THE scars of Camden Labour’s bloody annual general meeting earlier this year were beginning to heal when along came a little reminder over the weekend about all of that eye-poking. The scab was picked at an away-day on Saturday when the group, depleted by half term holidays, met to choose a new interim head of planning.
Comedian-turned-development control chairman Tom Neumark had by all accounts done a fine job in what I’ve always thought is a pretty tough role.
It’s tough because you have to look people in the eye and tell them that they can’t have the conservatory or dormer windows they really, really want – with the added risk of bumping into them in the street the next week. And it’s tough because you have to do your best to make sure the council plays a strong bat to developers and do so without being dragged into expensive legal appeals.
There are lots of friends to lose in the job, many potential enemies to gain.
Young Tom, with his stage experience, and his jokes, and his banter, and his funny comments, was considered to have chartered a careful course through these challenges… but a transatlantic lifestyle, with many visits to the United States due to another life, meant he could not continue as boss.
Ahead of the group decision over the weekend, former planning chairwoman Heather Johnson was generally expected to take on the role (for six months, until the next agm when she is due to become Mayor again). But not too long before Saturday’s get-together, she withdrew and suddenly Bloomsbury councillor Milena Nuti was in the frame for the job.
This may all sound like a simple switcharound, but in the eyes of Labour members close to it all, there was a bit more to it behind the scenes. If you look back to the lines the group was split down back in May, Heather, fairly or not, was sketched by the briefers as being on one side of the team, Milena on the other. Now that could be all wrong, all wrong – but minds certainly flashed back to the night Angela Mason was removed as deputy leader and other cabinet members were run within a couple of votes for their jobs.
Silly? If there was agitation among members and crossed words about who or who shouldn’t go for the vacant planning position, it is funny that it was over a role that isn’t as powerful as it might sound. You get all of the headaches as detailed above but in terms of really influencing what gets the go-ahead and what doesn’t, the chair often becomes an umpire in a boxing bout rather than anything else. They can decide a tied vote, but not do so much more. Some even say you can achieve more by being on the panel but not becoming the chair of it.
Nevertheless, messages have been sent through the Labour group. The members understand the code.