Sarah Hayward: My five years as Camden Council leader
OPINION: 'We've faced challenges but worked hard to do the right thing'
28 April, 2017 — By Sarah Hayward
STANDING down as leader of Camden council has provided the opportunity to look back on what have been deeply challenging times for Camden, London and the UK as a whole. Indeed, past and long serving councillors and officers have remarked that the period since 2012 have been the toughest in Camden’s history. With cuts, policy upheaval and HS2 to contend with, it’s definitely been challenging.
You can’t truly understand the nature and scope of this role until you’ve done it. Soon after I became leader I was reflecting with one of my predecessors that I hadn’t appreciated how big a step up cabinet member to leader would be. They had had the same experience. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not an amazing privilege.
One of the biggest challenges has been the sexism faced by women in public life. Having been in the role five years, I can unequivocally say it is getting worse not better.
Some of it you can laugh off. Like the local journalist – no longer around – who asked me whether I was comfortable “invading male spaces” like politics and football.
But some of it is more insidious – the most difficult to deal with are the incidents that on their own it’s difficult to say, ‘that’s definitely sexism’ but, taken together, add up to an unpleasant pattern. The most recurrent manifestation is senior external stakeholders addressing Mike, our chief executive, rather than me in meetings. Thankfully Mike is a good feminist; he has over the years developed an approach not dissimilar to a certain cliché of a British tourist, using increasing volume and decreasing speed to point out that it’s actually me who’s in charge.
There have also been far more blatant examples. For instance the very senior public sector appointee – not of the council I hasten to add – who thought it appropriate to wink at me in meetings. And then we come to the really very extreme. I’ve received three death threats in my time as leader, all with a misogynistic element.
It is for these reasons I have so consistently and persistently used this role to advance the cause of women and tackle entrenched gender discrimination, whether by offering flexible working which has an obvious benefit for parents and carers, or by supporting quality free childcare. Obviously as a councillor I pick up case work as I am out and about, but not often spontaneous compliments, so I was really moved by the resident at Swiss Cottage library who hugged me and told me that a Camden adult apprenticeship had changed her life.
Obviously sexism isn’t the only challenge I’ve faced. The level of the cuts and the scale of the policy and political challenges have been huge. I’m proud that as an administration we’ve been able to continue to lead a borough committed to delivering Labour values despite these challenges. We have a very significant record to be proud of over the last five years, and I know that will continue in the future.
I fear that the future is going to be more challenging for my successor. Leaving the European Union and the wider political climate creates a level of uncertainty that really we haven’t known for decades. Against those past, ongoing and future challenges, I should say that this is an amazing role that also comes with amazing privilege and incredible reward.
The most rewarding thing is the number and variety of the very talented, very committed people I get to work with to deliver for Camden. Council officers, people from our voluntary sector, our businesses, our schools and the rest of the public sector, our amazing residents. All of those people give so much to Camden that it really is an honour to be able to bring these teams of people together. Sometimes it’s not always easy, but I think of things like our housing in Gospel Oak, our wins on HS2, and our support for refugees and I think about how hard people have worked together, in difficult circumstances to resolve differences and do the right thing.
It would be all too easy as a council to manage decline and to accept the notion that London should become a place for the privileged few. We’ve faced difficult times here recently, and I’m proud to have worked with so many people, including across the political divide, to keep Camden a special place, fostering community cohesion and opportunities for everyone. Camden’s mix of people from all backgrounds makes this place special; the support of the people who live here for this to remain the case is special too. I stand down knowing that just as it has an amazing history, Camden has an amazing future.
Sarah Hayward is the outgoing leader of Camden Council and a Labour councillor in King’s Cross