Romford market has existed since 1247 and means different things to different people. For historians, it is the founding institution of a historic town named after Thames tributary the River Rom. For shoppers, it offers stalls selling clothing, home furnishings and food. And for journalists it is – or certainly has been – the place to go if you need someone to suggest, for example, that Sadiq Khan isn’t really British.
Alighting at Romford’s brand new Elizabeth Line station the other week, I recalled such a remark made to a TV crew during the 2016 mayoral election campaign. The stereotype of Romford as a redoubt of the Essex Man variety of patriot has other sources too. For example, its MP since 2001 has been Andrew Rosindell, resolute Eurosceptic, Union Jack enthusiast and adherent to the “woke”-watching Common Sense Group of Tory MPs. And the Leave-voting borough of Havering, whose administrative centre Romford is, was the only part of Greater London in which the UK Independence Party in its prime made a significant electoral incursion.
Yet there is more to Romford and to Havering and its 260,000 people than a mindset not unlike that of a certain sort of voter in Stoke-on-Trent.
There are clues in the demographics. House of Commons data show that 78.2 per cent of residents of the Romford parliamentary seat are UK-born and that 73.4 per cent are white. Both figures are higher than for Greater London as a whole, though, actually, not all that much higher. A resident of Hackney, I didn’t feel so very far from home on Romford’s streets.
Havering as a whole, covering 43 square miles of the outer east of the capital, much of it semi-rural and some of it lying beyond the M25, has seen its population change a lot this century, both in size and composition.
In 2001, the borough was home to 224,248 people, according to the Census of that year – nearly 38,000 fewer than now. In that year, too, 95.2 per cent of Havering’s residents were white and 92 per cent defined themselves as White British. Twenty years later, in the Census of 2021, those percentages had fallen to, respectively, 75.3 per cent 66.5 per cent.
Over that same period, the Asian or Asian British Census category has risen from 2.2 per cent to 10.8 per cent – primarily Londoners of Indian birth or descent – and the Black or Black British group has gone up from 1.4 per cent to 8.2 per cent – primarily Londoners of African birth or descent. Back in the summer I went to Upminster, one of Havering’s seven town centres, at the end of the District line. While there, I spotted two black women in African attire entering a local church.
Eastern European migrants have established themselves in Havering too – the council tells me that the borough has the largest Lithuanian, Romanian and Polish populations in Greater London. In short, although part of the spirit of Havering might think of itself as part of Essex, a newer and enlarging part is becoming, if you like, more Londonised.
There have also been changes to Havering’s age structure. The 2021 Census showed it had seen a bigger increase in younger people than anywhere else in the metropolis and almost anywhere else in all of England. At the same time, it contains a high percentage of older people.
That hike in the population of Havering and its range of wants and needs means the council – and, indeed, other public bodies there – have been increasingly contending with issues that are also taxing some other outer London boroughs.
The burgeoning older population relies on it for social care. The younger group, be they locally-born or newcomers from areas closer to the centre of the capital following the traditional outward migration trail, are seeking suitable housing, good jobs, transport infrastructure and schools for their children.
Amid these pressure and demands, Havering Council – again like some other outer London boroughs – finds itself fighting a pretty thankless battle to keep its finances afloat. It regards itself as a prudently-run local authority. Nonetheless, earlier this month the council’s leader, Ray Morgon, described its situation as “desperate” and warned of difficult decisions ahead. Last week, he was joined by Hornchurch & Upminster MP Julia Lopez in a delegation to the government, seeking help.
How will this unique piece of outer London respond to its changing and challenging situation? Where is Havering heading?
Ray Morgon himself is a product both of Havering’s distinctive political past and of its unfolding future. Ever since the borough was created, big numbers of its electors have eschewed political parties and voted instead for candidates representing their local ward residents’ associations, some of which were well-established and influential decades earlier. Such hyperlocal independents filled a dozen seats at the very first Havering borough election, held in 1964, and have only twice fallen below double figures since.
Lately, they’ve grown stronger than ever. At the last three elections, Residents’ Association (RA) representation has risen above 20 seats. In 2014, also the year seven UKIP councillors were returned and Labour was reduced to one, the 24 seats RAs won made them theoretically the largest council group, outnumbering the Tories by two.
However, the RAs weren’t really a group. Almost by definition, their concerns were tightly framed by their own backyards. They had no shared vision for the borough as a whole and were not collectively inclined to take on responsibility for running it. Consequently, the Tories formed a minority administration which RA councillors propped up.
In 2018, UKIP were wiped out, Labour recovered to five seats and the Tories overtook the RAs to form the largest group. By now, RA councillors were forming alliances among themselves, though not always hitting it off with each other. Even so, enough them were prepared to vote with the Tories to again keep Havering’s latest iteration of No Overall Control (NOC) – its tenth such outcome out of 16 sets of council elections down the years – on the road.
