‘We’ll keep asking difficult questions’

The Conservative Group’s leader and deputy want to continue holding the council to account, they tell the Echo

Waltham Forest Conservative Group

Millie Balkan, the Conservative Party’s deputy leader in Waltham Forest, and Alan Siggers, the leader, are looking to make town hall gains on 3rd May

For the Conservative Party in Waltham Forest the goal at next month’s local election is modest – regaining the two seats they lost in 2014.

Both the group’s leader Alan Siggers and deputy leader Millie Balkan admit that they do not have any realistic possibility of taking over control of a borough the Tories haven’t led since the early 1970s.

However, the pair both emphasise the importance of having a strong opposition group that can challenge the Labour administration effectively in the town hall, on matters such as housing, crime, and transport.

“Our aim is to continue asking difficult questions,” says Alan. “There is no other opposition, no-one else to question what the council does. In future, if we keep asking the right questions, talking sense, people will look for a different approach.”

Alan has been a Tory councillor, representing Valley ward in Chingford, for 16 years. He took over the leadership of the Conservative group a year ago, after previous leader Matt Davies stood down. In his youth Alan was a Labour Party member, but switched allegiance after adopting “a conservative lifestyle”. He said: “I run my own business, I own my own property. I believe in family and self-determination. I live conservatism.”

Millie also took on her role, as deputy leader, last year. She has been a Tory activist since the age of 15 and became a councillor for Larkswood ward aged just 22, having grown up in Highams Park. Explaining why she joined the party Millie said: “I was angry about CPZs [Controlled Parking Zones] and large developments that no-one wanted. The Conservatives were the ones standing up and doing something about these problems. Their solutions were sensible.”

Indeed, it is on matters of housing and transport that the Conservatives have been most vocal in Waltham Forest over the past four years. Issues they have fought over include introducing 15 minutes’ free parking in town centres – although they’d originally demanded 30 minutes – and opposing road closures as part of the Mini Holland cycling programme.

Their opposition to large housing schemes has also been consistent. Notably, Alan was the only member of Waltham Forest Council’s planning committee to vote against granting permission to Capital & Regional for the redevelopment of The Mall in Walthamstow. Millie, although not a committee member, also spoke strongly against the scheme at last December’s planning meeting.

“I have got no problem with development but it has to be appropriate for the area,” says Alan. “People say it is the Tory government that is to blame [on housing] but this borough has its own planning policies and chooses to ignore them – that’s not the government’s fault.”

Millie adds: “Shared ownership is a sham. You pay a mortgage and you pay service charges, but what do you get for it? They are making it [The Mall] 20 percent shared ownership and calling that ‘affordable housing’.”

Alan says he’d like to see more social housing built locally, and admits the Right to Buy scheme introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government has been partly to blame for its decline. “It was poorly executed. But the council gets these Right to Buy receipts, and what have they done with the money?”

Waltham Forest has a target of building 12,000 homes by 2020, which Alan describes as “over ambitious”. But he says the Conservatives recognise new housing is a priority: “Yes we want to maintain our green spaces but should we be arguing over every single piece of scrubland that the public doesn’t have access to, and has derelict buildings on? We need to be reviewing our open land, otherwise we’re not going to meet these housing targets unless we flatten whole sections of Waltham Forest.”

Regarding Clare Coghill’s leadership, Alan says it is too early to judge her performance since she has been in the post less than a year. Instead he praises council officers: “Waltham Forest is blessed with some good finance officers. They have done a good job of stewarding us through difficult times.”

Waltham Forest Council’s budget has been cut by around £100million over the past eight years, under various Tory-led governments. How can such cuts be justified by Conservatives locally? “We couldn’t sustain the levels of debt that we had,” says Alan. “Our repayments have gone up and up. I cannot find a flaw in what the government has done in terms of its approach to local authorities. Bins are still being emptied – the system still works.”

Nationally the Conservative Party has seen its popularity take a hit compared to a year ago, when Theresa May announced a snap general election. In 2017 the Labour Party’s vote share in Waltham Forest increased by around 12 percent. But Alan say this trend shouldn’t have a significant impact on local elections in 2018.

“Last year the Conservative Party ran the worst campaign I have ever seen,” says Alan. “Fair play to Jeremy Corbyn. I don’t agree with him but he did a good job.”

Chingford is the only part of Waltham Forest represented by the Conservative Party at any level – with 16 Tory councillors and a Tory MP. However, last year Iain Duncan Smith’s majority was slashed by 6,000 votes. Is this stronghold now under threat?

“I don’t see anything to tell me otherwise.”

Other issues of concern to local Conservatives include the Mayor of London’s new Ultra Low Emissions Zone, tackling air pollution. The scheme will see the North Circular become the new outer limit of the zone, with drivers of polluting vehicles being charged to enter it. For motorists from Chingford this effectively means paying £12.50 to visit Whipps Cross Hospital.

Alan says: “No-one is going to say they don’t want clean air, but if you look at any map, Waltham Forest is actually pretty good [on air quality] compared to other parts of London. The idea of charging people to cross the North Circular is madness.”

Both Alan and Millie are also concerned about Walthamstow Market, arguing it has been neglected by the council and left to decline. Millie says: “Labour doesn’t view business in the same way we do. There are so many new creative businesses locally, but you don’t see artists selling at the market. They [Labour] are not commercially-minded, they just think inside the box.”

Another Conservative pledge is to improve transport, with a specific proposal to introduce direct rail services between Chingford and Stratford. They would also abolish Waltham Forest News, a taxpayer-funded fortnightly publication used to promote the council.

Will such promises be enough for the Conservative Party to make gains on Thursday 3rd May? “I am realistic,” admits Alan. “We won’t take seats in Leyton, Leytonstone, or Walthamstow, but we want to regain the two seats we lost in Chingford because of the strong UKIP vote in 2014.”

 


This is the third article in a series focusing on the political parties standing for election to Waltham Forest Council on Thursday 3rd May 2018. For more information and a full list of candidates:

Visit walthamforest.gov.uk/content/local-elections-2018