Last night, the majority of Wandsworth Council members voted to allow the return of Formula E to Battersea Park next year. This is a disappointing outcome. I voted against the decision – having previously worked with Labour colleagues to try to invoke the break clause at the Community Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting in November.
From my perspective, this is a debate that went beyond the issue of electric cars racing around a Grade 2 listed park.
It went beyond the heritage impact assessment report which concluded that “It is unacceptable to restrict use of and access to the park over a three week period” – and beyond the safety assessment which acknowledged that there was a “steep learning curve”.
It even went beyond the question of whether it is appropriate for a council in the 21st Century to be associated with a so-called family event which uses bikini clad ‘grid girls’.
For me, this became an issue about local democracy and people’s faith in the members elected to represent them.
The arguments for and against
At last month’s committee meeting, the question of whether to invoke the break clause was presented a decision that involved weighing up the disruption caused by the event against the financial benefits and role of the borough in promoting green technology.
On the financial benefits, well we can’t really assess this as the revenue received by the council is subject to commercial confidentiality. We have no clear commitments as to how the money will be spent and in terms of the wider impact on the local economy, the only evidence we have is anecdotal.
As for the promotion of green technology, the assertions here appeared to be tenuous at best and a complete falsehood at worst. Even council officers concluded that it could not be called a green event.
It perhaps little wonder then that residents overwhelmingly sided with the view that the costs far exceeded the benefits.
(The Council Committee Report on Formula E can be viewed here)
Let’s review local opposition to the event in numbers:
The committee report was succinct in its conclusion that “A clear majority of respondents do not want to see formula E as an annual event in the park.”
If this was not compelling enough, council officers estimate that 150 residents came to observe the decision made by the Community Services Committee last month. This was an unprecedented situation where observers had to sit in two overspill rooms, including the main chamber. All five of the excellent deputations made at the meeting by local resident associations and community groups were opposed to Formula E’s return.
Failure of democracy?
There is very little doubt that the decision to allow Formula E to return is at odds with public opinion.
This leads Jan Littlewood, a member of the Battersea Park Action Group, to reach the following conclusion, “Democratically speaking, every local interest group and a clear majority in every poll and consultation has proven to be against the event returning to the park. If formula E gets voted through….we will need to start asking serious questions about the leadership structure and democratic integrity of Wandsworth Council.”
Council’s consult with their residents for a reason. They receive petitions for a reason. They invite deputations for a reason. That reason is very simple: to listen and respond to what people have to say.
It is a shame that the majority of members failed to listen last night.