A few reflections on the Supreme Court judgment

The effort to sideline Parliament and the judiciary and return huge tranches of unchallenged power to the Executive (interrupted thank heavens by yesterday’s court decision) might look a jolly wheeze when (from the point of view of those pushing this move) we have the ‘right’ kind of government and every prospect of it winning the next election given the disarray of the opposition. But one should always be wary of getting one’s way. Presuming we have left the EU on October 31, one scenario that seems likely to me is that the Conservatives will win an election later this year or early next year by taking a number of Labour marginals in the midlands and north while abandoning its toeholds in Scotland, London and perhaps (to an extent) the south west. But then things become more interesting. The current deliberate policy of alienating the centrist former Conservative voters by excising the one nation wing of the party will not be easy to reverse.

So when Brexit begins to fade in the public mind as an issue of ‘stay or go’ things will be more challenging. The general debate will move on to other policy areas while Brexit will morph into a judgment on David Davies’s promise that “There will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside”. If, in this scenario, the Conservatives fail to win back their votes lost to the LibDems and (in London and maybe Scotland) Labour – which they will (heaven forbid if a single person should be found to have been unable to access vital medicine because of some hold-up at the ports, say) – then they will become reliant on holding those former Labour seats it won this year. In other words, they will have to abandon fiscal responsibility and govern like socialists. But as we know this does not work (and will alienate other elements of the right of the Party) – both in the sense of producing a sustainable economy but also because many Labour voters who may have held their nose and voted Conservative in a Brexit election would not ever do so again. (In 2017 we saw the former Labour vote which had shifted to UKIP in 2015 largely return to Labour, not the Conservatives).

And Labour have one huge electoral card to play. If they stop having Jeremy Corbyn as Leader and instead have any other person in Britain (except perhaps John McDonnell, George Galloway or Rolf Harris) their electoral prospects when the Brexit confusion is over will be transformed overnight. And it could well be a very left-wing Labour government that was elected in that scenario as Labour’s actual policies are every bit as populist (and unworkable of course) as Mr Johnson’s.

At this point the campaign to neuter the role of Parliament and the Courts, pitting both against ‘the people’, starts to look very silly. An incoming leftwing government would find it much easier in such circumstances say to appropriate private property (for example from public schools or privatised industries) with little or no compensation. Bennite/Corbynite Euroscepticism has always been fuelled by an anger that the EU would not allow a Labour government to ride roughshod over people’s rights.

The icing on the cake for the far Left of course would be if we pulled out of the European Court of Human Rights. We may get annoyed at particular decisions of the judiciary or indeed Parliament but we would be very foolish to forget why we – yes, we the people – spent centuries creating the current system.

Local Government Boundaries Commission for England (Wandsworth Council boundary review) – my submission

The Local Government Boundary Commission for England is carrying out a review of the Ward boundaries in Wandsworth. The proposal is to reduce the total number of Councillors from 60 to 58, which when coupled with the growth in population in northeast Battersea means more residents per Councillor. Below is my submission which just covers the Putney parliamentary constituency – basically I do not see any need for a radical change in Ward boundaries, though West Hill could probably do with being a little larger. You can make a submission at https://consultation.lgbce.org.uk/node/16790 before August 5th – there will then be an opportunity to comment on the Commission’s proposals.

 

SUBMISSION TO LOCAL GOVERNMENT BOUNDARY COMMISSION WITH REGARD TO THE LONDON BOROUGH OF WANDSWORTH
July 30 2019
Malcolm Charles Grimston, 67 Trevelyan Road, London SW17 9LR
Councillor (Independent), West Hill Ward
malcolmgrimston@btconnect.com

THE AUTHOR

The author has represented “West Hill Ward” on Wandsworth Borough Council since 1994. This included 8 years when West Hill was a two-Member Ward covering two polling directs of the present Ward plus an area north of the A3, and 17 years in current three-Member Ward.

SUMMARY

1. Retaining coterminosity of Ward and Parliamentary boundaries within the London Borough of Wandsworth, while increasing the numbers of councillors in Battersea by 1 to 22, reducing those in Putney by 1 to 17 and reducing those in Tooting by 2 to 19, offers the opportunity to delivers 58 Council Wards of essentially the same number of electors per Councillor.

2. Within Putney the transfer of polling district RH4 to West Putney Ward, reducing the number of councillors serving Roehampton & Putney Heath to 2 and retaining five 3-member Wards, is essentially sufficient to meet the criteria to which the LGBCE is working with very little disruption to currently established boundaries and service patterns. However, a small number of minor transfers among Wards, none of which have major community implications, are suggested which would bring all Wards to within 3% of the Borough average councillor-to-electors ratio. The six Wards would also be essentially the same size geographically owing to the presence of Putney Heath within the Roehampton & Putney Heath Ward.

3. This submission does not attempt to suggest how rewarding in the Parliamentary Constituencies of Battersea and Tooting may be carried out as the author has less knowledge of the community implications of various options in those Constituencies – please discount the appearance of these two Constituencies in the attached illustrations.

SCOPE OF THIS SUBMISSION

4. The redevelopment of Battersea Power Station, in effect creating a new ‘town centre’, has profound implications for the north-east of the Borough of Wandsworth, notably Queenstown Ward, and it is clear that a major redrawing of Ward boundaries will be required in this part of the Borough.

