As the dust of the General Election settles, the bins still need emptying and the schools still need running. Many know little about them and most don’t bother to vote for them, but local councillors wield huge power over everyday lives. Eastlondonlines has spoken to some of the individuals who are responsible for spending £96bn of your money. Today, Evie Breese speaks to Alison Butler, deputy leader of Croydon Council.
The morning after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Alison Butler had a feeling of panic in the pit of her stomach. “I just thought, what’s our cladding? Are our buildings safe?”
Representing Bensham Manor Ward in Croydon North as a Labour Councillor, she believes the buck always stops at local government. Born in 1959, Butler left school at sixteen to work as an administrative assistant in the Department of Education. She signed up to a civil service trade union, through which she became interested in the Labour Party.
From there, Butler found herself working for Malcolm Wicks as he campaigned to be the Labour MP for Croydon North in the 1987 election. Wicks was unsuccessful that year, but he won the seat in 1992, holding onto it for the next 20 years until his death in 2012.
“He was an absolutely fabulous man, he was a proper politician who really cared about the people,” Butler beamed. “It was a huge influence working for him.” A framed portrait of Wicks smiles down from its place on the wall.
Butler ran Wicks’ constituency office until her appointment to the Council in 2002. Her reasoning behind standing for local government couldn’t be more simple; she had met many councillors through Wicks and she cared about social justice. Standing first as a paper candidate in full knowledge that she didn’t have a chance, she then stood in Waddon in 2002.
“[Waddon] was basically the swing seat of the council, if one went to the Conservatives it would be a Tory council, if one went to Labour, a Labour council.” she said. That night there were three recounts, and Butler found herself one of the three Labour candidates standing on stage at 1:00am, crossing her fingers. “It was quite a night!” She won by 85 votes.
After a brief hiatus when she lost her Waddon seat in the 2006 election, Butler returned in the 2007 by-election for Bensham Manor. She has remained there since and currently sits as Cabinet Member for Homes and Gateway Service, and Deputy Leader of the council.
Over 17 years on the job, Butler has turned her office in Town Hall into a “real home,” adorned with plants, ornaments, postcards and photographs. On the side of a cupboard is a photo of a dingy scene; crumpled sheets on a sofa bed, a microwave, an overflowing bin, and the back of a slight woman. She said: “That is my motivation, to get people out of bed sits like that and into proper homes”.
According to Butler, Croydon currently has around 2000 households in temporary accommodation and around 600 in emergency accommodation. Butler recalls reading an article in The Independent about a Croydon family spending their second Christmas in an emergency bed and breakfast. She said: “It really does make you think, God, we’re failing”.
Since 2010, Croydon council have lost 70 per cent of their budget due to austerity. Butler emphasised that this severely limits what councils can do. Yet, she is proud to say that “within weeks of Grenfell we announced that we would put sprinklers in all of our tall blocks.” She says that her feeling of absolute panic did not subside until this programme was completed.
She added: “You’ve got so much responsibility, but so much is out of your control.”