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Comment: Ex-Tory’s rise to borough cabinet won’t please everyone
The Watford’s Liberal Democrats are a broad church. Among its ranks the ruling party can currently count three former Conservatives leaders and at least one ex-Labour councillor.
It is this ability to attract talent from across the political spectrum that has helped contribute to the party’s success in the town.
And this collegiate approach was on show again last week when Steve Johnson was made the newest member of Mayor Dorothy Thornhill’s cabinet.
The promotion is noteworthy as at the beginning of last year, Councillor Johnson was leader of the Conservative group on the council and one of the mayor’s most acerbic opponents. Among the issues he berated the mayor over was the cost of her office, arguing taxpayers should not have to fund both an expensive mayoral operation and a handsomely remunerated chief executive.
Then in April last year, he defected to the ruling Lib Dem group citing the "right wing drift" of the Conservative party and his admiration for the "good job" the administration was doing running the borough.
It seems this admiration is reciprocated. At this year’s elections Councillor Johnson surfaced as the candidate for the safe Lib Dem Tudor seat, leaving behind his marginal Leggatts seat, which was taken by Labour.
And now, just weeks after securing a comfortable majority, he has ascended into the cabinet and been given the newly-created portfolio for housing.
In 14 months Councillor Johnson has made a rapid transformation from awkward outsider to member of the inner circle.
Mayor Thornhill has justified this expansion of the cabinet (which will mean an extra £9,000 in special responsibility allowances) saying the council has made substantial savings in recent years. The move also signals how pressing the issue of housing is becoming in the town.
Watford’s proximity to London means its house prices are continuing to soar. As a result, people are over-extending their finances in desperate attempts to get onto the housing ladder. It also means rents are also rising, as more people are locked out of home ownership. The effects are being felt all the way down to the borough’s limited and oversubscribed social housing stock.
On the face of it, there is not a huge amount Watford Council can do about the situation. It sold its housing stock to Watford Community Housing Trust in 2007 and its planning committee’s decisions are largely dictated by Government guidelines.
Yet over the last year the council has done some good work scrutinising the performance of the housing trust - becoming a watchdog for social housing tenants in the town. So any extra focus on Watford’s perilously overheated housing market can only be welcomed.
One place where news of Councillor Johnson’s swift ascent will be less welcome is Watford Community Housing Trust’s headquarters in Clarendon Road.
During last year’s scrutiny meetings, Councillor Johnson was a particularly vociferous critic of the trust’s performance. His party piece was telling chief executive Tina Barnard he had timed how long it had taken the trust to answer the phone (more than ten minutes apparently). This was not an exchange the trust’s bosses seemed to enjoy.
Also Councillor Johnson and the trust have previous.
The Tudor representative used to sit on the trust’s board as the council’s representative, but left after a difference of opinion. It will be interesting to see how the trust gets on with Councillor Johnson in his new role as Watford’s cabinet member for housing.
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