5. However, while of course there have been and are considerable levels of development elsewhere in the Borough (as there have been across London and indeed in many other areas) in the 20 years since the last boundary review, the knock-on effects of the Power Station development become less dramatic as one moves to the west and the south.

6. Although there is no requirement for Council Wards to be coterminous with Parliamentary constituencies, this has been the practice in the London Borough of Wandsworth (and many others), apparently since its inception. At present there are seven Wards entirely within the Parliamentary constituency of Battersea; six within Putney; and seven within Tooting, all Wards having three Members. There are advantages in retaining this link, presuming that to do so does not come into tension with the Commission’s statutory criteria. These include relationships (Members working closely with a single MP on Ward issues); clarity of representation and accountability (residents knowing that if they are in Southfields Ward, for example, then they are also in Putney Constituency); and management of statistics. Of course Parliamentary boundaries do change from time to time but the present proposals before Parliament seem to have become somewhat becalmed.

7. Wandsworth Council figures suggest a total electorate of 244,715, with Battersea Constituency having 92,931, Putney 71,680 and Tooting 80,104. Presuming that the total number of councillors were reduced to 58 and that Battersea had 22 Members (up one), Putney 17 (down one) and Tooting 19 (down two), the ratio of councillor-to-resident in the three Constituencies would be extraordinarily consistent: 1 to 4,224 in Battersea and 1 to 4,216 in each of Putney and Tooting (the Borough-wide average being 1 to 4,219).

8. This would seem to suggest a very attractive starting point:

that all ‘new’ Wards should be situated within a single Parliamentary Constituency, as at present; that Battersea should see an increased representation of one councillor to 22; Putney a reduction of one councillor to 17; Tooting a reduction of two councillors to 19.

9. From this it follows that to an extent the three Constituencies could be treated separately. As the author of this submission has more understanding and experience of the Putney Constituency the submission will focus on the six Wards of Wandsworth Council which presently constitute the Putney Parliamentary Constituency, viz. East Putney, Roehampton & Putney Heath, Southfields, Thamesfield, West Hill and West Putney: please discount any apparent specific boundary changes for the other Constituencies in the attached documents.

10. The main proposal is to reduce the Roehampton & Putney Heath Ward to two members by moving polling district RHD (the area north of Clarence Lane and west of Roehampton Lane) into West Putney. This change alone brings all the Wards within Putney to within 10% of the average representation across the Borough in a 58-councillor council. However, relatively minor changes at the boundaries of the other Wards would allow for all the new Wards more closely to meet the ‘electoral equality’ criterion while retaining the current generally strong association between communities and Ward boundaries.

PUTNEY CONSTITUENCY

11. As currently configured, the Parliamentary Constituency of Putney consists of six entire Wards, electing a total of 18 councillors. Three Wards – East and West Putney and Thamesfield – cover what might broadly be recognised as the settlement of Putney (SW15); the settlements of Southfields (SW18) and Roehampton (SW15) have one Ward each; while West Hill Ward largely covers the SW19 (historic Wimbledon Park) area with some adjacent SW18 and SW15 postcode areas. Given the effective relationship between major communities and the current Ward boundaries, coupled with the Ward-based statistics that have been collected for many years, the proposal suggest that relatively minor changes to the Warding structure within Putney could deliver on the statutory requirements while representing minimal disruption to present ways of working.

12. As noted above, reducing the total to 17 councillors would satisfy the requirement for equal representation across the Borough, presuming of course that the electorate is evenly distributed among Putney Wards in the new Warding structure. The simplest way of achieving this would be to reduce one Ward to two Members, retain five 3-Member Wards and make a small number of suitable minor alterations to the boundaries of other Wards. By transferring an entire polling district, RHD, from one Ward to another and restricting other changes to a minimum the statutory outcomes can be delivered with a very small amount of disruption to the present pattern of Wards: for example very few residents would have to move to another polling station.

THE WARDS

EAST PUTNEY

13. East Putney is a coherent community on the Putney/Wandsworth borders. By these proposals it would be essentially unchanged, possibly losing a small area north of the A3 to West Hill Ward and gaining small areas from West Putney and Southfields (see below). With these boundaries the Ward is 0.3% above electoral parity.

ROEHAMPTON AND PUTNEY HEATH WARD

14. The population of the present Ward is considerably smaller than would justify 3 members. Transferring Polling District RHD (the area north of Clarence Lane/west of Roehampton Lane) to West Putney would create a Ward the correct size for two Members. This change leaves the main residential community of Roehampton & Putney Heath Ward (the Alton Estate) and also the Putney Vale estate undivided, while transferring the University, Roedean Gardens/Roehampton Gate and the Arabella Drive estate into West Putney. In terms of area the new Roehampton & Putney Heath Ward would remain the largest in the Constituency owing to the presence of Putney Heath itself. With these boundaries the Ward is 1.9% above electoral parity.

SOUTHFIELDS

15. The main features of the Southfields community, e.g. the Southfields Grid and the Southside Housing estate, remain intact in these proposals. Transferring a small area bounded by Granville Road (to the south), Merton Road and Wimbledon Park Road to East Putney would reduce Southfields Ward to the correct size: there are no very clear reasons why this should not be done in terms of natural community boundaries – indeed the new boundary now runs right along Granville Road rather than departing from it at Wimbledon Park Road as at present. With these boundaries the Ward is 0.7% above electoral parity.

