Category Archives: Wandsworth

The prodigal blog returns

I return to my blog after a self-imposed hiatus. A combination of moving house, having another baby and running as a Labour candidate in the local elections meant that I have been, like a donkey on a Spanish clock tower, somewhat on the edge.

 

Running for council was a great experience. It was a pleasant surprise that the majority of people were happy to talk to me about local issues or national politics, and whilst I got told to eff off on occasion it happened less than if I had stayed at home with my wife.

 

However, despite this, with a 32% turnout in my ward (St Mary’s Park, Battersea) it is obvious that there is a lot of work to do to engage people sufficiently to vote in local elections. If 2 out of 3 voters cannot see enough a reason to vote then local democracy looks rather anaemic.

 

There are several factors causing this. In part there is an issue with people not realising the full effect that decisions taken at town hall can have on their lives. Whilst successive governments have steadily emasculated local government the council remains important. Schools, roads and social care all come, to some extent, within local government’s remit.

 

There is also a significant ‘plague on all your houses’ contingent. Quite a lot of people tend to think that politicians are all the same. This feeling is related to a problem with the professionalization of politics and political discussion in the media veering between the banal and infantile bickering. There is a danger of the mainstream parties being seen as two idiots arguing in the corner and not noticing that everyone else has drifted off home (or to an after party at Nigel Farage’s house with Godfrey Bloom playing the bongos).

 

Locally in Wandsworth we have also had many ears of Tory administration which has led some to believe that there is little to no point in voting. The fact that our candidate lost by a handful of votes in the ward of Queenstown should show that every vote does count.

 

Related to all these points is a general ennui, the (partly understandable) cynicism expressed by Russell Brand that nothing will really change. This increasingly pervasive, and ultimately quite dangerous, disassociation with democracy is what we need to tackle. I was told on numerous occasions that whilst I seemed alright they did not think “politicians” were interested in normal people. How can we overcome this?

 

I think that in the long-term it is through a much greater engagement with the community at every level. It is this sort of continuing micro-politics that is the essence of Tip O’Neill’s assertion that all politics is local. Through continuing engagement people will see the real effects that politics has on their lives.

 

I enjoyed talking to local residents that I would not necessarily meet in other circumstances. It was a privilege to be able to help some people and a source of pride when we achieved something, no matter how small, for local residents. I hope that these small acts can help to restore a little faith in the machinery of local politics. These conversations and local involvement can make our communities better and show that politics matters.

 

It was enlightening to see the real and pernicious effects of inequality. In the past I have been guilty of looking at issues through a theoretical and ideological prism. Seeing these things as they are actually being lived by people brings home the casual cruelty of poor policy such as the Bedroom tax.

 

Many of the conversations I had in our local estates arose from the effects of years of disregard by the council. Some are in desperate need of regeneration with barely functioning lifts and dirty stairwells. This environment provides fertile ground for anti-social behaviour, which self-perpetuates. If the stairs are strewn with rubbish the likelihood of fly-tipping grows. The worse-kept the stairs the more likely it seems you will find people taking hard drugs there. This erosion of pride in the public realm has negative effects on us all.

 

These problems are compounded by the fact that these places are the ones bearing the brunt of the worst aspects of austerity and they suffer disproportionately at the hand of the council’s cuts.

 

It is through tackling these issues that we can re-engage communities even if the change can be infuriatingly gradual at times. Local residents want to make their areas better. This energy is there to be harnessed and can help bring about real and effective change in our communities. My hope is that we as a party can help these people and make a valuable contribution to our local life. If we do this then people will have a real and compelling reason to get out and vote.

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Battersea rat run

Wandsworth Council have decided to proceed with an experimental traffic order opening up the south side of Battersea High Street to through traffic. This trial has arisen due to a petition of 22 signatures from businesses at the end of the street.

It seems likely that opening up this part of the road to traffic will create a classic rat run situation, with traffic now being able to cut through from Vicarage Crescent to Battersea Park road. The council claims that they will be taking measures to prevent a rat run but without preventing egress from Battersea High Street at this end it is difficult to see what measures can be taken.

