ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH
Well, here we are again. Come 10pm tomorrow, we will have voted in four General Elections over the course of a decade.
If one also counts referenda, GLA elections and London borough elections, it’ll actually be the 14th time Londoners have gone to the polls since 2009, voting in at least one election every year except 2013. And that’s without counting constituency and ward by-elections in that period.
Today’s issue duly covers the last throes of this (mercifully) short campaign. LDN readers can then look forward to a special issue in their inboxes on Friday morning, covering the headline results in the capital. LCA will also publish a more detailed results briefing, later in the day.
Aside from the looming election, we cover everything from the latest violent crime statistics, to the early resignation of the London Fire Commissioner, a curious case of councillor flight at Brent Council, and a host of stories on planning and development in London and the Home Counties.
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ANOTHER GRIM TALLY
According to analysis of crime figures by the Telegraph, the death of a young man in his 20s in Hackney last Thursday marks the 133rd homicide in London in 2019, surpassing the figure for the calendar year 2018 (132), and marking the highest number since 2008 (154). The newspaper’s assessment is that ‘the knife crime epidemic […] shows no sign of slowing down’ and that the police services’ efforts to tackle violent crime have proven ‘unsuccessful’. However, crime statistics are a slippery business. For example, figures on the Met Crime Data Dashboard suggest that the homicide toll of 2018 was actually 135, while Office for National Statistics (ONS) crime figures by police force area put the figure at 141. Perhaps most importantly, the Telegraph’s report does not offer any domestic or international comparisons, for an understanding of the wider context. The latest available ONS figures (see this bulletin and this dataset) allow for such a comparison of UK regions and suggest that the homicide rate in London is not all that different from other metropolitan areas. They also suggest that, believe it or not, the rate for homicide ‘where a knife or sharp instrument was involved’ is in decline both nationally and in London.
COTTON STEPS DOWN
It was announced last week that Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton, who leads the London Fire Brigade (LFB), is set to leave her post on 31 December - four months earlier than expected. Cotton had previously announced that she would retire in April 2020, but as per a report from the Evening Standard, the Mayor felt under increased pressure from the relatives of those who died in the June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire to accelerate her departure. The report from the first phase of the Grenfell Inquiry put the actions of the LFB and its Commissioner into the spotlight, as it found that the LFB had been ‘gravely inadequate’ in its preparations and that the ‘stay put’ advice issued to those in the tower had been inappropriate. Cotton had previously been criticised for asserting, when giving evidence to the Inquiry, that she would not have changed any aspect of the LFB’s response on the night of the fire. Deputy Fire Commissioner of Operations Andy Roe has now been appointed as Cotton’s replacement and will start his new role on 1 January. Roe took the decision to reverse the ‘stay put’ advice on the night of the fire. He has now pledged to deliver on the recommendations of the first Grenfell Inquiry report and lead ‘the transformational change needed at LFB’. The second phase of the Inquiry, which will focus on ‘examining the circumstances and causes of the disaster’, is scheduled to begin in the New Year.
No less than four Brent councillors – all of the ruling Labour group – have resigned over the past three weeks, all with immediate effect. Barnhill councillors and partners Michael Pavey and Sarah Marquis both resigned in late November. Then on 4 December, Wembley Central councillor Luke Patterson resigned, followed by Alperton councillor James Allie on the 9 December. Marquis (a former Planning Committee chair) was in her third term and cited ‘family and personal reasons’ – as did Patterson, who was elected only in 2018. Allie, who defected from the Lib Dems to Labour in 2012 and is a former Chair of the Council’s Standards Committee, was in his fifth term. According to reports in the national press, he is standing trial, accused of impropriety in his day job as a solicitor. It is less clear why Pavey (who has held three cabinet roles), a second-term councillor, is resigning. With only three opposition councillors on the Council (all Conservatives) the resignations do not threaten Labour’s majority. It was meanwhile been announced that a by-election for the vacant Barnhill seats will be held on 23 January – and it is likely that by-elections for the other two wards’ vacant seats will be held on the same day.
