After 16 years as a Labour councillor in Blackheath and Westcombe Park, Alex Grant says thank you and goodbye

Out on the doorsteps on Kidbrooke Park Road. From left to right: Don Austen, Jackie Smith, Alex Grant, Cherry Parker, David Gardner, Damien Welfare and Paul Morrissey

Out on the doorsteps of Kidbrooke Park Road, May 2014. From left to right: Don Austen, Jackie Smith, Alex Grant, Cherry Parker, David Gardner, Damien Welfare and Paul Morrissey

At the local elections on Thursday I’m retiring after 16 years as a Labour councillor in Blackheath and Westcombe Park. I have mixed feelings about stepping down but having just turned 40, and with a young family, I feel it’s time to move on.

Farewell messages from retiring politicians can make turgid reading. Often they’re a final act of spin, trumpeting successes and making excuses for past mistakes. So rather than just go on about what I have done personally, I’ll reflect on how Blackheath Westcombe ward has changed since I was first elected in 1998, what it’s like to represent the area, and the future challenges it faces.

I was first elected for the old Vanbrugh ward in 1998, but in the 2002 boundary changes Vanbrugh was absorbed into the ultra-marginal Blackheath Westcombe ward. Since 2006 I have been the only Labour councillor for the ward (the other two seats are currently held by Conservatives). Blackheath Westcombe ward’s knife-edge election results reflect how mixed the area is, with wealth sitting alongside pockets of poverty. Since I was first elected in 1998, property prices have risen dramatically and it could be argued that the ward has got more gentrified. But as the 2011 census showed, these changes have not benefitted everyone: levels of home ownership have actually fallen, due to the rise of buy-to-let, and less than half of Blackheath Westcombe ward’s residents now live in homes that they own.

The stereotype of Blackheath and Westcombe Park residents as middle-class, white owner-occupiers in well-paid managerial or professional jobs and tuned permanently to Radio Four is, like most stereotypes, wide of the mark. This area is diverse: although 57% of Blackheath Westcombe ward’s adult residents have degrees, less than 70% define their ethnic background as “White UK” and more than a third of households do not own a car.  24% of the ward’s residents now live in private rented accommodation (up from just 16% in 2001) and another quarter – much more than many people think – rent their homes from the council or housing associations.

The Labour council, and the last Labour government, have done much to improve public services in the area over the last 16 years, much of which I can take little personal credit for. Public buildings that were crumbling in 1998 are now refurbished or rebuilt. John Roan and Thomas Tallis schools have flourished, with improving results and excellent headteachers. Both these secondary schools have been rebuilt and hopefully Invicta Primary will follow, though the budget that Michael Gove has allocated for its new building is tight. The council has done much to make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclistsBlackheath Library on Old Dover Road has been refurbished and a new library and leisure centre are now being built on the old hospital site at the bottom of Vanbrugh Hill. Blackheath Westcombe ward has a great community police team, based upstairs from Marks and Spencers at the Royal Standard. Having five or six police officers or PCSOs dedicated to the area has made a huge difference and I hope the team survives the Met police’s ongoing shake-up of neighbourhood policing: back in 1998 there was just one police officer dedicated to Blackheath, who in practice was often called away.

Many of the challenges the ward faces are outside the council’s direct control but the community has fought many battles with other public service providers, which I’ve supported as best I can. I’m proud of the role that Labour in Greenwich has played in the campaign to protect Lewisham Hospital from damaging cuts, and the unsuccessful campaign to stop the Nationwide from closing all its Building Society branches in this part of south-east London. An ongoing problem has been Boris Johnson’s Transport for London, which is responsible for the area’s busiest roads but has done little or nothing to tackle speeding on Shooter’s Hill Road, put up fencing along the A102 and A2 to protect its neighbours from noise and pollution, or even fix broken motorway bridges.

While rail services are still not good enough and will deteriorate further while London Bridge station is rebuilt, I’m pleased to have helped lobby for more frequent rail services on the Greenwich line (up from two to six trains an hour off-peak), a lift at Blackheath station, and new bus links like the 132 and 386 routes. Although the four years it took to get a gate opened from Maze Hill station to the new Seren Park development shows what a disaster railway privatisation has been, in other ways things have improved. In 1998 Maze Hill and Westcombe Park stations were covered in graffiti and weren’t places you’d want to linger in after dark. Now they are well-lit, safer and better-maintained, as are many other public spaces in Blackheath and Westcombe Park.