It is currently unclear when the trial will start and on what basis the success or otherwise of the initiative will be judged.

There are several problematic issues that arise from this decision and why I think the trial should not be extended.

Firstly, the basis on which the decision was taken appears to be flawed. The assumption that increasing traffic is the way to increase business for retail outlets is often taken reflexively. However, this assumption does not necessarily correspond to reality, especially in a densely populated urban area where half the populace do not own a car. Given that no economic case was given to the council before the decision it appears it is merely based on an assumption. I would contend that it is a flawed assumption.

The retail outlets at this end of the street include several restaurants and pizza delivery outlets, a few newsagent, a green grocer, a hairdresser and a bookmaker. These types of business are predominantly reliant on local, repeat custom. The notion that allowing motor traffic to this part of the street would increase business seems weak given the nature of the businesses involved.

It is worth relating that research conducted by London Councils has shown that the number of customers arriving by car is generally over-estimated. The research also showed that people arriving by public transport or by foot visit more frequently and spend more money than motorists in town centre shops.

It is highly likely given the characteristic of the local area that the majority of the custom would come from a relatively short distance and most likely come by foot or public transport. Increasing traffic on the road could actually deter this type of custom.

The idea that increased traffic would create extra business is also weakened due to the lack of parking in the area. Where exactly is the extra custom going to park their vehicles to use these shops? With the new residential developments in the area the pressure on parking space is only likely to grow.

There are other ways in which to improve customer flow and help the local business. It is disappointing that the most banal option available is the one which has been selected. The research indicates that a more attractive street with better facilities for pedestrians and cyclists would be most beneficial. Improving access from the Battersea Park Road end of the street for pedestrians could be beneficial. Alternatively making the area next to the current barrier more attractive could be beneficial.

Secondly, the decision seems to run counter to the council’s public health remit. The tacit encouragement of travelling by car contradicts the council’s supposed desire to increase activity such as walking and cycling.

Nitrogen dioxide levels are already over the desired average levels on Battersea Park Road. Increasing traffic in the area would appear likely to lead to further pollution. This would be damaging to local residents. Wandsworth had 148 deaths related to poor air quality in 2008. To risk a further deterioration in the local air quality could be regarded as irresponsible.

There is also the risk of an increase in accidents due to an increase in traffic. There are many vulnerable users of this road due to there being a primary school, nursing home, church and charity building on or just off the road. Thus there is a high concentration of our most vulnerable pedestrians in the area. It seems odd for the council to prioritise the motorist over them and to increase the likelihood of accidents involving these vulnerable users of local amenities.

Finally, the decision is also at odds with the general transport policy. The high street is part of the Wandsworth Cycle network and the council has installed several stations for the bike hire scheme in the immediate area.

It is unrealistic to expect more people to cycle whilst simultaneously encouraging more motor traffic in the area. Most people cite the fear of accidents as a reason for not cycling. The act of increasing traffic in the area is therefore going to make people less likely to use the route for cycling, especially the first time, irregular users that the hire scheme is purportedly looking to encourage.

The fact that the council is prepared to spend money from ever decreasing resources on this initiative is worrying. The general trend in London is to re-prioritise our infrastructure away from the car. For Wandsworth to take this decision, even if motivated by a desire to help local businesses, seems almost wilfully perverse. The creation of a rat run here will be harmful to local residents and endanger the many vulnerable users of the road. It is far from clear that there will be any economic benefit and indeed, the allowance of traffic at this part of the road could have a detrimental effect on local businesses as it becomes more difficult for pedestrians to access the shops.

Sources:
http://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/GLA%20air%20quality%20public%20health%20guide%20for%20LB%20Wandsworth.pdf

http://www.wandsworth.gov.uk/downloads/file/8380/uupdating_and_screening_assessment_2012

http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/news/current/pressdetail.htm?pk=1549

http://www.livingstreets.org.uk/make-a-change/library/the-pedestrian-pound-the-business-case-for-better-streets-and-places

http://www.wandsworth.gov.uk/census