David Maas is a graduate journalism student at City. This is his first On London piece.
In Labour-dominated Camden, the western part of the borough looks to be the most competitive battleground heading into the 3 May elections. Labour, which already holds 39 of the 54 council seats, is eyeing traditionally Conservative wards in Hampstead. The Conservatives, amid a Brexit-dominated climate that makes life difficult for them in strongly Remain-voting boroughs like this, still hope to bolster their 11 councillors in West Hampstead wards. And the Liberal Democrats, their numbers down to just two councillors following a high of 20 in the 2006 borough contests, hope to recoup some of their lost seats this time.
“At one point we had nine councillors out of 12 in the area to the west of the borough,” recalls Lib Dem Flick Rea, who holds one of the three seats in Fortune Green ward for her party. “I don’t suggest we can get back to that, but we certainly hope to make gains in what was formerly safe Liberal Democrat territory.” The Lib Dem approach is to market itself as the most pro-European party on the ballot paper. “It can be quite small things that change the balance,” Rea explained. “In this particular case, one of the big factors is still Brexit. Our principle is that we should be a free, open and tolerant society, providing the best opportunities for everyone and a framework in which people can make the most of their lives.”
According to the local government website, Camden is home to 24,000 non-UK EU-born residents and there are 36,000 non-UK EU citizens working in the borough. “I’m not sure that a free, open and tolerant society would feature on the masthead of the Labour or Conservative parties these days. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t actually,” added Rea.
Camden Labour disagrees. “As a council we were very clear in the run-up to the referendum that we should stay in the EU, for all sorts of reasons,” says one of Rea’s two Labour fellow Fortune Green councillors, Richard Olszewski. “One very important reason is community consistency.” The Camden Labour manifesto too addresses the issue of EU citizens: “We are determined to protect their rights and the inclusive, open borough we love,” it reads. “We will campaign for Camden’s people to send a strong, collective message that our great, diverse home rejects the isolationist path the Tory government is taking us down.”
The Brexit theme may be most difficult to navigate for the Conservatives. They do not address once address it in their manifesto, and one of their long-time councillors in Swiss Cottage, Andrew Marshall, defected from the party over the issue last year. He has since joined the Lib Dems, though he is not seeking a seat this time.
“Generally speaking, the Conservative councillors in Camden are for Remain,” Conservative Councillor for Swiss Cottage Councillor Don Williams told OnLondon. “There’s certainly no divide on it. The majority of all the parties are for Remain. The reason we don’t talk about it much is because there is nothing as a local authority Camden can do about it. We have no powers at all in the matter. It’s a national issue, not a local authority issue.”
Entitled A Cleaner, Greener, Safer Camden, the Camden Conservatives’ manifesto places environmental concerns front and centre. The party attributes increased rates of fly-tipping and littering in the borough to the council’s new environment services contract, which changed rubbish collection from weekly to fortnightly last year. The Council says the changes were needed because of budget cuts. “We had to make the changes because of the overall budget cuts that we faced and we saved about £5m as a result,” Olszewski said. “Since we started the contract, our recycling rates have gone up by 22%. The days of just chucking your rubbish in the bin are over. We all have to change our behaviours. We have to constantly be looking to recycle.”
Both Labour and the Conservatives are proposing to double the fines for fly-tipping to £400. The two most prominent campaign issues, however, are housing and crime. Camden has not escaped the housing crisis, nor the uptick in knife and moped crime that London has experienced.
“We have a housing crisis nationally that is biting particularly hard in Camden,”Olszewski said. “House prices are just stratospheric, beyond reach for most people. Even those on quite generous incomes struggle to find anywhere in Camden. We have a community investment programme through which we’re investing more than a billion pounds over ten years, in housing as well as schools and community facilities. And only 2% of it is funded by the central government.”
This is a familiar refrain from Camden Labour: amid a period of austerity and cost-cutting by the Conservative central government, they are doing the best they can locally with the hand they’ve been dealt.
For the Tories, Don Williams acknowledges the housing issue, but stresses the need to reject over-development as well. “A balance needs to be struck between development and greenery and space for people to not live like rats, but to enjoy where they live stress-free,” he said.
The main parties are most in unison on crime, with all three are proposing more police officers to address the issue. “Knife crime is the most worrying and it’s the highest in people’s minds,” Richard Olszewski said. “But we’ve also seen an increase in other types of crime. Moped crime and burglaries have gone up too.”
Despite each party’s optimism, none would offer a prediction for election day. They all, though, might agree with Flick Rea’s assessment of her part of Camden: “It’s going to be an interesting result.”
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