It is easy to think, with the financial pressures on local government, that somehow it is all doom and gloom. There is no denying the economic realities facing us, yet I strongly believe that through innovation and transformation we will scale the financial mountain and come down the other side better for it.
Through this difficult journey, we have the opportunity to foster a new sense of belonging and pride in our neighbourhoods. There will be divisions and arguments about the way ahead, but what we can and will always agree on is just how much we care about our street, our neighbourhood, our borough. As a new council leader I am determined to use this renewed sense of belonging and identity to face up to wider issues that go beyond the budget books.
Councils like Wandsworth are rightly focused on helping people who, often because of a bad roll of life’s dice, find themselves in difficult situations. Helping them will and should always be a major priority, yet I am determined not to forget about the ‘average Joe’ whose hopes and needs can sometimes be further down the ‘to do’ list. For example, it greatly concerns me that an increasing number of hard working families are finding themselves in a housing ‘hinterland’. Their needs are not great enough for social housing, their financial muscle not powerful enough for the property market.
Having arrived in the UK from Uganda at the age of 17, following the expulsion of Uganda Asians, I place a high value on individual freedom, choice and opportunity. I want working families in our borough to have the choice to own a stake in their own home. I want parents to have the choice over which school their child attends. I want to improve the link between our neighbourhoods and job opportunities. These are issues which I feel passionate about.
In the 1980s ‘Right to Buy’ inspired a generation of people into home ownership. People were rewarded for working hard and this fostered a ‘Keep up with the Jones’ mentality when it came to individual and neighbourhood-based pride. Our challenge now is to ensure the next generation have the same opportunity that their parents had.
I believe with greater freedoms and flexibilities local councils can play a major role in creating new economic and social opportunities. The challenges in Southport are different to that in Southampton, just as Wandsworth is different from Warrington. We understand our local areas and our communities. We know what works and does not work. The Government’s Localism agenda has to be bolder in giving local authorities and our partners the financial freedoms to be truly innovate. The next ‘Right to Buy’ does not have to come from Whitehall – it can be born right here in Wandsworth. I am determined to make sure that happens and determined to make sure that helping our hard working families grasp greater opportunities and freedoms is at the heart of our agenda.