10 October 2015

Joining the Kingston Conversation

Kingston Conversation was a series of meetings held with the public by the Leader of the Council, Cllr. Kevin Davis, and as somebody who is active politically and locally it was very much the sort of event for me.

The logistics were not ideal, i.e. I had a ticket for the Wales v Australia game at Twickenham that afternoon, but the 10am start and convenient location (Tudor Drive Library Hall) meant that I could get there.

The event started with a flood of old memories as the only other times that I had been to that hall was to take and collect toddlers from the playgroup there. They are now in their twenties.

While billed as a conversation the format was more Q&A, which I guess it was always going to be with about sixty people there. Kevin Davis started the session of with a short introduction on the changes facing Kingston, most of which had been said several times in several places so was not new and then he and a small panel of other councillors fielded our questions.

As usual I took notes of what was asked, what was said and what I thought at the time and I have restructured and added to those while writing this up. So none of this is attributable and all mistakes are mine.

Communicating with the public

Kevin Davis (KD) wants to improve communication with residents and while this series of meetings was welcome it could only reach a very small percentage of the public.

The recent whole-borough survey had had a good response by the standard of most surveys, around 8% I think, but was still a low number and the nature of surveys is that they can get simple answers to simple questions (such as, what shampoo do you use?) but are not very good at dealing with more complex matters (such as, how should Kingston grow?).

With the decline of local newspapers and Councils being forbidden to produce their own it is hard for them to engage with the public and that leads to bad decisions being made and reasonable decisions being explained badly.

Growth in Kingston

Kingston Council (RBK) seems to be saying two stories about growth simultaneously, one that it is being forced on us by the London Plan and two that is something that RBK is campaigning hard for.

Nobody has told us why Kingston has been identified in the London Plan for significant growth despite its physical constraints (Royal Parks and the river) and weak transport infrastructure. I suspect that RBK councillors had a large part to play in this but they are keeping quiet about it now.

Growth is a positive word and that helps to mask the negative aspects such as lost space, changed charters and even busier trains, buses and roads. It is difficult to see what the benefits of this growth will be to the existing residents of Kingston.

The large number of new homes that we keep being told about is only a target and there will be no sanctions if it is not met.

Major changes are being considered to accommodate this growth, such as moving the bus and railway stations and remodelling some of the main roads.

Growth does not necessarily mean more tall buildings and we may even lose some of the ugly ones that we already have. There was some debate on whether there should be a planning document specific to tall buildings. KD was against the idea because it could encourage developers to build to the limits, e.g. if we say a maximum of nine storeys in the town centre then everything will be exactly nine storeys. I would hope that we could develop a plan with some flexibility that would cope with this.

The good news?

Almost all of the questions raised issues around the negative aspect of growth, e.g. over-crowded trains and a lack of school places, and while that is understandable it did beg the big question, what is in it for us?

One person asked just that and the answer was Crossrail 2, regeneration of the council housing stock and transformation (!) of sports and leisure. So there was some good news for some people but none of those benefits were particularly attractive to me; I want some small theatres and for RBK to make more of our heritage assets.

There were some fine words from RBK on heritage but the evidence is against them. We have recently lost the Penny School and the TOPO scheme would smother the Post Office and Telephone Exchange.

Transforming Kingston Council

Kevin Davis said that the budgets cuts on the way would have a dramatic impact on RBK and it would be no longer possible to just implement across the board marginal cuts, the Council would have to think about stopping doing somethings altogether, e.g. the discretionary services like Libraries.

RBK is also looking for more revenue generation ideas but, for some reason, did not seem that keen on collecting more traffic penalties even though these are justifies penalties, i.e. somebody has done something wrong, and the alternatives, like paying more for council services, are more like general taxation.

One of the cost-cutting measures going through is the closure of all of the council's care homes as the private sector is cheaper. That worried me on two grounds; care not cost should be the driving factor and RBK needs to ask why the private sector is cheaper. If, as I suspect, they are cheaper because they pay their staff less then that is a problem for Kingston as we want care workers who are paid enough to be able to live here.

The final part of the meeting took me right back to working at Lambeth Council ten years ago with RBK extolling the virtues of shared services and promising to break down silos. Not only are these old ideas, they are bad ideas. Shared services only work when there are economies of scale and very few council services have this, e.g. one teacher is needed for every class of 30 infants, and silos cannot, and should not, be broken as that is where skills and domain knowledge grow.

RBK are promising transformation but they sounded very naive and gave me no confidence that they had the slightest idea of what transformation looks like or how to achieve it.

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