New council leader to ‘reset’ borough post-Covid

Grace Williams sat down with the Echo last month to talk about her plans for the borough, reports Victoria Munro While the resignation of Waltham Forest […]By Waltham Forest Echo

New Waltham Forest Council leader Grace Williams (WF Council)
New Waltham Forest Council leader Grace Williams (WF Council)

Grace Williams sat down with the Echo last month to talk about her plans for the borough, reports Victoria Munro

While the resignation of Waltham Forest Council’s previous leader came as a shock to many, it’s appropriate the council changed hands at the start of a borough-wide “reset”.

On 8th July, six days after Grace Williams was chosen as leader by the Labour group, the council’s cabinet began a £10million Covid recovery programme.

The programme, due to last until next July, is a “short-term plan to recover public services so people can get back to the ‘new normal’”, she explained.

After starting the job in September, Cllr Williams is only guaranteed to keep it until the May local elections but it’s clear she’s confident about re-election.

She said: “I’m really excited to be leading the Labour group. If you look at London council leaders, many have been cabinet members for children and there’s a number of reasons for that.

“It’s the second largest budget, which means you’re used to making hard decisions. Plus, you see the cases where children really need help… [which] sit with you and inform your understanding of what the council is there to do.”

Cllr Williams assumed leadership just days after a teenager was shot dead on a Leyton estate and, unsurprisingly, keeping children safe from violence is a key concern.

She said the council wants to see children as young as nine taught “how to make decisions and ask for help” in schools and is changing how it deals with expelled students, focusing more on “the trauma they might have experienced”.

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She said: “We need to make sure we are meeting their needs and are able to get them back into mainstream education. We want to look at this through a different lens.

“We’re working to have inclusion units within schools and the borough’s head teachers have been amazing. The idea is that those children can stay connected and integrated in school.”

Her time as cabinet member was not unmarked by controversy, particularly one that tested her ambition as leader to “bring people on board and explain difficult choices”.

Last summer, parent campaigners took the council to court in an unsuccessful attempt to overturn funding cuts for some children with special needs. Asked if this choice could have been better explained, she said: “I completely accept there are decisions people will [always] be unhappy with.

“Like every other local authority, we had gone into such a deficit that, if we didn’t make that decision, we would be at risk of not being able to meet the needs of children in the system.”

One of the most loudly protested areas of the council’s work is its commitment to building new homes, with many residents angry at what they see as overdevelopment of the borough.

Cllr Williams said: “Waltham Forest is an urban borough, which has seen a lot of change over the years and people have a perhaps outdated view of what homes should look like.

“It’s important we have enough homes and that will mean smaller places and might mean tall buildings. As a Labour council, one of the things we must do is try to address the housing crisis.”

However, she remains unfazed by the Tory challenge to her leadership come the next local elections in May and is even optimistic about increasing the party’s majority.

“Labour is getting nearer and nearer to winning over [Tory stronghold] Chingford,” she insisted, “Each election you can see that happening.”

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