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The Margaret we knew - by her favourite council's leader

Ravi Govindia
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Wandsworth LBC’s leader Ravi Govindia says the council had much in common with Margaret Thatcher

Wandsworth was always Margaret Thatcher’s favourite borough.  We had a lot in common – like the Iron Lady herself our council in the early 1980s was something of an outsider.

We were a Conservative administration operating in traditional inner city Labour territory. If we were to be more than a one-term wonder, after our victory in 1978, we needed to find a way of connecting with residents from all walks of life.

Margaret’s genius was her intuitive understanding of what really motivated hard-working people.  They did not want hand-outs or suffocating state socialism – they just wanted the chance to create a better life – for themselves and their family.

There was no more enthusiastic advocate of council tenants’ Right to Buy than Wandsworth. Our residents could see that for the first time here was the chance to build the kind of asset that others from more privileged backgrounds took for granted.

Read GMB union general secretary Paul Kenny’s rival account of the impact of Right to Buy on Wandsworth

They also saw that it was more than investing in a home – it was building a stake in the community.  As more people bought so other estate residents shared in the benefits of their improved surroundings.

Since 1978 more than 21,000 first-time buyers in Wandsworth have been given the help needed to fulfil their ambitions. It was an opportunity that Labour would never have offered a group which they might otherwise have seen as their traditional supporters.

Margaret also understood that control of local services had to be wrested away from the vested interests of the trade unions. In Wandsworth this translated into fierce local battles over what today would seem routine proposals for market testing services like refuse collection and street cleaning. We went on to market test scores of blue and white-collar services – achieving millions of pounds in savings that continue to be reflected in the low bills our residents receive today.

This was less about privatisation and more about breaking the old monopolies. It meant we could offer people the reassurance of modern, effective services at a price they could afford.

Underlying all this was the simple truth that George Osborne would do well to remember today – no one likes paying a penny more in tax than they need to. This is a principle that applies as much to a pensioner on a fixed income as it does to a young working family.

When Margaret came to power, Wandsworth, saddled with its spendthrift Labour heritage, was still setting some of the highest domestic rates in the capital. But emboldened by the leadership of a no-nonsense, non-turning prime minister local municipal leaders could face down their critics and stand up to the challenge of delivering low taxes for all local taxpayers.  More than anything this embodied Margaret’s principle of freeing people to take more control of their lives.

People loved the poll tax in Wandsworth – not because we had a couple of years when it was set at zero, but because if you had a council that was determined to deliver low taxes it seemed the fairest way of ensuring everybody paid in towards the cost of local services.

Wandsworth’s zero poll tax years were no fluke. Wandsworth residents benefited from the same financial relief that other higher-spending councils received.  It was just that Wandsworth’s bills were rock bottom to start with.

Margaret was a regular visitor to Wandsworth over the years. Our greatest prime minister was always assured of a warm Wandsworth welcome – not for a quick fix of nostalgia, but as a reminder of the need for continued radicalism and the courage to seek new solutions.

Her legacy is alive and well in our mainstream policies today, market testing library services, extending Right to Buy to a new generation, opening up educational choice by supporting free schools and, of course, maintaining the lowest average council tax in Britain. We never set out to be her favourite council – we just wanted the best for our residents and still do.

Ravi Govindia (Con), leader, Wandsworth LBC

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Nick Golding

    Read the comments of GMB union general secretary Paul Kenny on Wandsworth Council's record on Right to Buy in this LGC opinion piece: That article initially appeared as a response to this article, featuring the wrong author's name. Apologies for the confusion!

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