Defining themes of what seems sure to be a close-run contest to win control of Wandsworth Council on 5 May have come more clearly into focus thanks to a debate hosted by a community radio station earlier this week.
On Tuesday, Ravi Govindia, the current leader of the Conservative-run borough, and Simon Hogg, who leads the Labour challenge, set out their differing views about how they think the borough should be run for the next four years at an event broadcast by Riverside Radio from the Battersea Arts Centre.
A striking feature of the exchanges were Hogg’s assurances to listeners that a Labour administration – which would be the first elected in Wandsworth since 1974 – would match the Tories in their enduring hallmark claim to be sound and thrifty custodians of council finances, enabling council tax to be kept low and judicious spending to take place.
In his opening remarks, Govindia highlighted what he called his administration’s record of “good housekeeping” informed by long experience in power, but Hogg stressed his party’s commitment to the same one per cent cut in council tax as the Tories – a reduction that will save average households about £5 over the year – and to spending “every penny of your money wisely” while being informed by a “fresh vision based on fairness and common sense”.
The related themes of road transport management and environmental issues were prominently raised in questions from the audience, prompting sometimes sharp exchanges about electric vehicles, bicycle provision and low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs).
Hogg was highly critical of Wandsworth’s initial implementation of LTNs without prior consultation at the start of the pandemic as part of an initiative encouraged and funded by both national government and Transport for London to encourage more “active travel” and facilitate social distancing. The “dreadful Conservative mistake of dropping in these LTNs overnight and with no consultation” was not an approach he endorsed. “We must listen to local people and take them with us when we make changes,” he said.
In response, Govindia described himself as “gobsmacked” by Hogg’s remarks, saying “the main LTN rollout was done by Transport for London” and that one scheme, around the A24, remains in place “creating enormous problems” for shopkeepers and shoppers. “The seven schemes that the council put in were on an experimental basis,” he said, referring to the experimental traffic orders (EPOs) power that applied, “and when residents said they did not work for them they were removed and subjected to further consultation”, with two later reinstated.
Wandsworth was the first borough in London to take out so-called “Covid LTNs”, which have been most enthusiastically embraced by Labour-run councils in the capital. Hogg, however, accused the Tory council of “massive arrogance” over the issue and of having “just stopped listening to local people”.
Govindia countered that Labour councillor Jo Rigby, a dedicated cycling activist who is seeking re-election in the Tory-held Balham ward and was the Labour group’s spokesperson on the LTN issue, had “constantly argued” a position that “all roads as far as possible should in fact become low traffic neighbourhoods”. In March, Hogg said he was “delighted” that the “fantastic” Rigby was standing for a council seat again
“People will always need cars,” Hogg said, mentioning their importance to households with children and others, but he promised “concrete investments to make it easier for people to walk and cycle”. Govindia spoke in favour of “traffic interventions” to make roads safer and also emphasised the importance to cyclists of maintaining good road surfaces.
Responding to a housing campaigner who claimed Wandsworth’s response to tenants’ concerns was “by far the worst I’ve come across” and claimed he had seen “horrific living conditions” in the borough, Govindia said he knew the questioner and that “his characterisation of Wandsworth does not bear any examination at all”.
The Conservative said Wandsworth has “a 100 per cent decent homes record” and was the first in London to achieve this and that the council invests “around £13 million a year” a repairing its stock. He pointed out that neighbouring Labour-run Lambeth had to pay out more than £3 million in disrepair claims last year and said Wandsworth’s equivalent bill is just £92,000. He accepted that damp and poor “thermal efficiency” in old council homes was an issue that needs to be quickly addressed.
Hogg, who has worked for housing charity Shelter in the past, described the question as “extraordinary” and thanked the campaigner “for the amazing work he does” and claimed housing repairs are “another example where the council has just stopped listening”. He accused the Tories of becoming “tired and complacent” and as “obviously not providing the service that they used to”.
He said “I don’t recognise the rosy picture Councillor Govindia is painting”, citing “issues I’m helping my constituents with at the moment, many having to wait months and months for repairs”. Hogg promised that under Labour, repair services would be speeded up and that more would be done to help leaseholders. He also underlined a manifesto promise to seek to introduce additional landlord licensing provisions for the private rented sector. Hogg claimed that Wandsworth “almost never enforces” legal standards and “almost never prosecutes landlords”.
Other issues raised included funding for policing and the London Living Wage. Listen to the whole Riverside Radio broadcast here.
Photograph from Riverside Radio.
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