On the eve of becoming council leader, Clare Coghill outlines her priorities for the borough
Growing up in the Black Country on the edge of Birmingham, in a family of lifelong Conservative voters, Clare Coghill took a slightly unorthodox route to becoming leader of a Labour council in east London.
Her interest in politics was stoked while living in southern France, where she was frustrated by the apathy that nearly led to a far-right extremist becoming president in 2002, a similar scenario to that which transpired this year. “It was important to my political education. I encouraged people to vote, but the election ended up being between Jean-Marie Le Pen and [former president] Jaques Chirac. I realised if you don’t stand up for what you believe in, you risk the fascists getting in.”
Clare was working at a language school in Montpelier, following her degree in English literature at the University of York. After returning to Britain, she admits her arrival in Waltham Forest nearly a decade ago was circumstantial. “People were being displaced from where I’d been living in Tower Hamlets because of property prices, so I moved to Leytonstone,” explains Clare, ironically describing a situation which now afflicts many here.
“Then I moved to Leyton, then Walthamstow. They are lovely places, there are parallels between them, but they are different places with their own identities.”
Clare now lives in the Wood Street area, and in 2010, after several years pounding the streets as a Labour activist, was elected councillor for High Street ward on Waltham Forest Council in her first time standing as a candidate.
“My close family were all Conservatives, it was a big deal when I joined Labour. We disagreed, but they still supported me. I think if they lived in my ward they might vote for me, otherwise they’ll always be Tory! If you share your parents’ convictions that’s great, but you should always vote with your own feelings.”
Clare credits her first election win to “lots of hard work” which enabled her to take a ward that was at the time majority held by Liberal Democrats. “For the longest time I had been talking about the [Granada/EMD] cinema not being delivered. I spoke against the UCKG church’s planning application twice. We stuck to our guns on the potential of Walthamstow as a cultural and entertainment hub and we have been proven right on that.”
The council has been led by Chris Robbins since 2009, but late last year he announced his resignation “to let someone else take the reins”. A leadership contest in early January was won by Clare, with support from 75 percent of Labour colleagues. Clare’s new job starts on 25th May. She said: “For a while I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring and, if the [Labour] group wanted me, I’d be happy to do it. I had shown I could handle a range of issues, including social care, education, planning.
“It was hard work which got me here, rather than self promotion. For me it was about showing what you could do rather than talking about what you could do.”
Clare admits being surprised at Councillor Robbins’ sudden departure. “It is always surprising in politics when people go before they are pushed, but Chris was in control of his own destiny and decided to give someone else an opportunity to lead us into the next election.
“If we are successful in 2018 it will be on a manifesto everyone is fully behind. There will be a fresh set of policies. I have respect for what Chris achieved but I am my own person and will seek a fresh agenda. Politics is never about standing still, you have to bring fresh ideas. Waltham Forest is changing and we have to be ready to respond.”
Clare declines to go into detail about her ideas but states she has three main priorities. The first is young people: “We need to give them access to high-quality education, apprenticeships, and the sort of jobs they should be able to access living in the greatest city in the world. The standard is superb, but we have to continue to improve and ensure young people know their value and that we are rooting for them.”
Her second priority is housing: “Housing and growth continue to be hugely important. How do we make sure we are able to provide new housing, whether it is affordable for sale, or social rent? Working with housing associations is key, and seeing through the regeneration of estates that can be complex and expensive.”
And her third priority is health: “It’s a travesty that there is a gap in life expectancy between west and east London. We need to continual improvement in our health services and we need to challenge the Treasury to get the investment we need.”
Clare then refers to the recently-announced reconstruction of Whipps Cross in Leytonstone, a hospital site that pre-dates the founding of the NHS and is in desperate need of modernisation. Details are yet to be confirmed, and there are questions over how it can be funded given Barts Health, which runs the hospital, is the most indebted NHS trust in the country.
“You have to clear out of your mind the problems and just make your case for what residents need. If there is not enough money, that is for them to make their case to me. It is not my responsibility to tell Waltham Forest residents that historic problems are why we can’t deliver for them.”
Returning to housing, I ask Clare how the council can justify demolishing social housing estates and building fewer council homes in their place, as is the case at Marlowe Road in Walthamstow and is planned at Montague Road in Leytonstone. She blames cuts to government funding for forcing the council to scale back social housing.
“Previously, estate regeneration was subsidised by government and we could find our own resources, but the Tories have cut funding. We now have a dilemma; do we leave estates to deteriorate or do we act? I don’t think we can justify leaving them. It is a difficult decision but we have to find a way to give people decent high-quality homes.”
On other housing issues, such as the influx of large, high-rise and often unaffordable housing schemes across Waltham Forest over the past five years, which threaten to get taller and denser still, Clare says: “In order to get the most out of these schemes we have to ask developers what they can offer; is it school places, doctors’ surgeries, infrastructure? We have to fight our case. I think we have done a good job so far but there is always room for improvement.”
Another criticism of the council has been spending on agency fees to pay temporary staff doing jobs left undone following cut-backs and redundancies. The employment of agency workers by the council has quadrupled in five years. Clare says: “There are temporary staff who work really hard and I don’t like there being a hierarchy between them and our permanent staff, but it is something we ought to be vigilant about.”
As the interview ends, I ask Clare how she feels about taking on such a huge job. “I am both nervous and excited. This is a phenomenal borough full of amazing people; the arts, culture, sense of community, and people supporting one another.”
She shares her pride at becoming the first female leader of Waltham Forest Council, but adds: “In 1965 the council started and it’s taken until now for it to happen – do me a favour!”