One thought that obviously taxes me from time to time is where the ICG goes from here.
Perhaps as a statement that sounds more pessimistic than I had intended it to. But let us take stock of the situation as it stands, and visitors will perhaps form a better idea of where I’m coming from. Much of what I’m about to say has been said before, in different situations and sometimes to different audiences. But if the topic is to be considered fully, it is necessary at times to revisit it all the same.
The history of the ICG since its formation in 1994 has been one of unrelenting progress. Membership and public support has continually improved, to the point now where in the town of Isleworth at least practically everyone who is interested in building a strong and united community is already on board. The four statutory local elections which we have contested have seen us develop from unsuccessful protest vote (unsuccessful because nobody listened to the protest, hence our continued electoral involvement), to one councillor elected to "pariah" status (thanks, Pat!) by a two-vote margin, to three councillors elected into opposition with large majorities, to six councillors also with large majorities becoming partners in a coalition administration.
We took the Executive posts we had wanted, and drove changes through in accordance with our commitment to empowering communities. Councillor Paul Fisher, as Lead Member for Community Engagement, has been a revelation. Work is underway which will drastically alter the way in which we engage with residents and their associations, and reprogram the mindset that has been allowed to prevail for so long.
Under the auspices of my Housing portfolio I have set a similar process in motion on our social housing estates after having spent my first year spelling out to a horrified political establishment in Housing how it was going to be through the vehicle of the Hounslow Homes Management Review. I have also now established a helpful channel of communication with our Registered Social Landlords with a view to encouraging them to work more closely with their tenants and to improving tenant involvement.
With my Community Safety hat on I have worked closely with both Paul and with the Leader, Councillor Peter Thompson, to help drive a robust and respected Community Cohesion program which has, I think, finally grasped the paradox that is diversities and equalities. In this work I have been blessed with an absolutely superb driven and enthusiastic team of officers who for so long had to pay mere lip service to a cause about which they clearly feel passionately.
But for the first time our future may now lie outside our own hands. The next local elections fall in May 2010, and as I see it there are any one of three possible outcomes – a return to a New Labour administration, the election of a Conservative administration or the return of another coalition in which we may or may not have a role to play.
I feel with the benefit of hindsight that I at least, and maybe some of my colleagues also, underestimated the amount of time it would take to change the culture of the borough. Four years is a long time when it is ahead of you, it is but the blinking of an eye when it has passed.
Let me not overstate the severity of the dilemma. The ICG has achieved a million times more than any of us had imagined possible in 1994, when we’d almost certainly have settled for a private acknowledgement from the local political establishment at the time that the community would be allowed to become more engaged than had previously been the case, and even then I’m speaking only about the community in our humble little village rather than the borough. Events since that time have catapulted us into a position we never envisaged being in. But we are here now, and we want to use it to the maximum benefit of our wider community.
For me we need another four years – at least – to cement the changes that we are making in a way that they could never be reversed. Our preference, of course, would be to convince all concerned that better community engagement is a good thing and not something to be frightened of, so that a future Labour administration (and there will probably be one some day) would not even want to move things back to the bad old ways. But that is still for the future – there are sadly no signs at all of it happening yet.
Would an administration in which we weren’t involved continue to drive this process through to where it needs to be? Obviously New Labour wouldn’t. That much was made clear when they opposed our plan to give our tenants a say in how £4m of their own money should be spent. Would the Conservatives? I like to think they would, they have after all been supportive of our aims as partners in coalition. But would they prioritise it? Maybe, maybe not. They have, after all, a program of their own to deliver.
Assuming that the ICG is involved again, I hope the voters of Isleworth and of Syon give us the opportunity to finish the job. But, for the first time, our ability to do so now also depends on the voters in other wards, in which we have no influence.
For their part, the Labour Party have made it clear that they would prefer an all-out Conservative administration to a coalition that included the ICG. A strange position to take for a party that has its historical roots in socialism, some would argue. But those residents on our estates who have been the victims of local Labour's obsessive meddling and control-freakery in the past would not be among them.