It’s something of an understatement to say that 2018 was a tumultuous year in national politics – and there is no change in breakneck gear with Brexit looming ahead. The challenge for us all is to ensure Westminster and our residents are in the best position to weather the likely turbulence.
There have been reasons for anxiety and uncertainty, but also reason for optimism. Since the local authority elections in May 2018, I believe the Council and its partners have made good progress on a programme that puts our residents centre stage.
While a few uncertain months lie ahead, at Westminster City Council we’re planning for the long term.
When I was re-elected, I promised that I would lead a transparent administration that put the people we serve in the driving seat in a way not seen before.
We’re acting on that pledge in a number of ways. For example, next month we will hold the first planning meeting at which residents will be able to address the room directly, rather than through a councillor. This is the first time in half a century that this has been possible. It is part of a new drive to make sure that planning really serves the interests of local people, and is and is seen to be transparent.
At the earliest stage, local people will have a more powerful voice in what is built on their doorstep. Of course we want developers to invest in Westminster, but with the caveat that if you build in Westminster, you build for Westminster.
Just before Christmas, we concluded a major consultation exercise on how to redevelop the Oxford Street District and ensure it remains a world-class draw. We turned down an earlier version of proposals for this site precisely because we didn’t believe it had listened enough to the views of those who live in the surrounding neighbourhoods. It is easy to court cheap popularity by approving something; but when our residents express genuine and widespread concerns, we are going to say no.
One area where we heard local people loud and clear was on housing. That’s why we took the decision to bring our housing arm, CityWest Homes, in-house simply because it’s failing to look after our residents. Repairs were slow or non-existent, and tenants didn’t feel we cared. Over the coming months, they will see a transformation of that service as our estates are regenerated and CityWest Homes is revolutionised with our tenants and lessees at its heart.
This year we will also pass the milestone of having built 500 affordable new homes, part of the long-term target set in April last year to provide at least 1,850 affordable properties by 2023.
Another priority for us this year is the ongoing work to invest the money raised by the Council’s voluntary community contribution scheme back onto the streets. This initiative was untested when we launched it in March 2018, and cynics scoffed at the idea that our better off residents would voluntarily pay more alongside their council tax. But they have – and we have now hit the £500,000 mark thanks to the generosity of our residents.
This money is going on initiatives like support for rough sleeper, helping to combat isolation across the generations and ensuring our teenagers enter the jobs market with employable skills. Throughout 2019 you will see more examples of your money at work, overseen by an independent trust, as the community contribution becomes established as a regular fixture.
With community at the heart of what we do, we will again celebrate our varied backgrounds on Sunday 30 June 2019 when we hold #MyWestminster Day, an initiative I have been proud to see grow in stature since its launch in 2017. While the Council is there to provide wrap around services you might expect like public health and libraries, events like #MyWestminsterDay are important in the way they mark our shared identity as Westminster residents. They can be fun but with a serious purpose.
Finally, it is clear that this year is going to be a challenging one for those thousands of EU nationals who make Westminster their home. On 21 January 2018, Westminster City Council will be holding another big open forum for EU nationals to help them understand the implications of Brexit and their status here. These follows in the wake of similar meetings, a helpline and drop-in sessions which the Council has run in recent months.
Why do we do this? Simply because our friends, neighbours and business colleagues from Europe have chosen to make Westminster their home and contribute to our success – in some cases for decades. They deserve to know that they are valued, like all our residents, for the part they play in creating a City for All. We thank you.
The year ahead will bring many challenges and opportunities for us all, and so may I take this opportunity to wish you a Happy New Year and all success for 2019.
Leader of Westminster City Council