Lord Greenhalgh is the Minister of State for Building Safety, Fire and Communities. He is a former Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council.
Politics is a rough trade. My own career is built on a solid foundation of failure. I spent over ten years in opposition after being elected in a council by-election in January 1996. However, in 2006, after 38 years in opposition apart from a period in minority administration, I led the team that crushed our Labour opponents at the ballot box. We secured a mandate for positive change with nearly 50 per cent of the popular vote, and took control of Hammersmith Town Hall with a huge majority and 33 councillors keen to deliver for our residents. Some of those councillors like Paul Bristow and Greg Smith served in my cabinet and now sit on the green benches and Alex Chalk, who chaired the planning committee with great distinction, sits on the front bench. My political soulmate and successor as council leader, Nick Botterill, is now a cabinet member on Wiltshire County Council. The high point of my political career to date was securing a further mandate in 2010 when we only lost two councillors after four years in control of the town hall where we set a course to cut council tax by three per cent each year whilst delivering better services: High profile round-the-clock beat policing was introduced in our three town centres and crime fell like a stone. Anti-social behaviour in our council estates was challenged for the first time. The physical environment of our borough improved with cleaner streets and greener parks.
In 2014, Hammersmith & Fulham did return to Labour, but it was flattering for me to see that the new Labour administration continued to freeze, or even make a tiny reduction one year, in council tax. However, this is not enough. Our mantra was lower taxes, less waste, and better services. The quality of council services has declined markedly under Labour. The council has a moral and statutory duty to provide social housing which is fit for use, but the Labour administration has failed dismally on this and the recent publication of the Housing Ombudsman’s report has shown that H&F has the highest rate of mismanagement in damp and mould cases in England and the highest rate of maladministration for complaint handling. Council tenants are getting a raw deal.
Many council leaseholders are getting ripped off. For example, in Sulivan Court, leaseholders are being billed nearly £18,000 per flat with conditions that they forfeit their lease if they fail to pay. Crime is on the rise as the council abolished the highly respected Parks Police and bundled together the few remaining with Street Scene Enforcement officers, Market Inspectors, and Neighbourhood Wardens from the estates, to create an enforcement department armed merely with a stack of fixed penalty notice forms and no powers of arrest. Crime and violent crime in particular is now on the rise. The council is now wholly reliant on central government for extra policing resources: The Met has received an extra 2,121 officers so far through our police uplift, as part of the 20,000 extra police officers we are recruiting nationally by 2023.
Hammersmith & Fulham is a beautiful residential borough defined by the Thames at its southern and western border. However, it would be helpful if Londoners could cross it once in a while. Instead, we now face six miles of uncrossable water. Hammersmith Bridge, owned by the council has been shut to motorised traffic including buses and ambulances for nearly three years. The Labour council leader is a talented storyteller and has concocted a work of fiction on the Council’s website that absolves his administration of all blame and instead has tried to blame the previous Conservative council despite a statement on September 2nd 2016 that “it remains the case that there are NO issues concerning the structural integrity of Hammersmith Bridge under its current weight restriction.”
The reality is that this Labour council is largely responsible for the Hammersmith Bridge omnishambles: The Council did not do their bit in properly maintaining the bridge and lost expert officer expertise since the collapse of Triborough and Biborough collaboration which was a grotesque act of municipal vandalism on their part. It is also clear that the Council’s political leadership have not made the reopening of the bridge to cars and buses a political priority. The council does not care about the traffic gridlock in west London but see it as a way of stopping cars coming into their borough and making Hammersmith Bridge open only to pedestrians and cyclists.
The council has refused to supply engineering reports for which we as residents have paid and is refusing to share information with the opposition. The most recent is the Denton report along with the top secret structural engineering reports of 2014/15. Added to this, the Mayor of London has bankrupted TfL so that TfL cannot afford to pay for infrastructure works – and Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, dissolved the London Bridges fund in 2016 to spend the money on other Mayoral pet projects. The council still hasn’t agreed a costed plan to remediate the bridge fully. Instead the council has plucked a figure out of the air to carry out much needed stabilisation works so pedestrians and cyclists are able to use the bridge at the very least.
Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, and Baroness Vere, the Roads Minister and Chair of the government’s Hammersmith Bridge Task Force, have had to step in to sort this mess out. The Council wouldn’t even have had Hammersmith Bridge re-opened to pedestrians and bikes had the government not intervened and funded two thirds of the costs as well as pledging two thirds of the costs of its planned restoration and full re-opening by both funding a third directly and providing another third to TfL. It is the Conservative government that has insisted that the Council fully re-open the bridge. Meanwhile, our main and local roads have become clogged up as a result whilst residents face another slap in the face with parking charges now rivalling the West End with hikes to between £5 and £6 an hour – up from £2.20 or £2.80. The streets and the parks are beginning to look scruffy and fly-tipping has become endemic.
Our Conservative administration had a long term vision to create the ‘Borough of Opportunity’ by offering excellent state education and school choice, creating a housing ladder of opportunity with home ownership at its core, and finally, regenerating the most deprived parts of the borough. Sadly, the Labour administration has turned H&F into a Borough of Missed Opportunity. We have shabbier streets full of stationery traffic, neglected parks, and more crime. No new Free Schools or Academies have been opened. London’s developers have decided that the borough is a no go zone and the grand plans to regenerate Earl’s Court and Old Oak have foundered.
The opportunity to create a new vibrant district of West Kensington and Earl’s Court has been missed and instead the borough will at best only see piecemeal development, instead of the thousands of new homes and jobs which could have resulted from the creation of a new district for West London. The even bigger opportunity to deliver a new city for London in Park Royal and Old Oak has been downgraded sadly to an urban district at best with no plans for the huge boost in jobs that the oversite development of the station would have offered. This is particularly tragic given the delays in finalising Crossrail. The Labour leader of the council must take his share of the blame as a paid member of the development corporation for the lack of tangible progress.
We need a new generation of Conservative councillors with a moral mission to deliver better council services, lower council tax, and above all, to create more opportunity for residents to get on in life. Cllr Victoria Brocklebank-Fowler who served in my administration is building a team that will deliver precisely that if elected in May.