I have perpetually been frustrated that some councillors think council meetings are there to score party-political points on national issues.
With that in mind, I wrote the below column for this week’s Ham & High (below version was unedited) on the approach that Camden Conservatives are taking to council meetings under my leadership: focusing relentlessly on issues that are within the council’s control, not posturing on issues best left to MPs.
This is in the context of Centre for Policy Studies research that shows that most Londoners didn’t know they had a Mayor or borough councils, let alone what power they have. The only way to reverse that trend is to make sure each level of government stays within its own lane and does its own job, rather than trying to do everyone else’s.
The new council term has begun in more collegiate tones than we’ve become used to.
In my first meeting as the leader of the opposition, I praised Camden’s leader for reaffirming our shared commitment to our diversity and dynamism.
In turn, the leader of Camden Lib Dems credited me with stating my love of our borough more passionately than any Conservative leader in her 32 years on the council. Well, it’s nice to be nice.
As a new municipal term begins, it’s worth going back to basics and asking ourselves what we’re all put in that Council chamber to do, and whether we could be doing it better.
A report out this week from the Centre for Policy Studies found that half of Londoners don’t realise they have borough councils and a similar number don’t realise London has a Mayor.
This is deeply worrying. Even if people realise that London has a Mayor, most people won’t know what the Mayor does or how his powers are used. That is deadly to accountability – how can you hold people with power to account when you don’t know what powers they have?
In part, this is due to politicians not focusing on the job they were elected to do. Councils control huge swathes of people’s lives: collecting our bins, educating our children, looking after our green spaces, housing a fifth of Camden’s population, and much more besides.
But would you know that? In the last year, Camden Labour have tabled six motions to council, with every one being about lobbying national government, not fixing things the council has control over.
Camden’s municipal history is littered with myriad meetings discussing issues from Northern Ireland to Israel. All too often, discussing national or international issues just devolves into petty tit-for-tat party-political arguments.
The inflamed passions of national politics nearly caused riots in Town Hall in the 1980s. Camden didn’t bring peace to the world’s war-ravaged regions – it did, however, struggle to set a legal budget and racked up hundreds of millions in debts.
Tens of millions of pounds were wasted because the council waged war against national laws and district auditors instead of finding ways to make services work more efficiently and effectively.
I’m determined to avoid that happening again and instead dedicate our energies to fixing Camden’s flaws. Camden has inner London’s third-worst school results, England’s second-worst maintained council housing, skyrocketing fly-tipping and littering, and the largest increase in crime of any London borough. We need to focus on the day job.
This will guide Conservative councillors’ approach. This month, we proposed the review of the Chalcots evacuation be fully independent of the council and backed an independent review of Camden’s failing waste contract.
By harnessing external expertise, we can learn from the mistakes of the past and greatly improve the council’s performance. By focusing on local issues, not on posturing on national issues, we can dramatically improve services for local residents.
Half of Londoners may not know they have a borough council, but everyone notices when they have a badly-run one – and it’s our job as councillors to fix that.