Clare Coghill talks to the Echo about her priorities for fighting her first election as leader of Waltham Forest Council
When voters in Waltham Forest go to the polls on 3rd May, Clare Coghill will have been leading the council for just under one year.
Despite her relatively short time at the helm of the town hall, Clare can already point to a number of successes under her leadership. The most notable of these came at the end of February, when Waltham Forest was named London Borough of Culture 2019 – the first to ever be bestowed with the accolade.
Clare can take significant credit for this success, having launched the Borough of Culture bid last summer in one of her first acts as council leader. The triumph means thousands of pounds will be made available to arts and cultural organisations in Waltham Forest next year.
She said: “We have brought people together. There is potential now to use the arts and culture community as a lobby for regeneration. This has unlocked so many opportunities. It is about putting Waltham Forest on the map.”
Labour is in a dominant position locally. In 2014 the party won 44 out of the 60 council seats available, including a clean sweep of every ward in Walthamstow, Leyton, and Leytonstone. Last year’s general election showed their support has grown even more since then.
But the Labour administration has not been without major controversy. Speaking to the Echo, Clare admitted that recent protests over the council’s decision to grant planning permission for a 29-storey redevelopment of The Mall, building over one third of Walthamstow Town Square, might hurt Labour’s chances.
She said: “People elected us to make decisions. In the current economic climate we are limited in what we can do. We have to ensure that we build new homes. I would love it if John McDonnell was in Number 11 and we could build like we did in the post-war period, but that’s not the case right now. We don’t want London to become like Paris, where the skyline is protected but no-one can afford to live there.”
Opposition over The Mall’s redevelopment has been significant, with some long-time Labour activists saying they will not campaign for the party this year because of the council’s decision to approve it.
A chief criticism has been the scheme’s lack of affordable housing. Clare, who is standing for re-election in High Street ward where the scheme will be built, said: “I find it very weird as a leader of a Labour council when people ask me about building more social homes. If I had the money, I would build them everywhere.”
Aside from the Borough of Culture accolade, what are the council’s biggest achievements of the last few years?
“I think the opening of Walthamstow Wetlands is staggering. We also re-opened Lea Bridge Station – people said we couldn’t do it. Now the user numbers are higher than we ever projected.
“I am proud of our record on delivering affordable housing. We introduced a landlord licensing scheme to ensure people live in habitable conditions.”
Curiously, Clare doesn’t immediately mention Mini Holland among the council’s achievements. “There are massive lessons to be learned from the consultation we held on it,” she admits. “But I think residents can see what we are trying to do. At peak times we need to see more people walking and cycling, rather than driving. Thousands die every year as a result of poor air quality.”
In the Waltham Forest Labour Manifesto, five key promises are made; redeveloping Whipps Cross Hospital, protecting tenants’ rights, improving the performance of local GP services, improving bus routes, and campaigning for another new railway station – at Ruckholt Road in Leyton.
Big changes are on the horizon for local authorities, with all councils shortly expected to become self-financing through council tax and the retention of business rates. Clare points out that 60 percent of the council’s budget will be spent on social care by 2020, and that further government cuts need to be resisted.
“We have to fight hard as a council. Police cuts are a massive threat, we need fair funding for our schools. We need to keep pushing on to provide as many council homes as we can, and refurbishing the ones we’ve already got.
“Universal Credit will hit a lot of vulnerable people and we need to make sure people can still pay their rent. Adult social care is like another emergency service – what they do to provide compassionate care is mind boggling.”
Despite doing better than expected in the 2017 General Election, divisions remain within the Labour Party. What side is Clare on?
“I didn’t back Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn to win the leadership, and I voted for Owen Smith in the last contest. But the Labour movement is about our history and where we are going – when we did so well at the last election I was so happy, it was incredible. The task now is to win those other seats we need to form a government.”
Another ongoing controversy at the town hall is its fortnightly taxpayer-funded publication, Waltham Forest News. Last November the government wrote to Waltham Forest Council and threatened to take the local authority to court if it did not comply with publicity guidelines restricting Waltham Forest News to being published quarterly – accusing it of “undermining democracy”.
Clare has held firm and challenged the government to prove that the council is breaking the law. She told the Echo: “They cannot tell us to be responsible for everything and then tell us how we’re supposed to communicate with our residents. We are elected and we have a mandate and it is our duty to promote what we are doing.”
This is the fourth 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: