Labour’s first ever Westminster City Council (WCC) elections win in May did not usher into power a band of callow innocents at risk of rude awakenings when faced with the practicalities of power. The new administration is headed by seasoned local politicians who’ve been rehearsing for their breakthrough moment for many years and can draw on the experience of plenty of other people who’ve shared their decades of uphill struggle.
That pool of knowledge has been recruited to the Future of Westminster Commission, established to, as its terms of reference put it, “advise the council on areas of policy that are critical to the future success of the City” and “seek to review and make recommendations on the delivery of key council services to deliver a fairer Westminster for residents”.
The commission is chaired by Neale Coleman when a Labour councillor in Westminster was in the forefront of the campaign against Shirley Porter’s notorious, covert “homes for votes” policy of the late 1980s and went on to become a key Olympics adviser to London Mayors Ken Livingstone and, until 2015, Boris Johnson. His current roles also include being a member of the National Infrastructure Commission.
The Westminster commission’s remit and structure, to be considered at this evening’s meeting of the council’s cabinet, addresses four broad policy areas, of which housing, unsurprisingly, looks the heftiest. The convenor for this part of the commission’s work is Steve Hilditch, formerly of Shelter and another ex-Livingstone aide. The fairness and equality strand is to be stewarded by Karen Buck, MP for Westminster North. Regeneration professional Claudette Forbes leads on economy and employment, and Community Energy London chair Syed Ahmed on energy and “green transition”.
Council Leader Adam Hug, still sometimes pinching himself to make sure May’s result was real, sits in his high-up office at 64 Victoria Street and explains how the commission’s work will inform his administration’s policies and, very importantly, how they are implemented.
The idea is that it will fit into wider culture change mission. From day one, Hug says, “I’ve been repeating the word ‘resident, resident, resident’ in every meeting and conversation I’ve had. Labour’s win owes a lot to its candidates being seen as receptive to the concerns of people living in wards that have become gradually more marginal, perhaps most symbolically West End, where the usual Tory dominance was dented in 2018 and demolished in 2022.
Housing and land use development more broadly have been habitually fraught in Westminster, where land is scarce and property fantastically expensive. The Porter period was not the last in which a Conservative leadership has been accused of pursuing policies that put its political requirements and the interests of the development industry first at the expense of successful neighbourhoods and local people.
Hug believes the departure in October 2018 of now former councillor Robert Davies, serial recipient of property trade largesse, prompted the last Tory administration to start reforming its planning processes to create what he calls “a more professional relationship between the council and the business community and residents”, but he says it can go a great deal further.
Under Labour, with input from Hilditch and others, including University College London’s Janice Morphet and Andy Watson, former chair of the trail blazing Walterton and Elgin Community Homes, a higher priority will be given, as you would expect, to extracting more social and other affordable homes from development schemes and working collaboratively with Sadiq Khan to obtain “affordable” funding, but also doing far more to secure “buy-in” from residents for projects the council decides to support.
“It’s about making sure the offer is as strong as it possibly could be,” Hug says, citing past frustration among residents and the importance of “demonstrating value to local people and other community benefits” that can flow from a consented scheme. The commission will take a good look at council-controlled charity and registered provider Westminster Community Homes and development vehicle Westminster Builds.
A “tenants jury” is to be formed to “review the structures for resident participation” in decisions about the council’s own housing stock, covering everything from major works operations to dealing with repairs. This fits with a broad consultation reform goal for Hug of establishing ways to “hardwire in talking to and working with residents to make decisions” ensuring they have “options rather than just something handed down to them”. Getting such things right, so that input is truly representative, can be difficult with the best will in the world. The cast list of commissioners look equipped for the task.
Forbes’s economy and employment review is to produce a plan for “a series of high impact, short term initiatives” to improve skills training and employability, with a particular initial focus on the Harrow Road between Royal Oak and Queen’s Park Library, one of the poorer parts of the City often mistakenly assumed to be uniformly rich. This plan will form part of Labour’s new economic development strategy when it appears.
The energy and green transition strand will seek ways to get money into building decarbonisation, look for local low carbon energy sources and more. Ahmad will receive assistance from Jill Rutter of the Institute of Government and sustainability chiefs from two of central London’s most illustrious property estates, the Grosvenor and the Crown. Buck’s fairness and equality work will help council officers and cabinet members zoom in on measures to alleviate the soaring cost of living, such as food, fuel and childcare, and quality of life issues, such crime, antisocial behaviour and access to sport and leisure.
It’s evident that Hug has not forgotten that the battered West End, emerging from the pandemic in a still indistinct changed form, is important to both Westminster and the country: though Labour has consistently opposed pedestrianisation schemes for Oxford Street, prior to the election Hug’s colleague Paul Dimoldenberg outlined ideas for improving and reviving it.
But he stresses that the council’s relationship with Westminster’s business community will be “a business-like one” which “recognises that they’ve got interests, but the council’s interests should first and foremost flow from what our residents want, and that goes for the whole borough”.
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