Alan Waters has played a major part in Norwich politics since 1988 and has decided to step down as the council leader and as a local councillor. He’s worked as a councillor for 32 years and was voted as leader in ‘two chunks’, first of all from 1993 to 1998 and then again from 2015 to 2023. He did not stand for re-election in the recent local elections.
Our conversation was wide ranging and covered many areas. Alan’s term of office actually ended on Tuesday 9 May and he suggested that “after a life in politics, working 60 hours a week and firing on all cylinders, and having no wish to stay on the council as a backbencher, now was the time to welcome new opportunities and do new things.”
A Labour city
Talking about Norwich and its politics, Alan explained that the city had been Labour since the 1930s. “The Conservatives took brief control, for two years, at the end of the ‘60s when the pound devalued under Wilson. In the Blair years, Labour lost control from 2002 to 2006 and the Liberal Democrats held a minority administration, followed by a period of no overall control until 2012, and then Labour regained control.”
After campaigning for Labour for the recent local elections, Alan confirmed that people who spoke to him were most worried about the cost-of-living crisis but he was proud to point out that Norwich “was one of the very few councils that relieve people on low incomes from the necessity of paying council tax; most councils ask their citizens to pay 20% or something like that – we don’t.”
Housing is another area where Alan feels that Norwich is doing well. “Our houses are highly energy efficient, this helps people’s household budget, and we offer a lot of advice and support on debt.” Norwich City Services is an in-house company that’s demonstrated that it’s more productive and cost effective than outsourcing the contract. He firmly believes that it’s “bread and butter stuff” to provide all the council’s services to a good standard.
“Local government is local knowledge. Central government has a vital role to play but their understanding of the granular stuff on the ground is limited. This was exemplified during the lockdown when Norwich was working across Norfolk with all the other councils. This wasn’t about party politics – this was about collaboration.”
Alan is concerned about the impact of the Norfolk devolution proposal on the district councils. “They are worried about the power shift. The government was only prepared to talk to the county council, so it was a bit like the dance of the seven veils, the piecemeal revelation of the facts.” He believes that it won’t come into effect: it’s projected to start in 2025, but there is the small matter of a general election before then.
Tory governments have eroded the distribution grant which was designed to reflect need across local authority areas. Norwich has a low council tax base compared to, for example, Esher. But under a labour government, the ‘devo’ label means that all councils will put certain targets in place to allow specific ambitions. The policy aims to be more realistic. Waters believes that devolution is an optimistic idea but has to be thought through better. He also believes an inter-council consultation is imperative and doesn’t understand why the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are being disbanded at a time when local businesses need support. The county council will take over some of the LEP services, but “it’s pretty unclear about how much resources will be put into the devolution transfer as it stands.”
Alan’s experience of knocking on doors and talking to constituents steered the conversation towards why, possibly, Europe doesn’t seem to be on Labour’s horizon. “I think the reality is for Labour the position is to make the relationship with Europe work better. Just look at the recent Conservative bill to divest us of all EU legislation. We don’t want to widen the gap [with the EU] we want to narrow it and I think there will be a different dynamic.”
Alan added, “after COVID and other issues, the Brexit treaty among them, the impact of Brexit on trading relationships and a raft of policy areas where you need continuity with the European Union, economic problems are being highlighted. We now have the hardest of Brexits, thanks to Johnson running the agreement to the wire, and I think this is now being unravelled.”
“If you look at the Windsor agreement, Sunak is a firm Brexiteer, yet he’s singing the praises of the single market.”
Waters’s experience of talking to the people of Norwich on their doorsteps showed that he believes that “Brexit was about convincing people about their sense of identity, British identity, and the EU became synonymous with the erosion of this. In my ward some parts were solid Remain voters and equally others, in some parts of the same ward, were firmly Leave.” Alan added that “the Leave campaign was a very canny operation, pretty vague so people chose which parts they liked. The Remain campaign did not put up a strong case; we had been in the EU for 46 years but there was never enough salient explanation of the benefits of membership.”
Successful local politician
As an experienced local politician, Alan Waters is passionate about listening to his voters. He does knock on doors and is always delighted to rise to the challenge of a good debate. Of course, there will be those that disagree with him but in 2019 Alan received 1,134 votes – the highest number in his Crome ward, which speaks to his personal popularity as much as it does to his party politics.
More about Norwich by Celina Bledowska
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