Blackheath Westcombe ward’s 2006 Labour council candidates: Jean Bloch, Silke Thomson and Alex Grant

But for too many residents life is insecure, with rising private sector rents, a cost of living crisis and little chance of getting a step on the property ladder. The Bedroom Tax and Housing Benefit caps are forcing some hardworking people to move out of areas like Blackheath and Westcombe Park, and the council’s success in getting affordable homes built has been hampered by cuts in funding from the new Coalition Government. As chair of the council’s planning board from 2006 to 2010, I saw many developments given planning permission, only for their developers to then seek a reduction in affordable housing after the 2010 election.

Housing is, and will remain, the most pressing challenge that residents of Blackheath Westcombe ward face, and I’ve done what I can to argue for more investment in council homes, many of which are Victorian and Edwardian houses rather than post-war estates, and a more careful approach to disposals of properties that the council no longer needs. I’m pleased that many hundreds of council homes in Blackheath and Westcombe Park have been given new roofs, windows, entryphones, bathrooms and kitchens in the last few years, though there’s still more to do. I only hope that a Labour government is elected in 2015 to give private sector tenants the protection they deserve.

Blackheath Westcombe ward is largely covered by conservation areas and it contains some of Greenwich’s most historic buildings: Vanbrugh Castle, the Paragon and Morden College.  The ward is blessed with  fantastic green spaces. The Heath is better maintained than it was in 1998 – the Gibb Memorial was at risk of falling down in 1998 but was lovingly restored a decade ago, thanks to a successful lottery bid – and tough conditions have been placed on the impending OnBlackheath Music Festival. The annual Fireworks have survived, with Labour committed to thrashing out a new funding agreement between Greenwich and Lewisham for 2014 and beyond. Playgrounds in Greenwich Park, Chiswell Square and East Greenwich Pleasaunce have been improved since the 2012 Olympics.

Sally Prentice and Cllrs Matthew Pennycook and Alex Grant outside M and S, 2013

Matthew Pennycook and Alex Grant outside Marks and Spencers on Old Dover Road, 2013

But what makes Blackheath and Westcombe Park really special is not its green spaces and old buildings, but the people who live here and the strength of the community. The area is full of strong civic institutions. Amenity groups like the Westcombe and Blackheath societies don’t resist change for the sake of it but care passionately about making the area better for all the people who live here. The Westcombe Woodlands and Mycenae House Gardens have ‘Friends’ Groups and there is an increasingly active traders’ group at the Royal Standard, where the council has frozen shop rents on Old Dover Road since 2008. The ward has four Anglican churches – St John’s, St George’s, St James’, and St Michael and All Angels – and two Roman Catholic churches – St Mary’s and St John Fisher – all of whom serve their communities well regardless of creed. There are dozens of residents’ groups, tenants’ associations, Neighbourhood Watches and less formal networks of neighbours who look out for each other and keep the council on its toes. Groups like these, which are all politically impartial and firmly rooted in the community, make a councillor’s life a lot easier.

ur candidates for the 2010 council elections - Pat Boadu-Darko, David Gardner and Alex Grant - on the campaign trail in  April 2010

Labour candidates for the 2010 council elections – Pat Boadu-Darko, David Gardner and Alex Grant

Blackheath Westcombe ward also has tremendous cultural and community venues – Mycenae House Community Centre (with the Greenwich Steiner School in Woodlands next door), the Conservatoire, Age Exchange and Blackheath Halls. All are vibrant places which have opened their doors, expanded their activities and refurbished their buildings in the last decade. When Lewisham Council made the difficult decision to close the library in Blackheath Village in 2011, the community rallied round to get a new community library opened at the Age Exchange – in spite, not because of, the coalition government’s “Big Society” rhetoric. Many of these institutions receive little or no Greenwich Council funding and in some cases – like Blackheath Halls – the council has had to withdraw funding because of the cuts the coalition government has forced councils to make since 2010. But I’ve done what I can to help them, and I’m grateful for the advice and friendship they have given me in return.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that Blackheath Westcombe ward is, in political terms, very unusual. Most of London’s 600-odd council wards have three councillors each, and most of them consistently return three councillors of the same party. Quite a few are split wards, but just two of these 600 wards have always been split between Labour and the Conservatives since London’s last major boundary changes in 2002: Underhill ward in Barnet and Blackheath Westcombe ward here in Greenwich.

