Article by Charles Thomson: It is Labour leader Gavin Callaghan’s first day in the office as the new leader of Basildon Council. Last week his party joined forces with with UKIP and independents to take power and publicly announced a raft of plans, including turning street lights back on, reviving Basildon town centre, ramping up the council’s house-building and fighting for unitary status.
Today, in a 90-minute meeting with the Yellow Advertiser, he unveils further ambitions. A new town centre masterplan will ready the town for a future influx of electric and autonomous vehicles. The ’Basildon Borough Alliance’ will seek to secure the planting of one million trees in the borough to tackle toxic air pollution.
“This will be the greenest administration ever,” he says.
He admits the plans are ’ambitious’ but says he has just reduced his day job to two days per week so he can focus on his new political role.
“I will be a very different type of leader,” he says. “You have to actually be in the building at 8 o’clock in the morning and work your backside off. Work with officers, do your homework, get on top of the detail. You have to do the graft.”
This morning he met officers for a briefing on who the borough’s key stakeholders are and how to involve them in the new alliance’s programme of changes. Then he met with the communications team about launching a huge public consultation – ’the biggest this council has ever done’ – over what Basildon should look like in the future.
From there he met with officers to discuss what he calls ’the Poundland hotel’ – a Tory plan to sell a £1million plot of land to a developer for £1, which he says his new administration will block. Then he had a meeting about setting up a Basildon equivalent of the Education Maintenance Allowance and creating a ’future skills fund’.
After this meeting with the YA, he says, there are several more items on today’s agenda.
Perhaps his grandest ambition, announced during a full council meeting last month, is to free Basildon from the control of Essex Council and gain unitary status. Essex Council treats Basildon like a ’poor relation’, he says, despite the fact that it is the county’s biggest economy. It is even proposing to close down libraries in two of Basildon’s most impoverished areas.
Nonetheless, the YA asks, can Basildon Council really afford unitary status, with spiralling social care costs crippling so many authorities across the UK?
Callaghan thinks so. Southend and Thurrock are already unitary and Basildon’s population is already greater than theirs, he says:
“So in my opinion, we are already big enough, and our economy is already big enough, to go it alone.” Besides, he adds, “I don’t know that we could get a worse deal than we currently have. We are the Manchester City of councils in Essex. We’re the ones who have the money, the economic might, the businesses – and yet the treatment that we get is league one standard. When you walk around estates in Vange, Pitsea, Felmores, or down Whitmore Way, or the Five Links estate, or Helmores in Laindon, you see pathways cracked, kerbs that have just been taken away. That wouldn’t happen in Billericay or Saffron Walden. It wouldn’t be allowed to. Why are those people treated differently to people with money and power in other areas? That is completely wrong – and we’ve had this situation for 20 years. I’ve got no doubt this is going to be a monumental challenge, but all of the officers here, the committee chairmen, the whole of our alliance, are very clear that this is a priority for us.”
County Hall’s biggest infraction, in Callaghan’s view, was: “They turned off our street lights.”
In 2014, Essex Council imposed ’part-night lighting’ on the borough to save cash, switching off street lights at 1am.
“People tell me that has no impact on crime, but I don’t believe it,” says Callaghan. “Crime has risen in this borough as a consequence of that. I live on The Wick. Car crime on The Wick is through the roof because of that decision. You see people’s CCTV footage on social media. The lights go off and within an hour cars are being stolen.”
Labour’s pre-election promise to switch street lights back on was derided by critics as impossible, but Callaghan insists it can and will be done.
“Harlow pays County to have its street lights on,” he says. “I don’t particularly want to pay to do it but I think there are ways to offset it. For example, last year this council committed £300,000 to high street improvements in Billericay. I was in Billericay High Street not so long ago. It’s a great high street. It’s thriving. Even if you left £50,000 to take care of the war memorial, that £300,000 could put the street lights on in the whole borough for two years. Now, what’s a better return on that investment? What’s in the public interest? New bins and benches in Billericay High Street, which has already got some pretty decent bins and benches, or every street light on in the borough for the next two years?”
When the YA suggests that this comment may aggravate already frosty relations between Cllr Callaghan and some Billericay residents, who believe he has a vendetta against the town, he issues a mea culpa:
“When I was leader last time, you never get everything right and I certainly made mistakes in the way I engaged with some residents in Billericay. I hold my hands up on that. But when you have less money because the Government is cutting your funding, you have to make difficult decisions. And yes, that will annoy some people, but I think if you gave people the choice – do you want new benches and bins in your high street, or do you want your street lights turned on all year – I think most reasonably-minded people in Billericay would say, ’Gav, I think you’re right about the street lights, let’s put them on instead’. So I understand people are nervous in Billericay, but they don’t need to be. I think Billericay is a great place. I have no desire to do Billericay in. But I do think we need to do more for Pitsea and Basildon and Laindon and Wickford than we have done over the last 20 years. It’s about bringing those up, not dragging Billericay down.”
Asked how far along he expects to be on the alliance’s projects by the end of the political year, he says:
“Turning on the lights is a key one for us that we want to achieve in year one. Cutting allowances was a key one and we did that on day one. The other one we will bring forward very early on is we want to clear up our forgotten estates. We will freeze council tax in February.”
By Christmas, he says, officers will have brought back reports on the borough’s growth plan and, moving into the year 2020/21, that will pave the way for asking Government for unitary status.
“I hope that we will have the first iterations of new town centre masterplans drawn up by the end of this municipal year so that we can put that to the council,” he adds. “There are going to be a lot of sleepless nights and long days of working. I’ve got an incredible group of councillors who want to work really hard. We will draw criticism from some quarters and some people will never like me and that’s fine. But I feel very focused this time and like we know what we want to achieve. Today has been a full-on day, but it’s better than the last 12 months of moaning.”
Article by Charles Thomson, Yellow Advertiser