That road, however, became a rocky one. That was particularly so for the Tories’ then newly-elected leader, Damian White. A Havering councillor since 2010, White’s political career came within just 293 votes of reaching a still higher level at the general election of 2019, that being the slender margin by which he failed to oust Labour’s Jon Cruddas from the marginal Dagenham & Rainham parliamentary seat, the Rainham part of which falls into Havering.
White’s near miss was followed by a difficult period. In July 2020, a recording emerged of him speaking to a meeting of fellow Tories about his involvement in the local government boundary review process.
It prompted a complaint by opposition politicians and calls for his resignation, but the following October a council panel composed entirely of White’s fellow Tories dismissed the complaint, having ruled it had been submitted after the permitted time limit had expired.
By this time, most of the RA councillors had cohered and defined themselves as a single Havering Residents’ Associations group (HRA). They weren’t impressed. “It was clear from the start the process would be abused, bringing the council into disrepute,” they said.
Then, in March last year, shortly before the 2022 council elections, White endured further public discomfort when, from the opposition benches, Morgon mentioned during a debate about crime that, in 2016, White had received a drug-driving conviction.
In response, White issued a statement, which was reported by the Romford Recorder. “I had taken an overdose with the intention of ending my own life,” the statement said, referring to the motoring offence. White offered no excuse for his behaviour, but described the circumstances as “difficult and deeply personal”. The statement added: “I have always suffered from mental health illness throughout my life. This stems from struggling to come to terms with who and what I am.” The Recorder was more specific: it said White had “struggled to accept that he was gay”.
When the next borough elections came, on 5 May last year, Conservative and RA candidates each won 23 seats. With relations between the HRA and the Tories soured and a resurgent Labour, now with nine seats to its name, potentially holding the balance of power, the NOC negotiation landscape had changed.
The prospect of being consigned to opposition for the first time since 1974 was not the only difficulty for local Tories. On 17 May 2022, it was reported that a Conservative MP had been arrested on suspicion of indecent assault, sexual assault, rape, abuse of position of trust and misconduct in public office following a two-year investigation. That MP turned out to be Andrew Rosindell. Released on police bail, lately extended to February 2024, he continues to deny any wrongdoing.
Following three-week impasse, a deal was done between the HRA council group and Labour, led by the experienced Keith Darvill. Morgon, the HRA group leader, became council leader too. A Conservative as a young man and a former Havering Tory member, including in its cabinet from 2004 to 2006, the Hornchurch Residents’ Association councillor for Hacton ward was now to lead his own Havering cabinet of nine, including Darvill and one other Labour member.
Morgon quickly announced a review of the council’s committee structure and urged Havering residents of whatever political persuasion to contribute ideas. “I am confident that over the next four years we can do this borough proud,” he said.
Unhappily for those who live there, Havering’s money situation is making it difficult for Morgon (pictured below) and his colleagues to do them proud in every way that they might wish. Earlier this month, Morgon told LBC the council’s situation was “desperate” despite cutting jobs, selling assets and finding cheaper ways to provide services. “Our finances no longer allow us to do some of the things we’ve done in the past,” he says.
Morgon underlines the largest soaring cost: “At this time last year, around about 70 per cent of our budget went on adults and children’s care. That’s now nearer the 80 per cent mark. How much more can you do? It’s going to be 90 per cent, then 100 per cent. Other residents will say, ‘what do I pay my council tax for? What about my environment, what about my roads, what about my waste collection, my street cleaning?'”
He mentions a Havering child kept in a secure unit who needs looking after by three people. The bill for that is £30,000 a week: “Whoever takes on the running of the country next year really needs to get to grips with this issue, because it’s going to mean a lot of councils that are generally well run are going to be toppling over.” And he is far from alone among local government leaders, not only in fast-changing outer London, to want the whole basis of council funding reconsidered: “What we need is a fundamental reform of local government finances. It’s using data that’s totally out of date.”
Meanwhile, Morgon wants Havering to change and grow in ways he sees as going with the grain of long-established and newer residents alike. The borough is working on refreshing its Local Plan. Morgon recognises the need for more housing, and he inherited a bunch of regeneration schemes, including of the well-advanced Waterloo Estate in Romford and others in Harold Hill, a settlement right at the edge of the metropolis born of the 1944 Greater London Plan, and a retirement village in Hornchurch. However, he dislikes high density in the form of height.
