Monday, 25 February 2008

Named and shamed: Wates Residential

Outside the house two doors down from me is a very large sign. About 10 times the size of a usual estate agent board, it towers up on stilts, declaring how the house behind would be another successful new development for Wates Residential.

The house has now been developed, and its three flats are on the market for large sums of money. But just like the unsold flats, the sign remains, presumably because Wates has little incentive to remove such a large advertising hoarding, especially one that it concreted in the ground.

But after a year of having my house known as 'the one near The Biggest Sign in the World', I have had enough.

So I phoned Wates in the first week of February and leave a message on the voicemail of the Customer Service Team, London Area. I am polite and leave a message asking for them to contact me.

I receive no answer so on 19 February I send an email to them, detailing my concerns and asking for a response. I cc into the email my councillor, Dean Walton.

Dean replies on 23 February, saying he has passed on my concern to the council's casework officers.

From Wates, I continue to hear nothing (as of 25 February, close to a month after first getting in touch).

I check the company's website and its statements about its social responsibility ring rather hollow. From my experience this real estate developer has little interest in the communities in operates in.

I continue to look forward to a response from Wates, and will edit this post if and when I do.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Winners and losers

Democracy is not pretty. Messy and unplanned, different groups, often acting largely out of self-interest, conflict with each other, grinding out necessary (and unnecessary) compromises.

Politics at the centre might be ugly, but its attraction is power, as well as money.

But in local government there is none of the acquired glamour of the centre, none of the real power, only the messy business of politics. The locality is the arena for clashing egos and interest groups, residents’ associations and aspiring politicians, cynical bureaucrats and a disempowered public.

All of these elements were on display last week at a local meeting in Isleworth, West London, part of a consultation exercise as part of the expansion of Heathrow Airport.

The airport lies five miles to the west of Isleworth. The planes tend to land following a flight path taking them directly over the town, as well as many other areas of West London.

This means that any expansion to the airport, particularly one that will see an increase to the number of aircraft taking off and landing, will have a big effect on the residents.

As a result, the meeting on Thursday was well attended, with around 100 people turning up to the local working men’s club (a hangover, if you’ll forgive the pun, from the relatively recent time when Isleworth was the site of a large brewery).

The curious overlap of self-interested groups attending the meeting was clear from the start. To sit down, I had to move a leaflet from the Conservative Party; the local Conservative parliamentary candidate had organized the event, and she chaired the discussion.

Five people gave talks. Four were opposed while the industry representative was the lonely voice in favour. He declared that he was a local resident also, but still supported the expansion. His argument focused on the economic advantage to the country that the expansion would bring, and he downplayed any concerns about additional noise.

The other speakers varied in quality. The local council’s aviation representative Barbara Reid was superb: articulate, factual, witty and rousing.

John Stewart, representing the campaign group HACAN, was also on form, willing to go toe-to-toe on the economics argument presented by both the government and industry.

A Friends of the Earth campaigner – whose name I did not catch – gave the weakest speech. It was incoherent and unplanned; the archetypal environmental campaigner, I’m sorry to say. The fourth speaker, a local councillor from an Isleworth-only micro-party, said little to add to the other contributions.

There was a question and answer session afterwards, in which a few of the local residents asked questions. However, at least half the questions were posed by other local politicians – including the local London Assembly member and the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate – as the Conservative chair played safe when choosing who would have the floor.

In conclusion, it is hard to be optimistic about the campaign to oppose the expansion. The key point, put most forcefully by members of the public, was that the decision had effectively already been made to expand the airport, even though it was a plan opposed by most of the area’s residents.

They – understandably – wished to know what point there was in further opposition, other than to make the process slower and more awkward. Unsurprisingly, they received few answers.

Over the last 30 years West Londoners have been regularly informed that there would be no further expansion of the airport, only for this to be proved untrue. Now, all trust has gone, and the residents, and local council, are simply opposed to any expansion. It is hard not to sympathise – Heathrow makes a poor neighbour.

And the answer? The most obvious is a solution rejected in the 1970s: a full replacement airport outside of London. Heathrow is unusual in that it is such a large airport so close to residential areas.
Recent suggestions that this plan will end up coming to fruition one day, have the ring of truth about them.

Until that day it seems that West Londoners are going to be walked all over by national politicians who find the arguments of the aviation industry far more persuasive than the voices of locality.

But though their fight might ultimately prove fruitless, the experience and high public profile given to the aspiring local politicians fighting the cause may mean they are the biggest winners of them all.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Named and shamed: Steve Bullock

Edit: This post was edited on 22 February after I received a response from a representative of the Mayor. See below.

One of the main reasons why people do not act is because they do not expect their action to have an effect.

The police don't care about crime, and nor does the council care about the area; all politicians are only in it for themselves, and businesses are only interesting in exploiting people. They don't care about people like me or you.

And so a sullen oppositional mindset builds. Constructive engagement is pushed aside, with both sides of the equation expecting nothing from the other but a big waste of time.

People become alienated, driving them towards radical fantasists or cynical disengagement. Meanwhile, authorities and businesses become sloppy, uncaring and unresponsive.

Fortunately, there are ways in which such vicious circles can be stopped. And these actions do not all have to take a lot of time.

One way is just to start sending emails to people in decision-making roles, hassling them a bit about what they do.

It helps to have a bit of leverage when writing complaints. In some cases I mention this website and say that I will write about the situation.

The first email I sent was to my mayor, Steve Bullock. My council, Lewisham, is one of only 13 in England to have approved a recently-introduced system of having a directly-elected mayor. The idea behind the system is that the mayor has both the executive power and a direct link to voters.

