'This is the end of my political career': Richard Watts stands down

Labour's Richard Watts at the Islington Gazette local elections hustings at St Mary's Church. Pictur

Labour's Richard Watts at the Islington Gazette local elections hustings at St Mary's Church. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Richard Watts is still not sure what his next plans are, following his shock announcement this week he is standing down after eight years as leader of Islington Council.

Cllr Watts will hand over the mantle in May, and will continue to serve the new administration from the backbenches, but he will not stand again as councillor in the 2022 local council elections, he revealed on Monday night. 

"This is the end of my political career," he told the Gazette on Tuesday.

"I'm not looking for another elected role, and I've no intention of being an MP.

"I don't have any plans at the moment. I'm 45 and I'm not wealthy. I have a mortgage to pay so I am going to have to start applying for jobs."

Richard, who was campaigns director for the sustainable food and farming charity Sustain before entering politics, reached the decision he would no longer lead the council or Islington's Labour Group at Christmas.

He wants to spend more time with his children, who are aged nine and 12.

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In 2019/20, the post of council leader came with an income just under £40,000 on top of the councillor's allowance of just over £10,500.

"My kids are of an age when they do quite like spending time with their parents and that's not going to last for long," said Richard, who is also elected to the Local Government Association.

"It's always the right way to do it [stand down] when people are surprised.

"I've been council leader for years, and I never wanted to be one of those people who went on and on for years.

"I don't think that's healthy. If I stood next year it would have meant leading the party into the local elections, and if that went well it would have been more than a decade, and that didn't feel right for me or my family at this time, to get into that period of service."

He continued: "It feels like we've had rather a lot thrown at us over the last 10 years, and it feels like the right time to give my successor a good run into the local elections.

"It's a hard job being a leader of the council and it's a learning process for anyone that takes it on, and I can offer what support I can."

The process for nominating a new council leader will be decided at a Labour Group meeting this week, but Richard intends to "keep well out" of that.

Asked about the most challenging thing about the job, he said: "Clearly we don't have enough money as we've had money cut by the government pretty much every year and that's immensely challenging.

"Deeper though there is a challenge for local councils, because we are accessible bodies, and all the councillors live in Islington and people see us out on the street so they turn to us for solutions to problems for everything from crime to housing.

"We desperately try to provide those solutions, but it's not just a lack of resources, it's the relative lack of power that local government has in this country to fix everything we need to fix.

"It's frustrating being council leader in one of the most centralised countries on earth where councils don't have a lot of power compared to other countries in Europe.

"It feels like we are trying to do the job residents want us to do with one hand tied behind our backs."

Richard has received scores of messages on Twitter congratulating him on his legacy.

But a handful of rather less complimentary comments have come from opponents of the People Friendly Streets traffic calming measures.

Some people jokingly questioned if he is "going to join the Green Party", and one commenter asked if he was thinking of setting up a bike shop with Hackney's recently departed Cllr Jon Burke, who was responsible for an equivalent scheme roll out in the neighbouring borough - much to Richard's amusement.

"I'm actually proud of People Friendly Streets," he said.

"I know it's controversial at the moment and we had to do it in a really rushed way because of the pandemic, but what always happens with traffic measures like this is they are controversial in the first year and then they settle down and they become popular.

"These are big and difficult changes, and every city on earth that did similar, whether it's Dutch cities or Seville, encountered equal levels of protest, but to be honest if they were easy changes people would have made them already.

"We have seen a massive increase in journeys on residential roads, there are 24 million more journeys on residential roads in Islington compared to 10 years ago.

"My challenge to anyone is to ask what would you do instead to reduce the massive increase in road journeys?"