Wandsworth; a disconnected Council that’s forgotten how to listen

The sad spectacle of Chestnut Avenue has touched everyone in our community. Just today I spoke to two local Tory voters on the avenue, both of whom vowed never to vote Tory again.

The beautiful chestnut trees are gone but what has replaced them feels like a permanent rebuke from a Council that no longer knows how to listen to its residents. The new avenue speaks volumes about the Wandsworth Tory culture. If ever we needed an illustration of what the Tory cuts to local government look like – there are the felled Chestnut trees. If we ever we needed to be reminded that Tory Wandsworth Council has become disconnected from the people it purports to represent – there is an avenue of saplings that no one wanted.

For this decision to have been made 6 months shy of a local election is either hubristic or arrogant – in other words very Wandsworth Tory.

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The new avenue, enclosed by the metal wall

As if it weren’t bad enough to walk down a desolate Chestnut Avenue, answers I received from the Council recently about how much the whole project cost, has made it so much harder to stomach (full costings below).

At the start of the process to fell and replace Chestnut Avenue, we were told that the Council was financially prudent. It had secured a grant for £46,000 to replace the avenue from the Heritage Lottery Fund, meaning taxpayers’ money could be spent on other things. It was an argument that I know persuaded some of the merits of planting a new avenue.

But according to the Council’s own figures, £83,348 was spent on replacing Chestnut Avenue; that’s £37,348 of our money spent on a project that more than 6,500 people opposed via a petition to the Council.

Worse still, of that £83,348, just £5,824 was spent on new trees, compared to £21,377 spent on security measures, including the erection of a 10’ metal wall and the provision of private security staff, guard dogs and parks police.

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The wall

Quite apart from the waste of public money, what is striking is the Council’s total disconnect from the people it purports to represent. Rather than listening and adapting their plans, the Council literally bulldozed through their proposals, against the wishes of so many residents, and spent over £20,000 ensuring the whole awful business was done behind a 10-foot-high metal wall, protected by guard dogs and private security staff.  This isn’t just a Council that doesn’t listen. It’s a Council that treats its residents with contempt.

Adam Seymour-Davies, who lives in Furzedown and is a member of the Save Chestnut Avenue Campaign put it this way: “What was the Council so scared of? We met them several times before the felling and they knew us personally. In the event, a small group of us did turn up at the felling, including a local vicar, and we held a peaceful candle-lit vigil at 6:30am, to a backdrop of a van of barking security dogs. As far as I’m concerned the £20,000 the Council spent keeping us away is the cost of failing to engage with residents”.

candle lit chestnut

The candle-lit vigil

The experience of voters in Furzedown is not unique. Increasingly, I am hearing the same message from voters across the borough.

Like those who live close to Battersea Park who objected to the Council installing a racing track through their park but were ignored, or the residents of Northcote who have objected to having their library and a community hall knocked down and replaced, but have not been listened to.  Or the 21,000+ Battersea residents who asked the Council to ensure that the Battersea Power station development would include affordable homes alongside the £1m+ properties on the redeveloped site after the Council’s planning committee voted to cut 250 affordable homes. The planning decision has not been overturned.

Tory councillors at the Planning Commiittee vote to cut affordable housing

Wandsworth Tory councillors voting to cut 250 affordable homes on the Battersea Power Station site

Recently I was asked to be on the panel of a “Let’s Talk” meeting in Shaftesbury ward near Clapham Junction. The idea of these meetings is that residents can talk to their councillors about any concerns they have. They are usually pretty poorly-attended and the issues raised tend to be around street cleanliness, or the state of the pavements.

But this Let’s Talk meeting (later dubbed “Let’s Shout”) was unlike any other I’ve been to. It was fractious and angry and the overwhelming theme of the evening was the frustration that residents felt at not being listened to. I jotted down what some of the residents had to say:

“is there a pattern here of not listening?”
“I’m really dissatisfied by the consultation process”
“We don’t feel listened to”
“your consultation doesn’t allow residents to say what they want”
“misinformation and misrepresentation”
“what is consultation for if not to listen to the people who elect you?”
“You, Sir, are shouting at us and you don’t listen”

Shaftesbury Lets Talk

At the Shaftesbury “Let’s Shout” meeting – cllr Cousins (independent) is on my right

The Tories have been running Wandsworth Council for 40 years and it feels like they have run out of steam. Rather than recognising that they are accountable to their voters, the Wandsworth Tory culture has become one where the administration seems to believe it is the voters’ responsibility to get in line with what it wants. At Shaftesbury’s Lets Talk, this was summed up for me by one of the Tory cllrs shouting at the residents “you’re being listened to, you’re just not getting your way”.

He was half right at least.

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