The Guardian: Could London see the first quad-borough council?

Miscellaneous, The Guardian / The Observer

Hammersmith and Fulham council is now Labour controlled, which could mean more councils working together.

Labour has regained control of Hammersmith and Fulham council after eight years in opposition. An early flurry of activity suggests that the new party in power has a plan of action in place and is ready to go.

Not many people backed Labour to topple David Cameron’s flagship council, not even Labour central office. The ball was left well and truly in the court of the volunteers and local candidates to do it for themselves. Ironically, this meant their campaign became a truly local one, focusing on the issues affecting the activists as much as the people they were canvassing.

How will the change affect the way the council is run? Both the Conservatives and Labour party pledged to cut council tax. Protecting social housing was another core issue. Labour will continue to fight against the plans to restructure both Charing Cross and Hammersmith hospitals, where they claim that the Conservative government has failed to explore alternatives to A&E closures.

The previous council’s approach to this emotive issue cost them at the elections and although they continue to argue that it’s not the council that runs, controls or makes decisions about the NHS and local hospitals, the matter remains contentious.

Perhaps one of the most interesting questions is what will happen to the tri-borough agreement. This is where three councils in the area – Kensington, Westminster and Hammersmith and Fulham – share services to save money. Traditionally, these three councils have all been Conservative, so will the new Labour leadership see an end to this agreement?

The short answer is no. The tri-borough concept has benefits and achieves savings through sharing services. Labour’s mentality is to ask why stop with just three boroughs. The party believes the concept has been implemented too narrowly, and now that there is a Labour run council, doors are being opened to working with other boroughs that the Conservatives may have been reluctant to do so. This includes Labour controlled Brent, Ealing and Hounslow councils.

Already however, tensions are mounting, with some Conservatives expressing concern at the plan to expand the service-sharing scheme. Labour has just announced an independent review of the arrangement, provoking fears of delay and disruption that this may cause to plans to merge further services of the council.

Those involved in the administration of the scheme are confident that the apolitical nature of the services merged, such as children’s services, libraries and corporate overheads, will override any political differences.

The purpose right from the start was that each council would retain its political sovereignty, set its own council tax and be able to specify service levels. This foresight of mind intended to resolve exactly the issue that has arisen – a change in political control of one of the councils. The timing and nature of Labour’s gain of Hammersmith and Fulham council may not have been expected, but it was catered for, however remote.

It’s too easy to conclude that the Conservative opposition to Labour’s plans to extend these shared services is born simply from political animosity and spite. There may be valid reservations that the current set-up is the first of its nature, and further expansion should be treated with caution. There is also a danger that extending the scheme once doesn’t mean that it won’t happen again, with the potential to snowball into the behemoth that all local politicians fear the most – a swollen bureaucracy too big to cater for the individual needs of each borough.

The Labour party face similar challenges to the Conservatives, with diminishing budgets and ambitious pledges to be fulfilled. One thing they can be certain of, is that the Conservatives will be watching like hawks. Nevertheless, Labour shouldn’t let factional tribalism cloud the fact that there are some things that the Conservatives got right, regardless of political views, and the creation of the tri-borough services was one of them.  Cutting costs and improving services on a broader scale makes sense, and partisan politics shouldn’t affect that.

Izzy Westbury is a Hammersmith resident and former president of the Oxford Union. She is a post-graduate law student and Labour member who cavassed for Hammersmith and Fulham Labour party.

• This article was originally published in The Guardian on 19 June 2014. To access the original, please click here.


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