The loss of Westminster to Labour last week sent a shockwave through the Conservative Party, locally and nationally, and the media. One week on, Cascade Client Executive and Westminster resident, Joshua Macmillan, takes a look back at the likely causes and the effect it will have on the stewardship of the borough, and those who have interests in it.
Westminster City Council has been Conservative since its inception in 1965 and for many the election results came as quite a shock. Of all the Conservative losses in London, Westminster was the most symbolic, being also home of the British Government and the Prime Minister. Yet, this shouldn’t necessarily come as a complete surprise. Labour’s vote share was only 1.7% behind that of the Conservatives at the last election.
A clear target for them, they have successfully capitalised on the Conservatives’ errors. The £6m cost of the ill-fated Marble Arch Mound has been touted by Labour as a key example of wasting public money, which they believe helped them win the election. Labour also undercut one of the Conservatives strongest messages by promising to freeze council tax until 2024. And that is without considering the national political picture.
The Conservatives had managed Westminster efficiently while offering the cheapest council tax in the country. That was previously a winning formula, but the losses associated to the mound will have led to questions on financial housekeeping. A key contributor to how Westminster Council can afford to keep tax low is its lucrative revenue from businesses and tourism. Yet, this has come at a cost, with an ever-growing impression that the interests of residents came second to business. Labour promised to set this right, and it worked.
Turnout is undoubtedly a factor in last weeks election. In 2018, no Westminster ward returned turnout lower than 31%, but this time around turnout dwindled in a lot of wards as traditional Conservative voters stayed home to send a clear message to Boris on ‘Partygate’. In wards such as Hyde Park (previously Conservative, now Labour), Lancaster Gate (previously Conservative, now split), Vincent Square (previously Conservative, now split) and West End (previously split, now Labour) where there were as little as 2 votes in it, turnout really influenced the overall outcome.
It’s also important to consider the changing demographic, not only in Westminster but London more widely, which is trending towards the capital being a Labour stronghold. It doesn’t help that London is often seen as being in the dark when it comes to the Government’s Levelling Up agenda. The new Cabinet Member for Business and Planning, Councillor Geoff Barraclough, has commented publicly since the election and cited a senior Conservative who congratulated him by saying “In many ways amazing we kept Westminster for so long given the demography!”
What of the actual results?
Overall, Labour has 31 councillors (+12) and Conservatives 23 (-18). Boundary changes mean there are 6 fewer councillors than last time.
- 21 of the 54 are newly elected councillors – 14 for Labour and 6 for the Conservatives
- 3 of the 18 wards are politically split: Lancaster Gate, Little Venice and Vincent Square
Who’s who in the new administration?
Councillor Adam Hug (Westbourne ward) will formally become Leader of the Council on 18 May. A councillor since 2010, he became Leader of the Labour Group in 2015 following stints as Deputy Leader and Shadow Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care and Public Protection. He works at the think tank Foreign Policy Centre, but like many new council leaders we envisage he will be a full-time politician from here.
The Council’s AGM on 18 May will confirm committee roles, but key cabinet posts have already been announced:
- Councillor Tim Roca and Councillor Aicha Less both become Deputy Leaders, with Councillor Roca also taking on Young People, Learning and Leisure and Councillor Less holding Communities and Public Protection
- Councillor Geoff Barraclough is heading up City Shaping Planning and Economic Development
- Councillor David Boothroyd controls Finance and Council Reform
- Councillor Liza Begum holds Housing Services
- Councillor Matt Noble is the Chief Whip plus Climate Action, Regeneration and Renters
- Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg has the brief for City Management and Air Quality
- Councillor Nafsika Butler-Thalassis will run Adult Social Care, Public Health and Voluntary Sector
At the time of writing, the key role of Chair of the Planning (Major Applications) Sub-Committee has not been announced, but with all three experienced Labour members who sat on planning committees taking on Cabinet roles, it will be a new face at the helm.
What’s next in Westminster?
The Labour administration will certainly be different, especially towards planning, but Councillor Barraclough is experienced having sat on planning since he was elected in 2018. Memories of ex-Conservative councillor Robert Davis will still linger in the town hall and Labour will deliberately want to show that the residents come before developers.
The Labour Group’s pre-election pledges related to planning included:
- Introduction of a net-zero test for every major planning application
- Restore the requirement for at least 60% of affordable housing built in Westminster to be for social rent
- Scrap Westminster’s policies that require onsite car parking
- Push developers to achieve higher energy efficiency requirements in minor developments and more options for connecting new homes to community heating projects
- Require developers to employ local people and to provide Westminster apprenticeships
- No council-owned homes will be sold
The onus is clearly on providing more social and truly affordable homes along with far more rigorous environmental standards.
What advice to those with an interest in Westminster?
The new administration will need some time to settle into their role. We do expect some big announcements around their policies and a push by the administration to make their mark, so they don’t end up being one term and done. However, there are a lot of new councillors and none of the team have run the council before. They will be relying on their officers for guidance.
What happens in four years?
For the Conservatives this is a watershed moment. Now Kensington and Chelsea is the only Conservative-run council in Central London. With the national party likely to focus on the former red wall seats to retain a Parliamentary majority, the local Conservative Party will need to renew and galvanise themselves to win back Westminster.
A strong showing from the Labour Party over the next four years could also entrench them. All eyes will be on the new administration.
With listening to residents a key Labour pledge, community engagement will be key to building a consensus and taking sites forward. Cascade has excellent experience of engaging local communities across Westminster. Get in touch if we can help you with advice or a full guidance to what changes will happen.
by Joshua Macmillan, Client Ececutive