SO after all that, how did she do? Everybody seems to have an opinion on how Georgia Gould, just a month into being leader of Camden Council, has handled what is the biggest test I can remember anybody in her new position facing in recent years.
Her supporters joke that they feel even more reassured they have a safe pair of hands in place by the identity of some of the instant critics of the Chalcots evacuation; tweets and columns from a HHH rugby sticks trinity of Hodges, Hartley-Brewer and, of course, Hopkins. More generally, the code for understanding whether an article’s author is on board or not is if they add Georgia’s age – she’s just a child, goddammnit – or somehow Lord Phillip Gould or Dame Gail Rebuck find their way into the text. A new batch of re-heated ‘red princess’ stories and ‘cuts jobs’ profiles came our way.
We can’t escape the fact that our two MPs are the niece of the Bangladeshi prime minister and the former director of public prosecutions while our council leader has a well-rehearsed heir to New Labour tale behind her, so it’s a fair debate to have about who ultimately secures the power positions in Camden. But unlike some other apparent chosen ones in the Labour Party, Georgia has got her hands dirty on the front line of local politics. Stung by the pitfight selection contest in Erith all those years ago, she genuinely seems to have refocussed. A week before the Chalcots eruption, she was working with former regulars at the Admiral Mann who fear for the pub’s future and were happy she spoke up for them in front of a planning committee, not forgetting that despite her elevation she is also a ward councillor.
And on the Chalcots, she has had a rollercoaster ride: she’s been screamed at and hugged, told she is wasting everybody’s time and money and then thanked by others for putting their safety first. It’s embarrassing to tell residents on a Thursday that it’s all ok and that cladding is only coming down as a precaution, only to pull them out of their flats 24 hours later in a scene which, whatever way you slice it, looked like panic. In those moments, Georgia did look a little shellshocked.
The following days, however, she won new friends by being visible on the ground in Swiss Cottage in a sort of impossible mission to meet as many of the 4,000 residents who had been displaced as possible. People made comparisons with the absent leadership in Kensington. We should be careful about comparing Grenfell and the Chalcots. Georgia was telling people they would not be able to live in their flats for four weeks and was finally making their homes safe in the process, while the council leadership in Kensington froze when presented by a neighbourhood gripped by absolute grief and anger. It’s wasn’t the time to freeze, of course, and the council leaders there have unsurprisingly departed.
Georgia, nevertheless, showed she can bring a new warmth to role of council leader. She doesn’t behave like she is always trying to prove something, she doesn’t tweet every small victory and she remembers her pleases and thank yous, and as a result people seem to want to do things for her without needing the whip. You could see council staff and a cast of hundreds of volunteers feeding off her determination last weekend.
And, for all the articles that have been written about her lofty privilege, she clearly has a way of relating to the public in a way which led many of her Labour colleagues to wonder who else among their number would’ve been able to handle this with the same humility. She says thought, ‘fort’, which is reassuring for any of us cursed with north London’s lazy mumble.
That’s not to say that she hasn’t irritated the hell out of the refuseniks still in the towers or perhaps even more so those stuck in pretty ropey temporary accommodation. Lots of people have lots of reasons to be frustrated and annoyed. But at times we’ve also seen tenants apologise for bellowing at her – there is a gang of new fans at the Britannia hotel who know what her name is but keep affectionately calling her ‘Georgie’. At one stage, I thought they were going to ask for a selfie. One woman bought her flowers.
The friends of Netherwood will no doubt be sceptical and don’t think the issue of day centres is done and dusted, but she also shows signs of meaning what she says about finally – finally – opening up the council to backbench councillors, members of the opposition and public engagement. It’s long long overdue, although the next steps to reform will be delayed by the Chalcots crisis. Switching tonight’s full council agenda to a discussion on Chalcots is a sensible move.
While the decision to call the evacuation may have seemed like a one-woman, presidential call at the time, there is surely some truth in Sian Berry’s claim that Georgia didn’t really have a choice, as the fire services were potentially ready with a legal order to clear the Chalcots. The new leader has since held all-member meetings and, I think, tried to keep everyone in the loop, even if councillors are not always liking what they are hearing. The press office spits out a statement on this every 12 hours. The last time I spoke to her for an update last week, the collective spirit was still in tact as she was praising Conservative ward councillors Claire-Louise Leyland, Leila Roy and Jonny Bucknell for the hours and efforts they put in at the rest centre.
For all these apparent pluses, however, the bad news for Georgia is that despite the way her refresh of the role of leader has been more or less warmly received, this last week may turn out to be the easy part. With blank cheque spending on hotels, food, rent, some say it is hardly a surprise that she has been able to cool pockets of anger among the evacuated tenants. Essentially, it has been done with money.
Stemming the anger is only part one. She must now show the steel to investigate what went wrong at the Chalcots and beyond, even if this means treading across a host of people, politicians and companies who will each tell her someone else was to blame.
She may need to cut across some of the decisions made by her own party in power in Camden up to 2006 too. There was bit of wincing in the room when housing chief Pat Callaghan vowed to sack whoever signed off the cladding work last Thursday; said as it was when nobody is quite sure whose door this will lead back to. The decision to ignore the safety recommendations of three separate coroners after fire deaths in the paths, largely on the grounds of cost, meanwhile must be surely be reviewed.
Questions will be asked of politicians from all parties – the Lib Dems and the Tories ran the shop between 2006 and 2010, after all – but it isn’t controversial to say Georgia must not let political loyalty obscure this search for answers. Who knows, she may need to criticise the Blair government and its treatment of council housing in Camden and figures who retain high profiles such as John Prescott, David Miliband and Yvette Cooper – among others – all had roles in local government and housing at crucial times when the borough was kicked back for funding.
In fact, there are tough questions to ask about every aspect it and Georgia can’t be seen to be a soothing voice during the evacuation but not a determined investigator afterwards. And it has all got to start against the backdrop of tenants itching to get back to normal life on the Chalcots, while the bill for this whole exercise continues to rise. The challenge for Georgia and the council then is getting to bottom of this, that’s where the real test of ‘how did she do’ lies.