‘While those who make decisions in Whitehall can seem distant and detached, our local councillors live among us, shopping on the same high street, using the same parks and leisure centres and sending their children to the same schools.’Labour Manifesto 2019
Reading this during the run up to the 2019 election, I couldn’t help but think that I had not ever seen one of the nine ‘South Camden’ councillors in public. I certainly had not seen them shopping in the Brunswick Centre, or sunbathing in Russell Square.
Although all our ‘South Camden’ councillors are Labour Party members, the quote simply didn’t apply to them. In fact replacing ‘Whitehall’ with ‘Camden’ and ‘local councillors’ with ‘residents’, the quote made a little more sense for those in Bloomsbury.
So I started to ask the question: do our local councillors really live among us? And if they don’t then how can they truly represent us?
The answers are even more surprising than you might think.
‘South Camden’ is made from three wards, roughly encompassing WC1 and WC2. They are:
- Bloomsbury Ward
- King’s Cross Ward
- Holborn & Covent Garden Ward
Each ward has three councillors, making a total of nine for South Camden. The area of Bloomsbury overlaps all three wards, meaning Bloomsbury effectively has nine councillors.
Note that the Bloomsbury Ward is not the same as Bloomsbury. Due to changes in ward boundaries over time, the Bloomsbury Ward no longer covers all of Bloomsbury, and also covers part of Fitzrovia. Throughout this article, ‘Bloomsbury’ simply means the area of Bloomsbury, not the ward.
Who are our Councillors?
‘One of them lives in Leicester’ a shopkeeper told me, ‘what’s his name…. Madlani, that’s it. I used to live there.’
Rishi Madlani is a councillor for the Bloomsbury ward. I was a little surprised to hear that he lived as far as Leicester, but then again, this is Camden. The shopkeeper was a reliable source of local knowledge, especially relating to the local authority, so I took this statement on trust for the moment.
‘Some of them really do live among us and walk the streets’, said another, ‘Julian Fulbrook and Sue Vincent will come out and meet you on your street. Julian is also a keen cycler’.
‘Yes, you’re particularly lucky to have those two, they’re good people,’ said another.
These two councillors have a reputation for being very helpful – certainly the best reputation in Bloomsbury, so I was not surprised to hear of this. They are both councillors for Holborn & Covent Garden.
So far, one in Leicester and two in Bloomsbury. What about the other six?
Four of the further councillors I had had interactions with. Three of these were cabinet members:
- Jonathan Simpson (King’s Cross) – Culture and Communities Chief
- Adam Harrison (Bloomsbury) – Environment Chief
- Abdul Hai (King’s Cross) – Youth Chief
Cllr Simpson, despite being Communities Chief and my own ward councillor, had failed to help whatsoever with any of our campaigns and is not involved with any prominent community groups in his ward. During the summer of 2019 I had asked if he could arrange to have a new bin installed on my road. A wheelie bin later appeared, and he was unable to find out whether it was the action of the council. Although he promised to get back to me about it, I am still waiting for a response half a year later.
To his credit, a real litter bin did eventually appear, which is now well used.
Cllr Harrison had shown fleeting interest in our work relating to the street environment, but regularly ignored emails of importance. He had referred me to Environment Services to address cleanliness concerns in July 2019, but had then accused me of ‘wasting significant council resource’.
It is of enduring surprise that a Bloomsbury councillor who is also Environment Chief has little interest in a campaign to improve the environment of Bloomsbury. It did raise the question of whether he lives in the area.
After we published our report on cleanliness, which was a response to him being lampooned by councillors and the press for national levels of filth throughout Camden, he assured me he was ‘making his way through it,’ but I heard nothing more. It is understood he is looking into the creation of an Alexa program to let people know what can or cannot be recycled, which is in line with Camden’s policy of increasing recycling.
Actually making sure recycling bins are not continually overflowing does not seem to be a Camden policy.
I had notified Cllr Hai of Save Bloomsbury and its work and after I had asked some questions of him, he had immediately set one of his officers to work to answer my questions. Despite best intentions, it took about half a year before I formally asked to close the enquiry, as it proved to be entirely unhelpful.
I had listed a number of concerns which were causing widespread problems throughout Bloomsbury, and had included an example from each concern. The officer had simply sent out other officers to investigate each example, so that every month or so I would receive a random telephone call or email to tell me something along the lines of ‘we didn’t find any problem’ or ‘this isn’t anything to do with our department’. It was only after all these responses were compiled together into an email from Cllr Hai’s officer that I realised they had all been in response to the original email.
At that point I asked to close the enquiry.
I had had contact with one further councillor, Georgie Robertson (King’s Cross), who had replaced the previous leader of the council, Sarah Hayward.
The contact was regarding a Camden tenant who had been playing extremely loud music almost continually for two years. I had made repeated complaints but Camden had failed to do anything – indeed they did not know who was even making the noise until a few months ago. I had instead tried to gain entry to the building myself to work it out, but a Camden officer had set the caretaker on guard to prevent me from doing this. I had complained to Cllr Robertson and she first asked the officer to allow me in, but then later stopped responding to emails.
