Cllr Melanie Hampton is the Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care and Health on Wandsworth Council.
Local Government has long been the Cinderella of politics. Just look at the low turnout for local government elections, sometimes not even 25 per cent. However, the effect that we have on people’s lives and communities in our local areas often leaves a greater legacy than anything that the Palace of Westminster does.
In 2014 I was elected as a local councillor in Wandsworth. I promised to serve my community. It all started with a bin. The ward of St Mary’s Park borders the River Thames between Albert Bridge and Wandsworth Bridge, in south west London. This is an area that has seen the factories go, to be replaced by residential housing. Regeneration has bought huge benefit to the area but all development can have unforeseen consequences. For example, one resident came to me as his new bus stop did not have a bin. After weeks of lobbying, the bin eventually arrived. Personally, I think that it should say Melanie’s bin on it. You may smile; how can this woman take such pride in providing a bin at a bus stop? Well, she does.
From bins, I moved to buses. Parts of my ward rely heavily on our bus network and in December 2017 I started getting emails about the Number 170 bus. The Westbound route had been changed leaving out whole sections and causing distress to commuters, mums taking kids to school, and leaving nearby sheltered housing residents more isolated. It was a very cold January, but my colleagues, Rhodri Morgan and Charles Pitt, and I got out on the streets to collect signatures for our petition. 1,000 signatures in a week is hard work but then I needed a solution. I managed to source a direct contact at TFL who very kindly met with us on a Thursday – and gave residents their bus back on Monday. TFL then tried to cut the Number 19 bus from Holborn to Battersea. 2,200 signatures later, more trips to TFL and the London Assembly resulted in the axe being lifted, much to the relief of my residents. I’d become the Bus Boudica of Battersea galvanising people power to provide positive outcomes.
From bins and buses, I moved to bridges. Another petition, this time to request lighting for Wandsworth Bridge. We lobbied hard and obtained community infrastructure levy money for a wonderful high tech solution. Whilst this project has been beset with technical delays and the time line has slipped, yet again that determination to make my community safer and a better place to live has driven me on. I get real satisfaction for using what influence I have to make a difference.
To me, politics has always been about people. When I was chairman of the grants committee I worked really hard to offer more to our wonderful voluntary sector. Our parameters are set but I wanted these groups to understand how to access other funding sources. Doing a surgery at our local library, the Librarian told me about a group of final year students at Imperial College who were putting on sessions to engage with people to upskill on the computer. They were regularly getting 50 people and I was able to suggest that they apply for a grant to reach out to even more residents. Having those connections and putting people together is what we are there for.
I am now the Cabinet Member of Adult Care and Health and have hugely enjoyed meeting even more of the 900 voluntary groups in the borough. I learnt that a lot of them struggle with finding the right trustees and using the correct due diligence. They may need help with policies and fundraising. By listening to them, I am able to put in place interactive training sessions to offer relevant and useful help.
I just don’t believe the mantra of cuts. As a local businesswoman, I know about counting the pennies; but too often we look at the money when we should be looking at the outcomes. The two are not necessarily connected. With an increasingly elderly population often with complex medical needs, we face huge challenges but there are also tonal changes. Families are scattered and we have a growing issue with isolation amongst the elderly. I was so saddened to hear from clinical professionals and social workers that so many of our seniors may not talk to anyone for a month or more. Coming from an Irish family I have huge respect from the wisdom of a long-life; but loneliness in old age can be every bit as damaging as poor lifestyle choices, leading to poor health outcomes and a worse quality of life. Only this afternoon my request that we did something for Silver Sunday, which is a celebration of the over 60’s, came to fruition with a Tea Dance. Over 150 people met in Wandsworth’s Civic Suite to dance away the afternoon. I was struck at the diversity of our guests and how many people had come on their own. It was a joyous occasion, getting people together and reaching out.
As a local councillor, I can’t resolve the Middle East peace crisis, hold back recessions, or indeed have much impact on national policy, but you know what? I am happy to stick with the legacy of small things that make people’s lives in my community that little bit better.