Cllr Peter Graham is a councillor for Wandsworth Common Ward on Wandsworth Council.
Wandsworth has a Labour council for the first time in 44 years. After a near miss four years ago, Labour’s victory became odds-on following their recent parliamentary and GLA results. Partygate was merely a late boon to their campaign.
This makes it all the more remarkable that Wandsworth Labour’s manifesto received so little scrutiny. Their promises weren’t just uncosted, but wilfully ambiguous.
I’m not saying this with any bitterness. Labour won by a clear margin. In fact, much of their pitch was about being “the same” and agreeing with us on tax, waste, and the environment.
What matters to residents is what they do next.
Wandsworth Labour’s manifesto states that they “will cut Council Tax”, which seems clear, until one reads, “we’re backing a one per cent cut this year”. That can only refer to the Conservative cut which has already taken place. It would be unlawful for them to back anything else.
Explanations have been limited. When Simon Hogg was asked about his policy, live on air, the new Council Leader got silenced by the Mayor of London. Asked by a resident, their new Group Chair tweeted that the policy was “ minus one per cent which was the same as the Conservative pledge”. Again, Wandsworth Conservatives didn’t pledge to cut tax – we had already done it.
Labour’s equivocation began in February, when they U-turned to support our tax cut for 2022/23. A pinned (and recently deleted) tweet announced that Wandsworth Labour was backing a cut “next year”, which meant the financial year from April 2022. Although their website edited away Labour’s previous call for a tax freeze, it kept its reference to “this year”, meaning the calendar year.
No wonder Sadiq Khan got confused in April, tweeting that Wandsworth Labour would “freeze Council Tax this year & next”. Cllr Hogg retweeted Khan’s claim, before reposting his own tax cut graphic on May 1st, a month after our cut had been implemented:
I think the basic point is this: whether online or in their manifesto, the phrase “will cut” must relate to a future action by Labour in order to be honest. And any voter last week who read about a cut “next year” would rightly take that to mean the Council’s decision in 2023 relating to 2023/24.
So will Wandsworth’s residents get another one per cent net tax reduction? I wouldn’t bet on it.
Rents and energy bills
As Wandsworth Conservatives, we froze council tenants’ rents this April, while freezing their energy bills for a second time. Not many boroughs were able to achieve that.
Labour’s manifesto states: “A rent freeze next year will help tackle the cost of living crisis – and Labour councillors have voted for energy bills to be frozen for tenants too.” Their West Putney candidates (two of whom won), promised an “Energy Bills freeze next year” to boot.
Is this more weasel wording? Labour might be a bit keener on Housing Revenue Account commitments because they don’t compete with their general fund pledges. However, a rent freeze alone costs considerably more than a council tax cut.
They also have another large, uncosted HRA pledge to cover…
A thousand council homes
Labour’s manifesto promises to “build 1,000 new council homes – guaranteed for local people”. This sounds familiar to me because we were already building a thousand homes on council land, with exactly the same guarantee. Labour aren’t planning to lay a single extra brick.
However, under Labour’s online Housing Plan, they will all be “Council rent homes” – not just 442 of the units, as planned. Flipping the remaining shared ownership and private homes won’t come cheap. So how will it be paid for?
I fear they might cancel the much-needed regeneration of the Alton Estate, betraying hundreds of tenants in desperate need of new accommodation. Labour have already talked about a retrospective ballot in their Housing Plan, having flip-flopped throughout the planning phase.
Unless they commit now, which contractor will bother with the expense and hassle of a procurement bid? What starts as a delay could end with nothing.
Magical property levies
On the theme of development, here are some more of Labour’s manifesto pledges:
The Council has no power to impose new property levies, so this must relate to CIL or Section 106 payments. That’s achievable, if Labour want less infrastructure and less affordable housing.
Instead, they promise to “set an ambitious housing target that 50 per cent of residential units should be delivered as affordable housing” with “no more backsliding”. They likewise promise to “Prioritise the delivery of social rent homes in all Section 106 agreements”, which are the most expensive type to deliver.
If none of this seems to add up, that’s because it doesn’t.
Spend, spend, spend
The rest of Labour’s shopping list runs for pages. As a flavour of what’s involved, all contractors are to pay the London Living Wage, even if their staff aren’t based in London. Ward pledges included, “Bring mobile & internet access to all across West Putney.”
Most unguardedly, Labour’s manifesto and final doorstep literature promised “mental health services for all who need it”. Not help to access those services, but direct provision.
Reserves and debt
One of my frustrations is that we didn’t do more to secure Wandsworth Council’s reserves. Labour has been left with well over £100 million to splash on projects or plug annual spending deficits, while punting any consequences beyond the next election in 2026.
This wouldn’t be consistent with their pledge to “make the Council’s assets work harder” and “improve” returns, but – along with borrowing – it’s one route to achieving some of their wish list. It would also end decades of careful financial management.
We know from Croydon what can happen next.
It’s only fair to congratulate Wandsworth Labour on their win. They have been gracious on a personal level, for which they deserve credit. As the new Opposition, it’s our job to hold them politely — and relentlessly — to account for their promises to Wandsworth’s residents.