I had done everything the council had asked me to do with regards to noise complaints. They had asked me to fill out a noise diary, which I did. Then they asked me to call an officer to assess the noise, which I did about a dozen times, but they didn’t turn up even once. Then the department told me it was the responsibility of housing. The housing officer told me to call patrol services, which I did. The patrol services came and identified the tenant, and got him to turn the music down. After five minutes, it was back up again. The housing officer then refused to respond any further. After a complaint I had a meeting with him and his manager. They told me to call the patrol services again, but then later told me to call environmental health.
Two years have now passed without a resolution.
I expressed this all the Cllr Robertson, but received no response.
She had once expressed enthusiasm for Save Bloomsbury asking what she could do to help with it, although that message was received at 4:30am on a Saturday.
This leaves just two councillors. Sabrina Francis is the Deputy Mayor, serving the Bloomsbury Ward, and Awale Olad is the third councillor for Holborn & Covent Garden Ward.
So do our Councillors live Among Us?
Yes, and no.
A Freedom of Information response revealed that of the nine Bloomsbury councillors:
- Four live in Bloomsbury
- Four live in North Camden
- One lives in Morden
Whilst one Bloomsbury Ward councillor lives within a few minutes of the Bloomsbury Ward, King’s Cross does not have any councillors living anywhere near it. It goes some way to explaining the disappointing experiences detailed with Cllr Hai, Simpson, and Robertson, my own ward councillors. Whilst they are the King’s Cross Ward councillors on paper, in reality they have no connection to the area.
The Holborn & Covent Garden Ward has a full house of local councillors. The tales of Cllr Madlani living in Leicester were greatly exaggerated – he in fact lives on Leather Lane, along with Awale Olad.
King’s Cross Ward
|Jonathan Simpson||Cantelowes Ward|
|Abdul Hai||Lower Morden Ward|
|Georgie Robertson||Swiss Cottage Ward|
|Adam Harrison||Highgate Ward|
|Sabrina Francis||Kentish Town Ward|
|Rishi Madlani||Holborn & Covent Garden Ward|
Holborn & Covent Garden Ward
|Sue Vincent||Holborn & Covent Garden Ward|
|Julian Fulbrook||Holborn & Covent Garden Ward|
|Awale Olad||Holborn & Covent Garden Ward|
The Democratic Deficit
There has been much controversy of late criticising the democratic deficit at the heart of Camden Council, with our ‘democratically elected councillors’ being overruled by a planning official. However it is hardly worth worrying about our elected councillors being overruled if they anyway are entirely removed from our lives and neighbourhoods. How can a councillor living in Morden understand the views of us in Bloomsbury?
The democratic deficit in Bloomsbury is real, and we can put a figure on it: 56% of our democratic representation is little more than a sham.
We should therefore not be altogether surprised when we see land sold off and inappropriate development in Bloomsbury – after all, who even lives here? Whilst Camden has three cabinet members and a deputy mayor ‘representing’ Bloomsbury, none of them actually live in Bloomsbury. Bloomsbury is simply a convenient cash cow which is unfortunately for us appended to Camden proper. Those in North Camden can further their own agenda by fielding North Camden candidates for the Bloomsbury seats, thereby helping to push through policies harmful to our communities and heritage.
No matter how much opposition residents make, the majority of our democratic representation does not represent us – it only represents Camden and their wonky policies.
It is a pattern which we see time and time again, but now we understand it a little better. Schemes are imposed on the area with little forethought, and whilst we would expect our ward councillors to represent our concerns, they actually push the scheme ahead against our opposition. This has left residents scratching their heads – surely our ward councillors would understand our concern? ‘Residents felt a little left out at this one,’ said Councillor Simpson, after rubber stamping the Tavistock Corridor decision after three years of havoc. A ward councillor like him that lives miles away is only interested in furthering the council’s political agenda, and whether or not residents feel ‘left out’ is understandably irrelevant. No wonder schemes so often offend reason when they are dreamed up on paper maps of Bloomsbury and ticked off by politicians who don’t know the difference between Russell Square and the Brunswick Centre. How would a scheme fare if residents of Bloomsbury banded together to make cycle lanes for Morden? Perhaps less badly than the schemes that our local politicians dream up for us.
Whilst most areas would be glad to have three cabinet members and a deputy mayor representing them, in our case it only exacerbates matters. It has always been the wild and detached decision making of the cabinet that has destroyed lives throughout Camden. We have three cabinet members ‘elected’ as councillors, but two live three miles north and one in Morden. This gives the cabinet a clear run at imposing schemes on the area – because there are so few real local politicians to oppose them. Whilst councillors like Sue Vincent and Julian Fulbrook, who indeed live in Bloomsbury, will kick up a fuss for us when we kick up our own fuss, what are two councillors in the face of four in senior positions?
The power vacuum in Bloomsbury perhaps explains why there are just so many groups and residents that are so vocal. The councillors who are supposed to represent us simply don’t exist.
But the real stupidity of the Council is the fact that resident opposition is relevant, regardless of whether they represent us or not. If Camden sought to work with residents to implement their schemes in a non-harmful way, things would be much easier for everyone. It has instead become a matter of stubbornness to force schemes through by brute force – even if it means years of delays and half a million in costs. Not only do the majority of our local politicians not represent us, they are more or less blind to reason.
Who does Camden serve?