Democracy, devolution and governance, Personal and organisational development

Reflecting on 35 years of public service: Cllr Ian Wingfield’s journey in Southwark Council

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Southwark Councillor: Ian Wingfield

In this interview, Ian Wingfield, the London Borough of Southwark’s longest-serving councillor, reflects on 35 years in local government and the demands and rewards of his post.

This year sees Ian Wingfield mark 35 years of serving his community as a councillor. A Labour Party representative for Southwark Council’s St Giles ward, the local government veteran made history in 2022 when he became Southwark’s and its Labour Group’s longest-serving councillor, just a few years after becoming the longest consecutive serving councillor with the local authority. It’s an impressive tenure and one in which he has witnessed a significant evolution in the London borough that he serves, including the arrival of key British landmarks like Tate Modern and The Shard.

“I’d like to think that Southwark is a destination now as well as being a name on a map,” he reflects. “It’s a totally different borough from when I first came here. Now the borough’s very diverse, it’s culturally mixed and it’s vibrant, and those are things I’m really proud of.”

Role highlights

Ian’s three and a half decades at Southwark Council have seen him take Deputy Leader and Cabinet roles, and today, he is Chair of the council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee. During his years as a councillor, a key project for the representative has concerned bringing Southwark to prominence.

“When I first came to live here, Southwark was regarded as a bit of a backwater in a way,” he notes. “If you looked at a map of Central London, especially with the A-Zs that we used to have in those days, you would always see the top of Southwark included within Central London, but not many people visited. The most they’d ever venture to would probably be the Imperial War Museum London, which is on the border with Lambeth anyway, but there was no further attraction, other than perhaps the Dulwich Picture Gallery. There was this stereotypical image — I guess helped by Only Fools and Horses — that it was full of people living in the twilight zone and down at heel.

“I knew there was a different story to tell about Southwark, and that we had to promote it. With the Leaders in the mid-90s and the Director of Environment (Fred Manson), what we agreed was that in order to kickstart our regeneration, we needed a major arts organisation to come south of the river. We had the premises of the old power station of Bankside, and enticed the Tate to come over. The concept then was there’d be a sort of trickle-down effect — that once the Tate was there, it would generate not just income but footfall in terms of visitors coming to the borough and we’d sort of gravitate out from there, and I’d like to think that that’s what happened.”

Another project that Ian has worked on relates to investment in housing stock. “We’re the largest social landlord in London and one of the largest in the country,” he notes. “When I became Cabinet Member for Housing, I started what was called a Warm, Dry, Safe programme, and that was basically to ensure that all our homes were brought up to what used to be called the Decent Homes Standard so that they were warm, they were dry and they were safe.

“Within four years, we invested in our housing stock, and basically, we made sure that virtually all our housing stock met that Decent Homes Standard. We had had the Lakanal House fire in 2009 just before the elections and so we were committed to fire safety and investment in fire safety work, so we did all that too in line with the fire regulations at the time.”

Through different local bodies, Ian was also responsible for establishing the Southwark Civic Association, with the councillor explaining that the purpose was “to make people feel more proud of the area that they lived in and to channel that in some way”. “That also led to implementing what we still have today called the Southwark Civic Awards,” he says. “It recognises people that have done good work in the borough, primarily on a voluntary basis. It was part of that element of feeling proud of where we lived.”

Key values

Ian says that one of the most rewarding things about being a councillor is being able to help people. “Not everybody knows all the vagaries of local government and can navigate their way through the system, never mind the website,” he reflects. Another thing, he notes, is “having the knowledge, the experience and the background which I bring to the table”.

“There are a few councillors in the group that have been on the council for a number of years, and those of us that have been around can offer that perspective that others can’t,” he says. “With every new group, there’s always a tendency to want to reinvent the wheel, so we can say: ‘Yes, but perhaps you should do it this way or think about taking this into account.’”

As to what has kept him in the role for so long, Ian reckons that the starting point is his political beliefs. “I’ve always wanted change in society because I’ve seen injustice in society, so that really prompts me to get involved politically, to speak up, to take on board other people’s issues and problems and help them get resolved,” he notes.

The representative grew up in Chester, the son of a car production worker and a school meals driver. “They’d always instilled within me that outlook that we should be caring for others in society,” he reflects. “They were both involved in their respective trade unions, and they also were foster parents until I was about 10. They were very interested in history, particularly local history in Chester, and also politics and current affairs.”

Stepping forward

Despite failing his eleven-plus, Ian was able to undertake A Levels and go to college by virtue of his school turning comprehensive. He studied modern history at Anglia Ruskin University, before doing his master’s and PhD degrees (in what is now human resource management) at The London School of Economics and Political Science and Imperial College London, respectively. After leaving university, he worked for the Clearing Bank Union and the Communication Workers Union, remaining at the latter until 2015.

