Camden can-do: A new approach to local government in London

Georgia Gould’s devotion to her job as leader of the central London Borough of Camden is apparent in many ways.

Firstly, there’s her sheer positivity and enthusiasm. It hits you instantly from the moment you meet her. So, too, does her deep knowledge of the area. While this is perhaps unsurprising – she was raised in the borough – she nonetheless peppers her conversation with abundant references to its history, its challenges and strengths. There’s also the evidence of long hours. No nine to five role for her, most evenings she can be found out and about in residents meetings and touring local community centres so that she can feel the pulse of the community she represents.

And then, more importantly, there’s her willingness to take tough decisions to protect her community – no more so than in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy last June.

After finding that the cladding used in the nearby Chalcots estate had failed its safety tests and a subsequent fire inspection declaring the building unsafe, Gould ordered the flats in four tower blocks to be evacuated that evening, with herself going door to door in order to ask residents to leave. Easy? No. But her visibility and willingness to be open and speak with her residents at a time of crisis stood in stark contrast to other, more experienced figures in both local and central government.

Putting theory into action

Gould’s ascendant political career is not her only claim to fame, however. Having been born into politics – her late father was a senior advisor to Tony Blair and the Labour Party, and her mother is a member of the House of Lords – she was elected as a councillor aged 23 and became increasingly aware of the challenges facing young people.

“I was doing a lot of work for young people in Camden which is really what got me thinking about the gap between our political institutions and young people,” she explains. “I was so concerned about that, that I ended up writing a book about it and what can be done to reconnect the two. We really have to take on this lack of trust. If young people had been properly engaged and felt listened to, Brexit would never have happened.”

In Camden, she has been able to put her ideas into practice, especially since becoming leader of the Council seven months ago. In this new role she oversees services for a borough that will soon become home to London’s new Google headquarters, and is already the base for the Francis Crick Institute – one of the largest biomedical research facilities in Europe. Alongside these temples to innovation, however, are some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country and some of the deepest social problems – people living Somers Town, just a short walk from the Town Hall, have a 10-year lower life expectancy than those living a few miles away in Hampstead, for example.

“Some of the issues we are dealing with today have been around for decades,” says Gould, her positivity momentarily slipping. “We weren’t tackling this type of inequality even when we had more financial resource and it has now become so extensive that it is not just threatening social justice but social cohesion as a whole.”

Gould is tackling the challenge head on, driving more citizen involvement and more citizen interaction about the future and what it might look like. “What we have been able to do is bring people together and help them think collectively about where we want to be,” she says.

“Camden is a place that has a rebellious spirit and people want to protect its diversity and what makes the area special. At local level there is something that brings people together, which is the sense of place – everyone has a sense of identity and wants their community to be better. This genuine participation and shared ownership of place is the only way you’re going to get to fill that vacuum of trust.”

Housing benefits

Asked to pinpoint her key priority, Gould identifies addressing the housing crisis as a vital means of attacking the inequality that is all around her. “It’s absolutely fundamental,” she says firmly. “I see the housing crisis every day as a councillor. I went to an emergency night shelter the other day and there were young people there in their 20s who had been at work all day but were coming in to sleep on the floor of a church because they simply can’t afford to find somewhere to live. It’s amazing that this provision is there for them but it’s a terrible indictment of where we are as a country that someone with a job has to sleep in an emergency night shelter.”

The solution, she says, is simple: build more houses. “For me, the number one focus both nationally and locally, needs to be house building and local government has a massive role to play here,” she says. “But we could do so much more. Most of my power in local government is about convening – bringing people together and helping create a vision that people can feel part of. That’s exciting but the frustration comes when we don’t always have the powers to allow us to back up that vision. We can still do a huge amount but government needs to see that not only are we a deliverer of services but also an agent of change in our own way – this would be transformative.”

Housing is also a key priority for young people – but that’s only the tip of the iceberg, believes Gould, who says that they are facing a cacophony of challenges large and small. “Their number one issue is cuts to youth services and a feeling that the support structure around them is falling apart – even in Camden where we invest a lot,” she says.

“They are ambitious and there is a huge amount to do with their lives, but they sense pessimism all around them. They worry about student debt, they worry about getting on the housing ladder, they worry about getting a good job and stagnating wages. I think every single young person growing up in this borough should have access to the world-class opportunities we have and there’s no excuse not to. I want them to walk past these amazing glass buildings and want them to feel that they can work there someday. The truth is that despite everything we’ve done, this not yet the case – for too many young people their lives are restricted to the streets and estates they grew up on. This has to change.”

‘Moving the Tanker’

Although she has only been leading the council for a short time, Gould cites the progress in children’s services as evidence of how local government can make sustained impact. “An area where we have tried to change things is in children’s services,” she says.

“The number of young people in Camden going into care has reduced and that’s not because we changed the threshold but because we are supporting families to be able to look after their children themselves for longer by putting the right early help in place – what we call our Resilient Families Programme. It’s about looking at the evidence, investing in our social workers and deploying a holistic approach much earlier on than most interventions. The result has been improvement across a whole range of metrics.”

Such successes, while welcome, are no cause for complacency, however. Gould goes on to say that change is difficult and only occurs after sustained effort. “I think local government is a tanker – things don’t change overnight,” she says.

“Sometimes you get ‘initiative-itis’, and we’re as guilty as this as anyone, where you get fixated on the shiny new thing, but it’s actually about the fundamentals and embedding them throughout the organisation. So you need to invest in deep partnerships – both formal and informal – and your staff have to own it and feel it. The mission has to resonate from the frontline to the top of the organisation. And, crucially, you have to have a dialogue with your citizens – they have to understand what you are doing.”

Gould’s passion comes through loud and clear. So, too, does the sense that local government will be her focus for the foreseeable future. “It’s just so exciting,” she exclaims. “I get to mix setting the strategic direction with hearing from local people all the time. It’s very close, it’s very real and I wouldn’t change it.”



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