IF the Greens are going to miss the local profile of Maya De Souza in Highgate next month, the Liberal Democrats will feel a similar loss in Camden Town without Chris Naylor on the election slate. The council’s former housing chief has decided not to defend his seat when the borough goes to the polls, it will be confirmed this evening. The Lib Dems have fought hard for toe-holds in the Camden Town with Primrose Hill ward, overcoming the embarrassment of seeing a winning candidate, Justin Barnard, resign after a matter of days in 2002. Chris helped rebuild the party’s stock there after that painful experience and without him a tough task in holding what they’ve got is likely to get tougher.
He is another one who will feel he’s done his bit over eight years: diligent with surgery work and loyal as power in Camden slipped away. He is another who has not hidden himself away on the backbenches. Again, it must be tough devoting so much of your free time when you know your suggestions can always be outflanked by the Labour majority.
His time at the Town Hall may be remembered for the four years he led the housing department, which, truth be told, was probably the focus of the heaviest attacks against the Lib Dem and Tory coalition which ran the council between 2006 to 2010. He was forced to front up the auction of empty council homes to the highest bidders in a controversial funds-raising drive. This led him into conflict with newspaper editorials, which became more vehement as the buyers quickly flipped the properties on the housing market for large profits.
The picture of Chris on this front page is actually cut from one in which he is holding a champagne glass at a completely unconnected event. At the last moment on the press night before it was pressed, we thought it was a little too cruel, aware of his own personal reservations, and removed the fizz. Us softies will never make it on the Daily Mail.
On day one of the new Labour administration in 2010, Frank Dobson and Nash Ali, and the rest of the gang did the nose-rubbing for themselves, posing with their promise cards that no more homes would be sold. It was less well publicised that at sone point in 2009 Chris had been arguing within the Lib Dem group to cancel further sales.
Away from this hospital pass of an issue, he was responsible for instituting new electrical safety checks on estates – important, given the needless death of a scaffolder electrocuted in Somers Town by a faulty lamp. Chris may also claim, fairly to some extent, that the decent homes programme of upgrading council flats with new kitchens and bathrooms began under his watch, even if the way it was initially funded remained controversial.
“If only the housing department had been able to work out sooner how to fit a new kitchen,” he apparently said of this achievement, a reference to the difficulty in making sure some contractors do what they are supposed to be doing on a major works project.
You know, it’s a tough brief, housing – maybe the toughest at the Town Hall. Thousands of residents are scrutinising your work right down to every burst pipe, all alongside one of London’s best tenants movements, which in Chris’s early years as housing boss was an even more powerful force under the marshalling of the late Alan Walter. There were times when Alan ran rings around him. He wasn’t the first to experience that. But the relationship was changing by the time Alan died. Perhaps, there was even some mutual respect and a consensus that ultimately wanted the same thing. That was at least something.
Of course, it’s less fun being in opposition but Chris did not flee after the Lib Dems moved back to the opposite benches. He perked up the Lib Dem response to HS2 in Camden Town, albeit playing second fiddle to Paul Braithwaite. He voted against his party when it opposed new busking controls were introduced earlier this year.
But the analysis is the same as with Maya. People will say he is running from a defeat, but after eight years of your life endlessly attending meetings, while trying to hold down a day job as well, it’s understandable if somebody says they don’t want to commit to another four.
Maybe Chris will agree with the independent councillor in Islington, Greg Foxsmith, a former Lib Dem who suggests in tomorrow’s Islington Tribune that our local politicians might do well to be restricted by electoral law to just two terms, keeping things fresh.