...AND OTHER BY-ELECTIONS
Brent is not alone in having vacant seats to fill. Many Londoners may be puzzled to find themselves holding two ballot papers in the voting booth on 12 December, as five wards across the city are holding by-elections on the same day as the General Election:
- Haverstock ward in Camden, following the resignation of Labour Councillor Abi Wood (a former licensing committee chair), who has not given a reason for her departure.
- Clissold ward in Hackney, where a by-election was triggered by the decision of Labour Councillor (also former planning committee and Hackney Homes board member) Ned Hercock to stand down, for ‘personal reasons’.
- Hounslow’s Heston West ward, following the death of Labour Councillor and former Mayor Rajinder Bath in June this year.
- The Feltham North seat in Hounslow is also vacant following the death of Labour Councillor and former Leader of the Council John Chatt, who passed away in August.
- The resignation of Labour Councillor and former Mayor of Islington Kat Fletcher has also triggered a by-election in the borough’s St George’s ward.
HOLD THE BELLS
In a last-minute decision remarkably close to the General Election, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has intervened to put a planning consent awarded by Tower Hamlets on hold. As reported in LDN issue 102, the Council’s Development Committee granted planning permission to Raycliff Capital’s plans for the redevelopment of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, where Westminster’s Big Ben was made in 1856, to make way for a boutique hotel, workspace, a restaurant and a cafe (while retaining the shell of the Grade II listed building). But the Secretary of State has now issued an Article 31 holding direction, ‘to enable this to be considered further’. While the council itself was satisfied that the scheme offered sufficient protection for the site’s industrial heritage, the plans have sparked a fierce campaign of opposition, mainly by heritage activists, reportedly generating more than 780 formal objections and two petitions signed by more than 20,000 people. The holding order does not mean that Jenrick has formally called in the scheme for his determination, but rather affords time to consider whether he should do so. It now remains to be seen whether, come 13 December, it will be Jenrick or yet another new Communities Secretary pondering the merits of this scheme.
WAIT FOR IT...
With less than 24 hours until we go to the polls, the Conservatives are still ahead, with YouGov’s final Multi-level Regression and Post-stratification (MRP) modelling, released last night, estimating that they will win 43% of the vote nationally and 339 seats. With Labour trailing at a projected 34% vote share and 231 seats and the other parties taking 62 seats between them, this would hand the Tories a relatively comfortable majority of 28. That said, Labour’s position in the capital specifically remains strong overall. The latest available London-wide voting intention polling by YouGov and Queen Mary University’s Mile End Institute, which we summarised in issue 101, suggested that Labour will lead with a vote share in the order of 39%, against the Tories’ 29%. This polling seems to confirm long-term electoral trends, with Labour consolidating its position in London since the last constituency boundary review in 1983, when it won 26 seats and 2017, when it won 49 (though this is still below their 1997 peak of 57 seats). The capital is also ‘front bench territory’ for the party, with six of 26 portfolio holders representing London seats, including Jeremy Corbyn himself and all the Shadow portfolio holders for the Great Offices of State: The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary.
But which of London’s 73 seats are actually in play? We know that 11 will definitely have new faces, as their incumbents have stepped down and/or are running in another seat, but most of these are relatively safe seats for the parties which won them in 2017. The abovementioned polling, as well as constituency-specific polling by the Observer and others, would seem to suggest that only a small number of seats, perhaps two or three, might actually change hands in terms of party control. Interestingly, while Labour rules supreme in terms of city-wide vote share projections, several of their constituencies seem to be under threat and it is somewhat hard to see where they may actually gain a new seat.
For the past few weeks we have been looking at 14 London constituencies as the most likely to switch parties, either because they are marginal in the conventional electoral sense, or because of local political issues and dynamics. Of these, we will be most closely watching the following:
- Croydon Central which, while currently held by Labour’s Sarah Jones with a not-inconsiderable majority of 5,652, is a historical swing seat. With many a Brexiteer in the neighbourhood, her position is far from unassailable.
