Brian Jarman visits Westminster Council leader Philippa Roe at her seventeenth-floor office; and risks defenestration as he asks her about housing, that other woman, and whether the Evening Standard will be dictating the Council's West End parking policy.Let’s get one thing clear: Philippa Roe is no Dame Shirley Porter. The new leader of Westminster City Council hates being bundled together with the first and last woman leader, who was at the heart of the ‘homes for votes’ gerrymandering scandal in the 1980s.
‘We’re completely different,’ says Councillor Roe, who took over seven weeks ago. I meet her in her office on the seventeenth floor of Westminster City Hall. I admire the panoramic views over to Canary Wharf and the City, where she worked until she had her twins six years ago.
‘It’s even better on the other side,’ she says. ‘You can see straight into Buckingham Palace garden.’
Her mother, Dame Marion Roe, was Conservative MP for Broxbourne for more than twenty years until 2005 – the year before her daughter was first elected to the council.
Politics with breakfast
‘I grew up in a household where politics was talked about over the breakfast table,’ she says. ‘I also fundamentally believe that if one is able, one really ought to put something back, and I think that local politics is a very good way to do that because you’re – probably more so than if you’re an MP – dealing with the everyday lives of people and if you work hard at it you can probably make a difference.’
She came to power after her predecessor, Colin Barrow, stood down. His controversial plans to introduce night-time parking charges were labelled as ‘completely mad’ by mayor Boris Johnson and dubbed a ‘tax on nightlife’ by the press.
She wants to move on from this controversy too. When I ask her what’s the next step for proposals such as these, she says, ‘There is no next step. The parking issue is behind us. I recognise there’s still a congestion issue and we need to look at different ways of dealing with it.’
One solution, she thinks, is introducing a 24-hour tube service. This is something she and her Council are exploring with the Greater London Authority.
She’s a big fan of Boris. ‘He’s terribly funny,’ she says.
She represents Knightsbridge and Belgravia, but is keenly aware that for all its wealth, Westminster is a diverse borough with many problems.
‘We have some of the most deprived wards in the country,’ she says. And she accepts that the new caps on housing benefits, which she lobbied very strongly for, will mean that some people will no longer be able to afford to live here.
She’s gone on the record as saying some may have to move to other boroughs like Camden, Southwark and Lambeth. But she rejects accusations that this will destabilise communities, that it is in effect social cleansing.
‘In Westminster we have 25,000 social housing units. These are the most vulnerable people. We are a very mixed community and there’s nothing in the housing benefit changes that’s going to alter that, because none of those people will be affected.’
When the changes came in, she says, there were about 4,200 people who could possibly be affected. Fifty per cent of those people are in one-bed accommodation, and there’s no problem for them, and no real problem for people in two-beds. The people who are at risk are those with large families.
‘For the larger properties, for the most part, one can find them within London with very good connections back into Westminster.
‘And the vast majority of these families are sorting themselves out and probably going back to where they came from. They came from outside Westminster and suddenly found…ooh, I can get £2,000 a week in housing benefit – I can go and live in Mayfair. What fun! And I would have done the same. I don’t blame them, it’s the system that was wrong.’
Philippa Roe is a great believer in sticks as well as carrots. She’s a strong supporter of another change to legislation which means people can get a minimum of a two-year tenancy in social housing. Again, she argues, this should not disrupt communities.
‘It’s a very useful tool for us to have. Where you have households with antisocial behaviour problems, it’s a real stick, because eviction is actually very hard. Hopefully we won’t have to evict very many before the message gets across and hopefully people won’t behave as badly.’
She says she sees strong, diverse communities as essential to the welfare of the city. She likes Fitzrovia because it has ‘colourful and interesting residents, and colourful and interesting businesses.’
One of the slogans of her political philosophy is ‘Better Cities, Better Lives.’ This comes down to basics like clean and safe streets, which she says is what ninety per cent of residents think is a priority. And the solutions are basic too – getting more people to walk and cycle rather than use cars.
‘It’s a bit of an issue for Fitzrovia. You see these chauffeurs who drop their patrons off at very smart restaurants and sit in their cars watching TV with the engines running so as not to run down the battery.’
This is another area where Westminster City Council works closely with the GLA, along with top priority areas of business growth, worklessness, as Cllr Roe puts it, and crime.
Gang crime, she says, is becoming an issue in Westminster. And whereas it used to be knives, now it’s guns. Once again, she has a stick up her sleeve. They’ve launched a programme called Your Choice.
‘We want to nip it in the bud as fast as possible,’ she says. ‘Your Choice is about identifying people who are at risk of becoming part of gangs, people who are in gangs, and women who are involved, who are in gangs with the most awful forms of exploitation of young girls.
‘We have to have a tough response. We can move people if necessary and we will do it. Getting out of a gang is very hard without moving.’
For all the talk of moving people out of Westminster, the leader of the City Council insists that she wants more to come and live here as long, I suppose, as they are responsible.
‘Westminster is already a very attractive place to be and we are in very austere financial times but despite that I want to ensure that it becomes even more of a place where people aspire to visit, work and live.’