It is a great honour to have been re-elected Leader of the Council. Can I thank Cllr Feilding-Mellen and Cllr Ahern for proposing and seconding me. My first duty is to add my congratulations to our incoming Mayor whose term of office coincides with the borough’s half century and to thank the outgoing team. As you know my room has a fine vantage point into the Mayoral territories and I have been able to witness at first hand how hard Charles and June have worked on all our behalves.
Sometimes I hear it said that local government must be dull ─ but how can it be dull to have the opportunity of being involved in the governance of a great part of a wonderful city?
In the recent elections the record and values of this Council were put to the test and I am pleased that these received a wide endorsement from residents. I am particularly pleased to welcome all newly elected members to the Council and hope that they will find their time here interesting and rewarding.
I congratulate Cllr Emma Dent Coad on her election as leader of the minority party and hope that we will be able to establish an effective working relationship along the lines I enjoyed with her predecessor, Cllr Judith Blakeman, who I would like to thank for her clear dedication to the borough over many years and the courtesy that she has always shown to me.
We should never forget that we are operating against a background of enormous financial retrenchment. As the government seeks to cut the deficit, we are seeing the biggest reduction in local government grant funding for generations. Can I thank colleagues and officers who have thought hard and with imagination about how we can accommodate those reductions in grant with minimal damage to our front line services.
The census and the recent consequential boundary changes remind us that the borough is changing. That is not new – but what is of concern is the fact that there is an emerging class of property owners who are not actually resident in the borough at all. They do not use our services, do not support local shops, businesses or schools. They see their property in London as purely an investment or a hedge against financial uncertainty or political calamity elsewhere. However, it is our community that bears that burden not merely in terms of dying streets or darkened flats – but also because the very same absentees often decide to maximise the value of their asset with excavations and basements which take no account of the impact that these have on neighbours. Nobody should reasonably expect London to be bereft of building activity and the inconvenience that it inevitably causes, but nor should residents be disrupted and inconvenienced ─ sometimes for years on end ─ because of massive building projects. That is why we are seeking to limit basement developments and why the permissive planning policies of successive governments cannot always been seen as appropriate for an inner-city area.
Whilst we welcome the announcement of a capital gains tax on non-domiciled property owners, if localism is to mean anything, governments must be prepared to give us greater powers to limit excessive developments and be prepared to impose financial disincentives on transactions which involve little more than offshore speculation where the only result is that neighbourhoods here are peppered with homes left unoccupied for months, or years, on end.
If we want a balanced community we will also need to continue to think about housing. The timing to do this is right. The Council is itself an important freeholder in the borough. Some of our stock is beginning to reach the end of its natural life and it can only be patched up so often. This offers a real opportunity to think about how we can upgrade it. I have lost count of the number of times I have been at a seminar or conference on urban planning and regeneration where Kensington and Chelsea is cited as the apotheosis of successful and desirable urban living with the highest densities in the UK. When pressed the speakers usually mean the southern two thirds of the borough where attractive housing often with some outside space (even if only a balcony or terrace) abounds. For the most part traditional street patterns were respected and housing was built to last. This is what I would like to see happen as estates are refurbished and in some cases replaced. A guarantee that tenants can return to better homes, that leaseholders will receive attractive offers and that we will begin to see an alternative type of intermediate tenure where, rather than outright ownership, young people can purchase a part-stake in a property.
So discouraging homes that are left empty and increasing the range of homes that are available to all income levels are two key priorities that I want to see the Council working on over the next year.
We must also continue to ensure that we provide support for the most vulnerable, and create opportunities for those of our residents who are seeking them. I am proud that we have the smallest gap in the country on attainment standards between those on free school meals and those who are not. That indicates our determination to equip everyone to benefit from living in this wonderful borough. We want it to be a place that sees it as a duty to give people opportunities, that supports a vibrant voluntary sector and that is prepared to invest in our fabric and public amenities to create the facilities that can deliver this. I am enormously grateful to colleagues, officers and residents for their continued support and will do all I can to work with everyone in this chamber and beyond to make Kensington and Chelsea an even better place to live.