So, six weeks after Mayor Bullock told a local newspaper he was taking a "personal interest" in a crime hotspot at the end of my road, I emailed him to ask what action he had taken. It was not a malicious or accusatory email. It was polite and enquiring.

Soon after, I received a response from someone called Andy Williams, who said he had received the email on the mayor's behalf and had forwarded my query to Geeta Subramanian, head of the council's crime reduction unit.

The first email was sent on 5 February. Today is 19 February and I've heard nothing further. So that's pretty poor.

I've emailed the mayor and Andy Williams again to let them know I am still waiting for a response. I'll update this blog when I do.


21 February: I received an email from Andy Williams informing me that he would chase up Geeta for a response.

22 February: I received an email from Khurram Sheikh on behalf of the Mayor, responding to my original request for information.

In a fairly long email, he states two concrete responses made:
- a number of arrests were made immediately after the incident and investigations are ongoing.
- that a drinking control zone (DCZ) has been agreed in the neighbourhood. "This will tackle the street drinking and the associated anti-social behaviour taking place across the ... neighbourhood." This should become effective in March 2008.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Turkish Delight?

In Turkey most people buy their food in markets, not supermarkets. Private equity company BC Partners hopes this will change, having just acquired Migros Turk, Turkey's largest supermarket chain.

Migros is the largest supermarket retailer in Turkey by some way, but because most Turks have yet to develop the habit of supermarket shopping, it is a relatively small company.

However, many believe that as Turkey becomes wealthier, it will develop European-style shopping habits, boosting supermarket sales at the expense of market stalls. Tesco already has a presence in the country, as does French giant Carrefour, which last week announced plans for a massive shopping centre on the outskirts of Istanbul.

In economics-speak, the "organised food sector" in Turkey is undeveloped, with supermarket penetration at low levels. Turkey has 17 supermarkets per million people compared with 150 in the European Union, according to accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The expectation amongst those retailers, banks and investors pouring into the country is that Turkey's economic growth will continue, and that the shape of this development will be along lines previously followed by other European states. If so, then betting on supermarket growth would seem to be a sensible move. Whether the Turks know what's coming is another question.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Green cities

Some time spent in the countryside offers the opportunity to return to the land, to eat freshly-grown food and turn away from the artifice of the city.

But however beautiful parts of the English landscape are, when talking to people that actually live there, it was surprising to hear how difficult it is for rural-dwellers to live a green lifestyle.

I was staying near Banbury, which is north of Oxford, and was struck by the enormous size of the Tesco in the town.

It is one of Tesco's new hangar-size outlets and curiously it is located opposite Kraft's biscuit factory, which looks (and smells) like some kind of heavy industry plant. In a way, the two make a good match: the industrial retail outlet selling the processed goods of the large-scale manufacturer. Big food.

And the size of the Tesco's in Banbury presumably reflects the area's dependence on it.

Completing the circle, those travelling to the store from outside of town must drive, unless they are lucky enough to be on a bus route.

To see why village residents must drive, here is an interesting set of maps drawn up by the enterprising people at MySociety. Note the small proportion of villages that the buses visit, and then compare this with the level of public transport access in London.

While city-dwellers might have visions of little shops in villages and farmers helpfully selling excess produce, these are rarely seen in reality. Many farmers are just as commercially-minded as the rest of us and have little time or incentive to sell locally.

And what of other environmentally-friendly services? The people I visited complained they do not have any doorstep recycling services, and so must drive to their local facility.

My conclusion: that city-dwellers have many advantages over those living in rural areas if they want to live the green lifestyle. We in the city can easily walk, cycle or get public transport to reach a wide range of shops and services. And because we live near many other people, we have on our doorsteps recycling and other services that become less practical outside of towns.

So maybe city life ain't all that bad.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008


The devil is in the detail they say, but for a true localist it is in the detail where virtue lies.

While others demand an end to global poverty, justice for the downtrodden and righteous violence against wrong-doers, the localist calls for something to be done about the cracks in the pavement and to sort out those dodgy-looking kids that hang around the local takeaway.

These are petty issues, but they stand at the top of the moral scale of the hardcore localist. If the apocalypse came, the localist would only begin to care when the streetlights went too long without repair and if nothing had been done about the graffiti problem.

This is obviously a caricature of the person interested in local issues. Most, I'm sure, have well-rounded lives and engage in politics and civil society at all levels. But while grand concerns have easy mass appeal, concern for local issues is easy to ignore or even mock.

For me, in recent months I've found my political bearings turned upside-down. Usually ensconced in debates over issues of global significance, now I am arguing with my neighbours online about the need for something to be done about the crime hotspot down my road.

And my local councillor now knows all about the three potholes in my road caused by the water leak the other day.

I almost want to apologise for how petty I have become. Sorry guys, I want to say, but though it is a tiny thing, I really am going to bother you about this.

But I don't apologise. And the reason? Because it is my road and so it is my responsibility to help take care of it.

And while my priorities will not be the same as those of my neighbours, better a clash of concerned active citizens than sullen apathy allowing a void to form.

There is a zero tolerance angle here. In the sense that if an area is well cared for, then this signifies to those that wish to commit crime that it is unlikely to go unnoticed. Virtous circles and vicious cycles abound.

But what difference can one person make? Isn't the world just too big and bad to stand up to? This is a question that has plagued philosophy for centuries.

The simplest answer to this is the story I heard of a boy walking along a beach after a massive storm. The storm had churned up the sea and flung huge numbers of fish and other sea creatures on to the shore where they lay dying, gasping for air. As the boy walked, he carefully threw each living creature back into the sea.

A man walking the other way, seeing the mammoth and impossible task ahead of the boy, said to him that he need not bother, for however many he rescued, many more would die.

The boy, dying fish in hand, turned to the man and said: "What matter are all those to me? This one will be saved."