AFTER nine years as deputy leader, Councillor Nick Botterill has moved up to the top job at Hammersmith and Fulham Council. He tells GREG BURNS he is more than ready to step out his predecessor’s shadow.
“That's just politics,” shrugs Nick Botterill when asked about rumours of a split among his Conservative colleagues during a fiercely contested leadership battle at Hammersmith and Fulham Council.
The 49-year-old Oxford graduate has been a key figure at the town hall since he was first elected as a councillor in 1996, taking on the deputy leader role when the Tories won control a decade later.
Former leader Stephen Greenhalgh sparked a scramble for the top job when he announced he would leave last December, but Mr Botterill made it through six months of behind-the-scenes sparring to be elected into the role earlier this month.
His strident predecessor was lauded by the Conservative-led government for taking an often radical approach to local politics and, on paper, Mr Greenhalgh looks like a tough act to follow – a fact not lost on the new leader.
“It is exhausting keeping up with the pace that Stephen set because he is one hell of a guy to follow up from,” said Mr Botterill, a married father-of-two.
“Stephen and I have been a team for a long time. We did very much work together on a lot of things and empathised together so I have been involved in all the major things that have happened in the council in a way that I suspect wouldn't have been the case with many deputy leaders.
“I have seen it all from the inside. Did I think I would ever do it? You never know, but Stephen was always very honest that he wasn't going to be here forever so I always assumed there was a time I would take over.
“Nobody offers themselves up to be leader of Hammersmith and Fulham under the illusion it is some sort of backwater, local council. This is about as cutting edge as you get in local government. This is a Premier League council and this is where lots of things are happening on a daily basis.”
Mr Botterill wasted no time in making his mark by announcing a landmark deal allowing residents to access services or pay bills, such as council tax or parking permit renewals, over the counter of any post office branch.
Cutting debt has been a mantra of the administration since it came to power, with the amount it owes now under £100million for the first time since 1986 following the sale of several prominent buildings, a tri-borough merger with neighbouring Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster Councils and other savings, including a controversial streamlining of Sure Start children's services.
“We're very much of the opinion that if assets don't yield benefits or can't be justified, then we need to sell those,” said Mr Botterill. “There is a pipeline of them left. We take a realistic and sensible approach but sometimes there are hard choices.
“Our vision is to make Hammersmith and Fulham an increasingly good place to live, bring up children and to work. We want to be good value for money and create as green an environment as possible with good open spaces.
“We want strong education so kids come out of schools and into work and not on the scrapheap. You can offer people a powerful enough vision but you have to deliver.”
The leader's in-tray is already bulging.
Trying to stop Thames Water using the south of Fulham for its Thames Tunnel 'super-sewer' project, and having to return to the drawing board with the council's plan to redevelop King Street, are just two items high on the agenda.