Could Westminster turn red and what does this mean for developers?

In its 53 year history, Westminster City Council has never not been Conservative-controlled. For most of this time, the Conservatives have held the Council by large margins with three consecutive elections between 2002 and 2010 delivering an identical 36 seat Conservative majority. In 2014, there was a slight tightening with Labour gaining all three seats in Churchill ward (which centres around the Churchill Gardens Estate) and a solitary councillor in Maida Vale ward. However, on the outgoing Council, the Conservatives enjoy a 30 seat majority (one Churchill councillor has subsequently defected to the Conservatives). This has been one of the most reliably Conservative boroughs not just in London but also the whole country.

With this in mind you could be forgiven for thinking that the election on 3 May in Westminster will be a formality, and you would be wrong. Gradually Labour has been adding to its four stronghold wards in the North of Westminster and presenting a serious challenge to the Conservatives in some unlikely places. This was first evidenced at the 2016 Mayoral Elections in which Sadiq Khan ran Zac Goldsmith very close in Bayswater, Little Venice, Vincent Square and West End wards. However, it was only after the Brexit referendum (at which 69 per cent of Westminster residents voted Remain) and the 2017 General Election which saw swings to Labour of over 9 per cent in Cities of London & Westminster and nearly 11 per cent in Westminster North, that Conservatives began to seriously question their chances of retaining control of the Council.

A change of Council Leadership with Cllr Nickie Aiken’s accession marked a new tone in the Council’s position around the delivery of affordable housing with the new Leader warning developers at the London Real Estate Forum that Westminster would not “simply sell its golden postcodes to the highest bidder”. Some commentators saw this as a deliberate break from Cllr Robert Davis’s long period as Cabinet Member for the Built Environment and Chair of the main Planning Committee in Westminster. Westminster’s Labour Group have attempted to use Cllr Davis’s long record of taking hospitality from developers to accuse Westminster’s Conservatives as being too close to the property industry. In March 2018, Cllr Davis stood down as the Council’s Deputy Leader pending an investigation into his conduct. Planning is not the only policy area where Cllr Aiken has sought to soften the Conservatives’ position as the Council, which has for decades prided itself on delivering one of the lowest levels of council tax in the country, has announced the establishment of a specific fund whereby the borough’s wealthiest citizens can make voluntary contributions to support social projects such as help for the homeless.

The Conservative administration has delayed the publication of its revision to the Westminster City Plan until after the council elections. The Council had previously launched a consultation in March 2017 entitled “Building height: Getting the right kind of growth for Westminster” in which the Council raised the possibility of increasing the number of tall buildings in certain strategic locations in the borough. Whether these tall buildings will get built may depend on the forthcoming election results as the Labour Group which is headed by foreign policy expert, Cllr Adam Hug, has indicated that they will oppose future taller building developments and favour low rise, high-density developments. Undoubtedly Labour’s opposition to taller buildings in Westminster stems partly from controversial recent taller buildings applications such as the Paddington Cube (initially the Paddington Pole) which have generated significant interest both from the public and from journalists.

Regardless of the outcome of the election in Westminster there is likely to be a very high turnover of councillors with around 15 Conservative councillors not restanding. The most high profile likely retiree is Cllr Daniel Astaire (Cabinet Member for Planning) who is not defending his Regent’s Park ward. Other prominent Conservative councillors not restanding include former Leader Baroness Couttie (formerly Philippa Roe), Deputy Cabinet Member for Planning Cllr Adnan Mohammed and West End ward councillor Paul Church who has consistently opposed a range of development in the central activities zone. Cllr Richard Beddoe, who chairs the Council’s main Planning Committee is standing again in Bryanston & Dorset Square ward and is likely to be re-elected.

Labour have a number of wards that could potentially be won by the Party which will largely depend on the scale of the swing from Conservatives to Labour in London. These pivotal wards include Bayswater, Little Venice and Regent’s Park in the North and Tachbrook, Vincent Square and West End in the South. These wards have not had Labour councillors for decades, or in some cases at all. Labour are seeking to appeal to EU citizens who are eligible to vote in local elections both in their strong anti-Brexit messaging and also in their candidate selection as they have chosen several EU citizens as candidates.

On balance, it remains a tough ask for Labour to win Westminster due to the sheer number of seats they need to turn red where they have not had recent representation. However, if the Conservatives suffer a truly horrendous result in London there remains a possibility that arguably the most influential council in the UK may fall into Labour control which would have been unthinkable only two years ago.

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