THAMESFIELD

16. Thamesfield Ward, a coherent community bounced in effect by the River and the Upper Richmond Road, remains unchanged in these proposals. With these boundaries the Ward is 0.8% above electoral parity.

WEST HILL WARD

17. The present West Hill Ward is bounded by the Merton border; the London Underground line running from East Putney to Wimbledon Park stations; the A3 (West Hill); and Wimbledon Park Side/Wimbledon Common – all ‘natural’ borders. However, as currently constituted it is a little too small (about 5.7% below electoral parity), though well within the 10% guidelines. The nature of the current boundaries might suggest retaining these borders would be justified. However, if felt desirable on representational equity grounds, it is to be noted that the previous West Hill Ward (1978-2002), a two-Member Ward, included an area north of the A3 in a triangle bounded by West Hill, Tibbet’s Ride/Putney Hill and Lytton Grove – there is an A3 underpass linking Beaumont Road and Putney Heath Lane. To transfer all of this area to West Hill Ward (over 2,000 electors) would be excessive but, if it were felt necessary, adding the area formed by Tibbet’s Corner, Tibbet’s Ride/Putney Hill, Putney Heath Lane and the A3 could be returned to West Hill, bringing the Ward up to within 3% of electoral parity without significantly disturbing its essential structure. With these boundaries the Ward is 2.8% below electoral parity.

WEST PUTNEY

18. Gaining the area north of Clarence Lane and west of Roehampton Lane from Roehampton & Putney Heath Ward creates a West Putney Ward which is slightly too large, though well within the 10% limit. This could be countered by moving a small area including Holroyd Road, Balmuir Gardens and the Upper Richmond Road into East Putney, thereby equalising East and West Putney Wards. Main features such as the Ashburton Estate and the roads south of the Upper Richmond Road would remain intact. With these boundaries the Ward is 0.6% below electoral parity.

CONCLUSIONS

19. The above proposed changes bring all six Wards in the Putney Parliamentary Constituency to within 3% of electoral equality, while retaining the advantages of all Wards remaining in a single Parliamentary Constituency and without breaking up natural communities.

20. With respect to the interests and identities of local communities, by representing a relatively minor set of changes these proposals will retain the sense of community associated with the current Council Wards. The most affected Ward, Roehampton, retains the Alton Estate which is the heart of the area. The major change involves transfer of an entire polling district from the present Roehampton & Putney Heath Ward to the present West Putney Ward, with relatively minimal consequences in terms of administration.

21. The Wards so created would involve little disruption to the current configuration; be of similar size geographically; allow the statistics collected over the last 20 years since the 2002 boundary changes to be largely transferrable to the new Warding pattern; retain a pattern of multi-member Wards.

Malcolm Grimston
July 30 2019
(Link to proposals at https://rds.statmap.co.uk/map/map.html?login=wandsworth2_viewer&scenario=MALCOLM_GRIMSTON_SUBMISSION_JULY_30_2019&sid=e9d553cfde9b3172b3e439c74e752e1e).

THE LESSONS OF MAY 2

Just a quick thought.

It seems to me patently bizarre to believe that people up and down the country switched to Green and LibDem because they want a quicker and/or harder Brexit. They could have voted UKIP where there was a candidate or spoiled their paper (as many did). Further, the swing to the Remain parties seemed effectively the same whether the area in question voted leave or remain. For some time my feeling has been that for many, probably most, people the anger at the political establishment, Conservative and Labour, leave and remain, is that they took a trivial back-of-mind issue, forced the country to take sides on it, denigrated those who dared to hold a different view, unleashed three years of chaos (with many more to come) in which massive issues like universal credit, housing and air quality have gone largely unattended, split friend from friend, unleashed some truly awful behaviours and have subsequently taken every opportunity to widen division. Of course there are some for whom this is about the EU as such but they are in the minority in my experience. The vote against the main parties was not primarily anger at what they intend to do or not do about Brexit, but what they have already done and the years of completely unnecessary pain yet to come.

And form my point of view the rise of the Independents was of course very exciting!

The Council election – a fascinating and humbling experience

You can see the full election result at http://www.wandsworth.gov.uk/info/200327/election_results/2327/2018_borough_council_election_results_-_3_may/20 but in a nutshell West Hill Ward elected two Labour Councillors, Angela Ireland and Peter Carpenter, and me. By giving me 4,002 votes (out of a total 6,000 cast in the Ward), by some way the highest total of any candidate on the night (actually I understand the largest vote in the history of Wandsworth Borough Council except for 2010 when there was a high turnout because of the General Election on the same day), I believe we delivered powerful message to both of the political parties – that we do expect more of our representatives than three and a half years of silence and a (frankly rather ‘project fear’) blitz campaign. Every year I will be asking for an official statement about the numbers of questions all 60 councillors have asked on behalf of their residents as it was a bit of an eye-opener when my former Independent colleague James Cousins asked that question this year. It will also give you the information to hold me and other new councillors to account. The Council is now made up of 33 Conservatives, 26 Labour and me.

