An interview with Cllr Gareth Roberts

Gareth Roberts, Liberal Democrat Leader of the London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames (LBRUT), tells York Membery about the challenges he’s faced in dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, the specific Lib Dem approach he’s sought to pursue, and his misgivings about the Johnson government’s response to the pandemic…

How has the LBRUT coped with the fallout from the pandemic?

Reasonably well. Every local authority has been hit in one form or another but in terms of keeping infections down, limiting the number of deaths in the borough, keeping residents and businesses supported and, vitally, keeping residents informed we’ve performed well. And that’s not me being some Town Hall Trump; we conducted a poll of residents recently. 63% of respondents said Richmond was doing a good job in responding to the pandemic, whereas 61% thought the Tories at Westminster was doing poorly.

What are the biggest covid-linked challenges that the council has faced?

School closures was a biggie. I think people have largely forgotten how contentious that was. Some residents thought it was entirely wrong, some wanted us to move far more quickly and there was a real lack of direction from the Tory Government. More recently, the real challenge has been anti-social behaviour – before the pubs reopened people would meet friends in their local parks and green spaces and though most behaved themselves there was a hardcore of people who stayed far too late, were far too rowdy and used the parks (and even neighbouring front gardens) as toilets.

What have been your priorities as a council over the last six months?

At the beginning, it was making sure help was directed to those that needed it most. And that just doesn’t relate to those vulnerable households; it includes ensuring that support grants were issued rapidly and efficiently to businesses, getting PPE supplies (remember the PPE shortages?) to where they were needed, co-ordinating the food parcels and setting up the contact centre for people to ask for help.

More recently, we’ve changed tack slightly and our focus is now very much on ensuring residents are kept up to date and that much-needed services such as the local tip, libraries, day centres, etc are able to reopen in a safe way.

Have you adopted a specifically Lib Dem approach to the crisis? And how has your approach differed from other councils?

Yes. We’ve pushed so much resource into communicating with residents, it’s been unreal. In fact our communications with residents have been so good that we won the Public Sector Executive Council of the Month award as a result.

In essence, we’ve taken David Penhaligon’s famous message of ‘Stick it on a piece of paper and shove it through a letter box’ and updated it to the 21st Century. We now do regular videos on social media, I record weekly video updates of the Covid Stats, and we’ve held our Community Conversations by Zoom, with over 100 residents sometimes taking part. We’ve also maintained our ‘analogue’ communications to ensure there’s no digital deficit.

Have you worked with other local councils, Lib Dem or otherwise, to tackle the issues that have arisen from the pandemic?

Yes, particularly in London. We’re a member of London Councils, a pan-London body which exists to help councils work together and provide a strong lobbying voice with government.

How have you coped with the financial fallout?

We’ve taken a hit, certainly, but we have an excellent Lead Member for Finance, Cllr Robin Brown, who has ensured we’ve not strayed too far into the wrong side of the balance sheet. We’re certainly in a better position than most councils.

What we really need is Robert Jenrick to keep his promise. He effectively told councils to do what was necessary and he’d see them right – at present there’s not much moolah coming in to back up that promise.

Have you extended any additional financial support to local organisations and services since the lifting of the lockdown?

Yup. Businesses, hard hit families, local organisations – we’ve made a difference to those who need it

Do you think other Lib Dem-controlled boroughs could learn from the approach your council has taken to the pandemic and the related issues?

Well, it’s not really for me to say – but if any Lib Dem Leader wants to get in touch then I’d be happy to chat through any problems they may have and offer suggestions.

Anything you would have done differently?

In the early days, I wish we’d not waited for the Tory Government to show leadership. Like other local authorities we saw the Government response was pathetic – for example we had a delivery of PPE from the Army. It took them under 3 minutes to unload the pitiful supply off the lorry.

Have the last six months thrown up any other issues of note?

Yes. How shambolic, venal and generally lousy the Tory Government is. They’ve lurched from crisis to crisis like a stag party on a pub crawl. They’ve lied to the public, been too slow to react, tried to blame others for their mistakes and yet at the height of the biggest public health crisis this country has known, in the midst of a financial crisis and even though the Tory party has a thumping majority, the Prime Minister is still pressing ahead with Brexit. The numbers on the Tory benches are big enough for Johnson to have faced down the ERG, told them this was more important and approached the EU for an extension which, under the circumstances, they’d have given. But he didn’t.

Last, what challenges is the council likely to face in the months ahead?

The next wave/continuation of the first, whatever you want to call it. Sorry folks, it’s on its way.

* Gareth is London Assembly 2021 Candidate for Richmond, Hounslow and Kingston

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  • Barry Lofty 21st Sep '20 - 3:53pm

    Good to know it is a Liberal Democrat council that is showing some leadership and initiative!

  • Sue Sutherland 22nd Sep '20 - 12:25pm

    Congratulations to Richmond on doing a good job! This post shows that the party needs a mechanism for sharing ideas on a regular basis, not just between Lib Dem held councils but with Council groups which hope to take control in the next elections. This would enable us to have a clear local government identity, if not in actual policies which may depend on local circumstances, but in our approach. I particularly like the Community Conversations Gareth mentions.
    It’s good that he is willing to chat to other Council leaders but it would be less time consuming and more effective to message other groups regularly with a fairly informal update of what’s happening in their authority. Once the initial statement is made then this could be fairly short.
    Many years ago I was a Group Leader so I know what a busy role this is.

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