Westminster City Council has welcomed an independent assessment of what has for decades been that local authority’s most fiercely contested area of responsibility. The 42-page Housing Review, with its detailed recommendations about the supply and management of homes in the heart of central London, is the first of four advisory documents that will be produced by the Future of Westminster Commission set up by the Labour administration that won control of the council last May, taking it out of Conservative hands for the first time in its history. A heading near the start of the review captures a sentiment widely held in local Labour circles about the task before it: “An uphill struggle after decades of neglect”.
It might be said that the Labour politicians now in charge of what had been since 1964 a seemingly impregnable Tory stronghold have had more than enough time in opposition to work out what they would do if victory ever came their way. But it can equally be said that expert guidance from outside could be invaluable in helping the new council leader Adam Hug and his colleagues get the firmest possible grip on levers of power that far so long had seemed beyond their reach.
Paul Dimoldenberg, a veteran of Labour’s against-the-odds endeavours since the early 1980s, writes in the final chapter of his book Winning Westminster that he and fellow members of the new administration were “fully aware that we needed some expert advice on how best to implement our ambitious manifesto”. They turned to Neale Coleman, a Westminster councillor from 1982 to 1990, battle-hardened in the Shirley Porter wars, who went on to become a key adviser to both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson when they were London’s Mayors.
Coleman has convened expertise in four broad policy areas: housing; energy and green transition; fairness and equality; economy and employment. The housing group, led by another seasoned protagonist in Westminster’s housing saga, the immensely experienced Steve Hilditch, is the first to deliver its report, whose practical recommendations encompass increasing the supply of low cost dwellings, measures to reduce homelessness in all its forms, and improving the running of Westminster’s own housing stock, notably by increasing the involvement of those who live in it. Already, Hug’s administration has been working far more closely with Sadiq Khan than its predecessor did, conducting two estate regeneration ballots – both producing “yes” votes – as part of the process of securing affordable housing funding from the Mayor.
The other three commission reviews will follow as the council continues to develop new strategies and policies in a borough whose largely geographical inequalities of wealth and health are perhaps matched only by those of next door Kensington & Chelsea and Tower Hamlets in the East End. At the same time, there has been an energetic execution of “quick win” and emergency measures.
Steps to help poorer households cope with the soaring cost of living have included funds for food banks, assistance with paying for school uniforms and council tax rebates as part of a £5.6 million programme. Free school meals are now provided to all Westminster state school students under the age of 14. Dimoldenberg describes The Future of Westminster Commission’s early endeavours as focussing efforts to help people in three wards in the north of Paddington, each a world away from the wealth of Mayfair and suffering with high levels of poverty and crime.
The council has seized attention with raids on the ubiquitous “candy shops” selling counterfeit goods that have popped up on Oxford Street in particular and for its action against the dumping of e-bikes on pavements. Deputy leader Aicha Less, whose cabinet responsibilities are communities and public protection, has taken a stern approach to the twin blights of rouge pedicabs and peeing in public places. There has also been much media interest in the Leicester Square branch of Greggs and the council’s opposition, backing by the police, to its wish to stay open and sell hot food round the clock.
That disagreement was resolved yesterday with a courtroom steps compromise, though not before the issue became a vehicle for a wider debate about competing rights and freedoms, the health of London’s night time economy and the primary purpose of the West End. Labour ousted the Tories for a number of reasons, not least the disaster of the Marble Arch Mound and the “partygate” scandal surrounding Prime Minister Johnson. But one of the most significant was its courting of those who live in and around some of the capital’s most famous entertainment and leisure districts – the voters, in other words.
Labour had already made inroads in the West End ward. In 2022 the party won all three seats there, along with others in areas which on paper seemed next to impossible to deprive the Tories of. Dimoldenberg describes his efforts in Hyde Park ward as being initially a decoy designed to draw Conservative resources away from wards that looked more winnable for Labour. He ended up getting elected along with his two fellow Labour candidates. Demographic change in the form of more private renting young professionals – the sorts of people who, Dimoldenberg writes, would in the fairly recent past have been “thinking of buying their first home in outer London areas” – was of great help to his party.
One of Dimoldenberg’s chapter titles borrows the famous American saying “all politics is local” and he describes Labour’s campaign approach as following this maxim “to the letter”. One year on, the all-new Westminster Council has made a purpose start on climbing a social and economic mountain which, from some angles, is getting bigger and steeper all the time. A paragraph from the Housing Review speaks to that larger mission:
“The new council must be ambitious and realistic at the same time: stretching every sinew to provide additional truly affordable homes and to improve the existing housing stock but knowing it can only ameliorate the growing burden of housing need. It must confront the old issues, like homelessness and overcrowding, whilst also tackling the new, like reducing carbon emissions to net zero and tackling the crisis in energy costs”.
Westminster Labour’s localism can be seen as both entirely virtuous and in tension with the larger Londonwide – and indeed national – economic importance of central London’s globally-known retail, hospitality and cultural zones. Winning again may entail squaring that circle while also honouring pledges on bedrock, bread-and-butter concerns about street cleaning and antisocial behaviour for wealthy and hard-up wards alike. Westminster has become a marginal council. Labour’s efforts to consolidate their grip on this part of the capital will be of continuing interest.
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