The first time I went inside Wandsworth Town Hall, I was thrown out. I had come to sit in the public gallery of the Finance Committee along with parents, teachers and former students (like myself) of Elliott School, to watch the decision about the future of our school playing fields. After decades of under-investment and a promised refurbishment, Wandsworth Council had decided to sell off the school’s grounds to property developers to pay for its renovation. Precious public land for children to use for exercise and play was to disappear – all because the Council had failed to look after its own school building. We were not thrown out because we heckled or made a scene. Our arguments for alternative solutions were never heard because Conservative councillors voted to make the decision in private. They were too cowardly to even have the discussion in front of us.
Wandsworth Borough Council is the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Conservative local Government. Famously Thatcher’s favourite Council, it pioneered the now-common tactics of outsourcing, privatisation and lean-and-mean service provision which have left people across the country struggling with skeletal public services. Most significant is its legacy on housing policy, which explains the political fortunes of the borough’s Conservative Party and well as its current weakness.
Wandsworth Council pioneered many of the policies that have created the housing crisis. They launched a right to buy scheme before it was national policy, refusing to replace the properties sold. They led the way in selling vacant council homes to letting agencies rather than housing homeless families in them, and accomplishing mass privatisations of entire estates, as well as demolitions. Under Wandsworth Tories, the borough’s council housing stock has decreased by at least 24,000 properties, with only 243 Council homes being built in the last 15 years to replace them. Former Councillors like Peter Bingle bragged ‘My aim is to reduce the number of Council properties in Wandsworth from 35,000 to 20,000, and to make Battersea a Conservative constituency’.
The legacy of the 1980’s has not gone away. One only has to look to the Nine Elms development to see what Conservative Wandsworth has done with brown field land other local authorities could only dream of. The area is hosting the biggest regeneration in Europe, with tens of thousands of homes being built, yet not a single Council home. Only last summer, the Tories allowed the Battersea Power Station to cut 250 of its ‘affordable homes’ from its plans, lowering its affordable housing commitment from 15% to 9%. The remaining homes will be built half a kilometre from the development on an old industrial site. This is not urban planning to produce maximum social good or diverse and mixed communities. This is social cleansing.
While for a long time these policies helped changed the face of predominantly working class constituencies like Battersea, the scale of the housing crisis means that more and more residents are feeling the squeeze. Graduates are stuck at home with their parents, or seeing all their wages disappear on rent. Young professional with decent salaries look up at empty glass towers rising around them from their flat shares on unstable rental contracts. For many, the relationship between Wandsworth Council and property developers has just gone too far; the kinds of projects being approved just clearly do not meet the needs of residents, but rather the needs of speculators and property moguls.
For those in social housing, there is a clear sense that people are being left behind. One of the most common conversations I have with parents on the doorstep is the effect of overcrowding on their children, who as they get older find it harder and harder to stay in the house and suffer from a lack of personal space. This chimes with fears about what is happening to our young people on the streets. Last year Wandsworth made the biggest cuts to its youth services of the south-west London councils, slashing its funding by £1,772,245 – a cut of almost 49 per cent to its budget. In 2016 its Children’s Services were rated inadequate by Ofsted. With nowhere for young people to go, many of our most vulnerable are put at greater risk. Patmore Estate for instance, one of the biggest Housing Estates in Battersea, doesn’t even have its own community centre to hold Resident Association meetings in, let alone a youth centre for its younger residents.
In November 2016 I stood as a Labour candidate for councillor in a by-election, and won. Now, I’m standing again with many other left-wing candidates determined to transform Wandsworth council from an austerity testing into a force for good. The 2017 general election showed that Labour has a real chance in Wandsworth, when Marsha de Cordova’s victory surprised pollsters and pundits alike by proving that many residents are hungry for change.
Our manifesto is bold and ambitious. We will start building council housing again, create a landlord licensing scheme, and pay the London Living Wage to all council workers including contracted staff. We’ll offer ballots on any estate regeneration, open up the town hall and live stream all council and committee meetings, create a mental health champion position to improve access to mental health support for young people and extend counselling services in schools – as well as many other fully costed pledges. But we will only win if we can harness the energy and enthusiasm of Labour members in the same way as last summer. Local elections are about turnout, and political conversations on the doorstep are the best way of making people feel they have a stake in the local democratic process and its institutions. So if you want to see Wandsworth Council transformed, and an end to 40 years of Tory dogma, please come and join is make history on May 3rd.