After six years as council leader, Stephen Greenhalgh stepped down this week to take up his new role as Boris Johnson’s deputy mayor for crime and policing. Dan Hodges spoke to him about the changes he has brought to Hammersmith and Fulham.
DECIDING how to rule one of the most politically divided of all London boroughs must be difficult.
Is it best to reach out to those on the other side, trying to find some common ground despite the increasingly evident gap between the borough’s wealthiest and most disadvantaged?
Or is it better to take a more belligerent approach, appealing firmly to voters at one end of the political spectrum, and articulating the kind of views others might consider extreme?
As the Conservative leader of Hammersmith and Fulham, Stephen Greenhalgh seems to have favoured the latter approach since his party swept to power six years ago, reversing more than two decades of local Labour rule.
He has been unapologetic about his desire to transform the borough, either by changing the way social housing is allocated, by selling off council homes, offices and community centres, by announcing that Hammersmith and Fulham is ‘open for business’ to developers, or by seizing all opportunities to cut costs in the name of slashing council tax bills for residents and the council’s own debt.
In all of those areas, Mr Greenhalgh has found success, which may account for his surprise appointment as Boris Johnson’s new deputy mayor of London. But does he feel that by selling off buildings such as Sands End Community Centre and Fulham Town Hall, something has been lost in the process?
“If I could have started with no council debt and £110million in reserve like Kensington and Chelsea, then maybe we could have sponsored opera in Holland Park, sent a man to the moon and other things that would have added to people’s sense that this is an effective council,” he said.
“Our legacy was one which had us mired in debt, probably the kind of levels of debt you would see in third world countries or Eastern European dictatorships in the post-war period.
“Each year we’d have to find £17m worth of money from our government grant and council tax just to service debt interest.
“I think that was a ridiculous situation, and the only thing that you can do to strengthen your balance sheet is to think about how you reduce your assets sensibly to pay back that debt so that we can continue to provide excellent local public services to our residents.
“I regret the fact we’ve had to sell off buildings but I’m delighted that for the first time in 26 years we have council debt that’s less than £100m.”
Social housing is one of the most divisive subjects locally, with some claiming the council is attempting social cleansing by encouraging large-scale development.
But Mr Greenhalgh says the H&F Homebuy scheme, introduced by the Tories, has allowed up to 800 families to own low-cost homes for the first time, finding a footing on the housing ladder.
“That ladder is now real, tangible – it didn’t exist in 2006,” he said. “You just had social rented housing on the one hand, accessed by those in the greatest housing need, and housing for millionaires.
“We decided that we needed to build those middle rungs.”
The hand of developers is visible everywhere, from completed projects such as Imperial Wharf, to current construction sites such as the Fulham Reach luxury flats and the new office block going up in Hammersmith Grove.
“Our focus is on growth in areas that are currently some of the most deprived parts of our borough,” said Mr Greenhalgh, citing opportunity areas at Earl’s Court and West Kensington, White City and Old Oak.
“We had a vision of growth where currently there is very little.
“It’s going to provide thousands upon thousands of jobs, new homes for people, and turn round those challenged parts of our borough and make them beacons of opportunity. That’s the challenge that we have.
“Of course we’ve got to take people with us and it is going to be hard and it is going to take an awful long time. We’re still very much at the start of that process.”
Asked why he is in favour of major projects in some areas, but fiercely against Thames Water’s huge ‘super sewer’ project close to his own ward in Fulham, Mr Greenhalgh said it was like ‘comparing apples with oranges’.
He believes the £4.1billion Thames Tunnel project, designed to stop raw sewage being discharged into the Thames during heavy rainfall, is a waste of money and should be abandoned.
“I believe, based on the experts that I’ve come to know, that there’s a far more sensible way of dealing with these issues that involves green infrastructure, that involves capturing the rainwater,” he said.
“A deep tunnel solution is a very old-fashioned way of doing it and very risky.
“I’m opposing it because I believe in value for money, and we shouldn’t just be driven by what’s in the interests of the Thames Water shareholders.
“We should be doing what’s right for London.”
Taking up the post as deputy mayor for policing and crime means Mr Greenhalgh cannot continue to serve as a councillor for Town ward – something which made him pause for thought before agreeing.
“I’m councillor of the ward where I live, I have my business based there, my children go to school and I’ve represented it for 16-and-a-half years and it means something to me,” he said.
“But if the London mayor, who has had over a million votes from Londoners and a mandate to govern for another four years asks you to do a major job for him, it’s harder to turn him down.
“I wanted to continue but the legislation, somewhat confused, doesn’t allow it.”
One of the first tasks in his new role will be to build the newly created Mayor of London’s Office for Policing and Crime, which replaces the Metropolitan Police Authority and must hold the Met Police to account – something which Mr Greenhalgh concedes will be a ‘tough job’.
While he will have no formal involvement in operational decision-making, he has placed the problems of gang violence and knife crime as his priorities.
“Gang-related violence is a problem for about 19 of the 32 boroughs, I gather, and at the moment I’m not going to start making policy on the hoof but I’m delighted that the new commissioner recognises that this is a real issue for Londoners,” he said.
With old university friends in high places, Mr Greenhalgh caused a stir before the 2010 general election by commenting that his Conservative compatriots in the then shadow cabinet had not run the proverbial drink up in a brewery.
With that in mind, how are they faring now they are leading the country in the grip of a double-dip recession?
“I think they’re doing a tremendous job,” he said.
“It’s a tough inheritance. I suffered from a Labour inheritance that left the town hall coffers bare and that’s precisely what this coalition government has inherited.
“We’re talking about debt levels in the trillion range, a deficit that is just staggering. It’s not just bad for us, it’s going to be bad for our children and our grandchildren – we’ve just got to get a grip.
“This is a leading country that’s proud of its heritage. We’ve got to have strong finances – that requires strong government and I think that’s what we’re seeing.”
Mr Greenhalgh said he supports large infrastructure projects to encourage growth in the economy – even those which have been opposed by many west Londoners, such as the High Speed Two rail link and a third runway at Heathrow.
He said: “I’ve always been against night flights but the status quo is not a choice.
“The choice is either a new airport or to optimise capacity at Heathrow, which would see some expansion.”
Asked if he would have done anything differently if he had his time again, the council leader said he believes his administration ‘got the big questions broadly right’ and that it is a ‘great wrench’ to be stepping down.
But he said he is leaving the borough in the safe hands of his deputy, Nick Botterill, who replaced him as leader.
As for his long-term political ambitions beyond City Hall, would he consider taking on his political arch-rival, Labour’s Andy Slaughter, by standing against him as Hammersmith MP?
“You never know,” he said.
On the political battle lines which continue to split Hammersmith and Fulham, he said: “This may be a divided borough, it may be polarised politically between left and right, but right is beating left, continually since 2006. We have a mandate to govern.”