The Raynes Park and West Barnes Residents' Association belongs to the Wimbledon Union of Residentsí Associations (WURA), which is composed of associations covering West Wimbledon, North West Wimbledon, the Hillside area, the Village, Wimbledon Hill, the Common and ourselves. Its overall household membership is some 6000, of which 3000 come from Raynes Park and West Barnes!
WURA has approximately four regular meetings a year, with the odd extra one thrown in over particular issues. Its Chairman is Leonard Mostyn and its Secretary Brita McCartney, and needless to say, they bear the brunt of the work.
Meetings are both interesting and useful: interesting because other member associations share many of our interests and concerns; useful because we can learn from each other, and also present a united front to officialdom on those issues which affect us all.
Unfortunately, because of the pressures on our own association during the year, our representative (me) has not been able to get along to the meetings. We have, however, been able to keep abreast of events through the Minutes or reports of the meetings (which only goes to show how important these somewhat dry documents can be).
In December, it was important that I should make every effort to go along : firstly to "show my face" and confirm that we were still very much interested parties, and secondly to introduce to my colleagues Betty Claircourt, who has very kindly agreed to step into the breach for the forthcoming year. And Iím very glad we did.
The main topics of concern on the agenda were:
During the last couple of months or so, I received (I think as an insertion in The Guardian) a leaflet from the Council about the setting up of a "Residentsí Panel", and I raised this issue at the meeting because I wanted to know what this was all about. Leonard Mostyn hadnít seen one of these, but he had received a letter from Cllr. Guy about the setting up of Residentsí Forums.
The Councillor representative at the meeting was able to explain the rationale and I have to admit that what he said raised the hairs on the back of my neck.
But first, a bit of background. Merton Council has reorganised its structure to "make it more streamlined". Nothing wrong with that, itís how you do it that matters. This move is in line with Government policy and ALL Borough Councils are thus reforming.
As of now, all the old Committees that we are familiar with - Housing, Planning, Environment, etc. - have been abolished. There is only one sub-committee left (Traffic Management, Ray Puddyís department), and that is composed of just three Councillors out of 62.
What we now have in Merton is a "Cabinet", comprised of Majority Party Members only, and an "Executive Committee" made up of Councillors from all parties in proportion to the number of seats they hold (with the majority held once again by the Majority party). I donít know the exact number of Councillors on this Committee, but I would guess around twelve out of the 62 elected. And last (but by no means least) the full Council, on which every Councillor sits. Your guess is as good as mine, but it is clearly on the cards that sooner or later it will be decided that 62 elected Council Members are rather a "waste of space" and this number will be radically reduced.
No doubt many Councillors themselves are breathing a sigh of relief at relinquishing the burden of so many meetings, and so much paperwork (often the Committee reports were of novella length). But it is rather ironical that their workload should be so radically reduced in this way, whilst at the same time their remuneration for being Councillors has - even in the cheapest London Borough of Merton - so greatly increased. For you will remember that in the old days Councillors were paid an allowance according to their attendance at Committees. In my day, this averaged £10 or £15 per meeting, and it was useful in helping to defray the costs involved in doing the work, so you werenít actually out of pocket. Today, all Councillors get an annual fee, several £000s, and an even more substantial amount for the Party leaders and others with special responsibilities. I donít grudge them this money (much) if they do a good job for their constituents. But Iím willing to bet (based on personal experience) that at least 50% do the absolute minimum and arenít worth a candle.
The most important and satisfying work of a local councillor is certainly not sitting on committees. It is the "Ward" work. That is the work he or she does on behalf of his or her constituents: sorting out their problems, and bringing these (particularly the unfairnesses and anomalies) to the attention of the paid officials - Council Officers - who, like their counterparts in the Civil Service, actually do the work of running the Council and providing the services we pay for through our taxes. Knowing her as I do, I am sure that Gilli Lewis-Lavender, our new Councillor for West Barnes, will be absolutely superb at this.
The Residentsí Panel and Forums are part of the Councilís reorganisation process. Apparently it is the intention of the Council that the Panel should be comprised of 2000 (yes, that IS right) members of the public - who will put themselves forward for the job of answering regular questionnaires from the Council about its performance in providing services, and other issues. From time to time some of these residents will be picked to attend a meeting and discuss some specific topic.
The Forums will be set up throughout the Borough and will comprise representatives from community organisations (such as the Residents' Associations), presumably (itís not clear from Cllr. Guyís letter) to act as sounding-boards.
So, why worry?
Well firstly, there seems to be a sort of "hidden agenda" in the setting up of these bodies. They imply an undermining of both the elected representatives (already largely disenfranchised as described) and also of Residentsí and Tenantsí Associations who are in place now and doing this work.
Secondly, the ease with which these bodies could be top-loaded with extremists and minority interest groups and others with vested interests does not appear to have been taken into account.
RP&WBRA will certainly need to keep a very watchful eye on this; otherwise the interests of our area could be subsumed by other more powerful voices. I would urge anyone in our area who hasnít offered to be part of the Panel answering questionnaires to get down to the Library, ask for a leaflet and get themselves onto it.
As for the Forums, Leonard Mostyn will be speaking to Cllr. Guy and seeking clarification of the proposals (both of which appear to be covering the same ground - no doubt at considerable cost) and to suggest that there is no need to look further in North and West Wimbledon, Raynes Park and West Barnes, than the WURA and its members.
Nor should it be forgotten that these proposals represent a cost to taxpayers, for they will have to be serviced by Council Officers, and considerable work will be involved in producing the documentation, analysing the responses and servicing the meetings. It will be yet another way for the Council to claim that they have "consulted" on issues - but none of the representatives on these bodies will have been elected into the job - and as such, their views will be strictly their own, and they will represent no-one but themselves.
Perhaps I have become overly cynical in my "old age", but I detect an unpleasant odour surrounding all of this, and it seems to me that now, more than ever before, this Association is needed.
Jill Truman (Vice-President, RP&WBRA)