northcote, because no-one from Shaftesbury would ever travel to Tooting Common, have an interest in trees or use Northcote library or have children at the nursery at Chatham Hall.
There might be some benefit in this mentality; the sense of being separate from residents might promote impartial decision making. But it carries risks too. You’re more likely to dig in if you see it as a confrontation. And when you see others as somehow different it’s so much harder to find common ground or even the motivation to reach mutual understanding (which might still result in an agreement to disagree). I think those risks are now being realised again and again.
I felt Formula E was pushed through as much because there was a desire to avoid loss of face (certainly there were huge misgivings with the Conservative cabinet and group throughout). I suspect similar factors were at play with Chestnut Avenue, everyone knew it was questionable, but too much had been invested in saying it wasn’t questionable for the council to back down, even momentarily, to reconsider the evidence. It was the ‘council v. them.’
So when the Let’s Talk meeting descended into shouting, it was clear to me that it was the result of Cllr Senior seeing opponents, not residents.
Residents frequently complain they don’t feel the council is on their side, the problem at the Let’s Talk meeting was the inverse, a councillor not thinking residents were on his ‘side.’
The culture is corrosive. I was part of it. One of those that would keep quiet. Some of us would occasionally comment to each other about it, but we never challenged it and never raised it with someone who might be expected to tackle it. It was just the way it was. We all knew the culprits and perhaps that allowed us to relax knowing that while it might be a variant of “Boris being Boris” (before that was the UK’s brand of diplomacy) the majority of us were fine.
What we failed to recognise was that it normalised the behaviour. So you’d overlook it, try to avoid situations where friends from other parts of your life interacted with those in politics, somehow not notice those Twitter accounts. But every time it just allowed a nasty culture to fester.
Inevitably it has started to spill over into the outside world. Twitter has provided something of an insight into this, with local (anonymous) Tory accounts suggesting that female councillors should stand down or forfeit maternity rights, for example. And while the Shaftesbury Tory account was eventually shut down having over-stepped the mark once too often, the person allegedly behind the account was selected as a candidate as their reward.
You can even see it in the council’s social media accounts, which were almost gloating as they gloried in the destruction of Chestnut Avenue. Or the phone calls to the boss of someone who dared question their decision and the slightly bullying tone of their response to the Wandsworth Guardian (we “simply” called someone’s boss, what’s wrong with that?).
Organisational culture is incredibly difficult to change without strong leadership. My fear is that if the Conservatives retain control of the council in May 2018 (you can’t argue their strategy of a low council tax hasn’t delivered electoral results) the lesson they learn from events like the Shaftesbury Let’s Talk is not that their behaviour was wrong, but instead that their them-and-us analysis is not only correct and does not need to be addressed and may even be an asset.
We won’t just have a nasty party, but also a nasty council.
I can’t imagine this reference to Jeremy Thorpe, a former Liberal leader, was amusing even when it was topical in the 70s↩
Sendero coffee, a relatively new addition to Lavender Hill (on the corner of Lavender Hill and Queenstown Road), has applied for an licence to permit additional sales and activity.
The application is for:
The sale of alcohol from 4pm to midnight every day.
Live music from 7pm to 10pm every day.
Recorded music from 6.30pm to midnight every day.
Provision of late night refreshment from 11pm to midnight every day.
Sendero is primarily a coffee shop (and a good one to boot, I’d highly recommend it) and I think it is a good addition to Lavender Hill, providing an attractive destination at the less desirable end of a road that, despite its potential, always seems to struggle.
This licence application is not that big and largely within the council’s policy. However, you might think it moves the shop away from being a coffee shop to something else although with only the upstairs flats as immediate neighbours it might be a suitable venue for later opening and quiet entertainment.
If you want to make a representation you have until 6 October. Representations must relate to the four licensing objectives:
There aren’t many places in Wandsworth you don’t notice the poor state of our streets, but the Shaftesbury Park Estate has, I think, some of the worst with the road surface starting to crumble at an alarming rate.
I have reported defects when I see them, but sadly the turnaround on these has lengthened from hours to weeks and occasionally months. However, at least some of the roads are now due for resurfacing and letters should go out to residents in the affected streets today.
