Cllr Andrew Marshall, the leader of the Conservative Group on Camden Council and the Council's Executive Portfolio for Community Development and Planning, hopes to progress from coalition with the Lib Dems to full power next year.
Camden’s an exciting and highly contested place: journalists and lawyers are thick on the ground, so issues that might be straightforward in many places become contentious here, and end up being challenged in the national media or the courts. We’ve got Alastair Campbell and partner Fiona Millar, who’s active in the
Campaign for State Education; localism campaigner Simon Jenkins; the national HQ of Defend Council Housing; school governors like David Aaronovitch and so on.
Labour ran Camden for 35 years until 2006. Since then, Conservatives have run the council along with the larger Liberal Democrat group, on an agreed four year programme. With four Conservative cabinet members out of ten, including schools, environment, adult social services and planning and community development, we’ve exercised, and been seen to exercise, significant power. Thanks to the pressure that we exercised within the “Partnership Administration”, we’ve frozen the council tax for three years out of four.
The Partnership Administration has been seen to work well: we’ve made progress in areas like new secondary school places, cleaner streets, new elderly persons homes, increased sustainability, and fairer parking controls. Resident satisfaction is up and the Audit Commission, whatever we think of the process, gave Camden the highest scores ever awarded in its corporate assessment (an achievement that would probably have attracted more attention had Camden been under one party control). After three decades, our voters wanted Labour out and Conservative councillors exercising as much power as possible.
With a diverse electorate skewed to the rich, the poor and the young (not many Mondeo Men here), it would do us no good to be seen as hyper-partisan. David Cameron’s vision of progressive Conservatism is vital to us in a borough where both the BNP and UKIP did very poorly and there are many floating centrist voters.
But one thing is certain – Camden’s Partnership Administration, whatever its achievements, will not be standing for re-election. We have not hesitated to criticise our partners, especially when LibDem backbenchers have been ambivalent about taking hard decisions and have sought to claim credit for spending the same pound of taxpayers money in several different ways.
A Conservative Council is our realistic aim in 2010. We will be targeting LibDem, Labour and Green wards, and are conscious that a borough election on the same day as the General election could have some very dramatic effects on some ward results.
We’ll be explain to local people that the current administration does not show what a Conservative council would be like, though it gives some sense about the competence and concerns of the Conservative team.
A Conservative Camden would show more urgency in tackling anti-social behaviour, especially on our estates, and demanding effective action on crime and drugs. We’d move faster in bringing in a more joined-up customer service ethos. We’ll fight hard for more primary places and for a new secondary school in central London. We’d focus on practical sustainability measures, and make sure we maintain high quality rubbish collection and recycling. Working with landowners and developers, we’d ensure we keep improving the public realm to make it safe and attractive for residents and local businesses. All this, plus more intermediate housing and private renting in mixed developments, is critical to keeping middle income people in Camden and preventing further social bifurcation.
As we prepare our manifesto, we want to hear from local people and businesses, and to learn from Conservative councils elsewhere. For example, 25% of London’s West End is in Camden, and we can learn much from Westminster’s management of the particular pressures residents face in central London – we would like to see our noise patrol service matching Westminster’s.
Taking out cost and improving efficiency as most Conservative councils have done will be vital, but we will need to apply any lessons appropriately. Despite its loony left reputation in the 1980s, Camden under Labour had become more efficient than many Labour authorities. We’ve still got a high council tax, but in many areas also a high level of services, though still with varying levels of efficiency.
So what works elsewhere won’t always be right in Camden. For example – Hammersmith & Fulham is about the same size as Camden. It’s got six libraries, whereas we’ve got 13. A decade ago the Conservative group successfully led opposition to Labour’s attempts to close several libraries, and our local libraries are extremely important to our community.
Camden will be a tough battle next year, it’s not all natural Conservative territory, but it is one of only three London boroughs where we have gained councillors at each of the last three elections. With momentum from Boris, who is very popular in Camden, and from the national party, we have a one in a generation opportunity to win and show how Conservatives can deliver better local services. We won’t forget that the single strongest strand in our differentiation versus Labour and LibDems will be voters’ deep-rooted perception that, especially at a time of austerity, a Conservative council will do a better job in making their money work harder and keeping the council tax down.