- The Labour seat of Dagenham and Rainham, held by Jon Cruddas with a majority of 4,652, may also see the Brexit factor come in to play and deliver this historically working-class area into the Tories’ hands.
- The ultra-marginal seat of Kensington, won by Labour’s Emma Dent Coad with a wafer-thin majority of 20 in 2017, where local polling paints a picture of a tight three-way marginal. It does however look like a Liberal Democrat surge in the area may not be quite enough to win them the seat – and could hurt Labour more than the Tories.
- Richmond Park, another ultra-marginal seat, won by the Conservatives’ Zac Goldsmith in 2017 with a difference of only 45 votes. Also a historic swing seat, it looks like the Liberal Democrat surge in South West London – they wrested the local council and neighbouring Kingston from the Tories in 2018 – may well pay dividends here.
- And then there’s the Cities of London and Westminster, where outgoing Conservative Mark Field’s majority of 3,148 puts the seat well within reach of both Labour, which has steadily boosted its electoral performance in the area over the years, as well as the Liberal Democrats, who are fielding a high-profile middle-ground candidate in Chuka Umunna. But he will have to bet Labour’s Gordon Nardell QC and the Conservatives’ Cllr Nickie Aiken, leader of Westminster City Council. If Aiken is elected, then there will be an election locally for a new leader of the council.
Aside from the above, we have additionally sensed rumblings in Iain Duncan Smith’s Chingford & Woodford Green seat over the past few days. The incumbent holds a decent by not unbeatable majority of 2,438, is surrounded mostly by Labour constituencies, and faces a fierce campaign aiming to engineer a ‘Portillo moment’ (echoing the Conservatives’ unexpected defeat in the Enfield Southgate seat in 1997).
ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL
Campaigning against development is often a popular sport for politicians in London’s leafier suburbs, especially those concerned about the result of the upcoming election. Zac Goldsmith, former Conservative MP for Richmond Park, has vowed that if re-elected he will stand up to Kingston Council to stop them pursuing ‘intensive’ development on two local golf courses which were recently designated as ‘possible opportunity areas’. Meanwhile, Conservative MP for Croydon South Chris Philp has said that if re-elected, he would continue to fight against the granting of ‘indiscriminate planning consents’ by Croydon Council. He also recently spoke as an objector at the new public enquiry into the Purley skyscraper.
Separately, we were interested to see Independent Mayoral Candidate Rory Stewart campaigning alongside now also Independent former Tory MP David Gauke up in Rickmansworth, participating in a rather funny little comedy skit. Speaking of campaign videos, Boris’ re-enactment of that scene in Love Actually has raised a furore, as Labour candidate (and incumbent) for Tooting, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan had done the same weeks ago. On a more serious note, a Channel 4 report aired yesterday evening raised questions about links between Labour candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn Tulip Siddiq and the UK wing of Bangladesh’s ruling party, the Awami League, which has been accused of presiding over human rights abuses. Siddiq is the niece of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. A relevant statement on behalf of both the Labour party and Siddiq, as quoted by Channel 4, does not deny that her campaign may have received support by members of the Bangladeshi community who are ‘affiliated with the Awami League’ but asserts that any claims they are ‘running a campaign’ for her are ‘categorically untrue’.
The News Media Association (NMA) has decided to take a stand against the not-unprecedented practice of election materials which mimic the look and style of local newspapers in this election, as a manifestation of ‘fake news’. NMA Chair David Dinsmore has argued that it erodes ‘trust in both politicians and local news media’ and ‘harms and undermines our democratic society’. As part of efforts to raise awareness of these materials, as well as encourage an end to their use, several local newspapers in London, including the Harrow Times, have published open letters addressed to Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson, accusing them of ‘taking advantage’ of local papers’ ‘highly trusted credentials’. The Society of Editors is also campaigning against these materials, saying that the practice is out of step with the pledges made by all three parties in support of the local press. The parties in question have defended the use of these materials, insisting that they are always clearly marked with the name of the party (which they generally are, albeit in very small print at the bottom of the page).
