Preparing for era of honest council

This Is Local London: Cllr Thompson outside the Civic Centre Cllr Thompson outside the Civic Centre

The bare-walled new office of Peter Thompson, the Conservative councillor who became leader of Hounslow Council in May, serves up a useful analogy for his tenure so far - he's only been there for a little while and hasn't really had a chance to put his mark on the place yet.

But, after 35 years of Labour rule, Cllr Thompson is at the head of the new coalition between the Conservatives and Hounslow's Community Group which is keen to make an impression in the borough after decades in opposition.

Speaking just after the council returned from their summer break, he is keen to point out that the new coalition is now ready to start making changes after a transition period he describes as a "challenging few months".

Cllr Thompson, 38, is married with two children and works four days a week as the head of religious studies at Moor House girls' school in Knightsbridge. He is hoping to be a very different leader to his predecessor Labour's Colin Ellar.

He promises an era of greater "openess and transparency" with more borough council meetings being held and with the council striving to continue regeneration projects and be "a bit sharper, a bit better on delivery".

But can the Chiswick councillor be an effective leader if he only spends one day a week at the council's headquarters in Hounslow?

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"We aspire to be efficient and lower-taxed."

Cllr Thompson

"Balancing school and council work demands are not straight forward but so far it seems to be going alright," he says. "Being a councillor full stop is a thing you could easily make into a full-time job but I'm not quite sure that is always a good thing. I think it's helpful to have a bit of outside perspective and not to spend your entire life in meetings.

"In an ideal world, it would be nice to have more days in the Civic Centre. On the other hand, Colin Ellar my predecessor worked here five days a week and I honestly don't think he was a terribly effective leader of the council. It's not just to do with how many days you put in."

He adds that many meetings "aren't actually necessary" and that "people are so much clued in to email and most of the communication we have is through that".

The Conservatives have been taking stock and "doing a lot of things behind the scenes" since the elections, Cllr Thompson explains. "So I think we are now moving towards a stage where we can go out to discussion and consultation and making public a whole series of areas where we want to make real changes."

Environmentalism is one of these areas, he explains. "We need to do a lot more in terms of the green agenda, particularly on recycling. All local authorities have to get their recycling levels way up or we get financially penalised.

"It's the right thing to do on lots of different levels. We want to find out what people think of it and there has to be real consultation because, unless you get the hearts and minds behind you, it's not going to work."

He adds that the "more modern, progressive, green-type approach" being adopted by David Cameron's Conservative party as a whole "has a lot of merit behind it".

Council tax is another of the major issues the new administration is keen to look at, Cllr Thompson says.

"We aspire to be efficient and lower-taxed. But we can't here and now give a commitment to say what council tax will be in five years time.

"One of the things people sometimes don't appreciate with government finance is that a lot of it is out of our hands. A lot of it is down to what the policies are in central London in terms of the grant they give."

But, in their own election manifesto, the Conservatives pointed to Hounslow's massive backlog of road repairs, underfunded social services, high crime rates also noting that the borough was in £200million of debt.

Does this situation not make it almost impossible for any administration to cut taxes? "Not impossible," Cllr Thompson says. "A lot of work is going on but there are real areas where savings can be made.

"I think it is important to look at the bureaucracy and see where savings can be made there but we are not particularly interested in cutting front-line services that really affect people."

He adds that the council are exploring possible "economies of scale" to be made from combining some services, such as rubbish collection or printing, with other west London borough councils.

The underfunding of council services is in part due to the large number of illegal immigrants living in Hounslow, the council leader says.

The borough's "very transient, moving population" means that it is difficult for government departments to accurately calculate the number of people living here.

Up to £3million is lost each year by the council due to the underestimation of Hounslow's population by the government's Office of National Statistics, Cllr Thompson believes.

"People come here and they use the schools, get sick, travel on the roads and they use all the services but we are not getting the funding because officially they are not here. There is a real debate which has been taken by the previous crowd and ourselves to ministers that population figures don't truly reflect what we know to be happening in Hounslow."

Back in July, Sabin Malik, one of Hounslow's community cohesion officers, said that immigration into Hounslow was resulting in a local rise in Islamophobia and voiced that concerns that disaffected white voters, mainly concentrated in Feltham, could be driven towards right-wing parties.

But she added that many residents felt Hounslow was a very cohesive place to live.

Councillor Thompson says: "In the last local elections, there was a National Front candidate in one of the Feltham wards and they got a few hundred votes. I think it was actually a ward that the Conservatives won but if we hadn't worked hard in that ward, there could even have been a National Front councillor. I think we managed to take on board that disgruntlement with the council.

"I think it's interesting that there is a national debate about the way in which race relations is moving forwards. For a long time, it has rightly focussed on and celebrated diversity in different groups and different parts of the world but we haven't done enough to bring people together.

"I think it's a lot more important nowadays to stress what people have in common," he adds. "We would like to say a little bit less about race and ethnicity, and just get on with the job that we're here for - providing better services.

"I think there is a danger when you spend too much time focussing on the differences between people. It actually divides and separates people."

Cllr Thompson disagrees with the perception voiced to him by some voters that the previous Labour administration focussed too much of their efforts on helping ethnic groups in the borough, to the detriment of other residents.

In the past couple of weeks, another political debate has raged across London following the granting of increased powers over planning and waste to Mayor Ken Livingstone.

Tony Arbour, Hounslow's London Authority member, slammed the changes saying they amounted to "a mugging of local democracy".

How does Cllr Thompson feel about Ken's new powers and what effect will they have in Hounslow? "In principle, they are powers that he shouldn't have been given. I am very much committed to localism. You have to trust people and local residents tend to know what is best for their area.

"The Mayor is on record in support of high density, high rise developments which work ever so well in the City but they don't work well in Hounslow.

People don't really thrive and develop that well when they are packed like rabbits in a large 20-storey block."

Another issue arising for the council are changes made to parking charges. Asked about increases in charges which have hit residents' pockets - especially those in Chiswick - Cllr Thompson says the changes came "out of the blue" even to Conservative councillors.

He claims the increases were buried in Labour's last budget passed in March and blasted the previous administration for failing to consult the public on the measures.

In their manifesto, the Conservatives promised a "better deal" in terms of residents' parking and Cllr Thompson promised to review the situation for the next council budget, stating that rates could not be changed mid-year.

"Parking shouldn't primarily be about raising money, it should be about giving people the chance to park somewhere near their house and to deter commuters," he says.

He also wants to have a look at "terribly unfair" differential systems in Hounslow where parking fees vary wildly between different parts of the borough.

Hounslow's new Conservative-led administration certainly want to make some bold changes in the next four years. But how much will they be able to achieve? Only time will tell.

- Click here for full interview transcript, including Cllr Thompson's comments about local MPs Ann and Alan Keen

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