The person who introduced us said “he’s not your typical Tory” and that is patently true of his early life. Ravi Govindia was 17 when he arrived in Britain from Uganda with his family in 1972, one of 27,200 people of South Asian descent who came to the country after being expelled by the despot Idi Amin. The Govindias settled, not in London, but, as Govindia has described it, “a disused army camp in the middle of Dartmoor”.
He took some A-levels at a Plymouth comprehensive and worked over the summer as a bus conductor – the friendliest on route 5A, apparently, an honour he makes light of when we meet. “I often let people off their fares,” he reveals. “They’d say, ‘I’ve forgotten my purse, I’ll pay you tomorrow duck,’ or whatever it was.”
Having secured the grades required, he moved up to the capital where a place at Queen Mary College awaited. The young Govindia had digs just off Mare Street in Hackney, “an Edwardian mansion block near the Town Hall,” where his landlady allowed him only one bath per week – not ideal for a Hindu, brought up to bathe every day.
He joined the Conservatives through the student union, largely for social reasons, though his politics became more serious during what he calls “the second of the miners’ elections”, back in February 1974. By then he’d moved south and west. “I walked into the Tories’ Battersea South office and said, ‘Can I help?'”
Eight years later Govindia won a seat on Wandsworth Council. The Conservatives had won the borough from Labour in 1978 and have not lost it since. He’s been the council’s leader for the last 11 years, taking over from Edward Lister after he left to join Boris Johnson’s mayoral team. Under Lister and, before him, Paul Beresford, Wandsworth attained Conservative local government flagship status, hailed by admirers as a national beacon for outsourcing, low council tax and right-to-buy.
Govindia’s stewardship has stretched the Tory ascendancy to 44 years, but in 2018 the party’s majority was cut to six seats and Labour won a larger vote share overall. Since 2019, all three of the borough’s MPs have been Labour and Wandsworth backed Sadiq Khan over his Tory mayoral challenger last year. Will 2022 see Wandsworth turn red?
At first glance, it looks likely. On top of those recent election results, Labour has recorded massive London-wide opinion poll leads over the Conservatives this year. And although what are termed “Brexit identities” might be starting to fade, Wandsworth was a firmly remain borough, where some residents who’ve voted Tory in the past might find Keir Starmer’s Labour more to their liking than Boris Johnson’s Brexit-bragging anti-London government. The flagship has been mutinous too: two years ago, Govindia survived a vote of no confidence.
But if he fears the worst for 5 May, he betrays no sign of panic. A local government associate characterises him as “relaxed”, and it’s not hard to see why. “The critical thing for us is to get across what we have achieved and what we can continue to deliver,” he explains. By that, Govindia means keeping the campaign focussed firmly on local issues and a record on tax and services which stretches back to the dawn of Thatcherism. The Tory policy offer this time pledges continuity of that theme in the newly-urgent context of the cost of living challenge.
To that end, council rents have been frozen for around 17,000 tenants from the start of this month along with continuing a freeze on fuel charges for some 3,000. And core council tax has been cut by one percent, consolidating Wandsworth’s position at the bottom of the London league table by that measure.
Wandsworth Labour, unsurprisingly, have been keen to highlight national issues, notably “partygate”. Even so, bearing the slogan “ambitious for everyone“, they have matched the Tory council tax promise, underlining the political potency of the issue in these parts notwithstanding the tiny household savings involved. The cut will, Govindia says, save Band D households “a fiver” a year. Is it really worth it?
“I think it’s about two things,” he says. Firstly, “It’s about saying ‘we are on your side'”. A more “meaningful sum”, he adds, “would really be playing fast and loose with the money”. Secondly, it’s about sending a message that words like prudent, careful and trustworthy apply. “All of those things – we’re not going to ask you for more money than we need.”
However, Govindia has also overseen a shift in emphasis from his two predecessors as Wandsworth leader. “They made their names by making it the borough that saved the most,” he says. “In its time that was right, but times changed and we needed to change gear. It’s about taking a holistic view”.
Good housekeeping, he argues, means there is scope to spend to “spruce up town centres”, such as Battersea and Clapham Junction. “There’s no point saying to people ‘shop local’ and then they find their high street’s crap”. With £188 million in reserves and a pot of Section 106 and CIL [Community Infrastructure Levy] money from deals with property developers available, “we’ve got the money to do it”.
