You know that expression “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone“?
It’s beginning to feel a bit like that since moving out of Wandsworth.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad we don’t live in London any more. Yes I miss my lovely church, the playgroup friends my son and I had both made, the common on which we walked through the seasons, the proximity to gastronome’s delight Northcote Road and the copious and regular buses that eased the morning commute.
But we barely used facilities after 8pm (you don’t when you have to be home with a baby) so access to the West End, concerts, restaurant deals etc. had started not to matter. And everything’s so expensive in London!
I like the feeling of cleaner air in my lungs, having a garden, being nearer to my family, neighbours that say “hello” even if they’ve not met you before, a much bigger selection of shops nearby, proximity to the sea etc. etc.
Life is not all fab in the provinces. Much will be improved when we’re not renting but living in our own house – I didn’t believe I’d have got as used to owning as I have. Needing a car offends my greener sensibilities, And even with the new trains, the trebling of my commute is a bit of a bugger. But I’ve great hopes for the new bus system that’s proposed and fully intend to get involved in the consultation on that and anything else to help this town handling taking on another 29,000 houses in the next 20 years.
But the big thing I miss is the efficiency of Wandsworth Council.
I know it sounds daft.
There may be readers in London falling off their chairs in disbelief. May be it’s just that we’d got used to how they do things there. May be it seems better in retrospect – but may be it really is good?
We’ve moved into a beacon council area and I’m finding contact to let the local district council know we’ve done so incredibly frustrating. Phonelines that allegedly open at 8.30 but are still not open at 9.30, very long response periods following email contact (having tried by phone, I emailed – got an autoreply but who knows when I’ll get a proper response).
And just don’t get me started on the rubbish – we’ve got the weirdest recycling policy here: Wandsworth gets you to bung everything in one bag (delivering endless rolls of orange bags to your door) and collecting weekly, with a very extensive range of things that are accepted for recycling. My town gives you a medium-sized blue crate and a very restrictive policy (newspaper but not paper, no envelopes, no plastics, no tetrapaks, no shredding…), only collects every other Friday (and even then it’s only if you’re actually in the town centre) telling you that the rest can be handled at supermarkets and the local dump (sorry, recycling centre). And the dump is tiny – the queues there at the weekend are unbelievable, the parking access is crazy and it barely seems to be able to handle the waste from the town the size it is. Somewhere else is definitely going to be needed when the town expands.
I’m not at all bothered about the political complexion of the Councils – actually I think they’re broadly similar.
But we’re paying about twice as much in Council tax for a property in the same band.
I’m sure the Council does try to keep costs down and to soend money wisely. It’s just that I really don’t think the services are twice as good here as they are in Wandsworth. (Yes, I know that services that I benefit from directly are not everything that the council tax charge covers but even so that’s one hell of a difference!)
I guess this bothers me because I want to feel confident as a resident that the decisions around the huge expansion of the town will take into account everything I would want them to.
I’m not sure quite sure what that would be yet but off the top of my head (and my husband’s, in between watching the X Factor) decent, affordable, regular public transport; communities with soul meaning things like light, spacious common gathering places not just shops and roundabouts; decent primary schools with enough places in communities and within walking distance; high quality childcare that enables rail commuters to get back to do the child pick-up without having to leave the office before 5pm; more department store being tempted into town; serious waste recycling with weekly collections of both normal waste and recycling (which should be allowed to be as much as a household produces not just one box-full); compulsory eco features in any new building developments (solar panels, rainwater harvesting etc.); green spaces… and achieving some of that will need to be about judicious spending of public money.
At some point I’ll put a bit more thought into that list.
I think the main point for me is that the local government initiatives that are getting the headlines are the ones in Hammersmith and Fulham, or in Barnet. Some seem so obvious you wonder why they’re not a normal part of planning deals, like the linking of provision of transport services and local facilities such as a library to the building of a massive new shopping centre – others I must need to read more about because what I’ve seen so far sounded like a policy of allowing people to pay more to shift themselves up the planning queue?
But while Wandsworth hasn’t really got huge shiny initatives like that, what it does have is the lowest concil tax in the country. How?
I guess it might have is stonkingly good procurement contracts that mean that the services get delivered, and low levels of corruption (which a former councillor friend tells me can be an issue in local politics). Of the two, the contracts seem to be key.
It’s never going to be a winning electoral slogan (“vote for me and I’ll revolutionise council procurement policy”) but if it could mean lower taxes people could be won over, I reckon. Or leave more money available for doing all the good things you want done locally. Or both.
And for a town with a big future ahead of it, doing what you do well, and using decent contracting to keep a handle on the things you get others to do for you – hmmm.
I wonder if the Council here’s considered a trip to Wandsworth to see how it can be done?