Cllr John Todd, Chiswick’s favourite Tory
Profile by Bridget Osborne
Cllr John Todd has become something of a Chiswick ‘treasure.’ In a hard fought local election campaign not always characterised by good humour, his canvassing style was relaxed and amiable, bantering with his Labour challenger, university student Caoimhe Hale like they were old friends. As an older man with 12 years’ experience of being a councillor speaking to a young woman on her first campaign, it could have come across as patronising, but his political style is not sneering and dismissive; he listens to people and engages with them, respecting their views and passion and countering with fact and argument. The two of them seemed to get on like a house on fire.
It’s a style which paid off at the ballot box, making him the most popular of Chiswick’s Conservative councillors with 1,737 votes in his Homefields ward, but has also paid off within Hounslow council, where since 2010 the Tories have been in a small minority. Plumb jobs are usually given to the majority party, but the council leader Steve Curran gave John the job of commissioning a pedestrian bridge to go underneath Barnes Railway Bridge, continuing the riverside pathway on the Dukes Meadows side. It’s a project which excites him. “It’s a fantastic design” he says. Previous attempts to design a bridge there have failed, not meeting the requirements of the Port of London Authority. This time his committee accommodated all the stakeholders: Network Rail, the PLA and the London Wildlife Trust’s set of very stringent conditions, to make it through planning permission and on to the next stage. “I love working with experts” he says.
Photographs above: Labour local elections candidate Caoimhe Hale, with fellow councillors elected in Homefields ward, Patrick Barr and Gerald McGregor; CGI of proposed footbridge beneath Barnes Railway Bridge
What exactly do you do as a councillor?
When I spoke to him on Saturday after the election, he was glad the campaign was over. The votes this time were hard won. “The Labour Party haven’t campaigned here before with the energy and commitment they showed this time” he says. “The Labour candidates were as determined to win as we were… The campaign was prolonged and at times acrimonious, especially on social media and on the (W4) forum.” On the doorstep he found the most difficult question to answer was “what do you do?” because so much of what a councillor does, particularly one in a minority group, is hard to quantify in terms of direct results.
John is big on ‘Scrutiny’. He says he spends four or five hours a day on council business, in addition to the many meetings, reading Cabinet notes and reports, with particular attention to Scrutiny reports. These are the local government equivalent of Select Committee reports – a cross party committee whose job is to hold the council to account and check that the executive, the officers and the politicians are doing their job properly. As a former policeman of more than 30 years’ experience who was in charge of the police unit of the Serious Fraud Office for a period and who worked for a year for the UN in Kosovo on the anti-corruption squad, this is where Cllr Todd comes into his own. In one of these Scrutiny reports on the provision for mental health, he was shocked to see that the accepted norm for a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to wait to be seen by a mental health professional was 20 months. He researched the records of surrounding boroughs and found they did significantly better. He is now campaigning within the council for it to make this more of a priority.
Councillors are ‘corporate parents’ meaning that they have a legal duty to children in council care, and this is a role which John takes very seriously. After the Rochdale report, an inquiry by Professor Alexis Jay which found that that 1,400 children were sexually exploited in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013 and highlighted failures by 17 agencies who were meant to protect them, John followed up to check on Hounslow’s procedures. “I felt I should test the waters” he says and as a result of his probing he claims that the council has moved from an attitude of “secrecy” to one of “transparency” concerning the wellbeing of the 300 or so children in the council’s care and he maintains “a very good relationship” with the council’s Director of Children’s Services Alan Adams and his deputy Jacqui Shannon. How does this new ethos of transparency manifest itself? “I go and meet the children in both the children’s homes in the borough”. As a result he’s picked up on small things which have made these children’s lives just a little bit easier – a computer keyboard with bigger buttons for a disabled child who was having difficulty using a smaller one; private access to a phone for another. “Dignity is important to me” he says. He has long campaigned also for the Hogarth youth club, which in his view has provided essential support by enabling young people to get together in a safe environment.
When the Conservatives were the majority on the council he was able to be more effective as chairman of the pension fund, a job he held for four years. He says proudly “we won best pension fund for income and growth (in the whole of the UK) and our record hasn’t been beaten since”. What is refreshing, talking to John, is that he has admiration for the council officers: “the people who run the council are effective and professional.” It’s something you don’t often hear from councillors in opposition, whose default setting usually seems to be that the council and all who have dealings with them are useless.
Photographs above: Hounslow Council headquarters at Lampton Rd
Vacuum between the Council and residents and businesses
The main part of a councillor’s job is to act as intermediary between the voter and the council. He says council officers actually like helping people but they get a bad rap as there is a “vacuum” between the council and residents and businesses. Take planning for example, probably the biggest single issue in his in tray. “People are daunted by the process. The online portal isn’t very user-friendly”. As a councillor he gets direct access to the planning officers and normally gets a response within seven days. “We have the ability to fast-track stuff” he says, even if the response isn’t always what the constituent wants. “Parking issues are a tremendous source of grievance” he says. He intervened successfully when a woman whose mother had died wanted space for the cortege to park without getting tickets. He says the council officers were only too pleased to help. But can he get traffic wardens to pop a note under the windscreen wipers warning that a resident’s parking permit is about to expire? No. They go straight for the nuclear option, a ticket.
Tommy Cooper’s blue plaque
What is his biggest achievement in the past 12 years? Not a council matter at all as if happens, but a dialogue with English Heritage which resulted in a blue plaque on Tommy Cooper’s house in Barrowgate Rd.
Other highlights? “I loved knocking down the decaying toilets on Turnham Green” he says, which was a joint venture with Rebecca Frayn and the Friends of Turnham Green. (The toilets were replaced with a rockery). Getting the money to cobble the dry dock at Chiswick Mall was another. Pursuing the installation of heritage lighting throughout the borough too.
He welcomes the new blood in the Conservative ranks in Chiswick as “a wonderful fresh injection of ideas, vigour and commitment”. With his record of tackling case work (449 pieces of case work logged in the 2014 – 2018 session) they might take note of what can be achieved even in a minority of 9 to 51 with hard work and a bit of old fashioned courtesy.