Spotlight: The impact of May’s Local Elections on London’s future

On 15 June, in a Chatham House briefing with Future of London’s network of built environment practitioners, we discussed the recent London local election results, the implications for housing, regeneration, planning and infrastructure, and how best to work with newly elected members.

Kicking off with a briefing from London Communications Agency’s Jenna Goldberg, Partner and Managing Director, Insight, and Stefanos Koryzis, Senior Insight Manager, we started with the headlines.

The big news in May’s local elections were the councils that saw a change in political control. The Labour Party gained control of LB Barnet, LB Wandsworth and, arguably the most surprising result, the City of Westminster. But it wasn’t a clean sweep; the Conservative Party won the mayoralty in LB Croydon and took LB Harrow from Labour, and Labour lost LB Tower Hamlets to Aspire.

Slide from presentation showing map of London with election results
Image courtesy of London Communications Agency

London versus the rest of the country?

The elections also reinforced trends that, in political terms, have put the capital at odds with the national government for what is now a sustained period of time. This has several big implications for London, particularly how the city will feature in the government’s levelling up agenda. Their losses in the capital might mean the Conservatives focus on winning votes outside of the capital and continue to pursue an ‘anti-London’ agenda when it comes to levelling up.

How can we fight back against the narrative that it’s London versus everywhere else?

Jenna Goldberg, London Communications Agency

At a regional level, two thirds of London’s boroughs – and most of the central London boroughs – remain politically aligned with the Mayor of London and City Hall, now including the heavyweight City of Westminster. Although this alliance could strengthen the capital’s ‘negotiating’ power with national government, there’s a risk it could also result in a more combative relationship.

This strained relationship is already visible in the negotiations about the financial future of Transport for London (the latest short-term funding deal from the government ends on 24 June).

The impact on the planning system

With regards to planning and regeneration, it remains to be seen what the impact of the elections will be on planning at a borough level. Planning remains very political, and not just in London – the Conservatives’ shock defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election in June 2021 and other factors have contributed to shifts in the government’s approach to planning policy.

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, has shown he’s willing to make political planning interventions in London and further afield. Jenna expects that even with a lull in the electoral cycle now ahead there will be ever more tension between the local, regional and national tiers of the planning system.

Within the councils that have switched to Labour, there may well be more emphasis on affordable housing and tougher demands on developers. And in LB Harrow, will we see a move against building at density and more talk of preserving the green belt?

However, within London as a whole, now that the dust has settled on the local elections, the next couple of years should be relatively stable and we can expect to see more confidence in bringing new developments forward.

There are lots of new faces

From top left, going clockwise: Jenna Goldberg, Stefanos Koryzis, Peter O’Brien, Debbie Jackson, Jonathan Martin and Nicola Mathers. Source: FoL.

Another feature of the most recent elections was the number of new faces in councils across the city. There are, of course, new leaders in the councils that saw a change in political control, such as Cllr Barry Rawlings in LB Barnet and Cllr Paul Osborn in LB Harrow. But even in boroughs where the political party in control has stayed the same, there are lots of new members. For example:

  • about 40% of Labour councillors in LB Camden are new
  • roughly 50% of Liberal Democrat Lead Members and Committee Chairs in LB Sutton are new.

It was suggested that the impact of the pandemic, alongside concerns about personal safety, were among the reasons why so many sitting councillors stood down at the last election. While new councillors undoubtedly come in with new agendas, lots of enthusiasm and bright ideas, such high levels of churn represent a ‘brain drain’ for London as councils across the capital lose experienced people. And this seismic change comes at a time when the capital is already dealing with Brexit and recovery from the pandemic.

For Stefanos, this points to the need for a wider debate about the role of new councillors and whether or not we need less, but better-paid, councillors – pointing out that most elected members currently have to fit their council work around a day job, which makes it a demanding role and difficult to balance with family life.

Working with newly elected councillors

In the second half of the briefing, we heard from Debbie Jackson, Executive Director of the City of Westminster, Jonathan Martin, Director of Inward Investment at LB Waltham Forest, and Peter O’Brien, Assistant Director – Regeneration and Economic Development at LB Haringey.

All three of them have experienced a change in the political control of the council they’ve been working for, either in this or previous elections, and they acknowledged that this can be a challenging situation for officers.

There’s a risk that officers get caught in the crossfire as it can be hard for politically minded members to dissociate that, under the previous administration, officers were just doing their job.

Peter O’Brien, LB Haringey

In the aftermath of the local elections and subsequent AGMs there follows a time of review and reassessment as new administrations decide what their priorities are. Some newly elected members will be looking for quick wins; others will want to take their time in order to build a consensus.

For officers working with newly elected members, Debbie, Jonathan and Peter offered the following advice.

  • Be resilient. The job of newly elected members is to criticise what happened before but don’t be too defensive. This will die down and you will be able to help them achieve what they want.
  • Brief, brief and brief again. Think about what’s most important for them to know and brief them appropriately. Take them on site visits to different parts of the borough and help them see their borough through a different lens.
  • Build trust. Give newly elected councillors time to settle in and give them the benefit of the doubt that, politics aside, they want to do good things for the community. Spend time listening to them and understanding their priorities – and help them understand what your department is trying to achieve.

It’s still too early to tell what the changes in political control and personnel will mean in policy terms, particularly with regards to the built environment. This will vary across the capital.

But in a complex policy environment (Levelling Up, the Building Safety Bill etc) tensions between London and national government will undoubtedly prove challenging over the coming years. Nevertheless, the potential for stronger alliances within London could pave the way for more inter-borough collaboration and new opportunities for our sector.

If you have a new initiative or idea for a Spotlight, please get in touch with Sophie Nellis.