Of all the setbacks for the Conservatives in London, the loss of Westminster Council was probably the least expected and the most emblematic. To be sure, as in much of the capital, the Conservative vote had been declining, but the prospect that control would actually change this year seemed unlikely. But it did, and as a resident of south Westminster for more than 20 years, I was an infinitesimal part of the reason.
In 2000, contemplating the move back to the UK from the United States, we bought a flat within the echo (on a quiet day) of Big Ben. That the local authority was Westminister was a consideration. The council drew high praise not only for some of the lowest council tax rates in the country but for running high-quality and efficient services.
And so it seemed. Contacting council departments by phone for various reasons, as a prospective resident may have to do, was almost a pleasure – compared with negotiating the lumbering equivalents in Washington DC, which had been early adopters of press-one-for-this-press-two-for-that automation. At Westminister, you could speak directly to someone who could most likely deal with what had to be dealt with right away.
As a returned London resident, I found that the streets were indeed kept admirably clean. Westminster was an early advocate of recycling. Refuse collection was privatised, but the lorries were subsequently rebranded with the council livery – which seemed right. This is where responsibility for service, good or bad, ultimately lay.Westminster Council seems rather to have rested on its laurels in recent years, trading on a reputation that it no longer deserves
Gradually, over the years, however, more and more services seemed to be, if not privatised (which is fine, if they work), then hived off and made somehow arm’s length. A single number appeared for contacting the council, and the dreaded press-one-for-this-press-two-for-that for that arrived. No one had any authority to actually do anything. You had to ask for a ‘supervisor’ or a ‘manager’ to get anywhere (as only the pushy know how to do).
What’s more, the call centre was in a completely different part of the country. No one had a clue about the basic geography of where you lived. And while you, as the supplicant, would be quizzed for every dot and comma of your identity (often at each layer of your call), the person on the other end would only grudgingly offer a first name, if pressed, and would never, ever, vouchsafe a surname. A direct number? An email address? Come off it. The local was gradually disappearing from the council. This, thankfully, may be starting to be reversed.
Planning policy is another beef. One of the reasons why council tax in Westminster can be as low as it is is the revenue from business and tourism – at least before the pandemic struck. But people do actually live in Westminster, and the interests of residents have increasingly seemed to have taken second place to those of business and visitors. Initially, for instance, the council opposed the arrival of small supermarkets in favour of sandwich bars and coffee shops that seemed to be able to open at will.
As for aesthetics, you have only to look at the square mile around Victoria Station – many people’s first introduction to the capital – to feel that the council has not served anyone well. When I asked, at the public exhibition, why the jarring high-rises opposite the station had been allowed, I was told not that beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, but that the landowners essentially had the whiphand, and if the council was too fussy, then nothing would get built. A council with the prime sites and the clout of Westminster should drive a much harder bargain.
Height restrictions on new buildings have been eased and eased. Fifteen years ago, an application by a neighbouring building to add a storey was refused, on the grounds that it damaged the integrity of the building and exceed the nine-storey norm. Within a few years the extension was allowed on appeal – and justly, given that by then nine-storeys were becoming the exception, as developer after developer argued that they couldn’t afford to build lower (or with more open space or further from the curb). The old New Scotland Yard is being replaced by blocks almost twice as high, and the building still known to locals as the Army & Navy will soon go the same way.
Planning decisions affect what is now called ‘liveability’, where again Westminster has fallen short. While Wandsworth, just across the river, made representations to the relevant authorities about aircraft and helicopter noise, Westminster directed residents to make the complaints themselves. Indeed, the council has made something of a speciality of distancing itself from responsibility.
Anti-social behaviour is an example. If you try to report drug-dealing, aggressive begging, vandalism, threatening behaviour or street drinking, you are directed to a variety of authorities – to the police (good luck with that), to the NHS (mental health) or specialist charities. This would not be so unsatisfactory if the council did not boast so loudly of its prowess in these areas, including its success – not as great as it boasted – in housing homeless people during the first lockdown.
Now it may be that social problems have exacerbated over the years and/or that council taxpayers have become more demanding. It may also be that Westminster still performs well compared with some other councils, despite a particularly unwieldy area, extending from the Thames and parliament in the south to beyond Paddington in the north and west.
Its ‘noise team’, while harder to contact, has responded effectively on the few occasions I have contacted it about roadworks after midnight, for instance. Senior staff give up several evenings a year to answer questions at public meetings in different parts of the borough (thank you for that, by the way). The streets are mostly kept impressively clean and the council was nimble enough during the Covid lockdowns to transfer some street cleaning and rubbish collection away from largely empty tourist and office areas towards the residential streets (again, well done).
For all that, Westminster Council seems rather to have rested on its laurels in recent years, trading on a reputation that it no longer deserves and retreating behind bureaucratic barriers and evasive claptrap to avoid the responsibility that rightly comes with power. The Grenfell disaster in next-door Kensington (and the council failings that it exposed) seems to have awoken Westminster to the need for some things to change. Alas for Westminster’s Conservatives, it was not enough to keep my vote. The gap that had opened up between the council’s flattering self-image and the quality of real life persuaded me – and, it turns out, many others – that it was time to give someone else a go.