Watching over Westminster

The following article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 edition of Victoria magazine.

When I meet Nickie Aiken, leader of Westminster Council, it’s evident that she’s a woman spinning many plates. Her breezy can-do approach barely conceals a steely desire to achieve success for her beloved ward and borough. She’s just put her lippy on for the photos, she tells me as we cross in the corridor. They’re done in the blink of an eye and the next thing I know I’m sitting in her office with a cup of tea and a sense that clocks tick louder and faster here in the council’s newly refurbished Victoria Street offices.

It is now more than 20 years since Cardiff born Nickie – who kickboxes every Friday morning – joined the Conservative Party at Exeter university as a 19-year-old student and went on to work with William Hague in the Welsh Conservative Party press office before moving to Pimlico. “I thought London was a scary place, so it’s bizarre really that I’m now having to run the centre of it,” she laughs, adding: “I moved to London for love, because I met my boyfriend who then became my husband when he worked at the Conservative central office and I was in Cardiff. The only way the relationship was going to blossom was if I moved to London.”

It’s safe to say that love blossomed in more ways than one. Nickie settled happily into Pimlico, working full time as a press officer for Bradford & Bingley, while her interest and experience in Conservative politics developed. She stood for local election when heavily pregnant with her second child. “I’d always thought I may want to be an MP one day and many, many of my friends and contemporaries are now in the House of Commons, but I decided to choose the local government route instead,” she says. “Many of my colleagues have done both but I think having my daughter in 2004, I wanted to show her that women can succeed in public office. It wasn’t part of the plan. She was two and I was seven months pregnant when I got elected, so that was interesting – a bit of a juggle!”

Elected as leader in 2016, Nickie spearheaded groundbreaking strategies and programmes in her time as councillor, tackling gangs and domestic abuse against a backdrop of diminished funding. “I’m not going to deny that we’ve had to make massive savings,” she says. “But I fully believe that it doesn’t always have to be about money, it has to be about outcomes and people. I think I’ve always seen this kind of work as safeguarding, child safeguarding. I’m convinced that the vast majority of our children are brilliant and those who fall into the wrong paths have to be given a helping hand to get them out, and they have to be seen as young people and children. We’ve all been teenagers and we’ve all made stupid mistakes. In this climate and situation the choices some young people can make can lead to serious problems, as we’re seeing with the issue of knife crime.”

Nickie believes the solution lies in tackling the “causes of the main social issues” and the benefits for all will follow. A fierce advocate for partnership working within local government, she is keen to address the concerns raised in her ward surgeries. Rough sleeping, she says, is an issue that always rears its head. “The big game changer over the past year or so – and it’s across the board, across all socioeconomic households – is the lack of police on the street,” she says. “That is the one single issue that people have noticed. There is definitely a lack of police presence. “We’ve had major issues of antisocial behaviour, drug taking, drug dealing across this part of the south... but we’re working with the police now. I set up the Integrated Street Engagement Unit last year to really tackle the begging and the drug dealing.”

While there remains issues to address, Nickie says she has relished seeing the area’s radical transformation over the past 15 years. “I love Victoria and Pimlico because there’s a huge sense of community. That’s what I love about Pimlico; it’s everybody from my window cleaner to an earl, and everything in between. People always think in central London nobody knows each other, but, I’ve always known a lot of people.

“I think particularly once you’ve had children – and I’ve had a lot of people say ‘oh I’d never bring up children in central London’ – central London is a brilliant place to bring up children because everything is on your doorstep. We’ve got outstanding parks, we’ve got brilliant schools, everything is easy to get to and I love the sense of community. I think it’s an absolute joy to live in this area and I can’t ever see myself leaving. I have got a lot of neighbours who are in their eighties who’ve lived here for 30,40,50 years. As more and more people recognise the value of living in the neighbourhood, Nickie is taking proactive steps to accommodate the growing numbers. “We’ve got this massive house building programme, we’re building 2000 new affordable homes, we’re well on target, we’re doing that within the next four years to make sure that families can stay in this area,” she says.

“We all know what house prices are doing at the moment so people’s children can’t stay, so we’ve started the largest council home building programme for a generation."