Having lived and worked in Wandsworth for 20 years, this morning’s election result marks the end of a long period of ‘business as usual’ in the Brighter Borough. It seemed, in the run up to polling day, as if there were only one media story in these local elections, that Wandsworth was likely to change hands. Perhaps, and I will discuss this further, more symbolically significant than the reality will play out to be?
Firstly, to indulge the political nerd in me, local elections are always more nuanced and harder to predict than nationals. Boundary changes made new wards “untested” for both main parties and it meant that the campaign focus for both camps was concentrated in key marginal wards – Trinity, Wandle, Wandsworth Town and St Mary’s. It became evident that Labour was increasingly confident as, closer to polling day, wards such as West Putney were being put forward as potential gains along with others, initially deemed longer shots, such as Balham. The low turnout and the fact that in local elections voters can split their vote across the parties added to the already strong sense that every vote mattered.
Wandsworth’s big headline low council tax – became a council tax cut pledged by the Conservatives as an antidote to the cost-of-living crisis, which was matched by Labour. The Labour campaign, like all good campaigns, focused on very simple messaging – we will also keep your council tax low and, by the way, this is your chance to give Boris a bloody nose.
So what of the actual results?
Overall Labour have 35 councillors (+8), Conservatives 22 (-8) and 1 Independent (as before). Here’s what is interesting:
- A Labour gain for the first time in 44 years.
- 26 out of 58 are newly elected councillors – 16 for Labour and 10 for the Conservatives
- Only 12 Conservatives from the previous term have been re-elected (although a lot were standing down) and 19 incumbent Labour councillors re-elected.
- Councillor Ravi Govindia, outgoing Leader of the Council, retained his East Putney seat.
- 6 of the 22 wards are split across political parties: Balham, East Putney, St Mary’s, Wandsworth Town, West Hill and West Putney.
- Split wards such as St Mary’s and Wandsworth Town see a high proportion of planning applications which will make future engagement interesting.
- Labour stalwart, Councillor Belton, who was elected in Battersea Park ward, has served on the Council for over 50 years including 3 months as Leader of the Council before it turned blue!
- Former Labour Battersea MP, Martin Linton, stood and lost in Lavender ward but his wife, Sara Linton, was elected in Shaftesbury and Queenstown ward.
- 1,710 votes in total were registered in Nine Elms ward, which is a newly created ward made up of mostly new builds from Vauxhall down to Battersea Power Station. 2 Conservatives secured their win with just 352 and 321 votes!
What happens next?
Firstly, there is process. Councillor Simon Hogg (Falconbrook ward) is Leader of the Labour Group currently. There will be party AGMs and then a Full Council AGM on Wednesday 25 May to confirm appointments to the Cabinet and committees. Rumours of turmoil within the Labour Group and a possible leadership challenge lingered before the election, but now seem less likely having secured a healthy majority. What will be interesting is to see how the Labour Group settles now they are in control of the Council.
Secondly, personality is important and we see this every day in politics. The outgoing Leader is a pragmatist, broadly non-combative in style. Based on election campaign rhetoric, one might believe that Councillor Hogg is ready to tear up the rule book, in a similar way to Councillor Stephen Cowan when he took control of Hammersmith & Fulham from the Conservatives in 2014. However, it should be noted that Labour has effectively been on a war-footing for the last 4 years. Councillor Hogg may yet face challenges from within his own party (we wait to see which councillors will be rewarded with Cabinet roles), and externally – continuing the appeal to voters and managing the Conservatives in opposition, plus a new day job running a multi-million-pound budget.
There has been a notable shift in the relationship between officers and members over the past 12-18 months. In the planning department, officers are more policy and process focused. Long-serving officers have only known one master and it is possible that there could be some churn. On a practical level, officers will be weighing up the new administration, keen to understand their priorities, eager to impress and will use the period of “unknown” to act as gatekeepers, enabling them to retain control.
It seems likely that there will be changes to the structure of the Cabinet. While Councillor Govindia chose to retain oversight of planning and regeneration as part of his portfolio as leader, this is not the norm across London boroughs. Labour has been highly critical of a perceived closeness between the Conservative administration and property developers, and have stated a desire to change the way the Council manages its relationships with developers.
There is also the Draft Local Plan which was pushed through just before purdah. What happens with this will give a good indication of the new administration’s priorities. Given the Labour manifesto pledge to push for 50% affordable homes on all new developments, it feels like a good opportunity to reopen the book to engage with the public and road test some of the decisions and assumptions within. The route to achieving 50% affordable homes and building 1,000 new council homes on council owned land will rely on building effective partnerships with developers and housing associations, therefore a route through will inevitably emerge.
The make-up of the Planning Applications Committee will shift to reflect the new Council political make-up, with at least 6 Labour members, if not 7, and 4 or 3 Conservative members on the assumption that the committee continues in the format that it has done previously. After 44 years in opposition, Councillor Belton is likely to be thrust back into a pole position at the age of 81. It is certainly no bad thing to have someone who understands the planning process, and has been both an effective challenger and supporter of planning applications over many years.
Lastly, for schemes referable to the GLA, the dynamic between the Council and Wandsworth has changed overnight. The previous administration has had some public run-ins with the Mayor’s office but for the most part, has sought to ensure that developers have satisfied the GLA before taking schemes to committee. One should assume that public run-ins will be avoided from here on in and therefore getting red flags out the way early from City Hall will be important.
What advice to those with an interest in Wandsworth?
Let things settle down. After 44 years in opposition, the new administration will want to show how it is different, set out its priorities and start delivering for residents. New members, of which there are many, will need to learn what it means to be a councillor and those in control, will have to make the shift in mindset from opposition to governing party. This takes time even if there is an appetite to move quickly.
Speak to officers. Officers are the constant and will be able to provide an early indication on the direction of travel for the new administration.
Identify areas of common ground with the new administration. Based on the key priorities coming forward, how can developers work with the Council to realise these?
Community engagement is even more important (if that’s even possible) than it was before. Cascade has deep-rooted relationships with local communities having worked across Wandsworth for years. I have personally worked on over 100 projects in Wandsworth over many years. Due to our grassroots approach towards engagement, I am really proud that the majority of Cascade’s projects have received cross-party support, often unanimous, by the time they have reached the planning committee. This includes flagship projects such as Arding & Hobbs, Springfield University Hospital and Battersea Power Station. Don’t get me wrong, there have been a number of political battles over the years, but moving forward, our forensic knowledge of the Wandsworth communities and belief in meaningful engagement will serve to steady the ship.
Is this really seismic in the bigger picture?
It will be interesting to see how the Conservatives nationally respond to what has happened in London, with the shifts in Barnet and Westminster of equal significance to the one in Wandsworth. My guess is that the London results will be brushed aside with the narrative that London is a Labour city and not the focus for retaining a Conservative majority at the next elections.
To be fair, I think this is true. All three parliamentary seats in Wandsworth are already Labour, London’s Mayor is Labour, the local result makes no real difference to the national picture other than a test on the current sentiment of metropolitan voters.