Keep an eye out for LDN’s special issue offering a flash update on the headline results of the election in London on Friday morning – as well as LCA’s more detailed results briefing to be published later in the day.
PROPERTY FUNDS 'GATED'
The UK property industry collectively winced last week when the sizeable M&G Property Portfolio announced the suspension of new investment and withdrawals by investors on 4 December. The company pointed to ‘Brexit-related political uncertainty and ongoing structural shifts in the UK retail sector’ as well as a wave of ‘unusually high and sustained outflows’. This was soon followed by a similar announcement by Prudential, which said it was suspending the Prudential UK Property Life & Pension funds. News of the above has of course raised fears of ‘contagion’ and speculation about the health of the sector, but for the time being, no such ‘run on the funds’ seems to have occurred. Indeed, it is important to underline that while investors have reportedly withdrawn an estimated £1.8bn from UK direct property funds over the past 13 months or so, M&G Property Portfolio actually accounted for £1.33bn of this – and Prudential’s funds are in large part linked to M&G.
Proposals for a new theme park at the Swanscombe Peninsula near Dartford have been revealed. ‘The London Resort’ will include two theme parks, a water park, a ‘bespoke entertainment district’ as well as hotels and hospitality facilities, built over 535 acres. Deals secured by the firm behind the park, London Resort Company Holdings (LRCH), mean that many of the park’s rides and attractions will be based on programmes and films produced by the BBC, ITV and Paramount Pictures. The project, which has been in the pipeline since 2012, has been accepted by the government as a National Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP), the first commercial project to be deemed as such. LRCH hopes to submit a planning application to Gravesham and Dartford Borough Councils in ‘the summer of 2020’ with the aim of construction starting in 2021 and opening one of the parks in 2024 (with the second scheduled to open in 2029).
GUILDFORD LOCAL PLAN LATEST
Another chapter of the high drama surrounding the Guildford Borough Council Local Plan came to a close last week, with a High Court judge ruling it is legal and valid in its entirety – including controversial housing targets (562 homes annually until 2034), and the proposed allocation of Green Belt sites for residential development (according to the trade press, 89% of the council's area is currently covered by Green Belt protections). So how did we get here? The Local Plan was drawn up and hastily adopted by the Borough Council’s previous, Conservative-led administration in April 2019, just one week before they were ousted in the Local Elections and replaced by a coalition of Liberal Democrats and local groups. No less than three applications for a judicial review were submitted by local parish councils and campaigners, who asserted that both the council and a planning inspector who examined the Plan levelled unnecessarily high housing targets on the Borough, gratuitously allocating land parcels – including Green Belt land – for residential development and underplaying infrastructure needs. In any event, the outcome of Compton Parish Council & Ors v Guildford Borough Council & Ors. (Case Number: CO/2173/2019) seems to settle the issue – for now.
A GINGERBREAD CITY
A team from LCA followed the breadcrumbs from our offices, down Endell Street and all the way to Somerset House last Thursday night for the opening of Gingerbread City 2019. This year LCA is sponsoring the Museum of Architecture’s incredible festive exhibition, which hopes to connect the public with architecture and get us all thinking about how cities work. Over 100 of London’s finest architects and engineers have been baking and icing to create a vision of modern city around the theme of ‘transport’. At the opening night the winners were crowned but more importantly the recipient of Museum of Architecture's Grant Giving Fund was announced as Chris Hildreth for his work on ‘Proxy Address’. The service matches up homeless people with a ‘virtual copy’ of an address, taken from one of the UK’s 500,000 empty homes. The database provides rough sleepers with a means of accessing necessities that can provide a key role in recovery: benefits, a bank account and seeing a GP.
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