Kanda consulting is the leading and fastest-growing property consultation and engagement practice operating in the City of Westminster and across London today. With unrivalled knowledge and understanding of Westminster’s communities and a multi-disciplinary team of consultants specialising in the sector, we are uniquely placed to help our clients navigate what was the most fundamental and unexpected change in election night.
Kanda Director Simon Gartshore, a former officer at the City Council who has worked across the political spectrum in the borough and with its communities for nearly 20 years, gives his thoughts on the opportunities and challenges for the new Labour administration
Undoubtedly the biggest upset of election night in London was the former Conservative stronghold of Westminster returning a Labour leadership for the first time in its history.
Westminster could not remain immune to the shifting demographics or voting patterns of the Capital forever and many observers had predicted that the borough would return a Labour leadership at some point in the future.
However, few foresaw how the combination of national and local issues would turbo-charge this change in 2022 as the Conservative vote dropped by 25% and Labour made inroads into the former Conservative strongholds of Lancaster Gate, Little Venice and Vincent Square, gained all three seats in the symbolic West End ward for the first time, took a very comfortable majority in Bayswater and took all three seats in Hyde Park in what was perhaps the biggest upset of the night.
So what’s next?
Top of new Leader Adam Hug’s inbox will be looking to establish and build trust between the administration and Westminster’s communities as part of their headline commitment to build a Fairer Westminster.
A number of communities had publicly stated that they had felt increasingly marginalised by high profile decisions by the previous administration, such as the short-term introduction of extensive al-fresco dining in the wake of Covid-19 and the ill-fated Marble Arch Mound. This manifested itself in a high-profile letter co-signed by the Chairmen of most of the influential amenity societies last year, in which they called for a change in how the Leadership engaged with, and listened-to, them.
The Labour manifesto points to a different borough where there will be a greater focus on shaping, generating and demonstrating social value from investment; a laser-like focus on building communities; delivering more affordable housing, affordable workspace and ensuring Westminster’s residents feel and understand how they are contributing to the future direction of the borough.
Already this has seen the launch of a Future of Westminster Commission, inviting all opinions on how the new administration can ‘rethink the city for the better’ and deliver a Fairer Westminster.
Despite efforts by the previous Conservative administration to give residents a greater say in the planning process over the past four years, decisions taken at planning committees could still be seen as too remote and Labour will want to work with Westminster’s communities to genuinely shape their areas, have their say in how and where the right locations are to deliver affordable housing in an borough covered by extensive Conservation Areas and listed buildings, develop detailed Community Investment Programmes and generate social value – an approach common in most other boroughs across the capital. Most importantly, Westminster Labour must demonstrate how they are listening and be able to communicate this effectively.
Achieving this in a borough with a transient population, where historically around a third of the population changes every year, will be some feat.
Shifting from long-standing opposition to being responsible for decision-making and the direction of the borough will also require a significant change for the new administration.
A number of high-profile and difficult decisions have been delayed but cannot be avoided for much longer – foremost amongst these is the future of Oxford Street, historically Britain’s high street but now dominated by development sites and pop-up candy shops.
Westminster Labour joined former Leader Nickie Aiken in 2018 in opposing the Mayor’s previous manifesto commitment to pedestrianise the street and relations with the GLA have remained limited since. In his first week in the role, Cllr Hug has already reiterated that the pedestrianisation of the street will not be reopened.
So what does change look like for the district and the Central Activities Zone? How will the new Labour leadership build a dynamic, mixed-use district with a leading leisure and cultural offer whilst ensuring that Westminster’s residents genuinely feel the benefits, do not feel that investment is a zero-sum game and avoid getting bogged down in arguments about traffic? And what do relationships look like with the Mayoral team who will continue to set targets for jobs, employment and growth – and who will want Labour Westminster to continue to support investment in the borough?
Driving a zero-carbon Westminster and retrofitting historic building stock will also be a priority. Debates about refurbishment, repositioning and redevelopment are only getting louder; and it is notable that the Cllr Barraclough, the new Cabinet Member for Planning has continued to oppose Marks & Spencer’s plans for the redevelopment of the Marble Arch store on the grounds of sustainability and the release of embodied carbon, despite the plans having been approved twice by the GLA before Michael Gove issued his Holding Direction.
At the election Labour Westminster was successful in fighting the Conservatives on what was historically their own turf as they committed to freeze council tax precept for the next two years and to freeze social housing rents.
So the forthcoming fundamental review of services will be critical. Westminster’s communities have long-valued the services which they receive – and the need to maintain the services, whilst keeping council tax low and continuing to secure the external investment the borough relies-upon for its economic success will represent a significant challenge.
These decisions will also need to be taken against a backdrop of change in the Labour group, with 15 of the 31 Labour councillors having been elected to the borough for the first time, and who will be learning how a council works and inevitably have one eye on retaining their seat in 2026 – particularly with some very narrow wins across a number of wards.
A further fundamental question is what style of leadership and decision-making will Cllr Hug and his new Cabinet seek to adopt. Will they lean more towards a Hammersmith and Fulham model or look more to the neighbouring borough of Camden, both of whom have undergone similar changes of regime in the last 12 years?
Already the announcement of Cllr Hamza Taouzzale as the City’s youngest ever and first Muslim and BAME Lord Mayor has demonstrated that Westminster as a borough will look and feel very different over the four years.It will inevitably be a steep trajectoryas Councillors Hug, Barraclough, Dimoldenberg, Roca, Begum, Boothroyd, Noble, Less, Butler-Thalassis and the Labour Cabinet develop their own style of leadership, build relations across the borough, capital and beyond and shape the future of one of the most high-profile authorities in the country.