Four months ago, the people of Westminster had their say in the hardest fought local election for many years. I am delighted and humbled that they overwhelmingly chose to put their trust once again in the local Conservatives to run their council.
I believe that as Leader of the Council I should report back to you on how we are succeeding on the pledges we made during the election. This is the first of a series of regular “Leader’s Updates” I will be sharing with you over the years ahead to keep you fully informed on how we are doing, our achievements to date and what we are continuing to strive to achieve. Please share this with family, friends and work colleagues.
We have the lowest Council Tax in the country. Over the next four years we promised to continue to provide outstanding services:
- protecting the vulnerable
- ensuring our young people have the best possible start in life
- building more affordable homes
- improving air quality
- becoming even more open and transparent
- establishing a partnership approach with the people we serve.
Like you, I live in Westminster. Whether or not you support the Conservatives at election time, I want to explain what the Council is doing on your behalf and highlight some of the first major decisions we have made.
Oxford Street – improving air quality & protecting our neighbourhoods
Our first major decision was to no longer support the Mayor of London’s plan to pedestrianise Oxford Street. The Council had initially been a partner working on the proposals as we thought it was important that Westminster’s residents and businesses had a voice at the table to influence the plans. However, the more we heard from local people regarding their genuine concerns about the proposals, the more convinced we became that there had to be a better solution to improve air quality, pedestrian safety and future-proof retail along this world-famous High Street. So we made the decision to pull out at the beginning of June. Our announcement had mixed reactions: local people and businesses in the main were delighted. Many from outside our City - and the Mayor of London himself - were furious.
Since then we have been working hard on our own Oxford Street District Improvement Scheme, which covers a much wider area and is taking a long term view of how the area might change. Westminster is working closely with local councillors, local people and businesses and we aim to unveil our scheme by the end of October to go out to formal consultation the following month. To ensure we have a world-class plan, which protects our iconic neighbourhoods such as Soho, Fitzrovia and Marylebone, we are investing £150million over the next three years into the scheme. We hope that other partners, including the Mayor of London, will invest too.
Protecting our Streets and Neighbourhoods
Many of you will be aware of the fierce campaign we led to save Belgravia Police Station. Sadly we were unsuccessful but our offer to house local neighbourhood police teams at City Hall in Victoria Street is still on the table.
Worryingly we have seen a drastic increase in drug dealing, drug taking, and anti-social behaviour across Westminster. I have held meetings with senior police and council officers to understand why we are seeing such concerning criminal activity.
Many local people share my belief that we are not seeing enough police officers on patrol. I remain worried about the Met’s new Borough Command Unit, amalgamating Westminster alongside Hammersmith & Fulham and with Kensington & Chelsea. We are set to lose a further 200 police officers by February. This is unacceptable and I have written to Commissioner Cressida Dick expressing my deep concerns about the future of Neighbourhood Policing across the city.
Westminster Council has responded to the growing issue of open drug using, begging and anti-social behaviour by launching our Integrated Street Engagement Unit. It is already making a difference having worked with 100 people on the street to help support change their lives around and secures the help they urgently need.
Building More Homes For Westminster Families
Our largest house-building programme for a generation is on track. Work has started building the nearly 2,000 new council and genuinely affordable home we’ve promised across the city by 2023. We approved the next stage of the Church Street Master Plan, our ambitious programme to build 1,700 new homes in the Church Street area, near Marylebone, over the next 15-20 years. Thirty five per cent of all new homes will be affordable and existing council tenanted homes will be replaced and re-provided at social rent. In addition to the new homes, our plan also looks to create a greener environment, boost the economy and employment opportunities, and improve access throughout the Church Street area by balancing the relationship between pedestrians, cars and bicycles.
In Pimlico, we are also moving forward with our renewal plans for the Ebury Bridge Estate, building 750 new homes, 342 of which will be affordable and social rent homes. It’s vital that we create and preserve our mixed neighbourhoods. This is why we are committed to ensuring that many of the new affordable homes on this estate will be at intermediate rent available to those on moderate incomes including the key public sector workers who keep our City safe and running smoothly.
City West Homes – Time for Change
I know that over recent times Westminster’s housing arm’s length management organisation, City West Homes, has provided often woeful service to its clients. This is simply not acceptable. Having heard so many appalling reports from local people frustrated with City West Homes, it was clear action was required.
At the start of this year I commissioned an independent report into the running of City West Homes, seeking recommendations on how it could be improved for benefit of everyone involved.
We then hit the election period and plans had to be put on hold as we went into purdah, when legally we are prevented from making such decisions in the run-up to polling day.
With the election over, my new Housing Cabinet Member, Cllr Andrew Smith and I were able to take action. We commissioned a second report into the governance of City West Homes and an independent cross-party Scrutiny Task Group was also set up to investigate. The clear conclusion from this work was that fundamental change was required. Having reviewed all the evidence we have decided that the best option is to bring the service back under direct council control. We are now working with residents and staff to ensure the transition is as smooth as possible.
Schools Clean Air Fund Launched – Tackling Poor Air Quality
Tackling poor air quality remains a top priority. We were proud to launch our Green Manifesto during the election. I was therefore, delighted that one of our first initiatives once returned to City Hall was to launch our £1m Schools Clean Air Fund.
Aimed at primary schools, the fund is to help tackle poor air quality across the city. Schools will be able to apply to the Fund to create “no pollution zones”. These new zones will introduce a range of measures to help reduce harmful emissions in the air surrounding schools.
The new Fund is funded from the diesel surcharge Westminster introduced last year in Marylebone, which has seen an overall reduction of 14 per cent in the number of the most polluting vehicles entering the area.
Our priorities over the coming months include unveiling our plans to completely overhaul our Planning System, giving both local councillors and residents a greater say at an earlier stage and a stronger voice at Planning Committees. We will also be launching our new City Plan, which will outline for discussion our future key planning policies, which will shape our City for years ahead.
Too often, people say they only hear from politicians at election times. I hope you have found this brief taste of the work we have started since the elections in May of interest and given you confidence that we are determined to keep the promises we made. Your Conservative-run council is determined to continue to work with you to safeguard Westminster as a safe, pleasant and vibrant place to live, work and visit.