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The Leader of the Council’s New Year message

Published: 31 December 2021

We start the New Year once more in the unwelcome shadow of COVID-19.

Our handrail to recovery out of this pandemic is vaccination. London is a major location for the Omicron outbreak, so getting jabs in arms across the capital is an urgent mission.

The Council is doing everything it can to encourage vaccine take up – promoting walk-in centres, pharmacies, extending the hours of our vaccination bus and working with the NHS to ensure the vaccination message gets heard. We have played our part in working towards the NHS target of nearly one million jabs across North West London.

While London has avoided the more stringent restrictions in place elsewhere in the UK, the strains on the capital’s economy, our residents and our businesses are evident. People are worried about their jobs, their futures, the opportunities for their children.

This is a time of economic uncertainty with pressure on household finances - particularly post-Christmas when credit card statements arrive and we plan for other bills like gas and electricity (incidentally the Council website has links to advice for those worried about bills). There is one cost the Council can help to control, and that is the Council Tax.

I can assure you we are working hard to ensure Westminster’s Council Tax remains the lowest in the country. The fact is that any increase hits those on lower incomes the hardest, and that is something I am not prepared to do. Instead the council will be doing everything it can to continue providing excellent value for money services at low cost.

Residents tell me there are three things that particularly concern them - homelessness, feeling safe and clean streets. These concerns come over consistently in ward surgeries, surveys, and in the responses to questions in the MyWestminster newsletter.

Let me update on all three.

Rough sleeping: one of the most heart-breaking sights in our City are those people huddled in doorways or on pavements; those whose lives have fallen apart to the point that they end up sleeping on our streets. That is why we leave no stone unturned in trying to support people away from rough sleeping and helping them to get their lives back on track.

Each year we spend £7m a year on services, including 24/7 outreach teams, free accommodation, and support services. Where rough sleepers are prepared to accept help from us, the Council acts as the bridge to a better future - pointing the way to longer term accommodation, treatment for addiction and the chance of learning new skills.

These are people who have fallen through society’s safety net for often complex reasons. But the brutal world of rough sleeping is not a viable long-term option, and we will keep working around the clock to get those on the streets the help they deserve.

Safety: talking to people across the City, I know safety is a worry, particularly among women. As the mother of a 22-year-old daughter, it’s something I understand. 

To provide more reassurance, our Soho Angels scheme has relaunched and is expanding to the busiest parts of the City with more trained volunteers supported by police and paramedics. In addition, the Metropolitan Police are providing an extra 50 officers to its existing Westminster team to patrol the busiest areas.

We have just launched a new anti-social behaviour strategy which brings together partners in housing and ensures, for example, that we can take robust action against people who cause anti-social behaviour on our estates.

Environment: the Council is expanding food recycling to cover all Westminster households by the end of 2022 – significant when nearly a third of our waste comes from the kitchen.

The installation of electric vehicle charging points continues with a further 500 being added to the 1,000 already on the streets, making us a UK leader in this technology. Our seven day a week street cleaning operation will soon be an all-electric fleet powered by incinerated household rubbish – so what can’t be recycled becomes fuel for the trucks. Residents can continue to expect three waste collections a week and increased bulky waste pick-ups.

Westminster is committed to becoming a carbon neutral Council by 2030 and a carbon neutral City by 2040, and I am really excited that residents are helping us on this journey.

At the end of last year, we launched the first in a series of climate action workshops for residents, and I was struck by the energy and enthusiasm people showed. Whether it is ideas for reducing car journeys, tips for improving homes’ energy efficiency or even making an exfoliant from used coffee grounds (I had a go at that myself), the passion for the green agenda among residents is evident. These workshops will be held across the City this year and I hope to see you at one.

Air quality is a priority for Westminster residents against the backdrop of some of the worst pollution in the country and the highest carbon emissions per local authority in London.

In November last year we launched a climate emergency action plan for Westminster, containing nearly 70 actions designed to reduce emissions and improve air quality. This approach is embedded in everything we do, and from now on will be part of the DNA of everything built in Westminster.

For example, we are developing 780 high-quality sustainable homes at the Ebury Bridge estate in Pimlico which will use 90 per cent less carbon than the existing estate. Grey water recycling will be used to supply water for everyday household purposes and the development will be almost entirely car-free with 2,000 cycle spaces.

Another major issue we face going into 2022 is the reality that, with the threat of Omicron hanging over us, many people don’t feel confident coming into the City centre.

The Council has worked hard over the past 18 months to rebuild that confidence – widening pavements, installing temporary bike lanes, and putting hand sanitising stations in public locations. However, visitor numbers are down – in the West End, footfall for the traditional Boxing Day sales was down by nearly half compared to the same day in 2019. In the longer term, working from home means commuters are staying away.

This has proved damaging for the hospitality sector. In Westminster we have 3,700 restaurants, bars, and pubs – more than any other Council in the country. They are part of the fabric which creates the magical buzz of our City and makes it such an exciting place to live. 

But they are struggling in the face of customer cancellations and staff illness, alongside a number of theatres which have also been forced to bring the curtain down. These businesses are all local employers. I want Westminster’s teenagers – for example those on our City Lions scheme – to grow up with a chance of working in the famous venues on our doorstep.

The Council is doing everything it can to help people through the pandemic, but we can’t do it alone. We need central Government help now.

I have written to the Chancellor twice to make clear the impact of Omicron on Westminster. I have called for Councils to be given more freedom in the grants they give to local companies and to extend business rate relief for struggling employers.

These practical measures will allow restaurants, theatres, and other venues to protect jobs and keep people coming into our City. Safeguarding employment for our young people and adults has never been more important, and I will keep fighting what I regard as Westminster’s special case.

In this worrying time, the Council is here to protect all our residents – whether that is providing advice for people struggling with bills, looking after vulnerable people in our care homes or those who can’t get out easily and so look forward to a visit from our Westminster Connects team.

Last month I went to two primary schools to talk to children in assembly about climate change (the Council supports local schools with environment education). One young child asked me a really good general question: “Why did you want to become Council leader”? Let me repeat the answer I gave: to deliver the homes local people need, ensure children go to a good school, grow up in a greener Westminster, and that vulnerable residents get the care they need.

As I approach two years as leader, that remains my mission. I am privileged to lead the local authority for the most vibrant, wonderful, and beautiful place I know - whether you visit or work here or are one of the 260,000 people who call Westminster home.

COVID-19 is challenging us, but I am convinced the spirit of our amazing residents will once more pull us through.

Happy New year, and my best wishes to everyone for 2022.