Thinking about my routines, processes and operational rhythm (because I love that phrase). But the best part of any New Year’s resolution is the geek shopping, so just sprung for some NFC tags to go with Launch Center Pro.
I do like the idea of choosing three words rather than a New Year’s resolution (H/T @macgenie), but I’d have to choose crepuscular (and probably defenestrate) because I love it so, and that would result in a rather odd year.
Spending way too much time thinking about the electoral system for parent governors at my children’s school. But given some other elections over the past few years maybe no unit of democracy is too small to worry about.
Conservative success in Wandsworth has been underpinned by financial control. Even if people aren’t natural Conservatives, the wisdom goes, they’ll vote Conservative in local elections because the borough is efficiently run and keeps its hands out of tax-payers’ pockets.
There is something to that; historically the Conservatives have polled better in local elections than in national elections; defeats for the Conservatives at general elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005 were all followed within a year by easy victories in the local election. The discipline that held all the way through that period cemented their reputation as a low-tax borough. I’m not sure the pain that discipline caused just to be a few pence a year cheaper than Westminster Council1 was worth it, but it was unquestionably there and a source of some envy from other councils.
That’s not to say the council was always mercenary. I remember when the group voted to close York Road library (which served the Winstanley and York Road estates) the then Leader, Edward Lister vetoed the decision because, I like to think, he knew it was just wrong: closing a library in one of our most deprived neighbourhoods to save a few pence was going too far. It may have been hard-edged when it came to cash, but it wasn’t ruthless.
Recently it’s become clear the council’s efficiency is not what it was, you only need to see the state of the roads and pavements (which they won’t let us know). But it kept a grip on the finances.
Now it just makes it up.
The last council meeting of the 2014-2018 council took place last Wednesday. It was an acrimonious affair. The main part of the meeting was the setting of the council tax: an annual event that used to be something of a set-piece at which Conservatives would take turns to praise the council then vote through the council tax before retiring to the pub for a self-congratulatory pint.
But on Wednesday the Tories abandoned years of responsible financial management. Panicking about the election they threw out a last-minute election bribe.
We all knew there was a Conservative amendment to the council tax recommendation but few people, including most of the Conservative group, had no idea what it was. The council was being asked to set a council tax on information it wasn’t allowed to know until the time came for the Leader to read it out while a council employee moved through the council chamber distributing the copies of the amendment. The amendment was printed hours earlier but kept under wraps because the leader needs every advantage he can get in the council chamber. It announced £10 million extra (perhaps) for nice things just in time for the election.
There were complaints about this, of course. It is illegal to set a budget that does not balance (there was no sign of where this money was from) and council standing orders prevent the introduction of an amendment that increases spending at the meeting. There was a degree of confusion while officers checked, trying to find a way to allow it, and the Leader was eventually saved by a backbencher who pointed out that the amendment wasn’t even a spending commitment but merely a commitment to look for £10 million.
In other words it was meaningless: calling it a bribe is probably an insult to bribery – it’s an IOU with no indication of how it will be paid.
The Leader was a little more blunt about it later: the money was to come from reserves. There are several possible interpretations to this. One is that they have built up reserves purely to use as an electoral bribe. Another is that if the level of council reserves isn’t artificially high, they were also implicitly announcing that there will be a £10 million tax hike, or £10 million of cuts after the election.
Whichever it is, there is no doubt that the £10 million is a sign of desperation. A last throw of the dice from a worried council leader hoping to buy votes in an election that looks dangerously close.
Of course, it’s lovely he feels the need to stump up £10 million from reserves to bribe the electorate with nice things. But some might argue the money would be better spent on repairing the crumbling roads and broken pavements. Maybe even paying for the Fire Risk Assessments not carried out in council blocks despite the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. Or, just perhaps, they could invest in the children’s services department which is still failing two years after Ofsted’s original damning judgement.
Of course, bribing the electorate might have been a good tactical decision. We won’t know until 4 May. If nothing else it gave a Conservative group that are questioning his leadership something to cheer about as they head into a council election.
But when sound financial management is not just your unique selling point, but your only selling point, is a last-minute bribe for the electorate—highlighting that you play fast and loose with the council coffers for electoral gain—really a good strategic move?
I suspect not.
- A bizarre competition, the structure of local government finance meant Westminster could have easily set a lower tax, but it was politically expedient for them not to be the lowest: they were the ones setting a reasonable budget, not the ones cutting services just to set a low council tax like Wandsworth. ↩
I am proud to be standing for Renew in the Wandsworth council elections in May. I had spent a long time quite happy as an independent with no intention of standing as a candidate, of any type, for some time. So what changed?
Leaving the Conservatives was a long time coming for me. I felt the Conservatives had ceased representing me both locally and nationally, and on Wandsworth they were feeling increasingly tired: interested only in control and lacking any positive vision for the borough.
I have enjoyed being an independent councillor and feel I make a difference (much bigger than I ever could as Conservative). But that was limited.
While I enjoyed the freedom to, say, help Tooting parkrun get started or advise the Save Battersea Park group in getting rid of Formula E it was a pretence to say I was alone. I was able to help because I was an independent, free from the shackles of party control (although I had been surreptitiously helping both, even while in the Conservative group), the fact is that those campaign’s successes only came about because everyone involved was part of something larger.
And that brought me to Renew. The choice between the mainstream parties is no choice at all. It would be unimaginable to re-join a Conservative Party that seems to want nothing more than a return to the 1950s, or a Labour Party moving further and further to the left, especially while both are propping up each other’s hard Brexit delusions.
The Liberal Democrats might have some attractions, being at least anti-Brexit. But it’s hard to see how they can have any impact: tainted by their involvement in the coalition and led by Vince Cable they are simply not the right choice for challenge we face.
And that left Renew: an anti-Brexit, centrist party, a home for all those people, like me, who have found themselves politically homeless since the referendum.
What Renew offers Wandsworth
Renew is not looking to control Wandsworth council, it is quite purposefully not putting up a full slate of 60 candidates, but instead offers a compelling opportunity to voters to make their voice heard; to send a message from a 75% remain borough that hard-Brexit is not what we want, and that a choice between two extremist parties is no choice at all.
I have seen the difference that a couple of independently minded, evidence-driven councillors has made. Malcolm Grimston and I were the leading councillors forcing the council to take an aggressive stance in defending the rights of EU citizens while Conservatives were still busy crowing about the referendum result. And Malcolm has led the campaign to stand up for leaseholders being forced to pay thousands for unnecessary sprinklers.
Renew councillors can continue that role; holding whoever controls the council to account, and promoting a centrist view to balance the extremes of either a Conservative or Labour administration.
The council elections are the last scheduled election before the two-year article 50 notice period expires. You will have three votes. If you want to send a message about Brexit to the main parties, and if you want councillors that will represent you and not a few from their extreme fringes, then use one of the three votes for your Renew candidate.
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.
I should have known better.
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— Not Wandsworth BC (@notwandbc) December 4, 2017
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).
Locally politics is no better. With elections next year candidates are going all out to win votes, from taking credit for decisions taken seven years ago to deciding that trolling the local foodbank is a good look.
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.