The other thing that I really liked was the fact that our turnout was greater than 50% (51.2%) which I think was the highest in the Borough. Sadly these days in local elections it is extremely rare for more than half of those eligible to vote actually to do so – I hope others will notice that when residents and councillors work together on issues people will come out to vote and engage in our democratic process.

THE NEW COUNCILLORS

I would like to congratulate Angela and Peter for their election to the Ward. I have known both of them for some time. Angela has been a very effective chair of the Edgecombe Hall Residents’ Association and we have worked together on a number of issues, not least recently on the proposed imposition of sprinklers in all rooms of 10+ storey council blocks. Peter has represented Roehampton and Putney Heath Ward for eight years and is an intelligent man with a particular interest in council finances. I am looking forward to working with them both. A special word for Nobuco Hara – it is always difficult to be the one who misses out in these circumstances and I know from the positive comments I heard after the hustings at the Gardens Tennis Club a couple of weeks ago that she was well thought of and brought a new perspective to local issues.

THE CAMPAIGN

I thought that all the candidates fought a robust and effective campaign and I am sure any of them would have made highly effective councillors. Anyone who offers themselves for public office has my respect. I have asked all the Labour and Conservative candidates (and will extend the invitation to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, though it is probably fair to say that they were not quite so high profile in the campaign) if we could sit down together and share our thoughts as to what we have learned about the Ward over recent weeks. It always seems to me a shame that the candidates in an election, as a group, pick up a huge amount of knowledge about what is going on but it is hardly ever captured and acted upon. I am delighted that Alison Rodwell, Salvatore Murtas and Robert Hughes have accepted as have the new Councillors and Nobuco.

Election Q&A

QUESTION AND ANSWER

You’ve asked me a few questions during the campaign which I’d like to offer my thoughts on.

Q             You are the only councillor we ever seem to hear of or hear from – are we missing something?

A             No. The Council has published the number of questions the 60 councillors raised on behalf of local residents between October 2015 and September 2017 – basically the middle half of the 2014-2018 Council. The two West Hill councillors between them raised 23 questions on behalf of local residents – and took home over £42,000 in allowances for their troubles. This works out at over £1,800 per resident they tried to help. Incidentally I gather they got no criticism for the party leadership for this. One of the candidates for another party who is currently a councillor in another Ward did fewer than one case per week. It is not as though there is nothing needs doing in West Hill – in the same period I did over 2,500 bits of local casework on matters raised with me by your good selves or which I have seen during my walkabouts or in response to my newsletters.

Q             Are Wandsworth services really as good as some people would have us believe – that is not what I see when I look at the potholes, the litter and so on?

A             Wandsworth is a ‘failing’ council. Fifteen years ago Wandsworth was one of the top councils in the country – judged 4* (‘excellent’) for education, for social services and for overall standard of services. But, using the same criteria as were applied in those days, Wandsworth is now a 1* council. For over two years Wandsworth Children’s Services have been failing to look after our most vulnerable youngsters and has needed outside intervention. We have the highest proportion of adult care homes requiring improvement of any SW London Borough – ranked 21st out of 32 in London. We are the sixth worst authority in the COUNTRY for recycling – a pathetic 21.9%. Of course like every council we do some things well too: our schools are excellent, for example. (I was at Southmead Primary last week talking about local history – I had the pleasure of doing the same at Ronald Ross and Our Lady Queen of Heaven recently. What a great bunch of kids and teachers we have!) But even here many schools have had to appeal to parents for extra funds while St Cecilia’s now only does sport once a fortnight because budget cuts mean they can’t afford the staff. Overall we are not meeting the standard set by our neighbouring councils.

Q             Do failing children’s services or relatively low-standard care homes really matter to this Council?

A             Apparently not – how often have you any reference to putting these matters right in the pile of literature coming through your letterboxes? I have been sitting on the Improvement Board that the government has imposed on Wandsworth until we start looking after our children properly for the last two years and have managed to improve the quality of information being used but the lack of resources being made available is very depressing. It is simply not a priority.

Q             Are you really ‘independent’?

A             Yes. Over the last years I have voted with Labour and Conservatives (most things that come before Council are agreed by all parties); with the Conservatives against Labour; with Labour against the Conservatives; and against both Conservative and Labour. The reason I am independent is that I want to vote in favour of what I believe is the right thing, not what the Party tells me I have to think. So for example I voted against turning Battersea Park into a racetrack (that has stopped) and was the only councillor against imposing sprinklers in all our 10+ storey blocks against the wishes of residents (not stopped yet but getting close, I believe). I also proposed the motion asking our MPs to press the government to give full rights to our European Union national friends when neither Party saw fit to do so (though they all supported it in the end).

Q             You are independent – what influence can you have as one voice among 60?

A             When I went Independent I did presume I would lose influence over Council policy. Actually the opposite has happened: I am finding that one independent voice arguing on the basis of evidence (I am one of the very few councillors who is a scientist and is used to interpreting numbers) is more effective for the Ward than finding ourselves lumbered with three councillors in a group of 30 or 40 others who just have to parrot the Party line on everything.

Q             Where do you stand on Council tax?