Govindia emphasises Wandsworth’s housebuilding programme, which is where a clear divide with Labour opens up. Both parties say they intend to build 1,000 homes on council-owned land, but where the Conservatives are going for a mix of tenure types that includes homes for market sale to cross-subsidise “affordable” dwellings, Labour says all of theirs would be for social rent without affecting council tax bills. Govindia, naturally, is sceptical.
Labour, including group leader Simon Hogg and opposition housing speaker Aydin Dikerdem, have sought political advantage from criticising the Nine Elms development, which embraces the protected former Battersea Power Station building. The scheme has long been a totem of the left’s populist “social cleansing” narrative, the implication being that the entire ex-industrial site south of the river, which stretches up to Vauxhall in Lambeth, could have been regenerated quite differently and with more lower cost homes.
Govindia, however, seems far from embarrassed by the outcome – indeed, at his suggestion we met at a restaurant there. Does he have any regrets? “No, and I’ll tell you why. The power station was decommission in 1983. Bugger all happened for a very long time – the best part of three decades. Were we going to wait another 30 years for the ideal solution to arrive while in the meantime the power station collapsed?”
Peter Watts’s fine book about the power station, which is now home to an Apple campus, documents the array of proposals for the area that fell through. Govindia points to the complex financial mechanisms that have resulted in two new stations on an extended Northern Line, plus road improvements and a primary school being funded by developer contributions, “and there will be jobs, in construction and others in the future”. In addition, more housing, high rise and “luxury” or not, brings in more council tax, he points out.
He doesn’t care much for the sky pool suspended between two blocks opposite the US Embassy – “not my cup of tea” – but agrees that this recent focus of media and protest outrage is essentially just a sales gimmick “not really taking anything away from anyone else”.
Like former Wandsworth councillor Sadiq Khan, he thinks planning policies in London should value and protect industrial land for employment, as well as seeking to maximise housing. This was a feature of Khan’s London Plan proposals, but diluted by the top down interventions of now former communities secretary Robert Jenrick. Are the Tory Govindia and the Labour Mayor on the same page on this issue?
“You know, I would have been,” he replies, “but he never asked us. He was going to fight it on his own. That’s usually Sadiq’s line isn’t it? I can do it on my own.” Govindia believes Khan has ended up with a suboptimal approach to having the best of both worlds – seeking unrealistic levels of affordable homes and employment place, which, in Govindia’s view, limits industrial uses to quiet, ground floor ones and – a more archetypal Tory stance – unhelpfully inhibits development as a whole, because the numbers become harder to stack up.
However, he still thinks the government’s heavy emphasis on housing was “wrong in the long-term interest of London. You need a bit of everything to make the city work. In planning terms, we have often eschewed the idea of dormitory towns, yet we are in danger of making huge areas of London dormitory.” Hence that “holistic approach”.
Boundary changes in Wandsworth have seen the creation of a new Nine Elms ward, prompting speculation about who lives there and how they might vote. The protest left’s frequent assumption is that the flats there are “left empty” by absent rich foreign owners, though a door knocking survey conducted four years ago suggested that most residents of the area were, in fact, renting Londoners on average incomes.
The Nine Elms ward is but one outcome of significant boundary changes in Wandsworth, resulting in its number of wards going up from 20 to 22 while the numbers of seats has fallen from 60 to 58. There are now eight two-seat wards along with 14 three-seats wards.
The implications in terms of political advantage appear to expert eyes to be broadly neutral overall, but a combination of those local electoral trends and the Tories nationally under pressure from the cost of living crisis and lockdown parties inching back up the media agenda suggest that Labour really ought to win this time.
That said, there have been setbacks. Labour held a seat in the (now disappearing) Bedford ward at a by-election in November by a single vote, having retained it comfortably at another one in May. Internal frictions are thought to have contributed to that poor result and a change in group leadership ensued, with London Assembly member Leonie Cooper displaced by Hogg, who led Labour into the 2018 contests. There are conspicuous symptoms of “long Corbyn” in the ranks, which might deter “soft” Tories from changing sides. The removal last week of a sitting councillor as a candidate for telling Rishi Sunak to “go back to India” won’t have helped.
Govindia accepts he has a battle on his hands and is prepared to entertain the possibility that West Hill ward Independent Malcom Grimston, a former Tory councillor who retained his seat by a remarkably large margin last time, could end up holding the balance of power. He speaks of “overtures” to Grimston from Hogg and of “breaking bread”. Rumour has it that more bread has been broken since. Labour may look to be in line for a historic triumph, but they will know, just as Govindia does, that it is far from guaranteed.
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