Kensington and Chelsea is a very special place in an extraordinary city. We all have a vital part to play in keeping it that way and, over the next couple of weeks we, as a group, have an opportunity to consider how we want to see the Borough develop under a new Leader. I have spent the last few days listening to colleagues and thought it would therefore be helpful if I set out what my vision would be for the majority group, the Council and the wider Borough if I were fortunate enough to be elected.
Although the financial clouds are darkening, our residents continue to have the highest standards and expectations for the place they live in. They want a Council which is effective, responsive and puts their interests at the heart of all it does. To deliver this, it is clear that we need better engagement with Councillors and to involve them more closely at an earlier stage in decision making.
The Majority Group
Many colleagues have told me that they currently feel insufficiently linked to our decision-making structures and unable to contribute as much as they would like to shaping future policy. I want to change this. As Leader I would start as I mean to go on by overhauling the structure of the Group Meeting to make it less dominated by the Leader and the whips and more responsive to what colleagues wish to discuss.
To ensure that a strong focus is kept on policy direction, I would ask one Cabinet Member each meeting to lead a focused discussion of the key issues they are facing and to engage in debate with the meeting, seeking agreement before decisions are taken.
From the formation of a new Cabinet, if the Leader wishes to keep a person in the same post for more than four years this would be subject to agreement by the Party Meeting.
A majority vote by a group meeting could require the appropriate Scrutiny Committee chairman to place an item of concern on their next Committee agenda for more detailed examination.
I would make it easier for any colleague to raise issues at short notice either for immediate response or response at the next meeting.
I will also ensure that in my first year I meet individually with every member of the group who would like to discuss their particular ambitions and aspirations. I will always be enthusiastic about meeting colleagues and groups of ward Councillors with their residents.
I would be supportive of the establishment of a “backbench” committee that could co-ordinate and represent interests to the Leader. It may well want to take a view on alternative ways of organising the timing, content and structure of the group meeting and to form a view on other matters of how we operate.
Council and Scrutiny Meetings
There is a huge opportunity to make better use of the Council meeting as a channel for communication, debate and information and for involving residents more in this. Cabinet Members in roles which serve the public, should with their Executive Directors, hold an annual session with questions and answers open to all members of the Council and the public. This could be organised by the relevant Scrutiny Committee either within the body of a Council meeting or as a special Committee session in the Chamber. Something along these lines was recently pioneered by the Public Realm OSC and I was happy to be the guinea-pig!
Key partners such as the police commander, TfL and NHS should be subject to regular cross-examination by the whole Council. In addition to the current arrangements, petitions signed by more than 150 residents could be presented by a residents’ representative able to speak for (say) three minutes with a short response from the relevant Cabinet member. Speeches by members on matters relating to their ward should receive a brief verbal response at the following meeting.
Overview and Scrutiny Committees should also provide opportunities for interested residents and other external interests to explore particular policies in more detail (as happened very effectively at a recent Committee hearing on issues relating to Exhibition Road). We could consider setting up ad hoc scrutiny groups to address a particular subject across departments (e.g. regeneration, use of consultants etc).
As stated above, longer than usual tenure will need to gain agreement from the party meeting. I will expect Cabinet Members to devote a considerable part of the working week to their role. This should include regular meetings with officers, residents, ward councillors, outside organisations and sites for which they are responsible. They should build up a short file of “success stories” which can be used to communicate with our electors.
Most Cabinet Members chair departmental advisory Policy Boards on a regular basis at which policy options, strategies and specific problems are discussed. To ensure greater input into decisions, Cabinet Members will be asked to ensure that their Policy Boards involve members with expertise or interest in a particular subject so that they can contribute to the relevant discussion at an early stage. I have pioneered this in the area of transport.
Being more political
I think that we need to do more to reap the political dividend of decisions reached by the Council. There have been many significant achievements but we have not always succeeded in extracting maximum political capital from them. Our funding of PCSOs, improving the quality of all of our parks and regenerating the street markets have all made a tangible difference to the quality of life in Kensington & Chelsea but, as Conservatives, we do not always take sufficient credit for this.