Candidates and Alex Grant

2014 council candidates with Alex Grant

It’s a great privilege to have been elected, and re-elected, in such a perilously  marginal ward where victory is never guaranteed for any candidate of any party. I’m very indebted to the residents who have voted for me. Residents who have not voted for me have, with only a tiny handful of exceptions, always treated me with politeness and warmth and I’ve tried to be easily contactable and to represent everyone. And I’m glad that on some issues I have worked with councillors of other parties to get things done locally.

I’ve always felt more at home on the doorsteps of Blackheath Westcombe ward than in the Town Hall and I’ve never been afraid to speak out when I think the council has got it wrong – I’ve spoken out against bullying and I’ve argued strongly for the council to communicate, consult and listen more effectively. I hope that Labour’s regular newsletters and this website – which normally gets about 100 hits a day – have helped to tell residents what’s going on. And I’ve tried to gauge the local impact of the Coalition Government’s policies though this website’s ‘Coalition Consequences‘ strand: the growth of Foodbanks, the disastrous reforms to the Blue Badge system, and even the counter-productive ban on car clamping on the Cator Estate.

I’m particularly grateful to my fellow Labour councillors and many committed members of the Labour Party who have worked hard to get me elected and re-elected at four elections. I’d like to thank Dave Picton and Annie Keys for their service alongside me as councillors (from 1998 to 2002 and 2002 to 2006 respectively), and Matt Stiles, Silke Thomson, Jean Bloch, David Gardner and Pat Boadu-Darko – who were excellent Labour council candidates in 2002, 2006 and 2010 but sadly unsuccessful at the ballot box. Nick Raynsford MP, GLA member Len Duvall and Greenwich and Woolwich’s Parliamentary candidate Matt Pennycook have also helped to unravel many, many problems that have arisen in this ward in my time as a councillor.

Since I took my decision to step down last year I’ve been working closely with Labour candidates Paul Morrissey, Cherry Parker and Damien Welfare, who have been knocking on thousands of doors and have already started to make a big impact locally. They all live locally – Paul lives on Tom Smith Close by Maze Hill Station, Cherry lives on Kidbrooke Park Road, and Damien lives off Blackheath Park – and they will bring new energy and a fresh way of doing things. I hope that residents of Blackheath and Westcombe Park will elect them as their councillors on Thursday. Representing Blackheath Westcombe ward is a great privilege, and I can’t think of three better people for the job.

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5 Responses to After 16 years as a Labour councillor in Blackheath and Westcombe Park, Alex Grant says thank you and goodbye

  1. Dear Alex I was both pleased and saddened to read your valedictory message on the Blackheath Westcombe Labour website. It also made me think back to that evening in Mycenae House 16 years ago, when you were sslected ny the then Vanbrugh ward as their candidate. I was in fact the officiating officer of the LGC at the meeting, and i had not met you before, but I well remember the enthusiasm expressed by ward members at their choice. They will not feel let down after 16 years, and of course during that time you have with the enlargement of the ward come to represent a much wider electorate. I do know how many residents, whether our supporters or not, respect you and the work you have done. I know I have said this to you before, but I do regard you as the model Labour ward councillor, involved closely in so many aspects of activity in the ward. In the borough we do have a few others like you, and I think we will have a few more after tomorrow, but believe me, when I was a councillor in the 60s and 70s, there were not many councillors like you around. I really wish you were not going, but I of course fully understand the reasons why you made your decision. You will be a hard act to follow, but all candidates in our ward deserve to be elected tomorrow. I hope that together they will continue posting under the same heading in the way you have done. You will of course still be a member of our Party, and I hope to hear some positive and constructive evidence of your involvement coming out of Glyndon Ward in the months and years to come. All the very best to you, Alex, and to your family for the future. Sincerely

    Darrell

  2. Matthew Stiles says:

    An interesting read. I just heard that Labour have made a gain in Blackheath so you have left a good legacy. Hopefully, we’ll see you back on the front-line again soon, perhaps when your children are old enough they will come out and help to deliver your leaflets. All the best to you Alex and greetings to Darryl. Cheers Matt

  3. Alex Grant says:

    Many thanks to Darrell and Matt for your kind comments. Matt, you would have made a great councillor and it’s a great pity you missed out by just 4 votes in 2002 – a campaign I have fond memories of.

  4. Pingback: New Labour with a small ‘n’: a quiet revolution in the Town Hall | Alex Grant

  5. Pingback: So long, Greenwich. I predict that by 2050 you’ll swallow up Lewisham and Bexley. The Thames Barrier will be a boutique hotel. And everyone will be mad as hell about air pollution | Alex Grant

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