“You don’t want all these massive high-rise developments where you’re not really building communities,” he says. “We want to move towards more houses with gardens. You don’t want to be bringing up kids in high-rise blocks of flats.” Just before last May’s elections, planning permission for granted under the Tories for nearly 1,000 new homes on the site of a former ice rink in Romford was confirmed. One of the blocks will rise to 12 storeys. For Morgon, that’s too tall.
He’s a defender a private car use: “Of course, even if you’re living near a town centre and you have got train stations or Tube stations, people still want cars to move about. When you’re doing your big weekly shop at Tesco’s or wherever, you’re not going want to be carrying that on a bus.” That said, Morgon is lobbying for better public transport through the borough’s many wide green open spaces (including several golf courses) where getting around without a car can be difficult, especially on the north-south axis.
He highlights the south of the borough around Beam Park, a partially-built new residential neighbourhood which straddles the boundary with Barking & Dagenham next door and covers part of the old Ford Dagenham car production site, and neighbouring Rainham, which fronts on to the Thames. Beam Park’s progress has been slowed by the government’s refusal in 2021 to finance a new station there. Rainham, recorded as a village in the Domesday Book, is now part of a significant employment centre and home to the Centre for Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence skills training organisation. “The businesses tell me they can attract workers, but can’t get them down there because there’s literally only one bus,” Morgon says.
His frustration about public transport is shared by Keith Darvill (pictured below), who’s been immersed in Havering politics for even longer than Morgon. Both have been councillors since 2002, but Darvill, a solicitor who earlier in life was a Port of London Authority messenger and union activist, was previously, between 1997 and 2001, the first and only Labour MP for the now defunct Upminster constituency.
Currently Morgon’s cabinet member for climate change and housing need, he stresses Beam Park and Rainham areas’ potential for creating more jobs – “a lot of them related to the green economy and our climate change ambitions” – and the importance of having the right infrastructure to make the most of it. The same will apply to what the council is calling “Europe’s largest datacentre“, which it wants built on a 500-acre site in the east of the borough, complete with ecology park and green tech development.
Like Morgon, Darvill knows that forging links with the Mayor of London and national government is crucial to securing the transport provision Havering needs. Under the Tories, bonds between the council and Sadiq Khan’s Labour City Hall were not close. But although Morgon is “very disappointed” that he and the Mayor have yet to meet and that the Superloop bus network, promoted by Khan’s Transport for London as an express orbital option for outer boroughs, “doesn’t come anywhere near Havering”, there has been more engagement with TfL and, indeed, other pan-London governance organisations, such as the cross-party London Councils.
Both Morgon and Darvill are unhappy about the timing of Khan’s expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone, albeit Morgon says he’d have held it back for “three or four years” and Darvill for a shorter time. Even so, both believe they have a better chance than the administration they have replaced of getting more of what Havering needs. They’re even exploring the idea of a tram route for the borough, something Darvill recalls being looked at “long ago when we had a Labour administration here”.
That Labour Havering lasted for a single term, ending in 1974. The party remained a major local force over the next two decades, and its members formed the biggest council group three more times later in the 20th Century. But in the 21st it has yet to reach double figures in seats.
During the same period, the RAs have grown stronger, sustained by councillors who’ve concentrated on the concerns of the communities they represent, communicating through advert-funded newsletters, personal contacts and word-of-mouth. They dominate the mid-section of Havering’s electoral map.
Morgon says he hopes the borough’s RAs, free from national party obligations, will one day form a majority. But Darvill foresees Labour fortunes improving too. As Morgon also observes, many of Havering’s out-migrating incomers are bringing Labour-voting habits with them, often from inner east London boroughs. Such an influx wouldn’t be unprecedented. Far from it: many Havering residents of long standing have roots in the East End.
As for the borough’s reputation as a bastion of the flag-waving Right, that may be fading but has yet to be dismantled: defeated candidates in an August by-election in Upminster included an actual diehard fascist and a Tory candidate who was suspended by his party before polling day after his past Facebook output insulting Muslims and people hospitalised by Covid-19 came to light.
More broadly, the Conservatives appear to be at some sort of crossroads. The local ship is not a happy one. Damian White was narrowly re-elected as group leader after the last elections, but faced criticism for poor attendance at council meetings. This followed three Tory members defecting to the HRA.
White said his absences from the chamber were due to illness and the demands of becoming a trainee social worker, focusing on mental health. He remains a councillor, but in May of this year he was replaced as group leader by Keith Prince, who is also the London Assembly member for Havering & Redbridge.
Andrew Rosindell hasn’t attended parliament in over a year, though he has eagerly campaigned for Tory London Mayor candidate Susan Hall. He recently celebrated Essex Day. The way Havering is going, such sentiments, like some who cleave to them, could become increasingly redundant in this unique part of outer London.
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