Cllr Andrew Baggott is the Leader of Basildon Council.
In the recent election, Basildon, thankfully, returned to a Conservative administration. For those unfamiliar with Basildon, electorally it has had a chequered history: in recent times “flip flopping” between ruling parties. This began with the ascendancy of UKIP prior to Brexit. It then morphed into electing “pseudo independents” subsequently – these being individuals claiming to be Independent but having already done deals with Labour to ally with them on being elected.
Over the last two years, this alliance has created a toxicity in politics and a level of arrogance in a Party that due to elections being cancelled owing to the pandemic had no mandate.
It was against this backdrop that we fought the local elections: a leader who had brought insulting residents on social media to an artform; a highly unpopular Town Centre “High Rise Hell” Masterplan; a threatened closure and demolition of a much-loved community centre; and clouds of probity in decision-making.
I personally spoke to over a thousand people across the borough using Connect Calling and was amazed at the consistency of feedback from residents. It highlighted how, when people are incensed, a message can be spread far and wide. Our key pledges (but not the only ones) were to consult with the public on the Town Centre and to reopen the community centre. These messages delivered us victory in wards not held for some years.
So, in administration what are we doing?
I stated at our AGM that we would deliver on all our election pledges and that we would do so visibly and with accountability. That, if we couldn’t for whatever reason, then the public would be informed why.
Our administration and thinking is founded on five core principles:
- Putting the community at the heart of what we do
- Having effective and comprehensive public engagement
- Listening to the community and being guided by their concerns and issues
- Maintaining integrity in public office
- Delivery of pledges.
Are there challenges? Absolutely! The public don’t necessarily understand – or even want to – the labyrinthine processes of local government; they just want to see actions. Managing expectation is crucial and communicating honestly and frankly pays dividends.
This all may sound like obvious themes and approaches and yet when you take an objective view how often is it done?
I am engaging with the community on a personal level with a series of “Meet the Leader” events where the community can come and ask questions on any aspect of the Council. Warts and all. Our town centre consultation has currently garnered over 1,300 responses in two weeks and thanks to our amazing communications team is being touted as possibly one of the best pieces of consultation and engagement that we have ever done.
Another issue that we are looking to address is that of climate change, it comes up time and time again with residents. With our plans for the town centre and regeneration, building in design to tackle that will be crucial. To that end, we need to recognise that much though we may think it sometimes, members are not experts in everything. If we are going to get it right then we need an expert in that field that brings gravitas and credibility to the policies and designs that are required. We are casting our net out for such a figure…
As a Borough that celebrated its 70th anniversary recently, it suffers from having been built all at the same time and is now crumbling at the same time. We are embarking on the most ambitious estate renewal plan that the Borough has ever seen, with a commitment of £40 million over the next four years. To take our so called “forgotten estates” and make them our “unforgotten estates”. Again, consultation and engagement will be vital – as will developing a delivery mechanism that is not linked to a very clunky committee system of governance. Challenges indeed, but there is also a great opportunity. As a philosophy, I believe that residents should wake up, look out of the window and smile, happy in their environment.
On taking administration the public confidence in the Council was at an all-time low and its reputation with some elements of the community was in the basement.
I intend to restore public trust, to restore our reputation, and to give residents a reason to vote.
When local government elections can swing on the back of national issues, it is important to cement a reason for voters to stick with who they voted for. To give them faith that when they vote they will actually get what they voted for. Is it a challenge – absolutely. Can it be done? Why not?
In cynical times there needs to be those who put their head above the parapet and say:
“Enough. We will do what we said. You can trust us, we will deal with you honestly and with integrity”
Not to do so should not be an option, the public has a right to expect these basic credos.
It’s a lesson that anyone in public office ignores at their peril.