An interview with James O’Rourke of Walthamstow Independents Forum

For those who don’t know you, can you briefly describe your political apprenticeship?

Life events are often the catalyst for entering politics. In my case in 1990 my brother, who has a severe learning disability, faced a crisis. I approached each Party spokesperson seeking support. The Liberal Democrat, Bob Sullivan, simply said ‘I can’t promise anything but I’ll do my best to help you resolve the issue’. As a former social worker that’s all I wanted to hear. The ruling Party spokesperson refused to engage and the main opposition simply saw it as a political and PR opportunity. In 1994 I first stood for election for the Liberal Democrats in the local elections in Hale End Ward.

In 2006 I was extremely proud to have been elected to represent High Street Ward, the area in which I grew up, went to school and first started work.

In recent years, you have become a prominent independent voice in the borough. How has that come about?

An interesting question given the political turmoil at this time! I have always been fiercely independently minded even when a member of a political Party. However, Parties are often more interested in power than people.

I fell out with the Liberal Democrats when they were equivocal in condemning alleged malpractice and racism and not long afterwards joined the Tory-led Coalition Government in 2010. All of this meant that no political Party aligned with my views and as a consequence I withdrew from local politics for a while.

As a consequence of the Waltham Forest Labour Council’s appalling social care and housing policies I stood as an independent in 2014 and 2018 and was instrumental in setting up Walthamstow Independents Forum.

What are you and your fellow independents trying to achieve in terms of organisation and programme? In other words, what is the ‘alternative’ that you are proposing, and is it really credible?

We believe that if we drop partisan labels, it’s easier to drop the partisan mindset and avoid partisan reflexes to good or bad policy. This means we commit to look at each issue individually in the best interests of residents and not through narrow Party dogma. We will campaign on issues that are important to people, not to Parties.

Recent political events in Parliament and subsequent opinion polls suggesting support for an ‘independent group’ (not yet constituted as a political Party) clearly indicate a desire by the public for change and a move away from dogmatic politics. Walthamstow Independents Forum has seen this desire locally since its formation, with people increasingly offering support.

Personally, I’m still passionate about local issues that affect our community and intend to keep campaigning outside the straightjacket of Party politics. My desire is to get Independent Councillors elected at the next local election. If the Liberals with Bob Sullivan could do it in 1981 the Independents Forum can do it in 2022 (or even earlier if bye-elections are held).

Government cuts have put all councils in a bind over finances. One answer that some Councils have chosen is to bite the bullet and become very much more commercially orientated. Is that a good or bad thing? And is there anyway an alternative?

We are broadly in favour of a mixed economy as long as both the private and public elements provide better value and higher quality services for residents.

In the headlong rush to redevelop the borough, it sometimes appears that serious local problems like poverty, bad housing, and ill health are being forgotten. If you had power, what are the three immediate steps that you would take to help those on the bottom of the ladder? 

Almost everybody agrees that they are inextricably linked.

We would ensure that truly affordable housing, linked to local salaries, is built – particularly on publicly owned land; identify publicly owned land, such as the Town Hall site, to develop modular buildings like those at the YMCA in Forest Road E17; and introduce an incomes quotient for people under the average salary to make such housing more accessible and affordable for those on lower incomes.

These policies lend themselves to the more productive use of small blocks of Council land that are not financially viable for commercial development. We believe the resulting benefits will be secure homes for those who cannot access the current hyper-inflated housing market; quality accommodation will ultimately be beneficial to mental and physical health.

Over the years, LBWF has gradually abolished forums whereby ordinary residents directly can hold both officers and politicians to account. Instead LBWF communicates through Waltham Forest News and social media. What do you think of this trend? Is there something better? More generally, how do you think popular participation in local affairs could be fostered?

We recognise that any organisation needs to communicate with its customers and we welcome the development of online tools enabling such communication. However, the Council needs to recognise that not everybody wishes or is able to engage online so other methods of communication need to be available.

Due to flawed Council communication policies over the years there has been a growing disconnect between elected representatives, the organisation and residents.

We believe a new communication strategy is required so we would reduce the frequency of Waltham Forest News in line with central Government rules and use savings to support an independent local press, without which scrutiny is impossible; implement a strategy of Pop up politics, Council meetings, including Cabinet and Full Council, held throughout the borough to engage with residents who ordinarily don’t engage (precedents include the Children and Young People Scrutiny Committee between 2006 and 2010); promote and stream online all Council meetings with immediate effect and archive for future reference; and introduce a Youth Council with mechanisms to feed into Council Governance.

What do you think of the whole Borough of Culture project? Is it a good use of public money? 

In a word NO!

We believe the Council is in danger of misunderstanding that culture is more than art. At a time when resources are extremely limited, particularly for statutory services, we believe that public money should not be used to fully-fund art projects. This of course would not stop artists bidding for commercial contracts.

LBWF has a variety of the ‘Strong Leader’ system, whereby power in the ruling administration is highly centralised. Were you to gain power, would you follow suit?

No. We firmly believe Governance in Waltham Forest needs urgent review. After extensive research we recommend a hybrid between leader/cabinet and the committee system (with such an approach usually seen legally as being a modified version of the leader/cabinet system, and therefore not requiring a formal change under the Localism Act).

We recommend Governance similar to that of London Borough of Kingston upon Thames. This council adopted a hybrid style committee system arrangement. Committees make decisions which are then ratified by the Executive. There is no individual Cabinet Member decision making.

We believe this will enable all elected Councillors to engage in democratic decision making.

The borough undoubtedly has a gang problem. What do you think of the way that this is being handled?

We do not profess to have all the answers to this horrendous problem but are frustrated by politicians’ continual finger pointing and PR approach to further their own careers. Therefore, it would be all too easy criticise how this societal tragedy has been mismanaged by local and national politicians but we would rather offer some ideas.

Young people have a right to participate in, and contribute to, the decisions that affect them. These rights are enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNROC) (Article 12 & 13). The UNCROC makes clear that all young people are independent subjects and therefore have rights.

Locally, our politicians seem to think youth engagement only with young people who are willing and able to engage is the way forward. What they ignore, at their peril, is not engaging with vulnerable young people most at risk of becoming members of a gang. Therefore, we reiterate our commitment to introduce a Youth Council, elected from across borough schools, including Pupil Referral Units, to facilitate participation in and contribution to the decisions that affect young people. We will give young people a true voice and demonstrate that they are equal partners. This, we believe, will encourage them to more likely be engaged as they move from childhood through adolescence into adulthood.

We fully recognise that tackling our gang problem is going to be a complex and lengthy task requiring national and local solutions involving radical changes to our judicial, education, social and political system.

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