Three Tory councillors defect to Havering Residents Association as group nears majority

Three Havering Conservative councillors have defected to a rival independent group, just days ahead of the mayoral elections.

Councillors John Crowder, Philippa Crowder, and Christine Smith left the Tories behind for Havering Residents Association (HRA) last week.

The association – one of the only political groups in London not affiliated with a mainstream party – controls Havering Council in a coalition with Labour.

With three new additions to its ranks, it now has 25 members – three shy of the 28 it would need to govern on its own.

The Tories, the second biggest group in the borough, hold 16 seats and Labour holds nine.

The three former Conservatives have not yet spoken about their reasons for crossing the floor, but a HRA spokesperson said it was the group’s “open, honest and inclusive” approach that attracted them.

They wrote on Facebook: “We don’t stand in national elections and have councillors of all political persuasions. It is our cross-party working within one group that makes us representative of our communities.”

They added: “National political parties usually corrupt local politics. National ideologies should be kept out of decision making where at all possible.

“Whatever their national views, if any, [they] should not inform a councillor’s vote on local policies.”

Keith Prince, leader of the Havering Conservatives, declined to comment on his former colleagues’ departure.

Though the HRA has warmly welcomed its new members, some people on social media expressed disappointment at their perceived lack of loyalty.

One person, commenting on Facebook, said: “What is the point of voting for anybody when they switch allegiance so easily and you end up with councillors you never voted for?

“None of them seem to have any loyalty. Surely, they should stand for re-election before they can join another party?”

There is currently no requirement that an elected official, either a councillor or an MP, must stand for re-election once they decide to change parties.

Another resident said they were “jumping ship”.

Since the most recent local elections in May 2022, a total of seven councillors have defected to the HRA.

Former Conservative councillor Robby Misir switched parties in February, saying that he saw “no future” for the Conservatives on a local level.

He previously told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) the HRA was “better equipped” for dealing with the “unprecedented” challenges it faced, including a £32.5million black hole in its budget.

Former Tory councillors Sue Ospreay, Jacqueline McArdle and Sarah Edwards in Rainham all likewise left the party shortly after being elected.

Cllrs Ospreay and McArdle cited their disappointment over the Tories’ “lack of support” in dealing with the aftermath of the Wennington wildfire in July 2022.

The blaze, which broke out at a house on the record-breaking hottest day of the year, was widely cited as proof of the impact of climate change and has formed a central element of the council’s climate strategy since.

Damian White, the then Conservative leader, said the group “wished them the best in their endeavours”.

The defections have meant that some wards have changed their political identity.

In 2022, constituents in Marshall & Rise Park ward elected three Tory councillors: Osman Dervish, Robby Misir and Philippa Crowder. It is now two-thirds HRA.

Cllr John Crowder’s ward of Havering-atte-Bower ward remains Conservative in the majority. He will represent constituents alongside Cllr White and Conservative councillor Ray Best.

Despite the upset, an HRA spokesperson said its three new members had the backing of the association.

In a statement supplied to the LDRS, they said: “Our new members have already started working with residents, and with the support and backing of the HRA team behind them.

“We now hope that residents will have a better chance to get their voices heard and their problems solved, [which] are within the powers of the local authority to rectify.”

Sebastian Mann

Local democracy reporter