Lady Rachael Robathan formally commenced her duties as the new leader of Conservative-run Westminster City Council last week, becoming the third woman in a row to have the job of leading a borough with an economy of national importance and some acute social problems locally.
Robathan, 57, whose title derives from her marriage to former Conservative minister Lord Andrew Robathan, succeeds Nickie Aiken as leader following Aiken’s election as the new MP for Cities of London & Westminster at the general election last month. Aiken’s predecessor was Philippa Roe, now Baroness Couttie, who was leader from 2012 until 2017.
She has a background in business, working for 20 years in emerging market investment management, and was recently appointed a non-executive director of Aurora Investment Trust plc, a company chaired by former Tory MP and shadow chief secretary to the treasury, Lord Howard Flight. Robathan is also a board member of the National Lottery community fund and a director of the Westminster Almshouses Foundation, a sheltered housing charity based in Rochester Row.
Robathan, who has represented the Knightsbridge & Belgravia ward since 2010, was previously the council’s cabinet member for finance, property and regeneration, a brief that encompasses some of Westminster’s most important and sometimes fraught areas of responsibility.
In a statement following her election as leader, Robathan endorsed her predecessor’s City For All strategy, whose main themes are opportunity, celebrating its different communities, providing high quality local services, and creating both a “caring and fairer” and a “healthier and greener” Westminster.
She takes charge of an administration that has fallen out with Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan following Aiken’s administration withdrawing its support for plans to pedestrianise Oxford Street, for which it, rather than Transport for London, is the highway authority. Westminster also has high numbers of rough sleepers, an issue Aiken described during the general election campaign as “not just a national but an international crisis”, with more than half of local rough sleepers coming from overseas.
Robathan will now oversee delivery of the borough’s alternative plan for improving Oxford Street and its surrounding West End district and has pledged to address “complex challenges including climate change, air quality, rough sleeping and affordable housing”.
A member of the opposition Labour Group, Pancho Lewis, who, in 2018, became the first Labour councillor elected to the West End ward, swiftly challenged her to set out “any immediate first steps” she intends to take to address the climate issue, suggesting that fewer building demolitions might help.
Conservatives have run Westminster ever since its creation, usually with healthy majorities. They won with ease two years ago in terms of seats, despite Labour making three gains at their expense, and hold 41 seats compared with Labour’s 19. Yet the the popular vote totals were much closer, with the Tories taking a 42.3 per cent vote share to Labour’s 40.3. The north of the borough, represented in parliament by Labour’s redoubtable Karen Buck, accounts for much of a 30 per cent poverty rate. Robathan is right to recognise that making Westminster a “city for all” will not be simple task.
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