A member of the Labour Party since his student days, Ian got involved with the organisation in Dulwich after moving to South London in 1985. He became a councillor with Southwark Council in October 1989, following a by-election he admits he was “dragooned” into standing in.

“There was an older member when I used to go to the party meetings in Dulwich who was a trade union delegate to the party, but he’d been the election agent since 1945 and he’d been a councillor for 30-odd years,” Ian remembers. “At the time, the council was getting bad press for internal divisions within the Labour group, and he said: ‘We need people to bring a new approach, and I and other people believe that you’re one of the type of people that could do that.’”

Councillor challenges

Being a councillor for 35 years has undoubtedly been demanding for Ian. “I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been difficult over all those years,” he reflects. “When I started off, there wasn’t the same appreciation of a work-life balance as there is now. Within about the first six months of becoming a councillor, I basically lost most of my friends because I was fixing appointments to go to the cinema, go to the theatre, go for a meal, and I was having to cancel at the last minute because I was getting dragged into a council meeting.”

The representative adds that following the murder of Jo Cox in 2016, things have changed when it comes to meeting residents. “The council’s quite clear now that any meetings like surgeries are held on council premises where there’s security,” he says. Nevertheless, this doesn’t prevent abuse.

“I think what’s changed now is you have all these keyboard warriors, and I think the language there is more aggressive and more violent than the indirect ad hoc violence that we used to face in the past, from the point of view that it incites other people to acts of violence and hatred,” he says. “I know we have certain laws to prevent this, but I still think we could go further in some regard.”

According to Ian, being a councillor also has an impact on family life. “If you’re wanting to start a family, it’s not the best thing to do,” he admits. “It puts a lot of people off from starting a family, it puts pressures on relationships, etc. You really need the support of a partner that’s understanding, but I guess you also need a wider network of support.”

The representative says that prioritisation is crucial to the position. “When I was younger, I used to go to meetings every night — sometimes two or three meetings on the same evening — and then go to residents’ functions at the weekend,” he remembers. “I guess one of the things that I’ve learnt over the years is to prioritise because when you’re a new kid on the block, you want to be doing everything and be seen to be everywhere, but you soon realise: ‘You don’t have to be everywhere and you don’t have to do everything to get known.’”

Desirable skills

So what sort of qualities does Ian think make a good councillor? “Most councillors like to talk, but I think the key thing is to listen,” he says. “If you’re not listening to people, then a) You’re not aware exactly what their concerns are, and b) You’re cutting off a rich source of intelligence about what’s going on in the community.” The representative does, however, add: “It’s a politician’s job to be persuasive, to negotiate and to rally people round to what you’re trying to do.”

As to what advice he would give to young councillors aiming to make a positive impact on their communities, Ian encourages them not to “get sucked into” council bureaucracy and the committee cycle of meetings. “I think you need to establish your position within your own ward,” he adds. “That means getting out and about, getting to know your local community groups, attending residents’ associations, reaching out to faith groups in the area and just taking the time out, if it’s possible, to walk through your ward — perhaps rather than an evening, during the daytime, because most wards, I’ve found, are totally different places during the day than they are in the evening.

“I think another key thing is to always keep on top of your casework because this is an important link with the community and it could be used as a yardstick on your performance by the community or the council. It provides useful intelligence as to what the issues or the problems are of the day, and if you can solve it and sort these issues out, then obviously, it helps your own reputation in the process. And in this modern age, of course, it’s important when you do all this work at the local level to get everything on social media as a way of promoting yourself and what you and the council are doing.

“The other thing is really to listen to older and wiser heads within your groups. I’m not saying everybody that’s been on the council for 50 years has always got the right solution, but just acknowledge that they bring a different perspective to the table.”

Past, present and future

Looking ahead to what he hopes to achieve for Southwark in the future, Ian’s thoughts are fixed on the current cost of living crisis. “I feel like we’re going backwards in many ways rather than forwards — back to the 1980s,” he reflects. “We had a council meeting the other month and I made a speech there, and I mentioned that it was the 40th anniversary of the miners’ strike.

“When I was a student, I went down to the Kent Coalfield, and what really appalled me was the fact that men, women and children were queuing up at the soup kitchen and children were running round with no socks or shoes on because parents couldn’t afford to buy them. I look now, and I see people in a similar situation 40 years later. It’s [the] cost-of-living crisis, I think, which to me, we’ve got to resolve as inequality is increasing daily.”

However, with so much for Southwark to shout about in the present, Ian can look back at his years as a councillor with pride. “Southwark ranks fairly high now on a lot of indicators,” he says. “For people from all over the world, whatever they bring to the table is applauded and lauded here in Southwark. I think that’s what makes people feel at home.”



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