This New Year address is a personal and poignant one for me because it is my last. As you may know, I have been elected as MP for the Cities of London and Westminster constituency. Unfortunately, my election means that I will be unable to dedicate the time required to give Westminster City Council the leadership it needs and deserves. I have therefore decided to step down as Leader of the Council later this month. The Majority Group has commenced a selection process to determine my successor and the person nominated will be put forward for formal election as Leader at the meeting of Full Council on 22 January 2020.
I am proud of what the Council has achieved since I became Leader in 2017. During this time we have taken big and bold decisions which have had a direct, positive and meaningful impact on the lives of our residents, but let me give a few examples from the past year alone.
We launched our ambitious new City Plan to create more affordable homes, more jobs and a greener city. By guiding development and regeneration in the city for years to come this plan will make Westminster a better place to live, work and visit for people today and in the future. Next year the Plan will be adopted and we will start the see the benefits for our city. Alongside the City Plan is our major initiative to reshape the Oxford Street District, strengthening its world-renowned status as a great place to live, work and visit. Work is already underway to make the area more pedestrian-friendly and more work is underway to create open areas. The opening of the Elizabeth Line will bring new visitors and investment, and I am confident this will only reinforce the bright future of the UK’s high street.
While the West End is a unique powerhouse for us, I never forget my job is fundamentally about local people – those 250,000-plus people who live and bring their families up here.
In April, we brought our housing service back under direct Council management after 17 years and we have started to turn around the experience people have of living in a Westminster home after years of unacceptable underperformance. It will take time to see the full benefit of this decision but we are on the right track. We’ve launched 29 estate action plans, working with resident groups to identify local priorities for estates and neighbourhoods that we will deliver over the coming months, reporting progress as we go. Our bus, Westminster on Wheels, has brought the housing service on to estates, with more than 1,500 residents visiting the bus.
We are also making real progress against our plans to build more than 2,000 affordable homes by 2023. It was a huge pleasure to see work finish on 197 brand new affordable homes at Dudley House in Paddington. We’ve already seen the first residents beginning to move in to their new homes just in time for Christmas. We cannot control house prices in Westminster, but we can make significant strides to ensuring people who live in Westminster have the chance of staying in affordable housing here.
The most vulnerable people in Westminster don’t even have a roof over their heads, and anyone moving around the City will have noticed the sharp increase in our rough sleeping population. Tonight, as you read this, more than 300 people will be sleeping rough in our shops, open spaces and doorways. The reasons people end up sleeping rough are complex, often with drink and drug issues complicating them. It is a brutal world in which people often don’t live past their late 40s. At the council, we spend nearly £7 million a year on our outreach service to provide hostel places and help with addiction.
In July, we launched a major campaign called the ‘Hidden Network’ which encourages Londoners who want to contribute money to help to give it directly to specialist charities which work with rough sleepers. We are trying to make this as easy as possible by working with businesses to roll out a network of swipe payment machines – similar to those in shops – to donate to a group of six charities. We are on course to roll out more than 30 of these machines in key West End locations – for example outside McDonald’s in Oxford Street – as well as an easy-to-use payment page on line. The aim is to ensure that generosity gets to those who need it – and is not spent on drink or drugs, or worse yet pocketed by an unscrupulous few who choose to exploit the generosity of Londoners.
In 2019 there were two landmark moments in looking after our young people. In June we reintroduced direct funding for youth services of £500,000 a year after a three-year gap. We should never have cut it in the first place. Our young people face risks we never did – county lines drug gangs and a rising tide of knife crime – and we owe it to them to offer positive, constructive routes away from the risks of the streets. In October I was exceptionally proud when our Children’s Services was again rated as outstanding by Ofsted. We are now recognised as providing the best Children’s Services in the country and we are in a good position to raise standards amongst all local authorities. When I see people like Saffy, a graduate of our care system who has overcome a difficult past and is now applying to read law at Cambridge, I know we are doing the right thing.
With this record of success, I am confident that the next Leader of the Council will take on the running of an organisation well positioned to meet the challenges and make the most of the opportunities of 2020 and beyond. They will lead an exceptional organisation driven by talented officers and ambitious members. Our EU residents, who have contributed to Westminster’s success, will be part of this journey.
The council’s work for 2020 is just beginning, but I reach an end of this chapter. Thank you to everyone - members, officers, our partners in business, the police, the charity sector and elsewhere – who I have worked with over the past 16 years.
So this is farewell as leader but not a permanent goodbye. My heart is in Westminster, and as MP I will keep working with you as together we build the City for All.
Cllr Nickie Aiken MP
Westminster City Council