Article by Charles Thomson: “Ruthless and relentless.” This is Gavin Callaghan’s motto, he says, since taking the reins of Basildon Council last May.
The Labour chief claims council officers are finding it hard to keep pace with he and his fellow group leaders.
“It is 110mph to try and get things done,”
he says, during an hour-long interview at the Bas Centre.
“I think that comes from me as the ’de facto leader’ – as your paper has called me, which seems to have caught on everywhere – and from the other group leaders.”
Last spring, after three years of no overall control, during which Tories had led the council as a minority administration, the opposition revolted.
Labour, UKIP and independent councillors joined forces to change to the council’s constitution, scrapping the cabinet system and switching to a series of committees, booting the Tories out of power.
Callaghan, then just 28 years old, was appointed chairman of policy and resources – the most senior role in the council – and ’assumed the responsibilities of a leader’. Six months on, Callaghan – now 29 – claims his new duties at the council mean he is effectively working two ’full-time jobs’.
He works 8am – 5pm at his day job, for disability charity Scope, then, he says, gets a train to Basildon and often doesn’t leave the council offices until almost 11pm. He regularly drops in on Saturdays and Sundays too.
He is ’knackered’, he says. But asked whether he regrets going for the top job he responds:
“Not even a little bit. Honestly, one day in administration is better than five-and-a-half years in opposition.”
The takeover of Basildon Council attracted some criticism, with pundits accusing Callaghan of forming a ’coalition’ with UKIP – something he has consistently denied, although he does freely state that they have ’formed an administration’ with one another.
Negotiating their political differences hasn’t always been easy, he says, but the group leaders have agreed not to discuss hot topics like Brexit, immigration or austerity in their weekly meetings.
“It is hard,” he says. “I can’t emphasise it enough. Getting four different political groups to come around to a certain way of thinking is a difficult thing to do. It takes a lot of negotiation and diplomacy, but we focus on local issues. We are delivering real change and we want to ensure that as we grow, that growth is shared evenly and fairly across everybody.”
Tories have accused Callaghan of waging a vendetta against Billericay since May, as ’revenge’ for their closure of Pitsea Swimming Pool, which was replaced with a giant homeware store.
The new administration cancelled £250,000 of Billericay town centre improvements and ordered a review into the financial viability of its swimming pool, after officers said it would need more than £1million to remain operational.
The Pitsea pool closure was ’one of the worst acts of social vandalism by any council in Essex in recent history’, says Callaghan – but he vehemently denies waging a war against Billericay.
Rather, he claims, the previous administration – dubbed the ’Billericay Mafia’ by some political rivals – conferred an unfair advantage on the town.
“There was £250,000 in the budget for improvements in Billericay,” says Callaghan. “When I look at the borough as a whole and I see what’s going on, for example, in parts of the south – or in Wickford; I live in Wickford and it’s a tired town centre that needs investment – would I put £250,000 in Billericay, which is a vibrant, well-loved town centre, or would I put that same £250,000 into Wickford, which needs work? That’s a no-brainer.”
Much of Callaghan’s ’big picture’ for Basildon centres on addressing the inequality he sees across the borough, he says.
“You are four times more likely to go to university if you live in Billericay than if you live in Pitsea,” he laments. “You’re twice as likely to go to a good or outstanding school if you live in Wickford than in Laindon. That can’t be right. It can’t be right that we are creating opportunities here for FTSE 250 companies to come to Basildon and make a lot of money, but there are no pathways for kids in Basildon to go after those jobs. You’ve got PROCAT, a fantastic higher educational establishment, in this borough; you can’t find a Basildon apprentice anywhere in that facility. That isn’t right. The Tories wouldn’t recognise that there was ever a problem. They would talk about ’this perceived inequality’ in the borough. It’s not perception. In some of our wards – Lee Chapel North, Vange, parts of Fryerns – almost 50 per cent of families with children live in households where the income of the mum and dad is £19,000 or less. They are classed as living in poverty. Essex has an economy the size of Northern Ireland and that is generated in large part by Basildon, and yet we’ve got that going on.”
Callaghan says he believes the solution is to ’change the culture of the council’.
“Six months ago, when I walked in the door, I could smell that this organisation was aching for change,” he says. “One of the things that really struck me was that the council so often just stands by and watches, and has this attitude of, ’Not me, guv, that’s the county council’s issue’, or, ’That’s the MP’s issue’. I don’t look at a human being in Pitsea and say, ’That part of you belongs to county, that part of you belongs to the MP and that part of you belongs to me’. That’s not good enough. The council’s job is to take that person’s issue and try to take a way to fix it. We are a planning authority, so we’re low down on the local government rung and I understand that, but we have a real role to play, in my view, in health, education and skills.”
The council has recently signed an agreement with Basildon Hospital – instigated by the former Tory administration – to borrow money on the hospital’s behalf and develop a new reception. As a council, it can borrow at a lower rate than other developers. It will recoup its money, plus profit, through the repayments and tenancies at the site.
Callaghan wants to roll that scheme out across the borough, investing in medical centres and schools.
“If an academy wants to build a nursery for two and three-year-old kids from homes on some of the poorest estates in our borough, but they haven’t got the upfront capital, we will build that for them or borrow the money to make that happen,” he says. If we can do that and sit here by 2027 and have put thousands of kids in some of the poorest parts of the borough into schools at age two and three, we will fundamentally change those kids’ lives. They will be better off. They will have better chances of owning a home, of being in a secure job, of earning a good salary.”
Conservative councillors claim Callaghan has no mandate as a minority party leader and will deplete council reserves with his grand ambitions.
Asked to respond, Callaghan says the Conservatives didn’t have a mandate either.
“The Tories had 15 years in power here. Everywhere else in the country, and in Essex, their power went up,” says Callaghan. “And yet here, consistently – even during a general election, when the Labour party were going through some difficulties of our own – the Tories remained a minority party in Basildon. I think that tells you something fundamental; that what the Conservative party did on this council was so unpopular the public rebelled against them. There is a real case for what we’re doing. You’ve got four party leaders in committee chairman positions who are utterly dedicated to getting it right. Give us a chance, because I think if our first six months are anything to go by, we can achieve some really great things.”
Article by Charles Thomson, Yellow Advertiser