Our annual Saturday meeting should focus on key choices and political priorities. Revitalised group meetings can pick up on more general strategies. Detailed check-listing and cross-examination of the smaller budget items should be devolved to the appropriate Scrutiny Committee..
I am greatly concerned that our election fighting strength is diminishing whilst our demographics are changing fast. As the Borough’s resident population changes and dwindles, we need to re-establish a strong link with the Conservative Association to ensure that we have an effective electoral machine at a time when new Parliamentary and ward boundaries have uprooted existing loyalties. We must exploit new technology, identify better ways of communicating and be alert to the concerns of new residents. My working group has started to address this and, as Leader, I will hold regular meetings with the chairman and use the group to improve liaison with the Association and its officers.
A vision for the Borough
A key element in my vision as a Conservative is that one of the Council’s main ambitions should be to give everyone an opportunity to succeed. That requires a cross-departmental approach to regeneration, with an effective, integrated approach to housing, training, transport, employment and crime-reduction. We must continue to work with our long-established voluntary sector to build a sense of belonging to the community.
At a time of hugely demanding financial pressure on local government, we must continue to set one of the lowest Council Tax levels in the country. To deliver this, we need to manage our budgets prudently, to keep costs down and to ensure that our back office staffing is not out of proportion to our front-line provision. To achieve real reductions in our unit costs, the tri-Borough initiative needs to deliver continued downward pressure on staffing and consultancy budgets and to give us good-quality benchmarking data about value for money. We must also ensure that our assets generate an effective income.
I know that all our residents want to see sensitive and appropriate policies to protect vulnerable children. Early intervention can prevent the growth of problems which are difficult and costly to resolve later.
We also want to ensure that services for the elderly enable people to remain in their homes for as long as possible, with appropriate and flexible levels of support. Structures and legislation can only deliver part of this: effective, competent, sympathetic, properly managed staff are essential.
Our public housing stock is not in the best shape. Many estates were designed long ago and have become high-maintenance unattractive places, too often creating their own social problems. Many appear to sit apart from the community around them. Our land values and new freedoms under the Localism Act will enable us to regenerate these spaces to provide better quality homes for tenants, houses for private rent and sale and more mixed retail and commercial space to boost local employment. We can aspire to build neighbourhoods rather than mere “housing units”. This will be a priority if I am Leader.
Household and commercial waste must be managed to the highest standards to keep it as invisible as possible.
As one of the most desirable places to live in Europe, the Borough’s planning, environmental and transport policies need to be balanced and sensitive. Our streets, parks and public spaces should be beautiful, high quality spaces to enjoy. I believe that the consultation methodology used to involve residents in upgrading our parks set a high standard for engagement. We are now learning to improve our engagement with residents and amenity societies on changes to the Core Strategy and this must continue.
To be genuine and effective, consultation must be able to recognise that the loudest volume does not necessarily represent the quietest voice. I will not re-open the debate over Sloane Square, but would be keen to identify other locations where, when financial circumstances permit, we can enhance the quality of the street-scene, recognising that our heritage of beautiful architecture does not always come with private spaces and gardens.
We need to be prepared to fight against plans to convert offices to residential use across the Borough. This will greatly damage the prospect of local employment and make us more of a dormitory and less of a community. Likewise a Liberal/Labour mansion tax will have profoundly destructive consequences for those who find themselves asset rich but cash poor simply through having lived in their home for a long time. Retaining a share of the business rate will also put us under new pressure.
Over the next day or two I will set out my experience and achievements during my years on the Council and outside, as I believe these will indicate why I am a team-player with an appropriate background to undertake the role of Leader.
In addition to the hustings that have been arranged, I am, of course, available to any member of the group who would like talk to me about their policy concerns or to cross-examine me on this agenda in more detail.