Labour’s new learning curve in Westminster

By Cllr Adam Hug | 13 June 2022

It was a remarkable way to end my first month in office – to be leading the local authority at the heart of the Jubilee celebrations.

Our eight square miles contain the Mall, Buckingham Palace, and Trafalgar Square, and for four days, the nation, indeed the world, was watching Westminster.

Our Council officers did a fantastic job – from working to ensure our streets were clean, the famous locations looked good, and the roads were clear to receive tens of thousands of visitors. Like other council leaders, I stopped by at street parties and the beacon lighting to enjoy our communities coming together for this landmark occasion. One wonderful unscripted moment came when Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice visited a lunch hosted by the Council for our community volunteers. One elderly lady seated at a lunch table asked Princess Beatrice who was, to be told: ‘The Queen is my granny, I’m very lucky!’

But we are now back to the reason why this new administration – the first ever Labour Council in Westminster’s history – was elected. Election nights are always hailed as historic; ours has the chance to be a transformational moment for our city and the many communities who had not felt they were heard by the previous administration.

We are charting an ambitious new direction with clear new priorities ahead: more social housing and affordable rental property; tackling the cost-of-living crisis and overhauling the way the council works with a new focus on resident engagement.

Let me start with the last point.

We want to see the council talking to people earlier in the process of decision-making and giving them real choices over what happens next, rather than always presenting residents with a fait accompli. Our residents know and are tired of having pseudo-consultations foisted on them. That will also mean reform of our planning system to ensure the concerns of local people are as powerful as the voice of developers.

We have a housing waiting list of over 4000 and it is essential that we take the major house building projects in the Council’s pipeline and find ways to significantly increase the number of council homes for social rent that they deliver to tackle the chronic problems of overcrowding and homelessness that people are facing. We are urgently looking at ways to use the council’s own resources better to help achieve this and will be working closely with the Mayor of London on this agenda.

The City of Westminster has the largest private rented sector in England at 43% of all housing, home to a diverse mix of people including many of our Councillors whose personal experiences will help inform how we tackle the growing problem renters face. We have already created a cabinet post for renters– the first time this has ever happened in Westminster. No matter what we are able to build, the reality is more people are going to be spending longer in the private rented sector throughout their lives. That is why we are committed to getting a better deal for private renters.

We want to help people tackle the cost-of-living crisis that so many are facing. In Westminster that means freezing the Council Tax not just this year, but next. The Council will provide more support to local foodbanks, pantries and other groups fighting food poverty. We are looking at ways to make it easier to insulate people’s homes and working with the planners to make it easier to install suitable double or secondary glazing in conservation areas.

Westminster is regularly cited as one of country’s wealthiest areas - and it is true we are home to some of the UK’s most expensive properties. But alongside that, we also have some of the highest levels of child poverty in the country after housing costs and some real challenges of multiple deprivation that need to be urgently tackled. We have a real job to do in order to bring our city together to support the talent of our young people and all our residents, giving them a chance to take advantage of some of the amazing opportunities our city has to offer that may be just down the road, but can often feel a million miles away.  

The West End supports one in eight jobs in the capital and generates billions for the economy. The new administration is well aware of our stewardship role of an area which is an annual magnet for international visitors so of course we want to see it prosper - and we are launching a new forum with experts on board to bring in fresh thinking on how to do that. But for us, a critical issue is ensuring all of Westminster thrives, creates jobs, and serves its local people. There are local high streets in Westminster that visitors may not always see – like Queensway or Harrow Road – but they are vital hubs for our communities and must be supported to flourish.

All local authority leaders have the challenge of working to restore their local economies after the two-year hiatus of COVID. We are committed to that in Westminster too, but with residents’ need as the litmus test of why we take action as a city council. For us, success comes in attending to neighbourhood level problems – tackling fly tipping, supporting start-up businesses, fixing holes in roads. Given Westminster’s recent history with the Conservative’s £6m Marble Arch Mound we will work hard to avoid such vanity projects in future and to deliver value for money for our residents.

A final note. My colleagues and I are acutely conscious of the privilege we now have in leading this Council. As a new administration trying to make change, we are on a learning curve, and we won’t get everything right.

But we were given a clear and historic mandate for change on May 5. The task now is to build that fairer Westminster.

Cllr Adam Hug is the Labour leader of Westminster City Council

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