Yesterday’s by-election in the Lancaster Gate ward of Westminster City Council was caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Robert Davis. Davis was a senior figure. He had been the longest-serving councillor in Westminster, first elected for Bayswater in 1982 and switching to Lancaster Gate in 1986. He had long been a cabinet member before becoming deputy leader in 2017-18. He is the widower to Sir Simon Milton who was a successful leader of Westminster and got most of the work done in Boris Johnson’s City Hall from 2008 until 2011.
However, Davis ended his political career under a cloud. He resigned his executive position in March 2018 after the Guardian published details of over 500 instances of hospitality he had enjoyed courtesy of property developers in 2015-18 when he was in charge of Westminster planning. Davis was re-elected for Lancaster Gate in May, but Westminster commissioned an inquiry into his conduct. It found that Davis had declared his gifts in the correct way, had done nothing unlawful and that there was no evidence that he had been improperly influenced. However, he criticised Davis’s judgement, noting that “acceptance of gifts and hospitality from developers before or after a planning decision may…have placed him in a position in which people might seek to influence him in the performance of his duties”. Westminster council leader Nickie Aiken said it was important that the planning process was seen to be impartial. Davis disputed the inquiries conclusions, but stood down from the council.
Lancaster Gate ward is basically the south of Bayswater, covering Queensway, Moscow Road and the Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens frontage – wealthy but transient, cosmopolitan and small-l liberal. It contains a council-built estate, Hallfield, but most of the flats on this attractive 1950s modernist development were sold off a long time ago. As with some other wards in the very centre of London, the property-owning permanent residents tend to be rich and Conservative, and reliably come out to vote, while the more transient residents are younger, poorer, very cosmopolitan and tend to vote Labour if they turn out. Lancaster Gate was a long-shot Labour target in the borough elections in May but despite a high swing of 10 per cent in Labour’s favour – possibly helped by the Davis affair – it stayed Conservative and Labour required a further swing of six per cent to win the seat in the by-election.
Labour’s candidate was head teacher Angela Piddock who had contested the ward in May. She fought a vigorous campaign, contrasting Labour’s promises to follow the wishes of ward residents with the big corporate interests Davis had cultivated. This has been part of Labour’s appeal in some other very affluent areas such as Fulham and the West End in recent council elections. The Conservatives selected Margot Bright, who, like Piddock, is a long-term local resident and portrayed herself as a “community champion“ – an implicit rebuke to the Davis legacy.
Turnout in the by-election was 28 per cent, par for the course and too low for Labour to make the impact that they needed to gain the seat. The result was extremely similar to that in May, with the Conservatives maintaining their 12 point margin. Bright was elected in what seems to have been a good-spirited contest. Despite the total lack of swing and its headline result as a Conservative hold, the Lancaster Gate by-election may be more significant than it looks. Whichever party had won, the balance of power in the City of Westminster was going to tilt further towards resident power and against the big corporate developers – or, if you prefer to see it the other way, towards NIMBY parish pump politics and against progress and change. Lancaster Gate may mark the end of a significant era in the politics and planning policy of Westminster City Council, and therefore in the affairs of a unit of London local government that has more economic power than some sovereign states.
This article originally said that the investigation into the gifts and hospitality accepted by Robert Davis had been conduced by Sir Stephen Lamport. However, as Westminster councillor David Boothroyd points out (comment, below), the inquiry was actually carried out by council solicitor Hazel Best. Sir Stephen provided an outside view on the matter to the council’s monitoring officer.