Richard Watts calls talk of Labour election gains ‘presumptuous’ but hails party’s record in Islington

Islington Council Leader Richard Watts. Photograph: Islington Council

Islington Council Leader Richard Watts has called it “presumptuous” to say Labour will do well in the local elections, noting that Islington residents have shown they will “chuck out” a council they feel is not listening.

But he also hailed Labour’s record in office on the “bread and butter” issues which matter to residents.

“People talk a lot – I think rather presumptuously actually – about Labour getting a good result in these elections”, said Cllr Watts, in an interview with the Islington Citizen at his Town Hall office.

“I don’t know how the elections are going to go, and I’m quite surprised other people feel so confident in predicting.

“But the fact that they’re talking about that shows they must think the people of Islington think we’re doing a pretty good job.”

He added: “The people of Islington have shown across Labour and Lib Dem administrations in the last 20 years that they’re quite happy to chuck both of us out if they don’t think we’re listening.”

Cllr Watts, who was elected Council Leader in 2013, painted a picture of a thriving borough, but one which is facing serious challenges.

“The stereotypical impression of Islington as being full of well-off, latte-drinking, dinner party-going, urban sophisticates is completely wrong.

“We are one of the most deprived boroughs in the whole country”, he said, noting the borough’s high levels of child poverty.

Cllr Watts said “the vast majority” of residents are doing well out of Islington’s “thriving buoyant economy”, but said there is “about a quarter of our population that feels pretty systematically cut off from that”.

He said the council’s priority is “intervening to shift the growth that we have” so residents can take advantage of the new housing and jobs in the borough.

“People have to feel money in their back pocket as a result of the changes they see around them, otherwise this is just a thing that is being done to people, rather than for their benefit”, he said.

Cllr Watts said a key achievement of his administration was running good services on “the bread and butter of what councils do – bin collections, street sweeping, housing repairs”.

“If people don’t trust us to collect the bins, they really don’t trust us to sort the housing crisis out”, he said.

When asked how his manifesto pledges on housing and public services could be guaranteed regardless of government policy – which has seen £200 million cut from Islington’s budget since 2010 – Cllr Watts said: “This is fully costed and we think we can deliver it.

“I feel really strongly that politicians deserve whatever derision they get for not keeping their manifesto promises.

“If we say we’re gonna do something we better blinking well do it. Because otherwise, how can you possibly expect people to trust you ever again?”

When asked if the council can be scrutinised with so few opposition councillors – currently just one, Cllr Caroline Russell of the Green Party – Cllr Watts said he was confident Labour councillors could police themselves and each other.

“I’m not sure the level of scrutiny we get now when there’s one opposition member is that different from the level of scrutiny we got when there was 13”, he said.

“Because the truth is the vast amount of scrutiny has always been provided by backbench members of the Labour Group anyway.

“And we’ve tried really hard in Islington to encourage a culture where our Labour councillors are constructively critical of the administration.”

He added: “The reason why we’ve kept together the group, and you haven’t seen the kind of splits that happen elsewhere, is because people genuinely think they have a say in how the council is run.”