A             Although there has been a lot of talk about it, Council Tax is really a bit of a red herring. Labour and Conservative have both said they will freeze it for two years and by law they could only raise it by an extra 2% (about 27p a week at Band D) – any more would need a local referendum which no Council has ever tried. I don’t personally think Labour’s spending plans stack up but if they don’t they won’t be able to balance the books by CT rises, it would have to be by different service cuts. However, I have come to a view that we should be raising it by that 27p a week – it would raise nearly an extra £2 million a year, not enough to answer all our failing services by any means but a move in the right direction, in my view. If we want clean streets, reasonable roads and, most of all, safe vulnerable children and adults then we have to be prepared to pay a fair sum for it.

A few comments from residents…

I am very grateful for the comments residents have been making about me. Below is a selection.

“Malcolm is consistently there when we need him, I strongly urge you to get up and be counted and support him before the big party machines cost us the most valuable councillor we have.” MT, Wimbledon Park Road

“It’s reassuring to have a councillor who will turn up at my front door (not just at elections) to sort out council issues or that I can email and my concerns will be investigated.” John Bunker, Beaumont Road

“Malcolm Grimston has long been respected as one of Wandsworth’s most effective councillors. Being an Independent gives him even greater opportunities to serve the community.” MS, Girdwood Road

“I always thought a councillor was just someone who voted in council. That was until the independent Malcolm Grimston came along. Here’s a man who brings the council to your door and makes it work for you!” Chris Ward, Windlesham Grove

“It is heartening to see someone actually doing something for and communicating with the electorate and not just turning up to vote at whipped Council meetings.” JH, Combemartin Road

“Malcolm Grimston has been our local Wandsworth Councillor for over 20 years and has been unfailing in his support during all that time, whether it has been prodding someone into action at the Town Hall or supporting the residents through a programme of major works. He will be getting my vote again in the forthcoming Council Elections in 2018.” SDS, Linstead Way

“I moved into the area a couple of years ago and was so pleased to find we have a hardworking, committed local councillor in Malcolm Grimston. Someone not bogged down in party politics but who genuinely cares about the ward, has our interests at heart and gets things done.” Richard Lamberth, Inner Park Road

“I am supporting Malcolm because of the genuine interest he takes in the residents of the Ward. He even welcomed us personally when we first moved here. He is a strong force in local community who goes above and beyond to support us.” Ella, Princes Way

“Malcolm Grimston is the real thing. Most of our local councillors are invisible until they want your vote. Malcolm is always around and will have knocked on your door some time.” Bryan Hubbard, Victoria Drive

“Malcolm Grimston is the David Attenborough of our local politics – a tireless independent, championing West Hill matters.” Sarah Pope, Fulwood Walk

“THANK YOU so much for your email updates, it is wonderful to be kept in the loop on what’s happening and can be done in Southfields and that you are fighting our corner and listen to what we all have to say.” Mrs R, Windlesham Grove

“Malcolm is truly independent – he represents OUR interests when we need his help.” Ms H & Mr L, Oak Park Gardens

“We fully support Malcolm’s active involvement in everyday matters affecting our community. He is easily approachable, highly engaged and effective in facilitating solutions.” Mr B, Belmont Mews

“I was at the ‘sprinkler’ meeting last year & was struck by the affection everyone seems to have for you. I for one was glad that you were there as you genuinely seemed the only person on the panel truly connected with the people in the room.” AB, Whitlock Drive

“The two of us appreciate you doing the rounds of the residents in your ward and taking soundings‎. You will most certainly get my vote in the next local election.” JB, Kingscliffe Gardens

“Thanks for all your work in ‘getting things done’, also for your wonderful publication that gave us an insight into the illustrious past of the area we live in. We look forward to supporting you in this year’s elections.” John Waller, IPR

“Malcolm is a great asset to our community. He is consistently present when others are not, he listens and works hard to make Southfields better.” MS, Albert Drive

“Thanks for your email updates. I’ve spoken to friends and no Councillors from their wards do anything like this.” Mr G, Wimbledon Park Side

“Thank you for your brilliant emails which make us feel involved in the community and keep us all well informed.” Mrs and Mrs T, Whitelands Park

“It is so great to see someone driving local problems to resolution.” Mike Robey, Chapman Square

“Cllr Grimston has worked tirelessly for his ward and we wish him every success.”  JB-A, Albert Drive

“Southfields Business Forum is encouraged by the involvement that Councillor Grimston shows to the Forum. He is reliable and gives us his support in many of our issues. We are grateful to him for his dedication and commitment to the Forum and especially for supporting us at our open meeting.”

The Council election – my ‘manifesto’

The Council election is on May 3 and I will be standing as an Independent candidate for West Hill Ward.

Wandsworth Council is divided into 20 areas or Wards – ours is called West Hill and is home to about 16,000 people. Every four years eligible residents select three councillors for each of these wards. Presuming there are more than three candidates (many years ago the Putney ward of the old Wandsworth Metropolitan Council often used to be unopposed) you will have up to three votes to use. You can use one, two or all three and each vote is of equal value (i.e. no 1st, 2nd or 3rd preferences, unlike in the Mayor for London election). The three candidates who get the greatest number of crosses are elected. Many people, for example European Union nationals and people from most Commonwealth countries, who cannot vote in General Elections for parliament, can vote in Council elections. If you already registered in another part of the country you can still register in Wandsworth for local elections, but you can’t vote twice in the Council election if your other address is also in Wandsworth. If you think you are going to be away on May 3 please contact me and I will arrange a ‘proxy’ to vote on your behalf, or you can vote by post if you have applied to the Council to do so in time.

