Waltham Forest Council’s second female leader was voted in last night, after her predecessor criticised the misogyny that has kept women out of power for decades
Former-leader Clare Coghill announced her resignation in June, explaining it was “time to stand aside” after “fulfilling the ambitions [she] set” when she assumed the role four years ago.
In July, the Labour group chose the cabinet member for children and families, Grace Williams, as the next leader, picking her over fellow cabinet member Liaquat Ali.
In her final speech, the former leader said: “Men led this borough, without pause, for more than half a century until I came along. This was four short years when a woman has been allowed to shape this place and support her people.
“Women make up 50% of the population, we are never a minority in terms of people but we become a minority… when we are denied access.
“This place will have corrected the balance, at the bare minimum, when we have had 50 years of female leaders and at least half of those women have been non-white.”
While celebrating progress in the borough, such as the council achieving the UK’s first ever conviction for female genital mutilation, she noted recent events in Texas and Afghanistan prove “progress is not permanent”.
Selina Seesunkur, the Conservative group’s only non-white female councillor, tweeted she found the speech “rather interesting” and agreed “minority groups continue to suffer from discrimination”.
In her first speech as leader, Grace Williams said many women on the Labour benches would not be “sitting here today if it was not for Clare” and thanked her for her excellent work.
Of her goals moving forward, she said: “We need to become better at explaining [to residents] what we can do and what we can’t do.
“An example of this is the housing crisis. We need to build more homes… we know this can be controversial in some communities.
“We need to explain to our communities who will benefit from these new homes: local people. We need to have discussions so they can understand these decisions and give residents greater say.”
She noted the council will soon be launching “three pilot projects that seek to involve residents more in housing and community infrastructure needs”.
Conservative leader Tim James thanked Cllr Williams for reaching out to him after her selection in July and said there were many points on which the two parties agreed.
However, he added that the Conservative party, whose councillors largely represent Chingford, would continue to fight “high rises and over-development”.
Cllr Williams will serve as leader until the next local election, which is being held next year. Her old cabinet portfolio has been taken over by Higham Hill councillor Alistair Strathern.
While departing leader Clare Coghill did not elaborate on her reasons for resigning, she celebrated buying a house with her partner, Blackpool councillor Simon Blackburn, who also announced his resignation from politics this year.
Announcing his resignation in March, Cllr Blackburn said the couple wanted to focus on “exciting plans for [their] future together”.