The roads due for resurfacing are:
Sabine Road (due to start on 10 July with works for four days),
Tyneham Road (due to start on 14 July with works for five days ) and
Elsley Road (due to start on 19 July with works for four days).
I will continue to report other street defects (and you can also report them via the council’s website or services like FixMyStreet or even just let me know).
We are, of course, less than a year from the council elections, so there’s usually a bit more investment suddenly available making it a great time to get those all those faults rectified.
Since the election was called I’ve been agonising over which way I should vote. While quitting a party has lots of upsides, it’s actually hard work being a floating voter, especially when we insist on using an atrocious electoral system like first-past-the-post1. I’ve found myself flitting between parties and candidates. A week away from the election, I’m still no nearer a decision.
Battersea is spoilt for choice with candidates this time, with the usual selection of Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat joined by Green, UKIP, Socialist and a pro-Remain independent.
Arguably first-past-the-post makes the choice of vote easier, since there’s little prospect, based on the 2015 result, of anyone but Conservatives or Labour winning. Indeed, based on the 2015 result it’s easy to assume it’s a Conservative hold.
Until, that is, the publication of the YouGov election model yesterday and listed Battersea as ‘leaning Labour’. Their model had Labour estimated to get 43% (with a 95% confidence interval of 36-51%) and the Conservatives estimated on 41% (with an interval of 34-47%). It struck me as unlikely, to say the least.
However, it did make question if there was any chance it might be right. I could certainly point to anecdotal evidence it might not be totally outlandish. My own experience (admittedly getting older) was that while the response to the Conservatives on the door was still warm, it never felt quite as effusive as it once did. It was certainly my experience at the time and from observation and gossip since that the local party machinery of the Conservatives—historically quite formidable—was a shadow of its former self and unable to compete with a youthful and energetic Labour party.
The mountain to climb…
The evidence of 2015 was, however, that local campaigns don’t necessary win elections. It was commonly accepted that the Labour party outclassed and outgunned the Conservatives on everything. Everything, that is, except votes in the ballot box. Jane Ellison held the seat with over half the votes cast, 52.4% against Labour’s Will Martindale on 36.8%. For Labour to overturn that it would require a swing of 7.8%.
The only published poll for Battersea, commissioned by the independent candidate, had the Conservatives on 46% and Labour on 38%. The poll was conducted before the recent shift towards Labour in national polling, but still showed Labour some way off the pace.
The YouGov model has a swing towards Labour in its national model, but only 3.5% 1.75%.2 That is arguably suspect, since it goes against the consensus of all the polls published thus far. And it’s hard to see where the other 4% 6% or so of swing is coming from, even if you accept YouGov’s close result.
…and how it could be scaled
A few factors? Labour’s campaigning is getting stronger while the Conservatives are getting weaker. It’s hard to see how this would be reflecting in polls, though, since campaigns are far more about getting people out to vote than changing hearts and minds on the doorstep. You certainly wouldn’t expect this to be a factor in YouGov’s model.
The London bubble, in which Labour somehow seem unaffected by the national unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn (and perhaps buoyed by the regional popularity of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London) may be adding a little to Labour total.
The continued Lib Dem collapse may be playing a part. There were about 5,000 Lib Dem votes ‘lost’ between the 2010 and 2015 election. Again, it’s possible these voters may now be flocking to Labour having abstained or flirted with the Tories.
These may individually get a challenging Labour party a little closer, but the biggest gains, surely would have to come from the EU referendum referendum.
Remain, however, has to be the biggest factor in play. Battersea is a young, international constituency. Wandsworth had one of the biggest remain votes in the country and while constituency results were not declared there was some academic and polling evidence suggesting Battersea was the most pro-remain constituency in the borough. Given that Jane Ellison has long been an ardent pro-European there was understandable disappointment when she failed to represent her constituents and her own beliefs and still voted to trigger article 50.
Can Labour win?
Possibly, but then it’s a theoretical possibility that any candidate could win. Would I share YouGov’s projection? Probably not. They might get a few bits and pieces from some factors, and will probably get a good chunk because of the remain factor (something they are clearly pushing for in their literature). There are definitely many who are angry with Jane Ellison for, as they perceive it, putting her ministerial career before her principals and the national interest. My sense, though, is that many of those would not have been voting Conservative in any case.
So, possible? Yes. But likely, even in YouGov’s nuanced language of ‘leaning’? Probably not: so many things have to stack up it would have to be an outlier.
By my reckoning, I’m only using the very simplistic Butler swing model and not factoring in the potential effects of the smaller parties or independent candidate. I also got this wrong in my initial post, meaning there’s an even bigger mountain for Labour to climb.↩
Two trees on Tyneham Road have been killed by vandals. They were young trees, placed in as part of the replanting programme, but will die after their trunks were severed close to the roots.
Quite what motivated the vandalism is a mystery. There have been some justified concerns about the size of some of the trees on the estate, but these were many years off falling into that category.
I contacted the council’s tree section who confirmed that the cut was so low there was no potential for the trees to survive but that the sites, outside 99 and 109 Tyneham Road, are scheduled for replacement in the winter planting season later this year.
Unfortunately there are no witnesses at present, although the council are preparing a letter for nearby households to see if anyone has any information. If you did see something, please contact the council or, if you wish, feel free to contact me to pass on the information.
I don't like International Women's Day. Not really. And not because I'm misogynist, but because I just think we should have moved on by now. As a species you would have thought we'd have developed enough, educated ourselves enough, that such days were unnecessary.
Of course, we haven't. Inequality persists. And that perhaps gives me another reason to dislike it: a day just seems a bit of a feeble response.
Perhaps predictably the Tories responded with an amendment celebrating Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May. I often think that's something of a fig-leaf used by the Conservatives. Highlighting only the number of female leaders totally neglects the underlying issues: that there are still disproportionately few women in politics1. I'd argue Labour, as a party, has done far more to address that by all-women shortlists and funded development than the Conservatives who are only slowly catching up on this.
However, that's not to belittle the huge achievement of women who have led parties. So Malcolm Grimston and I proposed and seconded a further amendment that recognised both Thatcher and May, but also all those other woman who have led political parties, including Margaret Beckett and Harriett Harman (who acted as Labour leaders), Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Ruth Davison (Scottish Conservatives), Kezia Dugdale (Scottish Labour), Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru), Arlene Foster (DUP) and Caroline Lucas (Green Party). I'm sure I've missed some.
While Labour immediately supported this and a few on the Conservative side did likewise (Kathy Tracey was notably early to support) I was shocked, and a little ashamed, at the opposition the motion provoked.
There were suggestions that procedurally the motion was improper. The council leader, Ravi Govindia, was one who felt this way and suggested—in an almost threatening way—that the Mayor "might want to reflect on that", even though it clearly was procedurally fine. There were several members grumpily muttering they would not support the motion and several minutes of confusion passed before a vote was actually taken, with the Conservative group initially keeping their hands down, before realising voting against was indefensible.
Even then, several were visibly repulsed at having to recognise the contribution of non-Conservative women. They'd happily vote to recognise Thatcher and (perhaps a little less happily) May, but it was a vote for their politics and not their gender.
It's debates like that which prove exactly why we do still need International Woman's Day. When a majority of a council (and both men and women among them) are so openly hostile to a simple motion, is it any wonder there isn't a gender balance in our political institutions?
I keep returning to a mantra of how a council should be setting a tone, it should be showing moral leadership. But when I watched it in action last night, needing it's arm twisted to vote for something as straightforward as gender equality, I think we can probably do without moral leadership from that particular crew.
I think it's still Rwanda that has the record for the highest proportion of female legislators, around 60%, although for somewhat tragic reasons and there are some questions about how meaningful that is in a highly patriarchal society. ↩
Wandsworth Councillors were asked to recognise the achievement of women in politics. Their first instinct was to deny any recognition except Thatcher.
Wandsworth Councillors were asked to recognise the achievement of women in politics. Their first instinct was to deny any recognition except Thatcher.