If you would like to help me to stay on as your local councillor, e.g. by delivering a few leaflets or showing a poster in your window, please let me know. (malcolmgrimston@btconnect.com)

London is traditionally heavily politicised so what can an Independent offer? I am standing on the following grounds.

1. HARD WORK – more individual cases handled (planning, Housing, social care, benefits, potholes, refuse collection, flytipping, education …) than any other Wandsworth Councillor. Between October 2015 and September 2017 I did 2491 pieces of casework. The other (Conservative) Councillors in West Hill Ward did 13 and 10 respectively.

2. VISIBILITY for four YEARS not four MONTHS – regular house calls, school visits, attending meetings of Residents’ Associations, estate visits and so on. Several residents have contacted me saying that the political parties, after disappearing for over three years, have suddenly started popping up and claiming credit for our work over the years in getting yellow lines in on Victoria Drive, challenging the Council for removing litter bins from bus stops, getting the jumps n Wimbledon Park Road seen to and so on. Jumping on other people’s bandwagons is all well and good – but there has to be someone there doing the work in the first place!

3. INDEPENDENCE – taking decisions in the interests of the Ward, not of the Party. I first became Independent to fight the Council’s suggestion of closing Southfield Library – now (I believe) perfectly safe – and have on several occasions voted against both political parties, notably in supporting the rights of residents in our council estates to have the final say on the imposition of sprinklers where it is against their will.

4. KEEPING IN TOUCH – a monthly email newsletter and frequent paper ones for those of you without Internet access, including the popular History Corner.

5. COUNCILLOR SURGERIES in the Ward every month.

6. GETS THINGS DONE – a record of achievement including sorting out traffic problems on Beaumont Road, Augustus Road, Victoria Drive etc.; new bus stop on Wimbledon Park Road; pavements renewed or repaired; flytippers prosecuted; Wimbledon Park stadium staying where it is; Community RoadWatch events; improved road humps on Wimbledon Park Road – as well as literally thousands of small improvements to individual lives or small communities.

7. STICKING AT IT – not giving up on long-term issues such as the Keevil Drive/Skeena Hill/ Girdwood Road ratrun; the removal of litter bins to save a few pence on the Council Tax; Sainsburys and the old petrol station; and so forth.

8. EXPERIENCE – 24 years as your Councillor.

9. MEMBER OF THE IMPROVEMENT BOARD set up by the Government when Wandsworth Council’s Children’s Services were judged to be failing our most vulnerable youngsters.

10. A STRONG INDEPENDENT VOICE FOR WEST HILL WARD

More reflections on Grenfell

It is a sad fact that in the case of many major disasters, the attempts to put things right often exacerbates the initial tragedy rather than ameliorating it. In my view there is a serious risk that this may prove to be the case following the Grenfell Tower catastrophe, as evidence-based decision-making has taken a back seat to what appears to be something of a panic-driven political knee jerk.

This is not badly motivated – anyone who saw the fire (it was visible across the River from my Ward in Wandsworth for example) or has heard the stories of those most directly involved cannot fail to have been deeply affected.

Nonetheless, the national fire statistics are interesting. Perhaps the most important fact is that over the last 30 years the number of fire deaths in the UK has fallen by some 64% – one of the great successes in public policy.

Dig deeper and other points emerge. In 2016/17, if a fire broke out in a property it appears that one was least likely to die in a block of 10+ storeys (4 deaths per 1000 fires); most likely to die in a 4-9 storey block (8 per 1000); with 1-3 storey blocks of flats and houses/bungalows/ conversions lying in between (6 and 7 per 1000 respectively). If the last five years combined are taken it is houses and conversions that are the most ‘dangerous’ (7 per 1000) but 10+ storeys are still the safest (steady at 4 per 1000 fires). If London alone is taken the five-year figures are practically identical (not surprising since about two thirds of Britain’s 10+ storey blocks are in London).

The numbers equate to 6 fire deaths in London in 10+ storey blocks over the last 5 years. For a Borough like Wandsworth this is equivalent to about one fire death in 10+ storey blocks in any 25 year period, presuming of course that fire safety does not continue to improve as it has done in recent decades. Of course Grenfell will skew these figures enormously for the year 2017/2018 but the overview is clear enough.

After an excellent immediate response, in which Wandsworth (like many councils) told residents that only two or our blocks had ever been ‘clad’ and that in both cases there had been flat fires that had not spread throughout the buildings, within a week Wandsworth had announced plans to impose sprinklers in all flats in all 10+ storey council blocks, to take £24 million out of the Housing Revenue Account (in effect the rents of council tenants) to pay for it and to recharge leaseholders a sum expected to be of the order of £3-4k each for the programme.

This was done without any semblance of consultation with those who will be most severely affected. This has struck many residents as ironic – here we were, being told that one of the big lessons of Grenfell was that councils should listen more closely to their residents, yet Wandsworth was simply ignoring the voice of residents and taking unilateral action of its own.

As it happens, West Hill Ward has the first London County Council tower blocks, constructed on the Ackroydon Estate in the early 1950s. For 65 years these blocks have been protecting residents, often from themselves, from many flat fires and other events. The Fire Brigade and the Council, throughout that period, have rightly told residents that these concrete and brick boxes are ‘safe’.

Since 2007 it has been mandatory to fit sprinklers in all new 10+ storey blocks as they are built. This is fair enough – obviously it is much cheaper and more efficient to include a feature at the design and build stage than to try to backfit it in an existing structure. But the government, so far at least, has (rightly in my view) not made it compulsory to backfit sprinklers in older blocks.

 However, Wandsworth, like other councils, has in effect said that while residents of older multistorey blocks in the private sector are intelligent enough to take their own decisions based on the evidence, those in Council estates are not and need nanny to do it for them.

So I have heard stories of leaseholders who are just paying up to £12,500 per flat for major redecoration works (often not done very well), a huge sum especially for those who bought under right-to-buy and are still living in their old council home, and now have another £4,000 to find. Some fear they may have to move out. I hear of (and have visited) those who have just finished doing up their own property but who are now faced with someone coming in and ripping it all up to put the sprinklers in. I hear from those who are scared about what would happen if the sprinklers went off accidentally or because of a child’s prank, say, and they were left with the costs of putting things right. Others wonder if legionella might be a threat in the warm stagnant water.

These concerns are not limited to leaseholders. Several council tenants, who will not have to find the cost upfront (though of course it will be taken out of a fund that could be dealing with their dreadful damp problems, a real health threat, or many other improvements), are just as adamant in their opposiito0n to the proposals. Many would like the money spent on more pressing problems.

A head of steam is now building up among leaseholders across the Borough – politically interesting given that they have been a group who have always been regarded as natural Conservative voters but may take a different stance in next year’s Council election. There is particular anger that Wandsworth used their money to obtain legal advice supporting the recharging of the costs but has point blank allowed them to see that advice so they can challenge the key argument concerning ‘improving the security of the blocks’. The Council seems merely to default to two arguments – that council estate residents should have the same safety standards as those in the private sector (simply not true, since as noted above it is only post-2007 blocks that would have this imposed on them); and that the Fire Brigade is in favour of sprinklers in high rise. (The Fire Brigade rightly focuses purely on fire – local councillors though are not elected by the Fire Brigade but by local residents to balance the various calls on their money and to act in their best overall interests.) But to be fair, Wandsworth did not put fire engines outside its tower blocks, so driving home how ‘dangerous’ they were and exacerbating for example fears among those who live on the 9th floor of a 9-storey block wondering why they won’t get sprinklers when someone on the ground floor of a 10 storey one will.

There is an alternative. We could wait until we understand the technical analysis of the Grenfell disaster. We could see what lessons there may be, which may well be more about cladding than about the original block design. We can rectify those blocks which had unsafe features added. And then we could allow individual leaseholders to take the decision for themselves. I asked the Cabinet Member (to be fair she is very inexperienced in her role) if she would be happy with the government coming round to her house, forcibly installing sprinklers and charging several thousands of pounds for doing so – given that in a house she is more at risk than if she lived in a tower block. I received back criticism for ‘continuing to use statistics’ in my argument (the biggest crime of all in Conservative Wandsworth). And we can ask the residents of each block as a body whether they want them, so valuing the tenants’ views as well. We could also target those most at risk of fire – inevitably older people, especially those who smoke – rather than a crude uniform approach that takes no account for example of the very different types of block construction that have been used and the very different way various blocks have been treated in recent years.

The haunting images from Grenfell, of course, make us desire to make such terrible events less likely in the future. We’d be heartless to react in any other way. Many residents do want sprinklers and should be helped to get them. But in my experience those who have actually lived on our estates – the engineers, the lawyers, the estate agents and all – know far more about their everyday lives than those of us sitting in the Town Hall. Let’s use this awful tragedy as a prompt genuinely to empower residents and listen to their collective wisdom, not yet another chance for evidence-lite ‘government knows best’ thinking to dominate.

Rewriting history

There must be a Council election coming up, as a few politicians are starting to appear on the streets of West Hill Ward. As is traditional, they will seek to take credit for any positive developments over the last three and a bit years and doubtless people will make up their minds based on their engagement throughout that period.

One particular example of the rewriting of history is emerging. It is genuinely to Wandsworth’s great credit that the Borough is keeping its libraries open when so many other authorities are closing theirs. But the Conservatives in particular seem keen to obscure how we got here, sending round a tweet saying I had “told people they’d all be sold off”.

If anyone wants a reminder of what actually did happen they can see a very accurate account on mumsnet (https://www.mumsnet.com/Talk/local_wandsworth/2193134-Southfields-Library-at-risk-of-closure). Basically, the Conservative Group on June 23 2014 was told that a ‘major decision’ would involve ‘consideration of closure of non-town centre libraries’, which have left the Borough with five (Battersea, Tooting, Wandsworth, Balham and Putney) and closed the others including Southfields. I sat on it for a couple of months as quite often these things disappear of their own accord but my discussions with the Leader, Cabinet Member responsible and Group Chairman made it clear that this was a real proposal. I could not just sit on my hands but it was made obvious to me that I could not speak freely and stay in the Conservatives. It was an extremely difficult decision after over 20 years but at the end of the day I could not sit back and take it so I did as I was told and resigned from the Group. I was very careful to say that I did not believe a decision on the libraries had yet been taken but that it would be more difficult to fight it if and when one was.

The Council – foolishly given the documentary evidence (which of course I still have) – went down the time-dishonoured route of saying there were ‘no plans’ for closure (politics-speak for ‘there are plans for closure’). Then a member of their own group – to this day I don’t know who – leaked the whole Group document to mumsnet. There was a powerful local campaign and sure enough the idea to shut the libraries was quietly dropped, unlike the other ‘major decisions’ in the June 1914 paper.

Frankly I don’t care who takes the credit for keeping the libraries going and as I say a lot of it of course belongs to the council. But I do hope that the election campaign doesn’t get bogged down in invented personal attacks, as even those which can be easily disproved become wearisome. Last week we saw some bizarre attacks on my Independent colleague Councillor James Cousins in his Shaftesbury Ward feedback meeting which again were demonstrably untrue. Let’s campaign on our tracks records and ideas.

Questions to the Housing Department on fire safety

I sent these questions to the Housing Department of Wandsworth Council this morning…

It would be extremely useful to have a briefing, perhaps in the form of a Q&A, on the current situation re our housing stock: I find it very frustrating to have to tell residents who are raising concerns that I only know what I have picked up through the mainstream media, particularly but not only about Wandsworth blocks failing the fire safety tests. I have emailed the Cabinet Member but received no answers or indeed acknowledgment.

In particular I have been asked:

Which two blocks have failed the tests (I presume Castlemaine is one of them)?

The Council told residents last week: “If you live in a high rise property you are not at more risk of a fire starting, living in a flat is not more dangerous than living in a house” (i.e. if you live in a house or by implication low/medium rise you are no safer than if you live in a tower block). Why is the Council only putting sprinklers in blocks of 10 or more storeys when those living in other types of property are just as much at risk of fire – is it just to save money? (One resident specifically asked about the fire in Turin Street in Bethnal Green on Saturday – why does the Council not intend to put sprinklers in properties like that?)

In particular (this is my question, not that of a resident), what technical evidence has been used to determine that residents living on the ground floor of a 10-storey block are more in need of a sprinkler than those living on the 9th floor of a 9-storey block? (An alternative approach, if the above advice on the risks of high rise versus other properties was indeed misleading, would be to install sprinklers in all flats above say 5 storeys no matter how high the block in question.) Can this evidence be made public?

Will the cost of the sprinklers be recharged to leaseholders? (A couple of leaseholders in high rise have said that although they realise there is no meaningful fire risk they are concerned about the value of their flat. Actually they were prepared to pay if necessary – less affluent leaseholders may not be in that position – but obviously would not object if the costs of installing what one called ‘cosmetic’ sprinklers to shore up their investment were taken away from Council tenants rather than them having to foot the bill themselves. I am sure that commercial companies owning dozens or hundreds of flats for rent across the Council’s housing stock would like similar assurances of a major public subsidy to their profit margins and asset base.)

When sprinklers malfunction (say through inadvertent overheating, freezing, mechanical damage, corrosion or manufacturing defects – the equivalent of setting the smoke alarm off by burning the toast), causing water damage, will the Council be responsible for putting the damage right or will it fall on tenants and leaseholders who may or may not be able to afford contents insurance?

How much will the exercise cost? How much would it cost to provide fire extinguishers for 6,400 flats? Which other HRA (Housing Revenue Account) schemes will be cancelled to pay for it? (It has been suggested to me that the HRA will just ‘borrow’ the money so no other schemes will be affected. However, I and I am sure many residents are sceptical that in effect there is a ‘magic money tree’ – indeed the Prime Minister herself has made this very point. It seems unlikely that the Council or the HRA can run up debt without placing an eventual burden on the next generation who will have to pay it back or service it, inevitably at the expense of services and/or investment projects. Of course if the sprinklers really can be installed without affecting any other schemes now or in the future then why stop at 10 storeys?)

What account was taken of the very different construction methods used in different high rise blocks across the Borough, with very different approaches to fire safety and therefore presumably very different potential risks? (Again, my question, not a resident’s.)

What consultation was done with residents, notably tenants, to make sure that they agreed that this was the best use of their rent money accrued in the HRA, given the Council’s previous assurances on safety?

Does the Council have legal powers to force tenants out of their homes unilaterally, without their consent or any consultation, as seems to be happening in Camden? Would there be any circumstances in which the Council would exercise any such powers? (One elderly resident has expressed fear that she is going to be removed from her flat and made to sleep in a B&B or on a mattress – she is also worried about what would happen to her dogs.)

There is something of an impression developing that the Council has succumbed to a badly thought out knee-jerk response. The announcement has obviously and inevitably created (in my view unnecessary) fears among residents in blocks below 10 storeys in my Ward who have been told by the Council that they are in just as much risk of fire as the higher blocks but are not going to get the sprinklers. I am sure this impression is exaggerated but answers to the above and other questions would go a long way to damping down the sense of chaos.